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Thursday, January 14, 2010


A Classic Texas Hill Country Axis Hunt!

It was 5:30 am on Saturday morning in early January. We woke up to a chilling 12 degrees with the overnight temperatures hovering in single digits. The northern front which blew in with a vengeance just a few days ago left no doubt that every twenty years or so even South Central Texas gets a taste of winter. On mornings like this even the dogs don’t want to go out. We, on the other hand, were heading out into the great outdoors to try our luck at whatever was foolish enough to show itself on this frosty January morning. Bundled up in multiple layers of clothing and with more emphasis on staying warm rather than on the hunt itself, we reluctantly tumbled out of the warm house right into an embrace of the cold morning air. With the shooting light quickly approaching and the feeders set to go off at 7:15 am, we climbed into the vehicles and scattered to our respective destinations.

My target of choice was the elusive aoudad sheep. Since several groups of these animals were spotted at Escondido Ranch earlier in the week, and with one being taken the prior morning, I was optimistic.

Given the prevailing wind, the best spot for seeing a group of aoudad this morning was near Ledge Blind, so called because of its proximity to an edge of a canyon. This ground blind can easily accommodate up to three hunters and its location makes it ideal for hunting everything from axis deer, to aoudad sheep, feral hogs and whitetail deer.

Once I got into the blind, settled in and chambered my .270 rifle, I eased back into a chair and waited. The sun began its ritual morning path and the feeder went off right on cue. Moments later, I spotted three mature whitetail does cautiously surveying the area from along the edge of the brush line. Although the season for whitetail does and whitetail spikes was still open, I could not see a good reason to ruin my chances at an aoudad by prematurely taking a whitetail doe. As the animals finally began to approach the feeder, the wind began to shift unfavorably. Being on the ground and in close proximity to these already weary animals, a whiff of an unfamiliar scent was enough to send the does pouncing back into the safety of the brush. I waited a few more minutes, but decided that given the change in the wind’s direction, it would be prudent to change my location. I grabbed my gun and a pair of binoculars, and started making my way down to the edge of Central Canyon towards the Ambush Blind.

Quietly weaving my way through the trees along a rocky, gravel covered slope, I came upon a large group of Rio Grande turkey hens. These birds were casually making their way through the underbrush even though I was standing no more than 15 yards from the nearest bird. In an effort not to disturb their progress and avoid scarring off any game which maybe grazing down in the canyon, I came to a stand-still hoping that the turkeys would pass…

After several minutes of resembling a statue, it became apparent that the turkeys were not in any hurry. While several of the closer hens kept looking in my direction, the rest of the flock kept picking at the semi-frozen ground and moving along at “a pace of a dying turtle”. I was already cold, so before I became permanently statuesque, I decided to try to move around the flock…huh, that did not work out. As soon as I made the first step, all hell broke loose! The turkeys noisily surged in all directions and up into the trees. The rustling of wings and auditory alarms were almost deafening in the morning’s quiet.

With a big sigh and a few select words, I proceeded down to the Ambush blind. Once I got down to the edge of the canyon near the blind, I surveyed the valley below. It was no big surprise that nothing was moving.

I settled into a chair and closed my eyes. Not that I would not have enjoyed a few minutes of shut-eye, but the shape of this narrow canyon carried sounds so well that you could actually hear the animals moving before you could even see them. I listened for a few minutes and could only hear the chirping of the birds and distant squawking of turkeys. It was already edging past 8:40 am when I heard movement to my left. From the corner of my eye I saw three axis does make their way across the road, pausing for a bit and then disappearing into the brush on the other side. Although, at that point, I could no longer see the animals, I could clearly hear them making their way up the face of the canyon, opposite of my location.

I knew that one of the guest hunters was interested in harvesting an axis doe, so I text him my whereabouts. While I awaited for a reply, I continued to scan the opposite side of the canyon for movement. As the rising sun illuminated the west side of the canyon, my side remained in the shadows. As the animals worked their way up the slope, they paused in clearings to bathe in the sunlight, which gave me the opportunity to see the axis while I remained unseen by them. Then the sudden vibration of my phone from the incoming message startled me. The text simply said “shoot one”.

A smile probably lit up my face. I reached for the gun. Spotting an axis about 250 feet up the canyon’s face and 170 yards away, I brought the scope to my eye and traced an upward path from the base of the slope. As I zoomed in, it became apparent that I was looking at a young axis buck (or a spike). I pulled away from the scope and gazed across the canyon wall. I could see nothing else in the few gravel covered spaces along the face. I leaned back towards the scope and reacquired the axis buck as it was moving along the ledge. It was then I spotted a partially hidden axis doe trailing the spike. Allowing the axis doe to clear the cover and step into the opening, I placed the cross-hairs behind the shoulder, removed the safety and squeezed… “BOOM” rang out and echoed back along the canyon’s walls.

