We had worked side by side for the better part of 20 years, yet we were as different as a Carolina summer and a Minnesota winter. But Art Carr and I did share two great passions: To make Sporting Classics the best magazine it could be and whenever we could, to hunt big whitetails – Especially South Texas Whitetails. Prior to his shockingly unexpected death 18 months ago. Sporting Classics publisher Art Carr has hunted and fished and wrote about many of the world’s finest sporting destinations. Yet the brushy plains of Texas always held a special place in his heart. He had already hunted there a dozen times when, in the summer of 2001, he told me of his plans to return once again later that year. As I remember our conversation went something like this. “Chuck, I’ve been invited to a Texas ranch that’s only been hunted by family and friends for the past 30 years. They say it’s loaded with big bucks and I have a good chance of taking a 160 or better.” Immediately envious, I felt compelled to play the devils advocate. “But Art don’t you think we’ve overdone the Texas Whitetail bit? Our readers have to be getting tired of all those deer stories from down there.” Art paused, but only for a second. Then stared at me straight in the eye “Chuck, you know and I know we can never do too many stories on Texas whitetails. It’s the best big deer destination in the world, and beside, I’ll be hunting with a young man that I want to know better. His name is John Burrell and he is only 29, but for his age he is the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic outfitter I’ve ever talked to.” And so began an adventure that would span three seasons and culminate in both Art and myself taking our best-ever Texas whitetails.
The first chapter in our hunting trilogy unfolded that December. When Art and John Burrell traveled to the Novillos Ranch near McAllen. Owned by Jackie Scoggins, the 5,500-acre ranch is one of the most intensely managed deer properties in the state. “Acre for acre the Novillos is unmatched for big whitetails” John said. It’s right next to the Tecomate Ranch, which has been a groundbreaker in the development of deer forage and food plots, so it can support a super high-density of whitetails. Art and John arrived at the Novillos two days after Christmas, only to find that a large warm air system had stalled over the region. But late on the first afternoon, with a blazing Texas sun on the horizon Art watched a main-frame ten pointer step into the sendero winding past his stand. The buck was big-bodied by Texas standards and its wide rack had split brow tines, each about five inches long. His neck swollen from the rut, the buck marched stiff-legged straight into a group of does and began sniffing out each one, hoping to find a lady in heat. Soon he began chasing a small doe back and forth across the sendero, and when he finally stopped to catch his breath, the buck stood less than fifty yards from Art’s stand. It would have been an easy shot but Art elected to hold off; besides, it was only the first of a five-day hunt. But the days to come brought even warmer weather, with temperatures rising into the mid-80s, pushing the bucks into the thickest pockets of brush during the day and venturing out only at night when the desert air had cooled. Art glassed several other good bucks that week, but was never in quite the right spot at the right time to take a shot. Then, late on the last afternoon he observed the same buck he’d seen the first morning. Once again it was trailing a doe, though now the buck was about 250 yard away. “Art would have taken him” John said, “but the wind was really gusting and shaking his stand. He told me later that he just didn’t feel comfortable trying a shot at a target that was constantly moving, and particularly at that distance in that wind. Right then I realized what a true sportsman he was.
