Over the years, I’ve done my fair share of guiding whitetail deer hunters. I will write to re-tell some of my funniest stories sometime. However, the purpose of this novel today is to hopefully impress upon anyone that is going on a guided hunt to listen to their guide.
I’m currently filling in as a guide when needed on a Hill Country property—game fenced probably 1,200 acres and the deer are WILD. True, some of the deer can be easily patterned and routinely appear at certain blinds/feeders, but when the rut is kicking in such as now (November 14th), all bets are off. Old bucks are restless and active.
This particular ranch has the majority of mature bucks in the 125-135 gross Boone and Crockett scoring system range. There are a few that creep up to the 140-150 range. Perhaps one or two will be as high as 160+.
A company has the ranch leased for employees and business clients. On select weekends, two to as many of eight hunters hit the property for a three-day hunt. All hunters have marching orders they can take a mature buck ranging from 120 to 160 B&C. These hunters all have a guide since the ranch policy is to NEVER turn the general public loose. When I greet the hunters at the camp house as they are unloading their gear, the common phrase uttered from the hunter is, “I’m here to take a 160 class buck!”
On my last hunt, I was guiding a man from southern Louisiana. The largest buck he has ever taken was an 8-pointer that was the size of you holding your hands in the form of antlers and your thumbs touching. When I told the guy those 160 class bucks are far and few between, it did not matter.
The very first hunt we had a wide 9-point show up. He really stood out for the width of his antlers. Like most wide antlered deer, the tine length was short so the deer would not score high. Our conversation went like this:
“Hey. Check out that guy approaching from the east. He’s wide.”
The hunter had binoculars glued to his head and was starting to breathe heavy. “Wow, that’s the widest buck I’ve ever seen!”
“All I can say is you will not see a wider deer on this ranch.”
“What will it score? “
“It will not score high because of short tines. Width is outstanding and beam length will be good but short tines will dampen the score. My guess is 120 or slightly higher. If I miss on a score it is usually on the low end.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
“I recommend shooting. Hunting conditions are horrible now. Full moon, hot and dusty, plus a record live oak acorn crop have most deer laid up all day. Movement is slow and the deer are not coming to corn well. Odds are stacked against you. Better look again.”
“I will hold out for something better.”
“You may regret it but we’ll keep after them and try our best.”
We hunted two more days and never saw a mature buck close to this one. Two other hunters went to that blind and the buck never showed up. My hunter went home empty handed when he could have had a 9 point buck with outside spread between 22-24”. Keep in mind the largest buck he has ever taken had about a 13” spread.
Oh boy. If ever I have opened a can of worms, this is it. I’m sure there will be readers nodding their heads in agreement, but also sure there will be some that will curse me and everything associated with me over this topic. I do know this has been the most often asked question I get at deer camps scattered across the state when the day is over, supper has been enjoyed, dishes washed and a night downer is in hand while everyone is staring at the coals of the dying camp fire. Here goes…………………
What you are about to read is my opinion. This is based on reading a lot of research material and having first-hand discussions with many of the people doing the actual research on deer genetics. I am also weighing in observations I have over 30 years of watching what has happened in real life situations in South and Central Texas. I think I can encapsulate this topic best by using facts.
Fact One: The Kerr Wildlife Management Area deer genetic research is the longest-running study with the most animals used anywhere in the world.
Fact Two: The Kerr study found antler genetics are hereditary. This basically means the size and often the shape of the father’s antlers impacts the size and shape of its offspring. There is no disputing this.
Fact Three: The Kerr study PLUS those done at Mississippi State University, in Arkansas, in Georgia and some in the wild of South TX where deer were captured by helicopter nets, released and recaptured in later years have all shown conclusively that a spike yearling, on AVERAGE, will never grow to the size his same-aged brothers will grow when his brothers have 4-5-6-7-8+ antler points. A spike starts out smaller and ends up smaller. All studies show this.
There were examples of a few INDIVIDUAL bucks that started as spikes that grew into nice trophies. These examples were plucked out of the pack. Remember when managing a wild herd of deer, you have to deal with averages.
So, if you wish to increase the average size of the deer on your ranch or in your wildlife management area, over a long period of time, it will help to get rid of the smallest yearling bucks you are growing, which are usually spikes. You cannot argue against this. Please re-read fact three.
I wish I could remember the name of the professor of genetics from Texas A&M University School of Vet. Medicine but I can’t. He showed me the attached graphs and these graphs hold true for any animal or plant.
All three graphs show the number of 1.5 year old bucks in my example herd on the vertical axis and the size of the yearlings measured by antler points of the horizontal axis. For this example, I show 10 spikes, about twenty-five 4-pointers and about five 7 and 8+ point yearlings.
In the second graph, I show with the angle cross hatches all spikes being killed out of the herd.
In the third graph, I show what the numbers look like with no spikes in the herd. If all spikes are removed, the AVERAGE SIZE INCREASES. This is a statistical fact. This graph could be used on the size of elephants, butterflies or corn stalks. It does not matter.
Over time and I mean a long, long time, if a manager systematically removed the smallest 10% of the bucks out of his/her deer herd, the average size would increase.
