The Manchurian Forests of Texas
Having hunted Clayton Nieman's family's ranch before, I knew that it was an oasis for free ranging exotics such as axis, sika, and fallow deer. How I had managed not to harvest an exotic during my previous visit was a question I was still mulling over and over in my head. Regardless of my luck, my usual hunting partner Joel O'Shoney had been successful on our past visit and offered to help do everything within his power to help me do the same during this hunt.
Sitting two hours drive southwest of Austin and in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, Clayton's ranch is a regular freeway of exotic activity. Throughout the years axis, sika, and fallow deer, aoudad, and wild hogs had all been spotted on the ranch. With no high fences to restrict movement, animals come and go as they please. Only sika deer have remained to establish a permanent presence.
Originally spreading in range throughout Asia, from northern Siberia to southern Japan, the first introduced herds of sika deer adapted well to the varying Texas landscape. Through accidental release and escape the deer quickly multiplied and spread throughout the state. This proliferation was so widespread that by 1996 the Texas Agricultural Statistics Service estimated that sika and other exotics ranged freely through more than a hundred counties.
Like most deer, sika spend a great deal of their time hidden, venturing out only to feed and travel to the next safe haven. Being a medium sized deer and dark in color, sika easily blend into the shadows and sunless recesses among trees and scrub. The sika on Clayton's ranch were no different. This made hunting them difficult but not impossible. On our previous hunt Joel had taken a nice buck after three days of hard hunting. This time, it was my turn.
The area of the ranch we'd be hunting was a myriad of topography. Deep valleys of Escarpment oak and thick scrub brush spider-webbed and cut through the property, forming hidden thoroughfares between and around higher island plateaus of grasses and browse. In some areas large plates of shale and flint littered the ground, making movement by foot complicated and ankle threatening in addition to possibly giving an early and audible warning to any attempted stalk.
The plan was to hunt safari style; driving the almost non-existent roads that skirted the high ground in search of signs or an off chance sighting before venturing out on foot. With Clayton opting not to hunt, Joel and I hit the property shortly before midmorning, greeted by sunny skies and an ever increasing temperature. Although February, the forecast called for the mercury to hit just below seventy.
Despite the warmth, the land still mirrored winter's harsh bleakness. Grasses were yellow and brittle and oaks, although starting to bud, still resembled bleached and twisted skeletons. Cedar trees that had been cut years earlier lay dried and rotting in jumbled piles or rows.
"What we got here?" Joel questioned, stepping fast on the truck brakes. He gestured a low plain on the far side of a valley to our left.
I quickly brought my binoculars up and glassed through a maze of trees to the far opening. Fifteen to twenty sika does fed quietly at the inner edge of trees, momentarily unaware of our presence.
"No bucks yet," I mused aloud.
"Don't see any either," Joel responded before a succession of loud, shrill chirps brought the harem to attention.
Answering the warning, the females quickly darted into the safety of the valley forest below, giving Joel and I our first hint of the hunt at hand. By the first beginnings of dusk the act had presented itself half a dozen times over. We'd see harem groups of as many as thirty does feeding just beyond the safety of the forest before a shrill warning cry brought them to attention and sent them scrambling for safety.
Shortly before dusk the decision was made to try a different tactic. We hurried back to the ridge of our first spotting, leaving the truck below a low rise and well out of sight. With the haziness of nightfall barreling upon us, we quickly ambled across the uneven landscape to within ten yards of the valley's closest ledge. Through a far maze of oaks we could just make out a leash of about fifteen does and two small spikes.
"Here comes daddy," Joel excitedly whispered, after a few moments of heavy glassing. "Coming in on the left."
Seemingly appearing out of nowhere, the patriarch slowly lumbered through a labyrinth of brush toward the open plain.
"He looks good," Joel continued.
"Smart too," I commented, noting how he stopped just shy of the open grasses. "Can't get a shot from here."
Favoring the deer, darkness fell quickly, blending dark bodies, brush, and antlers into one. Our first day of hunting was gone.
We returned to the ranch house empty handed, sunburned, and tired but full of ideas and better plans for the following day. Clayton was waiting on the patio, beer in hand.
"Where's the trophy?"
"He's still out there," I replied grabbing a bottle out of the cooler for myself.
"Always tomorrow, I guess," Clayton joked.
Eagerly working my beer, I commented on the increased skittishness of the animals. Even the ranch's few goats and sheep we'd seen seemed unusually flighty. Clayton referenced his step-father when he speculated that a recent rash of killings might be to blame. For the past few weeks lambs and kids were turning up slaughtered, the apparent work of predators. Although coyotes had been a slight nuisance in the past, this year was much worse.
"So the old man says he'll pay ya' for any coyotes you pop," Clayton announced, grabbing another beer.
A dinner of steak, asparagus, and grilled scallops temporarily took my mind off the day's success rate and rightly turned it towards an appreciation of having a day in the field and spending time with friends. We spent the night telling lies, drinking Mexican beer, and swapping hunting stories. The early morning hours of predawn found Joel and me much too quickly.