Art had planned to do an article about his Novillos hunt, but John insisted that he wait until he had a trophy buck to write about. And so, one year later almost to the day found the two men, now good friends at a Duvall County ranch an hour north of Novillos. “It’s another great ranch with a good population of big deer.” John said. “It also has a gene pool of bucks with prominent drop tines, which to a Texas deer hunter is like finding the Holy Grail.” This time the weather was perfect, cool with light breezes during the day, and starry-eyed bucks were chasing does all over the ranch. At sunrise the first morning, Art climbed into a stand along a gas-line right-of-way planted in clover and legumes. Within minutes, he spotted a buck, ghosting trough a blackbrush thicket about a quarter mile away. Art tracked the animal in his binoculars and when he finally got a good look, the size of it’s rack literally took his breath away. He counted twelve long tines informally arranged on main beams that curved all the way around to a point high above the deer’s forehead. It was the most beautiful – and certainly the biggest – Texas rack he had ever seen. Art watched patiently as the buck raced in and out of cover, hot on the heels of a doe, hoping the animals’ pas de deux would bring them closer. But when the buck gave up the chase and began grazing in the food plot. Art realized that his only chance was to attempt a stalk. He eased down from the blind and began weaving through the gnarly underbrush. Whenever the buck dropped its head to feed, Art would push forward, trying to avoid the needle-sharp spines of prickly pear and ocotillo; whenever the buck raised his head, Art would hug the ground trying to melt into the skimpy cover. Finally after many minutes of difficult stalking he reached a clump of cactus less than 200 yards from the buck. Quietly he slipped into sitting position, but just as he fired the buck did a Texas two-step and the bullet struck too far back. Art picked up the blood trail, which he followed for nearly an hour before, frustrated and tired, he headed back for help. At the ranch the guides rounded up two motley-looking trail dogs, half cur, half hound, but each with a purebred nose. “It didn’t take long for the dogs to find the buck,” John recalled. “He has holed up in a thicket only a little ways from where Art had quit the trail. By the time the dogs found him he had bled out, so we didn’t even need a finishing shot.” The buck’s big symmetrical rack was twenty inches wide and scored 165 Boon and Crocket points, making it the larges whitetail Art had ever taken. It also didn’t take long for John to take his own trophy. That afternoon he took a 150-class buck sporting a seven-inch drop tine. “That really capped off a great hunt,” said John. “It isn’t often that two outstanding bucks are taken in the same day. At last we had the makings of a great story for the magazine.” But it was a story that would go untold. Art died in July the following year, from complications from what was supposed to be a routine gall bladder operation. He never completed his article. Several weeks after Art passed away, I phoned John Burrell, mostly to rekindle memories of our friend, but also to voice my concern that Sporting Classics owed him and his High Adventure Company and article on their great whitetail ranches. “I’ve got an idea – Why don’t you go down to another one of our ranch leases and then you can write an article that incorporates all three hunts,” John suggested. “We’ve got a brand new ranch near the little town of Whitsett, about thirty-five miles northeast of the Duvall County property. It’s never been hunted commercially and its owner has the right mindset to grow big deer – as good as any in Texas.” We scheduled the hunt for the first week in January at the Plomero; a beautiful 9,000-acre ranch punctuated with lush food plots and large waterfowl ponds. “I’ll go along but just to keep you company” John added. “Ray Ashley who owns the ranch is in the second year of a five year plan to build up the age class of his bucks. He’s allowing just one hunter to take a trophy whitetail this year and guess what, you’re him.”
My first morning at the Plomero provided a tantalizing preview of the ranch’s future. Ronnie Ashley, Ray’s 34-year-old son, took me to a roomy stand along a food patch knee high with oats and peas. We were watching a heard of Javelinas when John pointed to a buck that had walked out to join a half-dozen does at the far end of the field. Through our binoculars we counted ten long points, the crowning glory of a massive, amber-colored rack. Mt rangefinder put the deer at 410 yards – way beyond my shooting skills – as it strolled across the field, searching for a doe that would be receptive to his advances. The buck’s inspection trip took only a few minutes, then he strutted in princely fashion toward our stand. He continued to walk closer, but just as I was raising my rifle, the buck turned and stepped into the brush, not to be seen again. Our outings the next morning and evening proved uneventful, but sandwiched between were several hours of shooting wild bobwhites behind the hard-running pointers of Charlie Fuller, Ray’s longtime friend from nearby Floresville. Every day at the Plomero we had heard quail whistling from the patches of grass around the ranch yard and seen them scurrying across the corners of the lawn, and we were eager to take a crack at them. Charlie piled all twelve of his dogs into a trailer and we drove to a big field of sparse golden grasses. John quickly impressed everyone with his wingshooting skills by knocking down the first bird to break from cover and following that up with a