You have to use your heads folks. When the Kerr study first came out the spike harvest idea was abused in some instances. What would happen if you were hunting a deer herd that was overcrowded and half starved? Due to lack of food, 90% of the yearling bucks had spikes. If a person shot every spike he/she could find, in that instance the herd would be damaged. This would be a big mistake.
You need to know what you have. What happens when your herd is in outstanding shape – just the opposite of the above? Let’s say a manager has a yearling herd and the smallest buck yearling has 4 points. If you wanted to move your quality upward, in this instance it may not hurt to knock out all 4 pointers, leaving the 5+ antler point yearlings to mature.
I like to shoot the sorriest or smallest 10-15% of my yearlings every year. If I am sitting on a wheat patch watching 30 deer and I see what I call an “aspirin head” spike grazing next to a banana shaped antler spike, a 5 point yearling and a 7 point yearling, I shoot the aspirin head spike. An aspirin head spike has hard usually white antlers about 1/2” long. You have to look real close. With the hair on the animal’s scalp, all that shows is something white that looks like an extra-strength Bayer aspirin. That deer is the same age as the long-horned spike. Which has the potential to be better when it matures? If two spikes are standing side by side, shoot the one with the shortest spikes. Do not approach this thinking the long horned spike is older, it is not. In my 55+ years of shooting spikes, I have seen only one animal that I was 100% sure was a 2 year old deer. Moral of the story – all spikes are yearlings.
Now, the dialog written so far has been aimed at attempting to increase the size of bucks in your herd by culling out the smaller bucks. You may not want to. If you are after maximum dollars from a hunting operation, then shooting spikes may not pay off. Some landowners and managers operate hunting camps that are paid by the deer killed and by the size. A 2-3 year old small 7-8 point buck with a 11” spread, which was probably a spike as a yearling, will bring more money to the bottom dollar than having killed that deer as a spike. You will not be driving the quality upwards but the manager of the above example ranch could care less.
In the late 1980’s, I hunted on a property in Maverick County for two years. The deer on this ranch were like large Hill Country deer. I got off and wish I hadn’t. The Biologist managing this low fenced property implemented an aggressive spike culling regimen along with very aggressive doe harvest rules. The density was low, but 15-20 years later, some of the largest bucks killed in South Texas were regularly taken on this property. This is one real life proof that culling works.
In 2006 through 2008 I was involved in managing a large South Texas ranch in southern Kinney County. This property had been hunted hard by day leasing for 30+ years prior to my introduction to the land. The previous owners had an 8 point rule in place. Any and all bucks could be killed if it had 8 points or better. What happened was all spikes were protected and the best yearlings killed when they reached 2.5 years old. Take another look at my graphs and reverse the pressure. Remove the top antlers from your herd every year. Very few doe were killed. 30+ years of killing off the best genetics and leaving the sorriest yearlings was something to behold. What I found was a skewed buck doe ratio and a buck herd with some of the sorriest antlers I have ever seen on a ranch with good habitat. It was common to see old broad-backed mature bucks with heavy based 6 points and a 10” spread.Pitiful but proof culling worked in reverse.
In 1990, Harvey’s Creek Wildlife Management Association was formed between Weimar and Columbus, Texas. Most landowners followed the TPWD recommendations of killing spikes. We did on our family ranch and I know our neighbors did. Now, 26 years later, some of the largest antlers taken in Colorado County are coming off the original Co-op member ranches. The quality of the bucks taken the last few years could not be imagined back in 1990. It takes time but it works.
One final angle……. This is for those that state spikes should be protected and will grow into trophies. Everyone has seen these mega-antlered bucks that have been grown in pens from genetically selected bucks and doe. See if you can find any of these operations that brag about having spikes as first antlered bucks and see if these operations advertise that they have spikes for sale.
I realize I am sticking my neck out with this topic but nonetheless, I intend to delve into the subject. All that follows will be my personal observations sprinkled with the logic of my thoughts. I want to warn my gentle readers that if you are offended by bloody descriptions, you better stop now.
Let me also preface this story by saying I have been reloading my own centerfire cartridges since I was in junior high. I have always had a keen interest in how the different bullets I have used performed terminally upon impact. I have used Hornady, Sierra, Speer, Nosler and Barnes reloads. I have used Remington, Winchester and Federal factory bullets as well. Bullet weights from 50 grains to 200 grains in all type configurations from spritzer, boat tail, round nose, hollow point, flat points, ballistic tips, spire points, bronze points, silvertips, solids and partitions. I was and still am observant and curious about where the bullet went, what it did while passing through the animal and why it did what it did. I always factor in distance and speed of the bullet in all of my examinations.
I am convinced the best shot placement for deer or any wild game ungulate (elk, moose, pronghorn, sheep, African antelope, etc.) is for the bullet to pass through the animals lungs on a more or less broadside animal just over the animal’s heart. Have you ever paid attention or taken interest in examining the organs of a dead deer? The heart is topped with several very large veins and arteries the size of your thumb. Sever these without actually hitting the heart, and there is immediate and massive hemorrhaging resulting in an extremely quick blood pressure drop and an almost immediate loss of consciousness due to lack of oxygen to the brain. The circulatory system of the animal is basically drained. You want the heart to remain intact to continue pumping so the shot cannot be too low.
