February 18, 2013
Just to the left of this sentence is where the photo should go.
It’s a classic shot… His face, an admixture of weariness, excitement, happiness, and the subtle shadows of ambivalence at celebrating the death of such a beautiful living creature. He kneels proudly, holding his rifle in an extended arm, butt down and muzzle up… the portrait of success. Stretched on the ground in front of him is the sleek, spotted body of a mature axis buck. The eyes are still black and glistening… still unglazed by death. The velvet-covered antlers sweep back in a graceful arc over the animal’s back.
At about 09:30, Saturday morning, I thought that was the picture I’d be posting today.
The buck had been grazing on the far side of the pasture, oblivious to the three hunters discussing the shot opportunties, estimating the range (one of the hunters, an “experienced guide”, had forgotten to get his Leica binocular/rangefinders out of the truck), and debating whether we should try for more than one animal, or just focus on one shot at a time. We decided that John, the shooter, would build up a rest with some handy bricks, and take the (approximately) 250 yard shot from a solid mount. Our host, Levi, and I would spot the shot. I wanted to run back to the truck and get my rangefinder, as well as the video camera, but instead I sat tight and watched the animals through my scope. If the herd didn’t scatter at the first shot, there might be an opportunity for me to pick out a deer of my own and make it a double.
At the crack of the 7mm-08, the buck sprang straight up and kicked before sprinting into the pecan bottom. He stopped, perfectly protected behind a downed tree branch. All we could do was watch and see what he did. If he gave the shooter another opportunity, that would be great, but the way the deer seemed to be sinking with his head down, we were all pretty sure the game was over. It was only a matter of time before he collapsed. Finally, he sank to his front knees and laid down. Unfortunately, he was now almost completely hidden from my sight. Was his head up or down? Was he done, or just sick? Should we chance loading up into the truck and hauling ass around the pasture to get to him?
We all agreed that the shot looked good. The buck’s reaction seemed fairly textbook. He must be down for the count.
Except he wasn’t. Even as we stood discussing and congratulating John on a great shot, the deer staggered back to his feet. The herd had trotted past him, headed to another part of the ranch, and he was going to try to join them. The tangle of downed branches and pecan trees kept John from getting another clear shot as the deer slowly staggered off, out of sight. Then Levi said he saw it fall again, and we should get the truck and head around there to collect him.
We were pretty sure there’d be a dead deer laying under the pecan trees when we arrived, but there wasn’t. We cast about blindly for a little while before backtracking to the blood spoor, and starting over. The trail, it turns out, went the opposite direction from where we’d last seen the buck moving.
The tracking job was long, complicated, and very frustrating at times. I’ll spare the extended description of the whole ordeal, but at the end of it, Levi jumped the deer in a cedar thicket, and it leapt a fence and crossed onto a neighboring property where we could not follow.
Here is where I’d have inserted the second photo, aligned right, of John with his axis doe. Her copper fur, spotted with white would be shining in the brilliant sunshine of a mild and beautiful, winter afternoon. In the picture he strokes her slender neck with a look of somber admiration. The rifle is placed, muzzle-up (and bolt open, thank you), across her haunches for the photo, carefully posed by the photographer for a classic “hero shot”.
But it appears that this was not to be either. A moment’s hesitation is a moment too long for a skittish creature like an axis deer. And it never pays the marksman to second-guess his shot placement in the midst of making the shot.
Were there lessons learned? Absolutely. Hindsight is always so very clear, and looking back over the weekend exposes all sorts of things that could’vewould’veshould’ve been done differently. There were lessons of patience, waiting a little longer, taking a little more time on the trail, and paying closer attention.
We were reminded of the need to stop regularly while blood trailing to take our eyes off the ground and look around us. Levi was looking at the ground when the buck jumped up from a thicket very nearby. It’s possible that, had he been scanning the brush as well as the ground, he might have seen it before it got away. Or maybe not…
We were reminded that animals don’t necessarily stop where we expect them to, and you should never rush ahead without looking carefully around first. John and I had seen a group of deer run across the road ahead of us, and cut across country to head them off. I was rushing to get to the place I thought they’d be, and we practically walked right into them because they had turned and come toward us. If I’d been a little more attentive on where I was, instead of focused on where I wanted to be, I’m pretty sure we could have had a shot at those deer.
Other lessons? After losing the buck, Levi and I both remarked on our fondness for neck shots and how they eliminated tracking jobs. In the midst of the hunt, we convinced John to switch up his game and shoot for the neck instead of the shoulder shot he was generally quite comfortable with. As a result, he hesitated at a crucial moment instead of going with what he knew and the deer ran off before he could shoot. When presented with another opportunity where a shoulder shot would have been perfectly effective, he went for the neck and doubted himself just enough to miss the shot. This is a lesson I should already have known well… if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
So there are no photos. And John is going home without any meat.
