by Jeff Johnston - Tuesday, August 20, 2013
“Looks like Pat got lucky,” said Billy Bob as we rounded the corner and spied a camouflaged man in the middle of the two-track. It’s not like you really need camo while hunting in a box blind over a feeder, but try showing up in a West Texas deer camp wearing chartreuse. Billy Bob had deduced that if Pat wasn’t in the blind, he must’ve had one down; and if he had one down, obviously it could only be due to luck. By now we all knew the rules.
The gate was solar-powered so I kept right on yapping as we wheeled on through in the dingy Chevy. Three days prior Billy Bob didn’t say a word as I hustled to get the first gate only to have it nearly bowl me over as I reached for it. No doubt he was laughing on the inside when I slunk back to my seat. If I was embarrassed it faded with my naivete as I realized just how many gates a 9,000-acre Texas horse ranch can harbor.
It’s with the same humility that I admit Billy Bob—of course his name was Billy Bob—was my guide. To this day I honestly believe I’d be fine in a blind alone for a couple hours, but then again I may very well have fallen asleep, knocked over my gun and shot the feeder, or—I hate to even think—shot the wrong deer. Fully guided is often how they do it in Texas, and I’ve learned to appreciate the level of convenience offered there. Besides, I can’t blame them for not trusting foreigners. After all, I know it’s a rifle—in this case a Model 700 in .30-06—and not a gun, but they don’t know that I know, and they darn sure don’t know if I can tell a 4-year-old deer from a 5-year-old horse. So I just go with the flow by shooting when someone tells me to shoot and by eating a lot of barbeque.
Just a few hours before, Billy Bob had nudged me awake when an elderly 8-point hobbled out to gum some corn. We watched him for over an hour, scrutinizing him with the finest binoculars money can buy before Billy Bob finally gave me the nod. Brilliantly—and something that would likely go unnoticed by lesser hunters—he waited until the buck ambled to the two-track so it’d be easier to load. If you think these boys don’t have it down, I’ve got some ocean front I’ll sell you for a song.
At any rate, my old and wise 8-point buck, that turned out to be not that old and not that wise, was now in the back of the Chevy, and I was chatty for a change as we continued our pivotal discussion concerning the attitudes of American hunters on Texas deer hunting, and why this outsider’s thinking on it had evolved over the years. Like most Texans, however, Billy Bob didn’t seem to care. Like most clients, I told him anyway.
“Maybe it irked me a little when my buddy came skipping back home to Virginia three days after leaving for Texas with his best buck ever,” I said. “This was a long time ago, when big deer didn’t grow on trees. Deep down I was happy he got a good one of course, but God knows Tim’s worse at hunting than he is at cards, and so I sure didn’t let him know it. Truth is, it was bigger than anything I’d taken, and I guess at first something about it being so easy just didn’t sit that well with me. Heck, you don’t even have to sit still. Tim kept on and on about how he saw more bucks in one day than he’d seen in five seasons. But to me, what it amounted to was that he’d paid his money and bought a nice deer. Whoopty-doo. But corn feeders? C’mon. And who needs a tripod stand in the woods? It sounded more like deer shopping to me. I’m not a shopper.”
Billy Bob rolled his eyes and stared at me for an uncomfortable amount of time, especially considering he was driving.
“Well, at least I wasn’t a shopper,” I said. “You know if I had my druthers I’d prefer to freeze all day long in the crotch of an oak tree, waiting for the acorns to fall so the deer come in close. Of course acorns rarely fall, and so neither do any deer. But that doesn’t matter. It’s hunting, it’s how we do it back home and by gosh we like it.”
Billy Bob mumbled an uh-huh or two, and by now I knew that meant he was enjoying my company. So I continued my unique story of evolution.
“Then, one day a mouthy cowboy at the Harrisburg show pointed out the obvious—that there aren’t—or ‘ain’t,’ as I believe he said—woods in brush country. Said you got to get up high to see over the mesquite, which is better for barbequing than stand-hanging. Basically he rationalized the actions of you Texans by telling me that once you have a ladder and a seat suspended in the air on metal legs, the logical thing to do is to build a blind around it.
Then add gun rests and windows to keep the wind out when it’s chilly—and for the mosquitoes the rest of the time. Then, if you’ve got a few extra dollars—which you likely do if you own a ranch in Texas—you buy a swivel chair with a padded seat, then you throw a piece of carpet on the floor to make the whole operation hum. At some point some sissy lugs a propane heater up, and now you’ve got a box blind as comfortable as your living room sofa. But none of this would be worth the time and effort, he explained, if it weren’t for the insane amount of deer God and proper management bestowed on Texas; deer that are allowed to reach maturity because there are enough 8- and 10-pointers that even first-timers don’t need to shoot a spike just to go home with something; wild deer that you and your fidgety kids can view and photograph, and maybe choose to take one when you’ve seen enough. The cowboy sounded convincing, but even so, I wasn’t about to plunk down 10 grand on one of those high-fence outfits that breed bucks—not that I’m against breeding bucks.”
Billy Bob looked at me funny.