The animal will usually hop/jump/lunge when hit. Sometimes the deer will kick then take off. Usually the death run will be a lope or struggling gate if one of the shoulder or leg bones are broken on a slight angle shot. If you observe these mortally wounded deer through their entire death run in open country, the last few yards will often be a semicircle or the animal will stagger as if it was drunk. At that point, the animal is basically running blind and its momentum and reflexes are the only thing keeping it in gear. Always, when you approach a deer hit solidly as I described above, it will be stone dead with glazed eyes by the time you reach it.
On a perfectly broadside animal, an angle where you are seeing both front legs as one leg – perfectly aligned at a right angle to your view, the bullet should impact tight behind the shoulder and about 1” to 2” below the center point or halfway distance between the deer’s back and brisket. On an animal like that, I like to align my vertical cross hair along the back edge of its front leg. It gets a little trickier when the deer is standing at an angle, which they normally are. With that, you have to be able to envision what the organs look like in the deer’s chest. Always attempt to get the bullet to pass through both lungs and as close to the top of the heart as possible – therein lye the concentration of major veins and arteries. If a deer is positioned at a severe angle almost facing you are quartering away, I will wait for a better presentation.
I know. I know. At least half if not more of the people reading this will pooh, pooh my opinion thinking, “The neck and head shot is best for a quick kill!” Not so and here’s why………………….. Keep in mind I have shot plenty of deer in the neck so have ample comparisons. Let’s look at what happens through a more scientific lens. I am not a veterinarian but have taken my fair share of biology courses.
What happens when a bullet crashes into a deer’s neck vertebrae? The spine is usually severed by either the bullet or fragments of bone. The deer is paralyzed and drops in its tracks. I have no answer for this but for some reason, when a deer is neck shot, the hindquarters drop a split second before the front of the animal). A severed spinal cord cuts off the message the brain sends to lower muscles and organs such as the heart. An animal’s heart beats because the brain is sending a pulse signal to the heart unconsciously. No animal “makes” its heart beat by thinking about it. It beats all day, every day and night as long as it gets the signal. So, the heart stops. At that point, blood quits moving but unlike an animal shot near the heart where the blood gushes out of the circulatory system, draining blood from all organs, a neck shot deer has blood pooled in all of its organs and muscle. The only blood leaving a neck shot deer where the spine has been severed is due to gravity. This pooled blood remaining in the animal contains enough oxygen to keep the brain functioning for a longer time than a deer shot through the lungs. The deer dies more slowly.
Every lung shot deer I approach is dead. At least half of the neck- shot deer I have approached had their mouths agape and looking at me with terrified eyes. You get a knife to cut their juggler vein and no blood escapes because the heart has stopped. You sometimes get a stout stick to club them to speed the death along. I have put neck shot deer in the back of my truck for transporting to a cleaning station and they have been kicking tools and coolers in the bed of my truck half way to the camp house. You tell me which is more humane.
Now I want to throw ice water on the neck shot is best clan when they argue, “Yea, but at least with the neck shot you get cleaner meat!” I want to make this challenge. Shoot a deer through the lungs, near but not through the heart. Shoot a deer in the neck. Clean both and hang them side by side. I will bet you $10.00 to a donut the lung shot deer will have the “prettiest” meat. The deer shot though the lungs will have pink meat. The deer shot through the head or neck will have meat almost maroon-like color. The neck shot deer has the darker meat due to pooled blood in all of the muscle tissue.
Lastly, the neck shot promoters often say they either hit or miss, no wounded animals like a flubbed body shot. Wrong again. A deer facing sideways can have its trachea torn and run off as if completely missed. No blood but a seriously hurt animal. A deer facing towards a hunter can have an ice cream sized scoop of muscle gouged off the side of its neck if the bullet is not center punched.
The head shot is the absolute worst in the business. I cannot not stand that and speak from experience. Advocates of head shots often brag the fact trying I suppose to impress upon their camp fire buddies at a hunting camp how accurate a sniper they are. I have shot two deer in the head, wounding them hideously when I was young. Both had their nose and mouth shot off and ran away with half their faces hanging like a limp glove. Never found them. That experience cured me. I once killed a mature buck that was a walking skeleton. Envision the black and white movies of the Nazi prison camps of WWII. The buck was in pitiful condition of skin and bones. The animal was staggering along with its lower jaw torn off. It had been wounded by a neighboring hunter. I put him out of its misery near a pond. It obviously could not eat but was attempting to drink water by putting what remained of its face, all the way up to its eyes, under water and sucking down some moisture. Do not shoot for the head. Thank you.
