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Hunting axis deer in Texas ...

By Mike Leggett
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

STONEWALL Just 20 steps taken, and the hunter no longer could see the black pickup he'd parked under a huge live oak just beyond the gate off the county road.

That didn't matter, though, and he looked back only that one time. He knew his destination though he'd been there just once to set up the blind. Even in total darkness he could negotiate the 500 yards almost with his eyes closed, not because he was some super hunter but because some hunting spots are that way, easy finds that don't require flashlights.

Dew that hung from newly sprung croton soaked through the hunter's sneakers and eddied up between his toes. The wool socks became an icky, slippery second skin that would have been just plain miserable had the temperature been 10 degrees cooler.

It was way before daylight and half an hour before the feeder was supposed to go off. It was late September, a couple of weeks before the start of the 2009 early archery season but still open hunting for exotics, like the axis bucks Hayes Pitts had been seeing on his family ranch here in the Hill Country about 55 miles west of Austin. "You gotta come kill this big buck, Bubba," Pitts had said. "I've got the perfect spot for you, and, if you don't get him, somebody else will when the (regular) season opens."

Moving slowly along the edge of a small drainage, the hunter found the tree that was his left turn way point and was just about to cut north to his blind when an axis barked. They're adept at avoiding tigers and leopards in their native India where they are known as chital so a veteran hunter, even one who is moving slowly and quietly, isn't much of a challenge. The hunter couldn't see them, but he could hear dozens of hooves pounding off into the darkness.

Immediately, other axis deer answered the alarm call with barks of their own and that set off the whitetails. Their wheezing and snorting could be heard from every compass point.

Busted. The axis had been standing there, waiting for the corn feeder to go off, and when they spooked, they'd scattered everything within half a mile. Half an hour early wasn't early enough.

The Pitts Ranch borders LBJ State Park on one side, which means whitetails along with axis and blackbuck antelope, parts of free-ranging herds that have established themselves along the edge of the Pedernales River, are pretty much everywhere.

The first chance was gone but the hunter figured he was there and might as well climb inside the blind to wait.

Inside the camouflage blind, sitting on his swivel stool, the hunter stripped out the mesh lining on the windows. He'd never been able to make himself shoot through that flimsy cloth, even though everybody said it worked. He'd take cover in a corner and hope he couldn't be seen. But the first deer that came a young whitetail buck that appeared like a wraith 150 yards away stood looking at the blind for the longest time.

Though he came closer, within 75 yards at one point, neither the buck nor any of the herd of does and fawns behind him, ever came within bow range, not that it mattered. The hunter marveled at the way his stomach lurched and his heart pumped a little faster when the adrenaline hit his system at the sight of the buck. It wasn't a deer he'd ever shoot, and it wasn't even bow season, but something about those wonderful animals could always make him happy to be alive.

He was considering that aspect of hunting when the sounds started, the almost-dawn tape of animal calls that's always waiting there for the hunter who hasn't scorched his eardrums with too many shotgun shells. Even over the increasing drone of traffic out on Highway 290, the animal sounds prevailed:

Roosting doves in the live oaks overhead, flapping their wings to dry them before they headed out to face another day along the shotgun gauntlet. Screech owls two of them yodeling and marking their final hunting spot. "I'm spending the day over here." Maybe they'd caught a mouse and intended to have breakfast before dozing off with the dawn. A rooster crowing and a crow cawing. Bulls bellowing and way off, something that sounds like the half-laugh, half-bray of a zebra.

The hunter waits out dawn. He watches a boar coon scooting along the ground, headed for a den in a hollow oak. Through the binoculars, behind the ambling coon, a red blotch shows 200 yards to the northeast. White spots, which are meant to camouflage and confuse, burst into view through the lenses, identifying it as an axis.

It's funny, he thinks. Paint those spots on a buffalo or a horse, and it would look just silly and out of place. On an axis, actually on 15 of them that now wander feeding beneath a canopy of oaks, the white spots are nature's perfect paint job. "Beautiful," the hunter says aloud.

And they are, even as the herd moves back east, back toward the park, exactly on the same trail they used to work into easy gun range but a ridiculous bow prospect. Then they're gone. The hunter quietly gathers his gear and walks back to his truck. Day over but a wonderful day after all.




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