There’s Blood On My Hands… Finally
May 19, 2014
When I’m not hunting, I’m thinking about hunting.
I’m sure that sentiment isn’t unique to me. But the truth is that over the past several months, I’ve done a lot of thinking about hunting.
This weekend, I was finally able to put all that thinking into action. I got together at the nearby Boiling Springs Ranch for an exotics hunt with a great group of guys I’d guided and hunted with back in CA. There were four of us in our bloodthirsty little gang, Kent, John, Mike, and myself… and when Friday evening rolled around, the excitement practically boiled over. Think Christmas morning in a household of six year-olds.
While I set up in a tripod stand with my bow, the other guys went safari-style and tooled over a big chunk of the 10,000 acre property in search of axis deer, aoudad, and any wild pigs that should be unlucky enough to wander into the firing line. Based on game camera evidence, there was a large group of hogs feeding at this particular stand. Several axis had also been showing up from time to time. I was assured that this would be a productive spot, especially for a bow hunter. I relaxed through several peaceful hours, uninterrupted by anything legal to shoot. As the last light waned, a healthy little whitetail buck wandered in. His stubby new antlers were already out to about three or four inches, and forking well even at that early stage. He’ll be no giant this year, but he obviously has great genetics.
Kent drew first blood, rolling an 80 lb. (or so) hog during the evening hunt. If I remember correctly, I heard that someone else took a shot… but where it went, nobody knows. When I got back into camp, I heard that the lack of carcasses did not denote a lack of game. The animals were unusually skittish… a problem that plagued the weekend (but we made the best of it).
As so often happens, the first night revelry got the upper hand. There was much irresponsibility. When morning dawned, some of us were only just slipping off to sleep, while others were like the dead. Somehow, I managed to sleep through my alarm, and only rolled out when Blaise, the camp boss, came in and let me know it was already 06:00! I shuffled into the kitchen to start the planned breakfast, but I’d barely got the sausage browned when I realized the sun was already rising. No time! I woke the rest of the gang and we proceeded to prepare for the hunt.
Despite heavy-lidded eyes and some plodding, all but one of us was relatively healthy and ready for the day. Since we’d slept in, there’d be no time to get into the blinds, so we opted to roll out for more safari-style hunting in the truck. We saw a good number of animals, but they were not so happy to see us and sprinted into the thick cover before anyone could raise a rifle. When a shot was finally fired, by someone who will remain nameless (for now), it went awry.
Blaise had to go do some work with the landowner, so we went back to camp to switch up the crew. Blaise’s wife, Cheryl, would drive, while top-dawg guide, Chris, took over the shot calling. At this point, a zombie departed the shooting deck and retired to the cool and quiet darkness of his bed. It appears that some of us can withstand a little more irresponsibility than others.
After a break, some coffee, and a snack, those of us still standing rolled back out to the truck for another round. Once again, the skittish game made it impossible to line up or connect on a shot until, finally, we spotted movement in a clump of cedar. A single axis was slinking through the brush and heading for the safety of the hills. I caught a glimpse of one sweeping antler, and motioned to Kent to step up, since he’s the only one in the group hoping to shoot a trophy animal. I told him this one looked good, and I reached for my binoculars to get a better read. From where he stood, Chris was unable to see clearly, so he hadn’t had a chance to judge the buck. Apparently though, Kent wasn’t concerned about judging or scoring, because even as I lifted my glass to my eyes, his .300 Win Mag roared and the buck jumped, staggered, and disappeared into the thicket. One thing I’ve learned about Kent over the years is that you shouldn’t say, “shoot,” when you really mean, “wait.”
Fortunately, the buck was a pretty good one, with 30.5 inches on one side and a shade over 31 inches on the other. He also had some unique character in the form of extra brow tines, making him an eight-point (axis typically only have three points on a side). Kent was, as you may expect, pretty elated. With a hog and an axis buck, he’d achieved the goals of his hunt.
With the day heating up, and the wildlife headed for cover, we decided to call it for the time being and head in.
For the evening hunt, I chose to take a stand again. Safari-style is fun and social, but I also enjoy the quiet of a stand. Chris took me out to as perfect a spot as I could imagine. A spring-fed creek held cool, clear water. A steep cliff formed a natural wall on one side, while a thick, brushy draw provided cover and food for game. As I walked across the clearing to find a place to set up, I saw fresh sign of deer, aoudad, and hogs. I chose to take a stand in a little clump of brush that stood out a few yards from the cliff face. The thick growth formed a canopy, and it looked cool and shady. When I pushed through the limbs, I saw that I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a good place to chill out… it was littered with hog beds.
