Once or twice a year, some manufacturer of hunting gear mistakes me for a serious outdoor writer and invites me on a free hunt. Since the call usually comes two days before the event, I am obviously not their first choice. But if Philip Bourjaily suddenly has a custom shotgun fitting or David E. Petzal needs his back waxed for a Hot Shots of the Gun World photo shoot, they may call me. As a writer whose only tangible asset is his reputation, I have a strict policy for dealing with all such offers. I accept immediately.
The people arranging this one were the manufacturers of Gore-Tex fabrics and ScentLok hunting duds, products that rank right up there with the pyramids and Britney Spears as among the greatest creations in history. They invited me to a two-and-a-half-day whitetail hunt on the 20,000-acre Halff Brothers Ranch in South Texas. The bad news was that it was for “management” bucks, the small deer that are periodically removed from the herd. The good news was that in South Texas these are gargantuan, bigger than 99 percent of the deer a typical hunter sees in his lifetime.
On a short hunt, it’s important to start botching things up early. At the airport, I was unable to lock my bow case because I had left the key on the kitchen table. “You don’t lock it, you don’t take it,” the security guy said. Every pore in my body opened and began to leak sweat. I was saved by Eric Eshleman, a TSA screener who fills his downtime on the job by picking luggage locks. He locked the case using a twisted paper clip, then sent me on my way with the new key. I hereby nominate him as the permanent head of Homeland Security.
I didn’t mess up again for nearly 20 hours. But bright and early the next morning, I decided to leave my release in the truck when guide Greg Bladgett and I were dropped off. We sat in a pop-up blind, as lethal as lawn jockeys, while a high-racked 7-pointer fed contentedly just yards away. Greg and I must be related, because he had decided to leave his cellphone in the truck, so we couldn’t call anyone to bring the release back. After a long silence, he dribbled tobacco juice in the dirt and whispered, “Aren’t we a couple of gold-plated idjits?”
On the final morning, with my chances to get a deer running out, Greg saw me readying my bow and said, “Ain’t gonna need that today.” As I hadn’t re-zeroed my rifle, he handed me his bull-barreled 7mm mag, equipped with a 4×12 scope, and a handful of 140-grain ballistic-tip handloads. We set up in the dark, prone behind a log looking straight down at least 400 yards of road. At dawn, five does emerged to feed. Ten minutes later, I put the crosshairs on the shoulder of a shooter buck and squeezed. When the smoke cleared, Greg turned red. “You shot the wrong buck!” he hissed. Then he turned pale. “I’m going to get fired.”I had shot the only buck I had seen, which had since vanished. Better–or worse–much farther down the road lay a second, larger buck in its final throes.
Greg told me he had seen the second buck just before I fired, knew it was too big, and figured it wouldn’t make any difference on the shot of the deer we had agreed I would take. Greg thought the deer I’d aimed at did not react as if it had been hit. I was pretty sure I’d made a good shot.
Together, we walked down the road. At 120 yards, the animal I’d aimed for lay 15 feet off the road, as dead as a rock. He was a big, beautiful 130-class eight. We walked another 130 steps to the second buck. Evidently the bullet had continued on and hit it in the spine and femoral artery. He was definitely out of my price range–a 150-class trophy with 9 points, tons of mass, and kickers galore. Depending on how you chose to look at it, I had made either the shot or the screwup of a life-time. Greg called his boss, who in turn called the ranch manager and biologist. “Don’t you touch a thing,”he said to me. “I’m gonna show them exactly how it happened.”
Many conferences in closed truck cabs later, Greg was cleared. The county limit is two bucks, so that wasn’t a problem at all. In the end, the ranch manager decided that I could keep the buck I’d shot at. The second will be on display this fall in the lodge of the Halff Brothers Ranch. They took my photo holding both bucks–more antler than I’d cumulatively killed in my lifetime, looking exactly like what I was, a no-name hunter who’d just hit the blind-hog jackpot. And I just want to say that I couldn’t have done it without my Gore-Tex and Scent-Lok clothing. It is absolutely the best.