The BTR’s first and only entry from New Mexico!
It’s obvious the late singer-songwriter Jim Croce never bowhunted New Mexico’s high plains. If he had, sneaking up on a deer would’ve rated right up there with tugging on Superman’s cape, spittin’ in the wind and pullin’ the mask off that ol’ Lone Ranger — things you just DON’T do.
Nobody told Robert Barnwell, however.
The 40-year-old bowhunter also missed the memo pointing out that shooting a whitetail, even a little one, in a state renowned for its elk, mule and diminutive Coues’ deer would be like pulling a 10-pound largemouth out of a birdbath.
That’s not to say whitetails haven’t moved into New Mexico from the Texas Panhandle. But because the wide open spaces there are best suited for prairie chickens and pronghorns, odds of that lunker bass are more favorable.
Nobody told him that either.
Robert didn’t set out to demoralize the oddsmakers last season. He wasn’t nocked for whitetails, even though he’s smitten with them and has been saving for years to be able to travel to Iowa or some other corner of the Midwest to hunt them. He had no reason to believe he’d do anything beyond sticking his 12th muley, and only if the deer gods were in a generous mood.
He and his wife, Samantha, drew any-forked-antler buck tags last year for Unit 31’s January archery season. He’d start things off solo, and then it was her time.
While scouting for mule deer in the sandhills of Roosevelt County the day before his hunt, Robert saw an enormous buck. It had brow tines, no forks, and its tail and gait were not those of a muley. Although the whitetail was on public land, Robert acquired permission to cross and hunt the adjoining rancher’s holdings, just in case.
Armed with his bow the next morning, he saw the same whitetail in the same place. He tried to move closer, but a doe winded him from 80 yards. She and the buck ran off into the sand dunes.
Robert saw the buck the next day, too, within 100 yards of where it had been the previous times. A shift in the wind ended that stalk as well.
He saw a nice 4x4 muley on day three. As he watched it, he convinced himself that he’d blown his chance at the much more impressive whitetail.
“I pretty much decided that was it,” he said. “You can’t bump a mature whitetail two days in a row and expect it not to leave. They’re just too smart.”
Robert had planned to take Samantha hunting on the fourth day, but she told him to give his whitetail one more try that morning.
He saw the familiar muley again and watched it for about five minutes. When he was about to leave, he noticed the big whitetail — alone this time — about 200 yards beyond its big-eared cousin. It was feeding left to right, heading for the state-owned dunes into which it had twice disappeared.
The wind was blowing in Robert’s favor that day. He got to within three dunes — close to 100 yards — of the two bucks, both coming his way. But then they began angling away from him, which meant he’d have to belly-crawl for nearly 200 yards, in plain view to the unconcerned muley.
He lost sight of the whitetail while crawling like a reptile, but he kept an eye on the mule deer, hoping the other was still trailing it. When he finally spotted the whitetail again, it had stopped to rub a mesquite tree, its back to Robert.
Seizing the opportunity, Robert gained more ground. Well, actually sand.
The only cover was the 5-foot-tall dunes, but they were enough to get him within 50 yards of the path the mule deer had taken over one of the highest ones. All Robert could do at that point was hope the whitetail would take the same route.
When the deer walked past, Robert bleated and put his 50-yard pin on the animal. The arrow only clipped the vitals, but it hit the right spot to drop the buck. A second broadhead from 25 yards finished things.
A local game warden aged Robert’s deer at more than 11 years old. It was almost toothless. Also, in case anyone asks, a taxidermist and biologist agree it isn’t a hybrid, though Robert kept the tail and testicles if further proof is ever needed.
“Whitetails are really coming into New Mexico from the eastern border,” he said. “I know a handicapped rifle hunter who shot a net 167-incher here. But they’re still few and far between.
“We have Coues’ deer in the west, and mostly muleys in the east,” he added. “I never dreamed I’d shoot a whitetail like this here. To be honest, I didn’t think I had a snowball’s chance.
“Out here in the sandhills, it’s 95 percent luck and 5 percent skill, regardless of which species you’re after,” Robert continued. “It’s very tough hunting. Lots of open ground. The deer basically live out here with the prairie chickens and antelope, and they bed up in the shin oaks. Plus, when you walk through the knee-high scrub, it’s like walking on Post Toasties.
“I’ve dreamt and saved for years to be able to hunt the Midwest. The only time I’ve hunted whitetails was when I swapped a bear hunt for a management buck hunt with a couple of guys in San Angelo, Texas,” he added. “I had a blast. As far as I’m concerned, rattling up whitetails is a close second to bowhunting elk.”
Hunter: Robert Barnwell
Official: 161 6/8
– Photo courtesy of Robert Barnwell
This article was published in the September 2011 edition of Rack Magazine. Subscribe today to have Rack Magazine delivered to your home.