Hawke Sport Optics & Sitka Gear at Solana Ranch
This last February I was invited by Joel Smith, of Hawke Sport Optics to go on a late season MLD hunt on the Solana Ranch near Salado, TX. Joel and several of his friends have made this same trip for years, 15 years in fact. Knowing Joel had hunted this ranch for years, and hearing him speak highly of the family that owned and operated the ranch, it was easy to get excited about the hunt. He said most would be hunting with archery equipment, but one crew was there filming a black powder rifle hunt with Hawke Optics. I confirmed I would be hunting with archery equipment and looked forward to getting the Hoyt CRX out again to extend the 2013 – 2014 season.
I did some quick research about Solana Ranch to try to get an idea of what I could expect. The Solana Ranch is owned and operated by the Michaux family, and is about 9,000 acres located in the Edwards Plateau region of Central Texas. The ranch features free range whitetail deer, feral hogs, and Rio Grande turkeys under a TP&W assisted management program. They also host other hunts like dove and exotic hunts. Best of all, they specialize in bow hunts.
As I packed I kept in mind the unusually cold year, cold for Texas standards anyway, and planned for a cold hunt. For Christmas I had received few pieces of Sitka Gear, and I have acquired enough other Sitka Camo to get me in the field. I knew it was going to cold and possibly wet, so I packed what I had and planned to layer up. My gear included the Sitka Merino Core Bottom and Zip T for next to skin, and I insulated with a Traverse Zip T. My outer layer consisted of the Stratus Pant and Ascent Jacket. I also used the Traverse Beanie and Gloves to keep my head and hands warm.
Between my work schedule and a previous family obligation, I realized that my trip would be a short one, I would only have one full day to hunt. So as soon as I could get out of the office that Thursday I eagerly headed south to the Solana Ranch for the next day’s adventure. When I arrived, I was greeted by Joel at the main camp house where I met everyone else I would be sharing camp with for the next day. I was also able to meet several of the guides from the ranch, and I was informed that David “Shep” Sheppard of A&E’s American Hoggers fame would be my guide. At Solana Ranch each guide is responsible for several hunters, making sure they understand what is expected, getting them to and from stands, and helping with the harvest.
Since I was a day late upon arrival, I asked everyone how the first day’s hunt had been. One deer and several feral hogs had already been harvested, but everyone reported that the animals were moving. We were soon served BBQ for dinner and continued to get acquainted, swapping hunting stories, pictures, and videos until it was time to turn in for the night.
The next morning came early with the alarm sounding at 4:30am. This particular morning was cold, 24 degrees with a light north wind, but it was predicted to warm up in the afternoon with winds shifting from the north to the south. We grabbed a couple of cups of coffee and a quick breakfast and loaded up in vehicles with the guides. I was lucky enough to be the first hunter out of the vehicle to face the cold morning, and was assigned a tree stand in the Black Pasture. My stand was a ladder stand in a clump of live oaks, about 15 feet above ground. Once I became situated, I checked the time – it was barely 6:00am and I had plenty of time before it was light. I settled in and tried to stay warm until sunup.
With the heavy layer of clouds, it took some time for it to become light. As soon as it did, I started to assess my surroundings. I sat with my back against the trunk of the tree with three good shooting lanes – one to my right, one over my left shoulder, and one to my left. I immediately dismissed any opportunity to my right because that was directly downwind. I began looking around for movement and to try to determine from where I thought the deer might approach. I leaned around to look behind me and spotted movement through the branches. What I thought was one deer turned out to be several, but I had no idea how many were behind me because of the trees. Within 10 minutes one dark antlered buck walked in to the shooting lane to my right, and as expected, I got busted. He easily winded me although he did not pinpoint my location nor did he make a noisy exit. Several others continued to feed in my direction.
I settled in again for a few short minutes before two more bucks fed within 10 yards of the stand over my left shoulder. The bucks were young and never noticed my presence so I was careful not to educate them about hunters. As the bucks continued to feed, I carefully continued to scan for additional movement and a suitable target. Within minutes I spotted a buck cautiously approaching from behind, the same direction as the other deer. I was hoping that the younger bucks would act as a decoy and pull the other buck in the same direction. If so, I wouldn’t have to worry about the wind.
Eventually the buck fed in to the opening over my left shoulder, never coming closer than about 30 yards. More importantly, he never turned broadside or presented a shot. I still had to be cautious with my movements since there were still three deer around me. I needed him to continue feeding in the direction he was headed, if so he would pass behind a branch, out of view, and back into view in the opening to my left. Being right handed, this would require minimal movement to get the shot if it developed.
