Shin Oak Bucks!

“You have got to be kidding me!” spoke he from Pennsylvania, “No self-respecting whitetail would ever live in that knee-high oak brush. There’s not a single real tree in sight. And this blasted sand I don’t think a whitetail has hooves big enough to keep it from sinking up to their thighs in this…this, this sugary blow sand!” 

 “Sounds pretty sure of himself!” half-laughed Craig Archer, hunt manager for the Hargrove Ranch. “Guess we’re going to have to prove him wrong.” 

 “Yeah…either that or send him back to PA, never knowing any better!” I chimed in from Craig’s back seat. “Could have him leaving here thinking there is no game or wildlife of any sort living in this mini-forest desert!” 

 Just then a nice eight-point buck exploded from cover that looked barely sufficient to hide a cottontail. I leaned forward to see the Northerner’s reaction. He will never admit it, but I would have bet he thought the buck erupted from the sand, rather than hiding in the shin oak cover. 

 As the afternoon progressed, we showed our “northern neighbor” several more whitetails; does, fawns and bigger antlered bucks than he had ever before seen. The more deer, wild hogs, quail, doves and coyotes we saw that afternoon, the quieter the skeptic had become.  

 Heading back to camp we spotted numerous desert mule deer, again to his total surprise. He did not know both whitetails and mule deer share the unique short brush, forb growth habitat of the southern Texas Panhandle. Close to camp we spotted what Craig referred to as “the house covey”, twenty plus mule deer feeding in the camp’s front yard. 

 “Got any questions?” queried Craig. Nary a response came, but I noticed the previous doubter was now simply shaking his head as if not believing what he had seen. Before we walked to the campfire, he sheepishly asked, “May I please be allowed to come back to hunt in November or December?” 

 Craig smiled then chided, “I thought you said this shin-high oak on sand, you suspected, nay, knew, held nothing more than jackrabbits, coyotes and rattlesnakes….” Followed by, “Better pour yourself some safe water then grab your calendar so we can set a date.” Then it was the previous doubter’s time to smile! 

 The previous hunting season I had chased whitetails with Craig on their spacious Hargrove Ranch (www.hargrovehunts.com) which spreads over miles of loose sand, barely stabilized sand dunes, covered with shin-high oak bordering the absolutely gorgeous red clay and sandstone rough country breaks of the Double Mountains of the Brazos River. To the untrained eye, or someone who thinks whitetails should only live in and on the edges of tall tree forests, the lower Texas Panhandle is an unproductive wasteland. To those who have been there and are in the know, this unique land is a haven for a wide variety of wild species both large and small. 

Craig had called and asked me to be on the ranch when the potential hunter wanted to see what the country looked like before committing to pay for a guided hunt. Me? I could hardly wait to return in November. 

 The previous hunting season Craig and I had rattled in several very nice bucks. I passed on taking one of them, holding out for a massive, ancient 8-point we had seen during the waning moments my first day in camp. The last afternoon, just enough remaining camera light, for an episode of “DSC’s Trailing the Hunter’s Moon”, we found him. Thankfully I made a good shot.  

 That hunt and the one I’m about to describe can be seen on the Trailing the Hunter’s Moon YouTube channel, in case you are interested. 

 I was back on the ranch for my 2019 hunt. This time with a .300 PRC, Ruger No. 1. It was topped with a Trijicon AccuPoint variable and sighted-in for Hornady’s 212-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter. I had shot this combination numerous times at the bench on my little place and knew it to be superbly accurate, drilling a three-shot group into one hole. 

 “Tomorrow morning, we want you to hunt a box blind, overlooking the middle food plot. The same one where last year you saw several good bucks. We’ve been seeing one buck in particular I’d like for you to target. He’s an eight-point, long brows with main beams that are kind of wavy. He’s an older buck that has not really changed in antler style or size during the past two years. Think it’s time for him to go. He’s fairly wide, too, a really good-looking buck. If you take him, we’ll look for another larger antlered buck,” said Craig as we polished off a meal which was too good for words to describe. 

 Next morning way before first light, Justin Wegner, our cameraman and I crawled into a large spacious enclosed deer blind. We set up for the morning, then took a short nap, woke up fifteen minutes before legal shooting light and a good 40 minutes before sufficient camera light. 

 The first critter to cross the food plot, while coyotes yapped in the distance, was a sizeable wild hog. He appeared to be a boar with large upper and lower tusks. Had I not been hunting deer I would have shot him. As the ashen dawn turned to a lighter shade of gray we spotted does and fawns feeding in the food plot. A few minutes later, just before “usable” camera light, two young bucks walked across the food plot and disappeared over a sandy ridge. More does and fawns appeared, as did two more wild hogs.  

 I centered the Trijicon’s reticle on the hogs, double checked the No. 1 was on safe, then squeezed the trigger. Of course, I did not shoot, but practiced pulling the trigger just the same. 

