December 18, 2013
CRYSTAL CITY, Texas -- Mesquite trees, Senderos, deer and oil: that’s what’s in South Texas. And a hell of a lot of each. So, it makes perfect sense that these resources all mesh together during the state’s deer season.
Richard Bacon, general manager for Louisiana Crane, which has an office in Crystal City, Texas (3 hours south of San Antonio), maintains a ranch for exactly this reason.
“Every one of my clients love to hunt, and there’s no better way to develop relationships than to share a deer camp with a man,” Bacon said.
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Brian Knighten, owner of Knighten industries, which makes pumps for the oil industry, agrees.
“I lease land near Laredo to carry our best customers hunting. It’s a real treat for them, because there is no place like South Texas for big, plentiful whitetail,” Knighten said.
Knighten Industries and Louisiana Crane both sponsor Bassmaster Elite Series pro Grant Goldbeck, who invited me down to hunt both properties, and experience the essence of a South Texas deer camp. My hunt began with the Louisiana Crane crew at their Star Ranch near Crystal City.
Texas Hunting, Cajun Style
Arriving at the Star Ranch around 8 p.m. the night before the hunt means you are likely behind by at least three beers. Bacon greeted Goldbeck and I with an ice-cold brew and an invitation to eat some gumbo.
Jon Logan, manager for the liquid division of Louisiana Crane, and Moon (we never heard anyone calling this jovial ranch manager by any other name) were chatting about the deer they recently captured on trail cameras.
“That’s a good one right there, yeah,” Logan declared in a soft Cajun accent.
“Shoot, we got betta ones than that,” said Bacon, whose Louisiana roots were a tad more pronounced when he spoke. They were looking at a tall but narrow 9-pointer, probably scoring in the 140s.
“Dear sweet baby Jesus, this gumbo is incredible,” was my response.
“It’s Logan’s rue, no better,” said Moon, with more than a hint of his hispanic decent influencing inflection.
Goldbeck surely would have agreed, but his mouth was full.
After eating, we grabbed another beer and took a look at the accommodations. The main building held a sizeable kitchen, and a great room with a pool table, several wooden tables for eating, couches and a big-screen TV. When the Saints or LSU play, deer hunting becomes secondary.
A huge front porch had several more tables, a Texas-sized grill (which would be put to good use), a fire pit and a gun cleaning kit. Across a wide drive were three bunk houses, each segmented into three rooms. Each room simply features two beds and a bathroom.
A swimming pool was positioned on one side of the main building (Goldbeck says this is where the bass lures are tested), while a ½-acre pond sits on the other side (Moon says this is where he teaches Goldbeck how to catch bass).
A huge field sits behind the bunkhouses where a shooting range was built, with targets out to 400 yards. Up the driveway a little farther and behind a stand of trees are the offices of the liquid division of Louisiana Crane, which includes a fleet of trucks. Once you get beyond the offices, 4,000 acres of deer-filled mesquite thickets would be where we’d spend the next few days.
“Our neighbors put high fences on three sides of this property, but the fourth side is wide open,” Bacon said. “So, we see a lot of the same bucks year after year, but they are free to roam off the property. We see new bucks every season.”
The property is part of a state-controlled management system. After a survey of the whitetail population, they are given MLD permits to harvest a specific number of does and bucks. The ranch rule is that the deer must be mature. Three-year-old 10-pointers walk. So, to make sure I didn’t become part of the next batch of gumbo, Moon would sit with me in the blind to ensure I harvested the right kind of buck.
The first morning dawned foggy (I’m referring to both my head from the beer as well as the moist atmosphere). We saw a smattering of does that made their way up a Sendero to a corn feeder 150 yards from the elevated shooting house we were in. A young 10-pointer rambled up to check the does but didn’t stay long. That would be our only action the first morning.
