Jagged mountains, drug smugglers, and a javelina tug- of-war -- just another day of bowhunting in West Texas.
Javelinas thrive in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas. I followed this group some distance in an attempt to get a close shot with my longbow.
IN JANUARY 2006, Fox News reported that Texas state troopers patrolling Interstate 10, the desert highway paralleling the Rio Grande and Mexican border 50 miles east of El Paso, tried pulling over a suspicious-looking convoy of three SUVs driven by what turned out to be nearly a dozen heavily-armed drug smugglers. During the high-speed chase, one of the rigs, loaded with a half-ton of marijuana, blew a tire. Another bogged down in mud when the driver went off road and plunged headlong into the Rio Grande in an attempt to reach the safety of Mexican soil.
Then things got really weird when a green Mexican Army-style Humvee, topped with an M-60, showed up on the scene, forcing a stand-off. The Associated Press later reported that the men in the Humvee were camo-clad paramilitary types, possibly from the real Mexican Army. American authorities, including the U.S. Border Patrol, watched as the smugglers first tried towing the stranded SUV from the mud with the Humvee. When that failed, the men began offloading bundles of what appeared to be more pot, which they hastily stuffed into the Humvee before finally torching the SUV and fleeing south into the desert.
This would have little to do with bowhunting were it not for the fact that this Fox News drama all happened, literally, on the other side of the mountain where, a couple days later, I was involved in a little Mexican-style stand-off of my own.
If your goal is simply to put a javelina mount on your wall, West Texas may not be the best place to bowhunt. The mountains of the Trans-Pecos region, hard-pressed between Old Mexico to the south and New Mexico to the north, rise anywhere from 3,200 to 7,500 feet over the scrub-brush desert lowlands.
Treeless, scorched, jagged, and windswept, the mountains don't look all that spectacular from afar. Up close -- especially as you're trying to avoid breaking an ankle or two as you climb -- they resemble colossal piles of rubble, as if God, when finished sculpting the rest of this good Earth, simply took His celestial dustpan and broom, swept up the mess, and dumped all the loose stone, boulders, and gravel right there to form these mountains.
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Hudspeth County, one of the least populated counties in Texas, is the same country where the much feared Mescalero Apaches fled during the 1870s border war with the Texas Rangers and U.S. Army. My host and hunting companion that year, Kent Ostrem, of Mahaska Custom Bows, had once led a group of bowhunters upon at least one Indian cave with ancient petroglyphs clearly visible on the walls. Other lucky bowhunters with Ostrem have found arrowheads, broken pottery, and various stone-age tools.
Over 100 years have passed, but the inhospitable character of these desert mountains hasn't changed much, except that now, instead of warring Apaches, the shadowy crags and natural mountain caves hide everything from rattlesnakes to mountain lions to illegal Mexican immigrants. Not to mention the biggest javelina in the Lone Star State.
The day before we headed into the mountains, I got lucky on a 65-pound javelina after a sunny midday stalk on a group of roughly 20 that we caught lounging in the prickly pear and greasewood bushes near a cattle (water) tank. Javelina in this country rarely come so easy.
I literally had to dig deep to secure this prize West Texas javelina.
After slipping through the cactus into a dried-up riverbed and closing the distance along what amounted to a golden highway of sandy soil, it was simply a matter of hoping the wind would hold steady long enough for me to get a shot at one of the biggest boars in the group.
Any bow pulling at least 45 pounds is more than enough for javelina. So the bow I was carrying -- a 58-pound prototype Mahaska take-down longbow -- easily punched an arrow through that magic spot low in the chest behind the collar and just above the leg. Bolting forward, hackles flared, the boar snarled and snapped at the hole in his side and then sprinted in a circle before dropping in a tangle of cat's claw and arroyo bushes.
We decided to head into the mountains the next day, not on account of wandering drug dealers the radio rumors indicated might still be in the area. Rather, we figured the least hospitable areas would hold the most game, and we just had to see for ourselves.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING we drove to a distant corner of the ranch, a place Ostrem called the Red Hills, where I quickly found that scaling these mounds of misery was not so much about hiking as it was hopping, leaping, clawing, and stumbling into the lung-searing stratosphere. But with shade cover sparse on the desert floor among the greasewood and yucca plants, Ostrem assured me this was precisely the terrain where javelina preferred to hole-up during the high-noon heat of a typical West Texas day.
