By Russell Thornberry
Seldom does the same buck begin and end a hunting story for three hunters, but that’s exactly what happened last December in southwest Texas on the Rafter W Ranch. The Rafter W hunt is my favorite of the year because I get to take a young hunter on a dream hunt and capture the episode for posterity with a video camera, which, in turn, appears on either Buckmasters TV or our new Rack TV. In this case, the hunt was destined for a Rack show that airs Sept. 13 on The Outdoor Channel.
My guest was Wes Darnell of Pike Road, Ala. Wes is an able young man of 15 years with plenty of whitetail hunting under his belt, but, until this trip, he’d never hunted outside his home state. There is little that compares with the antler size and herd density of a well-managed Texas ranch, so I knew that Wes was in for some real excitement.
Jimmy Little was on hand to man the video camera. He and I have spent more time together in treetops than a couple of crows, and we always seem to have something unique happen when we film together. All things considered, the die was cast for a very special hunt on the Rafter W’s 30,000-plus acres of whitetail paradise.
Jack Wardlaw and his son, Trey, welcomed us to the ranch. Upon arrival, Trey took us deep into the heart of the ranch to a box blind beside a long greenfield where Jack had been seeing a huge 8-pointer. We could only shoot mature 8-point bucks in this particular section of the ranch, but Jack assured us that the buck he’d seen would make a hunter forget about counting points.
Wes was up. It was his first day on a Texas ranch, and he was going to have the shot if we saw a good enough buck. We all sat shoulder to shoulder in the blind facing the greenfield. On the far side was a thick, brushy, dry creek bed below the boughs of live oaks and mesquites. Prickly pear cactus and a host of other thorn-clad plants and hostile bushes flanked the greenfield and offered a sanctuary for the deer and turkeys.
In front of us, the land appeared typical of the south Texas brush country, but behind our blind, a rocky hill rose up above us that was classic hill country habitat. In fact, this is the part of Texas that Jack calls the “transition zone,” where the hill country and brush country meet, offering hunters the best of both habitats: the beauty and the vertical relief of the brush country and the larger bodied and antlered bucks of the brush.
It was still early in the afternoon when I heard rocks falling behind the blind. I eased forward to look for the source of the sound, and there was a stunning buck, walking toward the blind from behind us and to our right. “There’s a good buck right there!” I whispered, “and he’s headed this way!” I couldn’t believe it. Instead of emerging like a ghost from the thick brush in front of us, the buck had walked down the open hill behind us and was going to pass in front of our blind at less than 30 yards. But the rut was in full swing and anything could happen.
We sat frozen like statues, afraid to move a muscle, as the buck strutted in front of us at point-blank range. Jimmy’s eye was glued to the video camera while Wes and I sat with bated breath, hoping the buck would get past us without winding us. Miraculously, it did. When it was 50 yards past the blind, we finally got a perspective of the width of the rack. When we saw that, there was nothing left to consider – Wes had to shoot this buck!
When it was 75 yards out, I whistled to try and stop its determined stride while Wes wrestled with the .257 Hot Tamale, a scalding cartridge made for me by James Ferguson that spits a 100-grain bullet out at more than 4,000 feet per second. We were in a tight squeeze, especially since the buck had come from the exact opposite direction that we had expected. I whistled but the buck kept right on walking. I whistled louder, still to no avail. Now it was 150 yards distant and still walking, so I told Wes to get on it as best he could, and then I yelled “HEY!” at the top of my lungs. With that, the buck skidded to a stop and looked back in our direction, quartering sharply away. The world simply stopped on its axis for that moment that hangs like an eternity while awaiting a shot. I waited for the blast. When it came, the buck ran away with seemingly no ill effects.
We all sat quietly for a moment, somewhat stunned after the tension. None of us, least of all Wes, could comprehend having missed that buck. With failing light, we scoured the area of his exit but found no trace. The next morning’s search produced no evidence of a hit, either, so we had to assume that Wes missed the buck. I know he was steady, but there was no logical alternative. What a bummer for a fellow’s first crack at a truly great Texas buck. But we were still on the Rafter W, and there would be other opportunities.
The following afternoon Wes and I sat on the ground with our backs against a gnarly old mesquite tree that covered us up like part of the landscape. We weren’t far from where the big buck had showed itself and there was always the chance we might see it again.
As the sun dipped toward the rocky hills to the west, deer started to appear. A few does emerged from the brush and began to feed. Then, almost like the first afternoon, a buck showed up right in front of us … so close that we couldn’t blink. It, too, was a big 8-pointer with very heavy beams, but it wasn’t as wide as that first-day monster. Nonetheless, it was a dandy trophy, and it walked with a limp, favoring the right front leg, probably the result of a fighting wound.
