Out Of The Can
Author: Thomas McIntyre
The Four Best Exotics in Texas - Blackbuck, Nilgai, Axis Deer, and Aoudad
Let's be honest. With some 75 species of exotics, and hundreds of thousands of animals, in Texas, there are more than enough goofy barasingha deer and hand-fed sable waiting to be shot off the muzzle of a rifle, offering about as much sporting challenge as smacking a box turtle with a hammer. "Exotic" doesn't always have to be a euphemism for "canned," though, and there are at least four from Texas that are worth any serious hunter's effort.
To begin with, there is the antelope probably most emblematic of Texas exotics hunting, the blackbuck. A native of India, the blackbuck is about the size of our North American pronghorn, and every bit as fast, having evolved, as did the pronghorn, alongside (or rather, one step ahead of) cheetahs. Among the most striking big-game animals on earth, the black-on-white males have white goggles, chins, and ears, and tight-spiraling, ringed horns (at record lengths-the world's-record Indian head over 32" long is actually longer than the blackbuck is tall at the shoulder. It is one of the very few animals of which this is true, others being the Marco Polo sheep and the wild Asian water buffalo). Though still well represented in parts of their home range, you can't hunt them there, and have to go to Texas, or Hawaii, or one or two other places, to hunt them at all.
One Texas April, not too long ago, I went after blackbuck with the well-known guide Bubba Glosson of Southwestern Trophy Hunts in Lampasas, Texas. Bubba tries to scout out ranches off the beaten path that don't get a lot of commercial hunting pressure, and so have time to grow good trophies. He'd found some good blackbuck on a ranch with low (instead of game-proof) fencing, and I got to spend the day crawling around among shin oaks and mesquite trees, moving, bent over, from one patch of cover to the next, and lying out on rocks and cactus, all to learn how "easy" this kind of exotics hunting is.
The best exotics know what it means to be hunted and, like W. C. Fields, never give a sucker an even break. (If you want to see how many blown stalks and missed chances at shots you can pack into a day, try hunting blackbuck). At one point we had a herd of bucks jogging down a hill to where I was on stand at the base of a tree, a .220 Swift Dakota Arms Model 10 single-shot resting on crossed sticks. As the bucks swept past, 85 yards away, Bubba whistled and the biggest, third in line and square in my crosshairs, planted his front hoof; but as his rear hoof was coming down, the young buck ahead of him gave a bound, and the big buck kept jogging. We caught a break half-an-hour later, having circled around the ranch, to find the same herd coming out of a stand of oaks and into a pasture. I had a 220-yard shot for the .220 Swift at the big buck, quartering to me; and when I fired, he hopped and turned and ran, circling as the herd ran off. Then his head came back and he went down, the 60-grain Nosler Partition having taken him in the tops of the lungs and exiting in front of his left hip. His horns were a heavy 21" (an excellent trophy for Texas) and his meat exceptionally fine.
At the opposite end of the scale in both body size and horn length is the nilgai (nilgaw), blue bull
, in the Hindi language of its Indian home). Released on Texas ranch land, like the blackbuck, in the 1930s, it has certainly the smallest horn-to-size ratio of any big-game animal: 10" horns on a quarter-ton body. Still they are striking animals - gun-barrel-blue hide with a turkey beard on the neck and those short, sharp horns spit-polished black. They are both aggressive and wary, often goring one another to death, while breaking into a gallop at the sight of a man 500 yards away. And if you hope to fence them in, invest in the cheapest wire you can, because it's going to be trashed.
Although there may actually be more nilgai in Texas today than in India, it's still not the most comfortable place for them. They, like the blackbuck, are hot-house flowers, any serious cold snap is liable to kill them right off. So they are confined to the warmest areas of the south Texas coast. That's where I hunted them some years back on the mammoth Kenedy Ranch.
