The Gift Deer

The Gift Deer

When the biggest buck you've ever had a chance to shoot steps out unexpectedly, don't ask questions. (December 2008)

No matter how skilled a hunter you are, luck often plays a major role in taking a deer. That was certainly the case the day after Christmas 2007.

Soon after, deer began to arrive from the open field at my back. I caught a glimpse of antlers and turned to get a better look -- and bumped the side of the blind. The group of deer exploded, flushing like a covey of quail. A tall 8-pointer cleared a bush and was gone. I figured my chance at a buck had just left.

The author (right) and Mike Cooper pose with Larry's best buck ever -- a fine Christmas present from two friends.
Photo by Larry D. Hodge.

Nick Gilmore, the editor of this magazine, had set up a hunt on the 400-acre ranch owned by the Cooper brothers. Our hunting grounds are located in Hamilton County, on the northern edge of the Hill Country. It was to be a special hunt for me, because the last time I'd seen my old friend the late Russell Tinsley was during a hunt there several years before. The Cooper boys are Tinsley's nephews.

Our host for both those hunts was Mike Cooper, and if I could choose my host for a hunt, it would be Mike. Mike keeps the old ranch house, blinds and barbecue pit just the way his father left them. He drives you to your blind in a 1940s-era military jeep and picks up harvested deer with the jeep and army trailer. Hunting with Mike is like stepping back in time to the good old days of Texas deer hunting, when being with family and friends was more important than what you shot.

Fifty yards inside the brushline, I found him, and knew immediately that he was my best buck ever.

But as I said earlier, sometimes luck steps in, and when it does, the experience becomes just that much sweeter.

Actually, luck is a two-sided thing. One person's good luck sometimes is someone else's bad luck. This time I was on the good side, and Nick was on the bad. I have to say that it was his own fault: When deciding who would hunt which blind the first afternoon, Nick insisted that I choose. It really didn't matter to me, but Nick kept insisting until I finally gave in. "OK," I said, "I'll take the oat patch."

The oat patch is small, less than a hundred yards long and maybe half that wide, and it's bordered by a heavy growth of oaks, mesquites and junipers to the south and an open field bordering a creek to the north and west. A narrow band of trees runs down its center, and a corn feeder sits at the northeast corner.

Mike dropped us off at our blinds, and I settled in. Mike had given us permission to shoot the deer of our choice, and I knew the oat patch attracted lots of does and yearlings, so I figured sausage meat was a cinch. Not half an hour after I arrived, the deer parade began. A group of five came in, and one old doe in the group attracted my attention. She was considerably bigger than the others, and she was easily identifiable by the dark, almost black stripe down her back. She never presented a clear shot before they moved off, but I knew she was at least as large as two previous does I'd taken on the place, the biggest of which weighed 94 pounds on the hoof.

Therefore, I was amazed a few minutes later when a second group of deer began arriving from the same direction. As I watched does filing past the blind, something bright caught my eye -- antlers. Not making a noise this time, I turned my head and found myself looking at a tall, wide 10-pointer. The county is under the 13-inch regulation, but I knew instantly this was a shooter.

As I reached for my gun, the chair squeaked, and the buck spooked. Fortunately, he ran only a few yards to the far side of the oat patch, and seconds later I threaded a bullet through the brush. He ran off without an indication he'd been shot, but I knew it was a good hit. I waited only a couple of minutes before following the blood trail. Fifty yards inside the brushline, I found him, and knew immediately that he was my best buck ever. After deductions of 4 6/8 inches, he netted 127 7/8 as a typical. If not for tips broken off three points, he would have made the 130 necessary to be entered into the Texas Big Game Awards for Region 3.

And here's where luck played another part. That buck was 4 1/2 years old; he had been born around June 2003. The 13-inch antler regulation did not take effect in that county until the fall of 2006, which meant the buck had somehow escaped being shot for three years. Since about 65 percent of bucks taken in that area before the 13-inch rule went into effect were 1 1/2-year-olds, this deer had truly been lucky.

As to why he showed up this particular day, I think it was because we were lucky enough to be hunting during the secondary rut. His neck was still swollen and his hocks were stained, and he was at the oat patch to check out the does.

Speaking of which, that old doe with the dark stripe showed up alone at dusk. When Mike came to pick me up, I had a 95-pound doe and a 150-pound buck on the ground.

Christmas came a day late last year, but I was not complaining.

Actually, Christmas for deer hunters came when Texas Parks and Wildlife Department instituted the 13-inch antler regulation. That rule has had more impact on Texas deer hunting than any other factor, natural or manmade, since the TPWD began regulating deer harvest. For example, in the six original counties under the rule, only 4 percent of bucks harvested were mature (4 1/2 years or older) prior to the rule. More than half were yearlings. In the third year of the program, 41 percent of the bucks harvested were mature.

"This harvest strategy is having a big impact on buck age structure, which in turn impacts antler quality," said Mitch Lockwood, the TPWD's white-tailed deer program leader. "In the original six counties, last year was the first time that we were ever able to record a proportion of 5 1/2-year-old bucks in the harvest -- about 15 percent. Last year there was actually a higher proportion of mature bucks in the harvest than there was in the buck harvest for South Texas. The counties in Region 3 are following the same trend."

While there was some initial skepticism among hunters regarding the rule, that went away once they saw how rapidly the quality of bucks improved. A big factor in that, of course, is that hunters no longer have to fear that if they don't shoot a buck, someone else will shoot it as soon as it jumps the fence. The regulation levels the playing field.

"Hunters are very pleased," Lockwood said. "Those who are unhappy are the ones without this regulation in the counties where they hunt. They continue to ask, 'When can we have this antler-restriction regulation?' In counties with the regulation, we've had quite a few folks tell us that they enjoy hunting more now than they did before. They aren't just pleased to see some mature bucks walking around, they're pleased to see any bucks."

Of course, antler quality depends on more than just age. Genetics and nutrition are important as well. But of those three, age is the one that hunters can most easily and economically influence. And it's age that allows genetics and nutrition to fully express their potential. A buck can have the best genetics and food available, but if it's shot before it's mature, it won't be the deer it could have been.

And 2007 was one of those years that may come only once in a lifetime. Rain fell at opportune times and in copious amounts over the entire state. "As a result, many bucks were able to realize their potential," Lockwood said. "We've had good rain years in the past, but they didn't produce the results we saw in 2007-2008. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that more landowners and land managers are practicing sound wildlife management these days, and hunters are far more interested than before in allowing most bucks to reach maturity through selective harvest strategies."

In a way, Lockwood's point is that landowners and hunters are making their own luck. But the foundation of the better hunting we are enjoying is still the regulation that allows more bucks to reach the age at which they can grow big antlers.

Luck still plays a part, though. While other hunters on the Cooper place also took nice bucks last year, Nick was not one of them. The next time we hunt together, I'm going to insist that he get first choice of where to hunt.

Then we'll see which of us is really lucky. With the 13-inch regulation in our favor, chances are good it will be both of us.

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