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Monday, March 29, 2010


What Do You Mean This Blackbuck has a Broken Horn?

I had been looking for a good place to hunt a trophy Blackbuck antelope for about 3 or 4 months when I saw the website for the Escondido Ranch. I was immediately struck by the great pictures of the Llano River and the way the hunting lodge rested on the edge of a high cliff overlooking the river below. So I called the number provided and had the opportunity to talk to Tony about the possibilities of hunting the ranch.

Tony indicated they had numerous Blackbuck antelopes and was sure they could put me on a trophy animal. He also sent me several recent pictures he had taken of some of the Blackbucks he had been seeing on the ranch. In particular, Tony pointed out a very nice mature animal he had been seeing frequently going back and forth between a couple of feed plots. This animal had very nice black and white coloring and looked to have horns that measured at least 18 inches straight-line. There was only one problem, one of his horns had about 6 inches broken off on the left side. Blackbuck antelope males are very territorial anyway and it seems this guy was extremely aggressive when it came to his sharing his harem of does. As a result he had the battle scars to prove it.

At first I was a little concerned that Tony would suggest that this was the animal I should be interested in taking. Needless to say, a lopsided mount on my wall would be a great conversation piece but not necessarily the trophy I was looking for. When you have the itch to go hunting and when you are looking for a particular trophy animal cost is not the most important issue on your mind but cost is a consideration in any hunt with an outfitter. Tony was pretty certain that the horn could be repaired by a taxidermist and assured me they would make it worth my while with a discount to offset increased taxidermy cost if I wanted to take the animal. He seemed to be so sincere in his believe this was an outstanding blackbuck (other than its battle damage), so I promised I would think about it and check with a taxidermist I had used in the past. Sure enough, I was assured that he could fix the broken horn. It might take a little longer to find the right fit but the additional cost of fixing it was much less than I anticipated it might be.

So I booked the hunt and told Tony I would consider this particular blackbuck after I got the chance to put my binoculars on him and get a good look. I made a special arrangement to come out to the ranch on a Wednesday instead of the normal weekend hunt. They were very accommodating in meeting this request and I met the on-site ranch manager upon my arrival. He took me to the rifle range to sight in my guns. I had brought my new Browning .300 Win Mag X-bolt and was anxious to try it out on live game instead of shooting at targets. I also brought along my little 30-30 as well in case I got the chance to take a crack at a wild hog or two. They were both shooting spot-on, the sky was blue with hardly a cloud, the temperature was in the 70’s and I was ready to get going.

The ranch manager took me up to the lodge to get settled in before Tony and his lovely wife Heather arrived. As I walked out onto the back patio of the lodge I quickly observed that the great pictures I had seen on the Escondido website really did not do justice to the majestic views. Directly below was the flowing Johnson Fork of the Llano River surrounded by large, mature trees and green, open food plots. As I looked through my binoculars from this vantage point I saw a small herd of about 15 blackbuck antelope does on the outer edge of the property line. Just below the cliff nearest the river in a nice food plot was a group of about 30 Axis deer does and bucks. Most of the Axis bucks were in full velvet and several looked to have antlers in the 30 inch class.

Off to my left on the opposite side of the river was another food plot with a feeder nearby. Under the feeder was a nice, younger Blackbuck antelope that had a great set of horns. But he was light brown in color and didn’t yet have the very distinctive black coloring and white eye circles that make the Blackbuck antelope male such a great mount. As I watched him graze around the feeder another Black Buck came trotting out of the brush toward him and the fight was on. As I enjoyed this sparring match between the two animals it became evident that the second Blackbuck antelope was the one with the broken horn. At that point I was ready to make a hike in their direction and try to put a stalk on them to get a closer look at Mister Broken Horn.

