Anybody who drives in the Hill Country and counts the dead bucks along the highway should know that the serious part of the rut has been in full bloom for the past two weeks.
The carnage has been great; the mangled bodies of bucks driven crazy enough on testosterone to try to cross the highway at night are everywhere. That includes well inside city limits signs and way out in the country on rural roads.
The same thing has been happening on Camp Verde Ranch, the picturesque property owned by Bobby Parker and his wife, Risa. From nothing to craziness in just a few days, the rut here has pulled old bruisers out of the brush as they search for a doe willing to meet their courting maneuvers with favorable responses.
Just two weeks ago, as Parker was hosting a gathering of retired Texas Rangers (the guys with the badges, not baseball bats), I was driving around the ranch looking for deer while almost everyone else dispersed for the morning to look for breakfast.
Steve Knight was riding with me, and as we left the east side of the ranch and headed into the big draw that splits the ranch almost in half, we saw several deer beginning to stand up from tall grass, where they were bedded beneath a motte of live oaks.
Big bucks are where you find them, and we had found one. There were several does and one middle-aged buck, along with a monster of a mature buck I knew I hadn’t seen before. The does began trailing up a nearby mountain toward thick cedars up on top, followed by both bucks.
We drove quickly around toward the bottom of the hill to get a better look at the old buck, but before we could get there, he stopped under the last live oak going up the hill and began pawing the ground in a show of dominance.
He was throwing dust up in the morning air and created a cloud above and around himself that floated off toward the south. At that moment, his does broke toward the north and a brushy draw that runs between two hills.
We circled again to catch up and stopped just as the big buck slammed to a halt on the hillside above the draw. He was heavy and wide, well over 20 inches, and was carrying that antler mass above a body grown massive and muscled during his rutting display behaviors.
Standing there in the sunshine, with does surrounding him, the buck was regal and amazing. And again, despite trail cameras at every blind and people hunting every weekend and most days during the week, no one had managed to catch even a glimpse of this buck.
I was on the phone to Parker immediately. No answer. I sent a text message and got back a message that he was in town taking care of some business. “You need to get out here immediately,” I said. “You need to see this deer.”
We had pictures of the deer already and when Parker returned to the ranch, he and I began a series of slow drives through the draw, looking for the deer chasing a doe on that hillside. We made multiple trips over the next several days without finding him again.
I was back the next week and spent an entire weekend of hunting just driving through the area trying to find him. Still nothing.
Parker by now had seen the photos and had decided he wanted to hunt the buck. He spent one windy afternoon sitting on the ground across the draw where we’d last spotted the buck but saw only lesser bucks, though one of them turned out to be a brute of a typical 12-pointer his son Robb would kill Wednesday, the afternoon before Thanksgiving.
We discussed possibly waiting until the rut began to wind down and then maybe climbing the mountain to try rattling around the edges of the cedars that deer use to hide and get out of the cold. But we didn’t want to spook him out of his hiding place if we could avoid it.
Instead, Parker chose to begin sitting at a blind on another hillside not far from where we spotted the old buck. Morning and night he sat there, waiting for something to happen. Then he’d climb down and make a slow drive through the draw just in case.
Things finally changed Thursday afternoon, when Parker sat his 17-year-old grandson in the same blind to hunt for a specific buck. He was warned not to shoot the wide, heavy typical 12 that Parker was hunting. He was given a photo of the deer NOT to shoot.
And here’s the twist: He didn’t shoot Bobby’s buck, at least not with a rifle. The buck came walking in to a feeder late in the afternoon, and the wily grandson took photos of him to send back to Bobby at the house. The pictures were definitely the old buck, which left Parker shaking his head.
After all that time spent hunting him, he shows up at an out of the way blind, eats some corn and walks back up the hill and disappears into the cedars. “Where will you be hunting tomorrow?” I asked Parker over the phone. He laughed and confirmed he’d be in that blind, El Gato, all day Friday.
“I have to,” he said. “I’m the only one who hasn’t seen that buck.”
They are where you find them.