Whitetail Hunt at Michigans Deer Tracks Ranch!

Jim, Eric Henderson, and Robert Vogel Head up North for some great big bore airgunning excitement!
This is a more comprehensive write up of our hunt in Michigan in October of 2008. In this piece I'll relate the hunts, and dicuss my views on the use of airgun for big game hunting, whitetail deer in particular.
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This is a cull buck taken on the property with the Shinsung Big Bore 909 PCP air rifle shooting .454 roundball. The buck was hit at 25 yards and ran about 70 yards before piling up in the brush. I was a happy camper!
Several weeks ago I was contacted with a proposal to put together a hunt for whitetail deer at the Deer Tracks Ranch in Michigan. The property was described to me as 1500 acres behind high fence that was rugged and varied terrain incorporating forest, swamp, and a small amount of pasture land.  The deer population was healthy, genetically superior, and wild. The gentlemen that first brought the Deer Track Ranch to my attention is an outdoor writer I’d meet over the phone a couple of years back, and he emphasized to me that this was a fair chase hunt in a spectacular setting. I asked if I could bring a couple of other airgunners with me, and the owner of the ranch agreed.

The owners name is Dave Tuxbury, and he’s owned the ranch for the last fifteen years. Dave’s goal has been to grow the best herd in the Region, and provide a fantastic hunting experience to all that visit. There is a comfortable lodge on the property where meals, prepared by a talented private chef, are served. This is the command post from which hunts are launched. There are a number of tree stands and European style blinds spread around the property as well as a number of portable ground blinds. The hunter can also get on the ground and spot and stalk if desired, and there is a 1:1 ratio with a cadre of experienced guides to hunt with. The sleeping quarters are in a beautiful log cabin that is located off the property about a half mile away, and is really fantastic. My hunting companions and I agreed this is the lodge we’d build for ourselves if we hit the lottery! Lots of wood, stone, glass, a huge fireplace, and beautiful trophies everywhere.

As far as company on this trip, my frequent hunting buddy Eric Henderson shifted things around so he could make it, and drove up from Texas collecting me along the way. We’ve hunted Texas and Africa together and I was looking forward to meeting up with him again. A guy that we’d spoken with a few times but never met in person named Robert Vogel, also arranged to drive up for the hunt. It’s always a gamble when you bring a guy you don’t know into the mix, Eric and I know what to expect from each other; the good, bad, and ugly ……. But it turned out that Robert was a great fit; a savvy hunter, a knowledgeable airgunner, and a fun guy to hang with. When we arrived a little late, we found that Robert had been visiting with a group of lady hunters from a woman’s outdoor magazine all morning ….. tough duty! But eventually every one else left the ranch and we found ourselves in soul possession.

We all took off with or own guides in different directions. Our first hunt that afternoon was non productive for me, but Robert and Eric tagged a couple nice bucks. We reviewed Roberts hunt on video that night; the shot from his Quackenbush .457 was a well placed broadside that rattled the buck who ran about thirty yards and stood blowing blood and looking like he was going to fall at any time, but after a few minutes bolted for the woods. Robert and his guide spent the rest of the afternoon and into the evening searching without luck. As it was dark and had been a good hit, it was decided to wait until morning and go find the buck. It was everybody’s expectation to find him piled up inside of a hundred yards.

In the meanwhile, Eric was sitting in a pop up ground blind in a wooded area and had several deer passing through, when he spotted a massive buck. When the buck paused at 55 yards, Eric brought up his DAQ .457 and squeezed off what turned out to be a double lung shot that clipped the heart. He was shooting the 300 grain flat nose Hunter Supply cast bullet from his tuned Quackenbush, getting about 815 fps. The deer ran about 50 yards stood a couple seconds, then tumbled over DOA. This buck weighed over 270 lbs and was a 10 point buck that went about 140, an absolutely great deer!

The next morning it was decided that I would head out at daybreak to pursue my buck, and that after breakfast we’d all go out and find Roberts deer. My guide and I were hunting from a ground blind an as daylight started to break I could see a lot of deer coming in, including a couple very bigt ones. My guide pointed at one and said, if that deer comes close take him. I waited …… and waited, but there were too many deer to take a shot. The big buck walked inside of 35 yards but I couldn’t get a clear line, and finally they started to walk away. At about 70 yards the deer stopped before walking into the woods, and I heard “take him”! I stoked the trigger and saw the pellet hit right behind the shoulder, the buck jumped up then dived into the woods. We waited over a half hour before walking out to collect him, but he was no where in sight. We could not pick up a blood trail, and searched for a couple of hours before heading back to the lodge for breakfast and more help to comb the woods.

We returned to the lodge, ate, and then headed out to pick up Roberts deer with the plan of looking for mine afterwards. But what we thought was going to be an easy task turned out not to be. The blood trail petered out and the buck was not to be found, and it would not be until two days later when the activities of the crows directed one of the guides to the deer. The coyotes had gotten to him and all that was left was the head, but at least that had been retrieved. As it turned out, it was more success than we had with my deer. We continued the search until the afternoon meal at about 3:00, then gave up to go back and eat before getting ready for the evening hunt.

I was pretty broken up, In 30 years of hunting this was the first and only deer I’d ever lost. Not to mention the biggest deer I ever shot, and maybe the biggest I would ever shoot. I didn’t feel like eating or hunting, so decided to go back to our digs and reflect. The Ranch was fantastic, the owner and guides were excellent, but at that moment I didn’t feel like hunting. That evening Tux came by and asked if I wanted to go sit in a blind with him, and still not feeling like hunting I left my rifle and went deer watching. And there were lots of deer to watch, including a truly spectacular buck that was in the 170 range.

