April 14, 2021
A dense fog blanketed the Texas mesquite. Heavy air pulled sweat from my pores and sent beads of moisture trickling down my brow. In the distance, axis deer roared.
The sun, now in full bloom, melted the fog. The heat intensified. Perfect! The roaring was maddening, and the sound of hooves on shale snapped my head around to the left. It was a herd of axis does and lesser bucks. No shooters, but still an exquisite sight. The mob walked up and over the pond dyke, and then straight to the water. My body trembled. Brown hides mixed with splashes of orange, and vibrant white dots mingled 35 yards away. Two of the bucks were in velvet; the other was hard-horned.
Suddenly, something in the distance got their attention, and before I could raise my binos to scan the landscape, the herd whirled and vanished. I heard a grunt, and then a squeal. Golden weeds on the edge of a massive thicket swayed left and right. Pigs!
The sow — half black and half white — led a group of 30 to the water. A big boar appeared out of nowhere. He was standing under my tree, and I’d failed to notice him. I wanted to shoot, but the thundering bellows were getting closer and temps were on the rise. I figured it wouldn’t be long before a shooter axis buck made his way to the waterhole.
Land O’ Plenty
I often dream of hunting adventures abroad: Africa, New Zealand, Greenland, and Spain, to name a few. The animals there seem majestic, but for now, those locales will remain just that…a dream. I simply don’t have the funds. What I can do is save for them, and while putting some Benjamins in the “Dream Hunt” envelope, I can still head to the Hill Country of Texas to chase free-range exotics.
Brought over from India in 1932, axis deer, also known as chital, have flourished in the Lone Star State. Current population estimates are between 15,000 and 18,000 animals, with most residing on the famed Edwards Plateau. While some herds are managed behind high-fence operations, there are plenty of places on the 37,370-square-mile plateau where axis roam free.
Of course, it’s not only axis that make this region of the state popular to big-game seekers. Other exotic species like blackbuck, fallow deer, and aoudad can be found in solid numbers. Then, of course, there are the hogs. The Hill Country is thick with hogs.
An Affordable Offseason Adventure
A free-range hunt on the Edwards Plateau isn’t too costly. You’ll need a Non-Resident 5-Day Special Hunting License (Item 157/$48). You select the day you want your license to start, and you’re good for five days. Most bowhunters fly into San Antonio, and after crunching some numbers and researching flights from various airports around the country, you can expect a round-trip flight to set you back between $200 and $350. That’s just an average — I’ve found cheaper. One of my favorite travel methods, though, is to rally some buddies, split the gas, and make a road trip.
When it comes to the cost of the hunt, do your research. Be sure to contact the outfitter and ask lots of questions. Remember, you’re the client, and it’s your money. If the outfitter wants that money, he/she will be glad to answer all your questions and provide references. I’ve hunted with a few outfitters in the region, and most reputable operations allow you to kill one axis buck (or other exotic), one axis doe, and unlimited hogs.
SOE Hunts, run by veteran hunter Mike Stroff, is my number-one favorite. Stroff and his crew are great, and they provide hunters with an experience that is second to none. An investment of $3,350 gets you food, lodging, a guide, and if you hunt hard, a crack at the aforementioned critters.
Of course, everyone wants to know about success rates. On my most recent trip with SOE, I killed a 33-inch axis buck, an axis doe, and eight hogs. Hogs can be hit and miss, but again, if you hunt for them, you’ll find them. On my most recent hunt, the pigs seemed to be lurking around every cedar.
The Cure For Buck Fever
There’s no way to simulate shooting an animal with bow and arrow. You can attend 3-D tournaments, or fling arrows for money on the range with your bowhunting buddies during the offseason. Both are great; however, neither simulate the feeling of drawing back and settling a pin on a living creature.
