F&S Classic: “El Ten”
The biggest deer cannot be taken by skill and luck alone. Also required is the unreasoning refusal to quit.
The bluff with the jumble of broken boulders below the rim seemed a practical place for an ambush. Also for rattlesnakes. In pitch darkness an hour before daylight, there was plenty of time to think about both. A seriously big buck had crossed the sendero at the base of this bluff, maybe within rifle range. I couldn’t tell for sure because I’d seen him from half a mile away, glassing with 10×50 binoculars. But even in the mirage of distance the sweep of his antlers was awesome as he walked away, swaggering like an elk, antlers projecting well past his withers on both sides.
With my backpack wedged between the boulders as a backrest and my rifle laid out on the flat rock in front, I braced my elbows and strained the binoculars, scanning the vague paleness of the bufflegrass opening surrounded by the blackness of South Texas brush.
Dawn grayed, and the clearing was empty. So much for trying to outsmart one big buck in 4,600 acres of South Texas brush.
But I had to get his pattern. Old bucks are like old men¬–set in their ways. If they live long enough, they learn the safe ways to go. For this buck, the creekbed at the base of the bluff had to be the equivalent of a fire escape. It was the only cover that went completely across the opening. Almost a mile to the east, at the far end of the sendero, was an oat patch where a large herd of does fed early and late, and a lot of younger bucks were hanging around them. The peak of the rut comes around mid-December in the South Texas brush country near the Mexican border, and I’d planned my hunt to coincide with that period when even the smartest bucks are temporarily vulnerable. But not too vulnerable. There was an elevated blind overlooking that oat patch with all the does, but the buck with the wide antlers had never been seen from that blind. He probably knew all about blinds.
His logical way to reach the oat patch was to cross the open sendero at the other end via the creekbed, exactly where I’d seen him. From there he could hold to the brush, and pick off promising does going to or coming from the open oat field. I figured he would cross about dawn, and there would be only a second to get the scope on him where a washed-out ranch road crossed the brushy creek.
Something moved in precisely that spot. The scope was on it instantly, and out stepped a big coyote, stalking. Then he jumped high in the air and pounced down stiff-legged, but whatever it was got away; his jaws came up empty.
My kind of coyote, looking sort of scruffy, and with no luck at all.
The coyote lay down in the open sendero, catching the first warming rays of sun, napping. I had a mighty urge to do the same. This was supposed to be a vacation, the hunt I’d waited for all year, with no deadlines, nobody to please or displease, no pictures that just had to be made. I could hunt my way–alone and mostly on foot–with a camera, spotting scope, food, and water in the backpack. If I wanted to stop and watch or photograph wildlife, I could. If I wanted to sleep late, I would.
Great plan, except that one look at the wide-horned buck had turned it into a survival test.
The coyote got up and stretched, exactly as my Lab retriever does after he’s had a nap. Then he sat down at the edge of the brush and howled, cocked his ears, and listened intently for an answer. It came from somewhere far across the brush But then he heard the camera’s shutter and was gone.
I eased out of the boulders and stalked behind the ridge and into the brush for about a mile to the edge of the oat patch, wondering if the big buck had used some other route to doeville. The ladies were still out feeding on green oats, and the young bucks were still bugging them, but the old man was nowhere to be seen. I figured he was back in the brush, waiting on the does. He would not miss out on all this action.
A covey of blue quail was dusting in a ray of early sun, a beautiful picture, but before the camera cleared the backpack a hawk soared low over the ridge and the blues scooted into a bush and froze there, invisible. Even the hawk didn’t see them, or if he did he knew better than to try to fly through a thornbush.
We hunters weren’t doing worth a damn.
It was noon when nature threw some barometric switch. A bank of clouds from the north put a fresh chill to the wind, and suddenly bucks were working like worms in and out of the brush, heads down, trailing. Does came darting into the opening, ears laid back and zigzagging, the bucks behind them. Somehow, every buck in the territory got the message that the does were coming into heat around this sendero with the green oat patch at the end.
From noon until dark I witnessed a spectacle that I may never see again–perhaps a dozen does coming into estrus at once and producing more love triangles than three months of Dynasty and Dallas combined. Bucks would pop out of the brush, prance around as if to show their style, then lope back inside. Next they’d emerge in hot pursuit of a doe who’d apparently been watching the display back in the brush.
There was one lone mesquite in the opening near the oat patch, and it was busy as a small-town soda fountain on Sunday afternoon. A fine young eight-point buck busily pawed the ground beneath an overhanging limb, urinated on the circular depression in the dirt, then bit off the bark from the limb above and carefully rubbed it with the pre-orbital gland in front of his eye. It took him maybe 20 minutes to get all that done, and 5 minutes after he’d gone another eight-pointer came along and went through the identical process, urinating on the same scrape as if to cancel the other guy’s message.