Robert was in a tree blind at that moment, watching a doe slowly make her way into range. At about 50 yards she paused for a moment, and he hit her with a shot from his .457. The deer ran about 70 yards and keeled over. We all met up at the cleaning shed and talked as the doe was hung up and prepped for a visit to the onsite processing facility.

The next morning we headed out again, Eric and I to take a doe while Robert got to sleep in. In my stand I had a lot deer come in, but all bucks! So I didn’t get a shot. But Eric did. As he and his guide were driving back in they came to an opening with a few deer feeding along the edges of a cut, and jumping out with his .457 Destroyer took aim through the open sites and hit her with a well placed 356 grain bullet. She bolted into the forest and they followed her course off to the left, and after letting some time pass went in pursuit. The deer had vanished, and again, left virtually no blood to track. The group went out again that afternoon in force and searched, but found nothing. Robert however, took off in the opposite direction and after a while came across the doe a couple hundred yards away.

At that point we had shot five deer and had three take off even after being well hit. Now here is the thing; we were seeing on the animals we recovered that the bullets were penetrating, and placement was good if not perfect. But without the hydrostatic shock, the damage and subsequent bleeding is what killed the animal. And even when there was substantial internal bleeding, there was not a lot of external blood. The fact that there were so many deer and the foliage was still abundant; made tracking difficult over the wild landscape.

Robert and Eric look on as Erics monster buck is hoisted in the processing shed. This deer will score around Buckmaster 140 and weighed in at 270+ pounds. I am pretty sure this is the biggest buck taken with an air rifle (Quackenbush LA .427).

Roberts bucks rack is shown, and I'll post additional photos as soon as they're available. Robert was using a DAQ .457 and nail;ed this guy with a perfect broadside.

I saw so many great bucks like the one below I lost count! The herd at Deer Tacks Ranch was really exceptional and a challange to hunt.
It was decided that the last hunt that evening, Tux and I would go to an archery stand that offered a good shooting lane on deer at 30 yards as they moved out to feed. We approached this hunt as a bow hunt, deciding to stay inside of 30 yards. I was using my ShinSung Big Bore 909 and .454 roundball on this outing. The gun was generating about 165 fpe, and I had used it to take a nice 8 point buck a couple years before. Sitting in the stand we saw a lot of deer passing by, and I was just getting ready to line up on the only doe I’d seen that afternoon. But Tux stopped me and pointed to a nice 10 point buck, whispering “I don’t like the genetics on that one, it’s a management buck if you want to take him”. I slowly brought up the gun and felt my heart start to thump in my chest as the buck froze and looked out sensing some danger. He stepped around and gave me a perfect broadside at 25 yards, which I took. I saw the ball hit right behind the shoulder and heard the peculiar thud of the projectile hitting as the deer took off at a flat out run. We lost him behind a tree, and with deer running everywhere it was hard to tell which way he’d gone, but then we heard a crash in the woods. After about a half hour we climbed down and looked for blood, but could not find a trail, I felt my stomach turn with a sick feeling of de ja vu. But about 20 yards further on found a couple drops of blood, not made any easier by all the red fall leaves covering the ground. And about 40 yards past this I found the buck piled up. Back at the cleaning shed we found that the ball had broken clean through a rib, gone through both lungs, and come too rest under the skin on the off side.

So in the end, six deer were shot; 3 dropped cleanly, 2 took off and were very difficult to recover, and 1 (mine) was not recovered. At this point I speak only for myself and not my two companions as they may well have another perspective. First, the size of the deer didn’t seem to matter; out of the three quick kills there were 2 bucks and 1 doe. Out of the three less optimal hits there were 2 bucks and 1 doe. All the shots that killed promptly were closer range (inside of 50 yards) and hit both lungs. All six shots were in a firearm kill zone, shots that were not perfectly placed resulted in deer that could move some distance. With a very light blood trail, lots of red leaves on the ground, and thick bush tracking were a challenge. I think that shots placed within the smaller airgun effective kill zone on the deer killed quickly, and that one is more likely to hit this zone at closer range. I have been slowly moving towards this opinion since my last trip top South Africa, where I had a couple long range shots that were decent hits in a firearms context but resulted in long tracking sessions with a light blood trail. It’s not a matter of power but exact shot placement, and for that reason my personal guideline is to keep my shots inside of 40 - 50 yards and view big game airgun hunting as a close range pursuit. For me the idea of airgun hunting is to increase the challenge, not to decrease the probability of a clean one shot kill.

I believe that with encroaching development and increasing deer populations in these areas, the use of big bore airguns will continue to gain acceptance, certainly for suburban hunts. I am heading back to the ranch in a couple weeks with a number of guns to help cull the doe population and will try a variety of guns, shooting scenarios, and shot placements to help me more clearly establish and articulate my own set of guidelines for deer hunting in future. But having said all this, it was a great trip, with great companions, and a great host and excellent staff at a superb hunting venue. We’ll put together more hunts next year, and if you can make it will find a truly great whitetail airgun hunting experience.
Clockwise from top: Eric showing off his buck, a beautiful animal taken with a perfect shot using his Quackenbush .457. This huge animal tipped the scales at over 270 lbs. Robert back at the processing shed with his doe, happy hunter but at this time we still hadn't found his buck, the smile got even bigger a couple hours later when the birds led them to it. Gelow is Eric with his doe taken with his .457 Destroyer.