I went deer hunting in Texas week before last. It was a trip arranged by Weatherby, the firearms manufacturer, and it was intended to give me and a few other writers a chance to test some of the new rifles the company is offering. From the point of view of companionship, hunting, and testing, the trip was wildly successful and a lot of fun. Good people, good times, good guns, good hunting.
But what I really want to tell you about was a small incident that was a first for me.
Hunting in Texas is completely unique. First of all, there is almost no public land in Texas. There are only two national parks that I know of (Big Bend and Guadalupe) and only a few state parks, so all hunting must be done on private land. Deer and exotics are the backbone of Texas hunting. There is great waterfowl hunting along the coast, and in the moist, sweltering areas of eastern Texas they are so overrun by wild hogs that if you knock on a farmer’s door and ask permission to hunt, he’s likely to offer you his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. There is even a national television show about a, uh, highly colorful family that makes its living hunting hogs down there. (“Colorful! It’s what you get when you’ve lived in Bolivia for twenty years. You get colorful. Bingo!”) But it is deer and exotics that bring in the big bucks (you should pardon the expression) for private ranches in the Lone Star State.
Because whitetail deer and exotics represent big dollars to private landowners, just as black angus do to cattlemen, a lot of time and effort and money is put into maximizing both the quality of the animals and the quality of the hunting of those animals.
Ranches are completely high-fenced. Think about that for a moment. The ranch where we hunted, a relatively small one by Texas standards, is twelve-thousand-plus acres, cross-fenced into pastures of about a thousand acres each. I happen to know what regular horse-wire fencing costs per foot (which is why I had to do almost all of it on my little ranch myself), so I can only guess at the millions of dollars in fencing alone that have been invested in this ranch. I was told by the ranch manager that there was a permanent two-man fencing crew, whose sole job it was to build and repair fence, day in, day out, all year long. Sort of like painting the Golden Gate bridge.
Then there is the deer-breeding program. Yes, deer-breeding. The first thing a deer needs to grow large antlers is good genetics. Breeding deer is, by itself, a significant economic enterprise in Texas, where artificial insemination is done on scientific principles in facilities that make most hospitals look poor and slovenly, and breeder bucks with good genetics are treated with the kind of care and respect normally accorded to famous stallions. For reasons neither I nor anyone else on this hunt understands, this is only possible with whitetail deer. Mule deer cannot be bred successfully in captivity. We had a lot of debate about this while I was down there, and while mule deer seem to have somewhat larger spatial requirements than whitetail, they are just as adaptable and just as capable of living in close proximity to humans as whitetail are. Just ask anyone—my wife, for example—who has tried to grow roses or apples or just about any kind of garden in these mountains. So I don’t know why mule deer are different.
The second requirement for large antlers is good nutrition, and there are companies that specialize in the development of nutrient-rich feeds specifically for deer. I know what I pay to supplement my two horses, so I shudder to think what a hunting ranch must pay to put nutrients out for literally thousands of deer. Which, of course, raises the question of how you feed wild animals. Scores of feeders, perhaps hundreds, are spread across the ranch. They run off of solar-powered batteries, but like anything made by man, they are subject to inexplicable breakdowns and must be checked regularly. While I was there, the young hand (guide, if you will) I was with found three feeders that needed fixing. It’s a labor-intensive industry.
(Photo courtesy of Brad Fitzpatrick)
Why a guide for something as inherently private and solitary as deer hunting? Apart from the fact that this was all new land to me and they didn’t want anyone getting lost, the third factor that influences antler size is age. The ranch does not allow any buck (other than obviously deformed bucks that must be culled) under the age of five to be shot, and the guides are there to both judge the age of bucks and to enforce the rule. It turned out to be very instructive; I’ve been hunting deer for almost forty years, but I learned a lot about details of aging that I had not known.
Texas-style deer hunting is done out of blinds over feeders. This is a fact many people find repugnant, but consider that in almost every state where I have hunted whitetail in the East or Midwest, it is legal to plant feeder crops out in the middle of the woods to attract the deer and to hunt over those crops. In the parts of the West where water is scarce, mule deer, elk, and pronghorn are frequently hunted over waterholes. So the bottom line is that I don’t see much of a difference. As it happened, this particular ranch also runs black angus, and both the deer, and my guide and I, got run off the feeders by greedy cattle, so I ended up hunting by glass-and-stalk (and taking a dandy buck), but that was just an accident, and I spent the first two days happily and optimistically sitting in a blind.
And it was in one of those blinds, on the second day, that I got my first good long look at a gray fox.
We have gray fox in the mountains where I live in California, but very few of them. (We also have kit fox down in the Central Valley at a much lower elevation.) If you have a lot of wolves, you won’t have many coyotes. If you have a lot of coyotes, you won’t have many fox. In California we have coyotes coming out of our ears, so there are very few gray fox. In twenty-two years up here I only seen tracks, one dead one by the side of the highway, and one flash of a live one running across the road late at night, so I was delighted to see a gray fox hunting his—or her—way delicately toward the blind.
The land on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau in Texas is rolling savannah dotted with live oaks, mesquite trees, prickly pear, and pockets of brush, and this fox emerged quite suddenly from some heavy brush just north of the blind. He was small, elegant, beautiful, and had that typical vulpine air of confidence in his own native wit. I half expected him to stop, look up at us in the blind, and make a sarcastic and insulting remark. (This is a somewhat inaccurate bit of anthropomorphizing on my part, since the gray fox is scientifically named Urocyon cinereoagenteus, not Vulpes.) As it was, there was something I couldn’t see there in the grass (mice? voles? insects? a little of each?) he found to his liking, so for about twenty minutes he hunted happily within ten feet of where we sat, sometimes making a quick darting snap with his muzzle, sometimes making the lovely arching pounce I associate with foxes, rising up on his hind legs, jumping into the air and landing on his prey with both front paws. He evidently felt quite safe and at home, never pausing to check for any other predator (primarily bobcat in that part of the state), never paying the slightest attention to the cattle stealing grain out of the feeder one hundred yards away, or the unhappy deer circling cautiously around watching the cattle steal their dinner. At one point he came so close to the blind I could have dropped my notebook on him. Then he gradually hunted his way into a tangle of brush and live oak on the south side and vanished.
If I were a Howard Pyle, I would have drawn him with boots on and a battered cap, a game bag over one shoulder, rifle on the other, a happy fellow hunter on a glorious winter day.