Chris hadn’t been gone more than a half hour when the first animals showed up. I heard rustling in the grass, and suddenly a small hog face popped out about ten yards from my seat. Totally oblivious to me, he turned and trotted down the rocky creek bank, followed by seven or eight more. They ranged in size from six or seven pounds down to a couple of little guys that probably didn’t top a pound. They must have been barely weaned. I held my breath, my hand tight around the grip of the Savage and my thumb caressing the safety. There had to be at least one big hog following this group, if not more. I knew they’d come out any minute… any minute… but nothing else showed.
The little pigs splashed and rolled in the creek for a few minutes, and then trotted, single file over to the feeder. I still held hope that the big ones were just waiting, but nothing showed up. After about a half-hour, the little sounder wandered off into the trees.
Things got quiet for about another half hour, when suddenly I was jolted by the sound of rocks rolling down the cliff behind me. I turned my head slowly, just in time to see a Corsican ewe hopping down onto a tiny trail, just out of arm’s reach. Without even looking my way, she crept to the edge of the thicket, and after a cautious scan, stepped out onto the creek bank. As she did, two tiny kids clambered down the cliff and ran out to join her. A moment later, a yearling ram hopped down and wandered out as well. All of this happened less than three yards away. I was stunned.
The sheep went down to drink, but then something startled the matron. She hopped up onto the rocks and gazed hard across the pasture, past the feeder. I followed her gaze to see three pigs, each about 10 pounds, come trotting out of cover and heading toward the creek. The ewe gathered her young and the whole group charged right back past me, and disappeared up the sheer cliff.
The three pigs didn’t even seem to notice, but made a beeline for the water. They dropped down the bank, out of my sight, but I enjoyed the splashing and grunting as they were apparently making the best of the cool stream. A few minutes later, they popped up right where the sheep had been and started walking directly toward me. The wind was perfectly in my favor, but at that close distance I couldn’t believe they didn’t even seem to register my presence. They came just beside my chair, and then turned on a trail that led into some thick grass. The last pig stopped and rubbed against a rock, and then shook himself off… so close the water spattered on my pants.
I turned my head to see where they’d gone and suddenly heard a “huff!” A fourth pig I hadn’t seen had come up from the creek and saw me moving. In a clatter of stones and a splash, he was gone back the way he came. I held the rifle ready, in case any large pigs blew out from his panic… but there was nothing more.
The evening wore on and the sun began to set. More small pigs came out to the feeder, but again, no adults were in sight. How small were the pigs? Three tom turkeys glided down from the cliff to the feeder, and they dwarfed the little hogs.
As light dimmed, I could hear splashing in the creek again. I settled the rifle in my lap and waited. A whitetail doe and yearling popped up on the opposite bank and went to join the growing menagerie around the feeder. As they wandered off, I heard more splashing, and then a deer’s snort. Several more deer blew out of the end of the creek drainage and ran off across the pasture. With the wind blowing hard and steady in my face, I wondered what had panicked them… until I heard more splashing and grunting, and then yet another group of small hogs poured out of the creek and headed to the feeder.
Finally, I heard the sound of something much larger coming down the creek bank toward me. I tried to crane my neck without moving too much, hoping this was finally a shoot-able hog. I peeked around the trunk of an oak tree and looked right into the eyes of a young, axis buck. I wasn’t going to shoot an axis buck at any rate, but at this distance there was no way I could have raised the gun anyway. He glared at me, trying to figure out what I was, as I froze and did my best imitation of a caliche rock.
The stand-off continued as the sun sank lower and lower. The pigs continued to mill around the feeder, and in the lowering light I thought some might look bigger. (I didn’t need a trophy, but I wasn’t going to shoot a five pounder with the 30-06 on a paid hunt.) I gently raised the Leicas, and at the movement the axis buck finally had enough. He turned and trotted away, stiff-legged but apparently not panicked.
It was finally dark enough that I couldn’t really make out individual pigs through my scope. I settled back and waited for the truck to come pick me up. When it did, I saw a big aoudad ewe in the back. The zombie had awakened from his torpor, re-joined the hunt, and killed… not only an aoudad, but also a big axis doe. Not bad for someone who was so thoroughly over-served the night before (bad bartender!).
