One last sundown: they say you can't go home again. Don't believe them.
Not that mine seemed to begin oddly. In fact, when I entered first grade in 1962, everything about life there in Johnson City, Texas, seemed standard to me. I lived on my family's cattle ranch, and my parents, D.J. and Gertrude, owned a meat-processing plant in town. About the only thing our spot in Central Texas was known for was deer hunting. Well, that and for being the hometown of Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy's running mate in the I960 election.
But then came Nov. 22, 1963--and in an instant, everything changed. As Pres. Kennedy 'fell to a bullet fired into a Dallas motorcade 200 miles northeast of our ranch, a man who'd graduated front" Johnson City High School 39 years earlier found himself the leader of the free world.
Overnight, that world flooded into r once-sleepy town of 800 residents. Strangers were everywhere. In short order several classes at our school got new students from afar; their dads were Secret Service agents assigned to bolster security at the LBJ Ranch, west of town. Encountering folks you didn't know went from rare to routine.
But some outsiders had familiar faces. One day my dad ran into a Houston TV reporter sent to Johnson City to file a story. They recognized each other, because they'd shared a boarding house in college a decade earlier. The pair visited a bit before going their separate ways again--my dad back to work at our meat plant, the reporter back to being Dan Rather.
My most enduring memory of that time, though, is of deer hunting. Just a few weeks prior to the tragedy in Dallas, I'd sat on Grandpa's knee in a pit blind in an oat field and had taken my first deer, a doe. And that had me revved up to get my first buck.
Grandpa continued to take me out to hunt the oat field, which lay across Miller Creek from our houses. Deer would filter to the oats from the surrounding hills of oak and cedar every afternoon. So upon getting off the school bus, I'd grab the old Model 92 Winchester--its serial number only a few hundred separated from the one John Wayne would wield in True Grit six years later--and Grandpa and I would head out.
By now we'd moved to a tower blind on the edge of the field. This perch wasn't well suited to my open-sighted .32-20 carbine, but we could see better from there and had more of a wind advantage.
One afternoon I tried to shoot a buck from that tower. But he was much farther away than the doe had been, and I missed. All of the deer left. Rather than wait to see if they'd return, we headed for home.
After stopping by my grandparents' house, I started down the county road to ours. But before I got there, a car approached from behind me and stopped alongside. Riding shotgun was Mr. McLerran, pastor of our church. He said the stranger behind the wheel was a photographer on assignment for a magazine wanting to feature everyday life in LBJ's home area.
The photographer wanted some shots of me. But not standing there by the car.
He wanted me to walk back across that oat field I'd just left in dejection.
I wasn't keen on the idea. But I warmed up to it when the pastor handed me a quarter. I took the money--which would equate to about $1.93 today--and trudged back across the shallow creek. Then I walked the width of the field, fulfilling my end of the transaction. When I was done, the men drove away.
Still annoyed about missing that buck, I thought little more about my first paid modeling gig. That is, until a few months later. There, in the Feb. 14, 1964, issue of Life magazine was legendary photographer George Silk's two-page photo featuring yours truly.
"The 7-year-old hunter walking across a field of freshly planted winter oats might have been President Johnson 48 years ago," read the caption. "The boy is Gordon Whittington, a rancher's son, walking home disconsolately after missing a shot at a deer. The towerlike structure along the fence (center) is a wooden stand which allows hunters to shoot deer from high up."
Have you ever been razzed for missing a whitetail? Try being in second grade and having it revealed to the entire world. It's a wonder I didn't quit hunting right then.
But I didn't, of course. If anything, I became even more determined to take my first buck. And a couple years later, I did. That spike I shot with a Marlin Model 336 .30-30 on a ranch a few miles east, again with Grandpa at my side.
The antler ice now broken, I looked forward to the 1966 season. And when it arrived, it was magical. Opening morning of gun season, Grandpa and I sat side by side in an old outhouse that had been repurposed as a blind in the southwest part of our home ranch.
