By Craig Boddington
It was a warm June afternoon in the Texas Hill Country. A nice buck stepped out of the brush line, picked around for a bit, and then lay down in full view about 120 yards from our stand. He was an axis deer, in my view the most beautiful deer in the world. Certainly that axis buck was a beautiful deer, white spots on golden body, white throat patch and the way he was laying we could see that gorgeous and distinctive dark stripe along his spine. He carried a perfect three-point rack, nice barrel shape, good brow tines and caudal points, and reasonable main beams.
Had I been the hunter the decision would have been easy. He was a beautiful buck, but he wasn’t a monster, and I knew there were better. I wasn’t the hunter, so things were more…complicated. I was on stand with my 16-year-old-daughter, Caroline. We were on Tim Fallon’s FTW Ranch, and this was the third day we’d looked for a big axis buck. They had been long days.
May and June are ideal months to hunt axis deer. This is the primary rut for these tropical deer, so most of the bucks are in hard antler. On the other hand, it’s hot, with most of the daylight deer movement at dawn and dusk, when it’s cooler. Read: Early mornings and late evenings. Ideally (and most sensibly) you can catch up on your sleep during the heat of the day…but FTW also hosts the SAAM (Sportsmen’s All-Weather, All-Terrain Marksmanship) shooting courses, and we had a dual purpose. I wanted Caroline to get some of that great SAAM instruction and gain some confidence on their steel-target field ranges just as much as I wanted her to get a nice axis deer. So we’d had a couple of very long days. I was tired, and I know she was tired!
There was at least one more factor. This wasn’t Caroline’s first animal, and she’s a Safari Club member…but, if successful, this would be her first deer. This extremely arrogant—or foolish—buck was the best buck we’d seen so far. Having no point of comparison, she wanted to shoot him. This was because he was beautiful, but he was also right there…and he wasn’t just her ticket out of a hot blind; one well-placed shot and there would be no 3:30 a.m. alarm clock!
I understood all this. I also wanted out of that blind, and I was already dreading the alarm clock. So my mind had its sympathetic side, but I was mostly caught between thinking like a father and thinking like a hunter. For the former, she’d already worked pretty hard both on the ranges and in the field, not just without complaint but also with genuine enthusiasm. She was paying attention to the instructors and shooting very well, and the last thing I wanted to do was overdo it. Also, pragmatically, was any purpose served by having her first deer be the biggest deer on the ranch? But then my hunter’s mind kicked in: I knew there were bigger deer around. Unknown was if we’d see one or not, much less in such an optimum situation: Perfect light, short distance, good rest, and the buck totally oblivious. On the other hand, we had quite a bit more time if we needed it, so we weren’t in a rush and the odds were pretty good.
Fortunately the deer settled the issue when he lay down. I’m not generally opposed to taking a shot at a bedded animal, but the angle needs to be right and this was not. So I stayed non-committal, describing the buck to her as accurately as I could—there was nothing wrong with him; he just wasn’t huge. I knew it would be nerve-wracking for her to have to sit there and watch him, so I tried not to give any indication that we might shoot him. Bottom line: He was there; we’d keep an eye on him and see what happened.
The axis deer is a member of the cervidae group of round-antlered deer and, like many Asian deer (hog deer, sambar, rusa) has a typical three-point rack. There is just one species, Axis axis, and no subspecies or races have been generally accepted. He is native to the grasslands and scrub forests of the Indian subcontinent, including Sri Lanka, southeastern Pakistan, and southern Nepal. Although widely hunted in India in years gone by, for some years the axis deer has been unavailable on native range. Only just now, thanks to reintroductions along the Indus River, have a very few native-range axis deer become available in Pakistan. There is also potential for reopening in the terai forests of southern Nepal. As usual, if you want to do some fast research, our SCI Record Book is one of the best tools. It tells us that chital, the preferred name in Asia, comes from the Hindi word for spots; and that the name “axis” descends all the way from Roman scholar Pliny the Elder!
Although it’s a subjective judgment, I genuinely believe the axis deer to be the most beautiful deer in the world. I’d love to hunt one in his native range someday, but fortunately the axis deer has been introduced into numerous areas, so there’s a lot of opportunity elsewhere. I’ve hunted them in Argentina, where they occupy a wide range both free-roaming and estate, and I’ve hunted them in the South Pacific, where they’re pretty much restricted to one free-range population in Queensland. Europe holds isolated populations, with hunting possible in Croatia. North America holds several herds from Florida to Hawaii, but Texas probably holds the largest population of axis deer in the world. Axis deer have spread dramatically since the first introduction in 1932; they are probably the most common and widespread “exotic” on Texas ranches, and have established free-range populations in more than 30 counties.
Right then neither Caroline nor I cared about the thousands of other axis deer in Texas. Her concern was the one lying contentedly 120 yards from her rifle’s muzzle. Mine was other axis deer that might be nearby! A handful of fallow deer stepped out nearby and, as the afternoon progressed, we glassed a couple more axis bucks across the valley at the edge of a heavy brush line. Fortunately, they were small and, as I studied the ground, I started to rethink my position. That far brush line was the most likely place…but its nearest it was 300 yards away. I thought Caroline could probably handle that, but it was pushing her, and pushing the little Ruger 6.5mm Creedmoor she was carrying. Hmmm.
The afternoon waned and, an hour before sunset, the air was blessedly and noticeably starting to cool. I have no idea where they came from, but one, two, finally five axis bucks stepped into the small meadow where our buddy was bedded. Two were pretty good bucks, and now with a sea of antlers to compare I no longer had a leg to stand on. The buck we’d been watching was clearly the biggest, and I accepted that it was time to do business.
He got up and mixed with the group, and I had the panicky thought that I’d messed up by waiting too long. But with no females nearby they were more interested in feeding than fighting and they remained calm. We executed the drill we’d practiced: Caroline got the rifle out the window slowly and silently, and we got her elbow stabilized. She had no trouble picking “her” buck from the newcomers, and indeed she was probably steadier than her Dad. For long seconds he fed straight away. Then we got a broadside presentation with another buck right behind, and another with a buck walking in front. And then, almost three hours after we’d first seen him, he stood clear. She shot him perfectly just behind the shoulder with a little 140-grain Hornady bullet and he made about four steps and fell over. You don’t have to agree with my assessment of the axis deer but, after all, isn’t anyone’s first deer the “most beautiful deer in the world?”