But it wasn’t a total loss, as I got the opportunity to spend some time in the field with a great guy. We shared excellent conversations, some good food, and a drink or two after which we did our best to solve the problems of the world.
Next time. It may not be better, but it will almost certainly be different.
May 29, 2012
So, in the rush and madness, I misplaced the pictures I took on my last hunt. Not that there are any awesome hero shots or anything, but I have to say this shot of my brother’s grandson, Damien, is a trophy in itself.
At 5 years old, Damien has already taken a nice tom turkey, and I think he was hoping to kill himself an axis on this trip. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out and my brother had to take the only shot opportunity. But optimism springs eternal in the young mind, so Damien decided to lay claim to any animal killed on this hunt. As far as he was concerned, that axis doe was his and he may as well have shot it himself.
Well, when I shot my boar, Damien decided to lay claim to it as well. That was OK with me, but I told him that there’s something that goes along with getting your first hog. My brother promptly took up one of the boar’s trotters, dipped it liberally in the pooled blood, and gave the youngster the hunter’s mark! I believe he’d still be wearing it today, if Scott hadn’t considered the likely reaction of his wife (no sense of humor when it comes to covering her grandbaby in gore), and made the boy wash it off before going home.
Unfortunately, that was pretty much it for the killing on this trip. I would have liked to add one more axis or fallow doe to the meat pole, but I’ll have to fill the freezer later. The axis were as scarce as I’ve seen them…
Well, they were scarce until I headed back to the Manor.
About a mile from the house, I realized that the herd of goats I was looking at wasn’t goats at all!
There must have been forty or fifty axis deer in the field, just loafing under the mesquites and oaks. Of course, as soon as I slowed down to take a photo, they were off to the races. I was still able to snap a couple of shots… just wish I had permission to shoot with something more powerful than the camera here!
The upshot is, these axis were all on a low-fence property. There are several more ranches between this one and mine, but it definitely gave me hope that I’ll be seeing some polka-dotted deer on my place in the near future.
Here are a couple more photos before they cleared the pasture and disappeared into the woods.
May 21, 2012
Well, seems like only yesterday I was in the sweltering Hill Country heat, and now I’m whisked away to the cold, gloom of a rainy Spokane morning. Oh, well, I guess it was only yesterday…
Things are really hopping with the day job right now, so not a lot of time for updates and posts. I did want to share a little about last week’s short hunts. I got a ton of video and a few good photos, but they’re all back in Texas at the Hillside Manor, so all I have is this rough photo of my limited success.
He’s not a bad boar, but since we were hunting axis and fallow deer, he’s not exactly the prize I was planning for. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to get an axis doe in front of my rifle. I had an opportunity at a beautiful axis buck, but I didn’t want to pay the tab for that one… this was, after all, a meat hunt.
My little brother did get an axis doe, and while he was really hoping to carry two of them back to his freezer in NC, he was happy to take the majority of my hog with him as a consolation prize.
All in all, a success, even if the freezer is still a little low. There’ll be more hunts, and I’ll have more time to enjoy them.
May 13, 2012
This may well mean war!
April 5, 2012
Speaking of exotics… a new ruling by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has the exotics ranchers and hunters up in arms. A ruling against the USFWS has removed the loophole that allowed unrestricted breeding and hunting of three endangered species… the scimitar-horned oryx, the dama gazelle, and the addax.
There have been several articles about the ruling, and they painted a pretty grim picture using comments such as “ban on hunting” and “threatens the survival of the species”. The argument is that if the ranchers can no longer run hunts, then they won’t be able to afford to continue the management and breeding programs, and will let the herds die off until they’re gone.
That seemed pretty extreme, so I had to do a little digging to get the whole story. This may get a little long, but I really think it’s worth reading. If you don’t want to read what I’ve got to say, you can jump to the Federal Register to read the USFWS summary.
In 2005, the USFWS added three species of African antelope to the Endangered Species list. These were the dama gazelle, the addax, and the scimitar-horned oryx. At that point, the scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct in the wild, and the others were in dire straits.
At the same time, ranchers in Texas had been working to establish solid, huntable populations of these species on their properties with significant success… particularly with the oryx. According to the reports I’ve been reading, the oryx numbers went from a low of less than three-dozen in 1979 to a current population in the neighborhood of 11,000. Addax went from two in ’79 to around 5000 today. That’s not bad for an endangered animal.
