Caprock Canyons Aoudad Hunt

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Alone on the highway again, Bob squinted at a wadded quilt of cloud crawling over the sky. There unrolled beside the Saturn the level land, every inch put to use for crops, oil gas, cattle, service towns. The ranches were set far back from the main road, and now and then he passed an abandoned house, weather-burned, surrounded by broken cottonwoods. In The fallen windmills and collapsed outbuildings he saw the country’s fractured past scattered about like the pencils on the desk of a draughtsman who has gone to lunch. The ancestors of the place hovered over the bits and pieces of their finished lives. He did not notice the prairie dog that raced out of the roadside weeds into his path and the tires bumped slightly as he hit it. A female red-tail lifted into the air. It was the break she had been waiting for. – From That Old Ace In The Hole

Driving into the canyons on Tuesday morning, I think to myself “There is nothing I find more beautiful that a sunrise the the Texas Panhandle.” This is the country I grew up in and its palette still stirs my soul. I’m on my way to Caprock Canyons State Park for an Aoudad and feral hog hunt that I have won through the Texas Parks and Wildlife draw hunt system. I am meeting my father-in-law in the park who drove nine hours from Rogers, AR yesterday with his RV that I will stay in instead of having to camp in a tent in the middle of winter. I have pretty cool in-laws. In my preparation for the hunt, I found very little first hand knowledge on the web so this is my review of what I did to prepare, what the hunt was like and any other tips that come up.

Equipment
Rifles: Weatherby Mark V in 7 MM magnum, Savage Axis in .243
Boots: Danner 8 inch High Ground
Binoculars: Steiner 8×22
Rangefinder: Redfield Raider 600

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Preparation
My physical preparation involved CrossFit about every other day starting in October. In December, I started ramping up leg work, specifically squats, cleans and deadlifts. At the beginning of the hunt, I was back up to 3×5 back squat at 195lbs with a max around 235-245. I also started running 5 miles once a week in January. Going in to the hunt, I was a little nervous about my preparation given the description of the hunt which is “This is a VERY strenuous hunt.” As usual though, CrossFit prepares you better than you think. I always feel weak and unprepared before physical challenges because CrossFit exposes your weaknesses. But it over prepares you for everything else. Over the course of 3.5 days of hiking in extremely rugged terrain, my only issue was tight achilles which I suffer from anyway. I was never sore which made starting days at 5:15 much easier. This is definitely the hardest physical hunt I’ve been on and I wouldn’t want to go into it unprepared.

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Day 1 Scouting
I arrived at the park around 8:30 and got settled into the trailer. I headed out to scout around 10 AM and started in the North Prong parking lot headed north towards Fern Cave. I walked all the way to Fern Cave that morning glassing the walls of the canyon as I went. There probably wasn’t any hunting reason to go all the way up but Mara and I had been here in September and not made it so I wanted to see the ferns. I didn’t see any sheep or hogs on that section but there were plenty of places that looked promising. In the afternoon, I walked the Canyon Rim trail out to where it started down into the Canyon. This trail bisects the Orange Compartment. There were some very sheep-y looking spots along the canyon rim and down into the canyon at the end. However, if you shot something down in one of those canyons, I don’t think there’s any way you could get it out. The orange compartment looked decent from this side of the park but I found out later that the opposite side along CR 29 was pretty forbidding. That night, I met one other group of hunters who were camping. A father and daughter, I think it was her first hunt. They were tent camping a couple of spots down from me. He had talked with the rangers pretty extensively and apparently the hunt two weeks before us had been pretty successful with 13 sheep killed though 1 guy had killed 8 of those. Apparently he was some sort of sniper and saw a herd 750 yards away. He took out 8 before they realized what was going on I guess. I guess sheep don’t pay much attention when Bob drops dead next to them. That’s also pretty impressive given everything I read online said aoudads were very hard to kill.