One of the first blogs I wrote for my website dealt with the common habit of new landowners mowing too much. I called it “The Golf Course Syndrome”. I lectured readers not to shred in the spring because that destroyed fawning cover and turkey nesting cover. Well, now (August/September) is the time that shredding weeds becomes acceptable. Let me explain……
Young turkey and fawns are large enough and mobile enough now to have a chance against predators. Taking that cover away will not affect them near as much as when they were babies. Also, during late summer, weeds are mature and their leaves have little if any nutritional value. Shredding at this time of the year not only makes your pasture look good, but if you are lucky enough to get a timely rain shower or two after shredding, weeds will begin to sprout new growth. That new growth is what deer relish. Those new leaves and growing buds have as high of a protein content as the plant had in early spring.
Over my lifetime, I’ve experimented with dozens of different summer food plot plants. I mostly concentrated on different types of peas and clovers. None work as well as the weeds you already have in your pasture. I have shredded weeds in August and September then smiled broadly after rains hit and I saw grass and weeds begin new growth and while doing census work during those times noticed deer concentrated on the areas I shredded. In one of my earlier lives I had a couple of chicken houses. Tons of manure (fertilizer) was distributed annually on our ranch. The best summer food plot I’ve ever seen was fertilized and shred western ragweed.
Late summer is also a time when deer, hogs, birds, squirrels and raccoons get their dessert. Two important plants in Southeast Texas that most wildlife enjoys during late summer are mustang grapes (Vitis mustangensis) and American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana).
American beautyberry has very obvious purple berries that the aforementioned animals eat. The seeds are maturing now and often last well into the fall. This plant usually grows in sandy soils and areas that are shaded. I have seen deer that were gorging on the seeds and they had purple lips. They reminded me of a kid eating a grape snow cone.
Another highly relished “dessert” is mustang grapes. When ripe and falling, these grapes are sweet. People have been making wine and jelly from mustang grapes for generations. They are not like store-bought grapes in that they have a thick and tough outer skin. You do not eat that. The way to eat a mustang grape is pluck a ripe one, gently squeeze the skin allowing the meat of the grape ooze out. Delicately bite that WITHOUT getting any juice on your hands or lips. That juice will itch like crazy. The grape to me has a texture like Jell-O. Be careful not to eat the seed. There are usually 3-4 seeds in each grape.
Having some grape vines on your ranch is an obvious benefit for wildlife. Like many things however, having too much of one thing is bad. If left unchecked, grape vines will grow to eventually smother the plant it is using for support. Although grapes are good, I would rather have the live oak tree it might smother.
When I was a kid, my dad would turn me loose on our ranch with a scope sighted 22 rim fire and a pocket of shells. “Be careful, watch for snakes, hunt slowly along Spots Branch and look for squirrels. I’ll meet you at 10am at Chili Crossing.” Those were my marching orders. Looking back, my guess was I was between 6 and 9 years old. Alone with a permit to roam and learn. Self-taught hunting skills were honed at that early age. Perhaps this is where my curiosity took root regarding all things in nature. Quiet and alone allows a developing mind to swell.
This was in late September and October when the first crisp cool fronts were passing through. Still mornings were best because I could see limbs shaking in the distance giving away the location of a feeding squirrel. Walking slowly, eyes catching any flicker of movement, ears tuned to the sound of acorns or pecans hitting the wooded floor. Aahhh me……typing this brings back memories!
When climatic conditions had been perfect and there was a bumper crop of mast, squirrels would be scattered. Even under those conditions, there were a couple of hot-spots that were favorites of mine. I learned of these areas by watching squirrels travel a great distance, jumping from limb to limb, traveling to a specific tree to get acorns. I witnessed squirrels go through post oak, pecan, hickory, live oak, black-jack oak and water oak, all laden with nuts, and forage in one specific tree. That tree had bark that looked a lot like water oak which was pale and shredding but the leaves were larger and lobed. I also noticed the acorns were about 50% bigger than the other acorns. I would sit under that tree, not moving a muscle but only my eyes and wait for squirrels to come to me.
Later, when I proudly showed off the heavy load of squirrels to my dad and told him about the “Magic Tree”, he told me it was a white oak. He knew exactly where it was. He told me about others too.
So, being an observant squirrel hunter gave me my first impression of a white oak. Later in November, I noticed deer traveling like a magnet to that same tree. There were not many white oaks on our ranch but I quickly learned where most were.
Let’s roll the clock to the present. When there are deer seasons coinciding with a heavy acorn crop, you would swear all of the deer have died of anthrax of some other disaster. Corn feeders and oat/wheat patches sit unused. Deer will ALWAYS, take native forage over corn and food plots when available. On those years you can expect very tough conditions with few deer observations. Well, if deer are only eating acorns, why not give them something rare that they relish over all other acorns. On our family’s ranch, I’ve started to plant white oak trees. I’ve initiated this project by planting 2-3 trees near every deer blind.
Seedlings are hard to find in Southeast TX. Very few nurseries have them. I’ve picked up acorns and started them in pots then transplanted the seedlings. I’ve also located seedlings on the ranch, dug them up to pot them for later plantings. So far, I have 23 trees going. My goal is to eventually have 100.
I had a good friend, after seeing what I was doing, sarcastically ask me, “And how old are you?” I informed him this project is for my grandchildred.