Well before sunup, we saw deer coming our way. One was a fine 8-pointer, and Grandpa whispered for me to get ready. But I did something wrong; the cartridge in the 6mm Rem. autoloader jammed.
Grandpa massaged the rifle a bit, then handed it back to me. By now the buck was right behind us, but miraculously still unaware. I could see him through a hole in the outhouse's back wall. As soon as the Weaver K4 scope was more or less behind his shoulder, I yanked the trigger. Down went my first "real" buck.
That dark-racked 4x4 was no record breaker. But he was by far the biggest deer Id shot--and when we got him to town, to hang him in my parents' cooler, he was the first among hundreds that would be checked in during the season. If all of that didn't make him a trophy. I'm not sure what would have.
Nearly a half-century has passed since that glorious morning. And in that span, much on and about the ranch has changed. My grandparents have been gone for many years. My dad passed away in 2004. My mother still lives in the 1869 rock house in which I grew up, and my brother, Sam, his wife, Susan, and their kids, Rilee and Luke, live next door. I've been in Georgia since 1984, so just over half my life now has been spent away from the ranch. Yet it's still the only place that comes to mind when someone asks, "Where are you from?"
Of course, even the land has changed a bit, due not just to droughts and floods but also the whims of man. Austin and San Antonio keep encroaching. Look toward either city at night, and the horizon glows with what some call "progress."
Britton Felps, the settler who built our house right after the Civil War, might have welcomed the population boom; he lost horses to a Comanche raiding party in those early days. But today the threat comes not from too little development, but too much. New rural subdivisions strain the water supply. Far more vehicles now travel the public road bisecting our ranch. We keep picking up their cans and bottles; they keep tossing more. The paradox is that many folks driving country roads for the scenery mindlessly degrade it as they do. But even with such issues, the Hill Country remains one of America's greatest places.
A PASTURE CALLED'THE BROWN'
To be able to control what happens to land--to the extent mortals ever can, anyway--is satisfying in many ways. Protecting it, and trying to make it good for wildlife, makes you feel good, too. It has little to do with your hunting results.
Of course, land rarely pays for itself without effort. This part of Texas has been livestock range for 150 years, but making money that way takes time and rain, both of which are often scarce. Fortunately, the scenic terrain and proximity to so many urbanites have made it valuable as recreational land. So a couple years ago, as other family needs arose, we reluctantly decided it was time to let someone else enjoy owning a portion of the land we'd nurtured for so long.
The part we singled out for sale was a wild pasture known as "The Brown."
Never in my lifetime had it been called anything else. A man by that name had owned it before us, and the label had stuck. This area has some of the roughest hills and thickest brush around, which of course made it my favorite part of the whole ranch.
Memorable spots abound. One is a boulder we call "The Jumping-Off Rock," on a cliff overlooking the headwaters of Miller Creek. I couldn't count the times I've enjoyed the view from that massive chunk of limestone. I've also spent many hours sitting on it, binoculars up and rifle ready, hoping to spot a big buck far below. I don't recall ever shooting one from there, but I did see some big ones that were out of practical range, even for the .25-06 Rem. I often toted.
Here and there you see tidbits of a hunting heritage tracing much farther back. Flint points show native hunters roamed this region in search of game thousands of years ago. And around dilapidated deer blinds you can find tarnished brass. Some of these spent cartridges predate me. They and the stone points show that while the tools might have changed, the land's pull on hunters has not.
It was in the far end of The Brown that I shot my 8-pointer in 1966. But going into last fall, I hadn't hunted the pasture in years. I'd wanted to, but it had been leased to other hunters for decades, and I didn't want to interfere with their hunting. Now, with the pasture for sale and unleased, I spied a chance to return. Maybe the only one I'd ever get.
By the time I made it back to the Hill Country early last November, the rut was rocking. But it wasn't yet time for me to hunt there. First I'd fly to Wyoming and South Dakota, for hunts with Buckhorn Ridge Ranch and Western Ranch Outfitters, respectively. Then I'd return to try for one last buck in The Brown.
