Look Who’s Still Coming To Dinner

March 26, 2014

7point_march_antlers I know a lot of guys are out there hunting and collecting sheds right now.  Heck, it’s March.  The bucks should have dropped their antlers by now, right?  Well check out the time stamp on this shot.

I did notice that a lot of the young bucks that usually come to the feeder have shed already (except one little spike who is currently a unicorn), but this guy was still sporting full headgear just a couple of weeks ago.

sixpoint_march_antlersAnd then there’s this six-pointer that I watched all season.  He’s still holding his head up high and proud too.

I’ll be checking the juniper thickets over the next couple of weeks, in hopes of picking these guys antlers up before the mice get them.

I may as well hunt sheds.  The turkeys are playing mean games with me right now.

Monday Musing On A Tuesday

January 21, 2014

Road Runner on the prowlWell, it may not be me, but someone is always hunting something around the Hillside Manor.

Whitetail season wrapped up over the weekend, and while I briefly considered slipping back out with the bow, I decided instead to use the downtime to get some work done out in the barn.  I have as much venison as we’ll need this year, and really want to leave a little freezer space in case I get a shot at some hogs.  It’s been a while since I had fresh pork, and I’m seriously starting to jones.

I stopped by the smokehouse this weekend to see how Carl is making out.  He’s hired a couple of new guys, so he hasn’t really needed my help in the skinning shed.  Part of me misses it, but the rest of me is OK with having my weekends free again.

Anyway, I was chatting about the deer that came in over the closing weekend.  In our area, the season for whitetail bucks ended on January 5, but hunters could still take does and spike bucks until the 18th.  A lot of hunters use this opportunity to fill out their tags and put meat in the freezer.  But apparently, some can’t read the regs too well, as I heard a couple of guys tried to bring in a four-point and an eight-point for processing on Sunday (the 18th).  I do hope Carl got in touch with the game warden.

And the week winds on…

I’ve got a stack of business cards sitting on my desk, and I need to start sending emails to follow up on SHOT Show contacts.  I had several promises of ammo to try out, and a few other opportunities for product reviews.  I was sort of remiss on product coverage most of last year (partly because I missed the 2013 SHOT Show), and I plan to make that up over the coming months.

For anyone who is new here, note that my product reviews are always “real world” reviews.  I don’t have some lab where I do stuff like test light transmission through optics or sample knife steel hardness.  I take stuff into the field and make it do what it’s supposed to do.  If it works, that’s awesome and you’ll hear about it.  If it doesn’t… well, that’s not awesome, but you’ll still hear about it.  I don’t get paid for this, and I’m not under any sort of contract or constraint to paint a rosy picture.  However, it’s also worth note that I won’t review anything if I don’t think it’ll pass muster in the first place.  Ridiculous gimmicks or cheap knock-offs need not apply.

So, back at it.  Many a mile to go before I rest and all that.


Mid-Week Pondering The Thaw

January 8, 2014

Polar vortex.

I just like to say it.

Kudos to the guy who came up with that monicker, by the way.  It’s like something you’d hear from a Saturday afternoon flick on the Sci-Fi Channel.  It conjures images of flash-frozen pedestrians, and skyscrapers coated with crushing ice while the hero struggles heroically to save the hot, scientist-lady who manages in at least one scene, to strip down to a form-fitting sports bra (no nudity on SciFi)… despite temperatures hovering around absolute-zero.

We didn’t get the cold too bad down here at Hillside Manor.  I think the lowest we saw was right at 20 degrees.  It was cold enough to make me turn off the extra water lines at the barn, and I was certainly sweating the one, uninsulated pipe under the manor house, but all was well and the plumbing is still intact.  The horses are not icicles, and Iggy the Ice Monster seemed to enjoy it (except he couldn’t convince me to come out and play with the frozen hunk of deer hide).

It was nice to see that we can still have “winter”, even if it is only in short bursts of polar air.  It arrived a little too late for me to get the definitive hunting experience of shivering in my tree stand, but at least I had the chance to let my cheeks get rosy while I was feeding the horses a little extra grain.  I expect we’ll have another snap or two before the days get much longer and warmer.