The white oak (Quercus alba) tree is hailed as the classic king of the American oaks. Of all the oaks, white oak acorns have the least amount of tannins in their acorns, thus giving it the best or sweetest taste to wildlife. Although slow growing, it attains great size. One day in the future, my heirs will hopefully see a ranch with more white oak trees growing than any other property in the area and remember who was responsible for their existence. Our land lies about half-way between Houston and San Antonio, which is on the western edge of where white oaks naturally grow. It is a predominately eastern or southeastern tree. Keep that in mind.
Logic, plus trial and error, has caused my hog hunting methods to evolve over the years.I have learned that hogs have incredible senses of smell by observing pigs raise their snout, sniff the air and then scram when wind changed on me while stalking in South TX.I also watched hogs raise their heads in an alert pose and then tear off the ranch roads like a racehorse when they could hear gravel crunching under my truck or Polaris tires 400 yards away.Walking quietly and cross-wind or into the wind greatly improves your odds. That makes sense.
Since hogs are mostly nocturnal, the next step was figuring out how to get after them when it was dark.I walked miles with a flashlight and had some luck, but not much.I hiked randomly until I figured out that whenever I could find fresh signs of rooting, the culprits would be back to that area the same are the next night. As I concentrated on those spots, my success moved up a notch.
I could see best when the moon was full or near full on clear nights.At that time I can ditch the flashlight and use the faint moon illumination well enough for accurate shots.I would sit up at dusk over fresh rooting sign with the wind in my favor and wait.The big pale white moon would be moving up giving the landscape a soft silver hue. With binoculars, you will be surprised at the details you can observe.I had some luck but more often than not would return home empty handed around 10:00 pm or so.
That is when I figured out another piece of the puzzle.I have a first cousin that owns a wrecker service in Weimar.He has fancy night vision scopes and binoculars.The more pressure we can put on the hogs the better, so he has permission to go at any time to our ranch near Columbus to help wage our family’s war on hogs.I would hunt until 9:30 or 10:00 then head home.He would call me the next morning telling of killing a hog or two the same night.He was called out to haul in wrecked or broken down vehicles along Interstate 10 at all hours of the night.Once awake, he would travel to our ranch and find herds of pigs feeding and rooting about on the clearings.It may be midnight or 3am.It did not matter to my cousin since he was up and working anyway.
I started to pay attention to the timing of his kills.It turned out most of his sightings were when the moon was at its zenith or straight up (12 o’clock high).On a full moon, when the sun disappears in the west, the moon creeps up in the east.The moon would be straight overhead near or slightly after midnight.I was sleeping when the pigs were first starting to get active.
Three or four days before a full moon, the moon ascends into the sky around 3-4pm and will be directly overhead about 9-10pm.That was when I was accidently having luck.I could hunt at that time of the month and be home at a decent hour.
Three or four days after a full moon, the moon ascends into the sky around 8-9pm and will be directly overhead around 3-4am.To test my theory, I would set the alarm clock (among snide comments from my wife that I was crazy), travel to our ranch and snoop around and catch hogs happily feeding.I was on to something with that moon thing.
So, watch the wind, be quiet, pay attention to the moon phase and try to be out when it is straight up.While stumbling around in the dark, keep an eye out for snakes.Except during cold weather, however as insurance I still wear my snake boots. Maybe my “research” will help you catch a few moon walking hogs. Good luck!
I assume everyone knows that a deer’s antlers, or a deer’s “horns”, are grown and shed each year. Antlers begin growth the end of March here in Southeast Texas and are fully formed in late July. By the end of August, the velvet or hairy covering is rubbed clean. I’ve seen bucks one day with velvet and the same deer one day later with taters of velvet hanging from their antlers and the antlers themselves are literally blood red. From that point on a buck will be ready to breed doe. Antlers are shed or cast starting in January and all have fallen off usually by late February. Within a few weeks new growth begins.
It may surprise most people to note that the early development of antler material is high in water but the dry matter is mostly protein. Studies in Michigan showed June antler material in healthy one-year-old bucks contained 80% protein.
It is hard to believe a complete set of antlers will be fully formed in five months. That’s fast! Growth actually occurs at the tip. As antlers grow, maturation involves ossification as the antlers approach their definitive shape. As the final antler shape is coming into focus, there is an internal remodeling that results in replacement of the outermost spongy bone with compact bone. There is no marrow in antlers as is found in an animal’s long bones.
Research has proven that antlers require a net accumulation of about 0.5 to 1.0 grams of calcium and 0.25 to 0.5 grams of phosphorus per day. Most feed manufacturers selling pellet deer feed strive for that 2-1 ratio of calcium to phosphorous. Other studies have proven that the rapid antler growth is such a drain on a buck’s system that the bone minerals needed for antler s were mobilized and robbed from the buck’s skeleton in order to meet this calcium/phosphorus antler need. What puzzles many scientists however is that studies of mule deer have shown this bone mineral mobilization still occurs even when dietary minerals were high in existing plants the deer consumed. This osteoporosis has been confirmed by measurements of bone density in three different studies. Trabecular bone is the most metabolically active and resorption reached 25% of rib minerals during the middle period of antler growth. Deer bone returns to normal shortly after antler growth is complete.
