Whenever anyone brings up Texas Nilgai hunting, I tell them they should book a hunt and go as soon as possible—which is a little out of character for me. People are funny about hunting Texas. Some, like F&S hunting editor Will Brantley and his wife, can’t get enough of it, while others can’t be bothered with the idea. I was somewhat in the latter camp—until I went Nilgai hunting on South Texas’s famous King Ranch back in 2013.
When Cabela’s invited me on the hunt, I was thinking that there some things you don’t have to try to know you won’t like. SUP yoga and colonics came to mind right away, and it seemed like a South Texas nilgai hunt might make the list, too, although further down. Having never hunted exotics before and assuming we’d just be waiting for feeding time at a bait station, it sounded a little like a trip to the zoo with guns.
Also I had some questions, mainly, What the hell is a nilgai? I guess I probably should have known, but then again, why? So, I Googled it and learned that the nilgai, also known as the blue bull, is Asia’s largest antelope, native to India, and one ugly mother—a cloven-hooved, long-tailed, horse-faced thing with a goat’s beard and horns. In other words, Satan.
On the other hand, I learned that nilgai meat is outstanding—absolutely first rate. So, I mulled it over: Should I go to a South Texas zoo and kill the devil for his backstraps or not? And in the end, I figured, what the hell.
Nilgai Hunting In Texas: How Hard Could It Be?
The other big draw was that Cabela’s was celebrating their 50th anniversary and for the occasion was promoting a lineup of limited-edition Cabela’s Classics rifles, any of which we could use on the hunt. One was a very fine Pedersoli reproduction Winchester 1886/71 in .45-70. There were several excellent scoped, bolt-action rifles I could choose also from, but I thought, Wouldn’t it be something to shoot the devil with a classic, open-sighted lever gun?
The Model 86/71 Lever Action Premium what Italian gunmaker David Pedersoli figures is the perfect marriage of the Winchester 1886 and its eventual replacement, the 1871. Pedersoli
I asked then Cabela’s rep Joe Arterburn if he had one I could use for the hunt.
“Cool idea,” he said. “Cooler if it works. You know you’ll have to get pretty darn close.”
If it works? I thought. Doesn’t he know we are going to a zoo?
Bumping along a gravel access road at the King Ranch, the roadside animals were nowhere near as numerous or friendly as I expected. There were whitetails—pods of curious does that lifted their heads but continued chewing; a bachelor group of pretty good bucks who skipped into the shade of some live oaks; a handful of 140- to 150-class studs who casually disappeared into the mesquite. There were a few pigs, a couple javelinas, a smattering of turkeys, and two waterbucks that stared dolefully from the distance. All in all, it was like a slow day at Park Safari.
But we did see nilgai, briefly. Whereas most of the other animals ambled off as the truck rumbled by, the nilgai freaked out. A cloud of dust, a big blue streak, and a horse-like butt plunging into the brush.
“There goes a nilgai,” said our guide, Clay.
“Are they always so edgy?” someone asked.
“They know what you guys came for.”
Still-Hunting for Texas Nilgai is No Joke
Taking several shots to check the zero on the .45-70, I threw one way high. On a Texas nilgai hunt, you shoot standing off sticks in the African tradition (even though nilgai are Asian). Noticing the flyer, Sports Afield Editor Diana Rupp, with whom I was hunting and who had far more experience shooting standing off sticks than I did, pointed out that with this method, there’s a tendency to shoot high if you’re not careful to hold the fore-end down on the sticks. “Okay, thanks,” I said, and we went hunting.
Nilgai were introduced on the King Ranch in the 1920s as a game species and supplemental food source for the cowboys. But the ranch’s low fence, designed to keep cattle in, does not prevent wildlife from getting out, and today more than 35,000 free-ranging, wild nilgai roam various portions of South Texas, including about 18,000 of them on the King Ranch. What’s striking is how these huge, exotic beasts vanish so naturally into the scraggly branches of mesquite and live oaks–almost like they evolved here.
A gray-bodied bull blends in perfectly in the leafless woods. Alexandra Giese / Adobe Stock
Our guide Clay drove us from camp a few miles to where the road narrowed to a sandy ribbon threading thick banks of mesquite. We parked and got out. We were told we would do some “spot-and-stalk” hunting, which in some places is a euphemism for “drive around in the truck.” But not here. Clay led Diana and I slipping through groves of low-growing live oaks and Guinea grass. It wasn’t even spot-and-stalk; it was honest-to-goodness still-hunting.
Before arriving, I knew I’d be hunting a wild critter; the question was, “How wild?” I was guessing not especially. Most people who go nilgai hunting, after all, do get a nilgai. That’s why I chose the open-sighted .45-70, to make things interesting. But on that first morning, we’d had the wind and a damp, almost-silent forest floor, yet we never came close to getting a shot at a nilgai. Occasionally, we’d spot jet-black legs swishing though the Guinea grass, and barely make out the gray bodies hidden in the oak’s pewter branches—but they’d be gone before we could do anything about it. On the way back to the truck, a big-rumped bull shot to its feet not 15 yards away and plunged into the brush. He’d let us walk right past him, just like a whitetail.
