“You’re looking at the wrong map,” Bubba Brown of Trans Pecos Guide Service said as he poured me a fresh cup of coffee. “That’s the ranch we hunt up north in the Sierra Diablos. It’s excellent country, rough as the Dallas skyline, but it has some really good desert mule deer, as well as a few desert bighorn sheep. I’ll be headed that way right after this hunt is over to do some guiding.”
Brown then unfolded another map while I dished myself up a second helping of cherry cobbler. “This here is the Harkins Ranch where we’re hunting,” he said as he laid the map in front of me. “It’s a big place as well, and we have some really good mule deer here, too, as you’ll see. I think we’re going to have ya’ll hunt this pasture here.” Bubba pointed to a long pasture, which appeared by the map’s scale to be more than 3 miles long and nearly half as wide. “We left some really big 10 points there last year,” he said. “Saw them a couple of weeks after the season ended when we went back to do some post-season scouting.”
“It looks like there are some good canyons here, although based on the topographic lines they don’t look to be too deep, and there are a bunch of saddles as well,” I said as I looked more closely at the map. “It’s been a while since I’ve spent any time in this part of the country, but I know it produces some really good desert mule deer. I spotted one of the best West Texas mule deer bucks I’ve ever seen late one night while driving along the highway that divides this property. He had 10 long typical points, about 26-28 inches of outside spread and to top it off, double drop-tines that were approximately 10-11 inches long!”
“We don’t see many mule deer with drop-tines,” Wayne Zachary, owner of Trans Pecos Guide Service and my host for this hunt, said as he walked through the door. “We’ve got some really good bucks on this property, but they’re not easy. The terrain and habitat here are different than what you’d find farther west. This lower juniper country is cut by a few lechiguilla (pronounced lesh-i-gee-ya) flats and can produce, and certainly hide, some most interesting bucks. You’ll start out hunting with guide Randy Roberts and then when he needs to leave camp in a couple days, we’ll put you with my son, Jerad. They both know this country extremely well, and don’t be surprised if you see some really good whitetails here, too.”
After listening to Wayne and Bubba talk about the ranch and its wildlife a bit more, I decided to turn in for the night. Tonight I’d dream about hunting desert mule deer, and in the morning, my adventure would begin.
Thirty-Five Year Love Affair
Desert mule deer have long been a favored game animal of mine. My love for them dates back to 1970, the year I graduated from Texas A&M University. Growing up, I’d read tales by Jack O’Connor that extolled the virtues of desert mule deer, and long had I listened to tales of hunting them from my dad’s friends and family. The first desert mule deer I ever killed was a wide 5x4 that I shot high on a windswept ridge. From that point on, I’ve been hooked on desert mule deer and since that day, have made the trek back to the Trans Pecos—the region west of the Pecos River—to hunt them whenever possible.
During my early years as a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, I spent a fair amount of time in the Trans Pecos working with mule deer and other Western game species. As a subspecies, the desert mule deer of West Texas are scientifically referred to as Odocoileus hemionus crookei. They’re found primarily in the rough, rocky and arid mountains of Texas west of the Pecos River, and because of the harsh environment they live in, where rainfall and vegetation can at best be described as “sparse,” they tend to be smaller in body size than their northern cousins. The gray world in which they live can also make their gray-colored coats difficult to see, and often, only their light-colored tail patch will give away their presence. But just because they’re smaller in body size than Rocky Mountain mule deer doesn’t mean they’re any less enjoyable to hunt. If anything, their body size and coloration make them even more challenging.
Desert mule deer’s high desert domain is populated with plants that are covered with thorns and spines such as devil’s walking cane, Spanish dagger, sotol and wait-a-minute catclaw, as well as plants that are low-growing and look not unlike short daggers pointed upward. Lechiguilla is such a plant, and one that’s not to be reckoned with. But if you find lechiguilla, desert mule deer often won’t be far away.
Glassing for Antlers
Randy and I spent the first day of our hunt walking to distant ridges and glassing for deer. We spotted numerous mule deer, including a lot of young, immature bucks. We also found some truly impressive whitetails, two of which particularly caught my attention. The whitetail rut was definitely in full swing here! Both bucks were after the same doe, and both had a minimum of 10 points and looked like they’d gross score in the 150s or low 160s. We watched them for nearly 40 minutes from long range as they chased the doe and occasionally stopped to challenge one another. At one point as the two bucks fought, the doe stopped to watch when suddenly a younger and much smaller-racked white-tailed buck appeared at her side. He quickly bred her and then the two bounced away together through the juniper. Last we saw of the two bigger bucks, once they’d stopped picking on each other, they trailed the long-departed pair for approximately 50 yards before seemingly losing interest and heading off in different directions to find other “conquests.”