So, we know protein is needed. We know calcium and phosphorous are needed and antler growth is so rapid, the deer robs these minerals from its own skeleton in order to “feed” the antler growth. Some ranchers or managers may believe all they need to do is provide good water, shade and bags of feed that is high in protein with enough balanced calcium and phosphorus in it and they can grow giant deer on the Astrodome parking lot. As always, in steps Mother Nature.
Vitamin A is also vital for antler remodeling as ossification proceeds. Carotenes in green leaves are converted to Vitamin A. Growing trophy animals is ALWAYS easier on a ranch with good habitat that will give a buck that native green to make its rumen bacteria happy and smooth out all the mineral movement that is involved in growing a trophy set of antlers.
There have been entire books devoted to antler growth. Condensing it into a single post is impossible. If your goal is trophy antlers, the simple recipe one needs to remember is to provide a habitat that is not overgrazed by too many deer and livestock and supplement that native forage with protein. Deer will always take the native food first. When protein is lacking, they will appreciate the hand-out of sack feed. Now is the time.
On a side note…
Antlers are the fasting growing tissue in the world. Some research has been done with antlers trying to gain insight on certain types of fast-growing cancers.
Of all the world’s deer families, moose are the largest. Of the several sub-species of moose, the Alaskan moose is the largest of the lot. In the short growing season in the northern latitudes where Alaskan moose live, it’s hard to believe their paddle-like antlers can reach spreads exceeding 70 inches wide. The weight is incredible.
I once guided a man from Alaska in South TX. He was after a trophy whitetail but as you might imagine, I was picking his brain the entire time regarding wildlife in his home state. He was an avid hunter.
The one tidbit I vividly remember him telling me was one characteristic he uses to judge trophy moose. The trait he looked for more than any other was the angle of the antler growth as it leaves the moose’s head. He explained all trophy moose will have a dip or downward curve at the base of the antler or where the antler is attached to the scull. Reason: As the antler is growing and still soft /spongy and somewhat pliable, the weight of the antlers cause the base to actually sag or bend downward. About halfway through antler development, the bend is corrected and the antlers start growing outward normally. I was in Cabela’s near Buda and studied all of the giant moose heads in their store and this trait was clearly seen. I never knew that.
It would probably be a good start to pull out a detailed map of the Big Bend area of Texas before we get too far along with this story. The setting is The Quitman Mountains, just south of the small community of Sierra Blanca in Hudspeth County. The Quitman’s are typical of many of the ranges there. The Baylor, Apache, Eagle, Chinati, Sierra Viejas and of course, the highest of the lot, the Davis Mountains all are separate from one another and isolated by miles of flat to slightly rolling grasslands and desert shrubs.
I believe it was in the 1950’s that a few ranchers from New Mexico introduced an animal from North Africa called the Barbary Sheep (Ammotragus lervia). Most people call this animal the Aoudad. They drifted east along Palo Duro Canyon and are plentiful there. They also drifted south into the Big Bend region of the state and are now numerous in all of the aforementioned mountain ranges.
They are robust—they have to be to thrive in this harsh environment. Their habits are very similar to the Desert Bighorns of Arizona, SE New Mexico, Nevada, Sonora Mexico and the Baja Peninsula. Both animals have terrific eyesight. Both can see isolated summer rains that may hit one mountain in the distance and overnight or over several nights, the animals will migrate to that site in order to take advantage of the fresh growth that follows. This is one of the reasons they spread into Texas.
A Desert Bighorn hunt can cost up to $25,000. The demand is high. But, with both animals inhibiting the same terrain and sharing the same habits, an Aoudad hunt can be tens of thousands of dollars less but the thrill is the same. Aoudads are often called a “Poor man’s Big Horn.” I was hunting desert mule deer in the Quitman Moutains and the ranch owner said if we bumped into an Aoudad that was a freebie.
Now think of this. Look at your typical cell tower. The tallest you see is usually 500 feet high. Now envision 1,000 feet of almost straight up tumbled rock pile. Some rocks as big as your car, and some the size of a baseball, then add a variety of thorny desert shrubs with an occasional cedar tree and you get the picture of these mountains.
It was still dark when I started my hike up the southern mountain. I was carrying a Winchester Model 70 using 130 grain Speer Hotcore reloads. I had binoculars and a walking stick, and that’s it. The idea is to travel light. I shake my head when I see current TV hunting shows with the characters packing a bulging backpack. During the 1,000 foot ascent I would sweep the horizon and scan the side draws looking for those hard to see grey mule deer standing stationary in their grey/tan environment when I stopped to catch my breath.
Up and up I walked, switch back in a zigzag pattern to lessen the steepness of the ascent. Finally, I topped out and planted my rear end on a nicely shaped sandy spot with a small rock back rest. I started glassing in earnest now. After about 30 minutes, I spotted a lone Aoudad ram across the canyon on the north mountain. He was bedded near an isolated cedar tree, an easy landmark. As I watched, it peered across the landscape slowly chewing its cud. I assume he was thinking about past and future romances and battles. As a crow flies, the distance to the ram was probably three-quarters of a mile.