The afternoon hunt was more of the same. Slipping along a sandy trail, we were spotting bulls left and right, and spooking one after another. It became obvious why most hunters get their nilgai. While each one was spectacularly wary, every bit the equal of a whitetail from what I could see, there were a whole lot of them. Sooner or later, you’ll get your chance.
Diana got hers late that first afternoon, when we spotted a bull slinking, head down, through the low oak branches at a little over 100 yards—no idea we were there, for a change. Quickly on the sticks, Diana, shooting a Winchester Model 70 in .264 Win Mag loaded with (I believe) a 140-grain Nosler Partition bullet, hit him perfectly with the first shot, and gave him another for good measure.
Driving the dusty road back to camp with Diana’s bull in the back, roadside whitetails lifting lazily from their chewing to amble into the mesquite, I felt like this had already been a more challenging and rewarding hunt than I expected. And that getting within open-sighted-.45-70 range of a nilgai tomorrow would not be easy.
Spot-and-Stalk Hunting for Texas Nilgai Is No Gimme, Either
Early the next morning, while Diana dreamed of nilgai steaks, our guide Clay took me still-hunting in another expanse of live oaks and mesquite thickets. This time, Arterburn tagged along, not wanting to miss the free entertainment pretty much guaranteed in watching me try to shoot a nilgai with the .45-70.
Not a hundred yards along the first sandy path cutting between the oaks, two or three bulls bolted in odd directions. None smelled or heard us; they just freaked on principle, as they do. But suddenly the brush parted and there stood one of them, stopped and standing broadside just 60 yards away. But there was a problem: a thick branch blocked much of the bull’s the vitals, and so while Clay and Joe plugged their ears, I mulled whether a .45-70 bullet would break through and kill the beast. And while I thought about it, the nilgai decided to leave the scene.
Clay, a nice guy, at least on the outside, didn’t want to come right out and tell me I should have shot. Instead he offered, “I probably tend to be a little less conservative in my shooting than you.” Still, I suspect he wasn’t been overly happy because immediately afterward he led us on a 6-mile forced march over soft sand between impenetrable banks of mesquite where we didn’t see a single nilgai. It probably was not the sort of entertainment Arterburn had been hoping for.
After lunch, we headed back out, but this time to a more open part of the ranch where spreading, open pastures were dotted everywhere with oak-thicket islands called motts. This was spot-and-stalk country—but certainly not from the truck. Driving into this area, it became obvious right away that there’s nothing a nilgai fears more than an F350. Any animal seen from the vehicle was on a streaking, dusty, dead-run for the cover of a mott.
Throughout the afternoon, we blew several more stalks. But more often, we just shook our heads at the sound of nilgai hurtling away from us no matter how perfect the wind or how quietly we stalked. Getting .45-70-close would be tough. But then we spotted several cows in a small opening surrounded by oak thickets. After a long stalk to the edge of the oaks, Clay peered through an opening, set up the sticks, and motioned me over.
Right there, big as a horse, stood a tawny cow nilgai, broadside and oblivious at just 60 paces. Just what we’d been working so hard for. A gimme. Can’t miss.
“You missed,” said Clay.
The cow trotted away, head up, tail wagging, pretty as you please.
“No way!” I shouted. “Impossible!” But sure enough, no blood, no hair. Nothing.
This was more the sort of entertainment Joe was expecting. And so, satisfied and grateful, he offered me an excuse. “You forgot to hold the fore-end down.”
A cow nilgai, standing in the wide open. Stefan Ekernas / Adobe Stock
One More Shot at a Nilgai
I hung my head all the way back to the truck, but when I finally looked up, out across a long open flat, there stood a glowing blue beast, all lit up and reflecting the long rays of the evening sun. I handed Joe the .45-70 and grabbed the scoped Sako 85 Finn Bear .30-06 he’d brought, just in case I needed it.
We made a long stalk to the back edge of big oak mott. The bull was just around the other side of it, but as we began slipping around, half dozen whitetails sprang noisily from the low-hanging oak branches and bolted out across the pasture.
Clay threw up his hands. That was it, he figured. No chance the bull stuck around for that. Too late for another stalk. No nilgai for me.
Then he opened the sticks suddenly and waved me over. “You’ll have to be quick,” he said. The bull had run 200 yards across open ground toward another oak mott, but instead of plunging into it, he stood at the edge, looking back at us. I shot as soon as the crosshairs looked good.
“You got him,” Joe said, and Clay, searching with binoculars into the oaks where the bull had bolted, finally confirmed, “He’s down.”
The author with his nilgai bull.
When I got home, I found out that nilgai steaks are every bit as good as people said. And since I got home, way back in 2013, I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that Texas nilgai hunting will surprise you. I went into it thinking it would be like fish in a barrel, like carnival ducks, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only was it a way more challenging and fun that I thought it would be; but that King Ranch hunt is still, after all these years—maybe because it was so surprising—one of the best hunts I’ve been on, period.
I’m still not going to try SUP yoga, and I don’t suggest you do either. But I when it comes the Texas nilgai hunting, I’ll tell you what I tell everyone: Even if you have preconceived notions about what hunting a free-range exotic animal in Texas might be like, you should say what the hell and go as soon as possible.
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