It was a cool morning for South Texas…but that made it a lot more pleasant than a lot of January mornings in a lot of other places. A cloudy dawn came slowly, and by the time we could see, there were deer all over the place! Our stand was a typical Texas tower blind overlooking the intersection of two long senderos. Of course there was a feeder, but there had been some unseasonal rains, and most of the whitetails we were seeing seemed more interested in the new growth than the Texas gold (corn). I’d been concerned that it was a little late in the season, and indeed it was—but there was still some chasing and fighting going on, and it was a spectacle.
I lost track of the bucks we saw, more than a dozen. Few were “small” and most were young. That was okay. On that first morning I was really just looking, and this in itself was a rare treat. I freely admit that I don’t particularly love sitting still for anything, and I love it even less when it’s well below freezing and my teeth are chattering hard enough to scare the deer. But I understand that stand hunting is a necessary evil with so much whitetail hunting, and I like hunting whitetails. I actually love it at my place in Kansas, and I know that, at least theoretically, we have a few bucks in the woods as good as anything in Texas. But there was an operative word there: woods! In my country we spend a lot of time looking at empty woods, and we can’t stockpile bucks.
But I wasn’t in Kansas, I wasn’t shivering, and I was seeing deer! I was in a very special place and I was loving it! I was on the Killam family’s Duval County Ranch (DCR) not far from Freer, heart of South Texas’ famed Brush Country, and what made it even more special was this was 130,000 acres of free-range whitetail country–as good as it gets. I’d been there before, though not for a few years, and it had been good. So good that I couldn’t believe it could get better, but under the long-time management of my friend David Kitner it appeared that a genuine whitetail paradise had, in fact, gotten better.
The ranch offers a very few “trophy hunts,” but we were there for a “management hunt.” This is an important distinction, and equally important to put it in quotes because a “management buck” on the DCR is a little different from “management bucks” in most places. In fact, several of the better Texas whitetails on my wall are “management bucks” from the DCR. The main criteria are plenty of age and lack of perfection. Almost no five-year-old bucks and few six-year-olds are shot unless they’re weird…and most of those were culled long ago. So we were looking for an older buck, fully mature, but with mismatched points, a missing tine, stunted eyeguards, a big eight-pointer…old enough that he was unlikely to improve.
Old deer form a very small percentage of most deer herds, but for unknown reasons it was a perfect morning and we saw several. A big 9-pointer and a heavy-antlered 11-pointer came by. We stockpiled them. And then we saw a deer that I really liked. And wanted. He had heavy antlers and looked older…but he was missing a point on his left side, making him a big 9-pointer. Except there was something that we didn’t see until we’d watched him for a while. His left ear drooped oddly, and that ear was shadowing something else: He had a significant drop-tine on that side. Yeah, we stockpiled him.
There were reasons. I have seen very few drop-tine whitetails in my life, and all of them have been on the DCR. I’ve never shot one because none were old enough…they have special rules on bucks with drop-tines, and God help you if you take one before its time! I was pretty sure this buck was old enough, and as a basic 9-pointer I thought he’d pass the management muster. I also didn’t think that we’d see him again…but I didn’t want to chance a mistake. My old friend John Frankson was guiding me. A great whitetail hunter, he’s been on the ranch for years. He agreed that this buck was probably okay…but maybe it would be better to take some pictures. Honestly, even if he’d given me the green light—and he wasn’t about to—I wouldn’t have shot. It was the first morning, and we were shopping. Whether we saw any of these bucks again or not, we had plenty of country to hunt and there were plenty of deer. It’s that rarity in free-range whitetail hunting, a place where you can shop. Also, my youngest daughter Caroline was in a blind a few miles away, looking for her first whitetail. I didn’t want to be Bad Dad and show up with a big buck!
We shopped again that evening, at a different store. A wonderfully wide-racked old buck, classic South Texas, strode down the sendero toward us. He was a no-brainer, and I don’t know what I might have done if he’d kept coming. He didn’t. He turned off into the brush about 200 yards out, and we never saw him again. And then there was a monstrous 9-pointer, heavy and tall, a giant of a buck. He crossed in front of us 100 yards, and I could have and should have shot him. My excuse is we had a TV camera rolling and he never stopped, just strolled along. Reality: I could have and should have, but we now had the “Kitner Green Light” on that drop-tine (even if we never saw him again).
Caroline was more purposeful. On the first morning they also got into a nest of bucks. The one they picked out was a tall, heavy-horned giant, old and gnarly and very big. He didn’t give them a shot that morning, and he didn’t show in the evening. The next morning he stood in the sendero…but at 230 yards. Lord, she shot right under him with her 7mm-08. I know she can make such a shot, so at the midday break we checked zero and it wasn’t her fault…instead of the slightly high zero we’d had her rifle was an inch low at 100…thus just under the brisket at 230. She was a good sport, but inside I knew she was devastated.
I wasn’t too worried for her. There was little chance she’d see that buck again, but this was the DCR. On the other hand, I didn’t say too much about the gorgeous, heavy-antlered drop-tine 9-pointer I’d shot that morning. He came into “his” sendero shortly after daylight, we identified him and made sure of him, and I dropped him with a Legendary Arms Works .300. Some things one is best to keep to oneself…
We tried some rattling that afternoon, Caroline on her sticks. With a high buck-to-doe ratio and little pressure, the DCR is awesome for rattling, but on this day the wind was fickle and nothing was moving. A cold front was due on the morrow, high winds predicted. We had time, but these are fair-weather deer and we’d had a couple of very good days. So I sort of crossed my fingers when we abandoned the rattling and David’s stepson, Cameron Johnson, took Caroline to a blind in a lower pocket, out of the wind. I kept them crossed all afternoon while we played, looking for coyotes and glassing what deer we could find.
It was dark when we got back to the lodge, and darker still when Caroline and Cameron rolled in with a beautiful, high-racked 9-pointer, shot perfectly at 200 yards. It wasn’t as big as the buck she’d taken a poke at, but maybe it’s just as well. That buck was much too big for anyone’s first whitetail!– Craig Boddington