October 30, 2014 | by Mark McDonald
Drama in the Deer Woods

Stuart a Huge Highlight for the Hunting Experience

By Mark S. McDonald Sr.
Editor, sportsandoutdoors.guru

{Editor’s note: This weekend, the general gun season for whitetail opens in Texas, sending more than 400,000 hunters into the deer patch. For many, it is a deeply personal, almost spiritual, experience.}

Confidence is borne out of preparation and experience. I have both this fateful morning as I peer through my rifle scope. Good thing, too, because here he comes …

Thanks to Stuart, the bloodhound at center, this tracking team came away all smiles late last deer season. L to R, Jake Mase of Houston, author Mark S. McDonald, guide Brady Watson and RobRoy McDonald.

Thanks to Stuart, the bloodhound at center, this tracking team came away all smiles late last deer season. L to R, Jake Mase of Houston, author Mark S. McDonald, guide Brady Watson and RobRoy McDonald.

Ever cautious, ears erect, guzzle to the southwest wind, out steps a majestic 8-point buck. This animal, in 35 years of hunting, is quite simply the best 8-point whitetail I had ever had the opportunity to take.

Oh, I have seen higher scoring 8-pointers, in museums and Kansas big buck contests. But this buck is special for one reason: It’s the best 8 that comes with a green light.

Built like a bomb shelter, this buck ambles the Rolling Plains just off the Caprock east of Lubbock, carried by muscular shoulders and hind quarters, topped by the brutish neck of an NFL linebacker.

By Kansas or Illinois standards the rack is a tad spindly. But with matching prominent brow tines and long back tines, the antlers are so nearly symmetrical, they look fake, as if painted on his head. Then there’s the “it” factor.

If a good-looking woman in curve-hugging jeans and a clingy black sweater is worth a second look, a main-frame 4×4 rack with pitchfork tines – simple and elegant — will turn my head, too.

To see this buck on motion-activated trail camera, which we had, was one thing. To see him in living color from my tower stand overlooking a shallow canyon, no more than 125 yards away, was breath-taking – or should have been.

Only it really wasn’t.

I had shown trail cam photos to my lease mates and told them how I had seen the buck on opening morning. Via emails outfitter-friend Robert Rogers of Casa Monte Lodge in South Texas and wildlife biologist Scott Hohensee of Purina Mills Feeds agreed with my hunting compadres: It’s a mature buck, a dandy. So, why isn’t he swinging from the game pole?

They know me to be a picky hunter, always looking for older and better deer than my wallet can support. I take one buck every 3-5 years. This time, they were having none of it. To a man they said shoot him!

As I settled the crosshairs on the buck’s forequarters, that’s exactly what I intended to do. I cranked the Nikon scope to 14x-power, waiting for the shot to present itself. When it did, the buck was facing left to right and slightly quartering, a free throw for my trusted Remington .270.

I began to focus intensely on the target within the target. There’s an old expression, “aim small, miss small.” On the practice green, Tiger Woods rolls putts at a tee stuck in the ground. When he’s going good and locked in, to Tiger’s eye, the actual cup must look like a washtub. I focused, not on the buck’s wheelhouse, but on a tuft of grey fur an inch behind the shoulder.

I fully expected my adrenal glands to squirt buzz juice into my system and give me the shakes. It didn’t happen, not this time, not even when a gust of wind made the wary buck raise his head and pan 270 degrees searching for danger.

With a practiced thumb and almost mechanical confidence, I click off the safety, and holding steady on the target, gently squeeze the trigger. Little did I know I am about to touch off more than a rifle round. Adventure would soon follow.

***************** ******************

Bommmmmm!

The .270 spoke the only language it knows, prompting the deer to buck like a saddle bronc coming out chute number 5. The animal disappeared behind a cedar, but I felt good about the shot.

A deer lunges like that only when it’s hit, and hit hard. I couldn’t see the deer from the tower, but I gave the deer a moment to expire. No hurry now. Just on the other side of the brush, I say to myself, that buck will be piled up, a photo opp waiting to happen.

Or will it?

I nearly swallowed my teeth when I saw my dead deer walking through the brush on the other side of a dry creek bed. The big 8 was already 250 yards away. He was escaping!.

Right then, buck fever kicked me in the chest. Suddenly, I noticed brighter colors and sharper vision.

I had cranked another round into the chamber but couldn’t find the deer in my scope. Gasping, I cranked the scope back to 5x for a wider view, but still no buck. I raised my head from the scope and adjusted the frames on my prescription sunglasses.