I don’t want to get into a whole thing about “global warming” or “climate change,” because I’m really not qualified to address it from a scientific perspective.  But as someone who has spent the better part of a half-century outdoors, I do think I’m qualified to say that something is definitely going on.  Change is at hand.  Winter is not what it was when I was a kid.

Growing up in coastal North Carolina, winter was never really “harsh”.  But freezing temperatures weren’t uncommon overnight, even in late fall, and I recall playing and hunting over icy ditches and frozen puddles.  November deer hunts almost always resulted in stinging, icy toes following the walk in through frosted grass and long, frigid sits in the sandy duff under pin oaks and longleaf pines.  I remember praying for the sun to get up high enough to thaw my feet and hands before they simply broke off.

That hardly seems to be the norm lately, as my last several winter trips back to NC were more suited to long t-shirts or maybe an occasional pull-over.  You might see a day or so of cold snap, but then things turn mild again right away.

Of course, I’m not keeping the records or tracking the trends, so maybe some of this is just the flaws in my memory.  But I don’t think so.  Things are changing… for good or ill, I can’t say, but they’re changing.


Look Who Came To Breakfast

November 29, 2013

Could this be Kat's first whitetail buck?So I noticed a couple of the bucks I skinned last week were starting to look and smell kind of rutty.  I hadn’t seen much activity around my place though, but with the cold snap and December coming on strong, I knew it would happen soon.  With all the does that have been coming to the feeder and the oak trees, the bucks simply had to be somewhere in the wings.

Then, yesterday I got a wild hair and decided to saddle up the horse for a ride.  Just as I was passing the far corner of the neighbor’s place, a doe burst out of cover and bounded across the road in front of us.  I reined Dolly in, and a moment later, a nice looking buck came bouncing across behind her… never once glancing toward me, the horse, and Iggy (who was itching to go “play” too). 

Later, after the ride, I was doing a little miscellanea around the barn and went up to check the game cameras.  Look who was here! I got photos of him again the next morning (Thanksgiving Day). 

We’ve decided that, if he hangs around long enough, I’ll give Kat the opportunity to shoot her first buck.  But the rut usually kicks up the activity at the local hunting camps, so he’ll have to slip through a veritable gauntlet to make it to my skinning rack. 

Stay tuned…

Almost The Weekend

October 17, 2013

Well, it looks like I’ve coasted through another week on the strength of a lengthy, Monday post.  How lazy of me, I know.

The truth is, I just haven’t had a lot to write about of late.  I mean, there’s more to write about the lead ammo ban, but I expect many of you are sick to death of that one, and for now, there’s not a lot that I can say beyond what I covered in Monday’s post.

I know what some of you may be thinking.  “WTF, Phillip?  You moved to the Texas Hill Country where hunting is probably the second biggest industry, next to oil and gas drilling!”

And you’re right, of course, except it’s not exactly like you might think.  I was semi-surprised to learn that hunting is pretty much taken for granted out here.  While plenty of locals hunt, they do it right out their back doors.  Once in awhile, someone will mention that they had to shoot another hog in the yard, but it’s just not as common a topic of conversation as you’d expect.  Killing exotics, like axis deer, is just pest control.  Nobody seems to care much about turkeys.  Even during whitetail season, which in some parts of Texas is the High Holidays, the thread of hunting conversation is barely a loud hum.

You don’t hear much about people’s “hot spots”, or who just killed a big axis buck.  There’s not a lot of talk about where to find game on public land, because, well, there’s not a lot of public land.  And apparently, nobody out here hunts it.  Everybody has their own place, or their family place, or their friend’s place.  The big, guest ranches don’t advertise (at least not locally), and if I didn’t ask around I’d probably never even know some of them were here.

Maybe I’m just not hanging out with the right crowd.

Which is a whole ‘nuther thing…

There’s a pride that comes from having deep roots in a place like this.  The folks who settled this canyon were tough, brave individuals.  This part of Texas was still a wild frontier near the end of the 19th century, and early settlers were still braving raids by the Comanches, Apaches, and Mexican bandits.  Even a hundred years ago, this was a harsh place to make a life.  But these people did it.  The names of those pioneers are still here, mingled now with the names of the natives they displaced… not just in the people, but etched into the landscape itself, in the names of creeks, canyons, caves, and ridgelines.  You see them on maps, and on historical markers along the roadside.  The family lines that remain run strong, and have a deep, personal claim to this place that they’re not ready to give up willingly… especially not to interlopers from the east. (And yes, there’s an irony there, but you’d do well not to point it out to them.)

