“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold Foreword, A Sand County Almanac
I’ve never been a huge church goer. I enjoy the music & the message however, I tend to feel a bit claustrophobic in church- both physically and mentally. The minute I leave a church and breathe in the fresh air, feel the sun’s rays, hear the birds chirp or the sound of the leaves rustle is the moment I am reminded of a higher power. I know that for many, church is a community which I admire. Over time I have come to realize that similarly the land is a community to which I belong. Where I feel accepted, where I am alone (or not alone) with my thoughts and where I walk among God’s creatures. These powers that be have gifted me experiences in the outdoors that are meant to be the most valuable teaching tools of my life. In dog training, my trainer Dave Millmore always refers to theses as the “tools in our tool belt.” A lesson in something so simple as patience can really make me stop and contemplate the path that hunting has put me on. It seems that no matter how hard the lesson, at the end of it I come out stronger.
Fortunately, for the second year in a row, Adam and I have had the opportunity to harvest deer on a beautiful 3,800 acre low fence property along the San Antonio river owned and operated by dear friends of ours at New Ranch Outfitters. Our task however, was more than just hunting and celebrating Thanksgiving together. We were there for a bigger purpose.
Each year MLD permits are issued to private land owners across the state of Texas as part of the Managed Land Deer Program (MLDP). These MLD permits are issued by Texas Parks & Wildlife based on the recommendations of a wildlife biologist and used to manage deer populations and the particular goals of a landowner. New Ranch Outfitters participates in the MLD program. We have even been fortunate to help them conduct a deer survey via helicopter in past.
The Managed Lands Deer Program (MLDP) is intended to foster and support sound management and stewardship of native wildlife and wildlife habitats on private lands in Texas. Deer harvest is an important aspect of habitat management and conservation. Landowners enrolled in either the MLDP Harvest Option or Conservation Option are able to take advantage of extended season lengths and liberalized harvest opportunities. -MLDP, Texas Parks & Wildlife
Aldo Leopold, the father of modern wildlife management published Game Management in 1933. In it he states that,“…game (wildlife) can be restored by the creative use of the same tools which have heretofore destroyed it- axe, cow, plow, fire and gun.” Using Aldo Leopold’s methods of wildlife management, regulated hunting is used as a means to manage and protect sound wildlife populations. Because I can promise you, the Whitetail deer is not on the endangered species list.
On our first early 39 degree morning in the river bottom, just as the sun was rising we heard a parliament of Barred owls all around us. Adam and I affectionately refer to them as the monkeys of Texas for their distinct “hootin’ & hollering” calls. The Barred owl is a non-migratory native of Texas and one of the most animated birds of the forest. As they called out to each other I pictured them swinging from the trees like gibbons. I have an overactive imagination I am told.
We witnessed the nature of some of the biggest, most beautiful bucks that morning. A trophy class ten point made a six point look like a flea. A young eight point caught our attention too. The river bottom was the same location that I harvested my mature 4.5 year old doe last year. Ironically, we only saw one doe that morning and she was too busy trying to lose the affections of the ten point to be a good candidate for harvesting. There were several spikes making their rounds but we deemed them too young. I was looking for either a long “cow horn” spike, an uneven point buck or a doe. These particular types of deer were the preferred deer to cull or harvest for MLD permits. It appeared that all the deer I would see that day would either be too mature or too young. Regardless, it was good to compare and contrast all the different types of deer. Never have I seen a broader mix in one sitting.
Then came my encounter with Cinco…
Saturday morning we tried a different location. When a mature doe and two yearlings approached us, Adam took the opportunity. The mature doe didn’t travel far and we were thankful for her, as she would feed us some of the most organic and pure meat we could consume. As we packed up to leave that morning a buck appeared several hundred yards away. A large six point. We relaxed momentarily however, a second look at him revealed he was actually a five point- a excellent candidate for harvesting. “Cinco” was staring right at us.
We set the rifle up and I hit the warm Texas ground. The sun was now shining and I could feel it warming up. I found Cinco in the scope. He made his way across my shooting lane just in time to disappear into the woods. Adam assured me that if we changed positions he would pop back out as he was looking to come in our direction. So we did just that and sure enough, Cinco gave me another chance. I lined my scope up, took the rifle off safety and reminded myself to breathe. Cinco momentarily stopped and my finger went to the trigger. I hesitated just for a moment and that big cull buck left my sights. Slowly, painfully, effortlessly, and just out of reach he turned and walked away. I knew it wasn’t the right shot for me but I was devastated.
That evening I was eager to get out and find Cinco. He had been spotted earlier in the day in the same area. To my heartbreak when we arrived there were cattle there. Very stubborn cattle. Even if I set up I didn’t want to have to worry about a “cowsulty.” So we opted to go back to our favorite spot in the river bottom where we watched the big bucks before. Until you are a hunter who has hunted the same area several times, you cannot understand the affection a person can have for one place. Last year I remembered it smelled of wild onions. This year I’ll remember it as Barred owl hollow.
An hour into the hunt and nothing had appeared. Nothing. I imagined that Cinco was probably hanging out among the cattle as I sat there. I began to worry that the cold snap of our first morning hunt had thrown the deer off. Would I even get a chance at another deer? What if we didn’t get enough venison to last us the whole year? My mind started racing as it often does.
About 45 minutes before sunset two spikes appeared. It is amazing to me how deer appear out of nowhere. One minute you’re staring at the same piece of moss hanging from a tree and all of the sudden there is a deer walking into your view. I settled the rifle in to check them out and noticed one long spike had a tiny point- he was a three point. This was Tres. Adam wasn’t convinced and we, I must admit, argued back and forth about it a little bit. At least as much as two people trying to remain quiet could. I was confident and after the incident with Cinco earlier in the day I knew I had to be sure.
Tres the three point sparred with a spike buck for what seemed like forever. I watched in my scope, taking short breaks to make sure I was calm and steady. I practiced getting on target, holding it, breathing and then rested momentarily before doing the same all over again. This is something I often do with the gun on safety. Then suddenly both deer looked off into the brush to the right of us. Adam told me to wait and see what would come out. My heart sunk when both deer followed whatever had caught their attention out of sight. My chance had slipped away, for the second time in a row.
I am my worst critic.
I cried. The type of crying when you talk and no one can understand what you are saying. I knew I had made a great shot but taking a life isn’t something I do lightly. I cry for many reasons and I am not afraid to admit it. I hope that never changes for me, even as I gain more confidence in my hunting abilities. I only hoped that I had made Adam proud with how far I had come in my outdoor journey. Moments after my second chance at a buck had passed, the deer that had caught their attention came out of the brush. Who followed shortly after? Tres. It was my last opportunity and I made my move.
I will never forget the unique opportunities that I had that Thanksgiving weekend to remind myself how important patience really is. Not only will Tres always be my first buck, but I am thankful to know that the management of said buck is doing a greater part for Texas wildlife. Because the very same people who are against hunting complain about the deer eating their plants. Two deer of hundreds that remain, will feed Adam & I for a year. Friends, family, good health and hunting opportunities. A community where I belong and play a part. There isn’t much more I could be thankful for.