Within a few minutes, Tony and Heather arrived with their friend Steve, his wife Christie and son Ryan. I told Tony I had seen the Blackbuck with the broken horn and he could tell I was itching to go get a better look at him. After a short strategy session we hopped into the ranch jeep and set off in the direction of the feeder. Steve came with us and had the video camera to record the proceedings. We drove downhill toward the feeder and parked a good way off down in a low place on the road next to the river. We hopped out and started toward the feeder. We moved along the edge of the river through several ravines that allowed us to be below the field and the sparring Blackbuck antelope males. We were completely out of their sight and moving as quietly as three people can move. When we had gotten to the point where we estimated the animals had been fighting we eased up the river bank and peered over the edge. Expecting to see the Blackbuck antelopes within 120 yards or so we were surprised to see nothing on the food plot. Apparently, they had gotten tired of hitting each other and wondered back into the brush. Tony assured me he would be back at either of his favorite areas that day or the next. By this time it was 4:30 in the afternoon, daylight savings time had already started and we would have to wait until later in the day to give it another try. So we headed back to the lodge to get ready for the evening hunt.

As luck would have it, just before we were heading out for the evening hunt and before we were able to get into the stands we again spotted both Blackbuck antelope and about 20 Axis deer in the same food plot where we had seen them previously. Shooting from the stand was not going to be an option and we were going to have to stalk them again. But this time they were going to have numerous sets of eyes and ears to see and hear any approaching danger. Rather than retrace our original path to the field Tony suggested we drive around to the other side of the field and approach them from the opposite direction. It would be a much longer walk but we would have the advantage of better cover and the wind would be in our favor. Steve again came along to try and get as much video of the hunt as we could. We arrived on the opposite side of the field with plenty of time left in the day and the wind in our faces. We were able to walk most of the distance on an existing road which made our approach much quieter. The road led directly to the feeder and Tony was walking about 30 feet ahead of Steve and I to scout our approach. As we came up a small rise in the road we got within about 300-400 yards and Tony could see Mr. Broken Horn just under the feeder. We would have plenty of screening vegetation to get us within easy gun range of the animal. Unfortunately, this path would also make us visible to the many Axis deer scattered in the field between us and our quarry. We were going to have to take a different approach to get within range. But at least we knew the animals were there and didn’t seem to sense our presence.

To get a more direct view and to avoid the other deer in the field we doubled back and again used the numerous ravines and low points adjacent to the river. As we carefully moved over the rough ground to get into position I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelmingly sweet smell of the new spring flowers just blooming on this warm and beautiful day. That’s because in some cases I was on my hands and knees crawling through the brush and came face-to-flower with them on several occasions. What I didn’t notice until later were the two, large bloody scratches on my hands that I had gotten as we crawled and made our way toward an opening where we might get a good look at the field. When you are “in the zone” and are concentrating intently on stalking and getting into position little else matters at the time. As we got into position where we could get another look at the Black Buck I got my first good look at his horn configuration and decided that I would take him when we had the opportunity. I told Tony I was going to trust that the taxidermist could fix what nature and the fighting instinct of the Blackbuck antelope had broken. I could see the top of him through my binoculars but did not have a clear view of the entire animal. Tony had shooting sticks with him and ranged the animal at 175 yards. Between me and the Blackbuck antelope was a slight rise in the terrain that partially obscured him. I got on the shooting stick Tony had brought and looked at him through my scope for the first time. While I had a shot it was not the sure thing I was after. I’ve never been a fan of shooting off the sticks if I didn’t have to. I prefer a much steadier rifle rest if I can find one – an accommodation to my advancing age I guess. It looked like we could keep moving along the edge of the river below the field and feeder and out of sight of the deer. Tony confirmed we could continue to move around about another 150 yards and come up much closer to them.

So again, we slipped quietly through the brush and followed the curve of the ravines along the river until we could find a suitable place where we could ease up the 10 foot bluff and look onto the field. Since this was to be our most likely shooting spot Tony let me go up the incline first. As I reached the top of the bluff I peered over the edge and the field was full of deer - but my Black Buck was not immediately visible. He had decided to move from the feeder but I could no longer see him. My first thought was that we had missed him again and for an instant I regretted not taking a shot earlier when I was on the sticks. Part of the field was obscured because of the thick brush. As I got to the top of the bluff I crawled slowly to my right about 10 feet to get a better look at the entire field. Mr. Broken Horn had moved to the opposite edge of the field and was grazing with the rest of the deer at just over 100 yards away. By this time Tony and Steve had also gotten into position at the top of the bluff.

