column By: Lee J. Hoots | May, 19
In my mid-20s, I left a weekly regional fishing and hunting newspaper for a junior editor position with a much larger publisher of firearms and hunting magazines, knowing there would be greater salary potential, as well as opportunity to hunt in other parts of the country and possibly the world. One of the first deer hunts I made was to Texas.
Sometime later, I faced a bit of condemnation from a bowhunting buddy. This fellow, who remains a very near and dear friend to this day, laid on some heavy criticism because I was hunting almost exclusively with a rifle. To paraphrase his words: What kind of (insert the ugliest word your morals allow) hunts with a rifle?!
This took place in a group setting in a pizza joint. Figuring a longtime friendship was not worth quitting over a stupid comment, I asked a simple question: “If I owned a rifle company and asked if you wanted to tag along on a whitetail hunt in Alabama, would you not say yes?” His petulance ceased immediately, and I moved down the table to sit near the man I worked for in my teenage years, who owned a bow shop.
It was the first time I recognized there was a real philosophical rift between some bowhunters and fellows who prefer using rifles. Unfortunately, the reverse, usually based on half-truths or rumors, is also evident. For example, strict rifle hunters have been heard bemoaning the idea that bowmen “wound too many animals.” I know this to be true in rare cases, but the hunters I hang with will walk miles to track down a wounded animal, whether shot with bullet or broadhead.
On the other hand, I have also known people who have no problem driving roads from sunrise to sunset, hoping to jump a buck, bail out of the truck and start launching bullets at a running deer. (In most states, “road hunting” will end with a hefty fine.) Yet given the broad sporting traditions throughout the country and across the world, who among us has the right to look down on others – with the obvious exception of breaking specific state or federal laws?
The debate goes beyond “my way is better than yours.” Hunters and land owners in the great state of Texas, for example, are often maligned as being ethically challenged. Of course, derogatory perceptions are generally misguided and tend to be repeated by people who have never visited the state that spans nearly 270,000 square miles.
I can only think poorly written articles by narrow-minded authors, and a glut of hunting television shows (and VHS videos early on) produced to showcase the latest and greatest new hunting equipment, have perpetuated the falsehood that all game in the Lone Star State is shot over feeders. Using corn feeders is legal in Texas (and other states), where property managers (under certain state parks and wildlife department stipulations) can manage whitetails as they see fit. In fact, much of Texas is so heavily brushed that mature bucks and wild hogs can “disappear” for days, weeks or even months.
Then there’s the other argument regarding so-called excessive fees to shoot “corn-fed” deer. Well, a land owner has to pay his property tax, does he not? Like it or not, feeders provide a way to manage densely populated game – to keep numbers at an appropriate figure for the ground in question; to otherwise keep the ranch and its wildlife sustainable. Is that not an important part of the job of the landowner and/or the hunter?
Even though hunting over feeders is an interesting (if not controversial) game management tool, to me it provides a rather mundane experience, perhaps because I grew up hunting mainly on public land where deer were found by walking, hiking and glassing. Many years ago, hunting in South Texas for the first time, I climbed up into a tower blind in hopes of shooting the first whitetail of my life. Comparatively few deer were seen in the brush-choked country, but during a week of hunting, I shot two very different bucks that couldn’t resist the sound of corn being slung out from the feeder wheel. To be honest, as a fellow who grew up pursuing deer on foot, I swore off sitting over feeders after that – a personal choice that had nothing to do with ethics.
All these thoughts were pushed home after hunting Texas whitetails on the Nail Ranch in Albany, where there were no high fences or tower stands, and no corn feeders. The Nail is a large cattle operation, the majority of which consists of open, rolling pasture. Wildlife manager Craig Winters provides spot-and-stalk whitetail hunting at its best. Trucks are used to access remote areas of the property, but a hunter will usually spend more time walking, glassing, rattling and stalking than driving. What’s more, the Nail has a tremendous number of wild hogs, just to keep things interesting.
So, not all Texas whitetail hunting is done over bait. But even if it were, what’s the true difference between hunting over a corn feeder and shooting a big buck from the middle of a harvested bean field or a winter wheat field in some other state? I’ve crawled across wind-blown dirt and around clumps of sagebush to shoot both mule deer and pronghorns on winter wheat in Montana and never gave it a second thought.
Back when there was more time and opportunity to hunt out of state, six years ago a friend proffered an invitation to hunt late-season whitetails on a small family owned farm for three days in south-central Nebraska in the heart of the prairie state. The property was home to a decent number of big bucks, but a hunter could shoot just about any deer, including a doe or two. Shot distances, it was said, ranged from “up close and personal” to “way out there” and, yes, we would be hunting over cornfields.
That year I had a Ruger M77 Hawkeye .25-06 Remington that had been used to shoot a rather good New Mexico pronghorn with newly introduced Hornady American Whitetail ammunition loaded with the company’s traditional Spire Point bullets. It just seemed appropriate to take it to Nebraska. The Spire Point is a classic deer bullet because it expands well and is typically accurate, and the .25-06 was more than potent enough for any shot distance I expected to take on even a very large-bodied buck.
Due to exceptionally cold and damp weather, I hunted from a tower blind situated in a row of trees bisecting a narrow cornfield to the front and a much larger field to the back. Does and very young bucks worked over the leftover corn on either side of the stand and occasionally drifted through the trees. Late in the afternoon, a decent buck walked past the blind and received a couple of 117-grain Spire Points. It was undoubtedly hoping to catch the faintest whiff of a still-receptive doe feeding upwind in the large cornfield.
Hunting deer from a blind over a food source is nothing new, nor is arrowing a bull elk on public land while it finishes wallowing in a man-made water catchment (or “tank” in the West) installed for the express purpose of sound game management. Texans decided 50 years ago, if not longer, that corn works well, too.
Nonetheless, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be caught sitting over a corn feeder, but there are times when a heated blind comes in handy during frigid, late-season hunts. If few deer are moving, a hunter can at least ponder legalities and game management tools. To narrow-mindedly disapprove the use of corn feeders in states where their use is legal without understanding the reasoning behind it seems as absurd as condemning an individual for hunting with a rifle over a bow.