Clouds rolled in. The temperature dropped. Winter was on its way. 

 The hogs drifted away, two more young bucks came by, checked and freshened scrapes before leaving. I spotted movement a long way away. Binos revealed a buck with a sizeable body. I could see his hocks. They were darkly stained, indicative of a mature buck. I trained the 10x binocular on the buck’s head. I could see long brows, widespread beams that appeared to be “wavy”, and eight total points. “Our buck,” I said, gesturing toward the deer coming our way. Rifle and scope replaced binos. I cranked the magnification from 3 to 10x, found the buck in my scope and started tracking him to the edge of the food plot. I glanced at Justin; he was tracking him with his camera as well. The buck strode into the field where he stopped to feed.  

 “On him…shoot when you want to,” whispered Justin. I moved the No. 1’s tang safety to the fire position, took a couple deep breaths, then settled the crosshair on the buck’s shoulder. I took another deep breath, let it all out and started squeezing the trigger. At the shot the buck dropped in his tracks. Even so, I quickly reloaded and kept the crosshair on the downed buck in case there was any sign of him rising. He did not. 

 Standing aside the buck, lay a handsome, uniquely antlered eight-point, large of body to provide many meals for my family and me, the one Craig had suggested I take should the opportunity be presented. After finishing things for the TV show, we photographed my buck, then crawled back into the deer stand to await the arrival of Craig and his brother David. We had scarcely settled in, when the two drove up. “Heard the shot! Where is he?” queried Craig. I pointed across the plot. A big smile came on Craig’s face, and, I suspect I smiled as well. 

 After more photos and congratulations, we loaded my buck and headed back to camp.  

 We spent the afternoon exploring the Double Mountain Fork’s breaks where we saw three really nice mule deer bucks. We also rattled in a whitetail, but only saw bits and pieces of him. What I did see suggested he was a B&C contender. Unfortunately, thick brush prevented a clear shot. 

 That night Craig suggested that Justin and I sit in a ground blind the next morning where he hoped we would see several mule deer bucks, but also in an area where he had seen an exceptional typical 10-point.  

 From first light until Craig came to pick us up near noon, we were surrounded by mule deer, including one I’m going to hunt for this coming 2020 season, a really nice typical 10 with long back tines, deep forks, and equally long front tines. Unfortunately, we did not see the whitetail… 

 That afternoon we drove around looking where we might want to hunt the following morning as well as to rattle. The only buck that responded to efforts was a yearling forkhorn. At least I rattled in one buck. 

 Next morning before breakfast Craig, David and I gathered around our morning fire. “Remember last year where we saw the buck that looked like he might go book. The one on the northerly edge of the property. He walked out of the ranch before we could get close enough for a shot” said Craig. I definitely did remember that buck, likely a 26-inch wide, extremely tall tined typical 10…. 

 Continued Craig, “How about I drop y’all off at the blind there next to the food plot. Think it might be worth a try. David and I will do some scouting while you’re hunting to find a place for this afternoon if you don’t shoot this morning.”  Sounded like a winning plan to me. 

 We were still twenty minutes from camera light when we saw our first deer: three up-and-comer bucks; one a really nice ten point, the other two eight-pointers. Next a big wild hog boar strode by. Light continued to get better for the camera. 

 I had just looked at a distant deer, which I could see through my binos was a doe, when I caught movement behind a screening of brush to my immediate right.  I turned to see what it might be. Out stepped a dark-hocked buck with four long, dark colored tines on one side and five on the other. His rut-swelled neck accentuated his impressive antlers. I turned toward Justin to point out the buck, but he was already filming him. 

 I raised the .300 PRC and pointed it in the direction of the buck then started tracking him through the scope. My setting at 5x was perfect. The buck was less than forty paces away. I waited. The buck walked right to left. I heard Justin whisper, “I’m on him, shoot when you’re ready.”  I pushed the safety to fire, took a deep breath, let it all out and started my trigger squeeze. At the shot this buck, like the previous one dropped in his tracks. I quickly replaced the spent case with one fully charged, then watched intently for movement. When after a full minute of watching and not seeing so much as a twitch, I turned and accepted Justin’s congratulatory hand. 

 At the deer’s side I said a prayer of thanks then admired the buck’s antlers and body and took numerous photos. As we were finishing our photography session Craig and David drove in. I excitedly told them my story, several times. After I suspect they could repeat my story word for word, we loaded my buck and headed toward camp. 

 In route, Craig and I reached an agreement which will have me hunting the Hargrove again in early December 2020. I will hunt whitetails but also for the best mule deer we can find during the week I will be on the ranch, this time filming our hunt for “Trijicon’s World of Sports Afield”. If I did not tell you I was overly excited and can hardly wait, I would be telling the whopper lie of the year! 

 

 

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