by: Dustin Catrett
Crouched beneath a canopy of mesquite trees, my guide Tony and I have crept, crawled, and even ran behind an animal I’d swear was a ghost if it weren’t for the large piles of dung it leaves behind giving clues to its whereabouts. Elusive and wild, it doesn’t show up at feeders, eat corn, or stay in one place for very long. Nonetheless we press on, staying one step behind the nilgai antelope – The Blue Bull of South Texas.
Native to India these huge bovid can weigh over 700 pounds, and were first introduced into Texas back in the 1930s by the King Ranch. Decades later they’ve flourished in the warm climate and vast ranchlands of the southern portion of the state numbering in the tens of thousands. A few miles outside the historic city of Rio Hondo, within the greater 100,000 acre Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, the Pair-O-Dice Ranch is inundated with free roaming herds that cross the property while traveling to and from the refuge.
Bulls in the area repeatedly defecate in the same pile as a form of territorial behavior that’s also believed to be a defensive tactic against tigers – their main predator in India. Covering ground is the best offense in locating one, yet by late afternoon Tony and I had hiked several miles resulting in only a brief siting of a female nilgai before deciding to call it a day.
The following morning we began trailing what Tony thought was a solitary bull along the property’s border with the refuge. “He crossed here this morning” he said, examining a fresh set of hoof-prints in the road. Again we crept along a worn trail for most of the morning following its tracks through the dense canopy of mesquite in hopes of an encounter, but the sudden crash of hooves galloping through the brush left no doubt we’d been spotted. With that, we decided to rest and called ranch owner Lance Swanberg to pick us up for lunch. “Leave your gun loaded with the safety on until we get to the lodge,” he advised, as I knocked mud off my boots and climbed into his pickup.
Along the way we stopped at a few senderos in hopes of spotting nilgai – fat chance. Only whitetail does were out as we drove past each one in anticipation of what may appear. My hopes of a nilgai bull were fading as I carefully scanned the last row with my binocular. Again more whitetail. Lance shifted the truck in reverse and we began backing up when Tony shouted, “Bull! Dustin get out! Get out!” In a flash, he and I were both out of the truck and running along the sendero’s edge. “There!” he pointed, to a wall of mesquite trees about seventy yards off where a large gray shape was slowly disappearing. “Get ready,” he hissed, pulling me by the shirt in front of him. Finally I laid eyes on what we’d been after for the last two days, a massive nilgai bull walking broadside into the mesquite. Without hesitation I shouldered my rifle and peered into the scope. Its huge body filled the glass with slate colored bristles as I ran the crosshairs up its shoulder, remembering Lance’s advice from earlier, “You want to shoot for their shoulder to try and break a leg or these things can run forever,” he advised. With that, I clicked the safety off and squeezed the trigger just as it entered the brush. The recoil of the .300 short mag momentarily blurred my view, leaving me to question whether any tree limbs had obstructed my shot. “He’s down! He’s down man!” Tony said, giving me an instant sigh of relief that the shot was good. Walking closer I realized that I’d just shot my first nilgai, and not only was it a bull, it was a mature trophy. I was in awe of its sheer size, yet perplexed how it dropped so easily. “You got lucky man, you spined him,” said a voice over my shoulder. It was Lance. “I saw your shot from the truck, and you broke its back. That’s why it dropped. Congratulations Dustin!” It was an awesome moment. I wish I could say I intentionally shot for the spine, but it was pure luck that I hit it that high. Nevertheless, there would be no long tracking or recovery services needed. The bull was massive weighing just over 700 pounds and after skinning, caping, and quartering, my pickup truck was loaded down with several hundred pounds of meat along with a beautiful trophy headed for the taxidermist. Leaving Pair-O-Dice Ranch that afternoon covered in mud, exhausted, and in desperate need of a shower, I was blissfully satisfied that after two tough days of real free-range hunting, I’d finally caught up to the Blue Bull of South Texas.