I’ve lived enough of my life in the rural outback to know how country folks look at city people. I’m no stranger to that odd strain of xenophobia that you see in a place like this… the tolerant, smiling facade that hides disdain and ridicule. I’ve certainly felt my own distaste for folks who bring city noise and attitudes into the bucolic paradise of my backcountry home.  In my non-native naivete, I guess I expected some sort of oral tradition of dislike for folks from Dallas.  I anticipated hearing any number of jibes at the expense of those weirdos in Austin.  But honestly, you don’t get a lot of that here.  Instead, it’s Houston.

True, working at the smokehouse last year, an overwhelming majority of the deer tags I recorded included addresses in and around Houston.  There were one or two from down near Corpus Christi, and some locals, but a disproportionate number came all the way across the state.  Many of the leases around here are held by folks who live in the eastern side of Texas.  I can’t really recall meeting any visitors from the Dallas or Austin areas.  Maybe they all spend their time in the northern Hill Country, near Fredericksburg and Boerne, or up in Brady.

No, most of our out-of-towners are from the Houston area.

And it’s not really a hatred I hear when locals talk about them. It’s more of a tone (not completely unlike the tone with which my friends and family back in North Carolina would use when someone from New Jersey moved in).   It’s sort of an expect-the-worst-but-give them-a-chance-to-prove-themselves kind of thing.  Ironically, a fair number of Camp Wood’s leading citizens are transplanted from the Houston area. They’ve settled in well, and are, by-and-large, accepted.

But they’re not from here.  That doesn’t change until you’ve outlived anyone who can remember when you moved in.

So, being from Houston is one thing.  At least those folks are still some manner of Texan.  If you really want to be an outsider, try being from California.




Who Needs Corn?

August 9, 2013

Texas PersimmonsI knew that this property held a pretty good mix of wildlife habitat.

The cedar (juniper) that covers my ridge and the far end of my pasture provides great cover, and while too much cedar is a bad thing, a good cover helps minimize erosion, and appears to protect some native grasses from the deadly effects of the Texas summer sun… especially during this drought.  I did a good bit of thinning last year, and while there’s still some more to do, I do enjoy finding new deer trails and beds, as well as the abundance of birds and small game that use this thick stuff.

I’ve got agarita as well, and while they apparently only bear fruit every other year, I had a bumper crop this season.  The birds and little rodents got most of them before I got a chance, but given the harsh conditions this drought has created, I’m OK with that.  We’ve got so much homemade jelly and jam right now, another year or so without agarita is OK by me.

I’ve got a lot of oaks, both red oak, live oak, and various scrub oaks, but they have taken a beating from the drought, and I’m losing several.  They just can’t handle the stress.  Some are shedding huge limbs in a surival effort to minimize their water needs, while in other cases entire trees have simply given up and died.  This is pretty sad, both because I hate to see the big trees dying, and because it means the mast production on my place is going to be even smaller.  I didn’t get much in the way of acorns last year, but I’m holding out hope that the surviving trees will make an effort this fall.  We’ll see.

One plant I knew I had on the property is Texas wild persimmons.  This is a native persimmon, and I’ve got the bushes all over the place here. My main horse pasture is full of them.  Last year, I can’t recall seeing much in the way of fruit, but this year I’ve apparently got a bumper crop.  I walked the pasture yesterday, and where I hadn’t seen a thing the limbs are now laden with green fruit.  And a handful of ripe ones.  On closer inspection, most of the ripe fruit has already been hit by birds, and under each bush I have found piles of fresh deer scat.  The whitetails apparently love these things too.  It’s like a race to get to the fruit when it turns ripe!  I was fortunate to find a couple that had just turned before the birds and animals got them.

The persimmons are, as you can see from the picture, not very much like the big Asian persimmons many of us are most familiar with.  The biggest fruit I found was a little bigger than a quarter.  The skin is sort of thick, with a fuzzy covering sort of like a peach.  Eating one reminds me of biting into a loquat.  The skin is edible, but not very flavorful and sort of chewy.  The flesh sort of separates from the skin, and with a little manipulation you can almost suck it right out.  It’s sweet, and tastes a lot different (to me) than the flesh of the Asian persimmon.  It’s more like a berry.  The only catch is that there’s not a lot there, as each fruit has four or five great big seeds inside.  You do a lot of work for a little reward.

