Why One Texas Ranch Keeps Producing Wild Melanistic Deer

Why One Texas Ranch Keeps Producing Wild Melanistic Deer

Last October, I had the opportunity to hunt and harvest my second melanistic white-tailed deer on our family ranch in Central Texas.

Our tracking and census process on the ranch is a meticulous one. We run trail cameras year-round and study every image in August and September to conduct an accurate census count. We also record stand counts and incidental observations during that time and forward the data to our county’s wild game biologist.

In recent years, we have had at least one melanistic deer in the group. In 2023, we had two melanistic does and one melanistic fawn. The two does were two and three years old. The fawn was the twin of a typical-looking white-tailed deer from a typical-looking mother.

By mid-September, our biologist sent us the harvest recommendations for our Managed Lands Deer Program (MLDP). The program allows us an extended season, beginning on the last day of September until the last day of February. We were issued five buck tags and 10 doe tags for the 2023-2024 hunting season. I decided that if the three-year-old melanistic doe was without a fawn, she could be harvested.

On the afternoon of October 1, I arrived at the ranch with my close friends, Matthew Mitchell and Jon Herbster, to begin working towards our doe harvest numbers. After we made sure our rifles were true out to 300 yards, Matthew took Jon with him to sit in one of the property’s deer blinds.

Jon had been alongside Matthew on a successful hog hunt during a work trip a couple months prior, but that was the extent of Jon’s experience in the stand. Jon was now armed with his hunter’s education certificate, his first hunting license, and was excited for the opportunity to hunt a doe.

Within twenty minutes, Jon and Matthew had a mature doe step out around 165 yards. Jon picked up his 30-06 rifle, and put the crosshairs behind her shoulder. After a few minutes, he brought the rifle back inside. Matthew asked him what was going on. “I’m not sure—it feels early in the hunt. Let’s wait a little bit and see what else shows up,” he said. Eventually, the first doe walked off. Other deer appeared, but they had fawns with them, making them off-limits.

In the last few minutes of legal light, Matthew caught some movement at the end of the far-right lane. Four does were at the edge of the field, eating. He identified one as the three-year-old melanistic doe. Jon was going to take the first shot unless it was a mature buck or the melanistic doe. Matthew wasted no time shouldering his rifle. With light dwindling and with the group packed together, Matthew was unable to make an ethical shot. He brought the gun back into the blind, and they packed up their gear.

melanistic doe

Why Are Some Deer Melanistic?

Melanism is “an unusual darkening of body tissues caused by excessive production of melanin,” which affects the skin, feathers, and hair. It can give animals a very dark, almost black appearance. Melanism has been recorded in deer herds in 60% of the country, and this region of Texas has the highest concentration.

In fact, a study by John Baccus and John Posey of Texas State University found that 21% of the white-tailed deer in this specific region are “abnormally” dark. It has been reported that there are more melanistic deer in the surrounding eight-county region than the rest of North America combined. It is believed that 9% of the total population in this region carry the trait.

Some have questioned if hunting melanistic deer might have a devastating effect on the population, but an article released by the National Deer Association answers that question:

“Melanistic and normal whitetails do coexist in the same area. Hunters of free-ranging whitetails cannot change population genetics through harvest choices, so harvesting or passing a melanistic deer will have no measurable impact on the frequency of this anomaly.”

After hunting my first melanistic buck on Veterans Day in 2016, I wrote an article documenting the experience. Shortly after it was published, a professor at Texas Tech who studied melanism in white-tailed deer reached out to ask me some questions.

His first was, “Do you have dry or wet creeks running through your property?” I explained that our entire northern boundary was a large creek, and we also had many smaller ones cutting across the property. He explained that the areas where he found there to be a higher number of melanistic deer were always on properties with prolific creek systems.

“They seem to survive better in that environment,” he said.

