December's Whitetail Hunting Magic in the Texas Hill Country
With great hunting, good company and food, and rugged countryside, an early December deer hunt in the Hill Country is a memorable experience deep in the heart of Texas.
Nursing a cup of hot coffee this morning as project deadlines approach and the end of the 2018-19 deer season looms, it doesn’t take long for my mind to wander. Specifically, right back to a late-season deer hunt at this same time only a year ago, deep in the heart of my home state of Texas. That’s when I sat in a box blind early last December, snug in my Nomad gear as a rare winter storm assaulted the fabled Hill Country region. Burrowing deeper into the layers, I simply couldn’t come up with a good answer for why it had been years since I had visited the area only a few hours from my home.
Truth be told, while there might be a few spots scattered around the Lone Star State better suited for the taking of a Muy Grande trophy buck, there likely isn't a better spot to hunt deer than the 35 counties of the Edwards Plateau region that lies to the west and northwest of the San Antonio to Austin corridor.
Put simply, the hilly region that begins with the Balcones Escarpment on the east and fades into the desert terrain of West Texas is quite simply ground zero for white-tailed deer between the Red River and the Rio Grande.
In fact, there really is no equal to the Texas Hill Country anywhere else in the whitetail world, a truth made evident when one considers that Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologists (Young and Traweek) estimated back in 1999 that as many as 1.55 million whitetails lived in the Hill Country.
At the risk of overstating the obvious and borrowing from a tired cliché, deer hunting in the Texas Hill Country can be a magical experience.
Because when those numbers are crunched, they turn into approximately some 40-percent of the state's whitetail herd, or one deer per 15 acres over most of the region. In the most heavily populated area of whitetails — spots like the Llano Uplift comprised of Burnet, Llano, and Mason Counties — the numbers can be even higher. In fact, some spots can have as many as one deer per every three acres according to TPWD.
Put simply, that's a lot of deer, and then some.
Sitting in the elevated box blind I mentioned above, I had quite a good time last year while enjoying the Mossy Oak writer's camp put on at Vatoville, a sprawling 9,300+ acre ranch about an hour's drive from San Angelo in Schleicher, Crockett and Sutton Counties.
Despite a cough and the after effects of a serious battle with the flu around Thanksgiving, I was still enjoying myself immensely, thanks in part to the warm camp life provided by a family like gathering of like-minded people.
The kind of people who genuinely enjoyed each other's company — a group that included owners Steve "Vato" Anderson and his wife Michelle, guides Billy Bob "Bunk" Galbreath and Ben "Brother" Lawrence, Mossy Oak's Tim Anderson and Jake Meyer, and JJ Reich of Federal Premium Ammunition and Savage Arms.
But a good portion of my enjoyment from my time at Vatoville came from the time I got to spend outdoors enjoying the splendid rolling countryside at the scenic ranch, a mixture of rock, cactus, live oak, shin oak (shinnery oak as many Texans call it) and mesquite trees.
And whitetails, plenty of whitetails, more deer than you could shake a proverbial stick at. From my drive into the ranch under cold, rainy skies to the flurries of snow that told of a raging snowstorm only a half-hour to our south to sunny, cobalt blue skies with a chilly breeze, there wasn’t a single day when you couldn't move around at Vatoville and not see deer.
Need to drive down the road just a little bit from camp to make sure that your Savage Arms deer rifle is still sighted in? There was a group of does and bucks — the off-limits "house covey" as the guides called them — that could be seen throughout the day, even as shots rang out.
Make your way to one of the two dozen stands scattered around Vatoville? Almost from the moment you took your seat, there would be a steady stream of whitetails coming through like floats at a Texas small town Christmas parade.
The first evening, a cloudy, cold, windy affair with temperatures near freezing and snow flurries in the air, a handful of deer appeared in front of the stand including a broken rack eight-point and a heavy horned six-pointer that teetered on the edge of "management buck" criteria.
The next morning, as clear skies brought temperatures dipping into the lower 20s, a parade of whitetails started in to the corn and protein feeding station, eventually numbering a dozen plus.
As the morning developed, guide Bunk, Mossy Oak’s Meyer and myself witnessed a fight between a 3 1/2-year-old 10-point buck and a 2 ½-year-old 8-point that hadn't quite figured out his place in the pecking order.
Then there was the old doe that didn't take kindly to a younger doe getting too close for comfort. Suddenly the old doe was up in the air with her hooves flailing, endeavoring to teach the younger doe her place in the local herd's overall scheme of things.
At one point on the frigid December morning, a burly and tall-tined nine-pointer, an ancient buck if there ever was one, slipped in silently, ignored the other young suitors around him and generally acted like he owned the place — probably because he did.
After an enjoyable time watching that buck, Bunk lightly touched my shoulder and whispered, “Lynn, you do know that he’s a shooter buck, don’t you?”
That began a quick back-and-forth session in the blind about what the hunting prospects were to see an even bigger, mature buck. Bunk allowed that while there were certainly a few on the ranch, the changeable weather, short few days of hunting and the waning rut made that a question a tough one to answer. In other words, who knew if we’d see one. And with the old adage about a bird in hand – or a mature buck, in this case – looming in my mind, I slid the Savage 6.5 Creedmoor rifle up, positioned the Bushnell scope’s crosshairs on the buck’s boiler room and let the Federal Premium Ammunition bullet do its lethal work downrange.
That evening, I found myself in another big box blind, this time with Reich, communications manager for Vista Outdoor (the parent company of Bushnell, Federal Premium Ammunition, and Savage Arms), trying to collect a plump doe for the freezer.
As we sat and waited, the deer numbers increased as up to 17 whitetails came into to the blind set-up that yours truly was occupying. At one point, as many as 10 bucks were in sight, including a dandy 10-pointer with a couple of kickers. A mature buck that was even bigger than the one I had tagged earlier in the day — go figure.
When the final day dawned in the Hill Country deer camp, Bunk, Jake, and JJ drove me around camp, showing me the magic of the Edwards Plateau during deer season. A place where it was hard to go very far without seeing whitetails laying around, standing, running about, and rutting.
Some of those were young bucks and does, others were more seasoned, and every once in a while you saw a set of antlers atop the noggin of a mature buck that stopped you in your tracks.
Eventually, along with my buck and doe, a couple of deer were destined to wear a tag from almost everyone in camp. Let’s just say that there was no shortage of YETI coolers filled with venison as we all headed for the exit.
But that really wasn't the point of the weekend, the total number of bucks and does tagged, how big they were, or the time spent working on venison at the meat pole.
Instead, the weekend was a reminder about all that is good about deer hunting in Texas, especially in the rolling Hill Country. From the warm smiles of the ranch owners and their guides to the sheer beauty of Vatoville's thorny and rugged terrain to the abundant wildlife that roam such wild lands, I had a big smile on my face as I pointed my SUV north and prepared to head home.
When I dropped Mossy Oak’s Tim Anderson off at the San Angelo airport on a chilly December morning — he had a new grandbaby in Iowa to get home and see — I felt a tinge of sadness that my time at Vatoville had concluded. Along with that came a tremendous amount of determination that it wouldn't be a number of years again before I was putting my boot prints upon the rocky soil of the deer-rich Edwards Plateau. Boots that would be hiking about, looking for yet another mature Hill Country buck to wear my unfilled tag, deep in the heart of deer-rich Texas.