Double Jeopardy at the Franklin Family Ranch

Axis hunting is easy … or so most whitetail hunters would have you believe.   My experience has convinced me otherwise.    Prior to May 2002, all of my experience in hunting axis was in the South Texas brush country at the LaComa Ranch, just north of Edinburg.   Although the LaComa is under high fence, as are most exotic ranches, the territory is as wild as any brush country in South Texas.  That was one of the attractions.  The other attraction was the fact that the ranch manager (Rob Payne), who also served as our guide, was one of the best in the business.  Over an 18-month period, I made three trips to the LaComa, and was lucky enough to take an aoudad and an axis.  In all honesty, the combined total time to prepare and make these two shots was less than 8 seconds.  I was just lucky, or blessed depending on your spiritual persuasion.  Excluded from the 8 second combined time, was one embarrassing incident, the details of which have not been circulated beyond the circle of my close friends.  It happened on my 2nd hunt at LaComa.  Rob and I stalked to within very close range of an axis which I tried to harvest, but did not.  One might wonder how an experienced hunter could make a successful stalk yet make an unsuccessful shot at a standing axis, less than 12 feet away.  All I can say is, “Ask the mesquite branch that hung first between me and the axis … and then lay on the ground, severed and (I think) smirking.”   

In the summer of 2001, Rob Payne finalized a decision to start his own outfitting business in New Mexico.  The LaComa became a memory, and I was in the market for a place in the Texas hill country to hunt axis.  More changes were in the wind.  My daughter, and hunting partner for the past several years announced her engagement in the fall of 2001.  The date was to be in June 2002.  This meant that if I wanted to hunt axis this year (2002), I would do it alone … or would I?

In December, I started exploring options closer to home.  There are many outfitters offering guided axis hunts.  But I found after quite a bit of investigation that many outfitters are not much more than brokers, booking hunts for you on land they do not own.  For some reason, this just was not appealing to me.  By chance, I found a website for the Franklin Family Ranch.  It seemed to fit the bill.  The FFR is located near Blanco, Texas, a shorter drive from Houston, and not far from my hometown of Austin.   Besides being convenient, the FFR seemed to be unique in other ways.  First, it is indeed a family owned and operated business.  Second, in every conversation I had with FFR during the planning phase of the hunt, the emphasis was on “family”.  Certainly, they cater to individual hunters or groups of hunters.  But they also have structured a number of package hunts, which make it easy for parents and their children, or husband and wife, to share the experience.  And that is what is encouraged.  

Unlike whitetail deer, which come into full horns in early fall and stay into the coming year before shedding, within an axis deer herd, the bucks can and do carry horns at different times of the year.  Thus, you can find hard horns on part of the herd through out the year.  As I understand it, the primary rutting period is in the May-August timeframe.  Interestingly, May is also the month of my wife’s birthday.  What a coincidence … a family oriented ranch … the beginning of the primary axis season … and my wife’s birthday.  Plus … mid-May was the dark of the moon, for those of you who think about things like this.  We had the elements of a plan.    I invited my wife, Deborah, who said to my delight, “Great idea!”   I also invited my brother, Jim, and his wife, Barbara, to join us.  Then I set a date with Jason Borchardt, one of the partners and general manager of the FFR.   Mid-May seemed convenient.  The planets were beginning alignment.

Through an exchange of emails over the next couple of months, I discovered to my delight that Jason’s family and ours shared a common bond with the Lord.  This only added to our excitement and our anticipation for the time we would spend at FFR.  However, little did we know that by the time May rolled around, a second daughter would have scheduled a “late summer wedding”, and we would begin building a house in Colorado.  Two weddings, starting a second home 1000 miles away, and an axis hunt?   I began to ask myself, did we have too much on the platter?  “ Naw,” I thought, “We can always postpone the weddings (just kidding, darling).”  As it turned out, the outing at FFR was a mental lifesaver … the get-away of all get-aways.  That’s the setting … now here’s the story.

