I am always dwelling on the memories of the good hunts throughout my life—the success we shared on the South Dakota prairie as pheasants cackled and fell to the gun’s report, the sunrise that seemed to last forever in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and even the simple times we called turkeys in the hills of Tennessee with nothing more than our bare hands scratching the leaves. But it’s the solo melodies when nobody is around to hear my music that really make me proud to be a hunter. Those are the visceral moments when I’m able to pull back on the reins of life and just sit and listen.
We arrived at the Canyon Ranch, three-plus hours due west of San Antonio, on a warm May afternoon. Whitetail deer, axis deer, turkeys, and scimitar-horned oryx fled from the road as the gravel clicked and clacked underfoot, dust clouds turning to small tornadoes sweeping after the thundering herds.
In camp we met our guides for the week from SOE Hunts. SOE’s owner, Mike Stroff, gave us a quick tour of the lodge by pointing in the general direction of bedrooms. We picked roommates (I would bunk with Bob Robb—a first-class guy, writer, and hunter, and most importantly, a non-snorer), dropped our bags on the floor and headed out to the shooting range.
I had never fired a Steyr rifle before this trip. Frankly, I didn’t know too much about them at the time other than they sponsored the trip along with Hornady Ammunition. So as I drifted down the line, feeling out each one, checking the scope and working the action, I asked Steyr’s CEO Scott O’Brien for his professional opinion.
“You’re best bet would be to shoot the SM 12,” he said, handing me the rifle. “It’s really something special; top-of-the-line.”
“Sounds good to me.”
It’s a good idea to test as much of the equipment as possible—get a feel for the products. But there was something special about the Steyr-Mannlicher (SM) 12. She was different from all the others: classy and refined, yet totally modern. As I held her in my arms for the first time, quietly observing the elegant checkering on the European walnut stock, Bavarian cheek piece with double flame and fish scale pattern, I knew I was falling fast. Plus, she sported a Swarovski Z3 scope and weighed just over seven pounds, just the way I like ‘em. A few shots and a fairly tight group of .270 rounds later, she was mine—at least for a few days.
The next morning’s 4:15 a.m. wake-up call came abruptly after a late night of getting acquainted. I pulled on my clothes, gulped down two cups of coffee, checked my gear and waited for instruction. I’d hunted Texas nearly 20 years earlier, and was excited at the prospect of all the game it had to offer.
But I never thought it would be an exotic animal I’d be back to hunt. In fact, I was against going when the invitation came in, thinking of all the dreadful outfits around this country that offer such big game hunts in a pen no bigger than a backyard. I addressed this concern with Karen Lutto (Hunter Outdoor Communications), who was quick to ease my mind. “No fences, free-range, an axis deer’s senses are as good, if not better than a whitetail’s.” Fair enough.
For me, the first morning was unproductive. I saw a few deer, heard the bizarre screams of the rutting axis bucks in the humid, predawn air, and watched some big Rios strut in front of my blind. I read Uncle Remus when light allowed, muffled laughs in a gloved hand stretching no further than the blind’s interior, a paragraph here and there and then taking up my binoculars to glass the countryside yet again.
Back at camp, Scott was jubilant as he’d taken a fine axis buck that morning. Everett Deger of Hornady Ammunition connected on a nice black buck, which he’d decided to shoot in lieu of an axis buck.
We breakfasted on eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns. The day was young, hot winds well on their way as we shuffled around, not sure of what to do next. Dinner was planned for five that evening, and then they would take us back out to hunt. Some elected naps, others went out to the shooting range to waste some time and educate themselves further on the Steyr rifles. I sat in the shade of a tall oak with my favorite uncle.
By six I was in a treestand overlooking a waterhole. Unfortunately, Uncle Remus was forgotten, resting on my bed at the lodge and I cussed under my breath knowing that before the earth cooled to a simmer and the animals began to move, I was in for a hot sit. That is, except for the turkeys. All day I was burdened with the watchful eyes as a mix of hens, jakes, and toms charged the waterhole as if it were to be their last drink. If I saw one turkey, I saw 200.
Pigs scurried back and forth between cover and water, sensing something different in the air. Several times axis deer also approached from my downwind side and immediately headed back into the thick mesquite. Needless to say, the heat wasn’t helping my usually delightful body odor.