It was like a condensed course in whitetail behavior, confirming old suspicions that one scrape doesn’t necessarily mark off the territory of just one buck, nor that a fight is assured if he chases a doe into another buck’s territory.
Several times I watched two bucks chasing the same doe, and if it didn’t work they sometimes just stopped and began feeding together. In all that scraping and chasing I saw no bucks fight, but I did see a couple of dandy doe battles in the oat patch. They’d stand up on their hind legs and slug it out with their front hooves and I could hear the blows from 200 yards away.
Despite all that’s written about how bucks are supposed to behave, they do as they damned well please, which mostly consists of staying close to the doe they’re after. And no form of rattling, calling, grunting, or conjuring can be depended upon to pull ’em away from the real thing. I think that rattling horns work best when a buck is temporarily out of doe.
The ladies apparently have a lot to say about all this, and I believe they like big antlers. I watched two does trying to hide, lying down with only their ears above the bufflegrass, and a young eight-pointer spotted ’em, stuck his neck out low and came for them on the run. The does cut out on different routes, making more moves than Walter Payton. But when a beautifully high-and heavy-horned ten-pointer cut across from the brush, one of the does stopped. I watched the mating from a distance of less than 50 yards, and I can no longer blame does for running. Whatever else he may be, Bambi is not a gentle lover.
Maybe the old buck was watching, too, because suddenly he was there, like a magnificent statue, curved antlers making a menacing sweep of authority, literally shaking his head at a young buck that immediately decided he had business elsewhere.
Lordy, what a beautiful buck!
The scope trembled, settling on his shoulder, crosshairs confirming that it was slightly over 200 yards. He was strutting straight for a doe in front of me. Now the scope said 150. The trigger finger started to squeeze, but the mind raced.
What if he was just a young buck, a potential giant? My friend who owns this ranch, sporting-goods and ranching entrepreneur Bill Carter of Houston, had worked for years managing his Sombrerito Ranch for trophy whitetails, partly by making sure the best bucks were not harvested until they were old and had passed on their superior genes by breeding many does. Carter had trusted my judgment by letting me hunt alone, something that he very rarely permits. What if I let him down by killing the best young buck on the ranch?
Frantically I found the spotting scope in the pack and got it shakily focused at 36 power, trying to confirm the Roman nose and paunchy neck indicative of an old buck. And old he was! But he must have seen the glint of late-afternoon sun on glass because he whirled and was gone. I shouldered the pack and headed for the truck, sick at heart, yet excited in ways only a hunter can understand.
That night I drove into the nearest town, Laredo, on the Mexican border, and called my wife Sandy in Houston. I told her I was staying, indefinitely, and could the birthday party planned for her be put off? I told her this was one of the most beautiful bucks I’d ever seen; how he carried himself arrogantly as an elk. I told her to tell the Lab pup I’d be home soon as possible to take him duck hunting.
They say every man deserves one good woman and one good dog, and I have both. But nobody says every man deserves one good deer.
In the next four days the old buck crossed the sendero five times, mostly like a ghost in the dewy mist of the morning or at last gloom of dusk. Twice he had seemed within a long rifle shot of the gravel bluff at the west end, and once he was at the far eastern end more than half a mile away.
Always I’d been in the wrong place. And it dawned on me that somehow he was seeing my parked truck and staying far away from it. To see that vehicle, the way I’d been hiding it in the brush, meant he had to have elevation. And that meant he was using the bluff or the low, rolling hill of the sendero in front of it.
All my stalking, creeping, crawling, and scrape studying was finally paying off. His pattern was becoming clear. He lived in the impenetrable brush on the west side, but had a line of territorial scrapes to the east, nearer the oat patch and the does. The only reason he crossed the bufflegrass sendero, perhaps, was because of a high hump in the center of it from which he could see all the way to the oat patch, and because the opening is where does came for running room when chased by lesser bucks. Or maybe he just took a shortcut across when he had pressing female business on the north side.
Had there not been so many does coming in heat, I doubt he would have left the brush at all during the daylight. But other bucks were moving in on his territory, and he had to make his rounds.
Maybe I needed to be doing the same thing back home. Days and nights were starting to run together, and fatigue was becoming a factor. Waiting until after dark to leave the buck’s area and being back an hour before daylight left little time for eating or sleeping. But it had to be that way because during the peak of rut a dominant buck may come out of cover after a doe at any time. There was no going in for lunch or rest, just jerky and fruit, and black coffee from the thermos in the backpack.
It was important to enter and leave his territory under cover of darkness, because if he caught me homing in too close to his route, he would just stay in the brush and make his rounds at night. Old bucks have done me that way before.
