Lynn Burkhead — Sights, sounds & rewards for another deer season
As I’ve noted in this space before, there’s plenty of time to ponder the finer things of life when you’re sitting in a Texas deer stand.
And with the general season preparing to begin this weekend, with more than 5 million whitetails calling the state home, and with a generally good hunting campaign lying ahead for hunters, one of the finer things in life in 2021-22 is to have an unused deer tag in your back pocket.
Because if you do, you can choose how to spend it within the allowances of the law, either opting for antlerless deer headed for the freezer or a big buck or two headed for the wall. And with the sheer abundance of deer in the Lone Star State, you can actually do both each year between the Red River and the Rio Grande.
While my work has allowed me to occasionally sample deer hunting in a variety of other places across this great nation of ours, I always love being home in November and December.
Why? Because as much as I’ve enjoyed guarding a Midwestern ridge top, sitting in a stand overlooking a Great Plains’ brushy draw, or occupying a hide situated in a deeply timbered river bottom, there is gritty texture and unique flavor to this grand old outdoors game here in the Lone Star State.
All of which might help to explain exactly why I love deer hunting in Texas so much, quirks and all.
Truth be told, while I often dream of bowhunting big bucks elsewhere — I’m an outdoor writer, after all — if I had only one deer hunt left in this lifetime, I would take my final stand somewhere across my home turf.
Why is that you might ask? Because in my humble opinion, deer hunting in Texas is the best that there is, a woodsy smorgasbord of the following sights, sounds and thoughts:
* It’s a remote deer camp at the end of a bumpy, dusty and dirt choked road. The late Dallas Morning News outdoors columnist Ray Sasser once wrote that the best deer camps in the state were at the end of such remote lanes. After more than three decades chasing these critters, I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s absolutely right.
* The absence of light pollution in the Big Bend country as the presence of uncountable stars silently blaze overhead in the Milky Way Galaxy. It’s some of God’s most glorious handiwork at its very best.
* The smell of wood smoke, either from a crackling campfire on a cold night or from sizzling rib eyes grilling to medium-rare perfection over the glowing coals of a mesquite wood fire.
* Campfire tales of legendary bucks, the regret of a missed opportunity, fond recollections about a favorite bow hunt or even a passionate debate centered on what the best deer hunting rifle caliber and bullet combination might be.
* Hurriedly climbing up the stairs of a tower blind as the sky begins to blush pink on the eastern horizon and the corn feeder threatens to noisily go off.
* Having to stop at a convenience store — an Allsup’s bean burrito, anyone? — to make sure you’ve got enough bags of ice to bury the inside of a YETI cooler, cover up the fresh venison laying within, and to keep the headbones of a big buck chilled until you can reach your taxidermist’s shop.
* Sitting in a tree stand high up in a red oak tree as autumn acorns rain down to the ground and sound the dinner bell for hungry whitetails. Not to mention the angry fox squirrel scolding you for intruding upon his private chow hall.
* Chocolate colored horns in the southern counties and lightly hued tan antlers up north.
* Wind driven snow and 32 degrees in the state’s Panhandle and a sultry 90 degree afternoon down in Laredo on the very same December day.
* Stopping by the Los Cazadores’ deer contest headquarters in Pearsall to enter the world’s biggest deer contest and to check out the latest leaderboard update and monster buck photographs.
* Winning a highly prized Los Cazadores awards jacket for a big buck that you have entered into the contest. Or maybe an ATV, a new deer rifle, or some Sitka Gear hunting duds at some other big buck contest.
* Spotting various outdoors television celebrities and their film crews at a local mom-and-pop café as they come to town to film an Outdoor Channel or Sportsman Channel TV show.
* Possessing an invite to the best deer camp in Texas, the legendary and vast King Ranch where dozens and dozens of low-fenced Boone & Crockett caliber bucks roam the coastal plains and brush country near Kingsville.
* Tripods and tower blinds in the South Texas brush country, elevated plywood box blinds in the state’s central Hill Country, ladder stands in the Red River Valley of North Texas and climbing tree stands in the eastern Pineywoods region.
* Aggressive horn rattling on a crisp December day in the South Texas brush country as you try to pick a fight with a testosterone crazed Muy Grande sized whitetail buck looking for love.
* A crowd of onlookers gathering at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge, looking into the bed of a pick-up truck to see if an heir-apparent to the famed “Big Boy” and “Mr. Big” monster bucks that once roamed the refuge have been tagged on a cool November day by a lucky bowhunter in the right place at the right time.
