These reports focus on the whitetail rut, but there are mule deer as well as whitetails in my part of Texas. Year-round observations of muleys on our ranch in the Panhandle indicate that their rut starts later than whitetails. Typically, the muley bucks start acting interested in girls about Thanksgiving. But not until December 1 or later do they really start chasing and acting goofy. While November is the month to hunt rutting whitetails in the central and northern half of Texas, December is the month to see mule deer in the rut.
The general mule deer season in the Texas Panhandle ended on December 2. The season extends until December 9 in Trans-Pecos counties in West Texas. And for ranches with an approved management plan, working with a TP&W biologist, Managed Land Deer Permit ranches can hunt mule deer until January 6, 2013. One hunter can use multiple buck and doe tags on MLDP ranches.
I had multiple tags and still-hunted muleys last weekend, searching for an old buck I called “Split Ear.” In the drought of 2011, he was a heavy-horned 3x3 with no front forks. His left ear is split in half, making him easy to track from one year to the next.
He finally showed up on a trail camera, in the dark, on November 8. His rack had the same shape as last year, but tines were longer and he
now had short front forks.
The first time I actually saw him was on November 27. At last light, he stepped out of the mesquites near a windmill. He sniffed a few does, chased them a little, but it was too dark for a shot. I saw him again from the same blind on November 30. Split Ear came out from a different canyon at 5:50 p.m. By the time he’d made it to the 50-yard mark, it was too dark. He disappeared, head held low, sniffing the ground for does. And he looked huge! I guessed his live weight at 250 pounds. The weather that week was unseasonably warm, with highs in the 70s.
Again on December 2, it was too hot. The high temperature was 77 degrees, an all-time record, and the wind was 20-plus miles per hour. It wasn't the sort of afternoon you’d expect to kill a big buck, but you never know unless you go!
A dozen does and fawns were congregated around my ground blind shortly after 5 p.m. At 5:30, just minutes before sunset, I saw antlers bobbing over the oak brush 100 yards away. It was Split Ear--and he was headed for the girls.
He slowly paced to within 25 yards. I drew my bow inside the ground blind, waiting for the right angle. The old buck stared at the girls, but he was facing me, not giving me a shot. Finally, he turned broadside to sniff a doe. Just as I lined up the pin and touched off the shot, he lowered his head and lunged at the whole mob of nannies, scattering them like a busted covey of quail. My arrow hit too far back, passing completely through him.
The old buck slowly walked 50 yards. As I was loading up for a follow-up arrow, he went behind a cedar. I knew I’d hit the liver and probably paunch. He walked slowly at 100 yards, head held low, twitching his tail. He disappeared behind chest-high oak brush. I waited until dark to sneak out of the area. With a paunch/liver hit, I knew I had to wait. I was sick at myself for making a poor shot.
My friend Jeff Bonner came by to help me search for the giant buck with his ace tracking dog, Annie. We started the search at midnight, having given the buck time to expire, but also trying to beat the coyotes to him before morning. At night, humidity levels were better for the dog to follow scent than they would be come daylight the next morning. We searched from midnight until 5:30 a.m., with no luck. So we retreated to the ranch house for breakfast and to wait for daylight to start again.
When we returned and started the trail again, Annie followed the same course from the night before. There was good blood for the first 100 yards, then only random drops after that. This time, we found the buck stone dead about 450 yards from where he was shot, lying on the rim of a steep canyon. He had never bedded, apparently dying mid-stride as he walked. The arrow had indeed hit the liver and paunch. It was 8 a.m. when I finally put my hands on him.
We aged the old monarch at 7 ½ years and estimated his live weight was 250 pounds. His fine 10-point rack will gross about 170 inches. His G-2s measure 16 inches, bases 5 inches, and the outside spread is 23 inches. Without Jeff and Annie’s help, I doubt I would have found him in that thick cedar and oakbrush-covered canyon. Annie is truly an amazing tracking dog.
After a short nap to recover from the sleepless night, we went to town to celebrate with a fine steak. Annie ate steak, too. It was a happy ending to the longest night of my life!