Hunting with a kid can be a challenge, given competing school schedules, worrying mothers and short attention spans. But the opportunity to spend time together on an adventure can’t be beat.
My son, Nick, is 11 years old and an accomplished hunter for his age. He has taken numerous trophy species throughout that United States and has developed skills that, combined with the energy and hand-eye coordination of youth, would be the envy of most adults, including myself.
For my part, the joy of seeing Nick afield is far more valuable than my personal experiences in stalking and killing game. Our experiences in the outdoors as father and son mean more to me than anything–certainly more than any trophy. But the trophies are cool, too.
I regularly look for opportunities to take Nick and his brother hunting on trips that allow us to see and experience new places together. The key ingredients for a great trip with a kid include some place where the weather isn’t too bad, the game is plentiful (just seeing lots of animals is important to a kid), the likelihood of “success” is high, and, if possible, there are options for a kid who has finished hunting or needs a break. In addition, it can’t be too hard to get to, and the season must fall over a period of time when school is out.
Alternatively, I find seasons that fall over scheduled three- or four-day weekends. Sometimes I can convince Mom to spring one of the boys from school for an extra day, but two days out of school is generally out of the question.
The aptly named Hunter Ross is the young proprietor of Desert Safaris, based out of San Antonio, Texas. His hunting areas range from Kansas (for whitetail) to the Alpine, Texas, area (for antelope, aoudad and mule deer) and Mexico (mule deer). A new father himself, Hunter has an appreciation for parents hunting with their kids.
Hunter recently acquired the lease on the Leoncita Ranch in far Western Texas that covers parts of Brewster, Jeff Davis and Pecos counties. The ranch encompasses more than 104,000 contiguous acres of prime deer habitat in the Trans-Pecos region consisting of mesquite, catclaw, greasewood and cholla cacti flats, gently rolling hills with deep draws, and an extreme diversity of high mountain country covered with cedar, oak and juniper trees.
Elevations vary from 4,000 feet in the low country and gradually increase to 6,500 feet in the Davis Mountains high country. Water is plentiful, and Hunter has established more than 40 feeding locations on the ranch. He feeds 365 days a year and adjusts the feed mix according to the season.
The Leoncita qualifies for the Texas MLDP (Managed Land Deer Permit) program that lengthens the season from the standard 16 days to 58 consecutive days because of Hunter’s increased management practices.
Nick and I flew to Midland, Texas, from Chicago, and then rented a car and drove two hours to the Leoncita where we were warmly welcomed by Hunter and his staff. We met the other guys in camp, all of whom were very good to Nick and welcomed him as just another guy despite being the shortest man present.
The 2,800 square-foot lodge has four bedrooms and three baths, satellite TV, a full kitchen, and spacious outdoor porch with breathtaking views of the Barilla and Davis Mountains. Nick and I had a room to ourselves with our own bathroom. The food was great, and Nick still talks about how the cook went out in the yard with a shotgun and killed a mess of quail for the table.
We hunted with Josh, a friendly young man who immediately bonded with Nick, playfully teased him about his long hair, and basically treated him like a little brother. Originally from North Carolina, Josh had experience working as a fishing guide in Florida. Hunter found him guiding mule deer hunters for an outfit in Alberta, and had little trouble luring Josh to the warmer climate of Texas.
Hunter’s method of hunting is spot and stalk. We used a Polaris Ranger, an ATV perfect for quietly maneuvering through the sagebrush and small hills that dot the Leoncita. An ATV allows greater mobility than simply being afoot, but is not nearly as noisy as a truck, and can get into more territory than a pickup. When you’re hunting with a kid, a side-by-side ATV equipped with a high rack is about the best thing going. The kid gets to see a lot of country without walking all day. When it’s time to walk, you just stop and walk.
Several years ago, Nick and I hunted antelope with Desert Safaris using a Kawasaki Mule. I took a terrific 15-inch-plus antelope on that trip, but Nick’s antelope was a real stunner–almost 17 inches — and easily his “best” trophy, if you judge trophies by their score.
This deer hunt involved a lot of glassing, occasional walking and hiking, and, on occasion, calling. We spent a lot of time sitting in high spots, scanning the desert for antlers, and Nick did a great job, looking with us.
Nick killed his first deer on our second day. We got up at 5:45 and, after a hot breakfast of pancakes and eggs, set out before dawn. It was about 30 degrees and Nick and I were bundled up with hats and gloves. Being a desert environment, temperatures can fluctuate significantly. It can be 20 degrees in the morning when you get up and 80 degrees in the afternoon. That morning, we had to brush the frost off our seats on the Ranger.
