In Texas' parched Parker Co., memories win out over inches
Whitetail hunting has evolved into a game of inches … a lot of inches. Hunters are almost embarrassed now to show pictures of 120-inch-or-less bucks they harvested.
Although there are a few regions across the U.S. where 120-inch-class whitetails are immature, this size deer is a mature trophy where most Americans hunt, including public land, paper-factory leases and small parcels of family property.
This is true in Poolville, Texas – yes, Texas – where I joined Larry Mader Jr., an old friend of mine, on his family’s cow farm for a three-day deer camp.
Click the image to see photos of the Workingman’s Slam
Located in Parker County just west of Dallas-Fort Worth, Poolville has a burgeoning population of whitetail. That said, the trophy bucks Texas is known for are few and far between unless a high fence is built and the herd is intensely managed. This is not the case on the Mader Farm.
“My grandfather always told me while I was helping him with cattle when I was growing up that you make the cows work for you, you don’t work for them,” he said. “Well, that’s kinda how I treat the deer on this farm. These are survivors, living on what’s available, not pampered or groomed to be giants.”
That said, he killed a 150-class 10-pointer in 2007. But that sort of deer is the exception. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department say as much if you read between the lines of the regulations for the county. In the 2013 handbook, they state a hunter can kill two bucks during all seasons, but only one can have branched antlers and must have a 13-inch spread or greater. The other buck has to be a spike.
Hunters can also harvest two does and four turkeys (you can kill any sex turkey during the fall) all seasons combined. In other words, they want the herd thinned of does and spikes, hoping that 2- and 3-year old bucks have the chance to reach their potential.
“So, I guess you could call our farm a workingman’s hunting camp,” Mader laughed. “We have barbed-wire fences, so the whitetails come and go as they please. I promise we will see some deer. I just can’t promise what they will be.”
After looking over the regulations while driving to his family farm, which the Maders homesteaded in 1866, we decided that our Deer Camp goal would be to get one specimen in each category of big game that was open to us: one doe, one spike, one turkey and one mature buck.
If we each shot a mature buck, that would be icing on the cake. We dubbed our goal the “Workingman’s slam.”
The rolling hills, cow pastures and mesquite thickets passed by as the paved road turned to gravel. We passed a metal gate with a wrought iron sign welded to the top of its frame, reading “Mader Cemetery.”
“A lot of our ancestors who homesteaded this land are buried right there,” Larry said.
Another half mile of gravel and he pulled up to a locked gate, giant rolls of hay just on the other side. Driving through and then shutting the fence so the cows couldn’t escape, we pulled up to a big metal barn, which would be our camp for the next three days.
Although most of it was filled with tractors and farm implements, one corner was dedicated to a small finished space that included a kitchen, bathroom and small living area. We unpacked, got dressed and pulled our bows from their cases. The quest for our WMS was officially on.
Drought In Poolville
“It’s going to be an interesting hunt. We have had the worse drought I have ever seen in this part of Texas,” said Mader, who has lived in the region his whole life. “The good news is, our farm is one of the very few around that still has water on the property. Not a lot of water, as all the creeks are dry and some of our tanks are empty. But, our big tank is still holding water and it seems to be bringing in a lot of deer.”
For those unfamiliar with Texas vernacular, “tank” means pond. But here, you can see why Texas ranchers first started referring to them as tanks: that’s what they are. These are giant earthen containers that hold water for cows. Problem was, very few were doing their job. The lack of rain in the region made most look like big craters, which are worthless to livestock.
The lack of water is so bad that Poolville and nearby cities like Henrietta, have enacted “flush bans” and put porta-potties on the corners of populated areas. There is a burn ban. Watering the lawn is out of the question.
Some area lakes are down to 30 percent capacity. (Lake Granbury has been reduced to the original Brazos River channel, with most “waterfront” homes unable to even see water now.) Most ranchers sold their cattle and other livestock before they died of thirst. They might start passing out deodorant and telling folks to lay off the showers … but that’s conjecture on my part.