nifty double. Altogether it was both enjoyable and exciting to watch each brace of dogs work the cover and then to gun the big coveys that zipped through the air like swarms of bumblebees. That evening we were back in the cookhouse, where out on the porch, Ronnie prepared t-bones on a grill glowing with mesquite logs. Then, we sat down to tackle what had to be the biggest steaks we ever eaten. We had just finished our desert of fresh apple pie a la mode when Ray told me about a buck he had seen at a feeder that morning. Ray Ashley, you should know is your typical laid-back Texan, who rarely gets animated when he talks. But there was a discernable note of excitement in his voice as he described the buck. “He’s not real wide,” Ray Drawled, “but he’s heavy-horned and at least ten points. He’s the kind of buck we’re trying to raise here on the ranch.” It was still dark the next morning when Ronnie and I settled into a ground blind overlooking an electric feeder. Several Javelinas and does had already gathered around the device, waiting for it to spew out their morning meal. When the corn feeder went off at exactly 8 a.m., the Javelinas descended on the easy pickings while the does waited their turn. And then out of the brush strode a splendid whitetail buck. “That’s got to be the one Dad was talkin’ about,” Ronnie whispered as he stared through his binoculars. “But his horns are heavier are I thought they’d be. It’s your call but I think you’ll be real happy with him.” I had already made up my mind, and quickly eased my rifle into position. With my shot the buck kicked wildly, then darted back into the brush. We found him less than fifty feet away. The buck’s rack was indeed heavy, colored a rich amber from rubbing against mesquite bark, and with eleven points, including a deeply forked G-3 on the left antler. We soon discovered that the opposite G-3 had likewise been a split but one of the tines had broken off. We also found two other places where tines had been lost during fighting. Even with three missing tines the buck grossed 145 5/8 points. At the skinning shed Ray walked over to share his congratulations. “For sure that’s the one I saw yesterday.” He confirmed. And then eyeing the rack more closely, he added, “You know, I think I have photos of this deer from our game survey. But he had more to his antlers back then.” Within minutes Ray had dug through his files and produced a half dozen pictures of my buck racing through the mesquite. Ray had taking the pictures from a helicopter in October, When he and his staff run aerial transects to census their whitetail population. Studying the pictures, we noticed that the missing G-3 split was even longer than it’s matching eight inch point, and that each of the other two lost tines would have topped five inches. Altogether the buck had lost some twenty inches in tine length, which meant it would have originally grossed about 165. “I know a taxidermist who is real good at rebuildin’ racks,” Ray noted. “Why not give him these pictures to go by, and have him replace the points when you mounts your deer. That way it will have what nature intended it to have.” Which is exactly what happened. While John and I were flying home, Ray took the antlers and cape to taxidermist James Blocker in Adkins, Texas, who fitted real antler tines onto the rack then carefully filled each seem with plastic resin.
As I close this story, another year has already raced by, as the years seem to do for someone my age. On the wall above me is my beautiful fourteen-point buck and Art’s magnificent twelve pointer, side-by-side, each a cherished reminder of my old friend and a tribute to the young man who did so much to make our Texas trilogy the best whitetail adventure of our lives.
Once again I demonstrated my distinctive brand of deer hunting magic in order to transform a simple one shot buck hunt into a two out of five shot affair that spanned three days. On day one, after shot number one, Alland and I watched an exceptional South Texas Brush Country buck vanish unscathed into the sea of brush that is Plomero Ranch.
December 2007 was a special time to four lifelong quality buck deprived Floridian hunters. The South Texas rut was well underway upon our arrival at the San Antonio airport via an early morning flight from Orlando Florida. We hurriedly unloaded our gear from our rental van upon arrival at ranch headquarters around 1:30 pm. We prepared for our initial afternoon of hot pursuit at Mr. Ray Ashley’s Plomero Ranch in McMullen County Texas.
This 9000 plus acre South Texas whitetail paradise is the place our party calls home during four days each season since 2005. After a few rounds fired at the rifle range to check our weapons, all four of us ventured into the brush with highly experienced Plomero Ranch guides. My guide, Alland Whittig, a highly accomplished South Texas hunting veteran, devised a simple plan that he believed would conclude my hunt that very day. Late in the afternoon on the day prior to our arrival, a 170 plus B&C 10 point was spotted feeding contently at one of the fall food plots on Plomero`s intensely managed whitetail range. Alland was confident of two things; that the buck would return to feed soon, and that this buck would fit nicely on my trophy room wall back in Ocala Fl. But Alland was completely oblivious as to just how easily I could unravel almost any well made plan. Like clockwork our quarry strolled into view at the edge of the fall oat patch as we overlooked the scene from side by side tripod stands. Conditions were optimal that fine South Texas afternoon, clear and cool with a steady breeze. The buck stood motionless and cautiously surveyed the scene for several