Since Sunday, May 12, was Mother’s Day, we agreed to start the hunt on Monday.  We met my brother Jim and his wife Barbara at the entrance to the ranch.  We had a quick “tail-gate” (lunch) at the “main gate”, then drove down into the beautiful FFR setting along crystal clear Middle Creek to “check-in” and meet our host.  It is the ranch policy to book only one group at a time, so we were exclusive houseguests.  The quality of the operation was apparent.  Everything was first-class.  And the emphasis on family was everywhere.   We met Jason, and two ranch hands (Raymond and Nathan), moved our bags to the room, exchanged tennis shoes for hunting boots, and the group toured the ranch.

I suppose that the FFR is not unlike a number of exotic game-ranches.  They have a wide range of animals … 15 different species of exotics along with a nice whitetail deer herd.  We quickly learned from our conversation with Jason, and in our own assessment, that the emphasis was managing for quality … not quantity.   The tour was excellent.  Nevertheless, as much of a loving husband as I am, I was ready for the group tour to end and the hunting begin.   Following an early and light dinner (chicken fried axis and nilgai, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, corn, home-made bread and dessert), I went with Jason to the South pasture.

Exotic hunting is not inexpensive.  Exotics don’t come cheap in any shape or form.  In fact, the more shape and form … the more “less-cheap” they seem to be.  For that reason, my brother and I decided that I would be the primary hunter.  My singular focus was on a hard-horned axis to match one I had killed the prior year, which was still in velvet.  This was the “order” as Jason and I headed to the South pasture.

As an aside, Brother Jim headed in the same general direction to call coyote’s with Nathan (it comes to me now that had they killed enough coyotes, we might have bartered for the exotics … but I didn’t think of it before I checked out).  It was just a “fun thing” to do for Jim.  Duty requires that I also mention the ladies.  Easy enough.  In the middle of paradise, and break from wedding planning (Jim and Barbara’s daughter is planning a wedding also), the ladies did not need any encouragement or help in relaxing.  I actually think they were glad to see us leave for our first testosterone adventure of this outing.

Monday evening was somewhat uneventful.  Jim and Nathan didn’t call in a coyote.  Jason and I didn’t see an axis buck.   However, just at dark, a roving band of mufflon sheep came into the clearing Jason and I were watching.  They were milling around, somewhat like the action at Grand Central Station during rush hour.  In the fading light, there was not a chance for a shot.  But it was obvious from what I saw that the FFR has a premier herd of pure mufflon sheep.  A couple of rams carried heavy curls that would press the thirty-inch mark.   Earlier, I stated rather emphatically that my primary focus was an axis.  Now the challenge had expanded to include the possibility of a mufflon ram (after I took an axis).  Such was the evening of the first day.

Daybreak came on Tuesday with an illumination of the few clouds in brilliant pink.  My words could not come close to describing the absolute beauty, but words from Genesis do … “And God said … let there be light”.  And it was so.  And it was beautiful, indeed.  God does great work! 

Standing firm with my original plan, I went to the main pasture with Nathan to look for axis.  Jason took Jim to the South Pasture to look for the mufflon.  Wait a minute!  I thought Jim was relegated to hunting coyotes?  Did I say he was now hunting mufflon?  Is a mufflon an exotic?  Did I say exotic hunting can be expensive?  The ante had gone up!   This hunting experience was beginning to take the form and substance of a financial train-wreck!

Nathan and I were in an open tower blind looking for axis before daylight.   Walking to the stand, we saw animals everywhere.  Blackbuck, elk, red deer, aoudad, kudu, whitetail and others, but no axis.  After about an hour and a half, Nathan spotted an animal with an unmistakable coat of reddish tan with white spots … and it was wearing horns!   Soon this axis was joined by three others in all shapes and sizes.  My expectations and “specifications” were firm … at least 32 inch beams, with good front tines and strong top-tines (coddle tines).  None of the deer fit this description exactly, but one came close.  We studied him for a long time, and guessed him to be close to 32 inches, with 10-inch brows, an average top-tine on his left beam and a lesser top-tine on his right.  He was a beautiful animal, but at the margin of my goal for the hunt.  I was told that this was probably the best axis (out of velvet) in the pasture.   He was close.  After a lot of agony, principle gave way to compromise.  The decision was made.  Time passed, but I never could get a shot.  One by one, the animals drifted down into a canyon.  Shortly thereafter, we made a decision to leave the stand to stalk.  We spent forty-five minutes moving quietly from tree to bush to tree, before we positioned ourselves for a shot. 

