A little more than an hour of daylight remained and the hunting clock was running out. For the past three days, we had worked our way along an endless series of dirt tracks that cut through a vast tangle of mesquite in search of nilgai antelope bulls. While there were plenty of nilgai, getting close to what had proven to be an extremely wary animal was difficult to say the least.
Throughout the ranch, winter rains had filled shallow depressions with water and the apron of green grass that grew on the circumference of these ponds attracted a wide variety of game ¾ including nilgai. “There’s a pond just ahead and off to the left. We’ll have to stalk a couple of hundred yards through the brush to check it out, but it’s a good bet one or more bulls will be there,” hunting companion Tom Snyder said.
Carefully approaching the water source, we could just barely see the outline of a bull through the mesquite. With the wind in our favor and heavy brush to screen our approach, we hoped that the animal wouldn’t be alerted to our presence. Moving through the heavy cover is a lot easier said, than done. Cactus thorns and mesquite needles snagged clothing and tore at our flesh, making passage extremely difficult and painful Despite the many obstacles, however, we were finally able to get into position for a shot. No doubt, this was my last opportunity to turn failure into success.
Earlier in the week, along with several other outdoor writers, I traveled to south Texas at the invitation of McMillan Rifles, Barnes ammunition, and DiamondBlade Knives to participate in a nilgai hunt on the El Sauz Ranch. Located just east of Raymondville, Texas, the property was originally the southernmost division of the famed King Ranch. Our party was ensconced at the Nopales Lodge, which was once a U. S. Navy missile tracking station. After acquiring the location from the Navy, it was remodeled and now has a commercial kitchen/large dinning room, several small air-conditioned private rooms, a swimming pool, covered parking bays, dog run, and game processing facility with a walk-in cooler.
We were hunting nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) or “blue bulls” as they are known. They are of the bovine family. Native to central and northern India, eastern Pakistan and southern Nepal, the animals were originally brought to the United States in the 1920s. Subsequently, the owner of the famed King Ranch purchased a breeding group of nilgai from the San Diego Zoo and released them on his ranch in the early 1930s. From that seminal population, blue bulls have thoroughly saturated the southern half of Texas.
Closely related to the spiral-horned antelope of Africa, nilgai are large animals, with the males weighing more than 500 pounds and females tipping the scales up to 275 pounds. Standing nearly four to five feet high at the shoulder, nilgai have a sloping back, longish neck, horse-like head, short (8” to 11”), black conical horns, dark gray-blue coloration (females are yellow-brown), and the bulls have a thick sub-dermal shield covering their neck and chest that provides protection from horn thrusts during the breeding cycle (November-February). Nilgai are well adapted to their environment and the wide variety of food sources and heavy mesquite brush found in southern Texas has allowed them to become the most widespread and abundant exotic game animal in the state.
After we got settled in at the ranch, the next order of business was a little range work with an assortment of McMillan rifles. One of the event sponsors, Kelly McMillan, brought along nearly every bolt-action rifle in his Custom Collection of hunting rifles.
The rifle I selected for the hunt was the Outdoorsman, McMillan’s ultra-high velocity, long-range rifle. My choice of caliber was.300 Remington Ultra Magnum (the rifle is also available in 7mm Remington Magnum or .30-378 Weatherby). Topped with an excellent Nightforce variable scope, at 100-yards the rifle printed three shots in less than one inch.
The following day found us in groups, each hunting a different portion of a nearby piece of leased property. Since there was an obvious abundance of nilgai, it was an easy matter to apportion shooting opportunities between the writers. Having others shoot first gave me the opportunity to see how the animals reacted to a bullet strike. And after seeing two bulls shot through-and-through with heavy-for-caliber Barnes Tipped TSX-BT bullets, it was plainly evident that nilgai are beyond tough. Both bulls were shot right through the heart and knocked off of their feet, but still managed to get up and cover a considerable distance before a second shot put an end to their flight.
Even though we had located a good bull, getting into position for a shot proved difficult. Finally, I was able to find an opening in the heavy cover. Resting the rifle on a low mesquite branch, the scope crosshairs settled in low on the bull’s front shoulder. When everything came together, I applied steady pressure on the trigger until the sear released the firing pin. When the bullet made contact, the bull rose up on his hind legs and fell over backward. In an instant, however, the animal regained its feet. Quickly cycling the bolt, I sent another bullet on its way and, as suddenly as it had begun, my hunt was over.
Field care provided an opportunity to test the new McMillan fixed-blade knife designed by Kelly McMillan and Charles Allen of DiamondBlade. Even though we had previously field-dressed four other bulls with the same knife, it was still shaving sharp. Not only was the knife employed to perform basic field dressing; it was also used to sever the cartilage that connected the ribs to the breastbone. That’s a lot of edge destroying work for any blade, but the McMillan knife came through the work with sharpness to spare.
For me, the pursuit of nilgai in south Texas was reminiscent of hunting plains game in Africa. Substitute mopane brush for mesquite and the red African soil for the off-white Texas sand and you’re there. Best of all, this can be found right here at home without a passport, expensive airfare, costly daily rates, or trophy fees.– Durwood Hollis