Finally… A Little Blood On My Hands
May 20, 2013
I haven’t really had much of an opportunity to get out and do any hunting lately. As I’ve mentioned a time or two, spring turkey season kind of came and went without a shot fired. But I’ve been kind of jonesing to get out and do something.
A little while back, my brother made plans to come out with his family for a visit. He was going to arrive on the 18th (this past Saturday) and stay through the following weekend… making his drive back to NC over the Memorial Day weekend. In preparation, I scheduled vacation days, and started calling around to set up some hunting opportunities. My friend, Levi (he’s a real person… nevermind the April Fool’s post) has issued a standing invitation to come out to his lease and shoot axis deer, squirrels, or hogs (when they’re around). I gave him a holler, and he said he would love to get out there with us. I guess Levi hasn’t shot an axis in a while either, and was chomping at the bit to get after some.
Well, my brother bailed at the last minute (for good reasons), but I decided I’d take the vacation anyway. I called Levi and we set a time to meet.
Axis deer are generally pretty considerate animals, as they are often active during the daytime. This means you don’t really need to rise in the dark of the wee hours to hunt them (unless you are planning to hunt from a stand). We rolled out of Levi’s yard somewhere near a leisurely 08:30, stopped for some coffee and a couple bottles of water, and hit the ranch around 09:30. We loaded up and started the slow roll around the ranch roads.
One of the things I’m still getting accustomed to here in Texas is the “Texas Safari”. There’s not a lot of walking, but you drive around the ranch until you spot the herd of axis (or whatever exotic you’re after). If they don’t take off at the sight of you, you set up your shot and take the poke. It’s not so much spot-and-stalk, as spot-and-shoot. The truth is that hunting axis on foot is an exercise in frustration. They are gregarious animals, which means they usually hang out in groups. As a plains animal, they are extremely attuned to visual stimuli. They are also gifted with excellent noses and ears. They can be stalked (I’ve pulled it off a time or two), but when they’re in big herds, it’s quite a feat to close for a shot without sending the whole bunch off at a dead run. This is a problem if you’re hunting a small, low-fenced place, such as Levi’s 200 acre lease. You don’t get many second chances, and once you’ve pushed the herd off the property you’re kind of done. May as well pack it up.
Hunting from the vehicle, however, doesn’t seem to push them as much (until you start shooting). They don’t seem to mind the vehicle as long as it’s moving. The moment you let off the gas and come to a stop, though; they tend to head for cover. If you drive on, then they’ll likely come back out eventually. If you’re not too close when you stop, you might get a shot opportunity before they dive into the thickets. It’s not like shooting animals in a park, but it’s certainly not hiking hill and dale through the wilderness either.
We ran into the first deer about a half hour after we’d arrived. I rounded a bend and caught movement through the pecan trees. A whitetail bounded off toward cover, and I almost kept going until Levi pointed and hissed, “there they are!”
I saw the spotted flank of a nice doe, followed by a yearling or two. They slipped through the shadows and disappeared. “Well, so much for those three,” I said.
Levi grinned and kept pointing. What I saw was fairly amazing. A veritable train of axis deer were running along the edge of the trees in a line that stretched at least a hundred yards. And just when I thought the train had ended, more deer shot through the openings. It was hard to get any sort of accurate count, but Levi had been telling me they were seeing over a hundred deer on the place lately. I have no doubt that there were at least a hundred animals in this herd, if not twice that.
When the “train” finally ended, I put the Dodge back in gear and crept forward. With luck, the animals would stay in the thick stuff and not leave the property. We might catch them again up ahead. And we did, once, briefly. Then they headed for the river and the property line and that was that.
“Well,” Levi said. “Maybe there’s another herd back on the other side of the property. Let’s keep going.”
About a half hour later, I saw an unusually rounded “stump” through the cedars. I stopped the truck and put the glasses on it, actually sort of hoping it was a bedded hog. Instead, it was a nice-sized axis doe. As I glassed, I started spotting more animals. Unfortunately, before I could get the rifle out and set up, they got nervous and started moving off. I leveled the rifle on a big doe as she hesitated in a tiny opening, probably 100 yards or so out. I decided to try a shot on her neck, so as not to ruin much meat (as well as in hopes of avoiding a long tracking job). I couldn’t get a solid rest, but I felt pretty confident. The crosshairs aligned, and I touched the trigger. Even as the sear broke over and the gun went off, I could feel the rifle drifting. The shot went just over the doe’s head and the race was on. A stream of deer burst across the road ahead of us and flowed into the thick cedars and mesquite at the edge of the property. Adding insult to the injury, near the end of the herd was a true, trophy buck. We could only watch.
I apologized to Levi for blowing the opportunity. At 100 yards, I know I can make a neck shot, but I probably should have gone for the bigger target on her shoulder. This was the first animal I’d shot at with the rifle in months. Thus followed much second-guessing and hindsight, but in the end, the reality was that I’d probably blown our last chance at an axis for this day. With one herd run off the property, and now this one frightened by gunfire, our odds of finding another axis that would stand still for a shot were pretty slim. We decided to cruise around a bit, and then head over to another area where the squirrels were plentiful.
We wandered around and shot a few squirrels as the day wore on. The morning’s cloud cover and breeze cleared out, and with the sun came heat. It was pushing 90 degrees when we got back to the truck at around noon. Levi had been getting some text messages, and now his phone rang. “I’ve got to be at a funeral at 3,” he told me. “Do you want to make one more trip around the ranch before we take off?”
“It’s up to you,” I told him. “What do you want to do?”
“We’ve got time,” he said.
We had barely gone a quarter mile when we spotted a group of axis through the cedars. Levi tried to get his sights on one, but all he could see was the little yearlings. We were meat hunting, but neither of us really wanted to shoot these little, bitty guys. He moved the scope from one animal to another, evaluating and passing each one. Finally, he lowered the rifle. As he did, the big buck stepped into sight…and just as quickly passed back into the thickets. Levi and I looked at each other. Isn’t that the way it always goes? The deer were gone, and we cruised on.
As we neared the area where we’d first seen the huge herd of deer, I saw movement and stopped the truck. Four whitetail does were standing in the shade, about 50 yards off the road. I watched them for a moment, and then started to pull ahead when I realized there were several more deer just behind the whitetails. I’ve seen some big groups of whitetail deer, but I’d never seen that many in one place. This couldn’t all be whitetail. I put the glasses on them, and through the shade of the trees I could see the spotted coats of axis. That big herd had returned!
Levi was in no position to get a shot off, so it would be up to me again. I found a mostly-broadside animal through a break in the limbs and brush and got a bead high on the shoulder. The shot was away, and I saw the white belly as the animal rolled. The 180 grain eTip entered at the point of aim and angled back through the chest cavity and exited just behind the ribs. I bolted another round into the chamber and held the scope on the animal until he stopped moving. There was a mutual sigh of satisfied relief. (I think both of us were thinking back to our last trip out here with my friend, John. That tracking job, and the frustrating conclusion was still on both our minds.)
We field dressed the little buck and loaded him in the back of the Dodge. “Have you got time to get one for yourself?” I asked Levi.
“Let’s finish the circle,” he said. “But then I’ve got to get going.”
In the end, I managed to get Levi home in time for the funeral.