I’m not a first-time hunter, and I felt reasonably comfortable with the circumstances.  I had a solid rest on a tree, the cross hairs were steady, and I made a smooth squeeze.  He should have been down …but he wasn’t.   In fact, I missed altogether.  After stalking them unsuccessfully for another 30 minutes, we called for a morning break. 

We met back at the main ranch at 9:30 for a hearty breakfast and to catch up with Jim and Jason.  Their headline read like this …  “HUNTERS COVERED UP WITH MUFFLON … FAIL TO CONNECT”.    They also had a Grand Central Station experience.  After telling Jim and Jason about my shoot-no-kill experience, Jason politely suggested that we might want to stop by the rifle range before lunch to see if we could find a possible explanation for the embarrassing “miss”.  After two perfect shots at the range, we concluded the bullet must have been deflected.  Jim shot once, making a perfect triangle with my first two shots, all of which could be covered with a 50-cent piece (what ever happened to those?)   In any event, we were ready for the afternoon hunt … but not before a relaxing nap and an early evening meal.

Dinner was a treat.  We had the privilege of sharing the meal with Larry and Charlotte Franklin (as in Franklin Family Ranch), Jason’s wife Kristi, and their two girls, who will be turning 7 and 4 on May 26th.  They were just “family” … and a wonderful family they were.

Formalities out of the way, Jim and Jason headed for the South Pasture to look again for mufflon.  Nathan and I decided to drive the main pasture to look for the buck I had shot at that morning.  Safari style hunting on an exotic game ranch is a treat in itself.   While our focus was on axis, we got up-close and personal with almost every type of animal on the ranch.  With about an hour of light left, we were spotting from a high hill and found three axis bucks feeding two deep draws away.  Since they were about half-a mile from us, and moving steadily, we decided to cut across the ranch and try to head them off.  Ten minutes later, we were walking across a small plateau toward the draw where Nathan suspected the bucks were headed.  He was in the lead and moving to my left.  I was twenty yards behind walking straight ahead.  As I moved slowly toward the edge of the plateau, I saw a set of horns cresting the plateau rim … not ten-yards ahead of me.  It less time than it took to write this sentence, I was standing face to face with one of the smaller, but still quite impressive, axis bucks.  Who was most startled?  Neither of us had time to decide, and the axis was gone in a minute.   I quickly moved to the edge of the plateau and watched.  After a hundred yards or so, the buck slowed to a trot, and then started feeding back in the direction from which he had come.  Nathan confirmed that the deer was not spooked; the stalk was still on.

One can only admire how a 20 year-old can walk crouched, and sometime almost in a duck-walk for a half a mile or so.  I discovered that a man of 60 plus years can do this also, but not nearly as gracefully.  As we stalked, my thoughts vacillated between the axis that we hoped lay ahead, and the bottle of Advil, which I knew, was waiting back at the lodge.  We saw the deer off and on over a twenty-minute period.  Finally, we caught up with the feeding animals.  We were on a plateau just above them, and all we could see were the horns of our “target” shaking bushes 100 yards below us.  The crouching stalk turned to something more akin to a crawl, and a few minutes later, Nathan had positioned himself behind a tree, somewhat closer to the buck.  I crawled up, and started to stand.  Halfway up, I found myself again eye-to-eye with the buck mentioned earlier  (Close Encounter of the Second Kind).  He was standing directly in front of me, so my stance was something akin to football players in a huddle, only I couldn’t rest my hands on my knees.   Painful, would not do justice to the position in which I found myself.    Nathan, who was comfortably standing to my right, was fully shielded from the sight of the deer.   He could not see the axis I was looking at, and the axis could not see Nathan.  Standing 40 yards to the left of the “sentinel” buck stood my target buck … unfortunately, his shoulder was hidden by an intervening bush.  No shot and obviously no moving.

