July 24, 2022
By John Taranto
As Steve Jones’ 1985 Dodge Power Ram began to backslide down a cattle trail faintly etched into the side of a steep bluff, I immediately started thinking about which way I was going to bail.
I was sitting atop an elevated bench in the bed of the truck, far better off than my cohorts trapped within the cab, who would have to fumble with 35-year-old door handles and clamber over one another to avoid plummeting to their deaths.
Fortunately, our skid ended a few feet short of the switchback, and Steve gunned the engine to deliver us from near-certain peril. He would later tell me it was a "controlled slide" to better position the truck for the run up the incline. Whatever it was, I was now fully awake.
As we continued up the bluff and my white-knuckled grip on the rail in front of me loosened, I looked out over the valley below and remembered how grateful I was to be in this place again.
It’s difficult to oversell the rugged beauty of Far West Texas. Peaks and bluffs rise dramatically from an endless sea of mesquite, cedar and low-slung bushes that can cause puncture wounds without much effort. Tortuous canyons gouge the landscape. Red and yellow cliffs pop against an impossibly blue sky. Everywhere you look feels like the set of an old western movie.
The first time I visited this magical corner of the Lone Star State, in 2006, was for a pronghorn hunt. My second pilgrimage, a half-dozen years ago, was a hunt for free-range aoudad that live in the craggy mountains of this picturesque land. In addition to those species, the region is home to elk, black bears, mountain lions, feral hogs, mule deer and whitetails. Few areas in the Lower 48 can rival the region’s abundance of big game and staggering beauty.
So, when I was invited to hunt whitetails on the Kokernot O6 ranch, an expanse of land totaling nearly 300,000 acres between Fort Davis and Alpine, I eagerly accepted the opportunity to return to the scene of two of my most memorable hunts and a part of the world that continues to captivate me.
What further piqued my interest was this was being billed as a spot-and-stalk affair that would, ideally, allow us to put Mossberg’s new Patriot LR Hunter rifle, chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor, to the long-range test. Essentially, it was to be the antithesis of the typical Texas whitetail hunt, most often characterized by interminable sits in a stuffy box blind positioned approximately 100 yards from a feeder.
Dawn of opening day of deer season found me bouncing around a section of the O6 known as the King Pasture with Mike Holm of Federal Ammunition and Shane Zimmerman. A guide with Jones’ Backcountry Hunts (backcountryhunts.com), Zimmerman is a real-estate agent by trade, but he spends the fall months guiding with Steve in their home state of New Mexico and on several ranches in West Texas. The plan that first morning of the hunt was to pick our way around the pasture, in the shadow of 6,000-foot Mitre Peak, in hopes of intercepting a buck that had yet to bed down for the day.
As we rolled along, we cut multiple tracks but spotted no bucks, so we decided to park the truck and climb a knob to do some glassing. Already, I was bolstered by the active pursuit of our quarry. I’m OK with sitting in a treestand in an Ohio woodlot or on a field edge in Iowa, but country like this demands to be explored. Picking bedded deer out of the scrubland below us proved to be a challenge, but the glint off an antler would occasionally betray a mule deer buck here and there; unfortunately, muleys were not on the menu for this hunt. We spotted herds of aoudad and a couple cow elk, too, but no whitetails.
After returning to Shane’s truck, we spent the rest of the morning driving the serpentine roads of the pasture, glassing feeders and water tanks from afar. These checkpoints produced only does, javelinas and a group of hogs that disappeared at full speed into a creek bottom before Mike or I could put one in our crosshairs.
For the afternoon hunt, we crossed Highway 118 to the east side of the ranch, opposite the King Pasture, where the vast majority of the O6 lies. Somehow, this part of the ranch is even more breathtaking than the west side, and we spent the last few hours of daylight alternately shaking our heads at the incredible landscapes and the fact that the only deer we could seem to find were of the mule persuasion.
Drive. Stop. Glass. Drive. Park. Hike. Glass. Hike. Drive. It’s not a terrible way to spend an afternoon in Far West Texas, but the only critter we found willing to cooperate was a too-trusting coyote that stood broadside 109 yards from Shane’s truck for too long. The passenger-side rearview mirror proved to be the perfect rifle rest, and I dropped the ’yote where it stood.