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Day 2 Briefing, Compartment draw and hunt
The draw happened at 9 though standbys had to show up at 8:30. There were six groups total, at least one of which was standby. There are seven compartments so no one got turned away. We signed all the liability waivers and then got the pre-hunt briefing from the coordinator. Basically, it boiled down to be careful, wear your hunter orange or get kicked out, be ethical hunters and don’t touch the middle wire on the boundary fence. Apparently, bison require fairly forceful reminders that there is a fence there. We drew for compartments and I got Green South. This wasn’t any of the areas that I scouted of course but the person in charge of the hunt seemed to think it was a good compartment. Three days later, I decided she was just being nice to me. This hunt had two dates and 24 permits available which would come out to 12 per hunt date. The officer in charge has said there were two cancellations but that still doesn’t add up to 12 so I’m not sure what was different. After we drew, the hunt officially started and everyone headed out to their compartments. The ranger who did the briefing gave pointers to everyone on their compartments and generally seemed pretty knowledgable. I got to my compartment around 10:30. I hiked up Canyon Loop Trail about a quarter of a mile and headed right into the compartment. Green South is in the middle of the park and doesn’t have any canyon walls like several other compartments. There is a large ridge/plateau that runs east and west through the compartment which looked the most promising and was where the ranger and sent me. I hiked all the way around it it that afternoon glassing for sheep up the plateau and hogs in the flatter areas. Everywhere I went I saw tracks, torn up prickly pear and scat. However, that’s all I saw all day. I couldn’t walk five feet without seeing tracks, mostly hog, but never saw a single animal. Unfortunately at some point, my shirt that I thought I had tied to my backpack disappeared. I backtracked about half a mile but never found it. I stayed out until right at 6. Legal shooting hours were from 7:15 to 6:30 but I wasn’t sure how far of a hike I had back to the car. Turns out, it was a pretty long one over rough terrain and I finally hit the Canyon Loop trail at dark. On the way out, there were a pair of great horned owls in trees on the bluff which was neat to see. Not as neat as an aoudad or hog but better than nothing. I signed out at 6:45 and chatted with two other groups. They were in blue and orange, both had seen nothing either all day.

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Day 3
I signed in at 6:15, first on the sheet. I didn’t have a very good feel of where to go so headed back to a similar spot though on the north side of the plateau. I glassed there once the sun was up and then moved along the north side from ridge to ridge, glassing as I went. Same story as the day before, lots of sign, no animals. I eventually did see three mule deer about 600 yards north of the plateau. I ended up circling the entire plateau this time with the exact same result. About 5 hours in the field. On the upside, I did find my shirt from the day before which was pretty lucky given the terrain. So it wasn’t a completely lost morning. The scenery was beautiful and it was nice to see the sun come up in the canyon. I decided to head up to headquarters around noon to see if anyone had bailed or if they had any other tips for my compartment. As it turned out, someone had already headed home. He was another single hunter like me (we were the only two singles) and had drawn Orange. He had signed in at 9:15 and back out at 11:30 and said he was done. I thought I would give his compartment a shot since it had looked semi-decent on my scouting. I decided to go around to where he was hunting from on the far eastern side along CR 29. As it turns out, I see why he quit. I’m pretty sure the rangers sent him this direction and it is VERY difficult hunting from there. If you shot something, there’s no way you could drag it back to the road. It was cut by several deep canyons running north and south. I hiked in in two places and immediately was stymied on going further. The funny thing is, the access from Wild Horse campground is way better and you’d have a decent chance to drag something out if you shot it. I assume the rangers know best but in this case, the north end of Orange along Mesa trail would be much easier to get into while still looking like good sheep terrain. I headed back to headquarters to switch back to Green South. The office was closed so I texted the hunt coordinator to see if I could switch back. My plan was to walk in from Wild Horse. I didn’t hear back from the coordinator but assumed no one else had signed into green while I was out. I walked in from Wild Horse and headed west on the Lower Canyon Trail. After I crossed the river, I walked up a mesa to glass. The Lower Canyon Trail is the boundary between blue and green but I had assumed no one was hunting that slice of blue north of the park road. However, immediately upon sitting down, I saw a flash of blaze orange on the mesa just south of me. One of the blue hunters was looking west along the river. I decided I didn’t want to be looking the same direction and switched to the other side of the mesa. About 20 minutes later, I saw him walking east on the Lower Canyon trail towards the trailhead and Wild Horse. I immediately got worried that someone had in fact signed into green while I was in orange. I didn’t want to be hunting in a compartment that had other hunters who didn’t know I was there so I hiked out at that point to confirm what compartment I was in. As it turned out, I was in green and had been switched. At that point, it was 4 PM and after a ton of hiking up very rugged terrain and seeing nothing, I decided to call it a day early.

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Day 4
The wind was blowing hard out of the southwest this morning which affected where to hunt. I could have gone back into North Prong area but it would have been a hard walk in the dark across the plateau so I decided to head down from the Wild Horse campground in search of a downwind spot. Yesterday, I had come to where the Canyon Loop trail crosses the river but it was deep enough to cover my boots and the thought of wet boots didn’t interest me much. This morning, I headed east on the Mesa trail and the river was much more navigable. I decided to climb the first mesa north of Mesa trail which overlooks the river in two directions, a creek and the trail junction. It was a good spot downwind with excellent vantage. Unfortunately, like all other days, Mother nature didn’t agree with me. I stayed there getting wind blowing 20-30 MPH winds until around 9. At that point, I headed into Green South and hiked about half a mile in over two mesas and looking into the canyons. Nothing. At this point, it was about 10 AM and the hunt ended at noon. I didn’t want to walk farther in because on the extremely unlikely chance I saw anything, I wasn’t sure I could drag it out by 12. So I sat on the mesa overlooking the river and just contemplated the previous days. About 10:30, I caught movement in the river to the east near the Mesa trail about 600 yards off. My excitement was short-lived as I turned my binoculars to the area and saw that it was 14 bison. The camp staff had been trying to round up all the bison over the past month and maybe these were the main holdouts. I watched them walk them walk the Lower Canyon Trail and then double back up the hill towards the Wild Horse Trail. They were magnificent to see and made my morning given how much terrain I had looked at without seeing anything. I gave them about a 15 minute head start and then headed down the mesa towards the car. I ended my hunt around 11 AM having walked close to 25 miles over 3.5 days. I had seen only 3 mule deer. I signed out around 11:15. Another group hadn’t shown up the last morning leaving only 4 groups out of 6 remaining. The ranger had taken the father/daughter team to a new compartment because it was her first hunt and they were hoping to at least shoot some hogs having seen no aoudads in 2 days of being in a promising compartment. I had spoken with the father the night before and he had said another group was going to hunt their compartment. As it turned out, that was the group that didn’t show up leaving what looked like the second best compartment (Pink on the map) empty on the last day of the hunt. I wish I had known that and in the future, I will confirm with parties their plans. Even going in blind, that compartment is much more sheep-y and who knows what a new day would have brought.

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Overall, the hunt was a fantastic experience even without seeing a single shootable animal. It was physically challenging in the extreme and I felt good in my preparation. In retrospect, I’d do two things differently. First, I’d definitely confirm people’s intentions towards the end of the hunt, especially the last day. This is the second draw hunt I have been on and on each occasion, people have not hunted the last day. This leaves compartments available and in this case, a good one. Second, for this hunt in particular, after first light, if nothing showed in promising areas, I would walk more canyons in poor compartments just looking for hogs. Apparently that’s how the rangers hunt the park. The hogs will hole up in the canyons during the day.
I’m thankful to the excellent staff at the Caprock Canyon State Park for the job they did in organizing and helping the hunters. I’m also grateful for the experience. The odds of drawing this hunt are very low (1 in 1200 or so for 2015) and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity. I may try to do standby here in the future, especially if weather is worse because they seem to have cancellations. Even this week, a perfect week weather-wise (though I think colder weather would have helped move the animals around), 2 groups cancelled leaving an empty compartment. The one standby group got a really good compartment so there’s no reason not to try it if the schedule allows.

There is a certain emotion with events like this that are expected for so long and then over in 3 days. I still feel a pang of a hazy nostalgia when I think of the trip over a month later. I planned for and thought about those three days for 5 months prior to the trip so it is only reasonable to feel a sense of loss when it is over. But even more than that, it’s a nostalgia for the plains of the Panhandle, for the stark beauty of the canyon, and the openness of the prairie beyond the windshield of the car. There is a breadth to the Panhandle that seems to consume and minimize you along with your fears and desires. There is nothing soft there, only angles and wind and a thousand things that can stick, bite or sting you. Yet when night falls and the Milky Way opens up above your head or the sun rises over your shoulders while walking along a prairie trail, a sublime beauty emerges from the starkness capable of soaking your soul. There is little else there and the quiet and the darkness still the mind allowing for peace to return. It’s a beautiful place beyond my expectations and one I always treasure.

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On Hunting

When I was a kid, I liked to hunt. I got a BB gun when I was probably 7 or 8 and I used it to shoot sparrows, pigeons, rabbits and innumerable Coke cans. Granted, I wasn’t exactly filling the freezer but it was fun. Like most kids, I don’t think I really understood the ramifications of hunting in that it wasn’t just glorified target practice. From the BB gun, I moved up to a single shot 20 gauge shotgun that I still have today. With it, I moved from just killing sparrows around the farmhouse trees to actively hunting rabbits, quail and pheasant. I was a decent shot and the rabbit population in particular was affected though that might be related to the habit rabbits have of stopping to make sure you are dangerous which of course you are when you have a shotgun. My grandfather taught me the basics of hunting, cleaning your kill and gun safety. He also taught me that I had to eat what I killed, a rule that only applied to what he considered true game and not things like jack rabbits. This rule led to one of my grandomther’s favorite stories to this day about the night I came in at dusk (in her story, it’s 11 but it doesn’t get dark at 11 PM in Beaver, Oklahoma, even in the winter) and made her fry the rabbit I had just killed.

I never moved from hunting for a little food and the excitement of being out in the field to chasing trophies. In fact, my hunting largely ceased about the time I got to high school. My grandfather would shoot game but it wasn’t something he enjoyed and other than him, there was little hunting experience in the family. My interests went to other things like soccer and band and I hung up the hunting hobby. I partially did this because I had other hobbies but also because I was having philosophical questions about hunting. Namely, towards the end of my nascent hunting career, I got to the point that rabbits fell to the gun a lot more often than they didn’t. I began to wonder how sporting it really was when my success rate seemed pretty high, at least in my own eyes. Of course, I’d also come to a better understanding that hunting meant killing when you were successful and I wasn’t completely on board with the ethics of that situation. Not that it stopped me from eating bacon on Saturday mornings but like most Americans, the distance between the act of killing something and frying it in a pan allowed me to avoid the necessary connection between life and death.

Then in around 2008, I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a story about our food, our food supply and the way something goes from being out in nature to showing up on our plate. That story affected how I look at food in ways I never could have imagined. The stories of our food supply especially as it relates to meat was eye opening. One of the lines through the story deals with going out and killing a feral pig and then following that pig through the entire process necessary to get it into a frying pan. An animal like a feral pig or a deer live its entire life free range so to speak in a manner exactly as it should. And so, with that book, began my journey back to being a hunter.

Of course, anyone who knows me knows that I still have that questioning mind when it comes to philosophy and ethics. I’ve seen hunting shows on TV where people are shooting game with a rifle from 500+ yards. To me, this isn’t hunting. It’s target practice with live targets. To each his own of course but I knew that if I was going to take up hunting again, it would at least have to be a challenge in the nature of sport. And so last year, I bought a compound bow and took the first baby steps towards actually providing meat for the table. Last year was largely a learning process, one that didn’t involve as much hunting as I would have liked. However, last month, through my membership in the Texas Archery Club, I had the opportunity to go on a bowhunt with four other men to the Johnson Ranch west of Llano, TX. This is an 1100 acre bowhunting only ranch with two camps for groups of 8-12 hunters. Even though there were only five of us, we were in the 12 man camp and had plenty of spots to choose from.

We got on the ranch Friday evening and situated ourselves in the bunk house. It’s rustic and sparse but far better than having to pitch a tent for the weekend. There is no electricity but there are bunks for 12 people, a kitchen with a gas stove and a bathroom. Mr. Johnson, the owner of the ranch, gave us some tips and then returned to pick us up Saturday morning at 5:50 AM to get us to our stands since only one of us had hunted the ranch before. We didn’t draw for stands and with only five people, we ended up hunting stands 1-8. I was placed in #2, a good stand with sight lanes north across a big clearing and a couple of sight lanes south into the ranch road.

The weather the first weekend of archery season in the Hill Country can be hot and it was this weekend on Saturday. Morning temps in the mid 70s that quickly moved into the 90s during the day made for hot days. I think it had something to do with the lack of game we saw over the first 24 hours but then, as a novice, it’s just a guess. Also, it has been a pretty good summer for Texas in that we’ve had rain throughout parts of the summer. The ranch was pretty green and the deer and hogs had plenty to choose from when it comes to browse. I think that had something to do with a generally slow weekend as well. Spending the morning in #2, I saw 1 doe across the north pasture at about 200 yards, 2 coyotes who slunk around the stand from north to south and a bunch of songbirds. Nothing even sniffed at the corn we’d put out. However, it was a wonderful experience that first morning. There is something primal and wonderful about sitting in a stand in the dark waiting for first light as the natural world around you wakens. In the speed of modern life, it’s a refreshing change to have connectivity other than to nature.

I left the stand at 10 AM having seen nothing to shoot at and returned to the cabin. As it turns out, it wasn’t just me. No one had seen anything to shoot at at all. After lunch, I decided to go out on a scouting walk to see where might be a good place to hunt that evening. I didn’t take my bow because it was 2 PM in the middle of the afternoon and I assumed there would be little reason to have it. I walked the loop of stands 1-8 in reverse order and as I approached my stand from that morning, I saw a large black shape moving at about 30-40 yards out of the corner of my eye. Parts of this ranch that are not hunted have cattle on them and initially, I thought this was a cow that had somehow gotten over the fence. When I turned to look more closely, I realized it was a large boar hog trotting towards a pond. He walked the same route the coyotes had taken that morning. with no bow, all I could do was watch him trot on his merry way. Being unexperienced, I had no idea how big he was but the leader of our group saw him later that night and estimated him at 250-300 pounds. I probably won’t be going on scouting trips without my bow anymore.

I decided to hunt #2 again that evening because of the hog. Plus, #2 is in an oak tree that provides the ability to stand up and look in different directions instead of just sitting the whole time. This ranch has been hunted for 40 years and many of the trees that the stands are in have grown around the welded stands, allowing for larger foot rests and in the case of #2, places to easily stand if you care to. That night was only slightly different from the morning. I did see two deer, a yearling and a doe right at dusk. The doe was extremely wary and after briefly straying into range, quickly moved back into the trees. The yearling ate some of the corn from the road on the south side but I wasn’t sure of the distance. I learned a valuable lesson on Sunday from an experienced hunter related to this issue. When hunting from a stand, it’s important to find your lanes and then mark them off before getting into the tree. This came in handy Sunday night but Saturday night, it meant the yearling left without a shot.

Saturday night, a cold front came in bringing rain that lasted from 1 AM to about 7 AM. This tested our group’s hardcore dedication and found it wanting. We had breakfast instead of venturing out in the rain to sit in a tree. This was probably a mistake as we found out that afternoon that the other camp had most of their success that morning. I ended up not getting into a stand until 7:30. I choose #11 this time and of all the ones I saw, this was the worst. It had two main sight lines but little cover nearby. There was a great deal of tracks around the area but I assume they were all made in the dark. I sat in 11 about an hour and then walked up the road towards 12. 12 is the most remote on the ranch and while it was the middle of the day, I went ahead and sat there for an hour as well. I think 12 would be a good place to hunt from especially if you dragged some corn out and spread it around the hill that it is on. No matter what, it has by far the best views of any stands I saw.

After lunch, I decided to hunt from #10 that evening. It’s a good stand, off the road 50 yards with 4-5 sight lines and right on a game trail from the big feeder on that side of the pasture. I put out quite a bit of corn, measured off my distances ( I learn reasonably quickly) and climbed into the stand at about 4:45. Sunset was around 7:25 that evening and at about 7:10, two deer came in from the south. They browsed on whatever they wanted to in the area other than the corn I had put out. They weren’t big deer but not having any experience with deer in the wild, I assumed they were just small Hill Country deer, something I had been told about. They were moving towards a 15 yard window when I heard a twig snap behind me. I turned to look and apparently their mother had been moving around the perimeter of stand 10. She must have heard me when I turned and all three of them quickly moved on. This was hard lesson number two in a weekend of hard lessons.

Nothing else came in that evening and we returned to camp. The next morning, I was back in stand 10 at 6:15 AM. However, none of my corn had made it through the night. At first light, I turned to the east and saw a small deer, another yearling, browsing in one of the main shooting lanes. At the same time, a doe that I presume was its mother moved into a shooting lane on the north side of the tree. In the end, I didn’t take a shot at either. The doe would have been a good shot and I knew the distance. Apparently, I hadn’t quite prepared myself for the actual moment of pulling back the drawstring. I think it would have been different with a buck but who knows. The city boy in me seems to still sway some control.

Not 10 minutes later, a group of five hogs moved out of some trees in the distance and made their way to the feeder to the west of #10. Having passed on the doe, I held my breath hoping they would come my direction. They weren’t large, probably 50-60 pounds each but my entire hunting journey began because of pigs and I was going to shoot one if they came into range. After 5-10 minutes they did start to move towards me. As they moved into range, I made another rookie mistake and pulled the bow too soon. I realized I wasn’t going to be able to hold the bow at draw until they got into my range and so I rested it on my leg at full draw, waiting for them to come closer. When they finally did, I made my second to last rookie mistake and forgot to take the bow off my leg for the shot. I put my second pin on the shoulder of the largest one and released the trigger. The bottom wheel, resting on my leg, caught my pants and yanked the bow down. The shot embedded harmlessly in the dirt 10 yards in front of the pigs.

Luckily, pigs are a lot less wary than deer and they only ran about five yards. I couldn’t believe it but after 30 seconds, they regrouped and came back in. I nocked another arrow, put the pin on the hog again and released. And here’s where we get to my last rookie mistake. I’ve never shot from a stand. I aimed too high for the distance and the arrow embedded in the dirt immediately behind the hog. After two shots, they were decidedly less hungry and ran off at full speed.

The moral of the story is that hunting is pretty hard when you’re within 30 yards of a large animal for the first time both from a concealment perspective, a logistical perspective and a “can you really decide to kill that animial” perspective. I learned a lot last weekend and I’m already looking forward to my next hunt. I’m disappointed I didn’t have more success but perhaps my expectations were far too high for a first real hunt. All in all, the experience alone was worth the trip as being out under the stars with a good group of guys was awfully rewarding.