I’ve been a deer hunter for over 30 years. In that time I’ve learned what seems to work and what doesn’t, in a myriad of situations. Of course this is a general statement, as the factors and variables are ever changing and you need to adapt to those changes. Let’s face it, as a deer hunter it’s about learning from your mistakes, and hoping to not repeat them again. Being from the Northeast, deer hunting has remained somewhat consistent. Set up a stand or stands along travel routes and ambush locations, or a ground blind at the edge of a crop field, and wait. Sometimes I still hunt, slowly, ghostlike, I would slip into the forest in search of a whitetail, keeping the wind in my face. When there’s fresh snow, maybe I’d resort to tracking a big buck, sometimes even catching up to him.
When the invite to hunt whitetails in South Texas was offered by a previous client, and now friend of mine, I jumped at the opportunity. Never have I had this experience, I had to commit myself to listening and learning from my host. Having owned the ranch for some 30 odd years or so, I knew that he just may know a thing or two about how to be successful here. What I quickly learned was that I had to leave much of my whitetail skills previously learned at home. Hunting in Texas is a whole lot different, and I was a fool to think that I knew best here.
After landing in Houston, we drove 5 hours west to the hill country of Kimble County. As we drove through the different counties, one thing that I realized is that there are a lot of deer hunters here. The highway was dotted with pick up trucks with coolers and duffels, and camo-clad drivers. As we made our way off the highway and into the towns of Fredericksburg and Kerrville I notice that at each hardware store, convenience store, and even the grocery store, there were lines of fabricated box blinds and feeders of all sorts of configurations. Pallets of feed corn and other supplements lined the parking lots. I wasn’t in the northeast anymore.
We stopped for groceries and fuel, and then the feed store for several bags of deer corn. “The feeders go off at 8 and 4,” Henry said. “When they do, the deer should approach quickly.” My first thought of this was that this was going to be an easy hunt, one with an advantage that I am not used to, and one that is not legal in my home state. We settled into camp, unlocked gates, and fired up breakers and water pumps to the main camp. We spent time gassing up the “buggy”, an old Geo Tracker that resembled something from an African safari, complete with makeshift camo paint and bald tires, and then the Yamaha Grizzly.
The first morning was spent filling feeders and graining roads that connected the stands. I observed deer tracks, and saw a doe and Axis deer bedded on the other side of a short barbed wire fence. Everything is fenced here, marking each land-owners ranch. I soon learned that these fences are for people, not wildlife, such as deer, hogs, and other game, which slipped through under or over them effortlessly. There was nothing fenced in or out and everything was completely free range, except the cattle. I was told to watch for rattlers, scorpions, and cactus as well as fire ants. Once chores were done, we ate lunch and swapped a few hunting stories around the table. The anticipation to get to the stand was growing and I readied my gear and checked my rifle.
At 2 p.m. we all made our way to our assigned blinds, mostly elevated box blinds of various height and shot opportunities. I was to take residence in a stand called “Turkey Hill.” A short walk later through cactus and limestone, pin oak and cedars, and I found my new residence, a plywood 4 x 4 box with a tin roof. There were slot windows of plywood that could be raised and lowered as needed and an old bass boat chair mounted to a wooded frame. “Check your stand for scorpions before you sit down” were the words I most remembered and I did. After a few minutes of settling in I began glassing the brush and edges, ranged the feeder and a few marker trees, and checked my gun movement. And then I sat quietly…
An hour into the hunt I saw a large doe walk in at 100 yards, then 2 more. I was excited! “Here we go!” I whispered to myself. During the next two hours I saw at least another half a dozen does. Mostly feeding along the wood line on grasses and browse. Several stopped at the corn we spread 100 yards out. I glassed each shadow and brush pile and picked up a few more. By the end of the day I think I counted 22 deer total, mostly does or small spikes. Several mothers with young came in and out. At last light, I slowly slinked out the back door and back to camp. I was anxious to see how Derek and Henry did, as I hear a shot just before dark.
I shed my hunting gear and waited by the truck and heard the rumble of the quad returning from the other side of the ranch. Derek took a young spike. Our license allows 2 bucks and 3 does, 4 turkeys, and Axis deer and hogs were a bonus as they are considered exotic and not regulated.
We headed to the skinning shed and processed his deer and returned for a steak dinner. We swapped stories and toasted a good day in the Texas hill country. My sights were set high on a large mature buck, and that was my personal goal. Henry’s camp rules were buck 8 points or better, and one doe each, which are simply his personal management goals. An Axis each if possible, and hogs were to be shot on site as they cause a lot of destruction, which was very apparent.
I didn’t sleep much as thoughts of huge bucks filled my mind. We were up at 4:30 a.m. and right back at it, slipping in without lights to our blinds. It seemed to take forever for light to arrive, and in the darkness I could hear Axis with their faint grunt-bugle, and a hog or two snorting a long ways off. As soon as I could see, I noticed the silhouettes of several deer in front of me. I glassed in the low light, looking for antlers. As morning arrived I could clearly see 6-7 does feeding. Several of them slowly fed on grasses near the blind which was perched up on a small hill backed into the oak, a stunted tree with crooked branches and small acorns. I had yet to see a buck but knew that I should have a chance at one at some point. I continued to pass up doe after doe and I studied each one carefully. The skies were clear and a cool breeze was in my favor. When the feeder went of, several deer spooked and soon returned for a snack. By 10 a.m. all was quiet and we returned for lunch.