I wanted this animal. There was no option but to lose all of my hard-earned altitude, so down I went. At the road back at my truck, I ate an orange, downed some water and then bowed my back and started up again, but this time on the north mountain where the old ram was bedded.
I decided my best route was the direct approach as wind was not an issue. Because of the nearby cedar tree, I had him pegged for location but his bed site was just over a small rise and down a few yards of what was basically a small finger canyon. He was lying at the head of this small canyon.
When I got within 100 yards or so, I really put it in slow motion. Each step was deliberate. I put my foot down, slowly tested the traction by adding weight gradually, then I moved for the next step. The last 100 yards probably took 30 minutes. As I approached the little rise where it was lying, I was bent over so it could not see me. When I straightened up, I could see the curve of its horn and the small ears flicking unseen gnats away.
At this point, I was prepared for it to launch into a run at any moment and I was expecting to whittle it down while running. Slowly, deliberately, quietly I crept. Now standing straight and in plain sight behind it. For a fleeting moment I thought this may be how a mountain lion feels on the last leg of its stalk. Finally, the animal slowly turned its head and looked directly at me. I had my rifle up at this moment and settled the crosshairs. When the echo of the shot quit reverberating down the canyon, he lay dead in his bed with a neat entrance hole between the eyes. The bullet never did exit. It lodged somewhere in its heavy neck muscles and neck vertebra.
I sat a moment taking in all of the senses. The beauty of an old trophy ram, the heavy dark rubbed horns, the slick tan coat, the long hairs along its neck and front legs called “chaps” stirring slightly in the dry cold breeze. Below me I could see my truck looking like a toy. I could see the white winding road and the meandering white threads of sandy arroyos treading their way off the mountain range into the desert flats to the east. I was on top of that small section of the world.
Now the fun part begins. I cut off the cape and carried it, my rifle and the back strap down to the truck. Back up I went and this time made a purse with a rope and carried over one shoulder the hams and the other shoulder its shoulders. This was a heavy stumbling load of 4 quarters.
When I staggered to the truck and flopped down, I chug-a-lugged a cold beer in record time! My legs were aching and I thought that’s that. When I dug through my pile of equipment and looked in and out of my truck, I could not find my cherished binoculars. They had to be on the mountain so up I went and luckily found them near the solitary cedar tree that marked the bedded ram.
Thus the title of this tale – The Climb the Mountain Four Times Ram
I climbed the South Mountain early morning and spotted it.
I climbed the North Mountain and shot it.
I climbed the North Mountain to retrieve a load of meat.
I climbed the Mountain again to find my binoculars.
Again, look at a cell tower and double the height to roughly 1,000’ then climb that 4 times.
That ram is one of my most cherished trophies. I never measured it. It does not matter to me. I know it was an old grandpa and I know I took it the hard way, fair and square in its natural habitat. A spot and stalk hunt such as this draws out the drama over a longer period. During the time between spotting the game and actually killing it, you have subdued excitement. I made a perfect stalk and finished the deal with a perfect shot.
I have it mounted resting above our fireplace and my wife constantly nags me about taking it down but so far I have kept it there. As I get older, every time I gaze at it I reflect on the time I was young and could generate enough oxygen through my lungs, had knees that did not creak when I walked and had enough iron in my muscles to carry me four times up and down extremely rough mountains to cleanly take an interesting trophy. Every now and then I even imagine it as being a Desert Bighorn!
Cattle like grass first but will eat brush as a last resort.Deer like weeds first then fall back on browse or brush as a second choice.When I say brush, I mean woody plants like yaupon or trees like hackberry, elm and live oak, or vines like green briar, dewberries or even poison ivy.
Let’s concentrate on deer.Deer ALWAYS prefer native plants over anything you can plant or pour out of a sack.On good range with plenty of choice native forbs, acorns and browse, you can see it happen all the time.Deer will not eat corn.They are not hitting oat and wheat patches.The deer are not touching protein pellets or cotton seed in free choice feeders. They will walk past or over the above to pick up water oak, live oak and especially white oak acorns.With timely rains, forbs and clover will be popping out fresh and green and the deer will be concentrating on that.Hunting becomes poor when nature is at its best.
What happens when there are too many animals?Heavily consumed choice plants will eventually disappear.A leaf on western rag weed is bitten off the second it shows itself.When the small plant tries putting out another leaf that leaf is cut off as well.Eventually the plant dies.A dead plant has no chance of producing seed for the next generation.Over a few years what remains are only plants that a deer does not eat or plants that are very poor quality.The habitat is degraded.
Wildlife biologist and range scientists often call this, “Too many mouths.”Overgrazed cattle ranges will end up with only poor quality grasses and overgrazed deer ranges will end up with only poor quality woody plants.Sad but this happens fairly often.Probably the main reason is greed.A rancher sees 100 cows and wishes he had 150.A hunt manager estimates 200 deer on his ranch and wishes he had 400.
I keep straying.Let’s get back to deer.Keep in mind forbs and acorns are seasonal.Forbs are usually best during late winter and early spring.Acorns hit the ground in the fall and that may not be every year.The cushion or insurance policy all deer fall back on is browse.When the browse is degraded then you have clearly gone too far.It may be too late.Body size will be smaller, fawn crops smaller, antlers smaller, deer will get sick easier.The herd will be stressed.
