The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Still-hunting in Texas
Dennis Dunn 12.04.13
As the decade of the 1990s arrived on my doorstep and began rolling by me at ever-increasing speed, I started hearing more and more stories from friends about the wonderful bowhunting opportunity for whitetail deer being offered on the famous King Ranch in southeast Texas. The father-and-son team of Wayne and Jarred Peeples had leased the hunting rights to just a small portion of the gigantic King Ranch spread, but they were managing it for bowhunting only and seemed—by all reports—to be producing a steady string of trophy-quality bucks for their clients.
Since I had yet to harvest anything close to a Pope and Young whitetail, the possibility of hunting there really intrigued me. From what I was hearing, the bucks on this Texas ranch weren’t nearly as wary or spooky as your typical whitetail bucks in the Midwest or the Northeast. One successful friend, who had just returned from hunting the Peeples operation, told me over the phone one evening that I would probably see P and Y-quality bucks nearly every day. I was told that, although I could sit in a treestand or on a high tripod-chair all day long if I wanted to, the spot-and-stalk method would most likely prove to be even more productive, more quickly.
Well, that’s all it took! That was the straw that broke my will to resist. I hung up, placed a new call to the Peeples family, and within minutes had a five-day hunt booked for late December of 1995. Spot-and-stalk hunting has always been my favorite way to hunt most anything, anyway, and nothing gets my adrenaline pumping harder than the opportunity to sneak in on an unsuspecting buck that is bedded or feeding. I especially love “still-hunting”—which is really just a very slow variation of “spot-and-stalk.” It works in a reverse format, however, because you move along ever-so-slowly through the woods until you finally spot your quarry (hopefully before it has seen you). For that reason, perhaps, still-hunting should really be called “stalk and spot.” They are complementary variations on a theme, and—if the original “spot” of your quarry has been made through high-powered optics from a long distance—one usually follows on the heels of the other. This could be called “relocating your target at close range.”
The hunt package I signed up for that December in Texas allowed me the taking of one trophy buck, one management buck (or doe), one javelina, and one wild turkey. Since I was really focused on deer, I never spent any time trying to arrow a turkey, but in the course of the five days I did have an excellent shot opportunity at a good-sized male javelina.
I found the whole concept of a “management buck” absolutely fascinating, and, as we drove around the ranch in Jarred’s Jeep on the first morning, so I could get a good idea of what quality of bucks inhabited the place, I got a real education on the nuts and bolts of sound deer management. Jarred explained to me that they really didn’t want any bucks taken less than four years old, unless—by reason of inferior antler development—they needed to be culled earlier, so as to remove their genes from the breeding pool. I learned that the number of points on each side wasn’t nearly as important as the length of whatever points were there. Length and mass on the antlers were what produced high-scoring racks.
Though symmetry (balance) helps increase scores, also, I have learned over the years that this latter issue is largely a matter of personal taste. Some hunters go into orbit over freakish, asymmetrical racks. The weirder and more “non-typical” a set of antlers is, the more they drool over the prospect of possibly getting a shot at any buck sporting such headgear. I confess that my own tastes tend to run the other way. With deer and elk, for example, a tall, wide, and perfectly balanced set of horns gets my juices pumping as much as any sight in nature. Actually, precise symmetry in the natural world is pretty rare.
As for the Peeples operation on the King Ranch, back in 1995 and 1996 when I hunted there, they were managing their deer herd to produce as many high-scoring Pope and Young racks as they could. On the second afternoon of my first hunt, Jarred and I walked up quietly to within bow range of what I thought looked like a pretty nice 10-pointer—five to a side. He had his nose practically inside the skirts of a doe in heat and was paying virtually no attention to us.
“Now keep educating me, Jarred,” I said. “That buck would make Pope and Young’s minimum entry score of 125, wouldn’t it?”
“Not even close,” Jarred replied. “Notice how short all the tines are. He’s got a good spread, but he won’t score very well at all. You’re welcome to shoot him as a cull, if you wish.”
“As a cull?” I repeated.
“Yeah, a ‘management’ buck. His genes are not likely to produce offspring that will grow long points, either. We’re better off simply removing him from the gene pool. You can then go ahead and take a much better animal as your trophy buck.”
Well, as the reader might imagine, I didn’t need any more encouragement than that. The antlers looked plenty big to me, and the biggest whitetail buck I’d previously taken was a spike (just one point per side). I made an instant decision to try to add my contribution to the successful management plan for the ranch by drawing on the “cull” as he trotted past me at around 25 yards. He was hot on the trail of his heavily-perfumed paramour. When my arrow passed through him amidships, he hardly seemed to notice. Later that evening, we recovered him about 200 yards away. Needless to say, since he was no longer in an upright position, his fickle ladylove was nowhere to be seen.
The following morning, as Jarred and I drove around the ranch scouting for a true trophy buck, a throng of javelinas ran across the road in front of us. My guide suggested that this might be just the right time and situation to add some pork to our larder. I hopped out of the Jeep and headed quietly into the brush, leaving the vehicle to continue forward a hundred yards or so. The wild peccaries were busily rooting around for food, and it didn’t take me long to hear and spot a long-tusked boar making a noisy glutton of himself at the base of a good-sized cactus. He was actually making so much noise that he gave me the sound-cover I needed to sneak within 15 yards and dispatch him quickly with one well-placed arrow through the rib cage.
Finding that Pope and Young trophy buck, however, was proving to be a more difficult proposition. Not that we weren’t spotting a few, but the rutting activity going on around us made it difficult to mount a successful stalk, because the critters would never stay in one place long enough. Finally, on the fifth and final day of my hunt, Wayne Peeples took over the guiding responsibilities, as Jarred had to return home to take care of some personal weekend business. That last afternoon brought us face-to-face with a handsome buck, whose antlers Wayne spent some considerable time studying through his binoculars. It was a symmetrical eight-point with fairly long tines.
