One king-sized buck taken on the famous King Ranch by a lady bowhunter makes for a royal story effort, courtesy our intrepid editor.
Last September, Bonnie McFerrin of Houston arrowed the biggest whitetail buck ever taken by a female archer in Texas. Bonnie is not new to the pages of The Journal, having taken several good bucks from the brush country of the King Ranch, and writing her stories for this magazine. This was her seventh and largest buck so far from two different leases during the last 10 years on the famous King Ranch of the Wild Horse Desert of South Texas. She and her husband Mike are dyed-in-the-wool bowhunters, and I’m not sure if they even have a deer rifle in the house. Their present lease on King Ranch is on the west side of the Laureles Division.
The Wild Horse Desert has a rich history. Back in 1846, the United States and Mexico were fighting over this vast, arid strip of land between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. Santa Ana, pretty much over a barrel at San Jacinto, had promised Sam Houston all the land claimed by Mexico, all the way to the Rio Grande. But when the Mexican dictator was safe in Mexico City, he claimed that he had said “Nueces,” not Rio Grande. When Texas became a state in 1845, the U.S. Government laid claim to what they said was theirs, and a three-year war settled the issue.
As most Texas historians know, steamboat captain Richard King, who saw the country in 1848 while traveling overland to Corpus Christi, decided to create a ranch in the arid country between the Nueces and the Rio Grande. It took time, but with the help of some partners, including Mifflin Kenedy and Capt. James Walworth, he eventually established some 675,000 acres that included parts of eight counties. The “Running W” brand-probably the most famous and recognizable in the world, was registered in 1859 and may have come from that partnership.
After a few years, Kenedy and King parted ways, each taking two large parcels of land. Through the next few years, King added to his spread, and eventually had four parcels that added up to 825,000 acres of farmland and pasture. One of the last parcels added to the ranch was the Laureles, a 250,000-acre triangle of land south of Corpus Christi bordering the Gulf coastline, which Kenedy had taken in the original split between the partners. Kenedy had sold the land to a British firm called the Texas Land and Cattle Company, and the King Ranch heirs eventually bought back the land in 1900.
In some ways, the Laureles Division has vegetative characteristics that could have more potential to produce a trophy whitetail than the other three: Norias, Santa Gertrudis, and Encino. I will probably get arguments from ranch biologists on this, but that is my opinion. The soils of Laureles are mostly tight clay blackland, and the vegetative aspect is much more conducive to antler growth. Sandy lands like those of the Norias Division produce a lot of deer, but antler quality varies considerably. Also, there is little competition between deer and nilgai on the Laureles, and some of the biggest bucks taken through the years on King Ranch have come from this division.
When it was reported to me that Bonnie had killed the huge buck on the Laureles, I contacted her immediately and she gave me the following scenario of the hunt.
“To say that the two weeks leading up to this hunt were incredibly trying would be an understatement. Mike and I were on a mule deer hunt in Alberta when our trip was cut short due to Hurricane Ike, which was brewing in the Gulf. Arriving home on the last flight available from Calgary to Houston on the same day that Ike was blowing in, we hunkered down with the family that evening and witnessed just how powerful a Category 2 hurricane could be! Fortunately, our home was not damaged, but the electricity was knocked out and this situation got old quick!
“Two days after the storm, we made the decision to drive to South Texas and stay in our ranch house until power was restored in Houston. Fast-forward two weeks: I was still in South Texas with the kids—Mike had returned to Houston to work, and was sleeping on the office floor. On the road again, Mike came back to South Texas for the opening weekend of bow season, and broke the news that after 13 days without power, the electricity at home had been restored. We anxiously awaited Saturday morning.
“A big buck had made an appearance on some trail cameras and had shown to be frequenting a water source close to one of our bowhunting set-ups. There was no doubt about where we would be sitting on opening morning. On Saturday morning I was hunting, and Mike was behind the camera. The buck I was after made an appearance late in the morning. When I saw his velvet antlers gleaming in the sun, my heart felt like it was going to pop out of my chest. I knew that this was the biggest buck that I had ever had in front of me, and I was hoping that he would give me a good shot.
“As I was sitting on my tripod, I was talking to myself and trying to be patient and confident if the buck gave me a good shot. At 17 yards, the buck turned and gave me the angle I needed. The PSE X-Force at 52 pounds sent the carbon arrow with a rage broad head to the right spot. The buck wheeled and was gone, but I knew that the shot was good.
“The previous year, I had seen this same buck and Mike convinced me to let him walk I am so glad that I did, because Mike guessed that the buck added 20 inches of antler over the previous year. To me, this is proof that good management practices and age can lead to bigger deer.
“Mike and I waited for a while to make sure that the arrow had time to do its job. We found the buck about an hour later. His tines and beams were enormous, and I realized immediately that this was the best buck that I had ever taken during my 10 years of hunting on King Ranch.”
The owners and employees of the ranch have always taken great pride in its wildlife. Butch Thompson has headed up the wildlife programs for over 30 years. Dr. Mickey Hellickson and Justin Feild handle the hunting and biological aspects, including research and management. I doubt that you could find a King Ranch heir that doesn’t hunt in one manner or the other. Since the 1970s, commercial hunting has become an important part of the ranch’s income.
The old Texas Game and Fish Commission (Texas Parks and Wildlife) had a working relationship with King Ranch for stocking deer and turkey back in the ’50s and ’60s. Hundreds of white-tailed deer were trapped on the Norias Division and stocked on good habitats across the state. Val Lehmann and Bill Kiel were ranch biologists back then, and helped coordinate the cooperative efforts of the ranch and state agencies. Since 1960, I have spent a lot of time both working and playing in and around Brown County. The county has excellent deer hunting which resulted from two releases of King Ranch deer—one around Lake Brownwood to the north, and the other in the old Camp Bowie area south of Brownwood. As a young wildlife biologist, I worked that area of the state, and had the chance to evaluate the results of the deer releases, which occurred in 1950 at both sites. The quality of the deer is excellent, and the two releases of 100 deer each have successfully provided brood stock that has filled every nook and cranny of that area with whitetails. This is just one example of the success of King Ranch deer being stocked throughout the state. There are many more.
When Bonnie and Mike got the big buck into Kingsville, Justin Feild, biologist for the ranch and an official Boone and Crockett scorer greeted them. Justin was anxious to score the buck, but had to remove the velvet from the antlers before an official score could be taken. The measurements were impressive. The 24-inch beams had 17 points, with an inside spread of 186⁄8 inches. The brow tines were 55⁄8; the G-2s were 12 inches; G-3s were 106⁄8; G-4s were 64⁄8, and the beam mass was 351⁄8 inches. The gross score was 1941⁄8 and the net was 1880⁄8. This adds up to the best whitetail buck ever taken in Texas by a female bowhunter.
Bonnie McFerrin won the Texas Gulf Coast Deer Contest category for Best Women Low Fence Archery. I asked her recently if she thought this might be her best buck ever. “Probably so,” she said. “My chances for getting a better buck than this are slim to none. But I’ll keep hunting.”