Clayton: Deer hunting not all about antlers

Luke Clayton
Luke took this fine buck about this time last year on the Dale River Ranch. This past week, he used the same air rifle to harvest a fat spike. In this week’s column, Luke recaps the return hunt on the ranch and the harvest of some prime venison.
Luke Clayton

About this time last year, I took one of the largest, free-ranging, whitetail bucks of my life with my Texan big bore air rifle on the Dale River Ranch, situated on the Brazos River in Palo Pinto County. I dearly love hunting this area and have, through the years, amassed a storehouse of great memories here, both hunting and fishing with my friend Randy Douglas, the manager of the ranch.

We’ve had some fine times during my visits, which usually include some camp cooking centered around fresh fish landed from the river or a stock pond, venison or wild pork. This is "game rich" country in general and thanks to a great management/harvest plan by my friend Randy Douglas, The Dale River Ranch provides the hunter the very real opportunity to harvest deer, turkey, wild hogs and even Red Stag.

This past week, I had a couple of days free and planned a short hunt with Randy. In years past, I would set up a Spartan tent camp on the banks of the Brazos, but these days, I opted to use Randy’s camper as headquarters. The little camper makes a much better headquarters than the tent, especially in the winter time.  

The ranch has a very fine lodge for guests, but I enjoy using the camper as headquarters, it reminds me of many past hunting camps, rustic but plenty comfortable considering one remembers to bring the necessities, (ie, a warm sleeping bag, propane heater and electric lanterns). The stars are never as brilliant as on a cold clear winter’s night up in this country.

Randy and I hunted one afternoon and again the next morning. My goal was to put some venison in the freezer. If one of the bruiser bucks gave me the opportunity, I planned to put my Texan .45-caliber big bore air rifle to work but the first mature spike buck or any legal buck with age qualified for my venison quest.

Randy served as guide and cameraman on this hunt and did a great job capturing the entire experience, which will air on an upcoming episode of “A Sportsman’s Life.” The primary rut had ended but the "second rut" — when early-born doe fawns come into their first estrous — was beginning to kick in and bucks were once again on the move.

On the afternoon hunt, we had several does come by the feeder we were hunting and what appeared to be a big 11-pointer with a couple of broken tines. He was obviously an old battler and we opted to leave him until next season, hopefully a hunter will have the opportunity to take him before he again begins his battling over receptive does!

Randy and I wrapped up the evening back at camp, dining on some fajitas I made from wild pork. The trick to a quick and tasty deer camp meal is to do the prep work ahead of time. I had the meat cut into fajita pieces, seasoned and smoked. All that was necessary was to add garlic, jalapeno, onion and bell pepper in my old cast iron skillet. In a matter of 15 minutes, we were enjoying the hot fajitas around the campfire.

Randy heads back to his home in Mineral Wells after our day afield and I was left to enjoy the solitude and stars on this pitch black winter’s night. The Polar star was easy to pick out in the northern sky and I found myself wishing it was closer to Christmas when for the first time in 800 years, Jupiter and Saturn come close together and appear as one, known as the heralded “Christmas Star."

I spent about 30 minutes around the campfire admiring the heavens and listening to distant packs of coyotes out for their evening hunt. The sound caused me to pause and wonder what a rabbit might think when hearing such a sound. It’s funny what solitude will do for a person. Times such as this causes me to think untroubled thoughts about things that otherwise would seem insignificant.

It was then time to fire the propane stove up and knock the chill off the camper. I was soon in my heavy sleeping bag where I slept the sleep of contentment, leaving the coyotes and rabbits to work out their nighttime drama.

The next morning, Randy drove up to camp a good hour before first light and we enjoyed some steaming hot black coffee and a quick breakfast of sausage, eggs and potatoes. The morning broke cold and clear without a hint of wind; the kind of weather deer hunters dream about!

As we guessed, deer didn’t begin to move until the sun’s rays warmed things a bit and then four does showed up accompanied by a spike buck. We decided to watch the does for a bit and see if one of the bruiser bucks might show up. Then, something back in the brush spooked the doe, probably a wild hog. A big, old doe starred into the brush, snorted once, stamped her front foot and headed off in the direction she had come, the others followed, all except the spike who remained.

With the squeeze of the trigger, I collected my first venison of the season. The spike buck was fat and would provide some tasty chicken fried steak, smoked venison chili and sausage!

Back home the next day, I took my time and cut the quartered meat into serving size pieces, vacuum sealed the meat and placed it in the freezer. In retrospect, I enjoyed this "spike" hunt as much as any deer hunt I can remember. Hunting to me is all about spending time in great hunting country with fine friends. May this lifestyle go on forever!

For more information on hunting the Dale River Ranch, visit

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