The target buck was still moving toward the opening to my left, the same location the other three deer were occupying. I was hoping that they would continue to feed in the same direction, out of my shot window and out of the direct line of sight. I began to realize I was going to need more than just a little luck to get the shot if it developed, there were simply too many eyes to pick up my movements. After a few more minutes past, the buck I wanted finally entered the shot window, and all four deer were now in plain sight. I needed something to happen, something to distract the deer and make them look away from my position. The deer were positioned such that the three younger bucks were about 25 yards from me, but between me and the buck I wanted to harvest. The buck I wanted was standing at 33 yards, but was wise enough not to turn broadside. As I sat watching and wondering if this this was just another close encounter or if I was going to get the shot, it all came together. The distraction appeared in the form of a single feral hog – I saw him come around some trees about 35 yards past the deer. At once, the deer all picked up their heads and turned their attention to the hog. Figuring that this was my chance I, I glanced down and hooked my release to the d-loop, just waiting for the buck to turn broadside. In just a matter of seconds, he did, and I quickly sized up the scene – all the deer were looking away, wind was in my face, and I brought the bow up and came to full draw. No one seemed to notice so I steadied into position, aimed, and released my arrow over the three younger deer to my target. The shot connected behind the shoulder and I could see the hit was solid as the deer ran behind another clump of live oaks. The other deer did not startle, remaining in the area for another 15 minutes.
That’s when the cold and the freezing mist set in. It was there the entire time but only noticeable when the adrenaline began to leave my body. When I evaluated my comfort, I realized that I was relatively warm, and definitely dry. The Sitka Gear was not only doing its job of keeping me warm and dry, but the Optifade pattern worked well in the live oak crown keeping me concealed, and I found the gear extremely comfortable.
Not knowing how far the deer would run, I wanted to get down and locate a blood trail before the light rain washed away the trail, so I sat as long as I could and climbed down after an hour or so. The blood trail was easy to locate, and so was the deer.
I waited for another couple of hours before I was picked up, being first dropped off usually means being last picked up. I was excited to tell the story and make the recovery, and didn’t even mind sharing a few more times over lunch back at camp. While everyone was gathered around for lunch, Shep grabbed a shed antler and a sharpie for a new tradition that they had recently started. The shed antler was passed around for everyone to sign as a memento of the hunt. There were several others already signed by previous groups, and I now look forward to signing several more sheds on future hunts.
As we prepared for the afternoon hunt, the weather report stated that winds that were out of the north, northwest were predicted to swing around to the southwest and bring some warming weather over the next few days. So for the afternoon hunt, we planned for the wind to change and went to stands to accommodate the changing winds. When I was dropped at my afternoon sit, it was a 20 foot ladder stand overlooking a feeder, and when I got situated the wind was still hitting me in the back of the neck, not exactly what I had hoped. While the view was outstanding – gently rolling terrain and large live oaks, the wind was blowing my scent into the area I was watching. I decided that if I stayed in the tree, I would not see anything or at least would not have anything come in close. I climbed down from the stand and found cover in some brush and briars that allowed me to be out of sight and out of the wind. It was easy to get comfortable as the ground felt warmer than the ladder stand and the wind was no longer hitting the back of my neck.
About 20 minutes before sunset, I heard the sound of small hoof beats hitting the ground, and it was getting louder. This could only mean one thing, feral hogs were headed my way. A sounder of about 15 hogs came running around my location, only about 10 yards away, but had only one thing on their minds, feeding. The hogs ran straight to the feeder and immediately began eating. From where I sat, I was about 30 yards from the hogs, so I stood to get the shot. While all eyes were on the ground I came to draw and released on a small boar weighing about 100 lbs. The shot was a lung shot and a complete pass through – but not the best shot on a hog. Shots that high on hogs usually don’t leave much of a blood trail, and that was the case in this situation. I recovered the arrow and found a few small spots of blood, but as I followed the exit trail the blood eventually stopped. I searched alone, and then my ride helped search again after he arrived to pick me up. Unfortunately, the hog was not recovered.
Back at camp, we all exchanged stories of the day and reports of animals spotted while we waited for dinner. Since I was leaving I made my rounds saying thank you and good byes. While I was disappointed that I had to leave that night, I was very thankful at the same time. Thankful that Joel and Hawke Sport Optics had invited me to share a hunt, and was glad to have been able to meet everyone sharing camp and learn about their hunting experiences. The Michaux family and their employees are as nice and helpful as any you will experience in your hunting endeavors, and Solana Ranch is a beautiful, well managed ranch that offers great bow hunting set ups and plentiful game all in a low fence hunting experience.