There he was, walking between a clump of cedar and a stand of shinnery oak. He was 300 yards out and gaining ground. Fumbling with my binoculars, I tried to follow, with my mind racing.

Alas, it is a fleeting glimpse and I cannot find him in the scope. Again, I raised off the scope and, through sunglasses, scanned the opposite hillside for retreating hair and horns. No luck.

Frantic now, I set the rifle aside and shouted something you won’t find in the Boy Scout handbook. In desperation, I use binoculars scan the hillside. Aha, there he was again! Only this time, the buck was shrinking.

Now nearly a quarter mile away, he was walking steadily, showing no signs of slowing. Then he melted into the brush, swallowed by native habitat and my horror.

The Rolling Plains is an honest land, though not entirely generous. It once supported bison, antelope, ancient nomadic peoples then later, cattle drivers such as Charles Goodnight and eventually sparked the imagination of author Larry McMurtry, who created Gus and Cap’n Col in “Lonesome Dove. This is where Blue Duck lives. It is also where a deer hunter’s hopes could go to die.

I followed the blood trail but when it played out, I was left on a wind-blown hillside, alone with my thoughts.

Did I miss? Surely not. How does a guy whiff that shot?

I reviewed the shot over and over, self-doubt gnawing an ever-growing gap in my gut.

What went wrong? Have I blown this opportunity? Lease mate Trey Butler shot a good mule deer with a bow not far from here.

When a blood-trailing hound found the deer the next morning – 14 hours later — the carcass had been totally stripped from hoof to base of the skull. No hide, no meat, no entrails, only the antlers, still in velvet thus a fine trophy, remained intact.

Is my buck about to suffer the same fate?

Feeling weary as I came off my adrenalin rush, I texted son RobRoy and lease mate Jake Mase of Houston for help. When they arrived, I pointed out where each drop of blood had fallen, marking it with toilet tissue. When we ran out of tissue, we used RobRoy’s hat.

“Blood here!” someone would shout, and with a note of triumph, we would move the hat forward. Trouble was, the wind was gusting to 33 mph, dulling the senses and dusting the blood trail. Three hours later, the three of us were literally crawling the pasture on hands and knees, searching for the next sign. Progress, never fast, had come to a halt.

The last blood we found would scarcely cover the eraser of a pencil. We were stuck.

Decision time. Do we give up? Leave the deer to the coyotes? Defeated, I drove back to camp, feeling like a rookie, a rank amateur, for not dispatching the deer with a clean kill-shot.

Texas Parks and Wildlife projections indicate that licensed hunters will take a 600,000 whitetails and 10,000 mule deer this season. For once I wanted to be a statistic.

In all these years afield, I have never lost a deer, let alone the best 8 I have ever had in my crosshairs. I felt like we needed to go for broke. Out of respect for the game animal, especially a grand old mature buck of this quality, I owed it to the deer to give it one last try. I knew would cost me, but I made the phone call to summon a dog handler from nearby ranching community of Matador

We were about to play one more card — an ace named Stuart.

Veteran tracker, Stuart the bloodhound, poses for photos, a well-earned moment of recognition.

Veteran tracker, Stuart the bloodhound, poses for photos, a well-earned moment of recognition.

The moment the blood dog showed up in camp, I knew where I stood. Brady Watson of Wild West Outfitters in Matador opened the tailgate of his pickup, out jumped a redbone hound that was all ears, snout, paws and muscle, a reputation to go with it. Stuart made a bee-line for my pickup, hiked his right rear leg and ceremoniously peed on my back tire.

Local legend has it that Stuart is such a popular fixture in the ranching community of Matador (pop. 603), he is free to roam the city streets, unencumbered by leash or chain. As seen with my truck tire, everything Stuart does is large and in charge.

Watson asked for a general review of the events … who was the mullet who bogeyed the shot? approximate shot placement? how did the deer react? how long had the deer been at-large?

Somebody noted that scenting conditions – windy, dry and dusty – could not have been worse.

“That won’t matter to Stuart,” Watson said, shrugging himself into a backpack, loading his rifle and checking his portable GPS unit. He strapped Stuart into a sturdy harness-style leash and nodded. “Show me were you found first blood.”

With that, I directed Watson to one spot of blood the size of a quarter and a tiny red smear on a mesquite thorn about 10 feet away. While I stood back, Watson led Stuart to the two spots.