Shortly after sunrise we spotted group of four bucks–all of them eight-points. The three of us agreed that they were not shooters for the second day of a five-day hunt.
Thirty minutes later we stopped to check a feeder to find not a deer was in sight. I said to Josh: “They’re probably lying down not 100 yards from here, watching us.” As if on cue, four bucks stood up about 100 yards from where we were. They appeared to be two-year-olds to us, so Josh decided to drive up on them just to see how close we could get.
We were inside 50 yards before they busted and took off. Immediately two more bucks that had remained bedded in the sagebrush jumped and ran off with the first group. One of those two had long tines, good mass, and was definitely a nine-point buck–possibly a ten.
A discussion of trophy quality with Josh then ensued. I told him that we were after a reasonably good buck for this ranch and that while we are trophy hunters, we do not hunt exclusively for score, and value the experience much more than how the animal measures.
Josh said, “I don’t get excited about deer, it doesn’t help my hunters, but that was a nice deer.” I have hunted with enough guides in enough places to know that when a guide says and animal is “nice” that means you should shoot it. We agreed that if possible, we would find and take that deer.
We hunted in the general direction the deer had run. The brush was thick enough that a deer could lie down and flat out disappear and, after 10 minutes of cutting patterns through the brush, we started heading back to the road. As always, just when you think it’s over, the game turns. This time, the smaller of the two bucks we had been pursuing busted. We knew his buddy was the bigger of the two, suspected he was nearby, and stopped the Ranger to begin intently combing the brush with our binoculars.
“Don’t move, he’s right there,” Josh hissed at us. Sure enough, there he was, not 15 yards from us, lying in a bush. Staying absolutely still had been a successful defense mechanism for this deer its entire life. Without making it obvious that we’d spotted him, Nick got his Dakota rifle up and ready. Nick started hunting with a Remington youth rifle chambered in .243 Winchester. Since then, he’s moved up to a Dakota Youth Rifle in .308 Winchester–a really slick rifle for youngsters. It’s 7/8 scale in all of its dimensions except for the action, and Dakota even offers to let a kid “trade it in” when he or she is ready for a full-size rifle. Nick generally shoots a 165-grain Swift Scirocco II.
Josh and I made all kinds of noises at the buck to get him to stand. We agreed he would bust as soon as he stood, and hoped we would see where he went and perhaps get back on him. There was also a chance that he’d act like an antelope and run off a bit and then stop and look at us. Regardless, we weren’t really counting on shooting him where he was. We told Nick not to shoot if he ran, and Josh threw a rock. Then another. And then some grunting, coughing and several shouts of “Hey!” Eventually the buck stood somewhat quartering away.
Surprisingly, he didn’t run—just stood there for a moment. Nick shot and the buck went straight down without taking a single step.
One thing I really like in a guide or professional hunter is an appreciation for photography. Over the years, my two favorite guides/professional hunters have both been photography buffs and the pictures from hunts with them are superior to those of other hunts. Hunter Ross is someone who understands and appreciates that a very important part of the hunt are the pictures that hunters take home to show their family and friends. We not only took photos where the deer fell, but back at the lodge, too, both that day and the following day.
If that’s all there was to this trip, it would have been a great trip. Nick and I both took really nice deer at a great place with terrific people, but that wasn’t all. One day Hunter let Nick pursue and shoot a javelina and another day Hunter let Nick shoot a doe.
Each day we were there, Josh found time to take Nick fishing at a ranch pond that was full of largemouth bass and carp. Nick would easily catch 20 or more largemouth in that pond, all while watching (and listening) for turkeys in a nearby grove of trees. One day while leaving the pond, a coyote crossed the road ahead of us. Nick got his rifle up and ready, but we didn’t see the coyote again.
Hunting with children presents numerous challenges, including safely handling firearms, hunting seasons that coincide with school schedules, traveling in places where the best game is found, and helping children develop the mature character trait of patience.
Patience being a key virtue of the successful hunter, it is unfortunately sorely lacking in most kids. Finding a place to hunt that offers lots of game and things to do other than just hunting will make a kid’s experience one they will never forget.
You want an authentic hunting experience that will not be canned or fake, but also that will not be too boring. Taking a child on a 10-day wilderness hunt in difficult weather and where few animals are seen is not the way to imbue a child with a love for the avocation. Mule deer in West Texas with Desert Safaris is definitely a trip with the right mix.– Thomas J. Cunningham