From the bottom, the mountain we had decided on looked sheer and featureless. As we gazed up from a couple miles below, the only obvious topography were a few folds and cuts, river and creek bottoms dried up in West Texas' version of winter. We picked a drainage that seemed to trace a crooked path toward the
summit and slowly picked our way up through the deep, boulder-strewn trench.
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Suddenly, coming around a bend, we literally stumbled onto a couple of dozen javelinas munching on prickly pear. With their bristly hides glowing like gold and bronze in the West Texas sun, the animals were spread out, feeding like cattle as they wound through the rocks and cacti. Trying to stalk so many animals on noisy, loose stones and gravel proved futile. To further complicate matters, as the first group of javelinas made their way higher and higher up the mountain, they kept leading Ostrem and me into even more animals bedded in the shady boulders and under the low boughs of stunted and twisted juniper trees dotting the dusty creek bottom.
Halfway to the top, I gasped to Kent that I wouldn't be surprised to find goats or sheep up this high. A moment later, hands on my knees trying to catch my breath, I found tracks and scat from just that -- namely the exotic and free-range aoudad, a queer and mysterious-looking animal rarely seen by hunters.
As midmorning gave way to noon -- four hours of relentless climbing without once losing sight of the growing herd -- we still had yet to get a shot. From 2,000 feet up the mountain, our vehicle parked in the desert below looked like a silver speck. And what had seemed impossible now became more and more probable with every passing minute -- we might soon have to start heading back down without loosing an arrow.
WHEN THE CREEK BED we were following split into two forks, the javelinas split up, too. So Kent went to the right while I went left to follow a line of nearly 20 animals walking single file up the draw. The sides of the ravine fell nearly vertical, and while tightrope-walking along this narrow channel, I eased around a boulder and came face-to-snout with a line of javelinas coming back down the trail toward me.
Their popping teeth indicated I was not the only one made weary by this game of cat-and-mouse. Tusks clacking, the lead sow suddenly took a couple of charging leaps forward, dissolving the 15 paces that had separated us to 10, maybe fewer. Then, as she turned, I focused on the shoulder and released.
The pig whirled like the Tasmanian devil; biting, snarling, snapping, and clattering down the slope of rocks and scree. Tumbling 50 feet down the ravine, she hit the bottom on a dead run. It took me a half-hour to claw my way to the bottom and find what amounted to a line of bloody pinpricks in the sand. Trailing her for another 50 yards, I followed the tracks to a black hole in the earth underneath a rocky overhang.
By every indication, this one was buried and gone, but, still, that was my javelina in there. So I dug. Clambering above the hole where the animal had disappeared, I dug with my hands down through sand and rock until, moving a big slab of limestone, I uncovered a snapping javelina snout two feet down. In an attempt to flush her out, I dropped stones into the tiny hole, but she simply crunched and swallowed them whole.
Then I remembered the rope in my pocket. Tying a noose in one end, I tied the other end to a tree and then placed my bow with an arrow on the string on a boulder some distance away. After carefully noodling the rope with a stick, I finally got the noose loosely around the pig's snout.
My plan, or so I thought, was to yank her up out of the hole and then run like crazy. My hope was that when she came after me, or ran away, she'd hit the end of the rope, which would give me opportunity to deliver a coup de grace.
However, I soon discovered that being tied to a javelina is exactly like the time I fell water skiing, got a wrist tangled in the tow rope, and nearly broke my arm. The boat kept going, dragging me behind as jolts of pulsing bright lights and stars filled my eyes.
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When I pulled up, the javelina lurched down, busting my hands against the rocks. For a second, I thought the one was broken. Trying to shake off the pain, I did the next logical thing -- I tried it again. This time, the javelina's head came into the hole, but seeing the tusks, I had a sharp and sudden epiphany at how really stupid this whole thing was.
Coming to my senses, I went to find Kent for some back-up help, and when we returned, the javelina was dead. We dragged her out without further incident and, looking closer, realized the arrow had hit high. You might say it was a good hit, as far as bad hits go. Looking back, I have determined it was my execution of the recovery that was a tad flawed -- somewhat like a Mexican-style stand-off between border guards and drug smugglers.
Whether the analogy is perfect, I don't know. But that's the way I remember it.
The author is a dedicated bowhunter from Lake Ann, Michigan