My rattling horns were carried mostly as a last resort. Trying to rattle up a really smart buck in heavy cover is risky. He may circle in the brush and catch your scent, or see you first, or you may call up a smaller buck too close when the old boy is watching. When the young buck finally realizes his mistake and spooks off through the brush, he tells the old one all he needs to know.
Although some bucks around the Sombrerito Ranch have become tame enough for photography, the rest of the 4,600 acres is hard-hunted with about thirty trophy bucks harvested each year. Old bucks don’t need to witness much of that action to get the message. Hunting is done mostly by Carter’s friends and by a few clients who pay hefty fees for carefully supervised, guided hunts where vehicles are used to cover territory, then stalking or horn rattling employed. Which was one reason I was coming into the big buck’s territory on foot. Old bucks know the sound of gravel crunching on tires a long way off.
The hunt was turning into a crusade; an old man and an old buck locked in an ancient scenario played by modern rules, one of which was that modern man tends to run out of time. So I had to risk getting into the middle of his crossing pattern. And I thought I knew where that was.
In the sendero in front of the rocky bluff was a low hill, merely a roll in the terrain, but it had to be the spot where the buck was stepping out of his creekbed to reconnoiter the opening on both sides. I’d seen him there.
So on the final morning, when the buck hadn’t shown at the bluff by good daylight, I eased into the deepcut banks of the dry creek, bent over, and when necessary crawled. The creek wound into deeper and thicker brush. At one steep bend, on hands and knees, I came face-to-snout with one of the world’s uglier javelinas. Actually there were five javelinas, but the big sow in front was the problem. Like a fat woman in a grocery store checkout line, she was not about to turn back, and the creek banks were too steep for either of us to climb out. Brush pigs are not notoriously smart, and do not see well, particularly when trying to figure out something on its hands and knees wearing two-tone camouflage and a face mask. So she just spooked straight past, a wonderful “charging javelina” had it happened to a more colorful writer.
Javelinas are basically non-dangerous to people, but are hell on hunting dogs, and have ripped apart many a pointer hunting South Texas bobwhites. Also, a big sow going under one’s nose can leave a trail of musky “perfume” sufficient to impress a skunk. The other javelinas turned back up the creek, making all manner of noise, and I immediately crawled up the bank to peep through the brush and see what deer they might spook out the other end.
Instead, there was this eye-level indigo snake just over the rim of the bank. Just as I raised my head, he raised his, causing us both to draw back somewhat. Indigos are harmless, but being face to face with something that’s 8 feet long and eats rattlesnakes can be temporarily disconcerting. Having never photographed an indigo up close I made pictures to give Bill Carter and then crawled back up the creek to glass the brushline.
At first it was empty; then there was movement at the edge of the brush–antlers looking twice as wide as they actually were. It was him, all right, making his scrape route but going the wrong way. Damn his smart swagger! But he was beautiful, wide tines yellowed by early sun, just a little too far to chance a shot.
Then I saw a big eight-point buck trailing a doe along the brushline. I realized they would meet the big buck at the top of the rise, and the doe would immediately be in between competitors. That love triangle might buy me some time, particularly if the bucks fought.
I dropped back into the creek, crawled like crazy, then found a stretch I could cover by bending over low and running. Puffing from exertion I eased over the ridge, and a “tree” on the brushline moved.
Dammit! How did he get way over there? He’d seen me too. He raised his head high to make sure. For a split second we sized each other up at 500 yards, then, arrogantly, he turned and melted into the brush. Now he knew for sure I was after him, in the middle of his territory.
But there was still hope. Unless he was truly supernatural he would soon be in for female trouble. He’d confiscated the doe from the eight-pointer, and if she decided to come back across the sendero to her favorite oat patch for dinner, he just might follow her.
I crawled out to a big mesquite tree on the point of the brushline where I could see over the ridge in both directions. It was indeed his vantage point. The tree trunk had little bark left from antler rubs, a big scrape had been pawed beneath an overhanging limb broken from horn hooking, and droppings and big tracks were everywhere. So I climbed the tree to its first fork to see better.
After two hours of mequite-thorn acupuncture, I saw a doe appear over the ridge. I hooked one arm around the tree and grabbed the fore-end of the rifle, locking myself to the limb for the shot. Antler tips bobbed behind her, multiple points, and I had crosshairs on his neck when his nose cleared the ridge. But he was merely a heavy-horned, narrow-beamed ten-pointer. Not the ten-pointer.
“He’s beat you, fair and square,” the body groaned and creaked, unclimbing that miserable mesquite. “You’re whipped physically and mentally, and in the event you still have a wife back home she is having a birthday dinner tonight you could just about make if you started driving right now…”
When I drove up to the bunkhouse to begin packing, ranch foreman Aranjelio Flores came over to see if I had seen the old macho.