“When I drive through the farm in the evening, there are dozens of deer concentrated in the pasture by the tank that has water. I’m sure they are here because of the drought conditions,” Mader said, so sure he placed 30-gallon buckets of water near his feeders to lure deer within bow-shot. “Hunting a water hole sounds more like something you’d do in Africa, but I’m thinking it might be a draw here, until we get some rain.”
Interestingly enough, Poolville was named after its ability to water livestock. A natural spring existed where the town eventually formed, and cattlemen from all over would stop during drives to water their herds. Before our hunt started on the outskirts of this little dry Texas town, the pool the town was named after held nothing but cracked dirt.
As we were putting up a pop-up blind, a foul stench hit us in the face, putting a punctuation mark on how severely the area needs water. We followed the smell into the woods where the bones of a dead cow lay scattered by coyotes. Nothing was left but deteriorating hide and a nasty section of guts.
“This isn’t one of our cows,” Mader said. “Must be from the neighbor’s property. No doubt it was looking for water, got lost, laid down and died. But on the positive side, I bet we have the neighbor’s deer here, too.”
Two Days Of Firsts
Mader and I met in 1996 in Granbury, Texas. He bought his first bow two years later. When he took it out of his case just before we headed to stand, it would be only the second time he hunted with it.
“The first time I drew back on a deer 17 years ago, it saw me and took off. So, I put the bow away and have stuck with a rifle ever since,” he said.
He has pulled it out and practiced a handful of times over the past several years. And he shot enough prior to our hunt, using 18-year-old arrows, to feel good about it. But, not only had he never killed a deer with his bow, he had never even fired at one. The first night of our hunt, that all changed.
The texts I received while on stand went something like this:
Four does coming in.
Freakin’ missed her!
Dropped her in her tracks!!! With the bow!
Although I knew Mader didn’t hop on the deer and stab it with his knife, I was glad he reiterated his use of stick and string. When he picked me up from the stand that night, he was grinning ear to ear.
“Congrats on your first bow kill, bro!” I said.
“I’ve never shaken so much when shooting at a doe. This bow hunting deal is pretty awesome!” he admitted.
When we returned to the barn, Mader processed the deer, rancher style. He pulled out of the barn a tractor that probably costs more than my house, chained the carcass to the bucket then hoisted it for skinning. Its backstraps would be our dinner the following night.
The next morning we headed out to the same stands. His texts started rolling in about 9 a.m.
Four does and a spike n the field.
I’m gonna try to shoot the spike if …
(Long pause here.)
I stuck a buck!
Mader’s second official bow kill, and first buck with stick and string, was a jacked-up spike that needed culling. One horn looked like it belonged on an antelope, curved forward and awkward. The other was a short, gnarly mess.
“Dude, you are on fire! Congratulations on another bow hunting first!”
“I should quit now,” Mader said. “All I can do from here is screw up my average.”
That evening, I hunted the pop-up blind near the dead cow. Mader said his uncle typically hunted this area with great success, and that it was loaded with turkeys. His latter statement couldn’t have been more accurate.
Not 20 minutes into my sit, eight hens and what appeared to be two jakes walked in and started feeding 20 yards from me. I took aim on the biggest of the jakes and let an arrow fly. Surprisingly, it was a really good shot.
The arrow hit the vitals, the turkey freaked out, then started wobbling away. I unzipped the blind and started running after it. The bird only made it 10 yards before tipping over. My first verified turkey kill using a bow couldn’t have been better.
Upon examination, I realized it had four beards. The main beard was 7 ¼ inches long, the other three ranged between 3 ½ inches to 4 ½ inches. All together, there was 17 ¾ inches of beard!
Back at the barn, I celebrated with a cold beer while Mader cooked up some chicken fried tenderloin from the doe. We were halfway through our hunt and only had a mature buck left to kill. I was feeling good about chances of getting our Workingman’s Slam.