minutes. His impressive stature was partially obscured by brush before he finally stepped into the cultivated area to feed. The buck’s impressive headgear glowed golden in the sun’s final rays of the day. At 200 yards broadside nothing stood between the great trophy and my rifle muzzle. But God only knows where that first bullet landed. The buck immediately departed after the shot rang out. Alland and I immediately began a hopeful search for the buck or sign that he was hit. Daylight was fading as we investigated unsuccessfully. At dark we called off the search until the following morning. After a restless night we returned at day break to continue our investigation. First we tracked the buck from where he stood at the time of shot number one. But our efforts produced no evidence that my bullet had hit the target. After four hours of thoroughly combing the area around the oat patch Alland deemed the shot to be a clean miss. Disappointed, but also relieved that the buck was not injured we reluctantly departed the area. We chose to spend the last few hours of hunting day two in a box blind near camp, miles from the disrupted venue of my latest big buck calamity. Conversation in the blind that afternoon was minimal. In fact the silence was nearly deafening. A blowing misty rain matched our dampened spirits as wave after wave of cloudlike precipitation passed over Plomero. The blank stare on Alland`s face exhibited his disappointment. I was thoroughly embarrassed. Alland had done his part and I had failed to do mine. But redemption was soon to be ours as a superbly proportioned 9 pointer entered the foggy sendero directly in front of us and approximately 400 yards up wind. This buck was headed our way, following a doe. He was definitely a shooter. This time calm calculated coaching from Alland enabled me to drop the 155 B&C gross nine point trophy in his tracks with a single shot at 150 yards. Although not quite the trophy caliber of the big 10 in terms score, this 9 point is an extraordinary and unique trophy. We admired his tall tined rack and celebrated our achievement. Upon arrival at camp we were greeted elatedly by Vic Liberty, my friend and co-worker, who had just taken his best ever buck, a mature 21 inch wide 10 point. And my friend Wendell Crews had executed a difficult off-hand shot, taking a fine 8 point management buck that charged in to his midday rattling session. The fourth member of our party, first time Brush Country hunter Alan Hewett had observed several great bucks but none yet that tripped his trigger. We celebrated our hat trick and capped off the evening with thick Texas ribeyes grilled over Plomero mesquite coals.
The gracious hospitality of the Ashley family allowed each of us the option to continue hunting for a second buck in 2007 due to optimal range and herd conditions at the time of our hunt. I elected exercise that option without hesitation. We would spend the rest of my hunting time at the tripod stands where, just one day prior, I converted grand opportunity to humble disappointment. Alland had to return home from the ranch for a wedding the next morning. So Jody Johnson would take over the challenge of guiding me. Jody and I had hunted together successfully in 2006, taking a great six year old management buck. Jody is an expert South Texas whitetail guide. At mid afternoon on day three Jody and I climbed into the familiar side by side tripods overlooking the scene of my latest shooting debacle. Our morning hunt at this location had been uneventful. The first few deer showed up around 3:30 pm that afternoon and fed nervously, and only for only a short time. Most of the deer that showed up at the oat patch that evening were uncharacteristically skittish. Severe wind gusts of 40-45 mph likely contributed their jittery attitude. I was definitely on edge with very real prospect of my tripod being blown over by the gale force winds. As sundown approached I had all but given up hope of a second chance at the big 10 point when Jody exclaimed "it’s him!”. The heavy beamed Brush Country monster nonchalantly strolled into complete open view with head down, broadside, as he gathered tender green oat sprouts from the grey dusty soil. For the second time in three days there was nothing tangible between my rifle muzzle and this buck. My trophy buck induced psychosis was well managed initially by Jody as he ardently encouraged me to hold my shot until deliberate and precise bullet placement was certain. The two of us scraped together enough self control to enable me to connect my second shot solidly with the big 10 at just over 200 yards. The buck collapsed then immediately regained his footing and stood immobile with head down. Shot three and four at this exceptional trophy ensued, both clean misses, both high. Jody then calmly talked me through my fifth and final shot. On day number three, bullet number five firmly walloped the 173 gross B&C bruiser and anchored him, this time for keeps. Many exemplary measures have been taken by friends, outfitters, and guides to ensure my success on several hunts over the last three decades. And such was the case at Plomero Ranch in 2007. On this occasion, in spite of my personal lack of hunting skill, I met with immense success in the South Texas Brush Country again. Luck and two fantastic guides helped overcome my deficiency as a hunter. The greatest skill I had exhibited was booking our Plomero Ranch hunt through John Burrell’s “High Adventure Company”. The Plomero Ranch and staff get credit for the rest. Thanks to the efforts of all involved, especially our host Mr. Ray Ashley, four elated Floridians journeyed back east anticipating our return to Plomero Ranch in 2008.