By MATT WILLIAMS
Texas Parks and Wildlife is always looking for ways to make Texas a better place to hunt and fish. Sometimes it pays to step outside the traditional box.
The department made a particularly good investment towards the future of hunting in 1996 when it launched an innovative lottery promotion that offered participants high quality hunting trips as prizes instead of cash.
Acting on an idea hatched by Kirby Brown, former TPWD program director for private lands and public hunting, the department secured a series of big game hunts and placed them up for grabs in a winner-take-all package called the Texas Grand Slam.
Valued at more than $100,000, the package included hunts for desert bighorn sheep, whitetail deer, mule deer and pronghorn antelope. The hunts were conducted on premium private lands and a TPWD wildlife management area.
Hunters were offered the opportunity to purchase unlimited chances to win the package through a random computer drawing. Each chance cost $10. All the proceeds were earmarked for funding wildlife and fisheries research projects, and increased support of youth and public hunting programs.
Brown felt pretty sure the program had potential after it sold nearly 7,000 chances and generated more than $68,000 in gross revenue during its very first season. He knew it was a keeper the following year, when participation more than doubled and gross revenue exceeded $148,000.
The program is still going strong more than a decade later. In fact, it may be the most successful program of its kind ever attempted by a state wildlife agency. It is certainly among the biggest money makers ever introduced by TPWD.
"The initial thought behind the Texas Grand Slam was to create some additional hunting opportunities in Texas and get people excited about hunting again, while at the same time generating new revenue that could be used to expand public hunting opportunities," Brown said. "I knew we were on to something when the participation and revenue more than doubled that second year."
The program was so promising that Brown was authorized to add a Texas Exotic Safari hunting package to the mix prior to the 1998-99 hunting season. Additionally, the department sank some money in advertising by mailing out thousands of brochures to Texas hunting license holders from the previous year.
Once again, participation and revenue increased exponentially. And so did the number and variety of hunts on the menu following year.
In 1999-2000, the list of hunting packages expanded to five. There were multiple hunts available under some category headings, including hunts for desert big horn, antelope, mule deer, whitetail deer, waterfowl and alligator. Alas, the Big Time Texas Hunts (BTTH) concept was born.
"With the success we saw in previous years we felt pretty confident we could add even more hunts and it would pay off," Brown said. "That's exactly what happened. Once it started to roll, this thing went very big, very quickly."
That's big as in huge. In 1998-99, the BTTH program generated nearly $258,000. The revenue skyrocketed to nearly $713,000 a year later and the upward trend continued from there.
The best year on record over the last eight seasons came in 2003 - $836,750. The worst was 2002 - $754,770. Last season, 79,327 BTTH entries for 25 hunts in seven different categories raised more than $776,000. All total, the Texas hunting lottery program has raised more than $8.3 million since its inception 13 years ago.
There are a number of reasons why the BTTH program has such a rich history of success. Perhaps Larry Holland of Ft. Worth summarized it best in a promotional video put together after he won the inaugural Texas Grand Slam package in 1996-97.
"This is a chance for a working man, which will never be able to afford it on his own, to complete a dream, and I have completed my dream," said Holland.
Hunters are natural born dreamers whose wildest fantasies are sometimes driven by visions of their favorite game animals in picturesque settings. BTTH offers lottery winners the opportunity to play out those fantasies in game rich environments that are hand picked to ensure high quality experiences.
Professional guide service, food and lodging are provided on every hunt in each category. In some cases, lottery winners are allowed to bring along hunting or non-hunting companions to share in the experience.
"One of the main goals of the BTTH has always been to make sure we offer our constituents high quality hunting experiences, while at the same time maintaining a positive return our investment," said Linda Campbell, who took over as program director private lands and public hunting 2002. "To accomplish that, we always evaluate our hunters to find what they liked or didn't like about a particular hunting experience. We are continually tweaking the program to keep everything high quality. It's run like a business."
An integral part of the BTTH tweaking process involves changing the menu from time to time to maximize sales. If a particular package is not generating enough interest, the hunt may be altered to make it more attractive, or removed altogether and replaced with something different.
