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OPERATION BLACKBUCK

By Dave Fulson

It’s funny how hunters, especially those in the early stages of their hunting career, pinpoint a certain species as a “must do” as it pertains to their hunting goals. My fiancée, Heather Wilson, is no exception. Since she became a hunter about seven years ago, she has continually lobbied for me to take her on a hunt for one of Texas’ more common exotics, the black and white bundle of pure masculinity known as the blackbuck antelope.

Introduced to Texas in the 1930s from the native countries of India and Pakistan, the blackbuck has flourished in the Lone Star State. His biggest enemy is cold, where he succumbs to

Brian and Heather with a hard earned trophy.
Brian and Heather with a hard earned blackbuck.

pneumonia during extended rounds of freezing temperatures and rain. Thankfully, Texas, especially central Texas, enjoys warm to scorching temperatures much of the year, making it the perfect range for blackbuck – and the perfect region to plan a hunt for one.

In my pre-TV-life, I both hunted and guided dozens of hunts for this speedy transplant. I always admired the plucky spirit of blackbuck rams. Territorial by nature, they will set up a home territory and defend it in bitter and prolonged battles with rival males. I have several times been rattling antlers for whitetails, only to have a blackbuck ram come tearing in, I assume to see who is fighting in his backyard. It works both ways too, as I have snuck in several times to the sounds of fighting that I thought were made by whitetails, only to find two blackbuck rams in a heated dispute.

Maybe because I have hunted them so much, I take them a bit for granted. Several nice rams adorn our game room, and I guess that is where Heather’s hunt really started. Since she first snooped around my house, now our home, she always admired the blackbuck mounts. Even when she had a few whitetails and a first African safari under her belt, Heather continued to express her desire to hunt a ram of her own. So with that goal in mind, I called my buddy Brian Bannister and told him I wanted to set up a hunt at his home away from home, the Star S Ranch outside of Mason, Texas. Brian and his son Dalton both guide hunters for the Star S throughout the year, and few men know the Texas hunting scene better than this father and son duo. One who does however is the ranch manager, Eric White, one of the most experienced guides, ranch managers, and wildlife experts in a state known for all three.

August is not my favorite time to hunt in the blast furnace heat of Texas, but Heather’s job as well as full-time school schedule (she is working towards a Bachelor’s in Nursing) made August the only time our schedules lined up. It made not one bit of difference to the blackbuck, as they relish the heat, but I knew it would be warm.

The Star S Lodge, comfort in abundance.

The Star S Ranch is big, even by Texas standards. It is 14,000 beautiful acres of Hill Country, cut by the scenic James river. Best known for the world class white-tailed deer roaming its cedar breaks and rolling hills, the ranch is also home to a tremendous variety of big game from around the world. And the lodge is comfort on an epic scale!

We arrived on a Friday afternoon and had time for a quick hunt. Brian would be Heather’s guide, and I was just trailing along enjoying the show. While stalking into the wind towards a large field known to be in a large ram’s territory, Heather stopped, and looking to her right said, “Pigs!”

Sure enough, walking single file through a patch of cactus and mesquite were six or so medium-sized pigs headed to the same field. As it was late, Brian put up the BogPod shooting sticks, Heather got settled in, and with her guide’s go-ahead, ended the career of a fat young boar whose rooting days were now behind him.

The next day, several nice rams were spotted, but for one reason or another, they got into cover before we could get set up. But, as Brian assured Heather, our chance would come. It did. Just at sunset a nice ram was spotted meandering through a thick mesquite patch, and Brian whispered “Heather, we’re going to try to shoot this one.”

After a bit of hide and seek, we spotted the ram at about 75 yards in a small opening. The problem was the ram saw us at the same time. Instantly the sticks went up, Heather got on them, and Brian whispered” If you are comfortable, take him.”

If you have hunted long enough, you will take a shot you would love to take back. That shot was Heather’s introduction to this reality. The ram was angled toward us more than she realized, and she did not allow for the angle. At the shot, the ram jumped, then tore off into the gloom. Brian and I wore the same worried expression − and Heather read our faces. The ram was hit, but we did not know how well. Few people on this planet have the compassion for animals as Heather, and that compassion now revealed itself in tears, knowing that she had not made a shot that resulted in the ram dropping as she hoped. A thorough search turned up no hair, zero blood, or any indication that the ram was hit. But Brian and I knew that it was.

The cover was very thick, so we made the decision to not push the ram, if he was indeed still on his feet. If spoor had been present, we would have followed by flashlight, but the decision to wait for daylight was a sound one. It was one very upset hunter, and two very sympathetic men who returned to the lodge. Brian and I both did our very best to lift her spirits, and assure her that daylight would find us exhausting every effort to find the ram.

2015-09-08 09.45.46
Hard night… happy morning.

As promised, daylight found us back where the ram stood, but even daylight brought us no sign of a hit. At this point, we slowly started circling the area, painstakingly looking for either blood or body. It was Brian who found him. Easing through a thick patch of cover, he spotted where the buck had fallen. As the crow flies, it was about 200 yards from where he was hit. There was no blood trail, as the bullet had stayed in him, but the shot had been fatal and after a long night, of worry, Heather had her ram!

I was actually proud of her reaction. It shows her respect for the animal she hunted. It also showed her humanity, and her desire to take game cleanly, ethically, and to the best of her ability.

Eric was on the radio and congratulated her on finding her prize. Like Brian and I, he has a lifetime of search and recovery under his belt, and he knew what the moment meant to her. We returned to the lodge, skinned the ram, and sat down to a feast of a lunch. It was a much happier woman who was now able to enjoy her surroundings completely, no longer weighed down with worry. We relaxed for a while, then went on a tour of the ranch so Heather could hopefully get a look at some of the other animals she was hoping to see, namely sable and bongo. Before the day was over she saw both, and much more.

It was a short, but very memorable hunt. To tell the truth, probably more fun for me than anyone else. I was able to spend time in the field with three of my favorite people, saw Heather grow as a hunter, and watched her realize a goal − a trophy blackbuck of her own. To do all three at a destination as wonderful as the Star S Ranch was just icing on the cake.

For more information on the Star S Ranch and their world class hunting operation, please visit their site at http://www.star-s-ranch.com/.

 

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