Two other hunters in camp fared better than me on Day 1, both taking good bucks with single shots from their Patriots, and they decided to join us for Day 2. I was glad to have the extra sets of eyes along as we explored another part of the eastern side of the ranch, though my partners were probably wishing they’d slept in during Steve’s "controlled slide." Having escaped that episode unscathed, we spent most of the morning glassing canyons and flats from high vantage points.
At one stop, Steve produced an odd-looking whistle from his coat pocket and proceeded to blow an ear-splitting series of high-pitched notes that reverberated off the canyon walls. Upon closer inspection, the "whistle" was in fact two .30-30 casings with primers removed, welded together at the bases, and with a reed stuck in one end. Steve told me his homemade predator call often prompted bedded deer to stand up and reveal themselves in the thick cover at the bottoms of canyons, but none responded to the call that day.
Nonetheless, it was an exhilarating morning of spotting game and seeing parts of the ranch that Steve himself had previously never explored. One such spot, a pond at the top of a butte that was loaded with ducks, had countless deer hoofprints in the mud surrounding it, but nary a live whitetail to be found.
Over lunch, we met up with Dave Callaway, another of Steve’s guides, who had seen a couple good whitetails earlier in the morning. One of his hunters shot one of them, and Dave was confident he had the other, a solid 5-by-5, pegged, but he felt the best way to kill him was to sit in a box blind approximately 100 yards from a feeder—the very scenario I had hoped to avoid. However, a day and a half of driving, hiking and glassing had produced few whitetail sightings, so I agreed to hole up in the blind that evening and see what transpired.
Later, as we prepared to leave camp for the afternoon hunt, I noticed Dave loading an extension ladder into the bed of his truck.
"What’s that for?" I asked as I set my rifle and pack in the cab.
"This is how you’re going to get into the blind," he replied matter-of-factly.
Turns out, this box blind was something of a relic. Once I’d ascended the ladder, I found it to be well ventilated, with several large holes in the walls and floor. A stuffy box blind it was not. I managed to position my seat so that I could properly shoulder the rifle if need be, and settled in for my sit.
The feeder, complete with bales of alfalfa, was to the south of me, and that’s the direction from which a strong, steady wind blew for most of the afternoon. On one hand, there was no chance of my scent wafting into the cover from which the buck was supposed to arrive. On the other, a few of the gusts had me wondering if this decrepit structure would topple over with me inside.
Around 5 o’clock the wind mercifully laid down, and a half-hour later a buck fitting the description Dave had given to me—a big-bodied 5-by-5 with good G3s—materialized from the brush and slowly approached the feeder, making a wide loop. Once he cleared the brush, I centered the crosshair and pulled the trigger. The buck ran about 40 yards straight toward me and piled up behind a mesquite bush.
As I sat there in the aftermath of this brief encounter, after radioing Dave that the deed was done, I quietly soaked up the sights and sounds that surrounded me. Out the side window of the blind, Mitre Peak rose in the distance, bathed in the hazy yellow light of dusk. Birds chirped and old steel windmills creaked, keeping me company on yet another memorable evening in Far West Texas.
Glass and Brass
A look at the scope and ammo used on the hunt.
To my LR Hunter I mounted the new 6-18x50 mm Bushnell Banner 2 riflescope. The entire Banner 2 line offers a ton of value, with most models retailing for around $100. The glass is above average for the price and the second-focal-plane BDC reticle is clean and easy to use. Best of all, it pairs with the free Bushnell Ballistic app, which provides yardages for each of the hashmarks on the vertical axis once you enter your scope configuration and load data (bushnell.com).
I fed my rifle Federal Premium ammunition loaded with 130-grain Swift Scirocco II bullets. The Scirocco II is a bonded bullet featuring a pure-copper jacket and lead core. Its distinct black polymer tip aids in expansion at both far and close range, but it really shines at longer distances thanks to a sleek design that leads to a high ballistic coefficient of .571. The Federal Premium round produces a reported muzzle velocity of 2,800 fps, and the bullet retains 2,054 fps at 500 yards. It dumps 2,012 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards and 1,218 at 500. A box of 20 costs about $66 (federalpremium.com).