Ray: A Buck from Open Country

Rut Reporter Brandon Ray is an expert on the region. Ray was born in Dallas and shot his first deer with a bow in Central Texas at the age of 15. The full-time freelance writer manages his family's Texas Panhandle ranch, is a licensed New Mexico guide, and last year took a 184 gross P&Y non-typical trophy. States covered: TX, OK, NM.

My friend, Barry Heiskell (above), is a big buck junkie. Most of the year he's a hard-working farmer in the Texas Panhandle. But come fall, he's always on the prowl for big deer.

The area he hunts would get overlooked by most hunters. It's big prairie country with cattle pastures dotted with prairie dog towns, tumbleweeds and yuccas. Huge CRP fields, corn fields, milo fields and wheat fields stretch to the horizon. Trees taller than a tractor tire are an endangered species.

But the deer are there. Deer numbers and densities are low, but for guys that look long and put in the time, the reward can be huge. Barry knows lots of farmers and ranchers in the area, so he has multiple places to hunt. And every year, Barry kills a stud. It's usually a big whitetail, but there are mule deer sharing that common ground as well. And most years his whitetails are something over 150 inches. Two years ago he killed a giant that would have scored almost 180 inches if a couple of major tines had not been busted. One hundred forty-, 150- and 160-inch racks lay in piles in his garage from past successful hunts. Most have come with a rifle, but he kills big ones with his Mathews bow as well.

Barry scouts with big optics from lookout points. Any elevation gain in that open country is a plus. He climbs windmill towers, sits on top of irrigation pivots in crop fields and glasses from the bed of his truck to spot distant deer. Sometimes in the tall grass and crops, all you see are antlers floating over sticks and weeds. In the evenings, you make a move to close the distance before you run out of shooting light. In the mornings, it's a
race to get within range before the deer beds in an endless sea of grass or crops.

Last week, Barry setup to glass a huge CRP field. He'd seen a big buck there briefly just before the rifle season opened two weeks earlier. At 4:30 PM, a deer stood from the waist-high CRP grass in the distance. It was a big buck. The buck started walking right for a water guzzler placed in that CRP patch specifically to benefit wildlife like deer and pheasants. It was at that same water guzzler where Barry saw that same buck before the season.

The shot was a long one--a common occurrence in that big country. At 350 yards, Barry hit the buck with a 140 grain bullet from his 7 mm.

The buck's heavy-horned, long-tined rack scored 166 B&C. It would have scored over 170, but two small kickers on the back of both brow tines were snapped off. Unbelievably, tooth wear indicates the deer was only 4 1⁄2-years-old. What could he have been in one or two more years?

For most guys this buck would be the deer of a lifetime. But for a long-bearded farmer from the top of Texas, it's just another good one for the horn pile. Barry's got more tags for other counties. The peak of the rut is still ahead.

Lesson Learned?
Bucks often reach maturity by finding sanctuary in unlikely places. It doesn't take much cover to hide a 200 pound deer. A patch of brush no bigger than a car could be his favorite place to bed. Search these unlikely places on the fringe of better, more likely habitat. A small fencerow of trees, a brushy playa lake bottom, CRP field or abandoned homestead could all harbor a sneaky old buck in otherwise open, featureless terrain. Rubs and tracks found in such places will give clues that a big boy lives there until you
lay eyes on him. And especially if those patches of cover border nutritious crops like wheat, corn or milo, you can bet sneaky open country bucks likely feed there after dark.

When you hunt open country bucks, use 10x binoculars and big, tripod-mounted spotting scopes to scan the horizon for antlers bobbing over the brush. Gain any elevation you can to see over the flat landscape. Whether that means standing on top of your pickup cab or climbing a windmill tower, do what's necessary to get a bird's eye view. Be prepared for long shots of 200, 300 and 400 yards. It helps to have a buddy spot for you as you shoot to mark the place where your buck goes down. It's easy to lose his mark in a sea of grass without someone to mark the spot and give you hand signals to the exact location where he dropped. Know your rifle's ballistics and carry shooting sticks to aid with steadying a shot over tall CRP grass. And never doubt that big bucks live in open, wild prairie country, because they most certainly do!