By Darby Wright
It was my daughter Kayleigh’s turn to go the King Ranch and try her hand at nilgai hunting. Kayleigh is a senior at Canyon High School in New Braunfels and recently went hunting with ol’ Dad. She had heard all the stories from me, her brother and all their hunting buddies for years after the annual nilgai hunt.
Our annual hunt with a close-knit group of guys from the San Marcos area have been nilgai hunting on the King Ranch for 12-14 years consecutively. We spend a week down there every year and hunt different pastures everyday. We cook our meals in camp on the ranch and stay out in the middle of the field without going to town the whole time. It’s a relief from the everyday hustle and bustle of the regular workweek back home.
The Norias division of the ranch where we hunt has many different pastrures available for nilgai hunting. All the pastures have names, so as you pass through a gate, it tells you which one you’re entering. I’m quite sure there’s a heck of a story behind each pasture’s name. This ranch covers a lot of territory!
There are widely distributed types of ecosystems and diverse habitats over different regions on this division. In several days hunting you may see everything from mesquite flats with prickly pear to heavy thorn brush, huge oak mottes, coastal plain grasslands, and vast rolling sand dunes. Several pastures run right to the edge of the salty Laguna Madre. The animal and bird life you see is spectacular. You will see everything from waterfowl to many hawk species that have migrated south for the winter on the South Texas coast. Green jays, falcons, rosette spoonbills, geese, shorebirds, pygmy owls and sand hill cranes are often seen while hunting these areas. The bird life is absolutely amazing here during the cooler months.
Our group of guys always return home with stories of big bulls, long shots, rattlesnakes, missed shots, monster white-tailed deer, more hogs than you can count, and all the great cooking by Mr. Gene. It was Kayleigh’s turn to see if all the old hunting stories were true. Or, would she discover that some might have been exaggerated by over zealous nilgai hunters?
Several of our guides are fourth and fifth generation family members who live and work continuously on the ranch. The stories we’ve heard from them over the years about the rich history surrounding the ranch have been phenomenal! From cattle rustlers and poachers disappearing into the ranch never to be seen again, to banditos roaming and raiding small outposts. Hearing these living history stories from our guides during our hunts over many years has truly enriched our hunting memories.
The meat of the nilgai is something to be savored, extremely mild in taste with a delicious flavor. The first to go are the tenderloins—spiced, marinated, and seared over mesquite coals—and left rare to medium rare in the middle is an absolute treat! Backstraps wrapped in bacon like a fillet mignon served with ranch style beans and campfire baked potatoes will knock your socks off! This delicacy is hard to beat, and our family has been living on this excellent table fare most of the year.
Free ranging nilgai antelope are some of the toughest and most difficult animals to hunt in North America. Bulls are extremely wary, often spotting the hunter well before getting within shooting range. Often exceeding 600 pounds, nilgai bulls live in some of the most hostile environments along the South Texas coast. Many times huge bulls live in and around vast areas of giant sand dunes.
Kayleigh had practiced shooting with me prior to this hunting trip. Oscar Cortez, our hunting guide, took Kayleigh on many long hikes and stalks looking for a big bull. Walking in soft white sand with searing heat and humidity was a tiring feat. Countless miles were covered before lunchtime. A quick tailgate lunch out in the brush and a siesta in the shade of a mesquite tree replenished everyone’s energy level.
Several young bulls and cows were seen during afternoon stalks. Oscar said, “Big rattlers have been on the move lately. Be on the lookout.” It had been a very long day and the sun was on its way to the horizon.
As we proceeded, easing through a giant oak motte, I said, “There’s a huge bull in the thick oaks.” Oscar quietly told Kayleigh, “Get ready for a clear shot.” The monster bull was hiding behind oak trees and wild grape vines.
Kayleigh positioned herself for a clear shot at the white throat patch with her .30-06. At the report of the gun, nothing happened; the bull just stood there. Oscar said, “Shoot again.” Before she could shoot, the bull fell on its side, then started kicking violently. Oscar said, “Better run up and put in another shot before he jumps up and runs off.”
Kayleigh ran with me up to the massive bull and put in a finishing shot. It was over. This thing was a beast—old, silver, and huge. Excited yells and hugs were given all around.
Wow, what an adventure! The last day of Kayleigh’s South Texas trip was a day spent fishing the lower Laguna Madre where she managed to catch a 27-inch redfish and 20-inch speckled trout. This trip spent with dad won’t be forgotten for a while. And now it looks like Kayleigh may have a few King Ranch hunting stories of her own to tell.