When dawn breaks on the Texas horizon Saturday morning, hundreds of thousands of hunters will be lying in wait with rifles in hand.

In the Lone Star State, opening day of deer season is as coveted as the Cowboys and cold beer.

"The night before is as close to Christmas Eve as you can get without presents under the tree," says Mike Cox, a spokesman with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Hunters, however, could be in for a cruel surprise this year. Texas just suffered through its hottest summer ever and is in the midst of an unrelenting historic drought.

The harsh conditions mean the white-tailed deer stepping out of the woods on Saturday may be meager and malnourished.

"It doesn't take a biologist to understand that drought has serious impacts on the state's nearly four million white-tailed deer," says Alan Cain, TWPD's deer program leader. "Everything from antler quality to fawn production and overall survival will be affected by the tough range conditions this year."

The state averaged just 8.6 inches of rain through September, according to the Associated Press. That's less than half of the usual amount. More than 90 percent of the state is dealing with extreme or exceptional drought conditions. To make matters worse, forecasters have little faith it'll improve anytime soon.

Natural food and water resources are sparse heading into the winter months, when wildlife needs nourishment most. The AP reports homeowners are seeing more and more deer coming into their yards to pilfer for food.

Which means more deer will likely be visible to hunters as well. Texas permits supplemental measures like food plots and automatic feeders which throw corn. Cain predicts last year's record of 688,000 deer harvested in Texas could be broken if conditions stay the same.

That's little consolation to some Texas sportsmen.

"I've never hunted a year like this before," says Richard Sanchez, with BlueCollar Bowhunter.

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Archery season for whitetails began Oct. 1 in Texas. To prepare, Sanchez started studying deer photographed on game cameras months ago.

"We couldn't tell how old they were because they were all so skinny," he says.

The problem has prompted Texas game managers to issue a grim plea: harvest as many deer possible early in the season.

In an email to hunters, one state biologist said "letting the population grow" and "giving them a break this season" is highly ill-advised.

"During a drought, Mother Nature typically affects the very old and the very young first," the biologist wrote. "This is a slow process and it takes an extreme toll on the habitat, and by the time the old and young are affected, the habitat is in disrepair and healthy deer suffer due to lack of forage and further losses are incurred on a healthy population."

Experts say a stressed deer is more susceptible to infections and other disease. That's especially sad considering many didn't survive the brutal Texas summer.

"I think that killed them off already," Sanchez says. "The younger deer have really been hit hard."

The deer dilemma isn't unique to Texas. Popular hunting spots in other states like Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas are also dealing with drought. In southern Kansas, creeks that haven't been bare in 20 years are now dry.

"Normally where you see deer, we are not seeing deer," says Ryan Warden, a hunting guide with Misty Morning Outfitters in Haven, Kansas. "They have moved to where there is water. It has caused a shift in their patterns."

Some trophy bucks roaming his place last year were estimated to weight 300 pounds, but Warden thinks those big fellas have dropped as much as a sixth of their weight.

"We could see ribs on deer in the summer and that has never happens in Kansas," he says.

But a hunter's bravado is usually built on horn size. Two state-record whitetails with monster racks were taken in Texas last year, however the wildlife department predicts antler growth for 2011 has also fallen prey to the drought.

"Hunters can expect antler quality to be below average and much lower than last year," Cain says.

Perhaps it's Mother Nature's way of reminding us that sometimes the success is not in the trophy, but in the hunt.

-- Jason Sickles is Dallas editor for Yahoo!

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