Just as we were congratulating ourselves on our stalking technique and our good fortune my Black Buck decided to lay down in the food plot - the only animal in the entire field to do so. He was laying with his tail in our direction and the only available shot I had was a “Texas heart shot”. To further complicate matters the Axis deer were moving directly between me and the Black Buck and getting closer and closer to where we were hiding and greatly increasing the chances of our being spotted. We still had the wind in our favor but I was getting more anxious by the minute. I had managed to wedge my gun between the low limbs of the bush directly in front of me. It was a perfectly stable mount and I was ready to take this animal. As I peered through the scope I could see numerous Axis deer, does and bucks, walking in and out of my line of sight. They were both in front of and behind the resting Black Buck. We sat there for what I’m sure were only a couple of minutes but it seemed much longer at the time. Suddenly, the younger Black Buck jumped into the air like he had pogo sticks on his legs. His jump startled the Axis deer, startled Tony, Steve and myself and caused Mr. Broken Horn to get up off the ground from his resting spot. My only guess as to the reason for this behavior is that he was ready to resume his sparring match with the older Black Buck. Regardless of the reason, my Black Buck was up on his feet and perfectly quartered to me and my gun. He started licking himself and had his head down for what seemed an eternity. To complicate matters the Axis deer were still moving back and forth between me and him. Suddenly the sea of animals parted and I had a clear shot from 115 yards. I didn’t hesitate. My .300 Mag sounded like a cannon when I pulled the trigger. While it’s probably too much gun for a smaller animal like a Blackbuck antelope it left no doubt as to the outcome with a well placed shot. The bullet hit the animal with such force that it knocked him down and rolled him completely over. To our surprise he rolled over and jumped to his feet and started to move away in a dazed trot. Given his demeanor it was evident that he was not long for the world. After he had moved about 20 yards he fell and I had my trophy.

There is always a sense of relief when you harvest the specific animal you are looking for. I was both relieved and elated that our efforts had been successful. That night we celebrated with a great steak dinner expertly prepared by Tony’s wife Heather. I was also able to get an Axis doe the next day under much less dramatic circumstances from one of the many stands on the ranch.

During my stay we also made a nighttime excursion with Steve and his son Ryan through the ranch looking for the many nocturnal wild hogs that reside there. While we did not get a hog we saw plenty of game. I also had the opportunity to tour the ranch on a four-wheeler and saw many bull elk, axis deer, fallow deer and sika deer. I also witnessed a titanic struggle as two Aoudad sheep butted heads almost oblivious to our presence.

I highly recommend Escondido Ranch to anyone interested in hunting trophy game. The ranch is well populated with many species. A special thanks to Tony and the ranch manager for their professional knowledge of the game and the ranch terrain. In addition to helping guide hunters, Heather is a fantastic chef. Thanks to Steve for his efforts to capture the video. I was treated like family by everyone. This won’t be my last visit.

Steve Knowles Austin, TX

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Friday, March 5, 2010


Through the Eyes of a Trophy Sika Buck

When writing a recapitulation of an exciting hunt at Escondido Ranch I speak from the hunter’s perspective. In this instance I am going to make an exception because this particular Trophy Sika Buck managed to escape the cross hairs of a .243 not once, but twice. And even though the animal was eventually harvested on the third day of the hunt I am willing to give the victory to the Sika Buck. So here goes the story from the Sika deer’s point of view:

The morning started out with a little breakfast consisting of some remaining acorns under some big oaks on a plateau just above the river. My Elk buddies and I like to bed down here at night and then cross the river in the morning and steal some leftover corn and deer protein from the nearby pasture before we make our journey up the switchback. Onward we go through the gravity pasture and eventually down into Eli canyon where we stretch out for a nap for the remainder of the morning and early afternoon. Yea, I have to admit, life at Escondido Ranch is pretty amazing. We sleep in everyday and the food is excellent and plentiful.

