Sunday, October 5, 2014

The hunt for an Axis buck

Hunting can be a topic that brings out strong opinions depending on which social circles it is being discussed. Hunting on a private ranch surrounded by a fence can be even more controversial yet, even within the circles of the hunting community, so I approached my first experience of this style of hunt with an open mind. What I walked away with was the understanding that hunting an extraordinarily weary axis buck over several thousand acres is not exactly a walk in the park.

Axis deer, or chital deer, are native to many of the forests of India and surrounding regions. Bucks are easily identifiable by their burnt orange coat, white spots, dark brown streak that runs along their spines and of course their large sweeping antlers. Does are similar in color and carry a white spotted coat as well. The axis deer we were after prefer the thick palmetto forest of the Florida ranch we were hunting. Although, just like our native whitetail deer, they will venture out into the open during the golden hours of the day.

The first night on the stand was uneventful in terms of axis sightings however I did have an encounter with a good whitetail who walked upwind of the tower stand within bow range. The first things that I noticed about the Seminole whitetail was their size being a good bit smaller than the Ohio bucks we are used to seeing. To give you an example of the size difference, in order to qualify for B&C in the Florida Buck Registry a typical Seminole whitetail must measure out to 100 inches or 125 inches for a non-typical. Additionally, their rack color appeared similar to a leather basketball's dark orange tone. It was a cool experience to see this buck right off the bat but equally frustrating that whitetail bucks we off limits to shoot during the hunt.

The next morning I was situated back in the same stand with action picking up about an hour after the sun lit up the morning sky. A group of axis appeared across the open field but they were out of range, so all I could do was watch them meander by and disappear into the palmettos. I did have single black buck doe come by for a couple picture opportunities. Black bucks are a very sleek, antelope-sized animal that inhabit the ranch in small numbers. The males are black with white bellies and spiraling horns. 

Around mid-morning I spotted a good sized axis buck come out of the brush. He was alone and cautiously made his way across the open field, not coming closer than 200 yards which is just too far of a shot for me personally to be comfortable with. Not only was this my first time hunting for axis deer but it was also the first time hunting with a rifle. Having all of my experience chasing whitetails in Ohio with either a slug gun or archery equipment I had only shot the rifle I was using out to 100 yards so my confidence to make a clean shot at over 200 yards just isn't there yet. 

Tuesday afternoon we decided to switch up the stand locations and with that I decided on a stand in much tighter quarters. My vantage point for the hunt was an older wooden stand that definitely had some character to it. 

The confined space of the field I was hunting over limited my sightings of animals until they popped out into the open, but the ones that did show themselves gave me some great photo opportunities. I did had a glimpse of a decent axis buck making his was through the thick forest but I was never presented with a clear opening on him while he stood still. Even though my sighting was at only 60 yards I just didn't feel comfortable trying to send a bullet into the woods. Had I not been holding out for an axis buck at this point I could have also taken a shot a few nice pigs that frequented the field that evening. 

Another nice looking whitetail stepped out at 120 yards to let me snap a few pictures. He worked the opposite way of the axis deer I spotted earlier in the brush and ended up walking out from behind my stand and within bow range. This buck will be a dandy if he can get through another season at the ranch. 

The night ended with another axis buck sighting but just not the right shooting opportunity. Two of the other hunters in camp closed out the afternoon hunt successfully however with one hunter having an axis buck down, and another putting three hogs on the back of the meat truck. The gates were starting to open and I was eager for the next morning to arrive and be back on stand. 

Wednesday morning came with new stand locations being chosen again by the group. I was seated in an older wooden stand situated at a pinch point between two fields. The stand contained what I was hoping was a good luck sign. An empty casing left behind by another hunter. 

Whitetails were covering me up once again with no signs of axis deer in the immediate area. While whitetail bucks were not on my available list of game to pursue, we were encouraged to help reduce the number of does on the ranch if given the opportunity. I was given that opportunity sometime in mid-morning so I chose to settle in and let my rifle crack when a mature doe worked her way across the field. I steadied the crosshairs, watched for the right moment as she paused broadside, and started to put pressure on the trigger. One last dash followed the shot and I too was able to leave behind a token of appreciation at the stand. 

The afternoon was showing signs of rain as we made our way back out to hunt. Once again we were all moving along to different stands based on a combination of hunches where the deer were thought to be moving and what numbers felt right. I chose the number three. Since it was starting to drizzle I thought I would go make it rain from three point land. 

The rain came and went for the first hour I was on stand but with my rain gear on it made the sit comfortable. It also seemed to have the game up on its feet and moving about. I was seeing whitetails, Osceola turkey, and a few axis doe moving in and out of the brush. The whitetail and turkey were much more comfortable working along the edge of the field and out in the open as opposed to the axis that would only provide quick, nervous glimpses through the dense vegetation. 

It was a few minutes past six o'clock when I caught movement in the very far corner of the field. As if appearing out of nowhere three axis deer were starting to filter from the mosquito-filled swamp and feed along the edge of the field. Suddenly I was seeing antler tips feeding behind some of the palmettos and simultaneously noticing the axis does were slipping back into the dense vegetation. My mind was made up at that point. If it was a quality buck I was going to take the shot. I was only going to have a short window to size up the animal and decide whether the safety would click off or not.

The shot echoed, smoke cleared and the buck laid motionless where he fed moments earlier. A second shot was fired but this time it was the adrenaline that I had held back until after the trigger was pulled. I looked to the sky with immediate thoughts of my Grandpa smiling down on me.

I knelt down, admiring the great buck and said a silent prayer of gratitude as I always do in these times. Although I was exhilarated by the experience of the hunt, I was also well always aware of the gravity of the situation. The respect I have for all of the game I pursue and the connection to the natural world is something difficult to describe and only understood deep inside others who have walked in the same steps. The hunt always lives on through the memories as well as the nourishing venison provided for my friends and family.