Six years ago, I was given the opportunity to set up the wildlife management plan for a piece of land in central Texas that had been in my family for almost 40 years. My grandfather raised cattle on the ranch for over 30 of those years. After he retired from the cowboy life, he leased the land to a local cattle rancher. When my father gave me the reins for the ranch, I ended the cattle lease and switched the focus to wildlife management, with the main goal of enhancing the habitat for the primary benefit of whitetails.
My wife Meg and I started to sketch out some short- and long-term goals for the property. I contacted our region’s Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) biologist to set up a site visit at our ranch. We all drove around the property and took notes about many factors relating to the overall health of the habitat. We left with a long list of projects that would greatly benefit the wildlife.
During the site visit, our biologist told us about a document that features pictures and descriptions of various plants that contribute to the diet of deer in our region, ranked in order of browse preference. I printed the article and had each page laminated to always have along on walks and drives around the property. I was driving around one afternoon, marking the GPS coordinates of various preferred browse species to later mark on a map I was developing, when I turned a corner and saw an unusually dark deer running away. It appeared to be a buck. Within a few seconds, he was gone. Having seen pictures of melanistic whitetails before, I suspected this might be one, although I wasn’t absolutely sure. They are extremely rare, but for some reason central Texas produces more of them than normal.
“Melanistic” animals produce too much of the skin, hair and eye pigment, known as melanin, giving them a very dark appearance. I knew the deer I was looking at was a whitetail, but its unusual color made it look like a different species altogether. I told my friends and family to keep looking for the buck, but after not seeing him again in person or on any trail-cameras, we figured he might have moved on.
In 2014, two years after my first glimpse of the melanistic buck, Meg and I were driving around the property when she called out, “Whoa!”
I turned my head and I caught a glimpse of movement flashing off into the brush. After she explained the way it looked and how it seemed to move like a deer, I was convinced she saw the melanistic buck. After that sighting, we dubbed the buck “Black Beauty.”
In December 2015, while reviewing trail-camera pictures, I found three pictures of the buck, but they were not the greatest pictures. The first was undoubtedly a melanistic deer, but it only showed the top of its body. The second picture was a partial body shot as well, but I could see the tips of a few tines. The third picture was a blurry shot of him running into the woods, but it showed that he was at least an 8-pointer and seemed to be of decent size for the area. I was so excited to finally be able to confirm what I had seen for the last two years. I figured he was at least 4.5 years old, but there was no way to know for sure without a much better evaluation.
I showed the pictures of the buck to my friends and family who hunt on the ranch and told them he got a pass until we could accurately age him. We weren’t sure whether he would meet our criteria (We try to wait until a buck is 5.5 before harvesting it). We needed a better picture or a few minutes in the field to age him to see if he would get the “green light.”
But we never saw him the rest of that hunting season. We could only hope he might still be out there, roaming the area. We had completed a long list of projects to enhance our habitat, and the largest was set to begin in early 2016. We hoped that with our next major improvement we could entice Black Beauty to stick around a little longer.
Years ago, while reading a copy of Quality Whitetails, I learned about a hunter who had teamed up with his local Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office to enhance the habitat on his land. Up to that day, I had never heard of the NRCS, but I became intrigued. In early spring of 2016, I finally contacted our local NRCS representative. I signed up for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to develop a plan to reestablish native grasses and forbs on our ranch. We planned on clearing up to 50 acres and then preparing seedbeds to plant our native grass/forbs mix. What we did not plan on were the drastic amount of torrential rains that bombarded us that spring. We endured many setbacks from rain delays and faulty equipment.
By July of 2016 we had bulldozed, root-plowed and raked five different areas ranging from 1.5 to 6.3 acres, a total of over 20. The only downside was that we missed the mid-May window to plant our native grass/forbs mix. This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. We needed to plant a holding crop in the fields to keep weed intrusion at a minimum. It was an expense that we had not anticipated. With 20-plus acres of fresh dirt to play with, it was time to do some research on what we wanted to plant for the fall. We collected a soil sample from each of the areas, and after some discussion we decided to plant a blend of oats and winter wheat. We were very excited to start the process of planting our first large-scale food plots on the ranch.
Just as we finished planting in late September, I started reviewing the last six weeks of trail-camera pictures to prepare our survey data for our TPWD biologist. Based on this information, we were given harvest recommendations for our hunting season. This was all done through the state’s Managed Lands Deer Program (MLDP), which I learned about while talking to a fellow QDMA member. Unfortunately, while looking through tens of thousands of trail-camera photos, I never saw a single picture of Black Beauty. I figured he had to be in another county by now, or another hunter-harvested him the previous season, perhaps. I felt a little disheartened, but I knew that from the previous years of experience, he surprised us when we least expected it.
As the oats and wheat were starting to really take off, the 2016 deer season began. The deer were a little slow to take to the new food plots, but before long there were more deer visiting each day. I was still feeling a little frustrated that I wasn’t looking at native grasses in these fields. Just when I was disappointed, I got a call that reversed all that.
On November 9, my good friend Jacob Spradling called me from the ranch. He was talking so fast, I could barely understand what he was saying, but I did hear, “I saw him!”
