Opening Weekend

 A new season, a new adventure          

For a few years now, the first hunt of my season has been, much like many western hunters, antelope. In my heart, I am a bowhunter, but for the past few years I have been finding less and less time to sit with a bow and opting for a rifle to fill the freezer. This past 2016 season I accomplished this extremely early. An opening day pronghorn and a couple of early MLD permit whitetails in south Texas and it looked like my 2016 season was over before it began. (MLD stands for Managed Land Deer Permits, a program run by state biologists allowing harvest quotas and managed practices to be agreed upon depending on the health of the wildlife and shared interests of Texas Parks and Wildlife and the land owners. In my case, on a ranch I have been blessed to hunt as a guest on occasion, general season opens a month earlier and runs about a month longer than non MLD managed lands.)  Just two weeks into Texas’ archery season and I had three animals on ice with a rifle. Never had I experienced this windfall of success, much less so early in the year.  The fear of having an empty freezer was quieted and I could relax. All was good and right and I had an entire season to just bowhunt. Something I had not truly focused on in years.

                As opening weekend of general season approached, a holiday only rivaled by Christmas in my mind, I made plans to hunt my family’s land in the hill country.  Unlike other years, it would only be my wife, Meghan, and I along with our daughter, Stella, at the ranch for the opener. The land sits in Real County. I like to think of it where the Hill Country meets West Texas. It’s rough, it’s steep, it’s remote, and it’s glorious. While we run multiple watering holes and supplemental feed year round, we are totally free range. By the serendipitous actions of others decades ago, in addition to the native whitetails, rio grande turkeys, and the ever spreading feral pig, we also have free ranging populations of aoudad, fallow, sika, axis, the occasional band of mouflon sheep,  as well as elk and red deer. The mouflon, elk, and red deer are a gift when they move through. You can never expect them but they will move through from time to time. Aoudad and fallow rival the whitetail in numbers with the sika close behind. The axis on the other hand have been on the decline for years. A severe drought decimated their numbers a handful of years ago followed by a severe winter and dry spring and they just haven’t recovered. They once outnumbered most of the other species but are hardly seen now. While our hunting more or less revolves around the Whitetail season, hunting these exotics can be done year round.

Ranch House

Surprise Buck

 quiet afternoons and big antlers            

We arrived at the ranch around noon the day before opening morning.  After unpacking and settling in, I decided to hunt the closest stand to the house, a spot we call Randy’s. Most of our stands are named something descriptive of its traits or location; The Burn, Turkey Draw, Northeast Corner, etc. The others are named after the person who more or less established and hunted the area originally and most regularly. Randy is my uncle, he is by no incarnation of the term a morning person,  and while this area was named Randy’s well before I  was old enough to remember, I’d like to think it is because it’s the closest to the house and the most logical spot for a hunter who struggles in the a.m.… I chose this spot because it was getting late in the afternoon and did not want to disturb the rest of the property until opening morning. I carried a rifle and sat in the box blind knowing that my popup bow blind would be infested with a summers worth of spiders and crickets. My plan was to sit and see what moved through and enjoy the evening. My hunting would begin in the morning and the rifle was for only for pigs.

                The afternoon was warm and quiet. As the season wanes on, the common weather is blustery, but that day it was still and quiet. Every acorn dropping and rock sliding was audible. It was the kind of afternoon that you did not expect anything.  There was no changing weather, no unusual moon phase, the rut was weeks away, and everything was still so green the deer had no discernable reason to move at all. I passed the time watching a particularly strange spider that had made its web on the windowsill of the blind wrap its prey in its silk. As I was focused on the spider I noticed a large white body walk out of the cedars directly in front of the blind. As soon as my focus shifted to the movement I knew I was looking at a monster of a fallow buck. He stood there for what seemed like fifteen minutes, just scanning his surroundings. I got a few minutes of video of him before he turned and left the same way he came. The second he was out of site I knew I had messed up by not taking him. He was undoubtedly the largest fallow I had seen in years and I just let him walk off without even lifting my rifle. The sun set slow and nothing else showed that evening. It was still quiet when I walked home, all I could think about was that buck and the morning hunt.

