An Empty Quiver: Chapter 19. Off-Season Adventure; Exotics in Texas

 

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Preface

By: Dr. Dave Samuel

 For most of us, deer hunting is what we live for.  Come the spring, some pick up the bow and chase wild turkeys (see chapter 15).  And in May, thousands of bowhunters go north of the border to hunt black bears (see chapter 3).  But there is another great option to bide the time until the fall bow season arrives, and that is a trip to Texas to bowhunt exotics.  I might add that when doing so, you will also have the opportunity to take a wild hog and javelina because they are all over Texas and in good numbers.  In fact, though this story is about the three exotics I hunted, on the second day I shot a wild hog, and later in the bowhunt I took another.  Yes, I brought that meat home. 

The species I most wanted to bowhunt was the blackbuck.  This little antelope is endangered in native India but doing very well in Argentina and Texas.  They are a beautiful animal, and having hunted many species of antelope in Africa (where most of the plains game are antelope), and having hunted our American pronghorn antelope, I was intrigued by this species.  The males darken from tan to dark brown or black as they age.  They also have a conspicuous white eye ring and white chin patch.  But it is the horns that make this species unique.  Only males have them and the horns are twisted in a tight spiral with up to five turns.  Mature males weigh in at 70-90 lbs., and are territorial during the mating season.  Nervous and always alert, this species is notorious for “jumping the string”   No question, blackbuck are a real challenge with the bow. 

The other species I hoped to hunt was the axis deer.  This beautiful red colored deer with conspicuous white spots is also native to India.  They were introduced to Texas in 1932 and in addition to the many captive herds, they free-range in twenty-seven counties.  Stags always have three tines on each antler and a good stag will weigh in at 200 lbs.  They inhabit cool, shady, level, grassy, wooded areas.  It is common to find one big stag with a herd of 10-20 does, but you may also find 3-4 big stags traveling together.  They “roar” during the rut, similar to elk.  Interestingly you can find hard-horned stags rutting year-round.  When some bucks are rutting, others are just starting.  There doesn’t appear to be a predictable pattern to the rut, however, there does seem to be more stags in rut in May-June than other months.  Axis deer are very wary, but can be bowhunted from tree stands.   Where I bowhunted, the habitat was fantastic and I got a chance to chase free-range axis deer for several days. 

The third species I bowhunted wasn’t planned.  It just happened when my guide wanted to use some down time during the heat of the day to show me how and where he planned to bowhunt for aoudad sheep later that year.  The aoudad (pronounced “OW-dad,” also sometimes called Barbary Sheep) is native to North Africa, but introduced populations in Spain, Texas, and New Mexico have done very well.  Their coat is sandy brown and both sexes have a heavy fringe of hair hanging from the throat.  Both sexes have horns, but those in the male are larger.  A good ram can have horns more than 25 inches, and will weigh around 250 lbs.  In Texas they live in the thick brush in the rough high hills.  They are very wary and difficult to stalk with the bow.  My guide wanted to start bringing in bowhunters to go after this species, and it was going to be difficult because stalking them with a rifle was very hard.  But he had a plan to get bowhunters within range and he wanted to show it to me.  Boy was I glad he did. 

Before you put down bowhunting exotics in Texas, read on.  My five-day hunted proved to be one of the best times I’ve ever spent with a bow.   

I’m like most bowhunters, and suffer withdrawal symptoms about one month after deer season. In 1999 I got restless and traveled to the YO Ranch in Texas for a mid-winter bowhunt for sika deer.  The dark-brown sika deer is native to Japan and western Asia.  They’ve been introduced many places including Great Britain, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, the eastern shore of Maryland, Florida,  and Texas.  Stags have two to five points on each antler, and body size varies from continent to continent.  In Texas a good stag will weigh 120 lbs.  They seem to thrive in areas that do not appear to have much food.  They bugle in a style similar to elk and in Texas they can be stalked or hunted from tree stands. 

My YO Ranch hunt for sika deer proved successful and while there I saw several axis bucks and blackbuck antelope.  Those two species left an impression, so when I visited Bill Watson of the South Hills Ranch at the 2002 Archery Trade Association’s annual archery trade show in January, we talked about an axis deer-blackbuck antelope bowhunt.  You can chase those species with Bill any time after his whitetail season, and I wanted to go in February or March to break up the monotony of winter.  However, various obligations prevented me from traveling until early May. 