There are a bunch of recipes out there for Texas wild persimmons, and if I can salvage enough from the critters, we might try some of them this season.  But I’m not going to break my neck to pick the plants clean.  The truth is, I’m glad to have something out there for the deer besides corn (which isn’t really all that nutritious).  I figure, if I can’t eat the fruit right from the bush, then at least I can enjoy it in this season’s venison!

Slow, Rainy Monday… Wait! Rainy?

July 15, 2013

Rain is fallingYES!  After the rains around Memorial Day, we haven’t really seen a drop of real rain in this part of the Hill Country.  The green explosion that followed the deluge has steadily yellowed as week after week went by.  Meanwhile, the summer heat has been living up to Texas reputations, with daily highs at or just over 100 degrees. 

I keep thinking of last year, where we had those crazy, hope-inspiring spring rains, followed by… well, followed by nothing for months.  Finally there were a couple of September storms, and then little to nothing else all through the winter.   Dry?  Yeah, it’s been dry. 

So while I’m knocking wood and hoping that this is a climatic turning point, I’m also loving every drop!  Apparently, so are the critters.  The roadways and pastures along the way to “town” today were covered in whitetails, axis, and turkeys… all out taking advantage of the cooler weather and moisture. 


Familiarity Breeds… ?

April 9, 2013

Barn pasture tomI had a sort of semi-revelatory conversation the other day.

I was shooting the breeze with my friends, Carl, who owns the smokehouse, and Keith, who owns the local hardware store.  As such conversations go, we spanned the gamut of topics from local news to weather, to the recent (brief) upturn in local business.  And, of course, it came to hunting and bringing some meat in to be processed.  Carl and co. make some awesome sausage!

So Keith mentioned that he started to shoot an axis the other morning, but it was drizzling rain and a little cool, so he held off.  “I’ll get one later,” he said with a nonchalant confidence.  “When the weather is nicer.”

It got me thinking.

For the past week or so, a pair of hens, a jake, and a tom turkey have been making the rounds in my barn pasture.  I called a little on Saturday, and the tom fired right up, but since we were out there riding the horses, I put the call away and left him alone.  They show up at almost the same time every morning, and work the same general route into the pasture, up past the barn, and then back down… feasting on the glut of grasshoppers, and picking through the leftover hay where I’d been feeding the horses.  They’re almost like clockwork.  I even slipped out the back door with the Benjamin Marauder the other morning, but decided not to try the 30 yard shot because… well, I don’t know why.  I just didn’t feel the urge to kill the bird.

I figured it’ll be more fun later, maybe, to try to call him in and then kill him.  Or maybe I’ll just let him be this year.  I’ve got birds in the freezer already.  And Kat doesn’t seem overly inclined to go after him.  Let them breed and maybe next season there’ll be a bigger group.  Or maybe later this season, I’ll get more motivated to go for him.  Or Kat will decide she wants to try him.  It’s hard to say.

If I look back at this past deer season, I had some similar thoughts.  Sure, I killed a few deer, but I also let an awful lot of them walk.  On a bunch of days, I didn’t even hunt… which is sort of a strange thing for me when I think about it.  I kept the feeder running, and the cameras showed me a lot of deer.  There were even a couple of decent bucks coming and going.  But I just didn’t feel the need to get out there at every opportunity.

There’ll be more opportunities.

That was the “revelation”.

Folks who live out here start (fairly quickly) to take the wild bounty sort of for granted.  Why freeze your ass off in a frosty stand, or sit miserable through a rainy morning, when you can go out almost any day and fill a tag?  I always sort of wondered at how complacent folks are around here when they see a big herd of axis deer, or a flock of 40 or 50 turkeys loafing in a pasture.  These are things that once got my blood boiling and my trigger finger twitching.  But now the realization that they’re always right out there for the picking has sort of tempered that flame.