We did find a sizeable mule deer buck just as the sun was going down on the first day of our hunt, but by the time we would’ve gotten to where he was feeding on an open hillside, legal shooting time would be over for the day so we watched him from a distance and then made our way back to camp.
Before first light the next morning, we were set up on a distant ridge awaiting the gray of dawn. We watched as dark globs turned into forms, forms into shapes, and shapes into bushes and deer. From our vantage point we spotted more than 50 deer, both whitetails and muleys. Several of the white-tailed bucks were sizeable, and even though the whitetail season was open, my agreement with Wayne was that I’d only shoot a mule deer. But given the quality of the whitetails I was seeing, I quickly began to question the sanity of that agreement.
The mule deer bucks we glassed were either young and immature or old bucks that had digressed back to being impressive forkhorns or 3x3s, and we passed on many such bucks. Randy and I did spot a big mule deer buck with tall tines and deep forks later in the day, but there was one small problem: By the time we saw him, he’d already seen us and was making good on his escape. Even so, I eased to the edge of the canyon wall and pulled out a varmint call. In years past, I’ve had mule deer respond to predator calls, and I hoped this big buck might do the same. And no sooner had I started my dying rabbit act when a couple of handsome 3x3 mule deer bucks nearly ran me over, stopping to look at me from less than 10 yards away. I continued blowing on the call, but the big buck never responded.
As we continued on, we spotted a couple of bucks a great distance away. We made a fabulous stalk and got within 150 yards of the bigger of the two, and from shooting sticks I took a solid rest with my Thompson/Center Encore .405 Win. topped with a Zeiss scope. Unfortunately “pilot error” entered the equation, and after the shot I watched the tall-tined 4x5 disappear over the ridge, unharmed. I’d simply gotten myself over-excited and missed the shot; there was no other explanation than that.
At that point, Randy needed to leave camp so Wayne’s son Jerad became my guide. I quickly became impressed with his knowledge of the ranch and its wildlife. On top of that, Jerad was fun to hunt with.
A Change in Scenery-And In Luck
Jerad brought good luck with him as I quickly began seeing more and better mule deer as he pointed us in a new direction. We also finally started getting some much needed help from the weather as cooler temperatures rolled in. Prior to Jerad’s arrival, the daytime temperatures had been in the high 90s during the middle of the day.
Wayne and ranch owner Monty Harkins decided to join us on the last morning of the hunt, and our plan was to drive around the ranch and periodically get out of the vehicle and walk to distant glassing points, much like we’d been doing on previous days. We left camp just before first light, and as it got light enough to see I spotted a mule deer buck with massive antlers feeding along the top of a ridge approximately 1/4-mile away. We quickly stopped the truck, got out and with a cold northwesterly breeze in our faces and the soon-to-be-rising sun at our backs, began the stalk. I moved from bush to bush each time the buck put his head down or turned to look the other way, and after several minutes I’d cut the distance to approximately 100 yards. Through my 10X Zeiss binoculars I could see the buck had 5 points on one side and 4 on the other, but what impressed me most was that one of his back tines was palmated and appeared to be nearly 2 inches wide. I also noted he was extremely massive at the base and likely had more than 6 inches of circumference.
Once I was satisfied with his antlers, I concentrated on his body. I’ve made it a point during my many years of hunting to only shoot mature animals, and this buck showed definite signs of old age—slightly sway-backed, pot-bellied and sagging skin about his face and neck. I set my .405 Win. single-shot in the crux of my shooting sticks, placed the crosshairs of my scope squarely on his shoulder and gently pulled the trigger. No sooner had I shot than I broke open the rifle, pulled out the spent shell case and replaced it with a fresh round. A second shot, however, wasn’t needed as I watched the buck fall with the first shot.
Taking a deep breath and whispering a prayer of thanks, I started toward where the old buck lay. As I approached, he began to look better and more impressive than I originally thought him to be. It didn’t take long for the rest of the crew to arrive and soon there were hearty handshakes of congratulations and the re-hashing of the same basic story of the stalk, but from each individual’s own perspective. I couldn’t have been more pleased with my buck or the hunt. The buck was the kind of deer I dearly love to hunt and one that I’d hunted and taken fairly. A quick look at his teeth told me he was more than 8 years old, and it was quite likely that his still-impressive antlers had digressed from past years when he was in his prime. He was a trophy in every sense and definition of the word.
As I looked at the buck and replayed the hunt in my mind, it became painfully apparent to me that it had been far too long since I last hunted the mule deer of the lechiguilla flats. I’ll be back to hunt his kind again this fall.