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The Brush Country of South Texas is generally a dead-flat ocean of mesquite, prickly pear, blackbrush, juahilla, palo verde and more — brush too thick to see into. Heck, you can't walk through most of it — certainly not quietly. So most deer hunting is stand hunting, overlooking rare clearings or the intersection of cutlines known locally as senderos. Michael De Witt and I had spent the morning sitting on a sendero leading into a food plot. We'd seen a couple of nice young bucks. With the activity down, and the morning heating up, we were headed into ranch headquarters for breakfast.
The Killam Duval County Ranch is its own ocean of thick South Texas brush, but it's unusual in that it's dominated by a system of prominent limestone ridges. From the crest, the DCR stretches away to the horizons, more than 100,000 acres. That morning our path took us not along the crest, but along the base of the westernmost ridge. We were tootling along, enjoying the growing warmth, when I spotted a buck up on the ridgeline maybe 200 yards away. Mike stopped, and I knew long before he stopped that this was a whopper of a buck. Just as I got the crosshairs on him he skylined. The antlers were spectacular, and the body shape told me he was no youngster. I knew the rules on this ranch, but I had to be ready. I had long since chambered a round, and now I slipped off the safety. Mike was a few feet away, binoculars glued to his eyes, but he heard the click of that Mauser safety.
At that distance I'm sure the buck didn't hear it, but he turned, showing me a long, beautiful drop tine on his left antler and a shorter, equally beautiful drop tine right next to it. The buck had a wide spread, heavy beams and a tall 10-point frame going up. It's amazing Mike didn't have a heart attack. He doesn't stutter, and in fact, in all the time we've hunted together it's the only time I've seen him get really excited. He was trying so hard to get the words out, but they just wouldn't come. "D-d-d-d-d-d-on't sh-sh-sh-sh-oot!"
Honest, I wasn't going to shoot without Mike's go-ahead, but this was a great buck and I was darned well ready just in case. I knew the rules, and the rules on the Killam are strict. No young bucks are taken, period. Middle-aged bucks are taken only if they don't show promise. Otherwise the goal is to take 7 1/2-year-old bucks, minimum.
Honest mistakes happen when aging deer on the hoof. So far, (touch wood) I haven't made one of them on the DCR, and neither has Mike (at least not with me, or that he admits to). I've seen them made, and there haven't been any summary executions. Come to think of it, there hasn't been any verbal abuse, either. But I'd just as soon not suffer the look from ranch manager, David Kitner, that comes when a buck just a year younger than it should be — or was judged to be — comes into camp.
Now, on that particular buck on the ridge, had Mike given me the go-ahead — or had I squeezed the trigger without confirmation — I'm pretty sure both of us would have been shown the gate within the hour, never to return. That wasn't just any good buck. It was a known buck, a monster, watched since it was a two-year-old. That incident with Mike, now a famous campfire yarn on the DCR, happened when the buck was 5 1/2 years old. In that year his drop tines were at their greatest development, making him the most recognizable he ever was in his life. At 5 1/2, forget beauty and things like "score," he was off-limits, and since he was so distinctive no excuse would have sufficed.
On top of those ridges a plateau of mesquite and prickly pear stretches for several miles. The view is spectacular and offered a perfect site for David and Hayley Killam to build their home. This buck, henceforth and forever known as "Hayley's Buck," liked those flats, too, and was often seen a bit below the house. There are dozens and dozens of high stands and box blinds strategically placed around the DCR, but as his time neared, Hayley's Buck required a special stand sited for his movements. The buck was believed to be at minimum 7 1/2 years old in the fall of 2006.
It had been a regrettably dry spring and summer and antler growth was down. So the discussion was whether to taken him now or give him another year and hope the drought broke. The Killams own the ranch, but defer to Kitner for management issues. He believed the likelihood of the buck going downhill exceeded the possible gain in a better year, so, for the first time, hunting season opened on Hayley's Buck. It was mid-December when Hayley Killam spotted him from that well-sited stand.
Haley Killam made a perfect shot with her .270, and despite the bad year, and with his distinctive kickers and drop points, Hayley's Buck measured well into the 180s.
Managment At Its Finest
I have not taken a monster whitetail on the Killian Ranch, and indeed I may never. That's perfectly fine with me because I have learned more about whitetails, whitetail hunting and whitetail management from Mike De Witt, David Kitner and the Killams than I have learned over most of the rest of my career. I've also had the unique opportunity to see the benefits of a strict management program come to fruition.
When David Killam brought Kitner in as ranch manager, the DCR's buck herd had been abused for many years. The DCR sits just a few miles from Freer, Texas, heart of the Brush Country and home to Lionel Garza's famed Muy Grande big buck contest. There is no questioning the genetic potential. The climate is harsh, but the soil is high in antler-producing minerals and the browse is high in protein.
The harvest had been too large for too long, with bucks taken based purely on antlers rather than age. The DCR is vast, with part of it hunted by club leases and part commercially hunted by the ranch. Kitner instituted his seemingly Draconian harvest rules across the board. For several years, including when I started hunting there, on the commercial side he offered no trophy hunts at all, just management hunts. And a buck taken as a management buck had better be just that.
Kitner was about three years into his management program when I started hunting there. Genuinely mature bucks were still scarce, but there were lots of good-looking youngsters, precocious 2 1/2-year-olds, really nice 3 1/2-year-olds and a scattering of superb bucks in the 4 1/2 to 5 1/2 class that I wished were just a year or two older. Even then, the criteria for a management buck had escalated far beyond what would be considered a trophy in most places. Other than youngsters, there were very few 8-pointers in evidence. Freakish bucks with mismatched or odd antlers were even more scarce; these had mostly been dealt with.
A management buck I took early on was an old 11-pointer with heavy beams and perfect conformation. He came to De Witt's rattling antlers, and David Kitner was with me that day. He saw the dark body, gray face and loose skin on the neck. Without hesitation he told me to shoot him. For those who care, he scored in the mid-140s. His only sin was short points. Another time De Witt and I sat on a stand and watched a really fine buck make a circle through the low brush around us, checking for does. This buck was probably 6 1/2, wide and heavy, a 10-pointer with no blemishes. Mike knew this buck, and said I could take him. He was perfect and would probably push 160 inches, but his last fighting tines, his G-4s, were a bit short and it seemed unlikely they would get longer.
Petersen’s Hunting is the hunter's site for big bucks, trophy photos, gear reviews and more! www.petersenshunting.com
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