Eric Draper went deer hunting for the first time almost 30 years ago.
“When I get a chance to shoot a beautiful trophy buck, I still get the same elevated heart rate,” said Draper, 42, of Cuero. “When it comes to taking that shot, it’s exciting and exhilarating, and you know you’re going to have that meat to put in your freezer. And if you have a beautiful trophy to put on your wall, that is exciting, too.”
Draper hunts in DeWitt County and surrounding areas either helping friends control the deer population on their land or on paid excursions. The most he has ever paid for a deer hunt is $6,000, including lodging.
The total impact of the deer industry on the Texas economy, combining breeding and hunting, is $1.6 billion annually, according to a study released by the Texas Deer Association. The number of permitted deer breeding facilities in the state also increased from 946 in 2006 to 1,257 in 2016.
Shawn Campbell, owner of Tx Hunts and Leases, works with about 40 ranches in the state, seven of which are in the Crossroads, with management and hunting leases. He said year-round land leases for deer hunting can range from about $10 to $35 an acre. Factors that impact the cost include proximity to metropolitan areas, wildlife quality and lodging.
Landowners who lease land year-round for deer hunting often require hunters to implement a protein feeding program for the deer during the off-season, he said.
Hunting excursions are another way to participate in the sport and require no maintenance from the customers, which are often companies taking employees or clients on hunting trips, Campbell said. A doe hunt may cost about $500 per hunter, but a trophy buck hunt can cost more than $20,000 per hunter.
“If they take a client out who harvests a nice trophy deer for themselves, that influences that client to do business with the owner,” he said. “There’s been $500,000 or $1 million deals done on deer hunts.”
The seven ranches Campbell manages in the Crossroads make up about 12,000 acres. The hunters and leasers of the ranches spend at least $150,000 a year on feed, all-terrain vehicles, taxidermists and other needs.
The average cost to lease on the local ranches is $18-$28 an acre a year.
Draper sometimes hunts on Jeff McMahan’s ranch, Tierra de Dios Ranch, near Thomaston in DeWitt County. McMahan sells deer hunting excursions starting about $2,500 and can go as high as $15,000 per hunter. The prices are based on the quality of the deer harvested, which is measured by the size of a deer’s antlers. For groups who want to have meals and alcoholic beverages provided, that’s an extra $150 a night per person.
Many of his customers are large companies that bring their employees or clients on hunting trips.
McMahan has about 100 deer on his high-fenced ranch. He has bought more than 100 deer from breeders to improve the genetics on his land and has spent from $2,500 to $15,000 on a deer.
Deer from breeding operations can only be sold to high-fence properties that are deer operations or hunting ranches, both of which have to be permitted by the state.
McMahan has bought deer from Randy Froehlich, who has his permitted deer breeding business in Meyersville.
Froehlich has raised deer for about 20 years, has about 300 deer on his property and pairs animals to produce the best offspring.
“We can take the best bucks to breed with the best does to produce the best offspring,” he said. “That doesn’t happen out in the pasture all the time. We’re directing the breeding to produce better genetic animals to mainly have better antler quality.”
The busiest times of the year for Froehlich are from mid-August to mid-September before hunting seasons start in October and in March when bred does are released onto properties.
“The commercial end of deer hunting has really gotten larger over the last 10 or 15 years,” he said. “It’s getting bigger and bigger and bigger all the time.”
An average deer to put in the pasture can cost between $750 and $1,000, but a deer that has great genetics and produces prime offspring, such as twins or good antlers, can cost between $10,000 and $15,000, said Patrick Tarlton, Texas Deer Association executive director.
“Hunting is a huge component that drives the (deer breeding) industry,” he said. “The hunting economy in many places in Texas, especially like South Texas, (also) drives the entire local economy – everything from hardware stores to gas stations.”
Draper said deer hunting helps him take a break from everyday life.
“I love getting back out there and being in nature – filing the freezer with meat that wasn’t bought in the grocery store and now having the opportunity to pass (the deer hunting tradition) down to my kids,” he said.