White-tailed deer hunting is supposed to be challenging, rewarding and great fun. But the hunt for "Ol' Tobe" was becoming more of a challenge than I ever imagined, and admittedly, a little frustrating.
As a wildlife biologist who specializes in whitetail research and management, and as someone who grew up hunting whitetails, my greatest hunting joy has always been matching wits with a particular buck and hunting him to the exclusion of others.
The first time I saw Tobe, I was conducting a helicopter game survey on a large South Texas ranch. Flying adjacent transects across the cactus and mesquite country of the ranch's Los Gato pasture, I spotted a running buck. A quick glance at the deer's head left no doubt he was a buck—a big buck. He was huge-bodied and big antlered, sporting 10 long points with roughly a 24-inch spread. As he ran I noticed there was something hanging from both sides of his rack—drop tines! The drop on the left beam was easily 8 inches long and the one on his right was 6 inches. The mature buck slid into a dense thicket, and I hung out of the Bell 47 helicopter to make certain he didn't sneak out the backside. The last thing I wanted to do was to stress this great animal. But if possible I really wanted to get a better look at him.
Try as we might, we couldn't find him a second time. I should have taken that as a sign of things to come. We continued the survey, but not before I made a mental note of where I'd seen the double-drop buck. Close as I could tell we'd jumped him near a stock pond, just about in the middle of the 5,000-acre Los Gato pasture. I also noted there was only one road leading into the pasture, located on the southern perimeter of the property.
Back at the ranch's headquarters, I reported my results and made my deer harvest recommendations to the owner. I mentioned the double-drop buck, and undoubtedly he could sense my intense interest in the deer. "As part of your fee for helping us with our management program, I'd like to give you the opportunity to take a buck of your choice each year you work with us. Care to make it part of our deal?"
As you could guess, I couldn't blurt out "Yes!" quickly enough.
I didn't get to hunt the ranch until Thanksgiving weekend. With a map in hand I headed toward the remote pond. For the next 3 days I hunted the area hard; watching open areas and the waterhole, keeping a close eye on active scrapes and rattling on and off throughout the day. By the end of the hunt I'd seen numerous good bucks, and one in particular was really tempting. He was a long 10-pointer with a 24-inch spread, and he'd likely have grossed 160 Boone and Crockett Club points. As mature and handsome as he was, I decided to pass on him. Literally moments after I made the decision to not shoot, I casually turned to look behind me. There stood Tobe, looking right at me. But before I could turn and point my rifle in his direction, he was gone!
Prior to my next trip to the ranch a few days before Christmas, I spent some time on the phone with the ranch's head cowboy. Juanito knew the buck and said he'd seen him not far from where I thought we'd jumped him with the helicopter. During 5 days of hard hunting from first to last light, I rattled in no fewer than 60 different bucks, but Tobe wasn't one of them. I prayed the buck hadn't fallen prey to one of the property's resident mountain lions. I hated to leave the ranch, but there was work to be done elsewhere and I had hunters coming into another ranch who needed my attention.
Searching For Tobe
It wasn't until mid-October the following year that I got to spend any time on the ranch. Flying over the Los Gato, not far from the remote pond, I spotted movement below. It was the same big buck from the previous fall! But this time Tobe had only a single drop tine on his left side about 10 inches long, on beams that were spread at least 26 inches wide. I saw him only briefly, but there was no mistaking him.
That year I started hunting Tobe right after the November firearms opener. While doing some scouting the previous winter I cut a trail into the remote pond, making it easier to find. The first morning of my hunt I waited until good shooting light, then very slowly still-hunted my way to one of a series of openings close to the pond. On the way into the area I found several rubs and scrapes, the latter just starting to be used.
I hunted for 4 days and during that time once again saw several good bucks, including a 3-year-old typical 12-pointer that would have easily scored 140 B&C points. If he survived, someday he'd truly be a "muy grande!" But try as I did, I couldn't find Tobe.
Once again, it was the week before Christmas before I could return to the Los Gato, but my visit coincided perfectly with the peak of the rut. For the next 4 days I saw no fewer than 90 different bucks—but not Tobe. Once again I wondered if he'd been killed by a lion. I knew I needed to move on to another buck, but I couldn't get Tobe out of my mind. After the hunting season I returned to Los Gato to do some post-season scouting, while also conducting a browse evaluation. Walking a trail through a prickly pear cactus flat along the banks of a dry creek, I spotted a flint arrow point. As I bent to pick it up, I heard something off to my left and looked just in time to see a monstrous buck jumping over a clump of prickly pear. I noticed he had a long drop on his left beam. It was him!
The next October I was anxious to see if we could again spot Tobe. I'd given him his nickname in honor of an elderly gentleman I'd known most of my life. Tobe was our neighbor when I was a lad growing up in rural Texas. We moved away, and when I saw him again nearly 20 years later, I was amazed—he looked no different than he did when I was young! Like Tobe, this old buck seemed to be a survivor and never let his age show or slow him down year after year.
That fall during the helicopter survey I didn't see Tobe. Although I was nearly certain either old age or a predator had claimed him, I hunted for him anyway. With only about an hour left in the season I shot a sizeable buck. As I walked to the downed buck I saw a deer standing in the thick brush, just beyond where my buck lay. He appeared to have wide antlers with 10 long points and at least one fairly long drop tine. I convinced myself it couldn't be Tobe, but the next morning I spoke with Juanito. He commented that he'd seen Tobe only a couple of days earlier while working some cattle.
The following October, the evening before we were to conduct our annual survey, I visited with Juanito. "Señor Colorado, I saw your Tobe 3 days ago. I was watching for steers when he slipped in, and I watched him drink from the Lost Ten Tank. He is a Viejo! He has 10 points and a long drop."
I hunted him hard once again that fall, spending more and more time in the area where Juanito had seen him. I rattled and sat in tripods I set up throughout the area. I even moved in an automatic corn feeder. I saw lots of good bucks, even a couple of younger bucks that looked remarkably like Tobe, but once again he didn't show.
Tobe's Last Stand
That next October I had our helicopter pilot spend a fair amount of time circling the Lost Ten Tank trying to find any sign of Tobe. But we didn't see him. After the survey I asked Juanito if he'd seen him. "Señor Colorado, I haven't seen him this year. He surely must finally be dead. …"
Hunting that fall seemed to lack something. For several years I'd looked forward to matching wits with Tobe, knowing full well he'd likely evade me, which he'd done since the first day I spotted him.
The last day of my hunt I decided to make one last walk into the area of the Lost Ten Tank, if for no other reason simply out of respect and to remember and honor Tobe. As I walked to the top of the tank dam I spotted movement about 100 yards away. I could tell immediately it was a sizeable buck. I shouldered my .270 Win., and through the scope I could see the buck had huge antlers, about 23 inches wide with 10 basic points and several kickers. Then I spotted what looked like three drop tines on his right side. I took a quick look at his body, and it showed advanced age. His skin seemed to be too big for him, and his coat wasn't that of a young buck.
The crosshairs settled on his shoulder and I tugged the trigger. At the shot the buck went down. Walking toward my downed buck a funny feeling came over me; could this be Tobe? I knelt down at his side and held his antlers. Excitedly, I counted 18 points measuring more than an inch long, and indeed there were three drop tines on his right beam. I looked at his head and body. His hair was gray and old looking, and he looked frail. I opened his mouth to check his teeth. They were worn well into the gum-line.
Suddenly the realization set in. This had to be Tobe, the toughest buck I've ever had the grand privilege to hunt and finally take. I whispered a silent prayer of thanks, knowing how special of an animal Tobe was, and that I'd never have the privilege of hunting another one like him again.