Espy Deer Hunt

By David Smith

Some things among life’s adventures are so fine that we want to share them with our friends.

Such for me was mule deer hunting in the Davis Mountains of far West Texas where for some fifty years we aggressively hunted those craggy mountains and awesome canyons on horseback. Let me tell you about it.

When I was a little boy growing up in El Paso, the finest thing I could conceive of was to be invited mule deer hunting on Mr. J. W. Espy’s huge ranch north of Fort Davis, Texas. Dad was cashier at State National Bank in El Paso, and among his loan customers the finest was Mr. J.W. Espy. He was the epitome of a West Texas rancher, always as good as his word, winsome, hardworking, and in those years, prosperous. Mr. Espy and Dad did many good cattle loans together since Dad was de facto the Ranch Loan Department at State National Bank.

The Epsy Deer Hunt was held during the10-day mule deer season after Thanksgiving for family and friends of Mr. Espy, which included my Dad. The year I turned 12, I got invited, too.


Talk about an impressive rite of passage! I could hardly wait for the Friday after Thanksgiving and the four hour drive to Espy Ranch, where by nightfall some dozen hunters assembled.

For a week we would get up at 5 a.m. to the ranch cook’s clanger gong, eat a hearty breakfast cooked over open coals, mount our horses, and move out before daylight. Days would be action packed as we worked the high ridges where bucks might hide.
That first year as a 12-year old I took a lot of kidding from Mr. Espy’s two sons Jim and Clay, who teased one another and their guests as well, and certainly me as the new kid on the hunt. One joke was for Mr. Frank Jones to pretend to be the game warden, find a serious problem with my hunting license and then arrest me.

The hunting was both intense and strenuous, dismounting to look for deer, and then usually remounting unless we got a shot. I remember one late afternoon getting off my horse at Auja Springs for a drink doubting that I could get back on. I was exhausted and painfully sore, but I did get back on my also tired horse.

And I’ll always remember shooting my first buck late one morning off Short Canyon amidst hoot-haws and shouts from the Espy boys, who then treated me like I was a hero when I got a three point spike buck my third shot, using old Mr. Flory’s Winchester 30-30. Today we still have that 1894 lever action repeating rifle which is a collector’s item, at least for me.

Mr. Flory, Dad’s boss, had gone on the very first Espy Deer Hunt in 1929. He gave Dad that 30-30, which Dad ultimately passed on to me. One day I’ll pass it on to Davo Jr., or more correctly, David M. Smith IV.

After supper with tables cleared, out would come the poker chips for three tables of poker. Inside was the game for grown men only, casually but firmly governed by Mr. Espy. You played only if you chose to and knew the ranch rules on poker. You were limited to three raises. Anyone losing $100 had to drop out lest “family relations” jeopardize your coming back in future years. At the ranch house in the side bedroom there was a table with much lower stakes, “penny ante poker” as it’s called, though the ante was a nickel (inflation you know). Outside in the cook shed was the third game where novices, especially first timers, and the cooks plus ranch hands played with matchsticks for stakes.

Since my first hunt in 1944, I have been out to Espy Ranch the day after Thanksgiving almost every year except my two years in the United States Army. During those two years my commanding officer, a snotty captain, informed me that I could go on my all-important mule deer hunt if I insisted, but that on return I would face court-martial charges of AWOL (absence without leave.)

In the years since about 1903 old Mr. Espy had assembled several ranches totaling over 100,000 acres, and each of his daughters got a ranch when he died. The former Powell Ranch, where our hunts started, became the Williams Ranch, which I later leased until 1990. It was my good fortune to share the great fun and exhausting pleasure of each season’s Espy Deer Hunt with about a dozen people for many years, giving a horseback mule deer hunt to over 200 friends and many of their sons, most of whom got their first mule deer buck on my Espy Deer Hunt.

The late Texas artist Mark Storm was one special guest that I had out several times to Espy Ranch. Three of Mark’s original paintings that I own are scenes on the Powell. “In Sight of the House” pictures me and Dad Smith returning to the ranch headquarters late one fall afternoon. Dad loved to use the expression, “We’re in sight of the house, Davo”, which I heard numerous times when we could in fact see the ranch (yellow speck) with my buck’s carcass over a saddle horn. My second Mark Storm painting, “Buying the Ranch,” encompasses the occasion when Mr. Espy and Mr. Powell made their deal from some high point near the start of Short Canyon. They had arrived at a tentative agreement on terms of purchase, and because of the size and formality of the transaction they had stopped so that Mr. Espy could write up the terms and details on a wrapper that accompanied each package of Bugler Pipe Tobacco.

“Losing the Way” depicts a memorable event when one of my guests shot a buck off Viejo Canyon as it was getting dark. I had dismounted to try finding that buck in that longest defile of Short Canyon. Daylight got away from me as I proceeded slowly down the defile.
Knowing that my own horse would wander back home the next day, I went in the canyon, which I knew joined the main road to ranch headquarters two or three miles further. Cat claw and Spanish Dagger were all around me with no room but to squat. Without moonlight it was pitch dark.

By throwing a rock I could tell I was on a steep incline.

I was alone. I was the next thing to being lost. . . .

Uncomfortable and cold, I got to spend most of that night on one spot in that defile until after midnight.

Ultimately I heard a faint call from someone far down Short Canyon. . . .

It was James Green. . . . “Dave…oh. . . . !”

There was hope! Then there was a vehicle horn from way down Short Canyon, and soon a tiny light appeared!

I shouted, “I’M… UP… HERE!”

I was still in the land of the living. Better still, sooner rather than later I was back at the ranch house sitting in front of a warm fire sipping coffee and telling Mike’s and my story, since it was Mike’s buck that I had tried to locate for over two hours, unsuccessfully prowling through the dense brush.

Mark Storm’s grandson and family are still active members of Houston’s South Main Baptist Church. Together we continue our search for any or all of Mark Storm’s original paintings that we might find in order to reproduce, as well as one day assemble in a book to be titled, “Works of Mark Storm.” So far we have made little progress toward this goal.
In any case I have enough good memories of the Espy Deer Hunt to last a lifetime. Many old hunting friends also have great memories to recall as well, though a growing number of those friends have died.

In my advanced middle age, I sometimes fantasize about trying to buy a small West Texas ranch in the Davis Mountains like Espy Ranch, especially to share the breathtaking views from Texas’ rooftop. On clear days our vistas from peaks on the Davis Mountains, especially Star Mountain, allow us views to see 50 miles and more… Pecos… Balmorhea… Black Mountain… Mitre Peak… Wild Rose Pass… Star Mountain… Swayback…

All of it is Glorious!