Axis Deer: The Best Value in Bucket List Bowhunts

All archers have bucket list bowhunts that fill their daydreams. Did you know there’s an affordable one in Texas — for roaring axis bucks — and it happens during June?

Axis Deer: The Best Value in Bucket List Bowhunts

Because I’ve been in the outdoor industry for three decades, I’ve had the good fortune to travel to some wonderful hunting destinations. I’ve witnessed the Quebec-Labrador caribou migration at its peak — and it was breathtaking. I’ve pursued massive moose in the remote wilderness of northern British Columbia, and targeted rutting whitetails in several of the Midwest’s top big buck states. I love all of it, but in June 2018 I experienced what I believe to be the best value in bucket-list bowhunts.

Cool Times Under the Hot Texas Sun

Like many of you, when I think of Texas, my mind wanders to whitetails or wild hogs. Sure, I’ve seen enough exotic animals running around on Lone Star State ranches to be aware of them, and I once shot (with a rifle) a large free-range aoudad ram. But when a friend suggested we visit southwest Texas in June to bowhunt axis deer, I must admit I was more than a bit skeptical. I’d seen those reddish oversized spotted whitetail fawns running around on Texas ranches before, and frankly, shooting one over bait just wasn’t something that really interested me.

“You won’t be hunting axis over corn,” said former Bowhunting World Editor Jace Bauserman when I asked him about axis. “Think pronghorns in the West. Be prepared for a classic waterhole hunt. Trust me, it ain’t easy, and it’s awesome.”

Axis Deer Gear

With new-found interest in this adventure, I reached out to our outfitter for more information.

“Dave, you’ll be spending almost all your time in natural ground blinds overlooking water,” advised Mike Stroff of Southern Outdoor Experience (SOE) Hunts. “Some water sources will be very small, like the size of a kid’s plastic pool, but others will be larger than a football field. And because the water is typically surrounded by thick cover, axis deer can come in from any direction. You’ll see plenty of animals during most sits. The trick is having a decent-size axis buck walk within bow range — one that gives you a broadside shot.”

As I listened to Mike, everything in my mind pointed toward packing a scoped crossbow and sturdy tripod. I didn’t plan on shooting beyond 40 yards, and I prefer to be as close as possible, but I’ve learned, through years of bowhunting whitetails from the ground, that getting a vertical bow to full-draw with several animal eyes nearby is a challenge, especially from a natural ground blind.

The way I figured it, I could rest my crossbow on an adjustable tripod and sit perfectly still while waiting for axis deer to arrive. When the time was right, all I’d need to do is flip off the crossbow’s safety, lean into the scope, aim and then press the trigger to the rear. I’d use my laser rangefinder to identify distances around the waterhole well before animals appear. In my mind, it sounded like a solid plan.

Hear Me Roar

For whatever reason, I failed to research axis deer biology and behavior before my Texas travels. I assumed they behaved a lot like whitetails or mule deer — a deer is a deer, right? Wrong.

As Stroff went through his pre-hunt talk in the lodge, I raised my hand: “Mike, for those of us who’ve never hunted axis deer before, can you give us some idea what we should be looking for in terms of antler size?”

Because the lodge contained several axis buck racks on display, Mike walked around the gathering room and discussed various head-and-shoulder and European mounts.

“This one is a perfect example of decent axis buck for this ranch,” Mike said. “He’s not huge, but he’s a solid buck. Unless you’re willing to go home empty-handed, and I’m here to tell you that axis venison is the best in the world, I wouldn’t pass up a buck this size. And this is important: You can shoot one buck and one doe, but if you draw blood and we can’t find the animal, it still counts toward your bag limit. So be patient with your shot opportunities; there’s no reason to launch arrows long range at an axis buck or doe. Wait for a good shot.”

I’m not a fan of long-range shooting on animals (targets, yes; flesh and blood, no), so I take comfort knowing that I won’t be scolded by a guide for not releasing an arrow at “out there” distances. I desire a shot within 30 yards, and 20 is even better.

