By Todd Strong
-- Last June, my two hunting buddies Randy, John, and I entered a state permit drawing to hunt for mule deer on the Matador Wildlife Management Area in Texas. The year before, 10 lucky hunters from 1,600 applications were drawn. Imagine our excitement of getting the letter from the TPWD notifying us that we’d been selected.
Only two of us were on the list, however, so I called the agency to find out why. John had not included his age on the application and was not entered, I was told With no way to include him in the hunt, I had a sick feeling as I called both him and Randy to tell them what had happened. On one hand, Randy and I were selected on our first try at the application process, and on the other, John would not get to go. He understood that it was a big win for us, but we could hear the disappointment in his voice.
Several months of preparation and planning dragged by as we waited for the hunt week to come. Calling the wildlife manager at the WMA heightened the anticipation when he told us of the cold weather predicted, great activity (peak of the rut), solar/lunar alignment and a great antler growth due to spring rains.
The bragging started even before we left the house. "Oh, those monster antlers of my buck will look great on the wall!"
"Yours are going to look pitiful next to mine."
The field-judging articles I downloaded from the Internet only added details to the exaggerations. I was sure I could determine within a few inches the score of any buck we saw.
Finally, it was time to head out of town. With lists checked and rechecked and permits, ammo, guns and grub packed, we were off.
It was 70 degrees in Dallas, warm for Dec 8, but with the promise of the cold front hitting later in the day we kept the jackets handy. The, the temperature dropped 20 degrees after just an hour on the road. By the time we checked in and set up camp, it was colder yet. Ice was predicted for following day. We wondered if the pop-up tent trailer was the right idea. No matter, we had scouting to do.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and Sunday driving the 28,000-acre property to check the terrain and walk promising areas. We saw four does and a young spike buck in one area; four more does in another. The land was exactly what we hoped for: miles of rolling hills, draws, ravines and lots of brush.
Then someone in the truck asked, “What’s that funny smell, and what’s that coming from the heater vent?”
The heater core was leaking -- miles from the nearest place to get it fixed.
The first attempts at pulling much of the dash out of the pickup only make it more frustrating and more certain that it was a serious leak. Our only option was to drive 30 miles into town and buy some more fluid and disconnect the heater core.
Then we were fighting the cold and ice on the windshield. We debated taking a day out of the hunt to get the truck fixed. No way! We decided to endure and hunt every available minute.
Check-in on the WMA started about 9 a.m. Two hours later, we followed our guides to our assigned hunting area. The guides’ job is to point out our hunting area; the rest would be up to us.
Randy and I headed to an area called South Middle -- one of the two spots we wanted. We saw a small buck and six does there that afternoon.
An inch of rain fell Monday night, making the roads sloppy.
We set up on the ridge we’d picked out the day before, and started glassing. The rain had stopped but gusting winds was making it tough. We saw a 6-pointer and lots of does. Fortunately, a hot meal, warm sleeping bags and a good night’s rest renewed our spirits, and the weather report was encouraging for Wednesday.
Everything was frozen over the following morning. The temp was 18 degrees, and a mixture of snow/sleet was falling intermittently.
We got back into our routine of walking the ridge fingers, stalking slowly into the wind. The area was covered with fresh sign. More does and another small buck on a ridge across from us required a closer look. We covered the quarter mile quickly and spotted the does again. The little buck had moved on, and there were no other signs of mature deer.
Didn't these bucks know that they were supposed to be in full rut?
We decided to change locations and hunt a different part of our unit. After a quick lunch, we parked the truck, checked our gear, headed down the first finger ridge into the wind and started looking. The cedars are a little thicker on this side of the unit. Not 200 yards from the truck, I peeked around a juniper and there he was, 150 yards across a draw.
Wow! I counted 10 points.
Heart racing, I tried to breathe normally. A mesquite branch was in the way of a shot, but with the buck not alarmed, I took my time to wait for a clear shot.
Boom! The buck disappeared to my left, heading uphill.
Randy said he heard the bullet hit, but a thorough check of the area revealed no blood. This couldn’t be!
Doubt set in as we circled the area. Still no hair, blood, nothing. Did I miss? I walked in the direction the deer ran.
The road we parked on, as I discovered, curves close to the spot I saw the deer. Had we driven further, we would have never found this buck.
As I stepped on the road, I saw fresh prints and then began to follow them. I noticed tracks where the buck had bounded off the road and ran up the embankment.
YEE Haw! I spotted my deer lying next to a cedar bush. He had only gone about 70 yards.
The bullet entered at his shoulder and went through the heart. Everyone back at camp was surprised that a 7mm mag with 150-grain pointed soft point bullets did not exit the deer. Matador staff estimated the buck’s score at 152 ¼ inches
On the trip home, our truck’s temperature gauge indicated the vehicle was overheating. Was it still leaking fluid? A quick check revealed another issue: the thermostat was sticking. How many more challenges could we face? We reached an auto parts store just before closing and changed the part, but the U-turn we made to reach store pulled the trailer light plug out.
Fortunately, we finished the trip without any more mishaps. What a roller coaster ride!
It was a trip to remember. My mule deer happened to be the biggest of the four deer shot at Matador this year. Already we are talking about our next hunting trip.
-- Todd Strong
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