Come to find out, Mother Nature would have something to say about that.
High Fence For No Deer
While most Texans are building high fences to kennel deer herds for the growing of giant racked bucks, there’s one in Poolville that was built to keep deer out.
Willhite Seed Inc., which was founded in the small town in 1905, has been supplying watermelon seed to farmers across the U.S. since T.A. Willhite’s melon won first place at the 1904 World’s Fair. Interestingly enough, Larry Mader Jr.’s grandfather, Vaughn Mader, with a partner, bought the company in the 1960s, eventually selling it in the 1970s.
The past several years, though, the seed company has had a problem with whitetail deer eating the plants before they get big enough spit out the famed Parker County melons.
“They tried all sorts of stuff to keep the deer out of the melons,” Mader said. “They tried air cannons to scare ‘em off at night. They tried sirens with lights. They tried Christmas lights and scarecrows. Shoot, the deer didn’t care. They’d eat those sprouting watermelon plants to the ground in a single night!”
“Finally, they figured the only way to really keep ‘em out was to high fence the place. Seems crazy that everyone in Texas is putting up high fences to keep deer in, but here in Poolville, the only high fence around is being used to keep deer out!”
The Slam Ends
Although I had yet to see a buck from stand, there was no shortage of confidence that Mader and I were going to accomplish our goal.
There was a day and a half for one of us to arrow a mature whitetail, which in Parker County meant branched antlers and a minimum of a 13-inch inside spread. Mader had trail cameras on several of his feeders and photos of multiple qualifying bucks.
“This is a nice, average buck for around here,” Mader said, pointing at a trail cam pic of an 8-pointer that might have scored 115. It was the only photo of a mature whitetail that the camera captured, and it was on the stand I had been hunting without seeing any sign of life. That said, Mader had watched a wide 7-pointer chase a doe around the stand where he had shot the other two deer.
So, we had two stands with bucks that would work. I decided to hunt the 7-pointer, so Mader took the stand I was in.
That morning, I saw five deer, all about 150 yards away. Mader saw nothing. Then, a crazy front blew through drenching the parched ground with a ½ inch of rain in less than an hour. It was the first solid rain in months. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in a matter of 2 hours, and our outlook for the evening was hopeful.
We returned to the same stands. I saw 11 does/yearlings, three coming in to 20 yards. As I drew on the closest one, she saw me. Alert as I released the arrow, she ducked (at least that’s my excuse), and the arrow sailed over her back by ¼ inch.
As Mader drove up on the 4-wheeler, his expression was even worse than mine.
“That 8-pointer came in. He was at 20 yards. I missed. Not just barely. My arrow might have clipped his toenails. I was just tore up and couldn’t keep my pin steady,” Mader said.
“I hear ya, bro. That feeling is why I bowhunt! I didn’t do any better!”
This night, the beer was to drown my sorrows. We both had opportunity. We both failed to execute. We hit the gas station up the road for burgers and onion rings, then off to bed.
The final morning dawned cold and clear. We swapped stands. I hunted the toenail buck, Mader went to the 7-point field. Neither deer showed, which ended our quest for the WS.
“Well, I have a consolation prize,” Mader announced.
He then pulled out a breakfast concoction upon which I would compare all future breakfast meat combinations.
“This is from Fischer’s Meat Market in Muenster, Texas. It’s fresh pork sausage wrapped in bacon,” he said
Mader put a fried egg on top of the pan-fried sensation, slapped it on a couple pieces of disfigured white bread that had been squished in the cooler, and dared me not to like it.
I took a bite and for a moment forgot about deer. Delicious pig two-ways in one mouthful. Yes, it was that good.
Actually, the entire hunt was that good. Sharing a deer camp with friends and family is the foundation of our hunting heritage. To hell with giant antlers.
In fact, to hell with the Workingman’s Slam (although the challenge was a hoot). Creating memories in the woods lasts years, which is a better standard of measure than inches, any day.
Go to 2013 Deer Camp