Campbell said the 2009-10 BTTH schedule pretty much mirrors last season's menu with seven hunt categories for a variety of game including whitetail deer, mule deer, antelope, desert bighorn sheep, alligator, various exotics, wild turkey, ducks, geese, quail, pheasant and dove. Next year could be somewhat different, though.
"We are always looking at different opportunities and we could add some new packages in the future," she said. "A lot of our constituents are telling us they would like to see more opportunities for hunting desert big game like mule deer and antelope, so that is a possibility."
Currently, the Texas Grand Slam is the only category that offers hunts for desert big game. Not surprisingly, the Grand Slam typically offers the worst odds for getting drawn, because it attracts more entries than any category and only one winner is selected.
There were 20,793 chances sold for the Texas Grand Slam last year. The Texas Whitetail Bonanza is the second most popular category, but the odds of getting drawn are much better because there are 10 winners selected.
Entering the BTTH simple. Chances can be purchased for $10 through all hunting/fishing license vendors or by calling 800-895-4248. Entries also may be purchased online at a discounted price, $9. There is a $5 convenience fee charged for online and phone purchases. Purchasers must be 17 or older. Deadline for entering this year is Oct. 15.
To learn more about BTTH or enter online, tpwd.state.tx.us/huntwild/hunt/public/btth.
Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, email@example.com.
Here’s a summary of the Big Time Texas Hunts offerings:
• The Texas Grand Slam — This truly is the hunt of a lifetime. The bighorn sheep hunt is very exclusive; TPWD issues only a handful of permits a year. The bighorn sheep hunt takes place on a West Texas Wildlife Management Area. The other three hunts included in the Texas Grand Slam will be on some of the most exclusive private ranches in the state. The winner may also bring along a non-hunting companion to share in this awesome outdoor adventure.
• Texas Whitetail Bonanza — Ten winners will each get to experience a high-quality white-tailed deer hunt, something legendary to Texas on popular ranches known to produce big bucks. Guide service, food and lodging are provided on these 3-5-day trips. Each winner can also bring along a companion to hunt as well.
• Texas Gator Hunt — One winner and a guest will enjoy a rare and unique three-day trip pursuing alligators at the J. D. Murphree Wildlife Management Area on the Gulf Coast. Each hunter may harvest one alligator. All necessary equipment, expert guides, lodging and gator hide removal are included. The winner and guest will also be treated to an airboat tour of the marsh to view alligators.
• Texas Waterfowl Adventure — One winner and as many as three invited guests will win a series of three exciting waterfowl adventures. The hunts are located on some of the best waterfowl areas in Texas. Trips include a Coastal Prairies guided hunt for snows, blues and white-fronted geese; a guided duck hunt in the Coastal Marshes; and an East Texas hunt for wood ducks and mallards.
• Texas Exotic Safari — Two winners will experience the thrill of hunting African exotic game right here in Texas on the Mason Mountain Wildlife Management Area in the Texas Hill Country. Each winner can take two exotic species, including sable antelope, gemsbok oryx, scimitar-horned oryx or common waterbuck. Hunters may choose to shoot modern rifle, muzzleloader, archery or crossbow. Winners can also bring along a companion to hunt a management exotic. Food and lodging will be provided at the scenic Mason Mountain WMA lodge. Taxidermy service will be provided for the two winners. Proceeds go to benefit wildlife conservation and research on Mason Mountain WMA.
• Texas Big Time Bird Hunt — One winner along with as many as three hunting buddies will enjoy a unique package of upland game bird hunts: two days of quail, two days of pheasant hunting in the Panhandle and two afternoons of dove hunting. There will also be a two-day guided spring turkey hunt for two included in the package. Food, guide service and lodging are included on all bird hunts, and pointing dogs are provided for quail and pheasant hunts.
• Texas Premium Buck Hunt — This is the ultimate deer hunting experience-an opportunity to harvest a trophy white-tailed buck in the rugged South Texas brush country. One winner and a guest will enjoy the finest deer hunting trip that Texas can offer. Professional guide service, food and high quality accommodations are included to provide each hunter comfort as well as great hunting.