“That’s a pretty buck,” Wayne remarked, “but I can’t guarantee he’ll go 125. There’s a chance, but I tend to doubt he’ll ‘make book.’ It’s your decision. Should you decide to shoot him, and he doesn’t make it, you can always come back next year at a friendly price.”
After giving some thought to Wayne’s message, as well as a bit more time to watching the buck through my own binos, I made the decision to attempt to harvest him. He was definitely aware of our presence some 35 yards away, but he had a love interest nearby that was distracting him greatly. As they moved around together during their comical courting ritual, I tried to stay within bow range of him. It seemed he would never let me close the distance to less than 30 yards, yet he was tolerating my presence.
As for the doe, she couldn’t have cared less about my being in the picture. Evidently, she wasn’t quite ready to be bred—at least not by that particular suitor, so her constant challenge was to keep five or 10 yards between the two of them. Eventually my persistence was rewarded. The frustrated buck, breathing hard, stopped to catch his breath, and at the same moment he managed to catch my arrow with his front shoulder. Although the shot wasn’t perfect, he eventually expired 60 yards away. I felt no guilt whatsoever over harvesting the beautiful creature and putting some more venison in my freezer. The only guilt I felt was over taking his life before he’d had the chance to enjoy his long-awaited tryst.
Wayne’s hunch proved to be correct. The buck’s rack scored around 121—a bit shy of the Pope and Young minimums. Yet I was very happy with him, and I determined to return the following year, in mid-November, before the rut really got strongly under way. Thus, I knew I could enjoy the challenging spot-and-stalk routine while the bucks were still in a more quiescent, rational state of mind.
* * *
My return visit to the King Ranch the following fall proved especially enjoyable because my wife, Karen, was able to accompany me. It was just the second big game hunt she had been a part of, but, unlike the first one in 1994, when she had gone with me and my sons up to MacKay Lake in the Northwest Territories to hunt caribou, this time she had her own bow and was hoping to get a shot at a Rio Grande turkey. After our marriage in 1989, I had taught her to shoot a bow, but she wasn’t quite strong enough to pull one for hunting big game. Consequently, a turkey was a more feasible goal on which to set her sights, and it seemed far more appealing to her, anyway. “They have beady, little eyes,” I remember her telling me. “Not such big, soulful ones. And besides,” she added, “a turkey is just a turkey, right?” This was real progress, I thought to myself—recalling that, when I met Karen in late 1988, she had definitely considered herself an anti-hunter.
For the first morning of our hunt, Wayne Peeples decided to have Karen sit on top of a 12-foot-high tripod chair in an area where he knew she would see deer, and where he hoped some turkeys might wander through as well. He delivered her to the tripod while it was still dark and told her he’d return to pick her up about 10 a.m.
Karen still talks to this day about what a magical morning that was for her, after climbing up her ladder in the dark. At first it seemed pretty scary, with darkness all about. Yet, gradually, as the shapes and shadows around her slowly turned from black, to gray, and to pale semblances of different colors awaiting the sunrise to vivify them more intensely, she began to feel a sense of awe and mystery she had never known before. Various birds began chirping and conversing, even before the orangeish orb of the sun started to peek over the horizon. The world was coming to life all around her, and the first weak rays of the rising sun caused her to shiver in anticipation of the warmth she was so ready to welcome. A squirrel scampered down a tree 20 feet away, en route to finding more acorns or other delicacies for his winter cache.
Suddenly a corn-spreader nearby was triggered by its automatic timer, and for eight seconds it threw out hard kernels of corn to the ground in all directions. Then the relative silence returned, only to be broken within minutes by the barely audible footsteps in the leaves of several deer approaching to take advantage of the free meal. Karen says that observing those deer at very close range that first morning, without their having any idea of her presence, was one of the greatest thrills she had ever experienced. As things turned out, that Texas hunt never did give my wife the chance to launch an arrow at a wild turkey. Several years later, however, she did manage to shoot an Eastern gobbler in Alabama with a shotgun, while we were hunting with well-known hunter/conservationist Dennis Campbell.
On the third morning of this November hunt, Karen chose to accompany Wayne and me as we drove around scouting for bucks. Mid-morning, we spied a nifty buck all by himself about 80 or 90 yards off the road. One look with our binoculars told us he was a prime eight-pointer with long tines on his antlers.
“There’s your Pope and Young buck, Dennis,” said Wayne, with a big smile on his face. “Just walk upright, obliquely toward him. He’s already seen us, so if you don’t act sneaky you’ll probably get a chance for a good shot.”
Well, Wayne’s prediction proved accurate, to say the least. After I had closed the distance to around 30 yards, I drew just as the buck turned from a broadside position to facing directly at me. He was staring intently, and I found it hard to decipher the look on his face. Knowing I couldn’t hold my old Bear Archery take-down recurve at full draw for very long, I decided to take the head-on shot. The arrow flew true enough, striking the buck near the base of his neck. He ran off about 30 yards and lay down, and a minute later I finished him off in his bed with a second, merciful shot through the heart.
Karen, who had witnessed the drama from start to finish, was much relieved to see it end—as was I, especially on her account. Seeing an animal die is never easy, but particularly if you’re seeing it for the first time. Wayne and I quietly shook hands and then began dragging the dead buck in the direction of the Jeep. Field-dressing, skinning, and taking care of the meat all took place back at the ranch house.
The final two days before our airline reservations home were spent most enjoyably walking around the ranch, sitting in different treestands, and photographing the abundant wildlife. And the best part of all was having been able to share the whole experience with my wife!
Editor’s note: This article is the twelfth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks–join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the eleventh Chronicle here.