After trying for several days, unsuccessfully, to take one with a bow, I decided that this was an accomplishment better left to Fred Bear. I took off with the ranch manager for the wide sea-grass plains at the Kenedy's southern end, were gigantic nilgai bulls saw us, and we saw them, running. Somehow I did manage to work my way around an oak to catch a bull out alone, 165 yards away. I was using a 7mm Weatherby I had borrowed from the manager, and got a firm rest and a fast shot. I lost the nilgai in the recoil, and he was gone when I looked again. The manager had not seen the shot, and when he came up, he said we'd have to do a wide sweep, because nilgai are infamous for packing lead. Thirty minutes later, having gone as far as a quarter mile out, I went back to where I had shot and stepped off 165 paces in the line of fire and found the bull, dead in his tracks, in the tall green grass.
When I went after the third of the Texas four last June I had my own Ultra Lightweight 7mm Weatherby Magnum, topped with a Swarovski Professional Hunter 4-16x50 scope. The Indian Axis deer, or chital
, another '30s import, is the most widespread exotic in the state, numbering into the tens of thousands and found, both free-ranging and fenced, in nearly 100 counties. Carrying fawn spots throughout life, the bucks can weigh more than 250 pounds and sport tall, wide, three-tined antlers the color of butter. And "buttah" is the word for their meat, too. Widely considered the finest tasting game meat of all (when you order "venison" in a restaurant, you're almost invariably eating Axis deer), it can also legally be sold as "fat free."
Two friends of mine, Steve Stathatos and Pam Cooper, and I hunted Axis with Bubba around Johnson City. Axis are arguably the smartest and cleverest of the exotics. Steve's hunt, for a fine 30" trophy, lasted about half a day, while Pam ("Lucky Pam," who does things like shoot mountain goats from a canoe on a lake or kill greater kudu with a .243) had been on a ranch all of five minutes, in fact hunting blackbuck, when the most phenomenal Axis buck (wearing a 4x4 Louisville Slugger hat), a buck nobody even knew existed
on the ranch, stepped out in front of her and Bubba gave a strangled whisper, "You will
kill this deer!"
Of course, I had to be a contrarian and take three long days of hunting - deer vanishing into the trees in a blink, a long shot taken and missed, before jumping a heavy-necked rutting buck at a waterhole in the last light of the last day. He ran uphill, pushing his does ahead of him, and the 160-grain Nosler Partition hit him in the upper right leg, spinning him back and putting him down. I had to sneak along a wash to get in range for an 80-yard offhand finishing shot. He had tall thick antlers with one cheater point, the top of the right main beam bladed like the start of a fallow deer's palm. An excited Bubba looked at the antlers and pronounced, "You don't know what you got." I think I did.
If there is one "best" Texas exotic, it's the aoudad, or Barbary sheep. Technically a sheep-goat, with sheep eyes and nimble goat brains, they came from the Atlas and Ennedi Mountains in North Africa in the early 1900s, and came to Texas throughout the '30s and '40s. Rams carry triangular horns with 16" bases and up to 35" of length, the aoudad of Texas growing to be larger trophies than those of Africa. They are stocky 300 pounders, the rams wearing long fringes of hair on their chest and down their front legs, inspiring the French to christen them the "sheep with chaps."
I hunted aoudad many years ago in the Hill Country with the late Finn Aagaard. I took a fair ram with my .270, but I'd like to try for another. Maybe I'll hunt with Bubba out in the desert mountains of West Texas (Bubba's favorite hunting) where the free-ranging aoudad are wild as the wind and the hunting is real sheep hunting, with ridges, cliffs, and ledges. I'd like to glass one of those big rams in my spotting scope from across a steep canyon someday. That would be one of the exotic sights that it is truly worth going to Texas to see.
Thomas McIntyre has written for Sports Afield magazine for nearly a quarter century. He is the author of four books on hunting and fishing, including the critically acclaimed "Dreaming the Lion", published by Down East Books. His newest book, "Seasons & Days: 25 Years of Hunting Stories", will be published next year by The Lyons Press. Tom lives with his wife and son in northern Wyoming.
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