Jacob was about the leave the deer stand that night when he scanned the edge of one of the new food plots we planted and saw a buck. Although it was getting dark, Jacob could tell it was Black Beauty. He said he was big, and Jacob felt sure the buck was a 10-pointer. I was so excited to hear the news. I couldn’t wait to see if we had new pictures. I wanted to get a closer look at Black Beauty myself.
The next afternoon, Jacob quietly returned to the same blind. After only 15 minutes, the buck stepped out from the thick brush into an opening. A few minutes later, he disappeared back into the woods. After nightfall, Jacob called to tell me about the second sighting. He also told me he took some great pictures with his camera this time. I immediately asked, “Well, why didn’t you actually shoot him?” He kind of laughed and said, “George, that is your deer. He was meant for you.” That was a very special gesture I will never forget.
Later that night Jacob sent over a few pictures. I immediately showed Meg the pictures and told her the buck had showed up two days in a row at the same blind. She smiled and said, “What time are we leaving tomorrow?”
I smiled and hugged and kissed her before sprinting to pack all my gear.
The next afternoon, Meg, Ellie, our youngest daughter, and I headed for the ranch. Our other daughter, Alyssa, had a big art project and couldn’t make the trip with us. Meg and Ellie would stay in camp while I hunted. I decided I would get in the same stand where Black Beauty had been seen for the previous two nights. I parked about 500 yards from the blind and started walking to the stand. Before I took my first step up the ladder to my stand, I looked out in the food plot and saw a huge black mass 200 yards away. My heart started beating out of my chest, and I quickly raised my binoculars to see—a freaking cow!
After a flood downed some fences a year earlier, we inherited three stubborn cows. I had tried to find the owners and get these cows off my place. Obviously, I was unsuccessful.
I was faced with a dilemma. I was afraid Black Beauty might not show up if he saw the cows hanging out in the field. I slid my rifle and gear up in the blind and did what any stealthy hunter would do. I got down and ran like a wildman toward the cows, waving my arms in the air, trying to scare them out of the field. After about 150 yards of running, I got their attention and they took off. I sprinted back to the blind, climbed in, and immediately started to regret my decision. I was drenched in sweat and out of breath. I knew I had probably left my scent all over the plot and ruined my once-in-a-lifetime chance.
My misery faded about an hour later as deer started to move. As the sun dropped below the horizon, shadows started to play tricks on my eyes. Every cactus and tree became a deer. I caught a bit of movement on a trail to my right. I could see antlers poking up out of the brush, and I recognized them. It was Black Beauty.
I put down the binoculars and eased the rifle out the window of the blind, trying to find the buck in the scope. All I could see was a dark blur. I started to panic, until I realized what was going on. I had the scope dialed up to its highest magnification. I figured the deer would walk out at a spot about 100 to 150 yards away, where it had been seen the previous nights in the oat patch. Nope. He was 33 yards away. I dialed the scope back and got Black Beauty in my sights. I put the crosshairs just behind his shoulder, slid the safety off, took a deep breath and fired.
As he took off in the woods, I loaded another round. Moments later, I heard the crash. I knew he was down. I waited about 20 minutes to start my search. After a few minutes of tracking I was looking down at a deer I had been dreaming about for a long time. I was in awe. I dropped to a knee and said a prayer of thanks.
It then occurred to me that I had just taken this buck on November 11, Veteran’s Day, which has always been an important day for me. My grandfather, Colonel Harry Blitch, the one who raised cattle on this ranch for over three decades, was a pilot in the Air Force during WWII, and he was a true hero. He and my father bought the ranch in 1975. Here I was, on my grandfather’s ranch, holding my dream buck on a day when we honored him. It was an amazing feeling.
When I arrived back at camp, Meg took a few photos of me with the deer. I thanked her and our daughter, Ellie, for joining me at the ranch for this trip. We called Alyssa and told her the news. It meant the world to me to have them share the experience and this journey with me.
I originally estimated Black Beauty to be 5.5 years old, assuming he was 1.5 when I first saw him in 2012. But several people experienced with jawbone aging, including me, agreed that toothwear patterns suggested at least 7.5! Here he was, surprising me one last time.
I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this hunt and the events that led up to it. I think about the projects we have completed during the last six years and the many improvements we have made to the habitat. Prior to that, I had never designed or planted a food plot, and I surely couldn’t pick out what browse species of deer preferred in our area. I knew enough to be a good outdoorsman, but now I feel like a true steward of the land and wildlife. I’ve had a lot of support and encouragement along the way. I was lucky to have parents and family who nurtured my love of the outdoors. I look forward to making continual improvements at our ranch.
When I look at the mount of Black Beauty on the wall, I see all the hard work we’ve put into the ranch and all the ways we have improved the habitat for wildlife. It reminds me that if you work hard at something, you never know what wonderful surprises await you around the corner!
Jacob Spradling took the live photos of Black Beauty on November 10, 2016, as the buck fed in a food plot. Meg Blitch took the post-harvest photo of George with Black Beauty.
About the Author: By day, George Blitch works in the field of finance. He also owns a publishing company (HaveYouThought.com), co-owns a mapping company (MapMyRanch.com), plus is an outdoor writer, editor, videographer and graphic designer. Visit MapMyRanch.com to learn more about Black Beauty and George’s hunting adventures.