My first trip to the Rio Bonito Ranch in Junction Texas occurred in 1995 at the invitation of dearly departed friend, Dirk Ross. It was an experience that opened my mind and my hunting career to a whole new world and class of wild things that have enriched my existence ever since. For the past decade and a half I have made the annual pilgrimage to the Rio dragging along any and all of my friends who were the least bit interested. Most all share my passion for the Hill Country and its 4-legged inhabitants, some even enough to become regulars at one of the neatest hunting destinations in North America.
Each year our hunt includes all the hogs we can take (no wasting allowed) and one hard-horned animal, which can include one of following five creatures: a Sika Buck, an Axis Buck, a Fallow Buck, an Aoudad Ram or a Wildcard critter. The first four selections are plentiful on the ranch and our hunters usually take the first trophy species they see from this selection. The Wildcard option is a rare coup, however.
The Handsome Black Buck is a rare sight on the Rio Bonito, but they are seen occasionally as they wander through the Hill Country.
The Ranch is 26-square miles of rugged terrain situated atop the Edwards Plateau and is covered by thick cedar trees an abundant scrub oak. The sheer robustness of the landscape is what draws and holds the creatures to the ranch’s expanses. The Rio is not a high-fenced ranch, but has them nearby; two actually abut the ranch. The bad thing about confinement is that animals want to escape and when they do, they have the vastness of the Rio Bonito to hide in. The creatures behind the high fences can be any exotic species, but once they are on the Rio they become a Wildcard Critter, which makes them fair game to the hunters.
Several years ago, there was a couple of water buffalo that escaped an enclosure and were wandering around the ranch. They were eventually brought in to hang on the Rio’s meat pole, but it took a while for them to be in the right place at the right time allowing a hunter to deliver the sentence. There is a herd of Red Stag that is rumored to be running the ranch, but this wily gang of ungulates does not come into the feeders making it uncertain whether the small herd really exists or is just a legend. In the past decade and a half, two of our hunters have taken Wildcard Critters; one hunter a Black Buck and the other a Marino Ram, both of which were roaming the wilds of the ranch when the hunter happened to be in the right place at the right time. Of course when it does happen, the excitement is at a peak for the entire group, all thrilled because someone scored a Wildcard Critter.
The beautifully rugged terrain of the Rio Bonito is the secret magnet that draws and holds the wildlife there.
In all my years of hunting the Rio, I’ve never seen a Wildcard Critter let alone had a shot at one. That all changed during our latest hunt to the Rio; I not only got my chance to take the Wildcard, I trumped it right into my cooler. Because of the wickedly cold weather we were experiencing this year, the bowhunters of the group borrowed rifles so that we could hunker down in the shooting boxes getting out of the elements. It can get wind-chilly cold atop a tripod stand in 30-MPH winds when the temp is 15 degrees and you didn’t bring your winter boots because you were going to Texas where it was warm and you certainly wouldn’t need them. What is it they say about the best laid plans? Now you either sit in the hacienda around the fireplace staying warm or you reevaluate, improvise and overcome. We bowhunters chose the latter.
Claude Davenport borrowed me an old single-shot H & R .243. I’m comfortable with a single shot, because my crossbow is a single shot. The first shot is the most important because it will most likely be the only shot. I didn’t get a chance to fire it on the range, but Uncle Claude, the gun’s owner, had sighted it in and assured me that it was right on the money at 100 yards.
As a bowhunter I am used to shooting a single-shot weaopon so the H & R .243 was a natural for me.
Dropped off at my box well before daylight, I settled to waiting for dawn in the frigid morning. When light melted away the darkness I was treated to the presence of a herd of Axis deer. They were joined by a huge buck that was still in velvet; Ms. Gwen does not allow the harvest of bucks in velvet. The Axis deer breeds year around, but most of the Rio herd sheds their velvet in late spring and then goes into rut in June. All I could do was watching this tanker with my binoculars and take a few photos.
Eventually the herd of Axis wandered off to be absorbed by the heavy cover that surrounded the open field I guarded. With no creatures to study, I reached into my tote and pulled out a Reader’s Digest magazine, my favorite entertainment in a deer stand and began to read, occasionally raising my head to check for life. On one of these checks, I spied a Black Buck and 3-does loping across the open field toward the opposite end. They must have popped out of the heavy cover some where nearby as they were headed away from me.
It was so cold on this trip that even the running water was freezing, even at mid day.
I flipped the magazine into the tote, picked up the rifle; lifted it to my shoulder cocking the hammer as I did so and found the buck in the scope of the rifle. I brought the crosshairs to its shoulder as it angled away from me at a lope, moved the crosshairs slightly ahead of the animal and squeezed the trigger. The last picture in my mind’s eye before the rifle barked was one of the crosshairs being ahead of the animal. My brain began to scream, “You missed it you fool! You shot in front of it!”
Now please consider that this was the first rifle I’d had in my hands since November of 1991. I’ve hunted with all forms of firearms since I began shooting big game back in 1961 and I used to be a pretty darn good shot, killing many a running deer; it’d just been a long time that’s all. But as my brain belittled the shot, the voice of instinct entered the conversation confirming the logic of leading a loping animal even with a rifle.
Lowering the rifle, I began to break and reload as I examined the landscape seeing only the 3-Black Buck does in the field. All of them had stopped and were nervously stomping and looking in the spot where I’d last seen the buck. When the .243 was again ready to fire, I set the rifle down and lifted binoculars to my eyes, scanning the field. The grass was tall and at first I saw nothing. Then I caught movement. It was a leg kicking out at the brisk morning air. I zeroed in on the spot and focused just in time to see more thrusts of the Black Buck’s hind leg. It was down!
Even Guide, Alan Lee was thrilled at the rare triumph of a Wildcard Critter.
Now the Black Buck is a little antelope from India that makes a very small target, especially when it’s moving. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in speed, beauty and taste. Black Bucks are rare on the Rio, but they are seen occasionally; usually from a vehicle when no one is ready. This group of four just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and the buck met its fate as it collided with destiny. And I had taken a Wildcard Critter and was absolutely thrilled.
I got out of the shooting box and walked over the animal, rifle in hand and at the ready. The bullet has entered behind the shoulder and came out the neck obviously breaking the animals neck and quickly ending its run. It was a good, clean shot and the voice of instinct congratulated me as the voice of my brain remained silent. I could only admire the animal and offer a prayer of thanks to the God of the hunt. It had been a morning I would not soon forget; and as the day warmed I sat down to enjoy the warm glow of the moment.
Third Morning: 15 degrees, 30-miel and hour winds, snow falling horizontally and two hogs down.
The rest of the hunt was wonderful, but somewhat dulled by harvest of the Wildcard Critter; not just because of the unique trophy that was collected, but also because of the circumstances. I’d used a rifle for the first time in 20 years and was reminded of how much fun it is. I’m am a bowhunter first and always, but I am looking forward to my next opportunity to use a rifle when the circumstances demand it. And because of the experience, I’m more aware than ever before of the Mission Statement of the American Crossbow Federation: “The ACF is dedicated to the promotion and preservation of ALL forms of hunting with ALL weapons.” Can we all say “AMEN”!
My Kodabow got little use on this trip becuase of clothing not heavy enough for the chill.
What's the color of the sky? Believe me it is "Ice Blue".
Although not big, given the circimstances, this Black Buck is the trophy of a lifetime.