“Anyway some time passed, all the while with Tim’s buck photos circling the Internet like Jimmy Johnson at Daytona, until finally his annual invite came around again. Tim’s Texas connection—a guy whom he’s hunted with so much now that he even lovingly calls him “Cuz”—has 9,000 acres of brush country here in Eldorado. Tim told me the land wasn’t high-fenced. He mentioned Steve Anderson was a cool dude who didn’t take things overly serious.
“Tim told me that it seems Steve has but three rules at Vatoville Ranch.” And so I recited them for Billy Bob despite the fact that he was plenty familiar with them. After all, he’d been guiding there for years.
“Number one: Don’t shoot ‘Huevos,’ Steve’s giant pet buck. Number two: Hunters shall not go to bed early. And three: Make fun of everyone else in camp. I told Tim I could work with that.”
Suddenly Billy Bob interrupted me. “Looks like Pat might need some help loading his deer.” We were still a couple hundred yards away, but I could see a massive rack sticking above some cactus near what was surely Pat. I prayed that it was Huevos. If he had messed up and plugged Vatoville’s icon buck, Pat would have some serious ’splainin’ to do back at the campfire, and we’d all surely get a kick out of that. We motored the last leg toward Pat, and I continued, because Billy Bob, like all deer guides, was clearly fascinated with my life’s story.
“So,” I said, “I was almost convinced to come down and try some Texas deer hunting like I’d seen on TV, but there was still the issue of the corn. Most of us real hunters can’t stand dog hunters or deer drivers or crossbow hunters or other lowlifes, and we darn sure don’t hunt over scattered corn. That is, until that kind cowboy asked me to place myself in a poor Texan’s boots. So I did, if only for a moment. And you know what, Billy Bob?”
“What?” he humored me.
“They stink! Naw, really, I closed my eyes while he whispered real slow and calm like. He said if there was a central acorn tree, or a majestic field of golden corn, no doubt they’d hunt over them like they do in the majority of America that receives rain. But there are few acorns in West Texas in a good year, fewer cornfields and little rain. What the land has are rattlesnakes, mesquite, cattle, hogs and a tradition of shooting big-racked bucks by the bushel. He said, ‘Try putting up 10 feeders, fill them with 12 bags of $12-per-bag corn and then listen to the large sucking sound as feral swine ruin your life.’ He said hog shootin’ always seems like it’d be fun at first, and it is … for a while … until you notice the hogs are like the Russians at Stalingrad and just keep coming and you don’t have enough bullets to turn the tide. So you build a fence around the feeder, low enough for deer to jump, but too high for hogs. With the setup perfected, you now invite your step-father, Hal, down from Skokie to share in your piece of paradise, but all he does is moan about the overly easy deer hunting, almost like the idiot doesn’t realize that it wasn’t created by divine intervention.
“So, I realized that sometimes paying the money, relaxing and having a good time in the name of deer hunting isn’t the worst thing you can do, especially when the wife needs some venison validation occasionally. And besides, most of us are just looking for an escape anyway, not a record-book deer ... but of course I’d take one.
“And that’s why my attitude has changed,” I said. “When I get the privilege to hunt West Texas, I follow the ranch rules. And now, being a veteran, I even have a few of my own.“And they are,” I made a drum-roll sound on the dashboard with my fingers: “Number one: Shoot the first buck your guide tells you to—that way you can blame it on him if it turns out to be mediocre.”
Billy Bob acted like he didn’t hear me.
“Number two: Act like the man who takes the smallest deer, or heaven forbid no deer, is the worst hunter in the history of mankind and rail him mercilessly. It really adds flavor to the Texas deer hunting culture, assuming you are not the nimrod who shot the smallest deer. And three—and most importantly: Bring along friends that aren’t too serious about deer hunting. There is a fourth, but I didn’t include it because most hunters, I think, know it intuitively, and that is: Wear Mossy Oak or some type of camo to camp if you don’t lavish a beating. Trust me on this.”
Just then we pulled up to see several hunters standing around, ogling the downed buck at Pat’s feet. Immediately I noticed the wide 8-point’s rack. Its spread was probably over 22 inches, and its beams were thicker than hatchet handles. I bet it weighed a third more than my deer, a deer that was shrinking rapidly in the West Texas heat, a deer I hoped no one asked me about. (Of course if they did I’d simply defer all questions and queries to Billy Bob. This is standard practice, and comes with the cost of a guided hunt.) Truth is I was proud of my buck, but I couldn’t let my buddies know it lest they withhold the good stands from me the next year.
Certainly Pat would soon claim that he’d shopped around expertly, shrugging off his guide’s insistence to shoot an inferior deer that came to the feeder early; and when this one snuck in he expertly delivered a Texas heart shot just as the giant old buck leapt over the feeder fence going away. I didn’t want to hear it.
Meanwhile Billy Bob was searching for his cordless Sawzall so he could make quick work of the buck, and presumably, make it a little lighter before hefting it into the truck. Like ’em or not, these Texans are sharp.
“Hey Billy Bob,” I said, trying to shift the focus from my buddy’s deer to me. “You should really come up to Virginia and see how we do it up there sometime.”
My guide just looked at me and wrinkled a brow as if he were about to answer a question with a question. But instead he smiled, and, as if he was guided by some unspoken West Texas rule, simply said, “No thanks.”
And I couldn’t blame him.
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