Over the next minute or so, the “sentinel” buck continued to stomp as he tried to figure us out.  One foot up… one foot down … change feet … same routine.   Fortunately, his antics went unnoticed by the other two feeding bucks.  Finally, the “sentential” buck made the assessment that we were not native to the surroundings.  He “barked” (at least that was the way I described it).  The other bucks took notice, and the trio headed into the sunset.  I can best describe the moment as satisfying (a good stalk), amusing (watching the deer trying to figure out who or what was watching him), disappointing (at the conclusion), and great relief that I could again stand erect as God intended homo-sapiens to do.  (Incidentally, I don’t believe my uncle was a lemur or a monkey).  And so ended the second day.

Back at the ranch, I took a quick shower, got into some more comfortable (less odiferous) clothes and joined the ladies in the main lodge.  We visited for about 45 minutes and began to wonder about Jim and Jason.  Finally, lights in the distance heralded their return.  When they drove up, I walked over and peaked in the back of the jeep.  Nothing!  And then I looked in the front seat.  Nothing!  Nothing except two wide-eyed guys who couldn’t wait to tell me about the MONSTER axis they saw, but could not get a shot.  My brother is known for returning to camp empty-handed with a comment like … “You should have seen what we saw!”  I’ve heard that before. But then Jason, one of the partners and the general manager of the ranch jumped into the conversation with the comment … “If you guys don’t kill him tomorrow, I’m going to personally hunt him until I get him!”  And in a heartbeat, the scope of the mission had changed again … axis + axis + an incidental mufflon, if the opportunity presented itself.   Things were getting out of hand.

Even though there was a monster axis lurking in the South Pasture, my challenge still walked alive in the front pasture.  After all, in the past 12 hours, I had missed a “layup” shot and had invested 5 years of my lower back muscles in a half-mile stalk.    I refused to give up.  Jim could try his luck with Mr. Big.   The next morning, Nathan and I decided to sit in another blind, which we did for about an hour.  Then, we decided to try to spot and stalk.  After covering the main pasture from end to end, side to side, and top to bottom, we finally jumped our buck.  The hunt was on.  Over the next ten minutes, we spotted him three times.  Each time I asked, … “Is that our buck?”  Each time, the reply came,  “I think so … yes … yes it is.”   The buck topped a hillside and we drove around to try and intercept him.  Our next sighting was on the plateau above.  He was standing broadside, and I had traded my binoculars for my rifle.  If you’ve hunted axis, you know that you judge an axis straight on, and shoot them standing sideways.  I figured we’d looked at him three times already, so I centered on his shoulder and said to Nathan, “Talk to me.”  He spoke these words, “I’m looking.  Let me make a final ...”

I didn’t wait for Nathan to finish the sentence.  And, I never heard the words “final check”, because I wasn’t listening.  I was ready to pull the trigger, and I did.  Seconds later, the deer was down for good.  As I watched him in my scope, I asked again, “You’re sure that’s him?”  “I think so.”  The hesitation in Nathan’s voice and the picture in my scope began to converge.  I had second thoughts.  Let me pause …

[I need to insert, that while I was unloading my rifle, I accidentally discharged a round.  My normal protocol each and every time I am in the field is to load two and only two rounds in the magazine.  When I unload, I always extract the two shells, open and close the bolt an additional time (which should be on an empty chamber), then dry-fire to release the firing mechanism.  For some reason, I had loaded three shells (one of which had been fired), and I apparently only worked the mechanism two times.  This should have put me on an empty chamber, but it didn’t.   Fortunately, I am also extremely conscious of where my rifle is pointed at all times, and the gun was pointing where it should have been pointing … at the dirt … when it discharged.   Was I distracted because I was intently watching the downed buck?  Probably so.  The lesson is obvious … in the excitement of the hunt; one can never take anything for granted.  Redundant safety practices saved the say, but this was a good reminder that one can never be too careful in handling firearms, loaded or unloaded.  Safety and concentration on what you are doing at all times must always come first.  Now, back to the story.]