I confirm that my Carbon Express Piledriver 390 crossbow is sighted-in at 10-yard increments out to 50 yards, and take the time to confirm good broadhead flight. I tell myself that at some point I’ll get a close-range shot at a respectable axis buck if I put in my time.

“One more thing,” Mike offered to our group. “You’re here during the axis deer rut. Even though you’ll see bucks in full velvet, hard antler and everything in between, the bucks are ready to breed. And just like a red stag in New Zealand, these axis bucks will roar. It doesn’t sound anything like a bull elk bugle, but it basically serves the same purpose. So don’t be surprised to hear quite a bit of axis buck roaring while waiting at the water.”

Did he say “roaring?” Okay, this waterhole hunt just became a lot more interesting. I can’t wait for the following morning and my first sit in a natural ground blind under the hot Texas sun.

The author’s axis buck first appeared behind the mud hole, then walked clockwise around the mud, eventually providing a 20-yard shot.
The author’s axis buck first appeared behind the mud hole, then walked clockwise around the mud, eventually providing a 20-yard shot.

Watching the Water

With his flashlight, my guide checked the cedar-lined brush blind for snakes, then said, “You have a small waterhole in front of you, and a larger one off to your right. The animals could come from anywhere. It’ll all make sense in daylight. I’ll be back to pick you up about 11 a.m. unless I hear from you first. Have fun and good luck.”

I watch his pickup lights disappear into the darkness and feel totally alive. It is dead silent, but that doesn’t last long. As I fumble with adjusting the tripod in the darkness, I hear walking sounds just to the right of the blind. I strain to see the animal in the low light, but can’t. A moment later, it snorts and then bounds away. I can just barely make out its white flag — a whitetail. Ten minutes later the scene repeats, this time with a doe and fawn — two white flags in the darkness.

Finally, I can make out the waterhole in front of me; it’s egg shaped and measures 15 yards from end to end. A shot to the far side of the pond is 30 yards. As the guide said, the waterhole to my right is much larger, perhaps 80 yards long and 30 yards wide. From my ambush spot, I can cover all of the small pond, but only a tiny percentage of the big waterhole.

Before the sun creeps over the trees, animals began to move from the thick cover to get a morning drink. The antics of the whitetails, wild turkeys, raccoons and even frogs keep me occupied.

Suddenly I spot my first axis deer — a lone doe heading for the big waterhole to my right, and before she reaches the water another half-dozen female axis deer appear from the thick cover behind her. Eventually, they step into the water within 30 yards of my blind.

A sturdy tripod helps hold a crossbow ready during long sits overlooking waterholes.
A sturdy tripod helps hold a crossbow ready during long sits overlooking waterholes.

“Roooooooaaaaaaaar!”

What the hell? The loud and lingering sound causes me to almost tip over my crossbow and tripod, and I wheel my head far to the right to try and locate its maker.

Again the axis buck roars, then he steps into a small clearing in the brush and begans to rip up a cedar bough with his hard antlers. The rising sun lights up his antlers, head and neck like a spotlight.

The scene almost didn’t seem real — at least to a guy from Minnesota. I mean, this reddish-colored creature with tall antlers roaring his presence and rubbing his rack under the warming Texas sun — in June!

Seconds later, the woods on the far side of the larger waterhole is crawling with axis deer — bucks, does and fawns — and they’re all heading slowly in my direction. Big bucks, medium bucks, small bucks; some in velvet, some shedding and some in hard horn. It was like something out of Jurassic Park, but instead of holding popcorn I’m holding a PileDriver.

With my crossbow safety slid into the off position, I try to remember the various landmarks on the far side of the water. The big rock is 20, the weird-shaped stick is 25. I don’t want to make a mistake.