We hit the field with a renewed sense of vigor and it wasn't long before we spotted our first buck. A huge eight point, looking more like a shortened elk from our vantage point, crossed an opening two valleys over. Deciding he was well worth the effort, we slowly began making our way toward the far plain. The going was tough and made even more difficult by steep canyon walls littered with loose rock. One misplaced step would inadvertently begin a symphony of crashing rock, alerting anything in the area of our presence.
Crossing the next rise we came across a huge rub telling us, and anything else that took notice, of whose area we were in. We continued through the next valley, coming up on the plain just in time to see the miniature elk and his-until that point unseen--even larger friend disappear into the next depression. Disappointed, we decided to continue skirting the valley in search of any other opportunities.
For the next few hours we walked the meandering valleys occasionally edging upward to glass the semi-open plateaus. We came across plenty of sika and axis does but never saw any bucks. With the sun reaching its midpoint and our stomachs beginning to complain, we decided to cross back to the truck for a quick lunch. En route we came across the possible cause of extra skittish animals and slaughtered livestock.
Worn halfway up a steep cliff of sheer limestone and accessible by only a narrow ledge, the cave stood guard over a wide bend in the valley peppered with small trees and a littering of large rocks. Curiosity and stupidity getting the best of me, I scuttled as close to the cave as I could for a better look. As usual, my long time hunting buddy was there to offer support.
"I'll be sitting over here where I have a better view to watch you fall."
Unfortunately my effort was for not. Although the dry, dusty entrance to the small cave had signs of obvious use I was unable to find any prints or other telltale signs of what had been using it. Joel initially scoffed at my suggestion of "cougar" until we encountered the skeletal remains of two whitetail deer in the area the cave overlooked. At this discovery Joel gave me a hearty "maybe so."
After a quick lunch of cold cuts, cheese, and fruit we loaded up the truck and headed to the far side of the property, hoping for better luck. For fifteen minutes we bounced, shook, and were generally thrown around the truck's interior trying to navigate the pock marked road. Once our brains stabilized, we headed into the wind on foot.
We had barely topped a small rise when we spotted a good sized buck one valley over and below us. Glassing the feeding male showed him to be a fairly tall and fully developed 8 point. Here we go again.
Continuing into the wind, we crossed the valley before us diagonally, hoping to intercept the animal before he entered the next island of trees. The descent was made fairly easy by the lack of any heavy vegetation--we only had to contend with rocks--but the climb up was another matter. The top ridge was littered with the skeletal remains of dozens of cedar trees; each one bleached, brittle, and intertwined into a breastwork that guarded the upper plateau. Unable to see the top or the buck we continued onward, trying not to make any noise and hoping for the best.
We had just breached the top when several shrill chirps suddenly broke the silence. A half a dozen does bolted forty yards ahead of us, bounding for the safety of the trees to our left. The heavy buck crowded after them, pausing long enough to search out the cause of danger.
"He's a good one," Joel barked, offering his judgment.
I slammed into an oak and braced my brand new Remington 700 BDL .270 tight against it. The buck lunged forward just as I fired. The bullet struck him just behind the front shoulder, momentarily knocking him slightly off balance before he resumed flight. I hammered another round into the chamber and followed him in my scope, hoping for another shot. With the ease of a wraith, the wounded patriarch disappeared into the shadows and relative darkness of the trees.
After collecting my breath and arguing about where and how well I'd hit the animal with Joel, we began what we hoped would be an easy follow up. Despite a rear lung shot, the buck had made it through the trees and into a dry gully that lay just beyond. For a free range Japanese-Manchurian mix, he was an excellent trophy and a great reminder of a time well had. And as Joel and I discovered halfway up the gully, much, much heavier than he appeared.
Locating a Hunt
Finding a hunt for free range sika isn't hard, but it does require a great deal of time and effort. Ranchers in Central and South Texas that are lucky enough to have herds inhabiting or traveling through their property are well aware of the animal's value. Prices for hunts can range from $150 for does to over a thousand dollars for a mature buck. Although this may sound steep, consider that the going rate for trophy bucks on game ranches is upwards of $3,000. Animals on game ranches have a ready supply of protein feed, well maintained habitat, and ample water. Free range animals don't. Because of this trophy size differs greatly. Sika on game ranches have antlers towering close to 30 inches tall. For free range animals 14 inches is phenomenal.
The best place to start looking for a free range hunt is online. Many guides and ranchers have taken to advertising on the internet. Hunts for sika can occasionally be found on auction sites for between $400 and $500.
The local Chamber of Commerce is also a good place to start. Even if the chamber doesn't have information on offered hunts, they can certainly point you in the right direction by giving you numbers to the local newspaper, ranch co-op, sporting goods store, or taxidermist. Check out www.lone-star.net/mall/main-areas/chamber/chambers.htm for a listing of most chambers in the state.
- Exotics such as sika are legally hunted year round in Texas. Try a spring or summer hunt (avoid whitetail deer season) for the best prices.
- Unlike whitetail deer, sika shed their antlers at various times throughout the year. Be sure to ask about the state of antler growth when making plans.
- Sika range between 100 and 240 pounds. Any deer rifle calibers above .270 are more than adequate. As most hunts are spot and stalk, good optics can make all the difference. Scopes with a lit reticle or center dot are also beneficial as sika are dark in color and tend to hide in thick brush.