Opening Morning

cold mornings, sweaty afternoons, and no deer

Once I entered the door of the ranch house, the look on Meghan’s face told me she had seen the buck. The dry creek Randy’s stand looks over runs right in front of the house. Thirty minutes after I saw the fallow he came by the house. She couldn’t believe I had passed him up. I truthfully couldn’t either. If I were to hunt him, it had to be with a bow. I made plans to hunt another favorite spot in the morning in hopes of seeing some whitetails and return to Randy’s midday to access and clean the popup blind in hopes that his afternoon appearance is a regular pattern. I slept very lightly that evening, like a child on Christmas Eve; I couldn’t sleep out of anticipation.

                It got cold overnight, cold for the hill country in November. I hunted a stand towards the rear of our property called Tom’s. Not after tom turkeys though, a man named Tom. Despite never killing a whitetail there it always was an area where they seemed to hang around. This morning did not disappoint. At first light there were a pair of does with some fawns feeding around and a beautiful young eight point close behind. He was still more intent on eating than running does, but it wasn’t long before his demeanor changed.  The cold snap must have riled up some of the other bucks, as the eight point’s body stiffened another doe bolted from the brush line. Close behind her was a freak buck, nose to the ground, one normal four point side and one gnarly club like beam shooting straight for the sky. He was running her ragged, tried to pick a fight with the eight, and as quickly as he came, he was gone. Just like that all the deer dispersed and the freak buck chased them to who knows where. The sun rose fast, warming the morning dew into a fog, and as the song birds greeted the day, it was time for breakfast and my hunt ended.

                That afternoon I returned to Randy’s and sat in the popup blind. The morning’s cooler temperatures did not stick around and it was hot and breezeless in the blind. For our area of Texas, popup blinds have revolutionized bowhunting. There’s not a tree tall enough or straight enough west of San Antonio for a tree stand. A tripod is just as questionable due to the fact that if there is one high enough to be out of sightline of a deer, you run out of tree top for concealment. It’s difficult to build a permanent bow blind due to the dynamic changes in deer trails and patterns year to year. So until pop up blinds came along in many parts of Texas it meant makeshift brush blinds. They work, and I hunted many years from brushed in ground blinds, but popups truly were a game changer in this regard. Instantaneous cover, shoot through windows, total concealment, genius. However, without a breeze or cool temperatures they are an absolute oven.  I sat there sweating for hours and as the afternoon faded into evening I was almost out of clothing to remove when I decided to call it a day.  The deer were not moving and light was fading fast. I would rather leave a little early and not spook anything out of the area than wait till absolute dark and push deer I never knew were there.  Halfway home I spotted an unfamiliar shape on a hill across the creek from the house. It was him; he was lying under an oak, tucked in for the night overlooking all that was his. I continued home for a wonderful dinner with Meg and Stella, anxious for the morning, and excited just to see the brute of a fallow again.

cactus heart

What dreams are made of

 bows, arrows, turkeys, rams             

  I woke to a soupy mix of mist and cooler winds. The trees sang in the breeze and humidity made everything feel as if it was in a cold sweat. I returned to the popup early. An arrow nocked, the GoPro on standby, release in hand.  The cool breeze and whispering trees filled the darkness and I crept back to sleep.  

                I startled awake to the high pitch crack and ping of tumbling rocks. Something had crossed the dry creek and was now eating a few yards in front of me. I could not see anything. The dawn was delayed by the overcast skies. A few times I could hear the thing chewing. It was so close. All I could do was wait and hope. The light came slow, eventually revealing an aoudad. After some more time it became a ram. And after even more time it was light enough for me to realize it was a very, very large ram. However, I was resolute, I chose this blind for the fallow. I was here for the fallow. I told myself "I was not here for aoudad", besides, it would be another fifteen minutes before I’d be able to see through my peep sight and ethically take a shot.

                The light kept growing, and so did the ram. Slowly as the night turned to day I realized the ram feeding by me was a true giant. No sane bowhunter would pass this Aoudad, never mind the fact that this is a true free range sheep. And just like that he was gone. As soon as shooting light came and I realized what I really had, he was gone. He didn’t spook. He didn’t run. He just left. Gone. I came here for a fallow and now I’m crushed over an aoudad.

                As soon as he had left me to marinade in my sadness, he came back. For whatever reason he came back. I went on autopilot. The camera came on, the bow was raised. I drew and waited for him to take one more step forward, exposing his vitals. I aimed and released. The arrow hit perfectly behind the shoulder buried with just the fletching exposed. He ran the same trail he had come in on and I listened. I heard rocks tumbling and crashing and a thud. A distinctly loud thud. Like dropping a melon into a pool thud. Did he drop that quickly? Did that just happen? I could not see where he was down, or even if he was down. The moments after a shot, for me, are usually mentally chaotic. The questions and replays bounced and mingled in my head as I sat waiting.