One of the easiest indicators of too many mouths on a range is a browse line on the trees.This can be seen easiest in the Texas Hill Country where live oak is the dominate tree species.There will be a clear line across the landscape where all or nearly all brush leaves have been removed by browsing deer (it could be goats as well).That line shows you how high a deer can reach while feeding.
When anyone sees this it should be a loud alarm clock ringing in the managers head that he has looming problems.These photos are excellent examples of a ranch that has had its habitat degraded.The only cure is to remove more of the mouths (deer).Remember that the animal that competes for food the most with a deer is another deer.
I am extremely lucky to have had a grandfather who purchased ranches, as well as a dad that liked to hunt and encouraged me to hunt as well.This background has given me thousands of hours spent outdoors over my lifetime.I can recount a lot of hunting stories as my hair thins and turns grey, but I can honestly say some of the most pleasing episodes are those when I’ve introduced newcomers to the sport.
A while back, I started paying attention to the youth hunts put on by the Texas Wildlife Association.It is a structured event where guides follow strict rules setting examples to new hunters, while at the same time promoting ethics.I arranged for a “guide school” at our camp house and got a few friends of mine to attend. There is a lot of red tape involved with TWA, so we eventually split off from that organization but we continue to follow their blue print nonetheless.
Here is my team:James Janda, Tony Janda, Alvin Emmel and I are the guides from Weimar. Richard Grobe, my Texas A & M classmate and resident of Columbus is the last guide.Daria Emmel (Alvin’s wife) is the cook.We’ve been together dozens of times.We started by hosting hunts at our ranches and neighboring ranches.There we were able to smooth out the rough edges to the process.Later, we hunted in Medina County on ranches I had sold to clients.Tom Arnett and Jim Thompson both of Houston graciously hosted us, and then later we hunted on another of Mr. Arnett’s properties in Kinney County south of Brackettville.Our last hunt was on Randle Jones’ Diamond J Ranch in western Mason County.Each of these ranches had spacious headquarters that allowed these youth hunts to be run in style. It takes a lot of space since not only do you have five guides and a cook, but you have five young hunters and their guardians.It takes a minimum of 16 people just to take 5 hunters.
Follow me on how this unfolds:
The first thing I do is contact the Weimar ISD and then Columbus ISD staff.My goal is to get recommendations of good families that have children from 10 to 13 years old that have never hunted and do not have a deer lease or any relatives that hunt.We target youth that have never hunted but are game to try.Children too young can’t hold a rifle well, and kids in high school already have sap rising and are often too interested in holding hands with other hunters of the opposite sex to concentrate on deer.We take both male and female hunters so you have to be careful.
Once selected, each hunter must purchase a Texas hunting license and they will be expected to pay for their share of the groceries.Our last hunt cost each person $18.00 for the entire weekend. Next, they have to pass a proficiency test with a rifle.We arrange for the new hunter and his/her guardian (parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle) to meet at our camp house and learn to shoot.Many of these children have never held a rifle.I’m talking not even a .22 rim fire.Each guide is responsible for their shooting instructions and they will provide a weapon.Most of us use 223, 22-250, 243 or 6mm Remington.
We’ve never had trouble with these newcomers skill.It’s simple, they listen.We teach them safe handling, how to support the rifle, how the rifle works, how to aim, the importance of trigger squeeze and deer’s anatomy.When the child can regularly hit a pie plate at roughly 75 yards, they are then patted on the back and pronounced ready for the real deal.
The big day finally arrives and everyone meets after school then caravans in separate vehicles to the chosen ranch. We hunt Saturday morning and evening.During the middle of the day it is all busy time with no lounging around the headquarters watching TV or playing video games.The new hunters help cleaning game, then Tony Janda gives them his gun safety talk.We do this in the field to demonstrate crossing fences etc. with a rifle.I go to school with them and walk a bit out in the brush teaching them about what a deer eats and what he does not eat.I go into some simple biology about deer habits and feeding routines.Any extra time is spent gathering fire wood.
After the evening hunt and meal is the best part of the weekend.All guides, guardians, cook and hunters gather in a circle around the campfire and one by one tell their story.How they saw the deer approach, the number of doe and bucks each saw, how big the bucks were, how they waited for a good presentation, how they shot the deer, how they followed a blood trail, how they shook afterwards, the excitement and funny episodes are all rehashed.No one is talking over each other but each having the spotlight alone.
Even if they get a deer, they still return to the blind to observe wildlife.We hunt again Sunday morning then everyone pitches in the clean the facilities, haul off trash, stack the remaining firewood and the last thing before leaving is to write thank you letters to the owner.
You never forget your first deer just like you never forget your first kiss.I’ve been lucky in having given a lot of children the chance to experience deer hunting that may never have gotten the opportunity.I was sitting at their side when they succeeded.I am honored to have provided this chance and hope they remember me along with the animal.
PS:Anyone reading this that has a child or grandchild between 10-13 years old that has never hunted and would like to try it please email me at email@example.com.I will put you in my data base for future hunts.