FORT DAVIS, Texas — The West may not be as wild as it once was, but in the rough terrain of southwestern Texas, it's still wild enough.
Especially so for the visitor who forgets this Chihuahuan Desert outpost still harbors plenty of thorn-laced flora and slithering fauna that can stick or bite a careless hunter venturing over mile after cactus-studded mile of the state's Trans-Pecos region near Fort Davis.
At an altitude of 5,050 feet, this former U.S. Army post nestled in the rugged Davis Mountain range offers some of the best big game hunting left in North America.
With robust populations of mule deer, free ranging aoudad sheep, bands of portly javelinas, the occasional mountain lion and an abundance of blue quail in wet years, there is plenty of game to chase.
That includes the pronghorn antelope, the fleet-footed critter that Jeff Davis County and several of its neighbors are known for when the season arrives in early October.
Gathering last month on the season's eve in the comfortable Desert Safaris' hunting camp ((210) 264-1745 or (210) 764-1827) operated by Hunter Ross, a Trans-Pecos born and raised guide, the cool desert air held promise for a Southwestern safari.
Despite an unexplained pronghorn die-off earlier in the year that curtailed tag numbers issued by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Ross held out hope we would see plenty of antelope, or "speed goats," as some local hunters call them.
If we were patient enough, and willing to scour the 275,000 private acres at Ross' disposal with high-powered optics, we might even see a few bona fide trophies.
"Our antelope hunting is good, thanks to good numbers of animals, light hunting pressure and our large acreage," Ross said. "Hunters will see 30 to 50 bucks a day, and while we've been running solid 14- to 15-inch horn measurements for years, we also take them over 17 inches each year."
Ross explained that shooting an antelope in the mid 70s in the Boone and Crockett Club's scoring system was almost a foregone conclusion. Shooting one in the upper 70s was definitely a possibility — and something in the 80s was not out of the question.
"Our biggest antelope measured 86 7/8 inches and had a longest horn length of 17 7/8 inches," Ross said. "We average about three true Boone and Crockett goats per year."
The next morning, Ross guided myself and SureFire's Ron Canfield, the latter seeking his first ever antelope.
Not too far down the dusty trail, Ross pulled the ATV over so our trio could scan the first group of antelope. Immediately, our attention was drawn to a hot doe being harassed by the dominant buck, who was also chasing off a similarly-sized suitor.
"There's a decent one or two in there, but we can do better," Ross said. "The key is to cover as much country as you can and to do lots of glassing. And of course, being selective."
For several hours, Canfield and I practiced the art of being selective as we walked the tightrope of passing up good bucks at the start of a three-day hunt, secretly hoping that those same bucks could be found again if necessary before the closing bell.
But as lunchtime approached, we glassed a buck with unique spiraling horn tips that was making his way through the cane cholla cactus. That's when we decided that enough was enough.
After a few moments of easing into adequate shooting range, Canfield steadied his nerves, settled the crosshairs and sent the bullet downrange for a clean one-shot kill.
Moments later, the Southern Californian had a big grin as he held up the jet-black antlers of his first speed goat, a buck that should easily qualify for the Texas Big Game Awards program.
"That was cool," Canfield said as we got out of the sun for cool beverages and a hot lunch.
While an afternoon nap was tempting, it didn't take long for Ross to fire up the ATVs and hit the trail in search of an antelope destined to wear my tag.
After looking over several bands, we peered over a small ridgeline toward the desert floor and spied arguably the best buck that we had seen.
"He'll probably go in the mid 70s," Ross said. "He's a pretty good goat, especially for a drought year."
It was decision time. As I glassed him, I knew that he would rival the better antelope mounts I have on my wall. But as I fought the urge to trade my optics for my rifle, I had hopes for a buck scoring higher.
"Do you think we can do better?" I asked Ross.
After a measured pause, he said "Probably so — we've still got plenty of countryside to look over and it's just the first day."
"Then let's keep looking," I said, hoping I wouldn't live to regret that decision.
An hour later, Ross stopped and threw his optics up. He motioned for me to come closer as he spied a small group feeding a couple of hundred yards away.
"That's the one, that's the one you are looking for," he said. "I knew he was good when I first saw him, but as soon as he turned his head and I saw his length, his mass, and his prongs, I knew he was a definite shooter."
My 10X42 binoculars quickly confirmed it, and just in case I had any lingering doubts, Ross added: "And if you don't want to take him, we're going back to camp to find someone who does — that's a good buck and then some."
Grabbing my rifle, I began to sneak into better shooting range as the antelope fed with a strong wind in my favor.
Somewhere in the sneaking process — as I tried to use both a large cane cholla cactus and the new Under Armour digital camo pattern to hide my skulking form — I encountered a cactus that left numerous thorns in my thin hide.
Time for tweezers would come later — I had to get this goat before he spotted me and headed for El Paso.
Closing to 80 yards, I started to run out of cover and sat quietly in the shade of the cactus, trying to keep the crosshairs steady in the gusting wind, waiting for the buck to give me a clean shot.
When he finally did, I couldn't take it — several feeding does were milling in and around the buck. Suddenly, one of the does stood upright and looked straight at me.
Unsure of what my camoed form represented and not having the wind to confirm her suspicions, the doe started cautiously moving away from the feeding buck, who on closer inspection was destined to score into the upper 70s.
As I fought the urge to hurry the shot, suddenly all was right as the wind died down a bit, the does moved out of harm's way, and the buck turned ever so slightly broadside.
The rifel bucked sharply, causing me to lose sight, but the loud WHUUUMP! of the bullet striking its target told me all I needed to know. The buck's white belly showed as it lay in the protein-rich yellow and green grasses dotting the desert floor.
As I walked up to the best antelope of my hunting career, the wind whistled across the Trans-Pecos' dry terrain as it has done for eons. A smile as big as my home state creased my dusty, reddened, and wind-burned face — I was truly at home on this aging Texas range, a place where the antelope still play.