“Don’t move until he gets past us,” I whispered to Wes. He nodded quietly as the buck limped slowly away. The buck finally walked back in the brush before offering Wes a shot, but it was still early. I expected we’d see more bucks before dark.
Wes and I had jokingly told Jimmy that we were going to shoot a double that evening. As far as we knew, it had not been done before on TV, and while it was mostly wishful thinking, it wasn’t out of the question on the Rafter W.
More deer appeared as the light faded, and finally I saw a good high-tined 8-point buck jump across the fence to our left into the sendero before us. I was calling Wes’ attention to its arrival when the buck with the limp suddenly appeared to our right again. “Hey, there’s our double,” I whispered. Wes grinned. Jimmy nodded. A plan was coming together. I told Wes to take the larger of the two, the one with the limp, and I’d take the other one. We waited until they got close enough to each other for Jimmy to have them both in the frame. They were directly in front of us at distances from 100 to 150 yards when the trap was set. “On three. You count,” I whispered to Wes as I locked my crosshairs on my buck’s shoulder.
“One, two – boom! The rifles reported in unison, and the two bucks dropped on camera.
“We did it!” Wes yelled as he jumped to his feet with a Texas-sized grin spread across his face. “We got a double!” Indeed we had. But before I could even get to my feet, out came another gorgeous 8-pointer, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
“You’ve still got one more tag,” I said. “You can use it now if you want to.” He hit the ground, aimed and dropped his second buck in less time that it takes me to tell you about it. Now we had gone from a double to a triple-header in less than 15 seconds! Wes was elated.
The next morning, with his deer tags retired, Wes slept in while Jimmy and I manned another blind and took a beautiful, heavy-beamed 10-pointer at daybreak. Later that day, I filmed Jimmy shooting a trophy blackbuck, which had been a dream of his for years.
That evening Jimmy, Wes and I sat together in a spacious ground blind we made from cedar boughs wired between a cluster of live oaks trees.
Everything was perfect. The deer were moving, the rut was in full swing, and then the wind shifted 180 degrees. Deer were suddenly running and blowing in every direction, so we knew it was over for that spot. We would have to move to another location. It was our last afternoon to hunt, but our spirits were dampened by high winds that swirled from every direction.
I suggested that we go back to the blind where we started and had seen that awesome, wide 8-pointer that first afternoon. It was a very long shot, but we had nothing to lose.
An hour before dark, with the evening sun as rich as golden honey hanging on the live oaks, the wind died, and it became calm. Another great 8-point buck emerged across the greenfield from the brushy draw. It truly was exceptional with the heaviest rack we’d seen yet. Still, it was not the wide buck we were looking for, so we just watched it, and I taped some pretty footage.
It was a splendid evening as we sat huddled there in that box blind hoping against hope that the buck we had missed on the first day would forget all about it and walk out in front of us a second time. All of us knew it was a foolish expectation, but no one actually admitted it. We were just sitting there thinking it when the buck suddenly appeared at the timber’s edge at the far right-hand corner of the greenfield.
It was facing us at slightly more than 200 yards, peering out cautiously at the field from behind a squatty cedar tree, never moving a hair. The head-on view of that wide rack glowing in the evening sun created enough adrenaline among the three of us to shake the nails out of that little box blind. For the first time ever, I heard Jimmy Little gasping for breath. What were the odds of this actually happening? But it was happening.
“All I’ve got is a head-on shot!” Jimmy whispered with an air of panic in his voice. The buck was obviously thinking about its next step, which would either bring it right out into the open or back into the brush.
“If he turns back, you’re going to have to shoot fast before he disappears. You’ll have a split second view of his ribs, and that’s all,” I warned Jimmy.
“I know, I know,” he replied.
And for the second time on this hunt, from this same blind, Earth and time stood still, held in place by nothing but the unbearable tension of three excited deer hunters.
At last the buck began to turn back into the brush. It was all I could do to keep the camera on it. The Hot Tamale roared, and the buck crumpled. A collective sigh of relief nearly took the roof off the blind.
The buck we started with four days earlier had ended our hunt, albeit for another hunter, but we were all so overjoyed it really didn’t matter. So this awesome Texas buck turned out to be bookends for our hunt and our television show. What a way to start – and finish!
Rafter W Ranch
James Ferguson Custom Riflles
This article was published in the September 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.