Firewheel and daisies paint the South Texas desert in bright yellow and maroon.
A swarm of bees, one that’s recently taken up residence between the tin roof of the lodge and the ceiling inside, hums a pleasant tune audible from 20 feet away.
A tiny vermilion flycatcher flits through low bushes in the yard, showing his bandit’s mask of black and the blood red breeding colors that have brought him to South Texas again.
Wild turkeys yelp and yip and flap their wings before leaving their roost for another day of foraging through the cactus and mesquite and coma of the ranch.
There is nonstop new life here at Rancho Encantado, which means it’s the perfect time to begin the search for old life, for the dead bone of whitetail antlers being shed by the mature trophy bucks that live here on the ranch.
Cade Green, longtime manager for owner Jack Brittingham, knows the deer that live on the ranch, where they live and hide and feed and breed. He knows their habits and weaknesses and strengths.
Each spring Green begins walking trails leading away from and toward the ranch’s many protein feeders, searching for the recently shed antlers of bucks that have survived another winter in deep South Texas.
“I like to take the sheds and measure them, so I can see what these bucks score during the season,” he says. “Then I can compare those scores to the estimates I’ve made from game camera scores so we can know which bucks we want to take.”
Score and age are important at Encantado, since Brittingham doesn’t want trophy bucks taken before they are at least 7 years old, Green says. “Having that shed really helps me to know which bucks we want to take, especially for Jack.”
Brittingham has made a habit of killing monster bucks with his bow each season, routinely taking at least two giants that score above 200 inches on the Boone and Crockett system. This past year, though, while hunting for a buck named LJ that Green was certain would push above 200, Brittingham struck out. He hunted the buck relentlessly but could never meet up with him.
Green did, though. Last week, while filling a protein feeder, he noticed one of the buck’s antlers lying just outside the fence around the feeder. “I picked it up and started following the way I thought he would go, and sure enough, I finally saw the other antler lying in some tall grass,” Green says.
The great thing about this buck’s antlers was that his strongest side totaled 98 inches. Add back spread and about 12 inches he’d broken off the other side, and the 9-year-old easily would break 200 inches. Good news for next year, even though the buck is wary and hard to find.
The fact that there was more than a mile between the first antler and the second is the reason he spends many hours searching fields and along fences for sheds. Jumping into and out of protein feed pens, open food plots and other areas where deer like to move often causes the bucks to drop one or both of their antlers just over the fence.
Trey Carpenter and I, while driving the perimeter, found a matched set of long-tined antlers just inside a food plot not 100 yards from a protein feeder. We found another single horn in another field, again just inside a fence.
Green goes back to his extensive game camera photo records to look at weird places on the antlers and points that could be hidden from sight that would run up the score on individual bucks. “The hardest thing to guess from photos is beam length and mass,” he says, “but with the sheds I can know that exactly and know whether a buck goes up or down the next year.”
All it takes is 20 or 30 miles of walking through cactus and mesquite brush, picking off ticks and dodging rattlesnakes, and all the answers are right there for the taking.