For those not in the know (where the know is poor Texas hunters with no lease and no family land that’s been around for generations), Texas Parks & Wildlife has a system that is essentially a lottery for hunts around the state in State Parks and WMAs and other state owned land. The locations get shut down for the duration of the hunt and typically the winners get assigned particular compartments to hunt in. I’ve been applying since around 2011 and have been lucky enough to win several including a very exclusive Caprock Canyons hunt.
This year, I won a hunt on private lands in Travis County that was last week. The private lands hunts cost a little bit more to enter ($10 versus $3 for other types) but if you win them, they don’t have an entry fee which makes it a pretty good deal. When I applied for this hunt, there was no description of the hunt so I thought “Hmm a hunt in the Hill County on private lands? That sounds like a great deal.” As it turns out, they probably don’t provide a description because they don’t want the general public to know where the hunt is.
Without disclosing the location, I’ll just say it’s essentially in the city limits of Austin. It’s a beautiful piece of property but isn’t what I’d actually call a Travis County Ranch. The property is managed for the two endangered species, the black capped vireo (recently delisted so yay) and the golden cheeked warbler. Deer are a threat to the habitat of the birds so there are management hunts on the property to keep the deer population in check. And by in check, it apparently means way below normal.
The hunt itself is well managed and the sheer size of the property at four thousand plus acres means you feel like you have the place to yourself. There are seven blinds on the property but only four were in use for my hunt. The hunt ran from Thursday at noon to Saturday at noon. We were in assigned blinds which meant you didn’t see much of the property other than where you were selected for.
The hunt I won was an Antlerless/Spike plus unlimited feral hogs hunt which is essentially a cull hunt meant to reduce the number of does. In most of Texas and most Texan hunters like to shoot bucks which results in a bad ratio of bucks to does. So these management hunts typically restrict you to only does or spike bucks which means a buck with one horn with no points. Last year, I was on the Richland Chambers WMA archery hunt and it was exactly the opposite because they had had a huge flood two years prior that really wiped out the deer population. So they wanted does to rebuild the herd. On that hunt, I saw nothing but does of course and shot nothing. This is kind of foreshadowing. Also, this ranch doesn’t seem to have any feral hogs so that unlimited feral hogs thing shouldn’t get anyone’s hopes up. When I see “unlimited” anything, I start to think Chinese Buffett gluttony but that’s not the case here. The hunt administrator said he might see 1 hog a year.
After orientation, I got to the blind about 2:30 on Thursday and sat until 6:15 or so. That night, the only notable mammal running around was a coyote with a bum leg who I started calling Gimpy since he showed up later in the play. Friday morning, I was in the blind at 5:15 and stayed until 11:30. In those six hours, I saw a bobcat right around 8 AM, a decent sized six point buck who came loping in at 10:45 right about the time I thought I might leave the blind and a roadrunner.
That night, I was back in the blind by 2 PM and sat until 6:15 again. I saw a little four point buck come in around 4:30. Then Gimpy showed up again briefly, gamely hopping along on three legs. Then at dusk, a big eight point buck came in that was definitely a shooter on any other property but because of the no bucks rule, just visual candy for me. I watched him eat corn for about 15 minutes before wandering off into the scrub.
Early in the afternoon, an Eastern Phoebe started perching in the mesquite right in front of my blind and dive-bombing insects which was fun to watch. He put on a show for probably 30 minutes.
Saturday morning, I was in the blind again at 5:15 and sat until 11. I saw the same little four point from Saturday come into the feeder at first light and then the big six pointer came in at 9:45. I also saw two Woodhouse’s Scrub Jays, a pretty blue bird that I’d never seen before that ate as much corn as the deer did probably. I never saw a hint of a doe.
My blind was on an area of the property where the original farmhouse stands. The hunt administrator said they believed the home was built originally in the 1870s with some additions later in the 1920s. It’s badly overgrown and could use some basic caretaking but just being near it and thinking about what life was like for those people 150 years ago was pleasing. I wandered around the homestead and marveled at the rock buildings that someone knew how to build in 1870. I fear if I had to build a house today, it would be something out of the Three Little Pigs first couple of stanzas.
For the hunt, I stayed at the Wyndham down by the airport at 35 and 290. It was pretty convenient but was one of those hotels that was built in the 80s and looked its age. It smelled like a casino without the added benefit of having a casino. On the plus side, at 4:30 AM, it was 18 minutes away from the ranch which is way better than sleeping in a tent. I ate Saturday night at Bill Miller’s BBQ which was a decent place, very old school, and apparently run by nothing but high school and early college age women. It’s no Franklins but then I didn’t have to wait in line 3 hours to get decent brisket and sausage.
Overall, I’d probably apply for this hunt again, just with much lowered expectations. I enjoyed just being on the land, watching nature all day with no expectations for any level of success. It was a convenient hunt since it’s in Austin and would be really good for kids. But at 12% success last year and with only one person taking a deer when I was there, it’s definitely not as promising as many other TP&WD hunts. So caveat emptor and know what you’re getting into.