Before the rising gun smoke obscured my line-of-sight, I could see the projectile’s impact as the stiffened animal toppled over to its side and slid several feet down before getting caught up in some vegetation. It was then that the opposite side of the canyon irrupted with movement, as 8 to 10 axis deer dashed from beneath the brush and over the top ridge of the canyon. Great camo! Even armed with 16x binoculars, it was impossible to spot the axis deer in the cover.

Giddy as a schoolboy, I picked up the cell and informed the other hunter that “dinner was served”. But before we could throw the back straps on the grill, someone would have to climb up the cliff to retreat the axis doe. A quick plan was devised; I was to stay put on my perch and direct the recovery crew to the place where the animal would have landed.

Within a few minutes of their arrival, a two men team successfully ascended the slope and recovered the deer. However, while on the way down I could not help but to overhear them complaining about me shooting animals too high up the cliff..., that I should really try to knock the animals off so that they simply slide down to the base… and next time, I should climb up and get them myself… Like I stated before, there are great acoustics in that canyon. Besides, they were just jealous!

Later, the two hunters thanked each other…one for the venison, and the other for an opportunity to make a memorable shot. Although my aoudad was still lurking in the shadows of Escondido Ranch terrain, this was a classic and no-less successful Texas Hill Country axis deer hunt!

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Tuesday, January 5, 2010


The Wandering Red Stag Deer

The scene was set for a beautiful post Christmas hunt at Escondido Ranch. Our objective was simple because we had an uninvited guest show up on the ranch several weeks ago and we needed to take him out. After much analysis, the conclusion was that we were hunting a rogue Red Deer. The deer obviously heard many of the Elk that reside at Escondido Ranch bugling and decided it was greener on the other side of the fence and decided to join them.

The problem with this new guest is that he can actually inter-breed with our Elk. Since Escondido Ranch prides itself in having pure Wyoming Elk genetics we could not risk the possibility of contamination. Therefore, the ranch owner called in his two most aggressive and successful hunters to take care of this immediate problem.

As we made our final preparations for the hunt the question came up of "who is going to shoot this animal?" My buddy and I looked at each other and reassured the ranch owner that we had it all under control. One of us was going to attempt the shot and the other would film the hunt. Sounds good right? So we set out that morning in a tower blind to give us the best chance to at least see the animal and then we could make adjustments as the morning progressed. We got in the blind about 6:30 A.M. that morning and nothing was moving. Sometimes when it gets really cold overnight the animals won't get up and start moving until the sun is up and warming the ground, around 8:00 or 8:30 the next morning. In our situation, we felt like we had a limited amount of time to get this deer on the ground because we needed to do it before he dropped his antlers in a few weeks. We decided to get in the pickup and start driving around and see what was moving on the other side of the ranch. As we were driving, we noticed that some really nice Sika deer were feeding in an open field nearby so we stopped to take a few pictures. We were glad we did because we ended up taking some pictures of a really nice mature, gold medal trophy Sika buck, that was somewhat hidden behind some cow elk initially. Photographing the Sika was nice but we had a job to do and we knew time was of the essence.

As we continued down the road we slowed down as we came up to an area where the infamous red deer had been spotted earlier in the week. Am I glad we did because there he was. He saw us immediately and fled in a direction that he thought was conducive to his survival, his home in a steep canyon. The deer was moving pretty good when he crossed the road we were traveling. He proceeded into an open field with quite a few oak trees and turned back to look at us as if to say "I am going to make it to the canyon before you even get a shot off." I'd like to think the ranch owner chose the two of us for a reason. In pursuit, we seldom give up and let an animal beat us to a canyon for cover and today was no different. I flung my door open and used the mirror on the pickup for a rest to put my first round in the target. My partner was coaching me as he was filming because he has much experience in hunting South Texas Whitetails and Nilgai which requires shooting at animals on the run. After I squeezed off the first round the deer didn't react like I wanted. I put one more round in the deer and noticed that he jumped a little but was still moving toward the canyon. I started to think this deer was going to escape into the canyon and I only had one shell left in the Ruger 25-06 I was shooting. The deer didn't appear to be slowing down so I shot my final round and hit him. But he was still moving, then my partner put the final shot on this incredibly tenacious animal as he ran directly away from us toward his home in the canyon.

It was the final round from a .300 ultra mag that my partner was shooting that dropped the tenacious red deer. When we made our way to the fallen deer, we found that the deer was hit several times and was going to expire but not as quickly as we initially thought. The deer had a very unique antler scheme. He had several forks and points on his right side but his left side was really unusual and ‘freaky’ looking. We found out later that he had a broken skull cap and that had caused him to grow a deformed looking antler. He is very unique and will end up on a wall at the ranch somewhere. A special thanks to all the folks at Escondido Ranch for all their support and hunting opportunities they continue to provide us.

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