Due to the success of these breeding and management programs, the USFWS allowed an exclusion under the ESA so that the ranchers could continue to run hunts on the endangered species, and to continue breeding programs. Hunters would pay pretty high-dollar for the opportunity to shoot one of these animals, and that money, in turn went into feeding, habitat, and breeding costs. To all appearances, the arrangement was working very well, and everyone seemed to be pretty happy about it.
Of course, “everyone” wasn’t all that happy. The animal rights organizations challenged the ESA exclusion over and over, and finally managed to push a lawsuit against the USFWS to fruition. The Service was forced to drop the exclusion, effective on April 4, 2012.
So, what does this mean to the ranchers, and more importantly, to these endangered antelope?
Well, first of all, let’s be absolutely clear. Dropping the exclusion does NOT equate to an outright ban on hunting the species or on breeding programs. There is a permitting process in place which enables the ranchers to continue to do what they’ve been doing. There are questions around the permits, and complaints that the process is too cumbersome and time consuming. Since I’m obviously not in a position to apply for the permit, I can’t validate those complaints. I have, however, gone over to the USFWS website to review the process and the rules.
If I’m reading the application correctly, it will take about four months to get an approved permit. The site says to allow 90 days for processing, and then the application must run for 30 days in the Federal Register prior to approval. That means that if a rancher wants to do management hunts, he needs to plan well in advance. At the very least, that’s an inconvenience. Exotics hunts are often planned on short notice.
It gets a little trickier, though, because the rancher/breeder must provide a justification for the application (e.g. management or cull hunt), and the approval process includes the opportunity for a challenge. The Friends of Animals organization has vowed to challenge every permit application, which potentially means that the approval timeline may get drawn out even more… or may even be rejected if the argument finds a sympathetic ear. The potential for subjectivity in the application process would worry me, if I were one of the ranchers impacted by all of this.
As you would expect, the exotics ranchers are pretty angry about this. Particularly in Texas, these folks are pretty independent and don’t take kindly to what they see as government intrusion into their private property rights. For most of them, they consider these animals to be their property and not subject to intervention by government agencies. There have been many threats of liquidating entire herds, turning them loose into the wild, or simply selling out and dropping their programs.
Nevertheless, a handful of the owners are trying to follow the new rules. There are complaints, but since the new rule only became official yesterday (April 4), it’s hard to say whether the complaints are valid, or if the new system will really have a negative impact on the overall longevity of the breeding and management programs.
In my opinion, it’s highly unlikely that the new ruling will have an extreme, negative impact on the survival of the three species, but I can see where some ranchers will choose to stop raising the endangered antelope. I can absolutely see where it’s going to be a thorn in the side of ranchers who are used to being able to manage the herds on their own terms, and the permitting process will probably get pretty onerous. Things are going to change, there’s no doubt, but I don’t think it means the end of the species… or even the end of hunting opportunities (although I’d bet the prices are going to go up).
For more direct information, take a look at the USFWS website. Among other good information, you can find a summary of the ruling, the Federal Register discussion of the ruling and its impacts, and links to the permit application, as well as a “cheat sheet” for completing the application.
By the way…
The hunt for these antelope isn’t just about trophies, although they are definitely unique and beautiful. By all accounts, the meat from all three species is sensational. Personally, I haven’t tried dama gazelle or addax, but I can vouch for the oryx. I found it similar to elk, although I think the flavor is better (most likely due to the oryx’s diet). The animal is about the same size as an elk as well, which means it provides a freezer-full of great-tasting protein!
April 2, 2012
Well, while I’m getting back into the grind here in the city, I have a feeling posts wll be a little slim. So, to keep you occupied, a friend of mine on Facebook posted up a link to this great find!
In Great Britain, researchers digging through the British Library archives found a cookbook. OK, interesting enough. Out of curiousity, I’ve read some of the old recipes and cooking techniques (but nothing like my friend, Hank Shaw). Those guys did some interesting stuff with food back in the days before refrigeration, when salt was a precious commodity, and most folks died before the age of 50.
But this cookbook is a little different. No chicken or pork here… no sir! This book includes recipes for such lovely treats as hedgehog, blackbird, and, best of all, unicorn!
Now I’ve hunted and shot a handful of exotics, from wild boar and axis deer to scimitar-horned oryx, and I’ve eaten them all with gusto. But unicorn? I’ve scanned all of the Texas exotics ranches I can find online, and not a single one of them offers hunts for this critter. I guess I’ll never get a chance to try out the recipe… which is good, because I expect it’ll be a while before this book makes it to the Amazon bookshelf.