A visit to this ranch will change your perception of whitetail hunting in South Texas.
I admire the rack of my Los Encinos buck, which I arrowed at a distance of 12 yards with a 62-pound Prairie Panther longbow.
WITH THREE BIG whitetails feeding calmly in front of me, you'd think I would be in whitetail heaven, but it wasn't so. Although the closest buck, a wide-racked 8-pointer, stood a mere 12 yards away and in perfect shooting position, I was pinned down by a dozen does nosing for acorns in the forest litter around me.
Each time the buck lowered his head, I would try to ease my longbow into shooting position. And each time, one of the does would spot me and go into her head-bobbing, foot-stomping routine that put all the other deer on alert -- including the object of my desires.
Eventually, the buck fed behind a screen of brush and out of range, so I turned my attention to the does scattered across the oak flat around my treestand. Maybe a little retribution was in order. With a pair of doe tags in my pocket and a venison-loving family back home, I figured some herd management was the new order of business, especially on this, the first evening of a weeklong hunt. So I picked out a fat "skinner" feeding at six yards and started to draw.
Not so fast! Trotting over the hill behind me, a young 10-pointer apparently decided the does looked better than the feed littering the ground, and he scattered the does like embers exploding from a crackling fire.
Not caring to share his private real estate with this interloper, the 8-pointer I had been trying in vain to shoot all evening charged toward the intruder and sent him packing for a safer destination.
Now standing 12 yards from me, slightly quartering away, the wide-racked Texas whitetail offered me a perfect shot. Quickly, I swung my longbow on target, concentrated on a tiny spot toward the back of his rib cage, and sent a heavy arrow on its way.
MOST SERIOUS BOWHUNTERS can identify with that story, especially the part about perching above deer feeding on acorns. Where I live in Minnesota, oaks are key food sources as they drop their mast each fall.
But in Texas? Yes, South Texas has long been recognized as a premier destination for big-racked bucks, but most of the landscape consists of sand, cactus, mesquite, and wide-open spaces. In this environment, ground blinds, box stands, and tripods are the order of the day.
Enter Los Encinos Ranch, a wildlife Mecca located just south of Falfurrias. Los Encinos translates into "the oaks," a fitting name for this ranch covered with live oak trees that provide shade, cover, and food for large numbers of whitetails, turkeys, wild hogs -- and treestands. The oak forests provide a unique and welcome break from the surrounding Texas brush country.
Los Encinos owner/operator Paul Johnson lives and works a couple hours south of his ranch in the border city of McAllen. Since buying this piece of whitetail heaven, Paul has made vast improvements to the land to benefit all the wildlife. Under a strict Quality Deer Management program, he harvests lots of does to keep the herd in balance, and he protects young bucks to let them grow. The result is an unmatched whitetail utopia. On my recent bowhunt at Los Encinos, I saw more than 100 deer per day. At least half of those were bucks, and half of the bucks were Pope and Young caliber or larger.
Participating in a management hunt, I could arrow one mature buck sporting eight points or fewer. In addition, I could shoot two does and two wild hogs.
Despite the abundance of game -- or because of it -- I found the hunt a bit frustrating. With so many animals around, I had a hard time drawing my bow undetected. In addition, I often had a hard time getting a shot at huge management bucks for fear of hitting other trophy deer.
I clearly remember one morning, sitting quietly in a Primos Double Bull blind, as a mid-140-class 4x4 fed calmly a scant eight yards in front of me. However, I didn't dare shoot because just behind him was a Boone & Crockett 14-pointer! A pass-through shot would likely get both of them. As the two monarchs stood lined up for several agonizing minutes, I held my draw and ended up getting no shot at all as the "small" buck moved out of my shooting lane for good.
Clearly, a bowhunter must be able to field-judge deer accurately. Antler points are easy to count, but like many intensively managed ranches, Los Encinos wants hunters to shoot only bucks 31„2 years old or older. An older buck typically has a Roman nose, sagging back and belly, muscular frame, thick neck and shoulders, and graying hair around the muzzle. Massive antlers and a wide spread can also signal an older deer, but antler size can be tough to judge since whitetails in Texas are generally smaller in stature than their northern cousins. Since I live in Minnesota, I see a lot of bucks that weigh 200 pounds or more, and the heaviest buck I've arrowed tipped the scales at over 230 dressed. So I must admit to being fooled by the racks of these Texas trophies.
WHICH BRINGS ME BACK to the buck at the beginning of this story. The 700-grain arrow hit exactly where I was looking, passing through the liver and lungs of the quartering buck before burying in the off-shoulder. The deer exploded across the oak flat before disappearing into the lengthening shadows, but his flight was short, and we found him piled up 125 yards away shortly after Paul arrived to pick me up.
Given his 19-inch inside spread and long tines, I had estimated the 8-pointer to be in the mid-130 range, but his rack overshadowed his much smaller body and he actually green-scored closer to 120; still a beautiful buck and one that I am justly proud of, but a reminder for future trips to Texas on field-judging antlers!
At the end of the week, I reluctantly said goodbye to Los Encinos and turned my Ford pickup north toward the cold and snow awaiting me back home in Minnesota. During my stay, I saw hundreds of deer including more big bucks than I could possibly count, culminating on an evening hunt where I saw three giant 11-pointers ranging from 140 class to 170 class; definitely grandpa, son, and grandson given their identical racks and demeanors.
I also saw dozens of turkeys and several wild hogs, including one giant black boar that tempted me from just beyond effective bow range. It would be a gross understatement to say the trip was exceptional -- as it would be to say I will certainly return to Los Encinos someday.
Author's Notes:The 3,000-acre Los Encinos Ranch comprises rolling stands of live oaks with a few mesquite flats and open, grassy areas, along with more than 30 pond
s. Owner Paul Johnson offers bow and rifle hunts for whitetails, turkeys, and hogs, as well as exotic species on a separate 305-acre high-fenced pasture. Both the hunting and the facilities are first class. Adjacent to the King Ranch in Brooks County, Los Encinos lies some 15 miles south of Falfurrias. Contact: Paul Johnson, PJMCALLEN@AOL.com.
I used a 62-lb. Prairie Panther longbow of my own design and manufacture, along with 700-grain arrows tipped with Wensel Woodsman broadheads. In addition to the buck, I also killed a mature doe. I offer the Panther, a 60-inch reflex-deflex design, as a limited-edition, autographed and numbered, signature bow. I cap each year's production at only 25 longbows. For more information, contact me at (218) 338-5316; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Joe Blake is a regular Contributor to Bowhunter Magazine and resides in Parkers Prairie, Minnesota.