By William T. Strickland
Practice, patience and perseverance pay off... eventually.
In July 2004, my good friend Clay Young, owner of Mexico Outfitters Unlimited in Del Rio, Texas, called and said he had an unexpected opening for a five-day hunt on his premier low-fence ranch in Mexico.
The La Margarita is a 33,000-acre cattle ranch that has been under a strict trophy deer management program for many years. Knowing this, I jumped at the chance and the hunt was scheduled for the second week of December.
Finally the day came, and after a quick tour of the beautiful accommodations and a meet-and-greet session with the guides and other hunters, my guide, David Markham, and I set out to hunt. David is a very knowledgeable and competent guide and a close friend.
On the way to our ground blind overlooking an oat field, David asked what class of deer I hoped to take during this hunt. I told him that I had shot a 170-class deer in November and was looking for one as big or bigger. He said that was a pretty high standard, but there were bucks of that caliber on the ranch and hopefully we would see one.
We did see a really nice 12-pointer that afternoon, but he did not make the age requirement of 5 1/2 years old. That really pumped me up. If there were 4 1/2-year-old deer with racks like that, the mature bucks must be really magnificent.
For the remainder of the hunt, the weather was hot and dry, in the mid- to upper 70s, the moon was full and there were few signs of rutting activity. The mature bucks were not moving. David and I hunted hard from ground blinds and tripods, glassed from hilltops and rattled draws and creek bottoms.
As the last hours of my 2004 hunt faded, it became evident that I would not harvest a deer. I went home with old friendships renewed and memories to replay in my mind until I returned. Yes, I immediately rebooked for the next year.
In December ’05, I was fortunate to have David as my guide again. He told me the conditions were about the same as they’d been the previous year. I said that at the beginning of the hunt the standard would be the same as before, but we might adjust it as the hunt progressed.
Off we went in search of a 170-class or bigger buck. We hunted a box blind first and saw quite a few bucks, but no older ones. The next two days were pretty much the same. We saw a lot of does and young bucks, but the mature boys just were not moving, at least not during the day. We glassed from the hills into the flats; we rattled, hoping to find one “Grande” looking for a fight, but no such luck. I told David we might have to start adjusting our expectations.
The following morning, with the moon shining bright over the Mexican desert, we left the warmth of the lodge behind. The temperature was considerably cooler than the previous mornings and there seemed to be more wildlife activity.
Long-eared rabbits constantly darting left and right, in and out of the headlights of the truck, the occasional glimpse of deer crossing the road and the reflective glow from the eyes of unknown animals in the brush ahead were all indicators that perhaps the bigger bucks would be moving, too.
We were hunting from a box blind overlooking thick brush that we thought would present the best opportunity to harvest a good one. I was beginning to think that it might not have to be that 170-class deer, but I was still optimistic.
During the three hours after daylight, it was evident that more deer were on the move than on the previous mornings. We watched a wide variety of bucks — young 7s, 8s, 9s and 10s — pass in and out of the brush within 150 yards of the blind. However, only a few stopped long enough to investigate the constant chasing of the does by the smaller bucks in the area.
We saw several mature bucks that we had not seen before, one good 9-pointer and a really nice symmetrical 8-pointer. David and I discussed taking one of these deer, but with some reservation, opted to wait.
Midmorning, we drove up into the hills to do some glassing. David thought we might spot a good buck with a hot doe that could keep him occupied long enough for us to get close enough for a shot. If not, maybe we could rattle up a big bruiser and have him come charging in with ears laid back, hair bristled and ready for action.
Although we saw a few bucks with does and we rattled up a looker, none of these were “the one.”
As the coolness of the morning gave way to the heat of midday, we headed back to the lodge. David and I speculated that with all the increased activity and the appearance of does coming into estrus, maybe the bigger, mature bucks were indeed beginning to move and search for does.
As we continued our drive back to the ranch house, we observed several bucks with does, which was a good indication that our theory was probably correct.
Over a quick lunch, we agreed to hunt the area where we had seen the highest concentration of does — in a double tripod blind at the base of the hills. It overlooked a wide area of brush from ankle- to head-high with occasional open areas. We would be able to see any deer that came down from the hills and those that came to the open areas in the brush to feed.
We left the lodge for the afternoon hunt, and David suggested that we take a longer route to the blind to see if any deer were moving in areas other than the one we were going to hunt. It would also give us an opportunity to drive by the oat field where we had seen the young 12-pointer the previous year.
The field had not been replanted this year and was now covered with what David called “B brush,” a bush with silvery white foliage. He said that bucks like to lie down and rest in this B brush during the middle of the day. Maybe one would be in there as we drove by.
As we neared the old oat field and just as David remarked, “This would be a good place for one to be lying down,” a big-antlered buck jumped up from the brush and bolted across the road about 20 yards in front of the truck. David hit the brakes as the buck ran about 30 yards on the other side of the road, stopped, then stepped into the brush and lay down.
