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23: Hunt on the King Ranch

Mike Legget, Outdoors

Staff Writer
Austin 360

Booming thunder vibrates through parched desert sand, and lightning blinks in the monstrous bubbling cauldron of dark gray storm clouds rolling in from the west.

Justin Feild and I are shoulder-to-shoulder in a pop-up bow blind set along a two-rut road in the wilderness of the King Ranch. I've just fired on a singular old buck, and Feild is squinting through the camouflage mesh, assessing the shot.

Tap, tap-tap. Raindrops on the blind.

"You missed him," he whispers. "You shot low."

I already knew. I watched the arrow hiss under the buck's belly.

Sixteen yards away. Open terrain. A clean miss.

I swear I've never felt so low, or useless, or stupid than at this moment. Hidden in this small blind, behind my face mask and under my camo jacket, I'm damp with flop sweat, weak with adrenaline aftershock and embarrassed to be here, calling myself a hunter.

King Ranch, this jewel of history and legend that's part Texas, part Mexico, is the next-to-last stop in my series "24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies." No list of the spectacular and hidden treasures of outdoor Texas would be complete without the Running W. Every hunter, every person familiar with just a smidgen of Texas history, should want to count coup on a King Ranch deer.

Camera or rifle, bow or atlatl, the method doesn't matter, nor does the size of the buck. This is the King Ranch, the iconic brand of landholdings in North America. Any deer should do.

And yet, here I am, a guest of the ranch with a chance to complete No. 23 on my list, and I've come undone at the sight of a knobby old 8-pointer walking through the brush, flaunting his dominance in this little corner of the ranch.

I'm thinking maybe I should just die today and get it over with.

Feild grabs my hand. "He's coming back," he says. "He didn't know what happened, and he's coming back."

I wipe my nose on my head net and try to regain my composure.

Each year, hundreds of hunters and thousands of curious visitors travel to the plains along the lower Laguna Madre, once known as the Wild Horse Desert, to hunt, bird-watch and soak in the history of this place.

"The Ranch," as it's called here in far South Texas, was founded more than 150 years ago by steamboat Capt. Richard King. A former apprentice with an eye for opportunity, King parlayed a few thousand dollars and some scraggly cattle into an empire that today includes 825,000 acres, custom-bred cattle, energy, agriculture, banking and hunting.

This is the largest ranch in Texas, sprawling in four huge "divisions" — Laureles, Norias, Encino and Santa Gertrudis — across much of five counties. This is the epicenter of South Texas ranching royalty, home to the Kings, Kennedys and Klebergs, and it dominates the economy and culture.

The Ranch is living history, a taut thread of continuous contact with old Texas/Mexico. It blends past and present through the land, the wildlife and the people. Here there are ranch hands and staffers, cowboys and caballeros, who trace their families back six and seven generations to the people who began this ranch.

The Ranch is larger than life — a living, breathing thing that shifts and rolls inside its mesquite blanket, like a cat in a pillowcase, never static, ever evolving and adding to its story.

Today, words like "icon" and "brand" can be overused. King Ranch transcends Madison Avenue hype. The name is older than giants like Coca-Cola, Disney and Ford, and it extends far beyond the fence lines: King Ranch Chicken, King Ranch fencing, King Ranch Fords, King Ranch bluestem grass.

Curiously, the logo for the ranch and the brand for much of its livestock, the famed Running W, is a mystery. Nobody knows exactly what it means or where it comes from.

To Texans like myself, the wildlife and hunting set King Ranch apart.

"We have a population of more than 60,000 animals," says Feild, who is director of wildlife operations for the ranch. "I think about it like this: This ranch is a living legend and to have a part in managing it is really a dream come true for me. It's the ultimate fair chase experience."

Feild says there are three different ecosystems on the ranch, and each has its unique qualities and animals. Beyond the deer, there are feral hogs and javelinas, turkeys, alligators, bobcats, coyotes and hundreds of species of birds. Exotics such as nilgai antelope, axis deer and impala thrive here, and there are eland, black bucks and water bucks.

I've come to hunt a low-end management buck, surprisingly cheap by today's standards at $1,500. You can spend thousands on different kinds of hunts, but I don't have to go that high to get the experience I want.

Feild treats my hunt just as he would any other, scouting to find a buck we can kill with a bow.

So here we are, deep in the Santa Gertrudis division, watching as this 6-year-old buck walks back out into the open area where Feild has scattered corn.

Nearby, a young buck is eating. A couple of does race by, acting goofy. And now a small herd of javelinas comes marching down the road, threatening to break up the party.

Whitetails hate javelinas. Maybe it's because they're low to the ground, bulky and aggressive. Maybe it's the skunklike odor that comes from a gland on their backs.

I can smell it now.

"He's back inside 30 yards," Feild says. I can't see very well through the mesh and ask him to cut a slot so I can shoot.

Rain is now pelting the top of the blind.

Finally, the old buck extends his right leg, exposing his chest behind the shoulder. I come to full draw. At 27 yards, the arrow hits slightly low, the buck jumps and disappears into the brush. A monster thunderclap punctuates his departure, as if somebody up there doesn't like me.

After a couple of minutes, we spot the buck wandering aimlessly about 100 yards away, and Feild makes a decision. "It's starting to rain, and I'm afraid it will wash away the blood trail. I think we should grab a rifle and do this quick."

I agree, and we begin sneaking through the brush. Ten minutes later, we come to place where he is standing, and I can get an unobstructed shot. It's clear my arrow would have been fatal eventually, but this is the right thing to do.

I kneel in the mud and wet grass beside the old buck and admire the antlers. I say a prayer for the deer and for myself and feel Feild clapping me on the shoulder.

"You were breathing pretty heavy before the shot," I say to Feild. "Was I?"

"You were sucking wind pretty good," he says with a laugh, adding, "Now that was a hunt."

A King Ranch hunt.

mleggett@statesman.com

MIKE LEGGETT'S JOURNEY ACROSS TEXAS

Two years have passed since I began assembling my list of ‘24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.' I've traveled from the Great Plains in the Panhandle to the Gulf coast near Boca Chica, from the rugged mountains around El Paso to the river bottoms of East Texas.

I've been lucky enough to live a bunch of my own dreams: drinking a beer at sundown in Palo Duro Canyon, standing in the shade of a thousand-year-old tree, calling up a Rio Grande turkey, climbing to the top of Texas. These were things I wanted to do, things that were important to me, things to leave my grandchildren.

Along the way, I've had hundreds of reader emails, saying I should do things or visit places that were special to them. Some were really nice, too.

At the end this journey, I'll include a sampling of reader suggestions. These can be special sites, beautiful trips or quiet places they'd like to share with other Texans. Send them to mleggett@statesman.com.

The lowdown on the King Ranch

Established 1853 by steamboat Capt. Richard King

Originally 15,500 acres known as Rincon de Santa Gertrudis

825,000 acres

Larger than Rhode Island

150 miles of Gulf coastline

24 gates and 1,800 miles of roads

1,700 miles of fence

National

Historic

Landmark, 1961

Only Triple Crown winner from Texas: Assault, 1946, King Ranch