September 22, 2010
By Gordon Whittington
Don't think you must fight your way through South Texas thorns to shoot a big free-ranging whitetail in the Lone Star State. Way up north, the wide-open eastern Panhandle is a hotspot just waiting to be discovered.
By Gordon Whittington
The author's unique 10-pointer was just one of a number of big bucks he saw in three days of hunting Mill Iron Ranches near Wellington.
Photo by Jim Musil
At first glance, you wouldn't proclaim the eastern Texas Panhandle a great place for trophy whitetails. But on closer examination, the region's vast prairies and hidden canyons prove to be just that.
For years I've heard whispered rumors about this region's overlooked trophy potential. However, prior to 2005, I'd never hunted there. Somehow, when hunting whitetails in Texas I just couldn't pull myself away from the South Texas Brush Country, which is rightly famous for its big-antlered bucks. Finally, though, I decided the time had come to see what all of those Panhandle rumors were about.
I'm glad I did . . . and I'm wondering why it took me so long.
What ultimately got me to the northern end of the state was a gracious invitation from landowners Al and Don Allred. Their 30,000-acre low-fenced property, which goes by the name of Mill Iron Ranches, lies near the Oklahoma border in Collingsworth County. It was on this ground that in 2004, Al's son, Hunt, shot a massive non-typical, a buck so big that he ranked No. 1 for the year in the Texas Big Game Awards. So when Al asked if I'd like to hunt the ranch that produced this 235-inch monster, I naturally jumped at the chance. I hoped to learn a lot more about the Panhandle's potential, get video footage for use on a future episode of North American Whitetail Television and maybe even bag a big buck of my own.
The original plan called for cameraman Jim Musil and me to get to the ranch two days after Thanksgiving. However, illness delayed my arrival in Texas by a week. When Jim and I finally drove onto the property on Dec. 2 to meet Don, we found that the rut was waning, and that the biggest bucks had suddenly gone into hiding. The Boone and Crockett-class giants the landowners and their employees had been seeing just a week earlier had once again gone into hiding.
No matter. In three days we still saw hundreds of deer and got plenty of good video footage. On the final evening of our stay, I even shot a distinctive buck we'd first seen only an hour into our hunt.
The buck was recognizable at a glance, mainly because of the end of his right antler. Whether that down-turned "point" is a true drop tine or the end of the main beam is, in my view, debatable. But what I never questioned, when I first saw him with a doe in a brushy draw around sunup that morning, was that he'd look great on my wall.
After spotting the buck from Don's truck, we decided to make a play on him. Along with Don, Jim and ranch cowboy Jackie Bell, I eased off into the brush and tried to get into position for a shot. I finally caught a glimpse of the lovestruck buck through the low mesquites and tall grass, but there was never any legitimate shot opportunity. Our only lasting evidence of his existence was a few seconds of footage Jim got as the buck slipped through the cover in pursuit of the doe. The pair finally vanished for good, leaving us little choice but to move on and look for another late-rutting buck.
The next two days were spent not just hunting but also getting to know this fascinating part of the world. What I discovered was a place that has quickly become one of my all-time favorites for whitetail hunting.
Again, it doesn't have the look of classic "deer woods." The Panhandle is lip-chappingly dry countryl there are only a few significant drainages, and it is around water that most of the trees and wildlife are concentrated. Mill Iron Ranches is split for many miles by the Salt Fork of the Red River, which is wide but in few places as much as knee-deep. Numerous dry washes and canyons lead down to the river from the ridges on either side, offering wildlife pockets in which to escape icy winds in the winter and a scorching sun in the summer. A handful of windmills also dot the landscape, drawing water from wells drilled deep beneath the grass, sagebrush, mesquite and shin oak cover.
Much of the water used by local wildlife, livestock and humans alike comes from these windmills. So too does the name of the Allreds' property. A "mill iron" is a piece of metal at the base of a windmill, and its shape is featured on the old Mill Iron cattle brand. The ranch, along with other acreage in the area, was once owned by William Hughes, who developed it as part of a vast cattle and land empire in the 1880s. As a holdover from those historic days, the Mill Iron name remains legendary in Texas ranching circles, and since buying the land several years ago, the Allreds have worked hard to document and preserve as much of its early history as possible.
Bison herds long ago roamed this area, a fact borne out by their crumbling bones and old wallows. But as is the case in much of the rest of the Panhandle, Collingsworth County's rangeland today serves as habitat for cattle, deer, coyotes and feral hogs, along with impressive numbers of bobwhite quail. Mule deer are still present in good numbers in some other parts of the county and elsewhere in the Panhandle.
Although Don kept apologizing for the fact that the "big" bucks had suddenly made themselves scarce, as we glassed mile after mile of Mill Iron habitat over the next couple of days, we still spotted some good ones. Most were paired up with does in isolated pockets of low brush. Jim and I attempted stalks on several of these bedded pairs, but in each case something kept me from squeezing the trigger. Such is the reality of hunting with a TV camera along, particularly when trying to take a free-ranging mature buck.
By the third afternoon, we figured it was time to slip back into the area in which we'd seen that distinctive buck on opening morning. Mill Iron guide Rex Wilson led Jim and me to within glassing distance of a winter wheat plot that was the closest major food source to where we'd spotted the buck with the down-turned antler. With any luck, he or another good buck would visit the wheat before video light faded.
It turned out to be a perfect plan. We were a long way from the plot when Rex's binoculars picked up movement in it. "Our" buck was already out there grabbing a bite. Unfortunately, he was hardly alone; there were a number of does and smaller bucks on the plot as well, along with a flock of Rio Grande turkeys. We needed to get almost to the plot's edge to have a shot at the big buck, and doing that meant slipping past dozens of wary eyes with little cover to hide our progress.
the sun slipping toward the horizon, the three of us hunched over and in quiet cadence stepped down the dirt road that wound toward the plot. Every few feet we had to stop and reassess the plan, lest we spook something and blow our cover. Fortunately, each time we looked up the deer in the wheat were feeding away from us, and the turkeys were largely occupied with harassing each other. Each time we put our heads down and went back to creeping.
As we neared the field's edge, I took the lead and motioned Jim in behind me with his tripod-mounted video camera. Through the leafless brush we soon found a lane that afforded us a clear view for filming and shooting. As Jim focused on the feeding buck, I crouched behind a thin mesquite, using its crooked trunk for support of my Thompson/Center .280. When the crosshairs of my Swarovski scope settled on the buck's left shoulder, I squeezed off the 175-yard shot.
A resounding "whump" confirmed that the deer was hit hard. But such evidence wasn't needed; we'd already seen him collapse in his tracks. The 160-grain Federal Vita-Shock round had taken out both shoulders.
On this hunt I never saw any bucks resembling the giant young Hunt Allred shot at Mill Iron Ranches in 2004. For that matter, I didn't see any to match the better ones hanging at Sportsman Taxidermy or A&K Meat Processing in the nearby town of Wellington. But as I walked up to my beautiful 10-pointer lying in the golden light of a December afternoon, I honestly didn't care. I've now tasted the little-known trophy potential of the Texas Panhandle, and you can bet I'll be back as soon as I can for another bite.