It’s not that I don’t still get excited about the hunt, because I do.  And when I’m on the stand, even within sight of my own back door, I’m 100% in the game.  But I’ve noticed the excitement is usually highest when it’s about hunting something I can’t get right here behind the house.  When I spotted that hog on the game camera, I was stoked… at least until I realized he’d only been there once in almost two months.  When Kat told me a group of axis had trotted down the road in front of the house, I got a little fired up.  I’d like to put another axis in the freezer.  Or when my brother and I were talking about doing another elk hunt, I could feel the pulse in my chest.

It’s not earth shattering or life changing or anything like that.  It’s just an interesting realization.


New Hog Hunting Toy And Opportunity

April 1, 2013

Sometimes, if opportunity doesn’t come to you, you have to go to the opportunity. And other times, opportunity simply arises out of an apparently disparate series of events. It’s all about how you choose to manage it.

It’s no secret that I’ve sort of been bemoaning the absence of hogs on my property.  With the exception of that one teaser this winter (I wasn’t even in the state when he showed up), there hasn’t been so much as a track.  But seeing one reinforces my belief that there are hogs around… especially since I keep hearing some locals complaining about hogs rooting up their yards and pastures.  So I’ve kept my eyes open.

Across the canyon, the far hillside is part of a 7000 acre, high-fence ranch.  With the exception of whitetail season, the place doesn’t get hunted all that often.  The ranch was once stocked fairly heavily with various exotics, but since the economy dropped out, the clients stopped showing up and the owners have decided to let the herds decline naturally.  I’ve spent a lot of hours sitting on my front porch with binoculars, picking the place apart for wildlife.  I keep hoping to spot some cool stuff, like maybe red stag, aoudad, or unusual African species.  Until recently, all I’ve seen is turkeys and whitetail, mixed with a few goats and cattle.

Across the canyon from my house.

Across the canyon from my house.

About two weeks ago, I saw black dots running in and out of the brush line, near the top of the ridge.   At first I thought it was just the goats, but something about the way they were moving looked familiar.  I keep a pair of binoculars in the window by my chair, so I fetched them and started scanning the edges of the brush.  Sure enough, the black dots were hogs.

I watched them with a sort of mixed elation.  It was cool to see pigs, but they were on the wrong side of a high fence.  All I could do was watch, and daydream about hunting them.  I saw them in the same place the next evening, and again the following morning.  Before long, the novelty sort of wore off, but I kept an eye out in the evenings and usually spotted one or two.

Last week I noticed the horses were running a little low on hay, so I called my regular guy to see if he had any to sell.  With this drought, hay is in fairly short supply (and not cheap, either), and sure enough, he didn’t have any bales to spare.  He gave me another number and suggested I call this guy.  I asked about where he was located, and he laughed.  Turns out, he grows hay on the other side of that ridge I’d been watching, and manages the property that’s behind the high fence.

I called the number, and sure enough he had plenty of hay.  We worked out a deal, so I hooked up the trailer and headed over to his place.  While one of his ranch hands was loading the hay, we started talking about hunting.  He told me he doesn’t hunt much anymore, and his only clients are the guys who have the whitetail lease.  He said that with the exception of a small group of axis, the exotics were all gone from the place.  The only reason he even maintained the fence was to keep the cattle in.  Then he mentioned that the hogs had found a way in, and they were making themselves right at home.  I couldn’t help myself, so I asked if he had anyone hunting them.  He seemed a little surprised that anyone was even interested in hunting a bunch of damned pigs.  “If you want to shoot these things, I sure don’t care.  Just don’t shoot my cattle or my axis deer.”

I drove home on a cloud!  I’d just scored a hog hunting spot that would practically be all mine for eight months out of the year (deer season is about four months long).  After I got home and fed the horses, I parked my butt on the porch with the Leicas and started glassing.  Sure enough, just before dark the black spots started popping in and out of the brush line.  I hit the rangefinder, just for kicks, and ranged the closest group at about 885 yards.  The brushline itself was about 1100 yards.

I had too much work over the next couple of days to think about making a break for it, but I relaxed with the knowledge that no one else would be pushing the pigs around.  They’d be there when I was ready.