Before heading north, I did what I could to prepare. Sam and I placed a Nature Blinds two-man TreeBlind in a mesquite flat near the creek and set up several PlotWatcher Pro time-lapse cameras to monitor deer activity. In a brushy draw in The Brown we placed a Boss Buck free-choice feeder filled with corn. A camera set a few feet from it would tell me what was roaming that area.
What I found, upon getting back 10 days later, was that there were all sorts of critters around. I had images of several bucks, including some definite shooters. There also were dozens of does, fawns and feral hogs. News of the free corn had spread like small-town gossip.
Buoyed by this, cameraman Christian Hoffman and I started out hunting from the TreeBlind. It worked great. We saw plenty of deer, and I stalked and shot a nice doe one morning. But the right buck never showed. With big ones on camera farther back in the hills, we elected to head that way.
One of those cameras was near The Brown's southern boundary. In fact, it overlooked the same flat on which the old outhouse once had stood. While the biggest bucks on camera were elsewhere, I'd recorded images of a nice one there. Besides, I felt drawn to hunt that spot again, if only for old times' sake.
While looking around the area the next morning, Christian and I jumped a great buck 250 yards or so from the outhouse flat. He offered no shot, but I was encouraged by seeing him. So we moved to the south side of a nearby draw and set up two Nature Blinds Stalker Shields as the frame of a ground blind enhanced with juniper clippings. Our ambush was well within 100 yards of where the outhouse had stood.
That afternoon we began our wait. And it wasn't a long one. Before sundown, two spikes walked in from the west. Watching them, I realized how little about the spot had changed since I'd shot my 8-pointer. It was practically 1966 all over again.
Suddenly, my reminiscing was broken by Christian's whispered warning not to move. As I cut my eyes to the right, I saw why: A big buck I had on camera was coming from the east. He'd unexpectedly come from the one direction that had left us fairly exposed.
Christian was able to turn and get some footage, but the buck was suspicious. Within seconds he wheeled and began bounding back to the east, toward the draw from which he'd come. As he did, I scrambled to get my Thompson/Center Icon into position.
I still don't know what made that deer decide to stop. But before hitting the draw he slowed, came to a halt and looked back, broadside and not much over 100 yards out. After quickly verifying Christian was ready, I squeezed the trigger of the 6.5 Creedmoor and released a 120-grain Hornady GMX bullet. The buck buckled and took off but made it only a short distance before crashing.
Viewers might wonder if the emotions displayed on TV hunts are real or fake. I can assure you there was none of the latter here. I was overjoyed. I'd just shot a buck almost identical to my 1966 trophy, and he'd fallen within sight of where I'd killed that one. In terms of appearance, he easily could have passed for a descendant of that deer from 48 years earlier. For all I know, he might have been one.
REFLECTING ON THE LAND
The Brown is still there--but it's also gone. Last spring, it became a stress buster for an Austin family eager to enjoy those hills for themselves. I'm still heartbroken, but at least relieved the land remains in good hands. As they say, anyone who owns land simply is holding it for the next owner. In our case, we were able to hold onto a great piece of it far longer than most families ever do.
While my days of roaming those hills are over, The Brown remains a huge part of me. None of those memories I compiled over a half-century went with the sale. And nothing ever could strip away the images of that final hunt. For as long as I can remember anything about hunting, I'll carry this one with. me. I'll always have that one last sundown in The Brown, when a special buck in a special spot couldn't help but take one final look back at where he'd come from.
He sure wasn't the only one.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To learn more about the innovative ground blind products used on the author's hunt, visit: natureblinds.com. The hunt will air on North American Whitetail 7Vin October. For airtimes and more, go to: thesportsmanchannel.com. NAW
BY GORDON WHITTINCTON, EDITOR IN CHIEF
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|Publication:||North American Whitetail|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2015|
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