After meeting Bill, their son Will, and wife Jolene I had time to hike to a tripod stand within walking distance of the ranch.  The axis were in rut and I heard them roar several times that evening.  There were whitetails, and a large “bent-horned” blackbuck came in.  But I didn’t try to shoot because of the weird horn.  Bill later explained that this antelope had apparently injured his skull when young causing the horn to grow abnormally.  Another bowhunter was in camp, and he indicated that he’d been after old “bent-horn” for several years.  Said he thought he might be a new world record with the bow.   Hmmm . . .  guess I’d made a mistake in passing him up. 

I saw plenty of game the next day, but no axis deer.  Just at dark five wild hogs came to the baited area, and I took the biggest one.  A spine shot that ended the evening.  At least I had some meat for the freezer. 

Day three and Bill and I decided to go to nearby unfenced ranch owned by Frank Jones.  Frank turned out to be a fine fellow, great to be around and very knowledgeable about his free-ranging axis herd.  “Dave, with so many axis does on my property and with the rut getting started, new stags arrive all the time from the surrounding area.  You never know when you will see a big stag,” Frank stated.  We drove around the bottomland area and in mid-afternoon Frank took me to the back of the ranch; a beautiful area with huge live oak trees and grassy fields.  We spotted several bedded stags on the way in, and by the time I climbed into the well-concealed tree stand I was pumped.   

Within an hour a herd of axis deer started to feed in my direction.  The wind was perfect and soon more than thirty does and four big stags were feeding in front of me.  Two of the stags were obviously rutting, and they harassed the does and each other, making a shot impossible.  I  finally was able to bring my Parker bow to full draw on a big stag.  Just as he turned broadside, the wind swirled, and a doe barked.  There was no hesitation.  One bark and they were gone.  So close, but no shot.  I sat five more hours, saw one big hog, but had no chance for a shot.  

When we arrived the next morning, Frank had already found a big herd of axis deer.  “They must have fed all night Dave, because they are bedded in that strip of timber on the far hill,” Frank noted.  “I have a tripod in the thicket right below there, so sneak in there, and when they move to feed, you will be in the right spot.”  Sounded like a plan to me, so off I went.  Frank was right, the location of the stand appeared to be in the best spot to intercept the deer when they decided to feed.  But it took awhile.  Four hours later the first axis moved from the woods.  Twenty or more does tagged along, but the big stag bringing up the rear got my attention.  Ten minutes later they were all within thirty yards, and the stag needed to take one more step for a twenty-yard shot.  It never happened.  Again, a doe apparently caught my wind, and they were gone.  These axis were definitely a challenge with the bow. 

The axis would normally bed during the heat of the day, so after an uneventful morning we had time to relax, awaiting the evening hunt.  That’s when Bill suggested we look at some aoudad habitat. “We’ve got three hours to kill Dave.  Let’s look at my aoudad sheep hunting situation.”  Ten years earlier I saw a lot of aoudads in West Texas while hunting javelina.  Several times I attempted stalks.  To use the word “stalk” is a stretch because I never got close.  These guys were wary and since they usually travel in small groups there are more eyes and noses to nail you.  And they did, long before I was ever in bow range.  So when Bill Watson of South Hills Ranch told me he knew how to get in bow range of aoudads, I perked up. 

Frank tagged along as we hopped in the truck and drove up a rough canyon, with thick cover on both sides.  Near the top of the ridge, there was a small spring and we piled out of the truck to have a look see.  Sure enough there were fresh aoudad tracks in the mud.

“This looks promising,” Bill said.  “I need to put a Double Bull blind right here.”  This was Bill’s strategy to hunt aoudads with the bow.  Put out a salt block in a high mountain pass where aoudads normally travel and bed.  Erect a Double Bull blind and let it sit there for a week or so, then go bowhunt.

But, there was no blind erected here now.  Just a tiny bit of water, and a nearby salt block put out for cattle.  From the sign, both the salt and nearby grasses were being utilized by the aoudads as well as cattle.

Bill noted that the aoudads often came to the salt during the heat of the day.  After hearing that I decided to stay and bowhunt.  “Bill, let’s clear a spot in that brush over there,” I suggested.  “The wind is right, and there is some shade from this gosh-awful heat.  Come back for me in three hours and we’ll hunt axis deer.”  Bill agreed and we gathered some brush and constructed a primitive blind.  Frank grabbed a small stool from the truck and soon I was alone. 

I knew it was a shot in the dark, but I had a few hours to kill, so why not give it a shot?  The negative was that it was the middle of the day and the heat was oppressive.  The reality was that the aoudads were probably bedded, and my chance for seeing one was next to zero.  But I was here, so I might as well hunt. 