Then, as the sun sank lower on the horizon, the shadows growing increasingly longer, something kicked a rock to my right. Turning slowly, I watched an axis buck not 15 yards away meander down to the water. He was downwind as he tested the air before quenching his thirst. My hand was steady, resting in my lap, the safety on. He would have been more than enough on the last afternoon. Live another day, my friend.
Not 10 minutes after he moved off, an axis doe walked down the same path, almost spitting distance from my stand. She too gave a quick sniff before taking a long drink. Axis deer generally travel in herds from three to 30, the does leading the way, so you can imagine my anticipation as she kept looking behind her. More moving rocks and they began to appear in my peripheral vision, one by one following the path to drink. Does and yearlings at first and then the head honcho filtered down to the little pond.
This buck was even better than the first. His right side was tall, 30-plus inches, and though his antlers were heavy, his left side was inferior, only two tines of about 20 inches a piece. But he was old and he was magnificent-looking. Hues of brown transcended from dark to light along his white-spotted coat. Subordinate bucks made room for his long stride and heeded to his roar as he overlooked his harem. Not you either, old boy. Not today.
We were allowed an axis doe as well, as their meat is supposedly better than a ribeye steak. So as the herd headed off, I picked one of medium size and found her in the crosshairs. Then the light kick of the SM 12 and the 130-grain Hornady coupled for what I’d like to think was a quick and painless death. When she arrives from the processor, it will be her life that we will celebrate.
A couple more nice bucks were taken that afternoon by the other hunters. Pigs were also on the menu and going down as fast as they served themselves up. Again, we took advantage of the company and the ranch’s amenities that night before catching a few hours sleep.
The second morning came with the prospect of rain and cooler temperatures. I sat in a folding chair off the corner of a decrepit barn, veiled by the low hanging branches of a young oak. It was rather uneventful for me, but yet again, others felled nice bucks.
Back at camp, we had the same breakfast as the previous morning, but our mindsets were different. Those of us who hadn’t met an axis buck worth shooting were ready to head right back out. If we were to sit around all day, might as well be in the comfort of a deer stand.
Einar Hoff of Steyr, Bob, and myself piled into one of Stroff’s employee’s trucks. Rudy, a West Virginia native, found his way West once upon a time and never turned back. With sharp eyes, Rudy was the first to spot the big buck just 50 yards off the road.
“That’s a fine deer if anybody wants to get out and shoot ‘em,” he said excitedly. Rudy doesn’t get excited about just any buck. But the three of us weren’t there to have it done quite so easily, so we drove on to Bob’s stand in a large grove overlooking a five-acre pond. We wished him good luck and backtracked down the same road to Einar’s stand.
This time, the axis was 200 yards farther off the road from where we’d initially seen him. Throwing up my glasses, I spotted at least three more with him—all bucks.
“Now, if anyone is interested in doing a stalk, this would be the time,” Rudy said.
“I’ll do it,” I quickly volunteered. Perhaps a bit too quickly. “Unless, of course, you want to, Einar. Your call,” I deferred.
“Na. You go on ahead,” he assured me in his Southern drawl.
“Take this,” Rudy said handing me a portable GPS. “I’ve got it anchored to that windmill should you get lost. Be back in an hour. Good luck.”
I watched as the truck went around a bend and out of sight, the dust flicking away like a cow’s tail. Shoving the GPS in my pocket and loading the rifle, I headed off into the brush. With the wind in my face, I picked my way through the prickly pears, watching for snakes and hugging the cover.
Ten slow steps, 10 seconds looking and listening for rattlers, 10 seconds glassing the distant treeline. It was a good system. Not too many of these repetitions later I spotted five axis bucks in the distance, perhaps 300 hundred yards away. Moving stealthily, never hurrying, I picked the last piece of cover a hundred yards away and headed that direction. The bucks were slowly grazing along with no apparent destination in mind.
For the first time, as I reached my intended scrub tree, I was able to get a good look at the group. Three bucks were juveniles; their time to lead a herd and set a hunter’s heart to beating a few years down the road. But the other two were fit for the first morning. The tips of their colossal antlers nearly touched their rumps as they tilted their heads back, reaching for low-hanging limbs. Of the two, one was hard-horned and the other, the one I truly would liked to have taken, was in full velvet. I have berated myself over and over for any disappointment I’ve felt for not shooting that great monarch. Because when they are in full velvet, their tips rounded instead of pointed, there is still too much blood present to preserve the rack. Just right then, it was an easy choice.