On Thursday, I had Levi, my well guy come over to talk about my new water conditioner.  Levi is sort of a “gun nut”, and we usually end up chatting about guns and hunting.  I grabbed us a couple of Shiner Bocks, and we kicked back on the porch.  As we were chatting, the hogs came out and I pointed them out.  Levi thought it would be cool just to be able to shoot them from the porch if I had something that would reach out that far. At that range, hitting the hogs would be one thing.  Killing them cleanly and then recovering them would be something else altogether.  800 to 1100 yards would much too long a poke, even for my .325wsm, so I just sort of nodded.  “What you’d need for something like that would be a .50BMG,” I told him.

“What about a .416 Barrett?” he replied.  “That would probably do it.”

“Yeah, a Barrett would probably do the trick,” I agreed.  “But I don’t have five or six grand to drop on a special-purpose rifle like that.”

You have to be careful what you say around Levi.  He’s a deal-making machine, and I think he must know everyone in the county!  So I was only partially surprised when he lit up and turned to me.  “I know somebody who’s got one for sale.  I don’t even think he’s fired it yet.”

“I can’t justfiy spending money on something like that,” I answered.  “What the hell am I going do with a .416 Barrett?”

“This guy really needs to get rid of it,” he replied.  “And I know he also needs some tin roofing.”

Levi knows I’ve got a huge stack of tin roofing out behind my barn.  I guess it was from some previous buildings on the property before I moved in, and it was scattered all over the place when I first bought it.  When I finally got it all stacked up, I figured there were probably 150, 8-foot sections out there.  At $12 each, I figured it was worthwhile to hold onto them for upcoming projects.  But so far, I haven’t touched them.  Every time we have a wind storm in the canyon, I have to go back out and gather the pieces back up again.

“I bet he’d make a deal with you for that tin,” Levi said.  “You  want me to ask him?”

I don’t know why I agreed, but I didn’t think it over too hard either.  This guy wasn’t going to trade me a Barrett rifle for a bunch of used roofing tin.  I didn’t take into account the rural economy.  On Saturday morning, Levi called me.  “He said for the tin and a thousand dollars, you can have the gun.”

Thus came the quandary… what the hell would I do with this kind of gun?  But how could I turn down this deal?  A thousand dollars and some scrap metal for a practically new Barrett .416 is not the kind of deal you see every day.  Hell, I could sell if for at least twice that on Gun Broker.  “Tell him it’s a deal,” I answered.  “When does he want to do this?”

A valid, 1000 yard rifle.

A valid, 1000 yard rifle.

Levi told me he wanted to do it as soon as possible, so by the end of the day on Saturday, I was the proud owner of a Barrett .416 and that stack of tin was gone from my property.

Of course there are a couple of catches.  First of all, the rifle is not scoped.  I figure a good Nightforce scope is the right match for the rifle and that’s’ going to set me back a couple of grand.  And I’ll have to handload if I want to shoot for less than $6 a shot.  Fortunately, Oasis Outback, the local shop over in Uvalde has a Nightforce on consignment, and they’ve also got the components for reloading.  I made a call, and everything is ready for me to pick up this afternoon.

I never thought I’d own something like this, but it’s opened up some brand new horizons for me.

Like those hogs across the canyon.

The way I see it, instead of driving 25 miles around the end of the canyon to access my new hog hunting spot, I can hunt from right here on the porch.  From this range, I bet I can shoot two or three before they even realize what’s going on.  Then I can drive around and pick them up later.

I will be shooting over the top of my neighbor’s house and barn (you can see them in the photo above), but I don’t think that’s too big of an issue.  Kat doesn’t think it’s a great idea, but I figure they probably won’t even notice, as long as I don’t start spraying the whole hillside.  And with the cost of this ammo I don’t see that being much of a likelihood.   I’ll have to pick my shots carefully.

It’s a heck of a way to kick off my second April in Texas.



Checking The Game Cameras – Look Who Came To Dinner

February 19, 2013

Son of FunkhornSo this weekend, I realized I haven’t checked the game cams since 2012 ended.  Shocking, right?  But seriously, the primary visitors have been the same groups of does and yearlings, along with this twisted-horn buck that I’ve started calling Funkhorn Jr.

But that’s not all.  Turns out I’ve been missing a bit…

I’d seen these smoke phase turkeys a time or two, but I didn’t realize that they had become regular visitors to my feeder.

Smoke phase turkeyBut wait.

There’s more!

This guy pushed through one dark evening back in January.  This is what I’ve been waiting to see!


Look who came to dinner


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