We approached the downed buck.  His body size was absolutely huge.  He was a beautiful animal.  But he wasn’t wearing the same “hat” that he should have been.  The buck I shot was not the one we were seeking.  He was a 30-inch axis, but lighter in horn mass, and with shorter brow and top tines than our target buck.   Nathan knew I was looking for something bigger … knew we had found (and were pursuing) something bigger, and knew what was lying on the ground was neither of those.  Nathan started to offer a consoling comment.  I knew how he must have felt and I spoke before he could get the sentence out of his mouth.   I wasn’t being courteous.  I was speaking from my heart.  “Nathan,” I said, “Jason explained the rules of the ranch very carefully.   ‘If you like it, you shoot it.  If you don’t, there is no pressure to do so.’    I assure you that I felt no pressure.  I made the decision to shoot, and I’ll stand by my decision.”  

The question is obvious … what if I had I let Nathan make a final check?   He was a great guide, and we most likely would have discerned the axis to be what he was.  But to this moment, I haven’t asked that question.  Nor have I “wished that I had waited”.  Facts are facts … and these are the facts.  We had hunted hard, we had made more than one great stalk, and we had just taken a beautiful animal, in his full prime.  This axis was a mature buck, and he gave us the best body and the best set of horns he would ever have.  He was a trophy in all respects.  Who could ask for anything more?  I could not, nor did I expect it.   I was and I am satisfied hunter.  But the story doesn’t end just yet.

Jason and Jim, who did not see Mr. Big that morning, joined us at the kill site for a few pictures, and then we returned to the lodge to drop off the deer and grab a quick cup of coffee.  The ladies joined us as we unloaded the axis, and told our story briefly.  I didn’t feel too badly until Raymond (one of the ranch hands) walked up and said with a tear in his eye … “Oh no.  You killed ‘LB’! ”   Standing in front of me was a grown man who was a living testimony and a victim to a fundamental fact of life … Never Name Animals!    I was sure that Raymond would require extensive therapy to recover from his personal loss.

It was still mid-morning, so I said: “Jason, let’s take Jim back to the main pasture and look for the deer I was after.”  Off we went.  Jason knows the ranch like the back of his hand.  We covered every nook and cranny.  Two hours had passed when we topped a high ridge on the backside of the ranch.  Standing less than 75 yards to our right was “my” buck, along with three others.  Yes, he was clearly a shooter.   In my mind, Jim and Jason were being just a bit too  “cool”.   They casually talked about the pros and cons of a possible shot.  My brother finally said he was “just not comfortable with the shot.”  “Not comfortable!”  I thought to myself.  “Who cares whether you are comfortable or not.”  Then I said aloud, “Just shoot him, or give me the rifle.”  Jim didn’t move, but held the rifle firmly in his grip.  All of this transpired in a matter of seconds, and my heart sank as the deer dropped over the hill on the run.  The hunt was on, again.

Then, we encountered a minor problem.  The jeep did not start.  What else could go wrong?  My mind began playing tricks on me.  Could it be that Jason and Jim had joined in a conspiracy to keep me from getting that buck?   How ridiculous.  But, before I could even contemplate the question, the plot began to thicken.  Jim and Jason got out of the jeep (I was on the high seat in back) and started pushing the jeep down the hill.  Ahhah!  The conspiracy seemed to be taking form.  They were going to finish me off on the hill, then complete the hunt by themselves.  I’m agile, even for a 60+ year old, and I gracefully stepped around the roll bar into the front seat and then to the ground.  Ahhah, again!  I thought smugly to myself.  I’m not riding that unmanned jeep down the hill as an observer from the back seat.   Plot foiled!  About that time, Jason jumped into the jeep, turned it hard right, and ran the jeep over my foot.  (Actually, I made up the part about the sharp right turn).  But the jeep did roll right over my left foot.  It was obvious; the conspiracy was still at work.  “If we can’t kill him … let’s disable him.”  Fortunately, there was no immediate pain and we continued to hunt.

The ranch is a network of hills and valleys.  We kept the high ground for about a quarter of a mile or so and began glassing again.  We spotted the deer moving through the trees about 300 yards below us.  Without a word to me, Jim and Jason began the stalk together.  I wasn’t even invited.  I’m sure if they were telling the story, they would claim that they were just being considerate … that they thought I would not want to do much walking with fresh tire prints on my left boot!   My mind wasn’t playing tricks.  The conspiracy had progressed to its maturity.