“This buck is too smart,” he consoled in Spanish, humoring my tendency to try to speak that language. “Runs like hell at first sight of my truck. You’ve seen him through the spotting scope. How many points?”
“Ten,” I said sadly, “perfectly symmetrical, the perfect ten.”
“Ah,” he smiled, “like Bo Derek in the film Ten, you can see but not touch. Right, amigo? ‘El Ten’ is a dream.”
“Dammit, no” I said. “If I had a tree stand within range of the bluff at one end and a long shot from the oat patch on the other, he’s got to pass somewhere there this afternoon. I know he will. He’s too far from his main scrapes to spend the night on the other side. He’s got a doe with him, and she’ll go back to those oats.”
“We gottee one tripod,” he offered in his best English. “With two working, maybe thirty minutes to set up. You want to try?”
So we loaded the tripod blind into his truck, and I followed him in the Surburban and parked it at the end of the sendero where the old buck could see it, hoping he would think I was somewhere up there with it. If so, he’d hold close to his escape route along the creek within about 100 yards of my strategic mesquite.
We set up the tripod in the middle of that tree, machete-hacking limbs for shooting clearance to my left where I expected him to appear if he came. Then Aranjelio drove straight down the middle of the sendero, making a big show of mankind leaving the area while I hid motionless in the tripod blind in the tree.
For four hours, nothing happened except I thought a good deal about how much outdoor writer wives have to put up with, and how tough it would be to find another good one, particularly if she took the Lab puppy with her. Then about a quarter of 5, Happy Hour started around the oat patch, much the same as any other singles bar–first the females showing up, then younger bucks sniffing around, and finally the heavy hitters arriving as the sun sank. Along with my spirits.
One dark-horned, gnarly-beamed eight-pointer escorted a doe almost under the mesquite, and to my right a thin antlered ten-pointer, high and pretty of rack, came tiptoeing over the ridge. Either one would make a beautiful mount, and would have salvaged some excuse for having been down here in the brush a solid week, something for a wife to tell her friends the old man had been doing.
No way. Not with 5 minutes of light left to see El Ten.
In the gloom beside the brush line, antlers gleamed–heavy ones with multiple points. The rifle started up, then went down. That buck was hackled up like a dog ready to fight, and he was looking to my left.
Gravel crunched behind me. I turned, and there he was, El Ten, poised beside his creek like a wraith about to disappear, the last rays of light gleaming on the polished sweep of antlers, looking straight at me. Ever so slowly I tried to turn with the rifle. He caught my movement, and was running. The scope passed him as the 7mm magnum roared, and he was into the brush and gone.
But he made that special up-hop that means heartshot, and I yelled Waa-hoo! at the top of my lungs and didn’t care if every deer in the world heard it.
Inside the brush about 15 yards, a curving antler projected high above the cactus. Walking up to him I felt that strange sensation of sadness, respect, and perhaps predatory satisfaction that some hunters and all hawks and coyotes know, but that few others nowadays understand. Then I just had to reach down and touch those antlers that had seemed an impossible illusion.
They had already suffered some from shrinkage, as antlers invariably will between the shot and contact with the ground, but these were still about 27 inches wide. He’d broken off a brow tine fighting since I first saw him, no more “perfect ten.” But if Bo Derek covered the territory this old warhorse had, she might have a few blemishes, too.
That night when I called home, the lady was still there, getting excited about the buck as I described him, letting the pup listen in because he recognizes voices over phones. I told her the buck dressed out 155 pounds on ranch scales, that he was all antlers, downright skinny from chasing all those does. She said that’s what happens to old bucks that chase too many young does.
I had to wait for morning for a bulldozer operator named Ish Crisp to make pictures for me with my wide angle lens that has such great focus-error margin and would make the antlers look almost as big as they were when the old buck was strutting around his sendero.
At Muy Grande Village in the nearby town of Freer, headquarters of the states’ most prestigious annual big buck contest, a crowd gathered to peek inside the windows of the Suburban. Veteran hunter and guide Lionel Garza, who runs the Muy Grande contest, shook his head, then my hand, and claimed I might have had the year’s best all-around buck in Texas (they score on a combination of antler points, circumference, spread, and body weight) but that the broken brow tine took him out of contention by making him score as a nine-pointer rather than a ten. Had that stump of a point been just 1 inch long he would have been a ten.
Easy come, easy go.
Taxidermist Carter Hood in Houston says the buck will make Safari Club International’s record book, and maybe go pretty high in the Burkett record book, but with a brow tine missing and antler spread wider than mainbeam length, there’s no way he’ll make the Boone and Crockett Club book.
Which is just fine with me. He’s No. 1 in my book, El Ten with all his points, exactly the way I want to remember him forever.