One axis doe presents me with an ideal 25-yard broadside shot, but I’m not about to target a doe with so many bucks milling around inside 50 yards. Be patient.

Finally, a massive velvet buck stops drinking at 40 yards and begins walking toward the lone doe at 25. He is quartering-toward as he saunters closer, and again I remind myself to take only a perfect shot. She doesn’t welcome his advances and runs away from the water. Instead of pursuing her, he lowers his head to drink. The range is 30 yards, but he’s still quartering-toward. No shot.

A hard-antlered buck quickly runs over to join him in the knee-deep water, and the velvet beast turns broadside for a split-second to face his rival. I aim, let out a breath and feel for the trigger. But before I can shoot, the buck runs from the waterhole in pursuit of the doe. I immediately take my finger off the trigger, thankful I haven’t touched it harder and sent the arrow into God-knows-where on a fast-moving animal.

That morning I spot many more axis deer. In fact, I slip off the PileDriver’s safety three more times as good-sized bucks enter the large waterhole. I never feel completely comfortable pulling the trigger, however, and keep telling myself it’s the first morning.

The Rage Trypan Crossbow head opens a massive entry hole. The author’s arrow penetrated fully, leaving an easy-to-follow blood trail.
The Rage Trypan Crossbow head opens a massive entry hole. The author’s arrow penetrated fully, leaving an easy-to-follow blood trail.

One Finally Reads the Script

The afternoon of day No. 1 passes without a close call from the same blind, so my guide decides a scenery change is in order for the morning of day No. 2. This time I am positioned well above a waterhole; my shot will be similar to that from a 15-foot-tall treestand. Also different from my first sit is this waterhole has thick cover bordering it on only one side.

The wind is perfect, blowing 5 mph from the thick cover, over the pond, then up the hill toward me. If a buck comes from the brush, he shouldn’t smell or see me.

Daylight arrives and I’m disappointed to notice that my “pond” contains no water. It appears to be a dried mud hole. There’s a large waterhole off to my right at 80 yards, but nothing within shooting distance of my brush blind. I do, however, spot a pop-up blind in the distance overlooking the larger waterhole. With failing confidence in my ambush spot, I decide to stick it out for 1 hour to see what happens before relocating to the pop-up blind.

During the middle of my “no water pity party,” I suddenly see a handful of axis does and fawns break from the thick cover and run to the left of my blind, perhaps being harassed by one or more bucks. I don’t spot any bucks, but the frequent roaring in the distance tells me that bucks must be cruising the nearby trees and brush.

Finally I spot a buck as he steps into a clearing beyond my mud hole at 100 yards. He’s not huge, but he’s a good one. Slowly he walks toward my mud hole, finally reaching the steep bank over it. I’m not convinced he’s going to visit the hole, after all, there’s no water. None.

Much to my surprise, the buck finds a way down the steep bank and is now nosing the dried mud, looking for something to slurp. He’s facing me at 30 yards — no shot. As good luck would have it, however, he decides to circle the mud hole, perhaps hoping to find water on my side. With my crossbow safety off, I lean into the scope and float the crosshairs on his chest. Through the 4X scope, he looks huge!

Finally he’s broadside, moving slowly from right to left. I know the distance is less than 30 yards, so I guess 20 and begin to press firmly on the trigger. And this time, unlike my close call on the first morning, instead of this buck running away, he stops to glance at the man hiding behind the curtain of cedar branches. The moment he stops, my arrow is on its way, and I hear the telltale “Wump!” of arrow smacking flesh. He instantly turns 180 degrees and runs back to the right. I watch him cover the open moon-like terrain in a blur, and disappear into the thick cover.

Did I make a good hit? What was the exact range? Did he jump the string? Why didn’t he tip over before running out of sight? I hope I didn’t blow my chance.

