While the true cattle-drive era ended sometime in the late 19th century, there are still a few cowboys hanging around. One of those cowboy gunslingers got left behind in the Oklahoma Territory, and his name is Justin Eakins, as if taken from the cast of a Spaghetti Western.
I’ve always thought the line is a little corny but it’s appropriate here, so I’ll use it. Cowboy Eakins has forgotten more about hunting than most of us will ever know. This became apparent when he talked about the countless little things. One was the first time he realized he could sit back on a hillside and watch coyote behavior to help him find deer wounded by his clients. Listening to him talk hunting was truly captivating. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I was lucky to be on the hunt with three other writers arranged by the friendly and skilled people at Savage and Mossy Oak. The crew at the latter operation has been hunting every year with Justin for more than two decades. These guys deer hunt for a living so little more needed to be said about the 20,000 acres of low-fence paradise that is Canadian River Hilton.
Savage brought its outstanding line of rifles newly covered in Mossy Oak’s very cool and effective Overwatch pattern. They were announced to the world at the 2019 NRA Annual Meeting — the continuation of a long partnership between two iconic brands in the industry. We had our choice of the light and easy-to-handle MSR 15 Recon 2.0, compact Axis II, no nonsense MSR 10 Hunter, and 110 Ridge Warrior. The latter three were all chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor, one of my favorite cartridges for deer. I ran to the 110 Ridge Warrior.
I have been shooting Savage rifles for at least 20 years now and I will put their out-of-the-box accuracy against any rifle at any price, period. I own a few and they are all consistent ½ MoA performers. The .204 I use in the prairie dog fields has notched kills at distances too far for most to believe. If I shoot a 100-yard group without all of the bullets touching, it’s on me.
The first morning did not produce much deer movement. My guide decided to get aggressive and crawl out to glass the high ground we could not see behind us. He came back reporting he had seen a good buck chasing a doe. We started the stalk and finally found his doe among the cedar trees at about 40 yards. That buck ended up getting the better of us, but it was an exhilarating hunt.
Later in the day, I passed on a 150-yard shot on a mature deer that had a very traditional left side and a tangled mess on his right side. I have always had a thing for wacky antlers so it was hard to come off of the rifle, but it was day-one and I didn’t want things in this hunting paradise to end so soon. Two of my fellow writers took great bucks that had them celebrating well into the night. They knew it wouldn’t have to be another early morning for them.
The next day, Justin put me with another one of his guides, Brent, overlooking an expansive hillside to the south. We were in a box blind Justin had built himself. While it was one of his early versions, the attention to detail was impressive. I can’t say I’ve seen better. It will never happen but if he ever gets tired of hunting and ranching, he could do his family and the hunting world a favor by selling these things.
Throughout the day, we saw dozens of deer, along with many coyotes and feral hogs, walking the hillside covered in high grass and cedar trees. Late in the afternoon, Brent saw a buck materialize from nowhere directly to the west at 320 yards. As soon as I put glass on him, his beefy body and sagging belly told me he was the 5-plus year-old deer we had been hoping to see.
We immediately went into what seemed like a well-choreographed dance to change seats and get me in the shooting position on the right front corner of the blind. Reflexively, I grabbed a third chair and turned its back toward me so I could anchor my right elbow on it. Many stints at SAAM shooting school in Texas have taught me to subconsciously “build my house.”
My left elbow was welded to a board Justin has put in place for precisely that purpose. I always carry a small beanbag in my pack when hunting out of a box blind so my stock can rest on something much more stable than a millimeter or two of hard window frame surface. In seconds, I was rock steady and my crosshairs rested on the buck’s vitals.
I had spent the last two days memorizing my 6.5 Creedmoor dope and I quickly dialed the necessary 3.5 MoA of elevation into my Leupold CDS turret. It was clear from the buck’s posture that he was likely with an unseen doe and was probably not going to be around long. The shot window would be brief. The buck was quartering hard away. I had his right side available. We had spent lunch wearing out steel at distances out to 500 yards from various field positions and I was confident my ballistic calculator was right on the money.
Based upon the position of the deer, the 10-mph wind had spent about 30 percent of the day at virtually no value from behind and about 70 percent at full value from the left. With the deer quartering like it was, my lateral access on the vitas was probably only three or four inches. Being rushed, I went with the odds and held four inches left of the lungs and sent the shot. The full value wind would have blown the bullet six inches right and I knew it would have stayed within my exceedingly small target zone. As the dust behind the deer kicked up, Brent and I both called a high miss.
The buck immediately disappeared into a cedar thicket to his right. Within seconds, it emerged with its head hanging low. We knew the shot was not a miss. He stood broadside but, as fate would have it, brush covered his vitals. I had no shot. He bedded there and immediately laid his head on the ground. I assumed he would expire but stayed on him in my scope.
The buck finally stood and took one step, putting him perfectly broadside. I immediately sent a Hornady 143-grain ELD-X through both lungs. The buck ran for about five seconds and stopped. I shot him again and he fell where he stood.
We could still see him on the ground through the grass and called Justin to come help walk in on him. He’s done it hundreds of times before and we knew he would know the best course of action to ensure no mistakes were made. Justin generated the plan and we executed. The old buck was dead. It was a pleasure to see Justin do his thing one last time in the field.
Once we looked at the three hits on the deer, it was clear that all went precisely where they were aimed. The rifle did its job but my guess at the inconsistent wind was wrong. The first shot hit a few inches back and clipped the liver. While I played it at full value, it had none. The last two were strikes to the vitals. All three would have been fatal.
Seeing the process play out from start to finish was not the norm by any measure but it is the nature of what we, as hunters, do. My goal after the first shot that was clearly not the ideal was to do whatever was necessary to ensure we recovered the old buck and put his body to good use at the dinner table.
Good leaders surround themselves with people as good, if not better, than themselves. Cowboy Eakins is a damn good leader and Brent was the right man at the right time for me that day in the rough country of western Oklahoma. We got the job done and that old buck has already provided countless meals at the table in my home. When eating venison, I regularly think of the hunt that procured it. While eating this particular venison, I do without fail. It’s a way to honor him.
Mossy Oak Camo and Savage Guns
Mossy Oak has been a leader in the outdoor industry for decades. It recently announced its all-new Overwatch pattern as the “Official Camouflage Partner” of the National Rifle Association. The design uses new technology that embeds the NRA logo within the pattern. Significantly, a portion of all sales of Mossy Oak Overwatch go directly to the NRA and all it does to support America’s hunters and defend our God-given right to arms.
The Overwatch pattern on the Savage 110 Ridge Warrior makes it a truly attractive, effective tactical/hunting rifle. It certainly stands out on the rack behind my local gun dealer’s counter. The Ridge Warrior is the perfect rifle for someone who wants a hunting gun and a tactical tack-driver in one, affordable package. As I shot and carried it throughout the week, it became clear one would have to join my collection.
Weighing-in at less than nine-pounds, it is not too heavy to carry on a stalk. The great balance of the rifle had something to do with this. It’s 24” barrel terminates with threads that easily accommodate the welcomed proliferation of suppressors in the hunting and shooting worlds. The AccuFit system allows the owner to easily adjust the comb height and length of pull. Of course, the Ridge
Warrior utilizes the patented AccuTrigger, one of the greatest firearm innovations of my lifetime. The trigger on my rifle was everything I’ve grown to expect out of Savage.