Hunting in Texas brings to mind high fences and exotic animals. Corn feeders. Dainty, fragile-looking whitetails with outsized antlers. But Sam Ilse of Lomas Chicas Outfitters offers a Texas hunt that includes none of these elements. He hunts an animal native to India, the nilgai, or blue bull, a trophy worthy of even the most well-traveled hunter. These bulls have noses like seasoned whitetail bucks, eyesight like pronghorn antelope, are nearly as big as an elk and are as tough as Cape buffalo. The only qualities they lack to make them one of the great game animals of the world are big horns and an aggressive nature.
In October 2010, my dad, Burl Jones, and I flew from Montana to join our friend David Long to hunt nilgai in the scrub country of South Texas, between Corpus Christi and Raymondville. The first evening, Sam “met us at the door,” so to speak, with a friendly handshake. Soon, the conversation turned to the game at hand, and specifically rifles and shot placement. Sam recommends big guns, .300 Win mag and up. “The toughness of these animals and the kind of country they are in makes tracking and follow up damn near impossible,” he said. “You need to put them down immediately or you’re not likely to find ‘em.” With a photo of a nilgai bull as reference, Sam showed us where he likes his clients to shoot. “If you can spine ‘em, that’s the best bet for an easy recovery.” I would soon find out why Sam was so insistent on putting these bulls down quickly.
The next morning began as the fog burned out of the live oaks. Dad and I hunted with Sam while David rode shotgun with Fred, Sam’s business partner and main guide. The hunting rigs were fully-loaded Jeep Wranglers, modified specifically for rough country and game recovery. The abundant seasonal rain had produced tall stands of wildflowers, native grasses, and weeds, as well as a good acorn crop. The pastures looked untouched by grazing. All the plentiful feed would make our hunting all the more difficult.
Using a spot and stalk method over a variety of terrains, for the next three days we threw everything we had at these strange antelope. We peered deep into dark stands of live oaks while acorns rained down like a slow hail storm. We glassed the open grasslands that led out onto the mudflats of the Gulf of Mexico. We made our way around waterholes, trying to slip through the brush undetected. We drove slowly down roads that might have been on the savannahs of East Africa, and we crested sand dunes that would have been at home in the Sahara. But no matter what part of the lease we were on, it seemed the nilgai were either staring at us, ready to run for cover, or already disappearing into the brush.
Toward the end of the first morning, we parked the Jeep at the end of a sandy double track and quietly glassed over a series of white sand dunes that seemed to be winning a battle with the live oak for real estate. Sam donned his Ghillie hat and peered over a fifty foot dune. I peeked over as well. Several nilgai bulls stood in openings over the next several hundred yards. They ranged in size from young bulls, hardly much bigger than a good mule deer buck, to at least one respectable bull. This bull was starting to go grey in the face and had a distinct gun metal blue on his flanks. He stood with his head down feeding, quartering toward me, about seventy-five yards away. The .378 Weatherby made a big hole going in, but didn’t exit the chest. The bull dropped immediately. Only a tough animal could soak up all that leaded velocity and still hold onto the bullet.
With my first animal down, I still had one to go. I had a day and a half to hunt. And while we continued to see a number of good bulls, they were are all in the process of exiting the locale. But then just before dark on the second day a good bull took a few tentative steps out into the open about 230 yards away. He glanced cautiously around, then turned on a dime and disappeared back into the brush. No sooner had he vanished than another bull appeared in his place, nose held high, testing the wind. I readied for the shot, and as he leaned forward into the open I dropped the hammer. A reassuring “whump,” put him on the ground. He had kicked, but only once. No doubt he was going to be right where we saw him drop.
Dad trailed behind Sam and me as we neared where the bull should have been. I looked down into the slight depression, wondering why I had not spotted the dead bull yet.
“There he is!” Dad said. “And he’s limping.”
“What? Where?” I looked up and saw a nilgai bull moving directly away, in no big hurry. I dropped to a sitting position and rested the rifle off my knees. Through the scope I could only see his rump. Was it the same bull? I couldn’t be sure, and there was no visible blood. If so, this bull had just seconds before taken a hit solid enough to drop a Cape buffalo. He moved into the shadows of the live oaks, and disappeared into the brush. Trailing him, we found only a few drops of blood, but never saw him again. Darkness finally called it in for us.
The entire next morning we combed the area for any further sign. No blood. No birds. No coyotes. No bull.
That afternoon found us in the sand dunes, staring at another blue bull. He’d made the mistake of standing up at the wrong time. Sam determined he was a little darker and a little larger than the previous bull I’d taken. When his head went down to feed, I spider-crawled sideways out into the open for a clear shot. He was quartering slightly toward me at 240 yards. I put a 250 grain "Swift A" frame right on the point of the near shoulder, and was rewarded with a satisfying “whop.” But instead of falling over dead like a buffalo or elk would have done, he only bucked slightly and took off like the blue streak he was. He ran flat out for over one hundred yards. Fortunately he was in open sage and low dunes, and so when he finally did pile up he was easy to spot. Had he been in dense cover, we’d have had no hope of finding him.
After coming up to the dead animal, I backtracked him for several yards. There wasn’t a drop of blood to be seen, even on the white sand.
As it turned out, he wasn’t quite as good as the first bull, but he did have much more blue in his coat and was a great trophy in my book.
What a great experience. We left Texas the next day with a deep respect for nilgai as a game animal, and for Sam Ilse as an outfitter and guide.