Short in the legs, long in the snout, Stuart is built for this, a Hoover uniquely fitted by Mother Nature to work close to the ground. He raised his head, let out one healthy waa-ooff, and Watson unhitched his partner.

“We’ll let Stuart work,” Watson said, “while you show me where you lost the blood trail.”

While Watson and I covered 300 yards to the first tissue paper signs, Stuart was free to roam. I had yet to reach the first trail mark when Stuart forged ahead.

Letting out an occasional woof, Stuart was locked in even before I could brief Watson on where we were headed. The dog, busily sniffing the brush, quartered across his own trail, back and forth, but moving ever forward. We mere humans had to hustle to keep up.

“This is the last of the blood you found?” Watson wondered. Stuart didn’t wait for the answer; he just sniffed his way past our last mark, then veered sharply south and uphill. Huh?

Not a chance, I’m thinking. No way that wounded deer would use the energy required to go uphill.

In 90 seconds, my skepticism was rewarded with another waa-ooff, Stuart circled a barren Texas persimmon tree, then ventured 20 yards east, 20 yards south, coming back to the tree. I figured it to be a waste of time.

Dog has lost the scent. Just then, Watson bended over to retrieve a single leaf, covered in blood. By then we were a good 250 yards south of where we last marked the trail.

Waa-ooff.

Barking in two syllables, Stuart disappeared over a rocky rise, with Watson in hot pursuit. I noticed Watson’s rifle was no longer on a sling, but in hand, ready for a quick shot.

Waa-ooff.

Huffing up the hill – so much for wounded deer taking the path of least resistance — I lost sight of the dog and his handler, but I could tell from his bark pattern, Stuart was getting hot.

Waa-ooffwaa-ooff.

Sixty seconds of silence was broken only by the whistle of the wind, rocks under my boots and, finally, the sound of Watson’s voice 200 yards ahead.

“Good boy, Stuart! Go-boooyyy!”

Waa-ooff.

As I came the hill, I arrived to find Stuart getting his just reward – a guzzle full of gray. Fur from my deer!

In 25 minutes, in the worst conditions, this 10-year-old so-called “coon hound” had found his 5st deer, this one a half-mile from where we had lost the trail.

Good boy, indeed.

Trail-cam photos show the 8-point buck in all his glory.

Trail-cam photos show the 8-point buck in all his glory.

Its handsome 4×4 rack still intact, this was one 8-pointer that did not suffer from ground shrinkage. Back in camp, son RobRoy ran the tape while sidekick Jake recorded the measurements on a cell phone app. From the trail cam photos, most had projected the gross Boone & Crockett score to be 135 to 140 total inches. Bingo. The actual count came to 137 3/8ths. The deer is by 20-plus inches better than any Hill Country 8 I ever took.

Thanks to Stuart and his keepers at Wild West Outfitters, what could have been an heart-wrenching disappointment turned into a memorable adventure. I am grateful for the experience, shared with family and friends.

Take-away lessons:

(1.) If you must take a quartering angle shot (full side is better), hold slightly forward of the front shoulder. The bullet path will break bone and travel through the lungs, resulting in a quick, clean kill.

(2.) Do not hesitate to contact your local trailing dog handler. Widely accepted throughout much of the nation, tracking dogs come in all breeds – everything from weiner dogs to Labs to heelers to big-running Catahoula leopards.

Mark S. McDonald, left, might take a larger deer some day, but for drama and ground-level experience, the afternoon with tracking dog Stuart the bloodhound and Brady Watson remains an all-time personal high for the author.

Mark S. McDonald, left, might take a larger deer some day, but for drama and ground-level experience, the afternoon with tracking dog Stuart the bloodhound and Brady Watson remains an all-time personal high for the author.

When desperate times call for desperate measures, you need a pro. Call on a tracking dog. A trained, well-seasoned blood dog, a four-legged filter for sights and sounds superfluous to its task, is worth the price of admission. For the dog handler in your hunting area, visit the website http://www.texasbloodtrackers.com.

Not every pursuit has a happy ending. But out of respect for the game animal and all it represents, I believe a sportsman or woman owes it to the deer to try. Maybe you agree.

Mark S. McDonald edits this website while working with his production team to create books for clients. He is currently writing a cautionary tale for parents of young baseball players and their coaches. “They Gave Us Baseball – Now Look What We’ve Done” will be released in 2015. However, writing must wait. McDonald is currently in the deer woods.

 

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