SHACKELFORD COUNTY – I have been to two rodeos and a goat roping and I thought I had seen everything.
That was until last week while hunting northwest of Albany.
It was an annual trip to the Big Country to hunt management bucks, doe and any and every wild pig that poked its head out. At 15,000 acres the ranch is the little sister surrounded by bigger ranches of 25,000, 30,000 and more acres.
It is a hardscrabble piece of property especially after the most recent string of droughts. This is not the luxury ranch country of the Hill Country. There is no house and no barn dotting the landscape. There are only the live oaks and Spanish oaks sharing the skyline with the occasional pumpjack that since the 1940s has made old ranching families in the area wealthy.
Cattle are still the main business in the county, and they share miles of prairie grass with wildlife such as deer, turkeys, rabbits and wild pigs. This also used to be quail country, but in recent years bobwhites have become missing in action.
County roads can easily be mistaken as ranch roads and to get to one ranch you are likely to have to drive through a couple of others. Only gates along the road distinguish the end of one ranch and the beginning of another.
Two years ago I enjoyed one of the most remarkable hunts I had ever been on at the ranch. Hunting around Thanksgiving the timing was just right. Everywhere we stopped to rattle we brought in bucks. In some cases it was multiple bucks. Young deer. Big bruisers. They all came running.
Last year the weather was warm and windy from start to finish. This year it has been wet and cold.
If you want to make a rancher happy there is always one surefire gift you can bring that will get you invited back. Rain. And after one afternoon and one morning of hunting the rain came last week. Almost two inches fell at one rain gauge. On a 15,000-acre ranch it could be plus or minus at other spots. It seemed like a good steady rain though, the type any cowman would like.
Dallas outdoor writer Ray Sasser and I were spending the weekend hunting together. Sasser has been hunting the ranch a lot the last three years and has a pretty good handle on which of the only five or six existing stands are worth a sit.
Our first hunt was a blind on the far north end of the ranch. It was an adventure to get there, starting with a a long drive out of the ranch we were staying on, a longer drive through a portion of the ranch we were hunting, and an even longer drive through a neighboring ranch before getting back on ranch property to the blind.
The blind sat high on a ridge above a feeder located over a dry creek bed. The blinds location was a good spot no matter the wind. On the way we saw a big 8-pointer chasing a doe. In the blind we watched several bucks, but none were on the wildlife manager’s hit list.
With a blustery north wind causing temperatures and the wind chill to plummet as we drove out the next morning, we opted to hunt a patch of road that was freshly corned. Two more bucks on the hit list had been spotted there in recent days, but a full moon the night before changed feeding times from first light to mid-day.
With two strikes and the hardest of the rain approaching, we went north again that afternoon. The sky was grey and there was a mist in the air. Spotting conditions were terrible.
I scanned a horizon south of the blind and finally spotted a buck. It was a big deer, maybe the one that had been running the doe the morning before. I only got a glimpse of hit before it crossed over the top the other direction.
For most of the afternoon one 2 ½-year-old stood alone below the feeder eating up all the freebies.
Then from the west I watch as a pair of ducks swooped down along the dry creek bed. At first I didn’t think much about them because we had noticed new ducks coming in with the front. Then it got interesting when the swirled the feeder, flew off and back, off and back.
Through the binoculars I could tell they were wood ducks, and it was clear what they wanted to do. Sure enough they eventually lit in tree next to the feeder. When the buck moved to one side they hopped down and joined the corn buffet.
I have seen Mexican ducks come to a feeder in South Texas, but never have I seen it anywhere else. I never expected to see wood ducks in Shackelford County and certainly never expected them to buzz a feeder before sitting down.
Spend enough time in a deer blind and eventually you will see just about everything.
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