At a glance you could tell THAT the buck moving along the far ridge was indeed a trophy. My guide Chester Beery and I sat patiently as the Carmen Mountain white-tailed deer moved through the cedar brush just below the ridgetop. The buck would disappear behind some bushes and then reappear. He finally reached the head of the canyon, moved around its rim and disappeared once again behind some cedars. But he didn’t come out of the brush this time. Our bet was he’d bedded—it was time to begin our stalk.
This was the first afternoon of a 4-day mixed-bag adventure in West Texas with Steve Jones’ Backcountry Hunts ((505) 887-6178). Home base was a 27,000-acre working cattle ranch in Presidio County in the Chinati Mountains southwest of Marfa, Texas. I’d booked the hunt with Steve as a mule deer hunt primarily, but he also offered the chance of taking a Carmen Mountain whitetail and aoudad sheep for additional fees. Steve said there’d be a good chance at getting all three species during my 4-day hunt. Yeah, sure, I thought; sounds like “outfitter talk.”
Chester and I marked the location where the buck entered the brush—near a rock outcrop on the canyon’s edge. As we sneaked up a ridge through scattered cedar trees toward the spot, the wind was blowing from our right, perfect to keep our scent away from the buck’s sensitive nose. The wind could pose a problem with shooting, however, as it was blowing 30 mph, with even stronger gusts. We finally spotted the buck bedded under a tree on the other side of the canyon and carefully sneak-crawled to the last big cedar on our side of the canyon.
“We can’t get any closer,” Chester said quietly. “You’ll have to shoot from here. The rangefinder says 191 yards.” We didn’t have shooting sticks along, so I tried setting up prone, but the grass was too high and thick to see through. In a sitting position, the wind was too strong to hold for a good sight picture. In desperation, I clawed my way between the branches of a nearby cedar tree and rested my inline muzzleloader over a limb. The strong wind was moving the limbs, but this was the best rest I could find under the circumstances.
As luck would have it, a wind gust hit the cedar just as I squeezed off my shot, and the buck showed no sign of being hit. He stood up and walked a few steps to the left as I hastily stuffed another load down the muzzleloader’s barrel. In less than 30 seconds I had the gun loaded and scope’s crosshairs steady, and my second bullet dropped him in his tracks.
The buck was the most handsome little deer I’d ever seen. Measuring only 30 inches or so at the shoulder, a Carmen Mountain whitetail’s body is smaller than almost all other whitetail subspecies. Normally a Carmen buck’s antlers have a narrow, almost “basket-rack” spread and the tines tend to be short, but my buck had a fairly wide spread and long tines.
There was much celebration in camp that night over my buck. Three of the Mexican ranch hands even stopped by to pronounce the buck “bueno” and “grande,” and I knew my hunt was already a success.
Chester advised me to put away my muzzleloader and carry my .300 Win. Mag. for the mule deer part of the hunt because he figured a long shot would be required. I thought just maybe I’d used up all of my luck on the whitetail and didn’t want to push it, so I agreed.
We spent all morning glassing Big Bend Country at elevations of 4,500-6,000 feet. This land is beautiful, but everything seems to have a sticker of some sort that tries to punch a hole in your hide.
After lunch we drove to the north side of the ranch to look for mule deer in some big, rolling grassy draws. As we eased up the second draw, we glassed a muley buck feeding on a hillside approximately 400 yards away. After looking him over carefully, I decided to pass, and Chester approved.
We drove and glassed a lot of country on the second day and hadn’t seen a lot of game, so I was beginning to wonder if my “mule deer curse” was kicking in. I hadn’t told Steve or Chester about it, but I’ve been battling the curse for several years. I’d killed a few big muleys earlier in my hunting career, but recent trips to three Western states had ended without a punched tag. Would Texas be the fourth?
On day No. 3 we spotted a muley buck nearly 2 miles away moving around a high bowl at the head of a big canyon, and even at that distance he looked like a good one. Although there was only sparse brush in the bowl, he disappeared like a ghost.
We climbed up the canyon and started side-hilling around the ridge, hoping to spot the buck in his bed. The stalk had covered more than a mile when the buck stood 200 yards away. But just as suddenly as we saw him, he disappeared again. We moved up the hill a little farther and continued along the side hill, slipping close to the four bushes where we’d last spotted him. Chester finally stopped, looked at me and whispered, “He’s got to be right here.”
Suddenly, in the grass only 10 yards away, I saw muley antlers barely sticking up above the waving grass. The buck’s body looked like a shadow in grass as I shot him through the chest. I doubt I’ll ever have a shorter shot with my .300 Win. Mag.!
The fourth day began with Chester talking about aoudads during breakfast. He says these free-ranging exotic sheep have excellent eyesight and are similar to pronghorn in the respect that if you’re in the open looking at an aoudad—no matter how far away—it’s usually looking back at you.
We’d spotted a few bands of smaller aoudad rams and ewes during our earlier wanderings for whitetails and muleys, but paid them little mind because they weren’t on the agenda. Now we were serious about hunting sheep.
After one failed stalk early in the morning, we went to the east side of the ranch into some real rugged country. The road (if you could call it that) ended and we proceeded on foot along a series of high ridges, stopping to glass the many canyons and ridges around us. We were on top of a high rocky point when we spotted a large band of sheep down a canyon nearly a mile away. As Chester was studying the sheep through his binoculars, I looked below us to the right and saw a lone ram coming our way. I quickly tapped Chester’s shoulder to get his attention and his eyes lit up as he said, “Take him!”
Sitting in the rim rock, I had a solid shooting position. However, I’d never taken a shot at anything that was nearly straight down. Long story short: at 200 yards I gave the ram one heck of a send-off by spraying rock chips over his back three times. The ram that had seemed like a gift disappeared up a side canyon, leaving me with an empty gun in my lap and egg on my face.
For a change of scenery—and hopefully luck—we drove toward the south end of the ranch. When the road ended we started our trek, glassing canyons and adjacent ridges.
At one point I had a decent ram in my crosshairs, but Chester suggested I pass. As I re-played that scenario in my mind—and questioning my decision, as this was the final day of my hunt—we moved from point to point as the sun sank lower in the sky.
Suddenly, Chester hissed, “Get down!” and I did my best belly-flop behind a bush in the tall grass. When I crawled forward I couldn’t believe my eyes. We’d walked right into a big bunch of sheep feeding across a brushy saddle, and through the grass I could make out three rams only 75 yards away. “The biggest one is on the right—take him!” Chester was ready to end this day with a bang.
Through the grass I could make out the big ram’s body, and when the rifle roared, everything went blank because the muzzle blast had fractured grass and stirred up dust like a thick cloud. Like me, Chester had been unable to keep his eyes on the sheep, so we began a careful stalk, not really knowing what we might find ahead. Thankfully, my anxiety didn’t last long because my bullet had quickly and cleanly done its job.
Carmen Mountain whitetail, desert muley and aoudad—as a former youth baseball coach and now part-time umpire, I’ve never seen a sweeter triple play.