After 11 hours of the seemingly endless expanses of Texas with its busy, but sometimes desolate and deserted, highways, we arrived at our destination. This was the “Under The Hill Ranch,” headquarters camp for the Rancor Ranch. We were about 80 miles from Amarillo, Texas with the closest town being Silverton, Texas. The ranch butted up against the boundary of one of Texas\’s more rugged landmarks, Caprock Canyon State Park. We had made one detour into Dallas on the way to meet two of our hunting companions who followed us to our destination. They were Walter Draper, an insurance executive, and Richard Kaufman a semi-retired consultant. The rest of our party was in my truck and consisted of Don Willis, a heavy equipment operator and my good friend, taxidermist and outfitter, Richard Lozano. We had made this long trek to hunt with Wayne Bruce of Caprock Canyon Outfitters for the Texas brand of mule deer. A smaller variety than the Rocky Mountain Muley, the Desert Mule Deer of the Texas panhandle. We arrived at camp a little after dark and were greeted by guides and the camp cook, plus the aroma of wild boar ribs roasting over the open flames of a campfire grill. Just outside the ring of light was a small canyon and from it you could hear the undulating wail of coyotes greeting the night from less than a hundred yards away.
After our meal we sat around the fire discussing plans for our hunt the next morning, which was the season opener. One of the great pleasures of the outdoors was realized that night, as I visited with friends, both old and new, and watched sparks from the fire rise like a swarm of fireflies into the star studded Texas sky.
Then it was time to go to our bunks and what turned out to be for some of us a night-long fight with numerous Yellow Jackets. They came through the eaves from the cold outside, seeking the warmth of the bunkhouse and stinging anyone who lay in their path. This hazard was finally solved with a few insect bombs over the next couple of days.
The first morning came real early, 4 a.m., for our road weary, Yellow Jacket stung group. It was a crisp, clear, below freezing morning, and we broadcasted our whereabouts by the white plumes of our breath. We stood in the dark, under a canopy of stars so bright and numerous you would think it was painted on black velvet by an overzealous artist. We finally climbed aboard our horses for the ride to our hunting grounds. My mount was, thank goodness, a gentle one.
Not having been on a horse for over, way over, 20 years, I was hoping that at the end of the day I\’d be able to dismount and walk without the predicted pain in a pretty well-padded rear end. As we rode out into the dark, thick cedar brush and rough, remote canyons and valleys, I listened to the quiet surrounding us. The only thing intruding on the silence was the sound of the horses hooves on the ground and the creak of saddle leather. As daylight came we did see two coyotes standing and staring at us from the brush only 20 yards away. They soon realized that maybe they shouldn\’t be where they were and quickly disappeared into the thick brush. About 30 minutes out we dismounted, tied our horses and snuck up on a big open field, but saw only three does. So back on the horses and on to our main destination. “Our” consisted of my guide Ronnie Gossett and Richard Lozano. We rode across a wide valley flanked by big fields at one end and mountains and ridges on the other three. We started up the end of one ridge, threading our mounts through thick, head-high brush, to about a third of the way up. Then came the fun part. We clawed our way up through sometimes loose, sometimes huge boulders and a nearly vertical slope. We finally reached the summit, but not without lots of panting and numb legs.
Ronnie and Richard picked a promising spot and sat overlooking the valley and opposite ridge. I moved further down and set up to glass it also. I saw three does grazing on the opposite slope right away. About then my guide came to me and said, “There’s a big buck down in a ravine on the other ridge. If I can get you to the end of this ridge do you think you can make a shot across to the other ridge? I told him that I thought I could. So off we went. I hadn\’t taken a dozen steps when a big 8- or 10-point buck jumped up, running in and out of thick brush and up a slope 30-40 yards from us. This buck had evidently been bedded down just under the rim of the ridge out of my sight. Ronnie instructed, “Try for him.” I took a snap shot at him and missed. Although we were sure it was a miss, we searched for over an hour but found no signs of a hit. We decided then to go ahead and walk to the end of the ridge to see if by blind luck the buck we started out to get was still there. Would you believe, he was! Of course he was even bigger than the other one. But he was also 400 yards or more away. I sat down and, resting my elbows on my knees, touched one off. The guide said, “To the right and low.” I tried three more times with no luck, and the buck unconcernedly trotted away.
We trudged back to our perch and about an hour later saw him and a group of does high up on the far slope about a mile away. The sun had risen up higher in the sky and was warming us nicely in the 40 mile an hour wind that had been blowing all morning. We decided to take a break for lunch on the other side of the ridge, protected from the wind and warmed by the sun\’s rays on the big flat rocks we rested on. Lunch consisted of granola bars, candy bars and sips of water from a canteen. After lunch we laid our exhausted bodies down on the rocks and napped for an hour or so. When I woke up, I was alone. My companions said I ran them off with my snoring. Then it was up and back to our vigil, sitting on the edge of our windblown perch and hoping a buck would amble by. We had no such luck.
We had to slide back down to the horses and head back to the corral in the waning light. This seemed to be okay with the horses as we had to keep reining them in to keep them from breaking into a trot in the darkness. As we rode, I reflected on the day’s hunt. Lots of luck on seeing animals, not much on shooting, but still an enjoyable day in great hunting country. As I rocked back and forth in the saddle I thought of the stories of cowboys giving their mounts their head and sleeping in the saddle. I figured that tired as I was, maybe I could do that myself.
