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Hunting In The Shadow Of the Old Stone Fort

Denny L. Vasquez

A Texas Deer Hunt

There are some things in this world that you just have to experience to be able to understand. One of those is the peacefulness of an early morning west Texas sun rise in late November. Especially, when I am sitting on a lonesome hillside, nestled among a dark green cedar tree, behind a blind built from the yellowed grass of winter and surrounded by gray, skeleton like oak trees that have lost their leaves. Added to all of this is a fine covering of nature's own version of glitter, a light coating of silvery frost and crystalline ice.

The slowly rising sun, which is just beginning to make its presence known from over the distant ridge line, reminds me that I hunt, not just for the taking of a game animal, but more for the kinds of experiences that most people never get the opportunity to enjoy. And I don't understand whether it is because they don't like the outdoors, or just won't let themselves relax and enjoy the creator's handy work. Too many of us are wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of today's busy world to slowdown and enjoy the beauty of nature.

These busy individuals have never seen a young bobcat's first hunt, a fledgling hawk's first kill or a trophy white-tail sneaking through the brush in pursuit of his lady love. Many of them have never seen a cluster of wild flowers away from the roadside or a carefully manicured flower bed, the magnificent colors created when the sunlight shines through a dew covered spider web stretched between two cacti or the nest of a bluebird with it's young just hatched. This is truly a pity.

Now, as the gray, predawn light begins to turn shadows into objects and my attention returns to my chosen task, I notice that, again, I have a feeling of belonging. It is the same feeling that I often get while in the wild places of the world in pursuit of various game animals. A feeling that can only be sensed when one has become a part of nature on its own terms. In this instance I had done everything within my power to insure that my presence did not intrude into the world of the other inhabitants of the hillside. From head to toe camouflage, cover scents and by maintaining a minimum of noise and movement.

Gerald Aultman, of LaGrange, Texas had invited me out to hunt with Fort McKavett Outfitters based out of San Angelo, Texas. Ft. Mckavett outfitters is owned and operated by the James L. Powell family, which operates more than 85,000 acres of prime white-tail habitat on eight ranches. These ranches are in an area of the Lone Star state that has Rocksprings as the anchor on the southern end and Eldorado as the anchor on the northern side. A bit of the beautiful Texas hill country with a good portion of west Texas thrown in.

Two of the ranches are being managed with the bowhunter in mind and six are being managed for gun hunters. I like this separation because each hunting method has its own set of requirements for what it takes to make a hunt successful. Bowhunter's need the closeness of brushy country in order to provide places to locate a stand, while gun hunters can take advantage of wide open spaces. In this vein, all hunting on the Powell ranches is conducted from preestablished stands or ground blinds. The purpose of this decision is to insure the safety of the hunter and to help preserve the quality of the hunting that is being offered.

Gerald is their resident game biologist and is taking great pains to augment an 8 year old range and game management policy aimed at improving the habitat for the benefit of the white-tail herds and other wildlife that call the ranches of the Powell family home. The specific species for which hunts are offered are native white-tail deer, Rio Grande turkey, and one of the more graceful of the exotics, the blackbuck antelope.

The changes to the management plan that Gerald is currently implementing have already started to provide benefits after only two years, as the average white-tail bucks taken now score in the 125-135 Boone and Crocket class. That is up from 100-115 class bucks of a few years ago. Their hunters can expect to see an average of 15-20 deer every time they're on the stand. (My highest number of sightings while on stand, was 35 white-tails of all age classes and both sexes. I averaged 18 deer each time that I took a stand.)

An integral part of the management plan is how the ratio of hunting methods is broken down. Though their goal is an average harvest of a trophy buck and three does per hunter, they determine the actual number to be harvested each year through careful research conducted via detailed game census. The game census methods utilized are helicopter survey, spotlight census and incidental sightings.

In order to verify the decisions made based upon the census, a database of relevant data is being compiled from each animal harvested. Examples of the information gathered are the animal's age, weight, physical condition, antler measurements, location on the property where harvested and animal activity at the time of harvest. This information is then used to help develop the management program for the next year.

Steve Sykes, the general manger of Ft. Mckavett outfitters, believes that if hunters are educated so that they will only take mature animals, 4 years or older, then the quality of the hunting experience will be at a true trophy level. In order to help foster this environment, each hunter is given an orientation toward this goal prior to beginning their hunt. The layout of the area to be hunted is covered, as well as the applicable aspects of the management program. And as it should be, safety first is the byword of each orientation session.

In our pre-hunt planning, Gerald had made some claims that I thought to be a bit of an overkill. Seeing 15 deer every time you take a stand, is unheard of in most of the US today. I was a little dubious of his claims as to the size of the average buck that I could expect to see, as this area of the Lone Star State does not enjoy the big deer reputation of the brush country farther south. I suspected that he was just trying to impress me with numbers so that I would come hunt with them. After spending a mere three days at the Ft. Mckavett camp, I found that if Gerald's claims had been exaggerated, it had not been by very much. The weekend that I hunted with them, Thanksgiving 1995, Pope & Young bucks were taken by several of their bow hunting clients. I was the only gun hunter in camp at the time. Talk about feeling like the minority.