It didn’t take very long for the heat and the short night’s sleep to have an effect on me.  I nodded off every few minutes.  About one hour into the hunt a noise awoke me.  There, at what I guessed was thirty yards, was an aoudad ram, grazing on the sparse grass.  Where in the heck did he come from?  (How would you know Dave, you were sleeping.)  Sleepy or not, I was now wide awake and slowly grabbed my bow.  It was a standoff for ten minutes.  He was facing me head on as he fed.  Finally he turned to leave and I shot.  The thirty-yard estimate turned out to be thirty-five, and I unknowingly cut the tendon on his front leg joint.  He wasn’t alarmed at all, but walked away, limping badly.  At forty-five yards, a quartering shot presented itself, and I took it.  It was right on and he wobbled into a nearby ravine.  It was a hard one-hour hike to the ranch house, and when we returned an hour later, the ram was laying in the ravine.  What a thrill.  An aoudad ram with the bow.  (I’d later learn that Bill’s next three bowhunting clients all got aoudads.  Indeed he has figured out how to get close to these wary critters). 

Very few free-range aoudad sheep are taken with the bow.

After hanging him in the cooler, we went to a local millet field where the axis were coming at night.  A quick back track led to a small staging area.  We quietly put up a tripod stand in a patch of oaks along the trail to the field.  I climbed in at 6:00 and began the wait.  Two hours later a stag roared and he was coming my way. 

Within a few minutes he came into sight . . . the same stag I’d seen on the third morning.  As he approached, I came to full draw, and found a hole thru the limbs at twenty-five yards.  I shot when he entered.  His front leg must have been coming back when I released, because I hit the shoulder blade.  We gave him a two-hour wait, then found the arrow around 150 yards away.  It appeared I’d gotten at least one lung.  An hour later we gave up for the night, but when we arrived at first light the next morning, Frank was sitting at the gate with a smile on his face.  “I found him Dave,” he laughed.  The stag had turned and died right behind my stand, headed for the field.  When Frank drove in that morning he’d spotted horns sticking above the grass.  He hadn’t spoiled, and we were a bunch of happy guys as we hung him in the cooler beside the aoudad.  

An aoudad and an axis stag with a bow, free-range, on the same day was special.

Bill and I returned to South Hills, butchered the two animals, then Will took me out for one last try for blackbuck, or maybe another wild hog.  “You haven’t hunted the far side of our ranch Dave, want to give that a try?” Will asked.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but that meant we’d be pretty far from the home range of old “bent horn” but no matter.  We went to a tripod and Will put out a line of corn for hogs.  “I’ll be back at dark and pick you up,” he said, and off he drove.

My luck was still holding, and what happened next was hard to believe.  Within an hour after Will dropped me off, I heard some noise on the trail, and expected to see a wild hog.  Instead, here comes old “bent horn”.  Blackbucks are wound tight as a spring.  When I took the twenty-eight-yard quartering away shot, he ducked, but not quite far enough.  The spine shot put him down, but as I got down to check, he was up and moving, not 100 percent, but moving nonetheless.  Blood was scanty and there wasn’t a trail to follow, so when Will came for me we had to give up the search until morning.

Old ”Benthorn” injured his head while young, leading to the growth of one weird horn. As with the axis and aoudad, they are a challenging species to bowhunt.

The next morning we spent an hour looking in “bent horn’s” territory.  No luck.  Bill was convinced that he would recover the hide and horns later, but he and Will had to leave for an archery shoot, and I had an airplane to catch.  However, at 8:30 Jolene and Tim Beer, another bowhunter in camp, spotted a circling vulture.  They checked it out and there he was.  Not spoiled, and all I missed was getting some good kill photos.  What luck and what an ending to a great off-season adventure.  An aoudad, axis and blackbuck, all in the last two days of my bowhunt.  It doesn’t get much better than that. 

Postscript

It’s easy to get to the South Hills Ranch.  Fly to San Antonio, rent a car and travel two hours west to Utopia.  The ranch is bowhunting only, and there is a nice bunkhouse, with an equipped kitchen (you cook your own meals) and full bath.  There is a fee for axis, blackbuck, and aoudads.  It was hot when I was there, a pleasant change from a bad winter in West Virginia.  You need no special equipment to hunt exotic species.  My Parker bow and 21/17 aluminum shafts tipped with Rocky Mt. 125 grain Titanium broadheads worked just fine.  I didn’t take any of the aoudad meat home, so I’m not sure how they taste.  But the hog, blackbuck and axis meat was wonderful.  I paid extra air luggage costs and took two full coolers of meat home.  Expensive, yes.  But to me it was worth it just to be able to eat such healthy, good tasting meat. 

Would I do such an exotic hunt again?  Tomorrow might be good. 

 

For more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel