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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.