I did have a close encounter the last couple of nights that nearly sent me straight to the top of somebody's fireplace. Can you believe someone tried shooting me at 140 yards last night, but missed completely?! I felt so bad for the guy that I decided to give him another chance the next evening at about 80 yards but he made some excuse like it was "too dark." It was great because the whole thing was on video. Whoever was holding that camera sure did a good job as they never took their eye off of me. I'm thankful that the guide who was shooting video did not have the gun or I would be singing "The Day the Music Died" by the late great Don McLean.

Typically, if we make it to Sunday afternoon it means your safe and can rest until next weekend rolls around. All I had to do was make it one more day and it was smooth sailing. Sunday morning came and what a beautiful morning it was as the sun came up over the backdrop of Escondido Ranch and reflected off of the gorgeous Llano river that runs through the middle of the ranch. We bedded down in some thicket just up from the river that we crossed late last night. As we started our morning I was feeling a little frisky and felt like a sparring match with my buddy who is a 5x5 Bull Elk. I was overmatched but I still put up a good challenge. After our early morning joust I started across the river in search of leftover corn and protein pellets. I made it just to the edge of the low water crossing and that's when I knew I was past the point of no return. I must congratulate the hunter/rifleman because he never made any noise or give up any scent. He must have been some 250 yards away. Someone must have been tracking my Elk friends and I for awhile because they knew just where to be at just the right time. Before I leave you should know that I was truly a Gold Medal Trophy Sika Buck and well worth the hunt. I enjoyed many meals and memories at Escondido Ranch and I hope ya'll will do the same.

Until next time keep on shootin' straight and shootin' often. Peace.

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Tuesday, March 2, 2010


Aoudad in the Crosshairs

After a morning of blistering cold weather, the afternoon was turning out to be rather pleasant as the temperatures rose into the 50s and the low pressure system moved onto the northwest giving way to blue skies and a patchy network of white clouds.

Earlier that morning, my endless pursuit of the illusive aoudad also known as Barbary sheep forced me to pass on a couple of axis does out of fear of spooking my prey-of-choice. Unfortunately, my fears were unfounded, since on that morning the aoudad either decided to bypass my hunting area or simply stayed out of sight.

Out of all the animals I have had the opportunity to harvest at Escondido Ranch, aoudad sheep continued to remain on the “to-do” list. Imported by ranchers into the Lone Star State in the mid-last century, but native to the mountains and deserts of North Africa, the aoudad sheep quickly took root in the arid hills and canyons of Central and Southern Texas. Build like a Sherman tank, these resilient animals can flourish on scarce vegetation of the region and can live up to twenty years of age. Both male and female of the species can grow large, backward sweeping horns. The male trophy aoudad, however, carry thicker horns of up to 30 inches, sport a heavier mane of long soft hair along their throat, chest and front legs and can weigh in excess of 300 pounds. Although, ewes and younger aoudad congregate in larger groups of up to several dozen animals, mature, trophy caliber aoudad rams prefer a more solitary existence.

An abundance of aoudad sheep at the ranch do not make them any easier to hunt. In the past several visits to Escondido, I have seen aoudad only on rare occasions and for but a few fleeting moments… certainly not long enough for an accurate shot. Although, these sure footed animals prefer to feed later in the day, when not under a lot of hunting pressure, they have been spotted throughout the ranch during all hours. But shoot one, and aoudad seem to vanish without a trace; taking refuge along the inaccessible cliffs of the canyons and gorges around the property.

Due to unseasonably cold temperatures and the resulting damage to the natural vegetation, aoudad along with other exotic game animals at the ranch have been actively grazing at the feeders throughout the day. So, it was with hope and optimism that I strapped my backpack to the front of the four-wheeler, threw .270 rifle across my back and sped off to the area where the aoudad have been spotted that morning.

With a favorable wind, the plan was to get into the blind before 4 pm and see what shows up. If activity was at minimum, I would get out of the blind a few minutes before sunset and stalk up to another nearby blind in hopes of ambushing an aoudad there.

