By Dwight Schuh, Editor
For years, I had no desire to hunt in Texas. That's because most of the deer hunting there is done by baiting with timed feeders, and the thought of taking a stand by a feeder did not appeal to me. What thrill is there in that? I reasoned. Besides, what will readers think if I admit to participating in such a practice?
Then, a few years ago, I thought, As a bowhunting writer I need a broad perspective. How can I knock a hunting method if I have never tried it?
So, eating some crow, I accepted an invitation from Rawley Curry to hunt on his property in the Texas Hill Country, a region of rolling hills covered with live oaks and juniper trees. It is not known for big deer but for lots of deer.
Right off I found half of that perception true, half false. Deer numbers were definitely high. True. But after my first night on stand, I discovered not all the deer are small. As I sat in a tripod stand, 20 yards from a feeder, a solid 140-class Pope and Young buck - with no brow tines - appeared from the dense junipers (locally called cedars). I was astounded as the burly deer strutted by 12 yards away, oblivious to me.
Of course, I would be right about one thing - this Texas feeder hunting was far too easy. I was about to kill a P&Y buck my first day. This was hardly fair.
As the buck strolled to the feeder and started crunching kernels of corn, and as I overcame my initial astonishment, I waited for the deer to turn to a perfect broadside position. Then, as his head was down and turned away, I slowly drew and aimed long and precisely. The outcome was never in doubt.
Then I released. From a totally relaxed position, the buck launched himself like a missile, leaving only a cloud of dust and a lot of doubt in my mind.
When the dust had settled, I searched the area and found nothing but a few hairs and a clean arrow. He had jumped the string and literally whirled out of the way of my arrow.
That was the beginning of my education in Texas feeder hunting. Over the next week I hunted every morning and evening - and went home with my tail between my legs. But not about to admit defeat, I called Rawley and nearly begged for a second chance. He had an opening the first week in January, and on the fourth day of my return trip I finally killed an 8-pointer, my first Texas deer. Now that was simple enough. It only took 10 days.
FROM THAT EXPERIENCE I learned some facts about Texas deer and corn feeders. Foremost is that hunting near timed feeders is a way of life in Texas. Virtually all land in Texas is private, and virtually every ranch is populated with corn feeders. In other states where baiting deer is legal, timed feeders are becoming increasingly popular, too.
Thus, the sale of feeders is big business, and so is the sale of corn. During deer season, virtually every store in Texas sells feeder corn. In a recent column in the Dallas Morning News, Ray Sasser quotes Dr. Neal Wilkins as saying "Ã‚'¦Texas hunters buy 300 million pounds of wildlife corn annually." That's a pile.
Planted food plots so popular in most southern states don't do well in Texas' dry climate, so deer feeding stations have always been the norm. But not until 1968, according to Sasser, did John Sweeney invent the timed feeder, and now timed feeders are at the heart of hunting in Texas. Again quoting Sasser, "Ã‚'¦Horace GoreÃ‚'¦editor of Texas Trophy Hunter magazine, figures at least 80 percent of the deer taken by Texas hunters each year die with a mouthful of corn." For bowhunters, I would guess it is closer to 90 percent.
That would imply that hunting at feeders is a cinch. If that's true, why did it take me 10 days to kill my first Texas deer? It could be I'm just a dud, but I do think it goes beyond that. Texas deer are wary and wired, probably because congregating around feeders makes them excessively vulnerable to predators - two-legged and four-legged alike.
But that's not the only reason. Social interaction may be an even greater cause for their anxiety. Whenever two or more deer come to a feeder at the same time, they exhibit a clear hierarchy that instills fear into all but those at the top of the heap.
I witnessed this one icy January morning at Rawley's ranch. Three bucks - an 8-pointer and two 6-pointers - came to the feeder together. The 8-pointer, clearly the king, constantly bristled and snort-wheezed to keep the two smaller bucks from feeding. However, one of the 6-pointers got more and more bold until he was crunching corn no more than 10 feet from the dominant buck. Then, with no warning, the 8-pointer whirled and charged, nearly skewering the smaller buck. The 6-pointer became a blur of legs, running backwards for 30 yards faster than the 8-pointer could run forward. It was an amazing display of speed. Finally the 6-pointer got turned around and the bucks crashed out of sight. Five minutes later the 8-pointer returned and resumed munching corn. The 6-pointer never showed again.
Rawley Curry takes a limited number of bowhunters on his Z-Bar Ranch. You can contact Rawley at (325) 463-5548. For information on other Texas hunting opportunities, contact: Texas Outfitters and Guides Association, PO Box 293141, Kerrville, TX 78029-3141; (830) 238-4207; www.texashuntingandfishing.com/toga/
Events like that, plus the presence of hunters, make mature deer wary around feeders. Several times I watched bucks circle downwind of my stand and never come in. Fortunately, that tactic backfired on one buck when I set up to shoot behind the stand. It worked.
And with their unequaled anxiety and speed, Texas deer invented the phrase string jumping. You would wonder how a deer calmly feeding 20 yards away could possibly get out of the way of an arrow, but they do. That buck described at the beginning certainly did, and I've seen does that made that buck look as slow as a Hereford cow. The fact is, you are never guaranteed of tagging a Texas feeder deer unti
l you've tagged it.
In some states, hunters and wildlife managers wring their hands over the ethics of baiting, but not in Texas. Biologist Bryan Richards, a native of Wisconsin, has worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife about 10 years ago. "I was shocked when I first moved here," he said. "Baiting is controversial in Wisconsin. But in Texas I have never heard a single hunter question the ethics of baiting."
Despite all of this, no one can question the efficacy of hunting over corn feeders. Bowhunters kill thousands of deer in this manner every year.
And to call it "hunting technique" would be stretching the point. Effective feeder hunting is largely an exercise in patience. If you sit still long enough, practice scent control, draw your bow quietly, and shoot straight, you will kill deer.
Because it seems like a gimme, anyone from outside Texas might question the appeal, just as I did. But that view would overlook one major reason for hunting - fun. While you might question other aspect, you really can't question the fun of it. When that feeder whirs, you never know what might show up. It could be a flock of turkeys, a group of javelinas, a skulking bobcat or coyote, a herd of does and fawns - or a giant buck. Watching all of this, undetected, from 20 yards away, is just plain fun. Very quickly you get addicted to the whir.