                The wait after a shot has always been hard for me. I have improved with age but on this occasion it was especially hard. Normally I will set a timer for thirty minutes, and depending on the situation, either leave at that time to come back later, or go and check for signs of blood. Fortunately for me this time, as soon as the woods were quite twenty or more turkey hens moved through. I gladly watched and filmed the turkeys, welcoming the needed distraction from the stressful post shot wait. Then the rain came. I panicked. Not knowing how long or hard the rain would be I rushed from the blind in fear of any sign of blood being washed away. Turkeys exploded everywhere not knowing what just materialized from the blind in front of them. I rushed to the place of impact and followed the trail a few yards. Perfectly colored blood stained a nearby rock. A few feet away, another stripe painted on the grass.  I looked up, glancing in the direction he ran across the creek and there he was. He hadn’t run more than fifty yards.

success

                With every kill, especially with a bow, there is a range of emotions and feelings that come over me. Thankfulness and elation are first, followed by reverence and sadness, complete and overwhelming excitement along with remorse and grief. I admit that sounds strange, even to me. But it is true. I love the animals I hunt, more than most would even understand.  I held his horns, feeling their rings and cracks. I stroked his mane, feeling his scrapes and scars. His skull was cracked at the base of his horn; it was fresh and red with blood, perhaps an injury from their recent rut. He was warrior and had fought well I am sure.  As soon as I held him in my hands, as fulfilled as I was in that moment, I couldn’t help but feel the faint loss of a friend. I thanked him for his life, promising to honor and respect all he had given me. I sat there in silence with my old new friend. I prayed.

                I have been present for many aoudad hunts and kills. I myself in 2011 shot my first with a bow.  I have never seen an aoudad with a body as big as this one. It was closer to a red stag in size and weight than an average sheep or deer. I had to use a winch to just move him. I am not one who typically cares for score or measurements of animals, but ever so often with a hallmark animal I will put a tape to it. For our area, a 28” aoudad is a very nice sheep. They get much bigger farther west and up north in Palo Duro, but for whatever reason in our area 28” seems to be the make or break standard. Out of probably twenty or so rams over the years the largest we have taken, to my knowledge, was 29 7/8” on its long side with about 12” bases.  My sheep stretched the tape to just under 32” length and 13” bases.  Total score was just shy of 142” gross as he carried his mass well.

                While caping and quartering him, I found a bullet still lodged in his brisket and an old bullet wound in his hindquarter. The wound in his hindquarter was clearly the result of failed bullet performance. It was as if the bullet did not expand and cut a perfect hole through the fat and part of the muscle, cauterizing it closed as it passed through.  It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized it was likely a sheep I had tracked for a guest hunter a few seasons prior. I was not present for the hunt but was called to help track the ram after the shot with my blood dog, a Catahoula, named King. We found blood and took the trail farther than before the dog and I had arrived but we never found him. We had concluded that neither shot was not fatal and based on all evidence that it was a minor flesh wound. I now believe we were right.  When I arrived home, going through hundreds of pictures from our slew of game cameras I found a picture of my ram. As many game camera pictures I have collected over the last few years I have never killed an animal that we had captured on camera. I was glad to have found the picture as it makes a nice footnote to the story.

aoudad

                I am forever grateful to have taken an animal of this caliber with a bow on my family’s property. Despite its reputation, its meat is delicious. I will not lie, outside of the tenderloins and backstraps, it is tough. However, either in jerky, bbq, or braised varieties, all I have served it to have loved it. Many who have eaten it thought it was beef.  The one thing that I am frustrated by after taking this ram is learning that I am in fact kicked out of the <1 club (less than one club). I was working on a recent membership signup for Wild Sheep Foundations <1 club,a club for sheep hunters who have never taken a sheep, the members of which are entered into a drawing for not one, but four different wild sheep hunts.Despite being a non-native species, free range aoudad does in fact get you kicked out of the club. It’s a bittersweet victory though, as an aspiring sheep hunter with dreams of northern stones, flaring dalls, and heavy deserts, to have joined a fraternity of sorts before I even knew I qualified.

sunset
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