After eating slow-grilled ribs for lunch, Logan decided to release some pen-raised quail to give his new bird dog a little work. Goldbeck and Bacon joined him for a little wing shooting to pass the afternoon hours.
“Don’t shoot to the left. We don’t want to pepper our employees as they get in their trucks,” Logan said after the first small covey rose.
A wicked cold front moved in during the afternoon, sending temperatures south by 20 degrees.
“Should be a good evening hunt,” Bacon said as we put our gear into a Polaris. We’d sit together that evening.
“That’s a great deer, but just too young,” Bacon said as a 10-pointer walked toward feeding does just before it became too dark to shoot. “I don’t know where the mature deer are hiding, but they damn sure aren’t ruttin’ hard yet.”
Jambalaya, tequila shots and a very serious pool tournament followed. From what we remember, Goldbeck won a 7mm rifle from Bacon on an impossible bank shot to the side pocket.
The next morning I sat with Moon. The deer were moving early and we had both does and small bucks in the Sendaro in front of our shooting house 30 minutes after sunup.
“There’s a big bodied deer!” I said, as a giant brown mass moved 150 yards distant from the mesquite scrub toward the feeding does. Moon lifted his binoculars and took a look.
“He’s short-tined, but an old deer. He’s one we’d like killed for sure.”
That’s all Moon had to say. So, I lifted my rifle, centered the crosshairs on the buck’s shoulder and sent a 130-grain bullet its way. A solid hit. We found the buck 30 yards from where it was shot. The 9-pointer was 4 ½ years old and weighed almost 200 pounds.
After loading the deer, we headed back to camp, passing horse-head oil pumpers, wellheads and tanks that are as much a part of the terrain as the thorned brush and tumbleweeds the South Texas deer call home. Now we’d head an hour and a half east toward Laredo, where Brian Knighten’s camp was just getting warmed up.
When we pulled up to the entrance of the 8,000 acres leased by Knighten and five others, we were locked out. A large rotating iron wheel was ornamented with seven locks.
“The oil guys have to get in here to work, and each of them has a different lock. Plus, this is a working ranch, so the cattle guys have to have access it as well,” Goldbeck said.
Our host soon showed, along with his cousin BJ Knighten and Jimmy Campbell, another member of the lease, granting us entrance to a little slice of hunting paradise not five miles from the outskirts of Laredo.
After driving a couple miles toward the center of the property, we pulled up to a singlewide trailer that would be our home base for the next couple of days. Leaned against it were old deer stands and random parts of corn feeders. Adjacent was another trailer where the Mexican ranch manager stayed with his family.
A nearby tree held three deer heads, the harvest from that morning: two bucks and a doe. Jawbones were also displayed, which would be given to the state biologist who manages the lease’s MLD permits.
“Each person on the lease gets to harvest one trophy whitetail per year,” Brian said.
They classify a trophy as anything with 10 or more points, or a deer that scores over 145 inches.
“That said, there are some very nice mature 8 pointers out here. So, that’s what you are looking for,” he said.
In total, the hunters on this lease were supposed to harvest 60 does and 30 bucks before season’s end. It was also explained that there are a host of feral hogs, javalina and coyotes that are high on the lease’s hit list.
“If they show up, don’t quit shooting until you are out of bullets!” Goldbeck said.
I sat in a tripod stand the first evening. It was perched on top of a hill at the crossing of the gravel road and a long Sendero that stretched 200 yards on both sides. At the end of each Sendero were “yellow acorn” trees, otherwise known as deer feeders.
There were three deer in the road when I climbed into the tripod. And soon there were two giant pigs at one of the feeders. Within an hour, I was surrounded. I had a deer in the road at my back, four in the road in front of me, two young bucks at the feeder to my right, and two hogs to my left.
Eventually, the biggest hog ran off all the deer in the road, which compelled me to plant a bullet between its eyes. It fell in the road. This would have made for easy loading had it not weighed almost 180 pounds.
