Just hours before the final deadline to put in for the last categories in the Texas Public Hunt Draw System I went back through all of my applications to be sure I had applied for what I wanted. That was when I realized I haven’t put in for any mule deer hunts. Since all of the mule deer hunts were way across Texas I decided to just put in for the hardest hunt to draw just to get the preference point. We already had 12 preference points accumulated in this category.
I saw that Elephant Mountain WMA had over 3,500 applicants last year and that there were only 4 permits available this season. Chances of us drawing two of those 4 available permits was beyond slim. Perfect. So, with minutes to spare, I completed the on-line form and sent it on its way.
A few days later I opened up my email to discover that we had miraculously been picked for the Elephant Mountain hunt! This would be my first mule deer hunt in over two decades and Steve’s very first try at a mule deer. Not to mention getting to see a new part of Texas. We were excited!
To add to the specialness, the first day of the hunt would be on my birthday.
Elephant Mountain is located in West Texas about 20 miles South of Alpine, Texas. Since Alpine was so close we elected to stay there instead of tent camping on the WMA.
The trip to Elephant Mountain would take us about 10 hours. Instead of driving it all at once we left a day early and drove to Sonora, Texas and stayed the night. The next day we drove the rest of the way to Alpine. The country there is rugged but beautiful with lots of wildlife.
Elephant Mountain WMA consists of over 23,000 acres. The mountain itself rises nearly 2,000 feet above the surrounding area. Ground level here still sits between 4,800 and 5,300 feet above sea level.
Vegetation is mostly desert scrub and grasslands with juniper, pinyon and oak trees scattered around and in larger pockets.
The first day of the hunt was clear, almost painfully bright, and only a little windy. After checking in we were assigned our compartment. Dewy Stockbridge, the Hunt Coordinator, told us that had seen a couple of decent bucks working a doe in our compartment. He showed us on the map where they were last seen and wished us the best.
For this hunt we would each be allowed one buck each. It could be a whitetail buck with no antler restrictions, or a mule deer buck. The mule deer had to have an outside spread of at least 18 inches or have two points or less on one side. We could also take one elk each if we happened to come across any. In addition we were allowed unlimited feral pigs and coyotes.
Our compartment was located on the “back side” or north side of Elephant Mountain. It was about a 20 minute drive through back roads, some of them pretty rough, to get to it.
Right after entering our compartment we came across these two whitetails. On almost any other public hunt that buck would be tempting and we could have easily taken him. But we were looking for mule deer bucks so this guy got a pass. Still…
Once we got to our area we drove to the furthest corner near where we thought those bucks had been seen the day before. Just as we were about to make a decision on where to go next Steve spots something BIG cross the road. We parked the truck and bailed out to see what it was he had glimpsed. After cresting a ridge we saw a very nice muley buck on the next ridge over. He was on a mission and walking steadily away. I tried to get closer and actually got within shooting distance twice but I was so winded from climbing the ridges I couldn’t steady my gun well enough to make a shot. And there was no way I was going to try a marginal shot or fancy neck shot. We tracked that buck for over a mile, up and over rocks, hills and ridges. He just wasn’t stopping.
I made the decision to go back to the truck and try to get in front of the buck. The truck was pretty far away at that point and we were tired. Remember, ground level there is almost a mile above sea level in places. For us coastal flat-landers the going was… well… slow.
We got back to the truck, eventually, and checked the maps to see if we could find a road near where the buck was heading. Since it had taken so long for us to return there was no telling if we would be able to find the deer again. We picked a road that looked likely and scraped our way in the general direction the buck was last seen.
Note to future hunters:
Take a 4WD truck that you are not worried about the paint job on. Just sayin’.
After the obligatory number of dead ends and wrong turns we finally found a road that looked to head in the general area of where we thought the deer might have been going. It was pretty much all guess work and prayers at that point.
Was I ever surprised to top a ridge and see the buck only a couple hundred yards away feeding in some scrub. Somehow we had stumbled across him again.
We parked the truck and began working our way into the wind to get into a better position to take a shot. The buck was slowly foraging up a ridge and unconcerned about our presence. He knew we were there, he just didn’t care. I closed the distance to about 75 yards but had to wait. I wanted a nice clear broadside shot and most of the time he had his hindquarters toward me. He finally turned and I let him have it. The shot was good!
At the sound of the shot the brush around the buck exploded with deer. Three other smaller bucks and a doe we hadn’t even seen came boiling out. They boinked their way to a distant hillside and disappeared.
Yep, I said boinked. Mule Deer have this way of pogo-stick hopping that is almost comical. It’s like they have springs on their feet. I’m telling you they boinked away. I swear I could hear it. Boing, boing, boing.
My buck ran about 50 yards before crashing. When we got to him I looked over to see a road not twenty yards away! And it was a good thing too because that deer was BIG. We are used to dealing with deer a bit smaller than this guy. A 100 pound buck was considered huge where we usually hunted and this fellow was pushing 200. We were not looking forward to dragging him all the way back to the truck. Now we wouldn’t have to. I gutted him then Steve brought up the truck. It still took both of us and a lot of grunting to load him up but we got it done. I had just killed my biggest mule deer buck ever! This was the first day and we had only been hunting about three hours.
We took my deer back to the check station to get it logged in. Having an electric hoist for processing and a walk in cooler to put your deer in afterwards is awesome!