An offseason Hill Country adventure typically allows hardworking bowhunters the chance to sling more arrows at game during a three or four-day period than they normally would over the span of an entire fall and winter. That’s one reason a hunt like this is worth its weight in gold. Not only do you sharpen your skills, but you learn to harness your nerves, calm your mind, and execute during crunchtime.
When you’re perched over a water source and 50 axis deer appear, with multiple shooter bucks in the group, the heart tends to thump pretty quick. And, no, this is not an uncommon sight. Axis deer are very social, and often travel in groups of 30 to 100 animals.
A mature axis buck will typically weigh between 175 and 200 pounds, and will sport antlers north of 30 inches in length. Most will have a total of three points on each side that includes brow tines, coddles (second point), and the point created by the main beam. They look big and majestic, and keeping your nerve and executing your shot process takes mental strength. The best part is after you double-lung a buck, you get to keep going — the hunt is far from over.
Go shoot a doe, and then start your quest for hogs. In my opinion, nothing will help a bowhunter conquer buck fever and go into the fall months brimming with confidence like downing multiple offseason critters.
Much like pronghorns, there’s no better chance for axis success than sitting over water when the conditions are right. If it’s hot and dry, it’s not uncommon to see between 10 and 12 shooter bucks on a given sit at the SOE ranches. That said, if thunderheads roll in, waterhole hunting gets mighty tough. But don’t fret, because axis can be hunted like elk under similar conditions.
While axis does cycle throughout the year and males cast antlers at all times, experts dub the main rut as occurring from May through July. Like elk, axis bucks are extremely vocal during the morning and evening. This makes spot-and-stalk hunting very possible. Just get the wind right, then put the sneak on a vocal buck.
A good outfitter, like Stroff, will have a pulse on the game. On a recent hunt, Mike had a client who didn’t want to spot and stalk or sit water. No problem. Mike situated the hunter on the fringe of a known doe bedding area where bucks wandered throughout the day. The hunter double-lunged a 34-inch stud on his second sit.
The World’s Best Meat
My family and I live on game meat, and nothing — not even elk — is as tasty as axis. This is one reason I prefer to go with some buddies and make a road trip. We take coolers and bring back lots of meat. When we get home, we do our own processing. A mature axis buck and a mature doe, which will always be between 85 and 100 pounds, will give you roughly 150 pounds of pure protein.
That shooter did make his way to the waterhole. He came in on the heels of a hot doe, much like a rutting whitetail buck would. The doe wasn’t quite ready, so the buck turned his attention from her to the spring-fed pond. The shot was 52 yards, and when the buck turned and quartered away, I sent an arrow through him. His time on this planet afterwards was short, and I was left shaking as a result. Glancing down at my watch, the digits read 7:42 a.m. It was the first morning of the hunt, and my buck was down.
Knowing Stroff would be along soon, I relaxed in my stand and watched a total of 13 more shooter bucks come to the pond. Epic! A beautiful blackbuck appeared at 20 yards, and had I not left my bow on its hook, I would have been shelling out an extra $2,500 (the price should you decide to harvest another trophy animal when hunting with SOE). With no limit and no season on these exotics, “extra” is always an option.
The rest of my days in camp were spent stalking does and shooting hogs. It was a blast, and if you’re looking to hone your stalking skills, few things in bowhunting are as hard as sneaking on axis. Why? One, they are naturally edgy. Two, they have an incredible olfactory system and eyes and ears that miss nothing. Go after a feeding or bedded herd of 20 or 30 animals, and your odds of success teeter on nil. But, man, it sure is fun trying!
The author is a full-time freelance outdoor writer from Southeast Colorado. Each season, he takes to the woods with bow in hand in pursuit of multiple game species.
Author’s Note: My equipment on this hunt included a Hoyt Carbon RX-4 Ultra bow, Easton HyperSpeed Pro arrows, SEVR broadheads, Spot Hogg, Hogg Father sight, QAD Integrate MX rest, TightSpot Quiver, Kenetrek boots, and clothing from Sitka Gear.