Day two dawned even colder, down in the 20’s, according to the thermometer hanging outside the bunkhouse door. Ronnie suggested trying a different place today. We drove about five miles or so from camp to a place called Mexican Knob. We climbed about a hundred feet or so up a steep brush choked slope to a bald peak that overlooked about two miles of some really rugged and spectacular looking canyons and slopes. Shortly after daylight, using my trusty 10 by 50\’s , I saw three does on a faraway slope. A couple of hours later, after sliding back down to more or less level ground, we started a 2 1/2 – 3 mile stroll up a rutted, partly overgrown Jeep road. This road curved around, up and down through many acres of thick high brush and steep rocky slopes. We flushed about 15 coveys of quail. Along the way we were able to surprise four does standing in a small swampy area and watched them work to the top of a rocky promontory, then look back at us with those huge ears turned toward us like radar dishes, checking us out.
With complaining, arthritic knees protesting the cold temperatures, I ended up having to cut a walking staff to make it up and down the steep slopes to find a vantage point to look for our quarry. We glassed a number of steep scenic canyons and valleys, but saw only a small four-point buck and three does. We started back to our distant vehicle and took a chance on a short cut. We did save about a mile in distance, but had to climb out through the steepest, brushiest and boulder-strewn ravine that we had encountered the whole trip to do it.
For the evening hunt we went to another area. On the way we drove through ten miles of flat plains dotted with fields and a few grazing does. We saw ponds that were inhabited by quite a few different species of ducks. The brilliant blue, cloudless sky was crisscrossed by skeins of geese moving from feeding areas to nighttime roosts. On a back road near our destination we saw 30-40 does grazing in one field. Arriving at our destination, the Wallace Ranch, we skirted the edges of numerous canyons and headers. At the beginning of prime time game movement we sat overlooking the end of a small canyon at the edge of a wheat field surrounding an old abandoned ranch house. No luck.
We drove through a tunnel of darkness that was pierced only by our headlights, arriving back at camp just in time for another hearty meal. Everyone sat around the campfire under the canopy of stars, listening to the mournful wail of coyotes nearby and recounting our day and speculating what the next day might bring. Then it was time to hit the bunks for a well-needed rest. My companions keep telling me they need ear plugs to soften the noise of my snoring. I keep telling them I might snore, but it’s not that bad. They say, “Wrong…”
On day three we were back before daylight to the same ranch as the evening before. We snuck up to and inside the old ranch house, hoping to get a shot at a buck as it came to the open wheat field to feed. I was carrying a .375 caliber Contender loaded with a 200 grain bullet, hoping to take a Muley with it. Right at daylight a small buck with two points to a side ambled by, giving me a pretty easy shot. I decided to pass on it. With two days hunting left, I hoped to get something better in my 4 power scopes crosshairs. During our vigil we saw a total of over twenty deer with three bucks even smaller than the one I\’d passed up earlier.
We decided to take a different route back to our vehicle and scout out more country. We saw another small buck with two does in thick cover in the very bottom of a deep canyon and could have had a good chance at a shot with handgun or rifle. I passed again and watched them go up an almost vertical wall and disappear over the next ridge. We traveled back to camp for a light lunch and to plan strategy for the evening hunt.
On the way to the Wallace Ranch that evening a very strange thing happened. As we got about a mile from the ranch an 8-point buck jumped up from its bed in the field next to the road. It ran parallel to us for about a mile, then jumped a fence, crossed the road in front of us, jumped the fence into our hunting area, and disappeared into a canyon. We searched the canyons and found the buck in the bottom of the fifth one at about 200 plus yards distance. I sat on my haunches at the edge of the drop-off and rested my elbows on my knees for a shot. The first shot, although I had held right on his shoulder, just creased the top of his shoulders. A second shot was a clean miss. After two hours of looking for signs, it was decided that he was all right and would heal quickly with no after-effects. We then went back to the big wheat field we\’d hunted that morning and found quite a few deer feeding in it. It was decided to try a stalk for a meat buck.
As we were glassing the field and discussing how we might get closer, we were shielded from the field by large cedar bushes along a fence line. About 20-30 yards from us was a small ravine leading up from a deep canyon. Out of this little ravine popped a coyote. It just stood there for a minute, then sat down for awhile.
We finally had to move on and the coyote just trotted away in the opposite direction, stopping to look back at us twice. My guide Ronnie and I made a 300-yard stalk, then crawled on our bellies for another 60 yards or so, all this to end up with a 250-yard shot. I had my bipod down on my Remington model 700, 30/06, loaded with Remington 180 grain soft-nosed bullets for a rock steady hold on a small buck\’s shoulder. I touched off a shot and then a second one. Both were misses. Richard, who was back at our starting spot watching through binoculars, told me afterward that both shots landed over its back and into the next field. Dejectedly, we went back to camp.
My other friends didn\’t have much better luck. Richard Kaufman shot a small buck after some rifle problems of his own, but after correcting that, took a coyote right on the outskirts of camp. Don Willis shot a small buck on the last day of the hunt. Walter Draper had the worst luck of all. His horse spooked and threw him, hurting not only his dignity, but breaking a camera lens and scope mounts on his rifle. He saw no bucks at all. I didn\’t hunt the last day of the hunt.
After arriving at home I checked my rifle at the local range and found my Weaver 3 – 9 scope to be 2-4 inches high and about the same to the right. I felt vindicated, but sad about missing those great bucks. It still was an enjoyable hunting experience.