Dewey, the hunt coordinator, had told us exactly where he had seen the deer the day before, we listened, and it paid off. We have learned to pay close attention to anything the hunt managers say. They are the ones who work the property all the time and know the animals and terrain intimately.
As he was looking over my deer, Dewy recognized it and said he was definitely one of the ones he had seen the day before. We told him about the other deer we had seen with my buck. Dewey said that the deer we had scared after the shot shouldn’t go far and that there was likely still a nice buck with them or close by. Our ears definitely perked up.
With my deer taken care of we headed back to try and find the deer we spooked and see if there was another good buck with them. Knowing where the deer went is one thing. Trying to find a road heading even remotely close to that direction is another. We finally found a road near the hillside where we last saw the deer. We got out and glassed for a long time before finally seeing a buck on a different ridge line. He was young and small but nice looking. He would likely be a very nice deer next season.
We watched him for a long time and then finally saw a second deer. It was a spike. Both bucks were intently watching a clump of juniper trees. We kept an eye on them and waited. When a doe walked out from behind the juniper we were pretty sure these were the deer we were after. Still there was no sign of anything bigger. Not discouraged we kept glassing. Finally we spotted a much larger deer. It had a huge body and the main beams were longer than it’s nose. But when it turned its head toward us it was evident that, while his antlers were indeed long, they were not near wide enough.
Dang it! After watching the deer bed down we decided to keep moving and see if we could find something a bit larger. The next ridge over held what we were looking for.
We had just parked the truck and Steve took his camera and headed out to get some nice shots of the area. I took my binoculars and glassed around. Within a few minutes I found a decent deer. He looked a lot like my buck. I called Steve over and he traded his camera for his gun. We spotted a couple more bucks and some does. Surely there was a big deer around. Then I saw him. A huge bodied buck with nice antlers walked out from behind some brush. He was definitely wide enough. He even had that white face older mule deer bucks got.
Steve didn’t hesitate and quickly settled the cross-hairs on him. One long slow breath out and he squeezed the trigger. The buck kicked and then dropped. While I congratulated Steve on his shot the buck got back up. Steve hit him a second time and the buck stumbled then went down for good.
Steve’s very first mule deer buck had a much bigger body than mine and, even though it doesn’t look like it, was wider. His buck came to rest far from the road but it was all downhill and it didn’t take too long to gut then load him up. And just like that we were done. The first day, with hours left, we had both gotten nice deer on public hunting land. ON MY BIRTHDAY!
Now that we had both gotten our deer, the next day we turned our attention to the possibility of taking an elk. Dewy told us that a small bull was often seen in our compartment and gave us some pointers on where to look. Steve had never even seen an elk in the wild and would love the opportunity to get his hands on one. Not to mention that they are very tasty.
It is at this point I would like to add a side plot to this story. The first night after the hunt I woke around 3 am to a sharp aching pain in my throat. The next morning my lungs were bubbling and my sinuses were on fire. I was miserable, coughing horribly and running a slight fever. It turns out that the predominant vegetation in our hunt area, and pretty much everywhere else, is juniper (Juniperus ashei) AKA “mountain cedar”. The day before, while huffing and puffing our way over hill and dale, I was sucking in huge lungfuls of the crap. This time of year it was in full “bloom” and blanketed the area in vast amounts of pollen. I was learning painfully that I am very allergic to juniper pollen. I would continue to suffer for several weeks afterward.
That second day the weather had turned, it was overcast, cold and the wind had picked up stirring up even more juniper pollen. Oh joy. The last thing I felt like doing was hiking all over that blasted mountain, breathing in even more of the accursed pollen, looking for an elk that may or may not be in our compartment. What I really wanted to do was go back to the hotel, climb into bed and curl up into an antihistamine induced coma. But let’s face it, we would probably never get a chance like this again. I would forever regret not trying my very best to find an elk for Steve. I could be miserable in the hotel or I could be miserable out hunting. The choice was obvious. Alas, the only animal we saw was a small whitetail buck which we almost stepped on before it took off. The weather had everything hunkered down and nothing was moving. We also didn’t see any elk sign despite covering most of our compartment. There weren’t even any tracks at the watering holes. It wasn’t looking good.
That day no deer were taken by other hunters. In fact very few hunters even saw a deer. We were very thankful we had taken our deer early since the forecast was calling for more of the same.
As we checked ourselves out that second night Dewey told us that he had seen a spike elk in a different compartment just that morning. No one was hunting that compartment so if we wanted to switch we could. We agreed.
The next day was more of the same. No deer, not that we were hunting for them, and no elk. Our new compartment had a deep mostly dry river bed running through it. We were told the elk love to use the river bed as a highway. We spent all of that day walking and glassing the entire stretch of river bed without so much as a glimpse of an elk. At least the view was nice.
We never did see an elk and Steve was pretty disappointed about that but we were both beyond happy to have gotten two gorgeous mule deer bucks.
A couple of other hunters also brought in great bucks and left with smiles on their faces. I will never forget this hunt, even though I was sick as a dog through most of it. If we ever have an opportunity to hunt this part of Texas again I know to take my allergy pills way ahead of time.
Thanks to Dewey Stockbridge and the rest of the staff at Elephant Mountain WMA. They did a great job and tried their very best to get every hunter on a decent buck. We are grateful for their hard work and give all credit for our success to them.
For more stories of our Texas Public Hunt Adventures go HERE.