Seeing deer in western Texas usually doesn’t present much of a problem, but stalking close enough for a killing shot, even with a high-powered rifle, may create a major challenge.
In the open country of west Texas, hunters frequently spot more than 100 deer a day, often miles away. Many eastern hunters can barely see anything more than 40 yards way in thick forests. Unlike their eastern counterparts, deer hunters in western Texas seldom climb into tree stands since they usually can’t find trees big enough to support them where scattered scrubby cedar brushes scarcely six feet high create the only green specks dotting the everlasting rocky gray and brown landscape.
Instead, deer hunters in west Texas frequently climb into four-wheeled drive trucks to scout for deer over huge areas. After seeing a “shooter” buck from the truck, hunters get out and plan a stalk. Getting within range may require considerable effort.
In west Texas mesa country, whitetail and mule deer populations overlap. Whitetails prefer to stay in thickly brushed canyon bottoms, along creek beds and in cedar thickets. When a whitetail deer senses danger, it often kicks in its four-footed overdrive and flees at high speed. Sportsmen frequently see little more than a white flash of tail fur as the deer vanishes into thick brush or over the rims of what seem like impassable cliffs.
On the other hand, muleys prefer open cliffs, high mesas and rugged country. Many sportsmen walk along canyon rims, scanning with binoculars for movement. Mule deer often lie down just below canyon rims on slopes that shouldn’t support any movement except downward.
Instead of running and making itself a visible target, a mule deer typically freezes and hides in the thickest cover it can find while watching for whatever spooked it. Even when aware of a human in the vicinity, a muley may remain motionless until it believes the danger has passed. This trait often makes them easier to stalk than quickly fleeing whitetails.
On a massive ranch south of Fort Stockton, Texas, and about 20 miles north of the border, Frank Cusimano and I hunted along steep rimrock canyons and atop mesas in brutal, biting winds one cold morning. With Frank about 10 yards in front of me and looking toward the left, I spotted a good buck, possibly a muley, looking at us from the right. It hid on the side of a steep canyon wall in thick cover about 30 yards in front of Frank. When we approached the rim to scan with binoculars, it stuck its head out of the cover, but quickly disappeared. Frank never saw it.
We crept around the canyon rim to try to cut off his escape, but couldn’t move quickly enough. It and two does disappeared over a canyon rim several hundred yards away before we could manage a shot. How it ran that far, that fast along the face of a rocky, brush-filled vertical slope virtually without making a sound I cannot imagine.
That afternoon, we rode over the backroads with our guide and spotted a good muley about 100 yards away near a water tank. In arid west Texas, many hunters seek deer near any water holes they can find. Some ranchers create waterholes by erecting windmills to pump water from deep below ground into tanks or natural depressions. Finishing its drink, the mule deer buck loped off around a hill and disappeared.
Our guide drove around the back side of the hill, hoping to cut off the deer. We didn’t see it, but decided to climb the hill for a good look around the area. Frank spotted the buck walking about 600 yards away off to the right through some sparse cedar clumps. True to mule deer habits, it found some cover it liked under a cedar bush and bedded down, looking right at us skylined atop the hill.
“There’s no way we can stalk him while he’s looking at us,” Frank advised.
“Let’s use that to our advantage,” I suggested. “You stay highly visible on this hilltop and keep his attention. I’ll sneak down the side of the hill and come around him from behind. If I don’t get a shot, maybe at least it will push the deer toward you. Let’s hope mule deer can’t count.”
“It’s worth a shot,” he replied.
As planned, I descended the hill off to the left to make the long, roundabout stalk. The buck kept keenly focused on Frank, remaining conspicuously visible on the hilltop. It didn’t notice me.
At the bottom of the hill, thick cedar bushes made visibility extremely difficult. It resembled a Christmas tree lot with the thickest branches right at eye level. I lost track of exactly where the buck hid, but Frank could clearly see it still looking at him on the hilltop.
I kept watching Frank through my binoculars to see where he was looking with his binoculars. As I approached where I thought the deer hid, I overshot it. Frank, still on the hill, waved his hands like a cheerleader to indicate the direction to go where the deer still hunkered down under its bush. I reversed direction.
About 50 yards away, the deer bolted from his hideout and ran into a scrub cedar thicket. Out of breath from the long stalk and shaking with excitement, I chanced a quick standing shot as the deer loped away through heavy brush. I missed cleanly, but the deer didn’t zoom away like a whitetail. It disappeared behind some other cedar clumps.
I followed in the direction it ran and spotted him again. This time, he walked quartering away from right to left. If he continued in that direction, he would pass behind a thick cedar clump. As quickly as possible, I raced for the clump and created an ambush point behind a small cedar bush where I could see an opening in the thicket.
I could hear the deer walking across the rocky soil in the thicket. Invisible behind the small bush, I dropped to one knee and pointed the Winchester Model 70 toward the opening in the thicket. I didn’t wait long.
About 60 yards away, the buck stepped into the small opening, turned broadside and stopped to look in my general direction. It never saw me. Moments later, a 130-grain, .270-caliber slug smacked into the deer’s shoulder. The bullet passed through both lungs and exited the other side, dropping the buck instantly in its tracks.
“When I saw that deer jump up and heard the first shot, I thought that was the end of it,” Frank said after climbing down the hill to join me at my first deer kill. “If that had been a whitetail, you would never have seen it again. I followed the buck the whole way with the binoculars, but lost sight of you. Then, I saw the deer fall, and I thought it was just lying down and hiding again. Moments later, I heard the shot and said, ‘All right, Felsh, got him!’”
My first mule deer buck carried a perfectly symmetrical 10-point rack, which measured 18 inches across. The 5.5-year-old buck weighed about 120 pounds dressed and now adorns my den as a reminder of great friendship and a wonderful adventure.
Story by John N. Felsher