I sat on the hillside for at least 45 minutes carefully glassing the oak flats below.  Had I been abandoned altogether?  Finally, I spotted Jim and Jason crawling through the trees about 400 yards away.  They were definitely on deer.  Once or twice, I thought I saw Jim position himself to shoot.  After another 15 minutes, I saw them slowly back away and then watched as they retraced their path back up to the knoll where I was waiting.  I’m into brevity, so let me simply tell you that they crawled to with 35 yards of four bedded bucks but claimed they could not get a clear shot.  Jim said rather seriously, “It was a very difficult shot; Jason and I have made a MANAGEMENT decision to pass on this buck.”  Jim added, “ Jason agreed that he would not hunt Mr. Big (the buck in the South pasture) if we wanted to come back in a couple of weeks and try for him.”  “Oh, really?” I said in disbelief with my back still aching from the day before and with a foot that was starting to throb.  “A MANAGEMENT decision, huh?  Now let me make an EXECUTIVE decision.  We’re going after that buck even if I have to shoot him myself.” 

Jason, who is a master hunter, and the host of all hosts, sensed my deep commitment to finishing this venture, which had turned from a quest to a crusade!  Without blinking an eye, he came up with a brilliant plan.   Our strategy was to drive around the hill and below the bucks, hoping to find them still bedded.  It was risky.  We all knew they might bolt and run, but it was our only chance.  A few minutes later, we left the road below the hill and drove as slowly and as quietly as we could across the plateau below the bucks.  They were still bedded in the trees, but watching us intently.  No one made obvious eye contact with the animals.  We drove past them, and then backed up slowly, as if we were leaving (which makes me wonder if the deer know whether a jeep is going forward or backward?).  As slick as a whistle, Jason turned the steering wheel to the right (my left foot can attest to Jason’s ability to make a that particular right-turn maneuver).   Instantly, we found ourselves facing the four bedded bucks.  They were  “head on” in the trees at 100 yards.  Checkmate!   The elusive spotted devil-deer were nailed and they knew it.  They simply froze.

Unfortunately, our buck was facing away from us, with his head turned to watch us.  No shot.  No one moved.   As an afterthought, I have concluded that we must have been breathing, because we were still alert after a minute or so.  We could see the bucks getting a bit fidgety.    Finally, one rose slowly, then another, then another.  Our buck was the last to rise.  He was still facing away.  Not even a quartering shot.  To make matters worse, he was standing next to a tree.  One step forward and he would be gone.  But, he did a very curious thing.  He stepped back and turned to the side.  Without a word, Jim took the shot.    I flinched at the report of the gun, and could not discern whether the bullet made contact.  I knew Jim was an excellent shot.  Nevertheless, somewhat in disbelief … somewhat in despair, I watched the four deer disappear on the plateau above them.  I glanced quickly at Jim.  He knew my unspoken question and replied, “The shot felt good.”   Jason finished the thought … “It was a solid hit!”  After a few minutes of conversation, we walked up the hill and found the buck lying dead, less than 40 yards from where (just a few moments before) he was laying alive.

Nathan and I had assessed the buck just about right when we glassed him the prior day.  The left antler was exactly 32 inches, with a brow tine that approached 11 inches and an average top tine.  The right antler was only slightly inferior to the left … a 31+ inch beam with a comparable brow but a slightly weaker top tine.  His horn configuration was beautifully shaped, and he had a massive body to match.  As a total package, he was “on spec”.  It was a great stalk, a clean kill, and an indescribable thrill for me to watch my brother perform flawlessly.

Within two hours, Deborah and I had departed the Franklin Family Ranch to keep a scheduled commitment back in Houston.  As we drove away, my thoughts were clear and not overly complicated.   How fortunate and how blessed we were.  God provided the means. I had a wife who graciously and generously encouraged Jim and I to do what we did. Barbara, my sister-in-law, was there to encourage and lift our spirits as she always is. We had made wonderful new friends in Christ … and we had enjoyed being at one of the real garden spots in Central Texas, the Franklin Family Ranch.  On the FFR website, they report that many people enjoy the hunting, but it is the lasting memories that they carry away with them from FFR that are of more importance.   No truer words were ever written or spoken.   We made some memories!