Now it was the final morning of my hunt and I had taken up a stand among a cluster of cedar and leafless oak trees on a hillside that Gerald said was one of his white-tail honey holes. And, after spending just a few hours observing the traffic through this area, I would feel like I was in the middle of a white-tail interstate highway. The local deer population had chosen to use this hillside as a route to and from the crop fields that lined the valley's floor and the heavy cedar and brush cover that lined the tops of the surrounding ridge lines. A perfect place to set up an ambush. So it was that the first doe to pass my position in the early morning predawn mist, gave me a real startle as she passed within a mere 20 feet of my hiding spot.

Now, I could give you several excuses of why this happened, such as the mist was too thick for me to see beyond that range or that she had taken advantage of a draw to get this close without my having seen her first. But this just simply wasn't the case. I had been involved in watching the mist as it swirled across the landscape and the smaller animals as they began their activities for the day. It turned out I was sitting on top of a rabbit warren and was able to observe them as they came out of the hole and cautiously began their daily search for food. This was a first for me. Now the doe had reminded me of the real reason that I had come to this lonely place.

During the next hour and a half, I was given the opportunity to observe 34 white-tails as they came up from the fields below and into the slight depression that lay in front of me. There was a slight rise on the hillside behind me and this created an illusion of a protected bowl of sorts. It was protected enough from the wind, that the deer were using this place as an area in which to congregate before heading on in to cover. Later, from down in the fields, I looked back up this way and noticed that you couldn't actually see into the depression from below. Maybe these deer weren't so dumb after all.

Now, as I lay here in my hidden blind I was able to observe the kinds of deer activity that is rarely seen by the average hunter. Family groups seemed to move aimlessly about the hill side, but in reality they were reacting to a complex social structure. The dominate does and their offspring had first choice of the best eating spots while the individual younger does and immature bucks had to take what was left. Anytime that a mature buck came on the seen, he was given preferential treatment as to choosing feeding a spot.

I was able to observe two three to five year old bucks as they sized each other up before sparing over rights to breed a receptive doe that was feeding nearby. They circled each other and postured like two boxers in the ring. Then when they decided that neither of them intended to back down they crashed their antlers together in a show of strength. While these two were concentrating on showing their prowess, a yearling buck sneaked in under their noses and bred the doe himself. When the two older bucks noticed that the upstart had mounted the doe, they turned to chase him away. It was too late. Chuckling under my breath, I lay there thinking how much the events that had just transpired reminded me of two love sick football players fighting over the head cheerleader, who runs off with the president of the chess club when their backs are turned.

About then I slowly turned my head to give the hill side another going over, just in case a buck worth taking had come on the scene, when I noticed a new arrival standing off to my left. He was only about 25 yards away and stood there with his attention riveted to the three bucks that took part in the mating episode. Now he was not the largest white-tail buck that I had ever seen on the hoof, but he was a good one for the area that I was hunting in. And it was the last day of my allotted time for the hunt. I had to make a decision to take the bird in the hand or risk going home empty handed.

After carefully observing him, as he fed across the hill side in front of me, I judged him to be on the down side of his antler development and his sagging chin muscles and drooping paunch reminded me of a man who was past his prime. I even thought that I could see gray or white hairs on the top of his head and shoulders. It was probably just my imagination, but I felt that this was an older buck. Therefore, he was a good candidate forme to take. He later proved to be between 7 and 8 years old.

As he slowly made his way into the protected bowl, I brought my Thompson Center Firehawk .50 caliber muzzle loading rifle up to my shoulder. I had lain the rifle in the V of one of the smaller oak trees that surrounded my hideout, all I had to do was wait for him to cross my line of sight.

Due to the closeness of the buck, I had turned the power ring of my Simmons White-tail compact 1.5 x 5 rifle scope down to the 1.5 setting. Even then, he completely filled the scope when I looked through it. At a distance of only 35 yards, I didn't have to worry about hold over, an errant wind or any of the other factors that can complicate long distance shooting with a muzzle loader.

When I was finally satisfied that he was in position, I lightly touched the trigger which caused the hammer to crush the CCI primer, which in turn ignited the charge of Pyrodex RS, sending the 350 grain .50 caliber lead conical from Buffalo Bullets down range and into the buck's vital areas. The distance was close enough that I never heard the resounding slap that I have come to relate with a large conical hitting home. All I saw before the smoke from the Pyrodex obscured my view, were four brown legs and four black hooves rolling over in the air. A very satisfying sight. Quickly stepping out from under the overhanging limbs of the cedar and oak trees, I hurriedly reloaded the Firehawk with a follow up shot that would not be needed.

My high horned west Texas white-tail lay on the ground less than 10 feet from where I had shot him. Everything thing had come together, rifle, primer, powder and bullet, to place the Buffalo Bullet conical up high, into the top of his chest, near the spine. I think that it was the closeness of the shot which gave the conical enough force upon impact to not only punch a hole all the way through him, but to also break his spine on the way through. It was the broken spine that had killed him instantly.

If you are looking for a fully catered hunt where you have a guide that waits on you hand and foot, then don't call Ft. Mckavett Outfitters. They decided to try and excel in customer satisfaction by providing quality animals to their hunters instead of pampering them. Their camps are comfortable and serviceable. They consist of trailer houses or they make use of the existing buildings on the ranch. They also provide the food and a cook, transportation to and from the hunting areas, a place to clean and process your animals and walk in coolers. Plus they try to do whatever it takes to make your hunt an enjoyable experience.

So if you are looking for a great place to hunt, with people who care about your wants and needs, then contact them at:

Fort Mckavett Outfitters
10965 Hawk Ave.
San Angelo, TX 76904