I drew a buck license on the Purgatorie Ranch RFW hunt last October and wanted to share my insights. It began in 2012 before the application process. I had 13 points and like most of us, wanted a chance at a once in a lifetime deer. After looking over all of the options, I settled on the Purgatorie ranch for three primary reasons. The first was the ranch allowed you to camp on property. Second, was they had whitetail, and third was my initial conversation with the RFW manager; Steve Wooten. After we were done talking, I had the feeling that he was very forthright about what to expect. He said to let him know as soon as I drew and he would set aside an area where there were whitetails. He also said I would have access to the entire ranch (not just my assigned area) and he said the typical deer taken on the ranch was mid 160s but there were certainly bigger. It was one of those conversations that ended with a good feeling. I didn’t apply in 2012 because of the drought and wanted some more time to think about it before spending all of those points. So after a year of thinking about it and gambling that the drought would relent a little, I applied in 2013 and drew. I called Steve and briefly re hashed the conversation from last spring. Bada bing, bada boom, I was set for a hunt of a lifetime.
The Steve sent paperwork with ranch rules, releases, my assigned area with point of contact, and a rudimentary map. Prugatorie RFW ranch is basically a big horseshoe shape (comprised of several smaller ranches), open end to the south. I was assigned to the Jackson ranch; in the SE portion. I called my point of contact arranged a meeting time, place, and discussed what I would need to move around the ranch. He said I didn’t need a map but I printed one off of my topo and was very glad I did. They had maps but not detailed or useful with a GPS.
I arrived late afternoon on Friday; the season started the next morning. The ranch owner drove me around and showed me some likely spots to look and a place to camp. My initial impression was disappointment. This portion of the ranch had been chained. That is the process of tearing out the trees with a huge chain strung between two bulldozers. Afterward, the trees are burned leaving sterile earth in places and large charred stumps. The next morning I walked to a place on the cap rock that overlooked a large valley. I glassed all morning and didn’t see a deer. I was beginning to realize there was much “better” terrain; places that had not been chained. Interestingly, the valley floors had green grass and I don’t think any part of the ranch is more than a half mile form a water source. After sitting in the AM, I drove around midday to get a better fell for the terrain and likely places to glass. The options to sit and glass on the ranch were endless and really, every place I looked, looked as though there should be deer visible especially when taking the time to glass early morning and into the dark. After a couple days of this and not seeing many deer I began to get concerned. In spite of the great terrain, there simply were not many deer and very, very few bucks (nothing bigger than a forkie). I stopped by the ranch after a morning hunt just to check in and say hi. After discussing my lack of success, the owner said to come back that evening and we would take a ride so I did. The owner brought along the ranch hand and the extra eyes were certainly helpful. Just driving around we did see several deer, a few smaller bucks, and one decent 4pt but the general consensus was we could do better. Next AM I continued my search but with no success. That afternoon I took a break from hunting and asked if I could help provide some labor on the stone meat house they were building which they gladly accepted and put me to work “chinking” the space between the stones with a mud/cement mix. I was glad to help, clear my mind from the disappointing hunting, have some company, be part of something that was going to outlast me, and learn about stone building. That evening we took another trip with the ranch hand, and the stone mason and again saw a couple deer and the same 4pt in the same location from the day before. Still, nothing to shoot. I asked the ranch hand if other people had better luck. He said several interesting things. The first was that most “public hunters” (read RFW hunters) only allocated a few days to hunt and many went home empty handed. He also said that the condition of the range was significantly and almost unimaginably better this year than it had been in the past 50+ years. The ranch took all of the cattle off and had worked hard to try to improve the habitat for the deer. He said that last year everything you see that has grass now was just dirt then. The ranch was really working hard to get the population of the deer to come back up. Well, that explained why I wasn’t seeing the deer numbers you would expect on such fantastic looking land. And, would have been nice to know before applying.
The next day was a repeat of the day before except in the AM, I drove 20 miles to check out a different part of the ranch. I saw 6 does the whole time…40 miles round trip and covered some fantastic country. Then, back to my midday chinking responsibilities in lieu of a nap.
So by now, I had spent several mornings and evenings glassing from the cap rock and overlooking miles and miles of canyon bottoms and opposite side hills. Walking (still hunting) miles along the edges. Driving and glassing and just plain old driving and looking. I was up and in position (wherever I decided to be) well before dark and stayed out until well after dark. I was hunting hard and I believe right. I was now in my 6th day and still had not seen a deer that I would expect to see in a unit that takes 13 years to draw.
That evening, the owner said we needed to go look again so all 4 of us piled into the farm Suburban and off we went. I had decided that after this much time (I only had 4 days left) and not seeing any really nice bucks that if the 4pt we had been seeing gave me a 3rd chance I would take it with my 300 Savage. I like hunting with old guns so that was the gun of the evening hunt. We drove to several “new” places, glassed and didn’t see any animals and finally just at dark, came up on the cactus patch that the 4pt had been hanging out in. Sure enough, he was there and it was as easy as getting gout of the front seat, chambering a round and making a 100 yard shot. Very anti climatic (ranch style hunting) but exciting to have used an interesting old gun. The antlers were exactly as wide as the ears and about as tall. He scored mid 150s. Very nice shape but not a lot of mass. So, I settled and didn’t get that once in a lifetime deer…which is exactly what happens when you settle…and I knew it. In my defense, there just were not that many deer and this was the only one that was even in the ball park as far as mature deer went. So, there you have it.
Bottom line to all of this is that in spite of spending all of these points and having access to more land than you could possibly hunt in 5 seasons it’s never a sure thing. On this ranch, you will have to work hard to find deer (at least in the near future), much less a once in a life time trophy. If you are looking for a hunt that is undisturbed by other people, lots of great country and some nice deer, and especially really nice people, then this is the hunt for you. If your expectations are to spend 5-6 days glassing several really nice deer before deciding which one to go hunt, this isn’t the hunt for you. It was certainly a bitter sweet hunt. I really, really enjoyed getting to know the ranch, and the camaraderie of working with the mason and the ranch hand. It was nice to use an old gun and to actually harvest a deer. It was very disappointing that there weren’t more deer to look over and the general lack of really mature high quality deer. The DOW warned that these eastern hunts don’t have the density of some of the mountain units but this really isn’t a plains hunt, it’s some of the best deer habitat that a deer hunter could dream of.
Hope this helps anyone that is considering this hunt. If anyone has any questions, let me know.