I don’t know about you, but I’m rarely 100 percent confident about the outcome unless I see a buck, bull or bear drop within sight of my ambush location. After waiting 20 minutes and simply looking and listening without moving a muscle, I start glassing the area around the mud hole with my binocular. Hoping to spot my arrow, I instead discover a massive blood trail on the blond-colored dirt and rocky landscape. It looks as if someone has slowly poured red paint on the ground from a jug as they walked away from the mud hole.

“That’s a good sign,” I said out loud, now smiling instead of stressing.

As this photo shows, the author’s arrow struck the broadside buck right over the front leg, resulting in an ideal double-lung hit.
As this photo shows, the author’s arrow struck the broadside buck right over the front leg, resulting in an ideal double-lung hit.

Follow the Red-Brick Road

With my crossbow cocked and quiver attached, I take up the blood trail an hour later alongside my guide.

And allow me to interrupt my story for a quick observation: Where an hour earlier mud had only existed, now the hole actually contains a half-inch of water. It obviously seeped in from the ground, but I have no idea how. Perhaps it had something to do with the cooling of the ground during the night and the heating of it once the sun appears and the temps climb? Whatever the case, water existed where it hadn’t before. And no, I wasn’t drinking the night before.

“You hammered him,” my guide said as we quickly walk across the crimson-dotted dirt and rock/rubble terrain. “Heart or lung blood.”

When we find my buck dead only 70 yards from the waterhole, the arrow is propped up only a few feet away. Evidently a cactus grabbed the broadhead right before the buck hit the ground. My shot was perfect, taking out both lungs. I doubt that the buck was alive for 10 seconds after arrow impact. I’d waited for an ideal shot opportunity and then made the most of it.

I look forward to another bowhunt someday for the roaring and rutting axis bucks of southwest Texas. Pronghorns over water in the West are certainly fun, but they don’t roar. And I can now tell you from experience that outfitter Mike Stroff was correct in his statement about axis venison on the table; it’s out-of-this-world fantastic.

When it comes to affordable bucket-list bowhunts, axis deer in June are No. 1 in my book. Make plans to experience it for yourself.

For more information on SOE Hunts, visit www.SOEHunts.net.

Sidebar: Horizontal Gear for Axis Deer

While I prefer vertical bows when hunting from treestands, I almost always opt for a crossbow when hunting from the ground. Why? A short-axled compound is easy to maneuver in a treestand, especially if you often place hang-on stands in tight groupings of two or more trees for added concealment. In these situations, it’s difficult to have clearance for crossbow limbs.

However, from the ground, whether I’m in a natural ground blind, pop-up blind or even a box blind, you can’t argue with the accuracy of a scoped crossbow resting solidly on a tripod. And with a crossbow you don’t have to worry about getting to full draw and being busted when animals are nearby.

On this Texas trip for axis deer, I carried a Carbon Express PileDriver 390 crossbow, which features an adjustable butt stock for a custom fit, multi-position foregrip and a 4x32 Deluxe Scope. It sends arrows downrange at 390 fps, which means it shoots flat and arrows penetrate deep.

The Carbon Express PileDriver 390 crossbow kit performed well for the author and is priced at only $399.99. Like a bowhunt for axis deer in Texas, it’s a great value.
The Carbon Express PileDriver 390 crossbow kit performed well for the author and is priced at only $399.99. Like a bowhunt for axis deer in Texas, it’s a great value.

I loaded the bow with a 22-inch Carbon Express Juggernaut Crossbolt. Designed for maximum penetration, this is one of the heaviest carbon bolts ever designed. This multi-layer carbon-plus-composite bolt is durable and specifically designed for crossbows shooting 350 fps or faster.

Screwed into the Juggernaut was the new 100-grain Rage Trypan Crossbow broadhead ($54.99/3-pack). This head has a titanium ferrule, .039-inch-thick blades, 2-inch cutting diameter and a red polymer high-energy shock collar.

This system hammered my 175-pound axis deer, and I have 100 percent confidence that it will be deadly on everything from whitetails to black bears.

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