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On the trail with Texas' top bowhunter

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2001

AUSTIN -- Jack Brittingham is a hunter. It's his job and he takes it seriously.

Not many people would shed their shoes and wade barefooted through a beaver marsh to crawl within bow range of a bedded bull moose.

Nor would they sneak on hands and knees to within 35 yards of an Alaskan brown bear sleeping on a moose kill, then wait 45 minutes for the bear to wake and stretch before loosing an arrow at him.

And rare is the hunter with the resolve Brittingham had to spend weeks 30 feet in the air on a bun-numbing bow blind seat, hunting for one specific buck to walk by and then choose not to shoot the deer because he had broken off part of his antlers.

But Brittingham has done those things and more in more than 20 years of bowhunting. In the U.S. and Canada, Africa and the sheep mountains of Mongolia, Brittingham has built a resume of hunting and the trophies that go with it that could be the best in the world.

He was one of the 50,000 Texas bowhunters who enjoyed the special archery season in October, and continues hunting with a bow during the regular gun whitetail season, which opened Nov. 3 throughout the state. Only bowhunters can hunt deer during the special season, but guns and bows both are legal for more than half a million regular season hunters.

A walk through Brittingham's East Texas home could be a stroll through an +outdoor+ museum where a dedicated hunter could spend hours just looking at the trophies and discussing them with other hunters. Massive elk, 50-inch rams, mountain lions, bears and moose adorn the walls of the sprawling log house he shares with his wife Chris and their three children in Anderson County. There's a full body mount of an elusive bongo and 100-pound elephant tusks from Africa, along with giant whitetails from Texas and Illinois, mule deer from the Rocky Mountains and caribou from Canada. Ken Carlson original oils, commissioned to capture images of deer Brittingham has taken, hang below the actual mounts of those bucks.

The house could pass for a museum, but it's also headquarters for much of Brittingham's deer hunting, which takes place on his Briar Lakes Ranch south of Athens. From there Brittingham and his family can be in a deer blind within minutes or taking off from the private landing strip to fly to another hunting location. He's living the life most hunters would if they could and he's doing it with bow and arrow.

''Hunting is what I do,'' Brittingham said as he sat in a ground blind and explained why and how he hunts. The blind is completely soundproofed so that Brittingham can bring his phone and call list to return phone calls without being stuck in an office. ''Other than spending time with my family, it's what I like to do most and it's what makes me really happy. I get up every day planning on hunting something, somewhere.''

Getting the trophy animals

Having shared in the sale of a successful Dallas-based family tile business allows Brittingham to own ranches in Texas and New Mexico and to fly his own plane to others, and to take his family to Alaska or Africa. Still, he is doing his hunting with a bow, just like thousands of other Texans. He has to get within that magical 35-yard range, like other hunters, and he manages to do it consistently on older trophy animals that are more wary and less visible than any other deer.

''Archers kill approximately 10 percent of the total deer harvested each year,'' said Jerry Cooke, big game program director for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

That would account for about 45,000 deer of the 450,000 killed in an average year. ''But only about 16 percent of the archery deer are killed during the special archery season,'' Cooke said. ''The majority of them take their bow deer during the regular season.'' Most bow hunting takes places in far eastern Texas, the Pineywoods, and in the eastern edge of the Edwards Plateau.

Brittingham falls into that category, too. His best success comes around the end of October in East Texas and continues through the season in South Texas. There are differences, though. Brittingham is hunting specific animals and is willing to wait if he can't find them. He's serious about management and trophy hunting and believes he would be doing something related to hunting no matter what.

''I got to go to the woods quite a bit from the time I was three or four. I was a retriever until I was old enough to goose hunt myself,'' Brittingham said. His father and uncle made sure he had a chance to experience hunting. ''My dad never had the passion for big game that he did for waterfowl,'' Brittingham said. ''He was a duck hunter. My uncle had the passion for all of it and I picked it up from him.''

Around the age of 20, Brittingham discovered bow hunting. ''It opened up an entirely new world for me,'' he said. ''I love the challenge. In bow hunting, everything has to go exactly right. There are no accidents. There's a certain amount of luck, but there aren't any accidents.''

Brittingham is consumed with becoming a better hunter and the things he does translate to any hunting situation, gun or bow. They include:

. Scouting: ''You need a broad overview of the place you're hunting,'' he said. ''If you put me on a place I'd never seen and gave me three days to hunt, I would spend the first day and maybe the first two, just learning everything I could about it, the feeding and bedding areas. Understanding deer movement is absolutely essential.''

. Setting up: ''Bow hunting requires that you be in exactly the right place,'' he said. ''Consider the wind. Alternate your stand locations so that the majority of the deer activity is taking place upwind of you. And set up your stands at the very best food sources.

''I find bedding areas, but I don't set up there because I don't want to move those deer.'' He also goes as high as possible with his bow blinds, an average of nearly 30 feet on his Athens ranch.

. Clothing: ''I try to be as close to scent-free as possible so that I can get the deer into a shootable position,'' Brittingham said. ''I use a grunt call to stop them and rattling horns to bring them in, though you don't want to over-rattle. Camouflage is important, but a deer's nose is the ultimate defense and you want to do everything you can to keep him from smelling you.''

. Hunt the rut: ''I like the look of deer during the rut,'' he said. ''They have this attitude and intensity they display that you just don't see any other time. There's just something about seeing a mature buck swaggering through the woods after a doe that's really special.''

. Be flexible: Brittingham has 120 different bow blinds on his 2,000-acre East Texas Briar Lakes Ranch. He uses them to take best advantage of the wind, the sun and how the deer are moving. And he isn't afraid to move himself or the blind. ''If there's nothing happening where you are, move. There could be a hot doe just 400 yards away and you'll never know it in these thick woods.''

Brittingham always has been fascinated by cameras.

''I remember my dad always took along a 16mm movie camera to record his hunts,'' he said. Once video cameras came along, Brittingham began doing the same thing, keeping a record of each of his hunts. Now he's begun compiling them and producing them for the retail market. Two of his productions -- ''Briarwood Whitetails'' and ''Buck Fever'' -- recently went on sale in most Wal-Mart stores and have been featured in various hunting magazines.

''It was just a natural thing to do,'' he said. ''I was (recording) them anyway and it gave me a chance to go back and relive those hunts one more time.'' The videos, with information about Briar Lakes Ranch and Rancho Encantado, his two Texas ranches, can be found on his Web site, www.briarhunts.com.

Brittingham considers himself a trophy hunter, but doesn't give ground to critics who claim that trophy hunting is somehow bad and counter to a solid hunting ethic.

''Think about it. Trophy hunting is a product of good management,'' he said. ''You give them a chance to express his genetic potential and to breed for several years. You aren't taking the best before they have a chance to be the best they can be.''

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