Before the title to this week’s column misleads someone, whitetail deer season is not open but Axis deer are plentiful in much of Texas and summer is prime time to hunt them. The Hill Country and southwest Texas has a large number of free ranging Axis and, because of stocking on low fence ranches across the state, there are pockets of free ranging Axis in areas outside the Hill Country. Axis deer are very popular game animals for high fence hunting ranches across the state.

Mark Balette, owner and operator of B & C Outfitters near Trinity in East Texas says he has hunters from all over the country that schedule annual summertime hunts for his herd of Axis deer.

“Axis deer have become a very popular exotic animal the past few years.” Says Balette. “While they can breed throughout the year, the primary rut is during the summer months when the majority of the bucks have hardened antlers. Axis meat is considered by many, including myself, to be the tastiest of all venison. Trophy hunters seeking big antlers target the bucks but there is also a great many hunters that hunt the females for meat.”

I’ve had the opportunity to be around Axis deer on many occasions but have only hunted them twice. Once was a decade ago down near Campwood where herds of free ranging Axis come close to matching the number of our native whitetail. While setting over Bull Creek around 11 in the morning, as a guest of Larry Large on at his hunting lease, I shot a big buck that came to the waters edge for a mid day drink. The venison was excellent and the beautiful brown with white spots tanned hide is still a prized possession.

This past week, I opened “deer season” again with an Axis hunt down in the Hill Country with a good friend that builds custom big bore air rifles and one of his long time hunting buddies that owns some property outside the city limits of a Hill Country town. Thanks to a year around feeding program, the land is home to a large number of Axis, including some real ‘wall hangers”. A couple of weeks ago, my friend took his big bore air rifles down and harvested a couple of monster 30 plus inchers, the largest of which tipped the scales at a whopping 265 pounds.

Had the daytime temperature not been pushing ninety degrees and the Hill Country landscape lush and green, I’d have thought I was in route to a fall hunt for rutting whitetails. Our headquarters for the night was a ‘sure nuff’ Texas deer camp, albeit only a hundred or yards or so from our friends home. The cabin we stayed in the evening of this ‘opener’ was rustic and steeped in deer hunting history. For several decades the camp had served as headquarters for my friends on many, many hunts for Axis deer. While setting around the campfire that evening which was unseasonably cool, many fond memories of past hunts to the Hill Country were rekindled.

I thought about my first time to hunt the Hill Country. I was in my twenties when a couple of buddies and I went down to Llano on a 3 day ‘day’ hunt. On this hunt, I took my first Hill Country Whitetail, a goat horned spike that I was extremely proud of. What I remember most about this hunt was the sheer numbers of deer I saw and my first look at an Axis deer. The spotted doe that came to the corn feeder I was hunting back in the mid seventies really whetted my curiosity and… hunting blood. When I described the deer I had sighted to the fellow running the hunts, he replied, “Well, Luke, why didn’t you shoot it. That was an Axis deer and you can hunt them year around down here. They are even better eating than whitetail!”

The old saying that it doesn’t take long to spend the night at deer camp proved true on last week’s deer hunt. It seemed I’d no longer turned in when the alarm clock jingled and in no time, we had coffee brewing in the old enamel coffee pot. There’s something special about coffee at hunting camp.

My friends had briefed me the night before that I needed to be ready for a long walk to the deer stand in the predawn darkness. But I noticed a wink of the eye when they were programming me for the hunt. After a total of about 85 steps from the door of the cabin, I discovered why! An elaborate two story hunting blind was nestled in some trees less than one hundred yards from the cabin.

“Don’t let the close proximity of the deer stand and feeder to the cabin fool, you Luke,” I heard from my hosts also setting in the roomy blind. “This field will turn into deer at first light. I had my infra red Nite Site Spotter with me and when I began scanning the field and adjacent woodline, every deer in the Hill Country it seemed, was filtering into the field.

Just before good shooting light, I watched eight or ten whitetail come to the feeder nearest our stand. It will be October before these deer can be hunted but it was fun seeing the already impressive antler growth on the bucks. Through the Spotter, I watched spotted deer (Axis) hitting a feeder a couple hundred yards distant. Adjacent the woodline, 140 yards away, I spotted one very impressive Axis buck and a couple of younger animals.

This was a big bore air rifle hunt. I was shooting a .45 caliber made by my friend and had previously decided to limit my shots to 75 yards. In the hands of an expert air rifle shooter that knew the exact trajectory of the bullet, the 140 yard shot was doable but I didn’t want to press my luck on this hunt. If it didn’t happen on this short one day outing, chances were good I’d be successful on my next summer outing.

We watched deer feeding at three different feeders and every feeder except the one we were hunting had attracted shootable Axis bucks. We were covered up with whitetails. As the old adage goes, “that’s hunting”!

As we drove through a nearby subdivision on our way home, we spotted several Axis bucks and numbers of does bedded in the yards of homes. Yes, the Texas Hill Country, at least in certain areas, has almost as many free ranging Axis deer as whitetail.

As a general rule, exotics of any species are not welcome because they compete with native fish/wildlife. But to my way of thinking, these plentiful Axis deer give hunters another animal to hunt during a period when native game animals are off season. They can especially be appreciated when one sets down to a big platter of golden brown chicken fried Axis steaks, cream gravy and mashed potatoes!

Listen to Outdoors with Luke Clayton at www.catfishradio.com. Join Luke and his guests Larry Weishuhn and Bill Dance each week for some interesting and entertaining outdoor talk. Email Luke via the website with outdoor related news from your area.