In anticipation of the forthcoming hunt, I was anxious to get to my final destination. Along the way, I scattered small groups of black buck antelope and gave a short distance escort to a herd of fifteen or so fallow deer. As I made the final turn leading to the blind, I skidded to a halt…There, within 200 yards, in the middle of the afternoon, right beneath the feeder, stood a large, male, trophy class aoudad ram.

Caught by a complete surprise, I was not sure whether to reach for my camera or my gun. With the gun across my back and the camera in my backpack, both were too difficult to access without spooking the animal. So for the next several seconds, reminiscent of the Mexican stand-off, the aoudad and I stared at each other from afar. When I finally decided to easy off the 4-wheeler, the aoudad mirrored my movements and eased right out of sight. I was sure glad that trophy aoudad rams were not on my list, because otherwise I would have been really, REALLY UPSET!!!

Oh, I have not mentioned that I wanted to shoot a young aoudad. Although, a trophy aoudad looks great on the wall, the meat is not palatable. A young aoudad’s meat, on the other hand, is supposed to be succulent and delicious with taste reminiscent that of veal. So, with an eye-full of a trophy class Barbary ram, I proceeded to stash the four-wheeler underneath an overhanging cedar tree and walked towards my blind about 200 yards away.

After 30 minutes or so of sitting in the blind, I noticed some movement along the tree line, about 180 yards south of my position. Through the binoculars, I could see a tall, narrow rack of 3.5 year old, 8 point whitetail buck being followed by a whitetail deer of slightly smaller stature, but with 1-1.5 inch spikes. The spike deer definitely needed to go, but I was hesitant. I really did not want to ruin my chances at an aoudad. So, dropped a short text to the ranch owner, and luckily I got a pass on the spike. I watched the two deer for a few more minutes before both moved on into the thickett.

The feeder went off at 5 pm and for the next 45 minutes there was very little activity. I had about 30 minutes of shooting light remaining and I began contemplating my stalk to the nearby feeder. I already started to gather my belongings, when along the same trail used earlier by the two whitetails I saw glimpses of moving animals. I raised my binoculars for a better look. Initially, I could only see patches of brownish color blending into the bushes and was able to make out three distinct animals. But then one of the animals moved into an opening between the bushes and my heart began to pound. There it was…an aoudad! Granted, this was a bigger animal than I was planning to shoot, but there were more hiding in the brush. I just needed to be patient. Nonetheless, I was not taking any chances. I raised my gun, and with safety engaged, started glassing for a shooter aoudad.

With the shadows growing longer, one of the older aoudad ewes finally stepped out into an opening and cautiously proceeded towards the feeder…and gradually, the rest of the herd followed at a respectable distance. I could count 12 animals in total. At least two of the older females with large sweeping horns and long flowing beards would have made fine trophies. But there were also three young aoudad with horns 12 inches or less. Those were my targets. The animals continued to bunch up at some distance. It was only after the lead ewe finally approached the feeder and started chewing on the scattered corn did the rest of the herd trotted over to join her.

Pushing, showing, bumping and budding was the order of the day as young and old tried to muscle their way to the feeder. Meanwhile, with the herd a mere 80 yards away, I was almost holding my breath afraid to make any movement or sound. The crosshairs of my gun were right one of the smaller aoudad, but with all the commotion there was no clear shot.

Finally, after a seeming eternity, the young aoudad tried to push its way past a mature ewe and she simply shoved it aside with a flick of her head. For an instant, the young animal found itself outside of the feeding frenzy and with no other animals directly behind it, I removed the safety and pulled the trigger! Kabooom! The force of the impact swung the aoudad around and rolled it on its back. There was no other movement. The rest of the herd scattered in a blink of an eye. I pumped my fist in a victorious overture and with great anticipation climbed out of the blind, briskly walking towards the downed aoudad.

There it was, a beautiful specimen of the species which had eluded me for so long... but not TODAY! The deed was finally done and one more species was off my list. With the harvested animal secured to the front of the 4-wheeler I proceed to the cleaning area in the valley below.

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