On the drive back to camp, I learned that they’d seen several animals, but had few chances at a shot. Mike redeemed his earlier shooting with a good kill on a sow. She was emaciated and apparently sick, so Blaise decided not to keep her for meat. I know that’s a hard call, especially for empty-handed Mike, but it sounds like it was probably the right choice.
Everyone was pretty whipped by the time we rolled back into camp. I’d left a pot of venison chili to cook all day, and Cheryl made up a batch of delicious, cracklin’ cornbread. Dinner was excellent, but significantly subdued in comparison to the previous night. The witching hour came to a house full of snores.
On Sunday, Mike and Kent had a fairly early flight and had to leave early. We made a short safari drive around while John went and sat in a blind. We had barely loaded the rifles when we came up on an axis doe and a monster of a buck. Under ordinary circumstances, I had enough time to shoot the both of them… but whether the shock of seeing them so early, or because my brain just wasn’t engaged… I don’t know why, but I never even got the rifle up. The doe spun and ran, and the buck gave a belligerent glare and turned to follow her.
That was it for easy opportunities on that drive. We got Mike back to camp so he could leave. John had also returned, empty-handed. But the day was overcast and cool, so once Mike and Kent packed out, we headed back out on the road in hope of more opportunities. Chris drove and spotted, and we covered a lot of the same ground. As we headed back toward the camp again, an aoudad stood out on a hillside. I don’t really know much about aoudad, and don’t have a clue how to tell a ewe from a young ram. I leveled the crosshairs on the animal’s throat and waited for the go-ahead from Chris. “It’s a ewe,” he whispered.
“I can kill it,” I asked?
When we walked up to it, Chris shook his head. “Damn. This is a ram.”
He called it in to Blaise and took responsibility. It seemed, to me, like a pretty easy mistake to make. I felt bad for him, because as a guide I’ve been in similar circumstances… having directed a client to shoot a “meat hog” that turned out to have trophy tusks. Accidents and mistakes are part of being human. As long as we learn from them…
At any rate, I had my first animal for the weekend. We took the aoudad back to the house as the day was starting to heat up. John had to start packing anyway, and had to head back to the airport in a few hours. We passed the time, and soon after he left Chris asked if I wanted to go out and make one more round. Blaise had generously offered to let me stay and hunt until dark if I wanted, but I felt like it would be nice to get home at a reasonable hour. All I needed to do was shoot an axis doe. And maybe a pig. But definitely an axis.
Chris and I headed out and checked some likely spots. After a couple of close opportunities, we were heading back to camp when I spotted a bunch of ears sticking out of the grass in a persimmon thicket. A closer look showed what we were looking for. Even better, the whole bunch didn’t bolt instantly. I had time to pick an animal, a fat doe, and then my hunt was over.
I have to give kudos to Blaise and the gang at Boiling Springs Ranch. It’s a well-run place. The lodge is very comfortable and homey, which it should be, because Blaise, Cheryl, and their son, Roy live there year-round. The game is plentiful, and although it was pretty spooky on this trip, the opportunities are there. Besides axis, aoudad, and hogs, they’ve got some incredible whitetail with the south Texas genetics (BIG antlers… if that’s your thing). They also have some high-fence sections with other options, including scimitar-horned oryx.
Blaise said they don’t usually hunt safari-style, but the animals have been so scattered that it seemed like the best option for the weekend. Since our group of friends rarely gets together, this method allowed us to spend some social time… which isn’t often the case on a big game hunt where you spend the bulk of the day alone, sitting in a stand. If you’ve never done this kind of hunting, I liken it to trolling for big game fish out in the ocean. It’s hours of cruising around, interspersed with brief periods of excitement. Certainly not to everyone’s tastes, but it can be a lot of fun if you go into with the right attitude.
I did enjoy the stands, and the blind set-ups are first rate. They’re well hidden and well-positioned for the feeders and game approaches, and there are options for any kind of wind or weather. There are no dangling death traps here, and even the tripod stands are solid and reasonably comfortable.
If you’re interested in this kind of opportunity for some Hill Country exotics hunting, I think you could do much worse than giving Blaise a call.
Disclosure: I received no consideration for writing this review. I paid full-price for my hunt, as did my companions. The comments I’ve made here are my honest evaluation of the operation.