The Season: Hunting Texas Whitetails Au Naturale
From a natural…ground blind, that is. The author recounts a thrilling deer in the Lone Star State
I hunted from the ground, from a natural blind sparsely woven with mesquite branches and thornscrub sticks, as unlike a typical south Texas whitetail hunt as you can get. I sat on a sun-bleached, cheap plastic deck chair, brown pants tucked into tall snake boots, and dipped my head low so my hat brim shielded my face. The 10-point buck was quartering away, at 40 yards, so I didn’t have a shot—or, not a shot I wanted to take. But there was time. The buck moved along a wide sendero and into a meadow of thigh-high grass and mesquite, and he’d be in the clear for another 50 yards. The rifle was a Steyr-Mannlicher bolt action .270 with a double-set trigger—its old-school vibe matched the old-school ground-hide setting—and it was a heavy burden as I settled the crosshairs and tracked the deer across the desert glade.
Hunting whitetails from the ground like this, with little more than sticks and twigs and leaves to break up your silhouette, seems to be a rarity these days. The tide is flowing toward tree saddles and box blinds and pop-ups. Even turkey hunting seems to be taken over with hub-outfitted portable ground blinds built with one-way see-through panels and blackout curtains. You could practically knock out a CrossFit workout inside, and the deer and turkey would be none the wiser. There’s no doubt they’re effective, but I find them too confining. I’m hardly claustrophobic. I don’t fear being closed in. But I do fear being closed off.
Hunting from the ground, with a blind of natural materials, puts you in the middle of the action. Even when the blind is a few dozen or a hundred yards from the target zone, you’re still immersed in the landscape, and while you’re hardly in total control of the hunt, you’re in total control of how much your behavior will affect it. Got an itch? Scratch if you’d like, but that buck sneaking up from behind will bust you easy. Back cramping? Take a walk, but know that you’ve hosed your chances for a half hour or better. You can’t get away with stuff on the ground that you can in a tree, a box stand, or pop-up blind. To each his own.
Sweat the Small Stuff
That Texas blind was more than a screen of branches around the chair. Such a blob would stand out as much as my human figure perched at the base of the ebony tree. I’m not convinced that wild animals can count, but I do believe that deer have some sense of scale. A single new shape in their environment can cause immediate concern, but if I add smaller pieces of cover to the mix, to break up the new silhouette—in effect, camouflaging my camouflage—I have more success. On the ground, I cut a bit more brush—pruning shears are more important than a rangefinder for this style of hunting—and added small clumps a few feet away from the blind. Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t. But giving a deer something to focus on other than my own hide has to help.
I settled into the chair, rocking it back and forth to work out the squeaks. I’d left shooting windows to the left and right and out in front, so next I shouldered the gun and aimed through my shooting windows. There. Aiming to the left, my right shoulder snagged a mesquite twig and sent the entire blind to quivering. I pruned the branch back. It’s the kind of detail that can sink a hunt from the cold hard ground, and the kind of detail that can help you disappear in plain sight.
Long before that buck showed up, my hide in the Wild Horse Desert had given me a show. First, a trio of green jays swarmed the bushes around me, squawking and preening. They looked like the love child of a magpie and a parrot. I had no idea what they were, till I asked around at the ranch later in the day. A covey of quail would twice pass less than five feet from my snake boots. A hawk would perch in a tree, so close I felt the wind of its wings when it took off. Hunting from a ground squat, you can look them all in the eye.
Hiding in Plain Sight
I never took my own eyes off the buck in the sendero, and when it turned to the left and flattened out in profile, the crosshairs were already there. The lightest touch on a double set trigger is enough to trip it, and the lightest touch was more than enough. The gun bucked and settled, and through the scope I saw that the deer was knocked sideways a step, then it vaulted toward thick cover. My heart sank, but just for a second. I heard thrashing in the brush, and had that good feeling that this blood trail would be a short one.
There was no real rush, so I settled back in the chair, and let the rifle’s report ripple away. I’d give it a half-hour before I looked for the deer. And before long, a doe appeared, and then a small buck. I grinned. Move along, I thought. There’s nothing to see here.