"I think I could get used to this whole Texas thing," I laughed as I noticed the art painted onto the window of San Angelo, Texas' Packsaddle Grill. Welcome Hunters, it read, next to a drawing of a blind. "I don't tend to see much of that in Northern Virginia."
"They do everything a little bit differently here in Texas," advised Traditions Performance Firearms' Tom Hall, who would be hunting with me for the next four days. "For example, we're probably going to be the only people on the ranch hunting with muzzleloaders. Texas doesn't really have a 'primitive' firearm season, so only the real die-hard muzzleloading enthusiasts tend to use them."
Sure enough, when we got to our destination, AC Ranch, and set up to sight-in, the guides gathered around to watch this novelty. "You know, I don't think I've ever seen one of our hunters use a gun like that," mused my guide, Allan Schroeder. Everyone leaned in as Hall expertly loaded my rifle, the Traditions Vortek StrikerFire, with 80 grains of blackpowder and a brand-new muzzleloader bullet from Federal Ammunition, the Trophy Copper Muzzleloader Bullet.
"What sets this gun apart from other muzzleloaders is that its internal strikerfire system allows you to cock the gun quickly and quietly," enthused Hall as he worked. "It's also got a decocking button that's right on the cocking mechanism, and you can remove the breech plug and unload that way, if you don't want to fire the gun to unload it. And it's accurate out to 200 yards."
Sure enough, the gun performed beautifully in the zeroing-in, which we decided to do at 100 yards based on our guides' advice. In this terrain, they said, it was unlikely we'd get a shot longer than 150. "Have you ever hunted with one of these before?" quizzed Allan.
"I have, actually," I replied. "In fact, that's how I took my first doe. But...I'll tell you a secret," I continued, "I've never shot a buck. Just luck, I guess...when I have a doe tag, bucks are all I see. When I have a buck tag, all I see are does." I shrugged.
"Well, this afternoon we're going to break that streak," grinned Allan. And with that, we headed out to the blind.
As with many private hunting facilities in Texas, AC Ranch's 20,000 acres are fenced, and the blinds are set a good 10 feet off the ground, near feeders, for visibility in the heavy brush. And, as with many other ranches, AC Ranch is home to exotic species from Africa and India. I watched, wide-eyed, as fallow deer emerged from the mesquite bushes.
"They're beautiful," I breathed.
"They know you're not hunting them," chuckled Allan quietly. "If you were, it wouldn't be this easy." Then, urgently, he poked my shoulder, then pointed. Two whitetail bucks, one a six-point and one a seven-point, strolled past the fallow deer. Slowly, I lowered my head to the stock, touching my forefinger to the safety as I found the seven-point in my scope. Is this hunt going to be over on the first afternoon of the first day? I wondered, as the adrenaline coursed through me.
"No, not that one," whispered Allan. "He's way too small. He must be at least six-and-a-half years old, and he's only got seven points. He should be much bigger than that."
I looked at my guide, dumbfounded. The buck's rack was well outside his ears, tall and elegant. This is what Texans call a small buck? I marveled. In Virginia, I would have considered it quite the handsome trophy, and wouldn't have hesitated to pull the trigger. He must have read the shock in my eyes, saying only, "Trust me."
The next morning, as we walked through fog so thick I marveled that Allan could even find the blind, I kept repeating to myself, "Trust your guide, trust your gun, it's going to work this time." I breathed shallowly as the minutes ticked by, the pea-soup mist swirling eerily in the soft breeze.
Then, suddenly, they appeared like ghosts out of the fog. Two does that I hadn't even seen until they were a mere 30 yards away. I swallowed, willing my heart to slow, as they began to feed. And just as suddenly, I saw...a rack. A huge rack. Somewhere underneath it, I knew, there had to be a deer...but all I could see was this tremendous crown of antler bobbing gracefully through the silvery air, sidling up to one of the does.
"Do you like him?" breathed Allan.
"I...love him..." I replied.
"Whenever you're ready," he whispered.
He's so close, I thought. And we're up high. I'm going to have to hold the reticle just a bit low. Silently, I pushed the safety off. Don't look at those antlers. They're not there. It's just you and that deer's brisket. Careful...careful...NOW. The gun thundered, adding its cloud of smoke to the fog. As I came out of recoil, I saw that rack bounding away. Once, twice, thrice...and now I couldn't see him anymore.
"Is he hit?" I gulped. "Did I get him?"
"Yes, he's definitely hit, and he's not going to go far," soothed Allan. "You've just got to relax for a few minutes."
Unfortunately, the knowledge that I needed to wait to find that buck didn't help steady me one bit. As the adrenaline began to let down, my hands shook uncontrollably. I drew long, shaky breaths and tried not to whine like a hyperactive kindergartener.
Finally, finally, we walked through the sizzling mist to the place the buck had been standing, to find a gaudy splash of bright-red blood and a healthy tuft of fur. Thirty yards further (marked at 10-yard intervals with still more blood), there he lay. Those three bounds I'd seen him take had been his last. Up close, I couldn't believe just how big he really was...nine points, and so massive around the base of his antlers that I couldn't get my hands all the way around them for the photos.
Later, in the truck, I started to second-guess myself. "I'm a little disappointed that I shot him so low," I mused. "I was trying to hold a little low, not that low."
"Is there a deer in the back of the truck or not?" Allan drawled. "Then it was a good shot. I think we're going to find that you got him in the heart." And sure enough, back at the lodge, we discovered that's exactly what I'd done. Unfortunately, due to the range at which I'd shot the buck, we were unable to recover the bullet. It had passed right through, but the massive damage at both the entrance and exit wounds testified to the bullet's efficacy. I couldn't stop marveling at it, and at the beauty and size of the buck it had helped me take.