By Gerald Almy
With deer seasons closed, many sportsmen have shifted their focus to gobbler hunting and fishing, or planning strategies for next fall's whitetail hunting. But you don't have to stop big-game hunting just because whitetail and mule deer seasons have closed.
Instead, you can shift your focus to hunting exotic big game animals. These are species that have been transplanted to this country from other lands but now have thriving, naturally-reproducing populations, much like brown trout and ringneck pheasants, which were imported from Europe and Asia. You can hunt exotics in many states, but I've found one of the best places to pursue them is in Texas.
There species such as blackbuck antelope, aoudad, axis and sika deer can be hunted on vast free-range settings or on high-fenced ranches that are so big that you don't even notice there's a fence. (It's there mainly to keep poachers out and allow management practices to succeed).
The most important thing to confirm before hunting exotics on these ranches is that the animals have been living there for many generations and are the result of natural reproduction in the wild -- not ones that were bred in a pen and stocked before a hunt.
I've hunted exotics many times for a variety of species in Texas, but my favorite of all is the axis deer, a native of India and Sri Lanka. This species was introduced to Texas nearly a century ago and thrives on the mostly arid ranches found there. Axis deer reproduce naturally here and have adapted so well to their new environment that they have to be harvested regularly to avoid overpopulating the habitat or competing with native whitetails.
They can be very challenging to hunt, particularly if you seek out an old, wary animal that has lived a long life and is ready to decline physically. Axis are gorgeous animals with elk-like racks and white spots on young and old alike, something like a new-born whitetail fawn's colorings. They weigh about 150-200 pounds.
Gene Fuchs, a well-known Texas wildlife biologist and hunting guide, and his son Steve, helped me bag my first ever axis deer on the 20,000-acre South Fork Ranch, near Kerrville, many years ago. After glassing lots of animals and unsuccessfully trying to stalk several, Steve spotted another axis, virtually hidden under a live oak tree. After a careful, cautious stalk, my 150 grain Federal Premium bullet found its mark and a beautiful axis with 32-inch main beams was down.
As we admired the handsome trophy, Fuchs explained that "some axis will be in hard antlers at any given time during the year, and all axis bucks can breed any day of the year, regardless of whether they have antlers or not." That makes late winter, spring and even summer a great time to hunt them.
"Axis does cycle every 28 to 32 days if they're not carrying a fawn," he added. "Once they drop a fawn, they can breed again within two months."
Because of this great reproductive capability, axis deer need to be cropped regularly on Texas ranches so they don't overpopulate the habitat and deplete the food supply.
That's a task many of us hunters will be glad to tackle. After admiring my trophy and taking lots of photos, we took it back to the headquarters and hung the deer in a walk-in cooler. Later we would debone the meat for transporting back to my home in the Shenandoah Valley. It would prove to be some of the best wild game meat my family has ever sampled.
Contact the chambers of commerce in central and western Texas for details on ranches that offer exotics hunting for naturally-reproducing, wild animals. This time of year you can often combine a hunt for an exotic big game animal with a hunt for wild Rio Grande turkeys. They are extremely abundant in Texas and hearing dozens of gobblers in a day is not uncommon.
Note: Congratulations Tim Beck of Indiana. On Nov. 7, 2012 he bagged the second largest free-ranging whitetail ever taken by a hunter. It scored 305-7/8 non-typical. It beat the former Indiana non-typical record by more than 50 points. Other than one buck taken in Iowa that scored 307- 5/8, this is the largest free-ranging whitetail ever shot by a hunter.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.