* Summer evenings spent flinging broadheads at a 3-D deer target or an early fall Saturday afternoon spent at the gun range sighting in your .270, with the help of a Lead Sled. The latter with the weekend’s University of Texas Longhorns’ football game blaring on the radio, Craig Way manning the play-by-play call of the game, of course.
* A frosty November dawn as a grunting buck puts his nose down to the tan colored caliche filled ground as he trails an estrous doe like a bird dog with a big snootful of bobwhite quail.
* Deer camp grub: five-alarm chili, sizzling steaks, traditional scrambled egg migas, buttermilk pancakes, ranch-style beans and a few Vienna sausages washed down by water, camp coffee, or your favorite cold beverage. Don’t tell the cardiologist, because what happens at deer camp stays at deer camp, right?
* The “Golden Triangle” of the South Texas brush country, some of the world’s best whitetail hunting spots in places like Dimmit, LaSalle, Maverick, Webb and Zavala counties.
* Picking prickly pear cactus spines out of your tender backside because you didn’t pay close enough attention to where you were sitting down to rest for a spell.
* The busy Friday night before the season starts — honestly, it feels a bit like Christmas Eve — in small deer-rich Texas communities like Lufkin, Quanah, Strawn, Throckmorton, Llano, Mason, Fredericksburg, Pearsall, Cotulla, Encinal, Laredo and Eagle Pass to name a few.
* Listening to the radio broadcast of a Friday Night Light’s high school football playoff game from one of those Texas deer hunting towns as you sit around the campfire. Thanks to today’s Smartphones, you can even listen in for a game involving the Denison Yellow Jackets, the Sherman Bearcats, the Gunter Tigers or the Pottsboro Cardinals!
* “Corning” a sendero the next morning with a sack full of the little gold nuggets before you climb into a pre-dawn stand.
* Watching early morning rush-hour whitetail traffic develop around a congested Hill Country feeder as it spins out a pile of kernels onto the ground that lies in several counties to the west of Austin and northwest of San Antonio.
* A nervous deer camp scoring session to see if a hard-won buck is a Boone & Crockett Club, Pope & Young Club or Texas Big Game Awards program contender. Or if the dreaded scourge of ground shrinkage, a common ailment in many a Texas deer camp, is on the loose again.
* An excited crowd gathering around the back of a pick-up truck at the local venison processing plant where a grinning hunter begins to tell his big buck tale as a collection of smart-phones begins to record it all for posterity’s sake.
* Walking into a local convenience store to buy ice and supplies. All the while wearing the official Texas fall hunting camp uniform, a camo outfit comprised of either Sitka Gear’s OptiFade patterns, Realtree’s EDGE pattern, Mossy Oak’s Treestand or Brush offering, or the locally inspired Brush Country or Bushlan camo duds.
* A bundled-up pre-dawn ride to a stand location aboard a four-wheeler. Or better yet, a hike that builds up some sweat equity, moisture that will soon have a hunter’s teeth chattering as he or she climbs into a stand and sits down in the chilly pre-dawn gloom.
* Squirrels barking, Rio Grande turkeys gobbling, sandhill cranes and their mysterious melody, snow geese with their high-pitched honks, bobwhite quail whistling on a hillside and mourning doves whipping about, all as you guard a woodsy bottleneck filled with deer traffic.
* Legendary stand locations with both big antlered histories and a good name told by a great story.
* Stand names on a camp map like the I-35 blind, Amen Corner, the San Antone Hilton, the Judge’s Bench and Convict Station.
* The Texas-wide smile of a youngster after they have tagged their very first buck.
* Fresh venison backstrap from that buck soon sizzling on the grill or being chicken-fried in an iron skillet.
* Watching one Texas deer season begin, another one end and all the while counting down the days until you can do it all over again.
So, there you have it. From Dalhart to Brownsville, from El Paso to Texarkana and from Denison to Laredo, those are a few of the sights, sounds and thoughts — in my feeble mind, at least — that continue to make Texas deer hunting such a tough act to follow.
And if you don’t mind — and if you will politely excuse me — I’m about to sign off and go climb in a bowhunting stand to see if I can figure out another reason or two.
Because there’s so very much to like about deer hunting, especially the deer hunting found deep in the heart of Texas. Or even the opportunities right here in our own Grayson County backyard.
Have a great deer season, everyone!