Brian also shot a hog that evening, so we celebrated with a cold beverage and filet knife. Afterwards, we ate a unique dinner prepared by Jimmy.
“These are deer ribs,” Jimmy said. “We don’t waste anything around here.”
I had never considered eating ribs from a whitetail, and looking at them reminded me why. The bones, long and spindly, were barely separated by slivers of meat and a little fat. That said, my first bite convinced me that I’d be attempting to recreate this meal at home. The flavor was tremendous and the texture firm. As a side, Jimmy combined cauliflower and jalapeños in a blender. They came out looking like green mashed potatoes, and tasting like a firecracker.
The next morning we decided to spot and stalk, which is Brian’s favorite way to hunt. He and I would hike together, while Goldbeck and BJ would pair up. Leaving from the trailer, we split the back quarter of the property, which is ringed by a road. We took the east side, the other hunters walked west.
“This is how I grew up hunting. Just walking roads, spotting deer and trying to put a stalk on ‘em,” Brian said.
And walk we did. About 3 miles total that morning. We spotted a wide and tall 6-pointer. We stalked within 30 yards of him before he realized we were there. Then we spotted a nice 8, still too young to harvest. With it were three other deer, a doe and two yearlings. Brian asked me to shoot the doe to start chipping away at the number they needed to remove for the year.
Back at the camp, we compared notes with Goldbeck and BJ. They had seen a couple bucks roaming and a doe, but not much was moving. So, we looked at the property map on the kitchen wall to decide where we needed to sit for the evening hunt, then cleaned the doe.
While taking the carcass to the gut pile, Goldbeck and I caught glimpse of a coyote feeding at the dump site. It saw us about the same time and started running. I pulled up and fired, dropping it at 100 yards.
“I’d rather be lucky than good, bro!”
Brian and I sat together that afternoon in a spacious shooting house. A huge Sendero sprawled before us, riddled with cactus and scrub brush. A doe came out to feed almost immediately. Eventually another doe cautiously entered the opening, looking behind her every couple of steps. Glassing the mesquite thicket, we could see a huge bodied deer that remained statue-still for more than 10 minutes.
“That’s gotta be our guy!” Brian whispered.
The lookout doe finally dropped her head and started feeding, and the buck stepped out. We didn’t need binoculars to age this deer. Its drooping belly and short neck gave away its age. Its antlers, however, were underdeveloped and less than desirable. It was simply a big fork-horned beast with a little teardrop brow tine on one side.
“If ever there was a cull buck, that’s him,” Brian said.
That said, I steadied my rifle and squeezed the trigger. It was then I realized that sharing a deer hunt with another avid outdoorsman is something I had never really done before this trip. Most of my whitetail hunting is a solo expedition, typically out of a climbing stand as far away from other hunters as I can afford.
This hunt, a typical Texas experience, was social. We were able to share opinions about the deer that showed themselves, discuss past hunts and how they related to the current conditions, and anticipate together what might happen next. After watching the buck stumble no less than 200 yards from where it was hit, we decided to give him some time before picking up his trail.
Goldbeck, Jimmy and BJ joined us at dark to look for the deer. After a couple hours of following scant drops of blood, we decided to come back in the morning when we had more light.
There aren’t enough beers in Texas to help a guy sleep well after not finding a deer he shot, so a restless evening followed.
We got back on the trail early the next morning. Although the blood trail dried up, we continued to head in the direction of the wounded deer. An hour into the search, Brian heard the screech of Mexican eagles. We walked toward the sound and saw two of them fly skyward. Then a coyote started galloping away. They led us to the buck. Half of it had been eaten.
“Well, nothing goes to waste around here,” Brian said.
I brought the head back with us so the biologists could gather data from the deer. We packed and headed back to the San Antonio airport, passing on the interstate a truck loaded with three nice bucks and oilfield pump equipment. Seemed like an appropriate parting shot for this South Texas deer hunt.
Go to 2013 Deer Camp