He was the last one in the pack, taking his damn sweet time, feeding here, scratching there, lazily surveying the surrounding countryside. He couldn’t have known that I had conveniently posted myself on a prickly pear, the thorns prodding my thigh. He also wouldn’t have known that as I sat hunched forward, the Steyr rifle resting across the pack in my lap, my back was throbbing from the stooping stalk and uncomfortable position. And he certainly did not know that my heart was beating at a rapid rate, my blood a torrent through my body as I waited for the right moment that I almost did not want to come. If you’ve ever hunted axis deer, seen them on the hoof in all their glory and beauty, watched the expressions on their bull-like faces as they think of nothing more than rutting, eating, and surviving, you would know what I’m talking about. But in the end, the prospect of a kill—the means to an end—overtook the Zen-like pretensions that had momentarily lapsed my brain.
The wind remained in my favor as the big velvet buck came closer. Forty yards became 40 feet in what seemed like an eternity as he began following my scent like a bird dog. I could hear his stomach compress as he sniffed and snorted, his acute sense of smell detecting something strange in the air. The others were still unaware, but I knew it was mere seconds before he busted me and the whole herd was gone, the whole stalk wasted.
But as it sometimes happens, my lucky stars aligned. Just as Velvet was about to drop the curtain and send the bunch rolling like post-show credits, my trophy stepped out from behind the brush and presented me with a broadside shot. The safety was already off and my eye in the scope as I touched the trigger. The .270’s roar sent them running, including the buck I’d just shot. Or did I? Quickly working the smooth bolt, I fired off two more shots, both missing, before he could reach a small grove of trees, a guardian that would stand between us if I couldn’t bring him down.
Hunters and shooters know when a shot feels good and when it goes awry. My shot had felt good. The backpack provided a steady rest and I was sure I hadn’t flinched. Jumping up from the ground, binoculars in hand, I scoped out the grove where he’d disappeared. The anxiety welled up inside me as I, the rookie, the untested outdoor writer, began bearing the pain of a miss after everything had panned out so perfectly—the trip, the friends I’d made in camp, my job with Sporting Classics. How could this be?
A faint movement caught my eye on the near side of the small woodlot. Looking hard into my binoculars, straining my eyes to make the unbelievable appear, I saw it again—antlers, swaying. He was on the ground in his death throes!
Later that evening, Bob Robb told me, “Man, you sure worked that bolt quickly,” after hearing my three shots. Fortunately, he didn’t hear my incessant whooping as I forgot about rattlesnakes and disregarded the prickly pear and ran to the buck. I thanked him for his life, snapped a few photos of the rifle, which held perfectly in his large antlers, and headed back towards the road to wait for Rudy, the whole while grinning from ear to ear as I recapped the hunt in my head.
The hunt, the stalk, the whole trip began and ended perfectly—from Mike Nischalke and Karen Lutto, to the guys from Steyr and the accuracy of the SM 12, and finally the smashing ballistics of Hornady’s renowned ammunition. SOE laid it out for us to play it out and of course my fellow outdoor writers—Bob Robb, Jon Sundra, and Joseph Von Benedikt—were always encouraging and never without a story to tell in the downtime we shared.
You make these memories and you make these friends, and for just a little while it feels like you’ve been there for a lifetime. And when it ends, it’s so abrupt that you’re not sure which emotion should reign superior on your shirtsleeve. So it was as we went our different directions at the airport and back to our separate lives. Emails and phone calls would surely follow, photos would float through and the stories would eventually appear, but it’s the memories of my first hunt as an outdoor writer that would last forever. There will never be another first.
NOTE: Mike Nischalke and Karen Lutto of Hunter Outdoor Communications (www.hunteroc.com) were the two people who’d put the hunt together – booking our flights, making sure all the rifles arrived and were sighted in, keeping us in the libations, and just making sure we all had a great time. Mike’s efforts throughout the week were unparalleled. As I told Scott O’Brien of Steyr Arms (www.steyrarms.com), it’s easy to write a product into a story when the driving forces behind it are just all-around, good folks. I’ll be making a play to obtain an SM 12 sooner than later. Hornady Ammunition (www.hornady.com), which began as a two-man operation nearly 65 years ago, has always been my preferred choice. Last but not least, visit SOE Hunts (www.soehunts.com) to find out what they have to offer. You won’t be disappointed.