Among the many items on my bucket list is taking a really good Texas buck. I’ve been to the Lone Star State plenty of times and shot some decent-sized deer, but circumstances have always prevented me from knocking down a record-class buck. Sometimes I’m limited as to what I can shoot (cull/management bucks). And when there’s no size limitation, it seems there are no big bucks present, at least not where I’m sitting.
I’ve also had hiccups in my decision making process. When I’m quick on the trigger, I inevitably end up seeing bigger bucks after I’ve tagged out. When I take a more conservative approach, I end up eating Texas tag soup. I was hoping to change all that during my most recent crossbow hunt.
The locale was Live Oak Hunting Lodge, near Eldorado. This West Texas region isn’t renowned for its trophy producing capability, but given the right conditions, good specimens do occur on well-managed property. Outfitter Steve Elmore said there were some really good bucks out there. I believe he used the phrase “140-class 8-points.” Now, a 140-class whitetail might not sound huge to a Midwest deer hunter, but it would fit my bucket list criteria quite nicely.
What Elmore said next, however, wasn’t as pleasant. “First we had a drought, then we got rain,” he confessed. “There’s so much food that deer are just not coming to feed like they normally would.” (Yes, we hunted near feeders because that’s the way it’s done in Texas.) Then he added, “They moved good last week, when it was cold, but it’s been warm this week and we’re not seeing as many deer.”
I’ve heard that tale before: You shoulda’ been here yesterday.
With Elmore’s mention of 140-class 4x4s and deer movement trends fresh in my mind, I continued to hit him with questions. As a native of Maine, and because I do most of my whitetail hunting in the Northeast and Midwest, I sometimes struggle with field-judging Southern deer. I’d experienced my first real case of ground shrinkage a few months earlier in Oklahoma and wasn’t eager to repeat it. Pointing to various mounted heads on the wall, Elmore noted which would be “no,” “maybe” and “definitely yes.” Afterward, I felt a little more confidant. Still, I hoped the decision would be a no-brainer as I often go by the creed: When in doubt, don’t shoot.
FUN AT THE FEEDER
The first day at a new place is always a mystery. You never know what to expect when the sun comes up, but being a veteran of Texas deer hunts I had an inkling. It can seem like a veritable desert—until the feeder goes off—and then deer materialize out of nowhere. I was hoping that would be the case, but the deer hadn’t read the script.
Evidently, the warm temps kept deer movement to a minimum, and my first morning passed deer-less. And it didn’t help that my companions reported much of the same. But, I reminded myself, afternoons are usually better.
Midday was spent working on ground blinds and checking game cameras. After we’d made the rounds, Elmore offered me my pick of blinds for the afternoon hunt. I’m not sure if he was merely being gracious or hedging his bets by shifting some of the responsibility, and therefore the outcome, to me. Either way, I judged it the savvy play of an experienced outfitter.
I moved to a new blind with renewed hope, which was rewarded when the first deer showed up early on. It was a young buck, nothing I was interested in shooting, but hopefully a harbinger of things to come. Sure enough, more deer came, including one very tempting specimen.
He was a tall-tined buck with a spread outside his ears, but he was a little thin in terms of antler mass. I was sorely tempted and racked my brain thinking how he’d stack up compared to those heads on the lodge wall. I finally convinced myself: It’s just the first day, and you have to pass up the good ones if you want a great one. Still, there was a bit of reluctance as to whether that decision would haunt me.
The next morning was an ice-breaker, in more ways than one. Temperatures had dropped, conversely elevating my spirits and those of my hunting partners. And though it passed deerless again for me, two of my buddies were more fortunate, connecting on “good representative specimens.”
After a lengthy photo session, we decided to put our equipment to the test with a little long-range target shooting. Shooting scoped crossbows off a bench with the aid of sandbags, we were able to achieve amazing accuracy at distances up to 60 yards. Ever the opportunist, I found a way to make things just a bit more interesting.
Most folks are familiar with the story of William Tell. After refusing to bow to a noble, Tell was arrested and sentenced to shoot an apple off his son’s head. What many don’t know is that Tell’s weapon of choice was the crossbow. As we headed to the range I grabbed an apple, and when the serious shooting was done, I suggested we might have a little friendly competition— at 80 yards.
Because it was my idea, I got to go first. Fortunately it was a foam target rather than the younger Tell under the apple, for had I been standing in for Mr. Tell senior, I’m afraid his legacy would’ve been cut short. Or stated another way, had the apple been sitting on a whitetail’s back, I would’ve double-lunged the deer. Several more of my crossbow-shooting companions fared similarly until one of them skewered the apple with an 80-yard shot that would’ve made Tell proud.
The next order of business was checking cameras, and I eagerly agreed to ride along with Elmore and my hunting partner Eddie Stevenson. Upon checking the stand where Eddie had been hunting, we discovered that two shooters were there the afternoon before, in broad daylight. With some less-than-subtle suggestions, I convinced Eddie to graciously offer me the stand. He would take my blind, but warned I might be sorry. Despite high hopes, the only deer I saw was a small 8-point passing by on the distant hillside.
Sitting in my blind, Eddie saw only one deer as well. But his came much closer, passing within a few feet of his window. And, it was a shooter. When the buck offered a shot, Eddie wasted little time making his first crossbow kill. My only consolation was it wasn’t the buck I’d passed up earlier. He was still out there somewhere, as were the two deer we’d caught on camera at the elevated blind. And I had one more day to hunt.
BOTTOM OF THE NINTH
Awaiting the dawn’s early light gave me time to think, and rationalize. To this point I’d been holding out for a big buck, but I’d seen only one of them—the buck I passed on afternoon No. 1. Warm temperatures and the others’ relative lack of success strongly suggested I might not see another buck of the same caliber. I had an early flight the following day, so an evening kill wouldn’t leave much time for photos, skinning, caping and processing. Then and there I decided if a decent-sized 4x4 showed up, I’d have to save my bucket list buck for another time and place.
The first deer on the scene—I chose to sit in Eddie’s blind—was a 2x2, nothing I was interested in shooting, but the first positive sign of morning deer activity I’d seen. Things were looking up. I’d barely absorbed the thought when out of the mesquite stepped a bigger deer. After counting 8 points, I wasted little time sizing him up. My itchy trigger finger needed to be scratched.
The shot hit its mark and after a short tracking job I laid my hands on another “representative” West Texas buck. You can call it rationalizing if you want, but it’s the journey that’s most important, and my quest for a record book Texas buck continues.