I told him we witnessed a great deal of hoof traffic in the creeks and along the banks. He thought the creeks provided better safety from predators, and they might benefit from being better camouflaged amongst the shadows under the canopy of trees. We believe the natural terrain and the many habitat restoration and conservation projects we have done (NRCS & CRP) in the last 15 years have undoubtedly helped increase numbers, and sightings, of melanistic deer on our ranch.

melanistic mounts

Once in a Lifetime…Twice

None of us had any luck the next morning of our hunt, so we decided to switch things up that last evening, and Jon sat with me. With roughly an hour left in the hunt, we saw five deer moving across the middle-left lane, 175 yards away. Two were mature does with their fawns, and the last was a solo mature doe. After waiting a while for her to separate from the group, I asked Jon if he was ready. He took a deep breath and fired. I was filming the hunt and could clearly see the doe was hit before it took off into the woods. I told Jon to reload in case it crossed into the next lane. She never did.

As Jon settled down a bit from the excitement, he asked me if the shot looked good. I told him, yes, but we could check the camera. We scrolled frame by frame to see if we could tell where the bullet had made an impact. It appeared to us that the shot might have been a bit further back from where he aimed, but we were not certain. Usually, I would wait thirty minutes before tracking an animal, but if it didn’t hit the main vitals, it might need more time. We texted Matthew and told him we were going to stay until dark, then we would all go search together.

That meant that Jon and I both had more time to second-guess our second guessing. We spent the next forty minutes reviewing the footage, trying to make a better determination. Suddenly, I caught some movement down the middle right lane. Three does came out of the woods, and then a fourth emerged behind them. It was the three-year-old melanistic doe. The first two moved towards us, while the melanistic doe began moving along the edge of the woods, with another doe right behind her. I ranged them at 218 yards. I picked up my .280AI chambered rifle, got as comfortable as I could, and moved the safety off.

Right at that exact moment, we heard an army of coyotes sounding off nearby. Had they found Jon’s deer? Or were they only responding to the distant train horn, as they had done so many times before? The deer seemed very nervous. All the noise and the chorus of coyotes yelping and barking away made me think they were about to bolt. I got my shot lined up, placed the crosshairs behind the front shoulder, and took a deep breath.

As the shot rang out, deer ran in every direction, and the dust rose from their excitement. The melanistic doe took off to the left, before circling back towards the stand, and coming to her final rest, about 160 yards away from us. I reloaded in the event I needed to take a second shot, but it was clear she was down.

With about 10 minutes of light remaining, we quickly grabbed the camera and made our way over to the melanistic doe. After taking some photos, I took a moment to let it hit me. I had just taken my second “once in a lifetime” animal on my family ranch. I bowed my head, put my hands on the doe, and said a prayer of thanks.

We picked up Matthew and walked back to the spot where Jon had shot his doe. We put on our headlamps and looked around. After close to ten minutes, we hadn’t found any blood—not a good sign. We decided to expand our grid search out to one hundred yards. I dipped down into a dry creek bed about seventy yards from where we started looking. I turned and saw something white behind a tree. I walked over and saw it was a sun-faded shed antler. I picked it up and looked around to see if there was a matching set. I didn’t see another shed, but I did catch a glimpse of something else…Jon’s doe!

We couldn’t see any evidence that it had been shot, and there was not one drop of any blood anywhere near the deer. When we rolled her over, it was very evident that Jon had made a perfect heart shot on his first-ever animal. Why had I ever doubted him?

Back at camp, Matthew guided Jon on how to butcher the doe while I began meticulously skinning mine. I took my time removing the cape. I had plans to get a shoulder mount of the melanistic doe to put next to the shoulder mount of my melanistic buck. We eventually got everything in our coolers to bring home to our respective families and then celebrated with a well-deserved meal.

I am still amazed that Jon and I harvested such memorable deer. I love sharing these experiences with my friends and family on our ranches. My uncle and grandfather taught me so many lessons here—what it means to take care of our property, how to be a responsible and ethical hunter, and how to be a conscious conservationist. I’m at a stage in my life where I thoroughly enjoy passing on the knowledge and skill sets I have acquired from so many important mentors and teachers. These experiences and stories that we collect in the woods, the memories we make with family and friends, and the delicious wild game meals we put on the table are truly the real reward.

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