We quickly decided to try to get the buck to stand up so David could see if it was mature.
Moving a few yards closer, I readied myself to shoot if David gave me the green light. I was getting pretty excited, so I took a couple of deep breaths to get calm. David whistled at the buck, which remained motionless. As my heart raced uncontrollably, I struggled to keep the outline of the top of the antlers in focus through the brush. David began slowly moving farther to my left, which would put him more in the buck’s line of sight.
Suddenly the buck stood up and looked straight at David. It was the 9-pointer we had let walk earlier that morning. The buck bolted and quickly put a lot of desert between us. He disappeared over a distant small ridge, never looking back. (This buck was harvested by another hunter later in the week.)
We returned to the truck and continued on our way to our stand. We had traveled maybe half a mile farther when I spotted a buck standing in the brush with a doe, and David saw an 8-pointer and a 9-pointer in the brush on the other side of the road. It was 3:40 p.m. and the bucks were already out looking for hot does. I began to second-guess our decision to take the longer route to our stand. If we had taken the shorter route, we already would have been set up and waiting for Mr. Big.
A couple of curves in the road and a quarter mile farther, David spotted a doe standing in an opening in the brush. As he looked through his binoculars, he saw a buck’s rack moving in the brush about 10 yards behind her.
I was still trying to see the doe or the buck, but just could not see either in the direction he was telling me to look. As we were exiting the truck, the doe ran across the road. The first time I saw her was just as she disappeared in the brush on the left side of the road. I spotted the tips of the buck’s rack over the brush, but I could not tell if he was shooter. David quickly put the binoculars to his eyes again and looked in the direction where the buck stood in the brush.
On a previous hunt, David had seen me noticeably shaken, waiting for a clear shot at a nice buck. So in an effort to keep me from becoming overly excited, he calmly said to me, “I think you might want to shoot this buck.” There was no sign of excitement in his voice as he told me the buck was locked on the doe visually and would not let her out of his sight. I confirmed this through my scope.
As I watched the buck begin to move, the now familiar thump in my chest began to quicken. David asked me if I was ready. “Yes,” I responded.
He whispered, “Then you might want to pull the hammer back.”
I felt a little flush as I pulled the hammer back on the single-shot and brought the butt of the rifle tighter against my shoulder. I watched through the scope as the big buck began to move in the direction of where the doe had entered the brush on the other side of the road. As the buck’s head began to clear the brush, I could see that he had a large rack. But I did not know how large. David told me to shoot when I was ready.
As I placed the center of the crosshairs in the scope on a point just behind his shoulder, the adrenaline really began to flow. With each beat of my heart, the crosshairs seem to move a foot. After what seemed like an eternity, the magnificent buck stopped, giving me a broadside shot at about 150 yards. I took a couple of deep breaths, centered the crosshairs again and gently squeezed the trigger, sending the 180-grain projectile on its mission.
The buck never flinched, jumped or showed any sign of being hit, but he started a slow trot in the direction the doe had gone. David was excited now, yelling, “Reload! You missed! Reload!”
My hands felt like they had boxing gloves on them as I tried to load another round. As the breech on the rifle snapped closed, the huge buck disappeared into the brush at the point where we had last seen the doe. I could not believe I had missed. My excitement quickly began to be replaced by disappointment. The buck of a lifetime was gone.
David continued to scan the brush. Then, just as quickly as she had disappeared, the doe reappeared and dashed back across the road into the brush. David told me to be ready for the buck to be right behind her. “If she’s hot, he won’t leave her.”
Here I was again, soaking wet with sweat, breathing as hard as a 50-dollar race horse, and that jack hammer was back in my chest, causing the crosshairs to jump with every beat. Was I ready? We waited several minutes, but the buck never reappeared. I thought he was gone.
With no deer in sight, we continued up the road to where we had last seen the buck and looked for any sign that I might have hit him. As we cautiously neared the area where we’d last seen the buck, I spotted his huge body and massive antlers just 15 yards off the road. I had not missed!
As we rushed up to where the deer lay, all David could say was, “You don’t know what you have done; you just don’t know what you have done.” After a lot of high-fives, a few expletives and a couple of hugs, we just stood there looking at the awesome buck.
The buck’s heavy, massive rack had 18 points. It was a mainframe 13-pointer with an extra tine off the left P3, and brow tines that split with two extra points each. The buck’s field-dressed weight was 162 pounds. We loaded the buck in the truck and made a slow, leisurely drive back to the ranch house, where we greeted the other hunters with smiles so big we looked like two mules eating briars. We also learned that this buck was the biggest that had ever been taken on the ranch.
Good hunting practices, patience, perseverance and a lot of luck played a significant part in the successful harvest of this magnificent trophy. You can bet I will continue to use all of them. Who knows? Maybe my next story will be how lightning can strike twice in the same place. What do you think, David?
To book a hunt with Mexico Outfitters Unlimited, call (830) 313-1577 or visit www.mxoutfittersunlimited.com.
This article was published in the November 2006 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.