By 1 p.m. I returned yet again with the same anticipation, and again glassed does moving quietly through the brush. During the last hour I had 9 different does in various locations, and 3 of them started working their way up the hill toward my stand. For a half hour or so I watched for the largest one, and she started to hook around to my right hand side, more cautious than the others. I knew that this was a mature animal that knew the game a bit better than the others. As she approached 40 yards I decided that she was far enough away from the feeder area that I could probably shoot her cleanly and without too much of a disturbance. I eased the rifle into position and waited for the perfect broadside slight quartering away shot and after she cleared a large blow down I took it. My casing ricochet of the wall and I watched the deer run 20 yards and drop to the ground. The other deer seemed concerned but never left the area. I thought to myself how fortunate I was to have made a clean shot and I looked forward to Western Texas Whitetail backstraps for Christmas dinner.
Henry arrived in the buggy a half hour later and we again headed to the skinning shed to butcher the deer and return for dinner. I saw a total of 16 deer that evening and I was even more excited for the next morning.
Again we walked quietly to our stands and sat in the cold darkness. This may be Texas, but it was 27 degrees and still. As soon as I could see I notice a single shadow down below at 90 yards. As I glassed in the light of dawn I saw antlers, yet couldn’t make out how big the rack was. After a long half hour I was able to confirm that this was a shooter buck, yet he only had 7 points. We were held to an 8 point standard and I would honor that. I watched for a long time as does poured in from every direction. Some fed on corn, some did not. At one point I lost sight of the buck and saw a smaller one slink by to my right side and then I caught a fleeing glimpse of the rack of an Axis on my left. By 11 am I returned for lunch and to swap out some hunting clothes for the evening hunt.
Within minutes of being back in the stand I saw what looked like a large shiny black turtle amble out of the brush and soon confirmed it to be an Armadillo. As I watched him scurry past, I saw a bird I had never seen before, but recognized quickly. It was a Roadrunner, and I watched him for almost 45 minutes, eating lizards and small bugs from the dry ground. At about 3 p.m. a large black object appeared at the feeder followed by two others. At first I thought they were wild hogs, but glassed them and now had my first sighting of Rio Grand longbeards. I could have shot all three, having 4 tags, but I decided to refrain, as I was committed to hunting a big buck, and I enjoyed the moment just the same. They all sported 8-10” beards and were much larger than our Easterns back home. Not long after, a spike walked in as well as several more does. I again returned to camp and remained optimistic that I would see a buck in the morning.
I left a little earlier this morning and sat quietly. On my way in I bumped what sounded like a large deer very close to the blind, and another on my right side. At first light, I spotted a familiar shadow and soon learned that it was the 7- pointer again feeding quietly. At 7:30, two does walked in, and a third which looked larger and more reddish. I said to myself “Axis” and I quickly confirmed this with the binos, only to watch her walk back into heavy cover. I kept my gun up and watched the buck for a few minutes, and the Axis returned broadside at 100 yards. I brought the crosshairs up just behind her shoulder and prepared to squeeze the trigger on this perfectly positioned mature Axis, yet as I did, I realized that she stopped directly in line with the buck. If I was high, I might have hit him. If I was right on, I’d have a pass through and would most definitly hit him. Although legal, house rules are 8 or better, and I simply wasn’t going to gamble so I held still waiting for one of them to move. Unfortunately she walked another 10 feet and disappeared into the brush. I had an opportunity but never questioned not making the shot. I never did see her again, nor have an opportunity to shoot her. This scenario played in my head several times in the coming hours.
I was back on stand on my last evening by 1 p.m. I settled in and tolerated swirling winds and warm temps. At about 4 p.m. things calmed down and I continued to see over 16 deer, mostly does and a few button bucks and spikes. Before heading out we were told that we could take a second doe or a spike if we wanted, if a buck didn’t show up. As I sat in my little wooden box, my determination had never been higher. I had passed up many shots that I could have taken, and I remained committed to waiting for the big one. With a half hour left in our hunt, deer were simply all over me. I had no less than 11 in sight and range of my gun and had now been given the green light to take one. As the minutes ticked by I chose the largest doe I could see, a big “jug head” lead doe that kept tabs on many smaller ones. I glassed the edges and shadows for one last chance at a buck and I again turned back to the doe. As I settled into her vitals with my crosshairs, I pulled up, and watched her through the scope for a minute or more.
To me, hunting is matching your skills with the animals you hunt, in the conditions that you hunt them. I found Texas to be everything I had expected and so much more. I didn’t need to take another doe or spike to satisfy my love of hunting. I already had a cooler full of meat and almost 40 hours of memories made in the blind. My view is much different of this style of hunting and I simply cannot wait to return to Texas. Despite the fact that I never had a shooter in my crosshairs I leave with a renewed sense of pride and higher awareness of my self-discipline and patience. Texas has an abundance of wildlife and their whitetail management is outstanding. I know I had big bucks close several times and even heard them battling just outside the blind in the darkness one morning. I return to Maine appreciative of this opportunity and I look forward to a return trip someday.