As I crept quietly into a ground blind nestled up against a small clump of scrub oaks, I was glad I had added the extra layer. The pre-dawn chill hovered in the upper 30s, something I expected a few weeks earlier in northern Illinois, but not here, in North Texas. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving and the bucks were just starting to chase the does around.
Sadly, I only had a couple of days to hunt, but rekindling my friendship with Steve and Angela Rortvedt had made the long drive from my southern Arizona home worth it even if the deer did not cooperate. I had bowhunted with the Rortvedts twice before, in 2007 and 2009, killing dandy bucks both times. Their guide business, Western Outdoors, is professionally run by people who love the outdoors and hunting and who believe first and foremost in giving clients their money’s worth, and then some. Plus, Steve is an old Army combat medic who did time during the Vietnam War, giving him a special place in my heart. With him there’s no preening, no posturing, no BS. He doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody. When I asked him why he got into the guiding business — he’s a master cabinetmaker and woodworker by trade — he was concise.
“I started this out of my love for hunting and the outdoors,” he said. “I had hunted in Texas several times prior and never really received the kind of service the outfitters had promised me. The land was always hunted hard and things were never just right. I realized there was a need to provide the working man with a Texas experience that included a chance to hunt free-ranging trophy-class deer that were not pressured to death, as well as give them a nice place to stay, feed them well, and make sure all the equipment was shipshape.
“I chose this area for the high-quality whitetail hunting, plus there are mule deer and pronghorn, more coyotes to call than you can shake a stick at, and the wild bobwhite quail numbers are surprisingly good,” Steve said. “I’ve been in this area 10 years now, have a great rapport with the landowners, and am able to focus on quality. We also work very closely with Texas Parks and Wildlife to maintain the proper deer ratio on the land we hunt.”
Over the past decade or so the Texas Panhandle has quietly become an area where serious whitetail hunters come — and, hoping to keep the secret safe, don’t talk about too much. Here, unlike in South Texas, the bucks have large bodies, with many bucks pushing 200 pounds on the hoof. Mature bucks sport wide, heavy racks, with bucks scoring in the 140 to 170 Boone and Crockett range not at all uncommon. This is not high-fence hunting, either, but what Texans call “low fence,” which to the rest of us means it’s all free-ranging game.
And so, as I settled in for my third day a full hour before I could see, I was excited. A bowhunter by nature, I enjoy the chance to break out a rifle now and then. I was overlooking a large expanse of sagebrush country, with a corn feeder set 160 yards below me. A half-mile behind me was a winter wheat field that loaded up with deer at night that would begin moving my way before sunup. At times they would hit the feeder before working their way into the various cuts and draws where they bed for the day.
When it was still so dark I could barely make anything out through my Bushnell 10x40s, I saw him. The body was huge, but it was so dark I could not make out any antler. Steve had told me there was a buck the rancher had seen in this draw that would easily go over 170, but if this was him, I couldn’t really say. He was in and out before I could make sure. And so, I waited.
But not for long. About 15 minutes after I could see without the aid of the glasses, the first doe showed. Soon there were two, then three, quickly joined by two small bucks. And then came a good one. Big in the body with thick, long main beams, he was a dandy — except for the fact that he had taken a recent beating. His entire left beam was stripped of points, and the right side was missing the G-4. Both eye guards were also gone.
Now, there are many of you that would pass up a dandy buck simply because he was broken up. Let him go, you think, he’ll be prettier next fall. I’m not necessarily of similar belief. Here was a stud 4½-year-old buck that, had he not been broken to bits, would easily gross-score in the low 150s. If I’d had more time, I might have chosen to wait it out a few more days, hoping that the big boy that gave him such a horrible beating might show up.
Not this week. My .257 Weatherby Magnum was nestled snugly atop a tripod shooting stick and my back elbow was solidly rested. It was loaded with my own handloads that send a 110-grain Nosler AccuBond bullet off at a screaming 3,500 fps. The range was a scant 170 yards. At the shot the buck went straight to the ground and didn’t wiggle.
When I reached the buck my heart was pounding and spirit soaring. What a magnificent whitetail, large of body with 5-inch bases and 20-inch main beams. Later, when Steve skinned him out, he found that both his hams were bruised badly. What a fight that must have been! And, what a buck to have been able to so thoroughly whip a stud like this.
So Steve I have been talking, planning my 2015 return trip. After all, I am on a roll here. Three hunts with Western Outdoors, three big bucks on the ground. I can’t wait to try and make it four for four.
Why not come join me?
What: Whitetail deer hunting. Also available is hunting for mule deer, pronghorn, predators and spring turkey. Also, owner Steve Rortvedt has some of the best quail dogs you’ve ever seen, and the hunting can be outstanding for the region’s excellent wild bobwhite population.
Where: The Texas panhandle, about a 90-minute drive east of Amarillo.
When: In 2014 in North Texas, whitetail deer season ran from Nov. 1-Jan. 4.
Guns & loads: In Texas anything, from the .223 Rem. on up is legal. Shots can range from 50 to 400 yards, with most under 200 yards. Muzzleloaders, handguns, archery gear also legal.
Hunting licenses: Available over-the-counter at license agents statewide, or online here. Nonresident licenses that include tags for a buck deer, several does and more cost $315.
Technique: Most of the time you’ll be stationed in a tower stand, shooting house or ground blind overlooking a feeder. Depending on the time of year, hiking and rattling and calling are very effective — and exciting.
Trophy quality: Excellent. This region is known for large body-sized deer, with racks that will score anywhere from 140- to 170-plus gross B&C points.
Success rates: 90-plus percent.
Lodging: A comfortable remodeled ranch house with all the amenities.
Meals: Homestyle meals are part of the package.
For more information: Western Outdoors, Steve & Angela Rortvedt, 806-779-0367 (ranch); 806-207-0138 (Steve cell); www.westernoutdoorshunting.com.