It is 6:30 in the morning, and everything is wet with rain. The storm that passed in the night was much needed in Jacksboro, about two hours northwest of Dallas, but it makes for more work at Lodge Creek Whitetails. Madison Michener, the 43-year-old ranch manager, is scraping wet feed out of soggy wood troughs. At his side is 22-year-old ranch hand Kody Edmondson. They stand in the corner of a pen, a fenced acre holding several pregnant does. Michener spots a fawn balled up in the grass under an oak tree.
“Look here, Kody.”
“Whoa!” Edmondson says. “That thing is monstrous!”
Michener grabs binoculars from the dash of his squatty Vantage, a utility truck serviceable for morning feeding rounds, and scans the does clustered at the far end of the pen, trying to identify the mother. “Is it Red 2002?” he asks Edmondson. “Must be,” he says, answering his own question.
Michener hands off the binoculars and picks up the fawn. He takes a moment to stroke the soft, spotted hide before peeking at the undercarriage. “It’s a buck.” The animal looks exhausted, and it slinks into Edmondson’s arms when Michener hands him over. “Kody does the physical part of it, and I do the paperwork,” Michener says, as he goes to the dash again, this time for a black binder labeled “Pen Inventory.”
Edmondson sets the newborn in a white laundry basket dangling from a scale. “Eight-point-one pounds,” he says. He vaccinates the fawn and steals a tuft of hair for DNA testing. The animal is so tired that it doesn’t flinch when Edmondson pierces its ear with a plastic red tag. Labeled and cataloged, the young deer is ready to be set back into the grass under the oak tree—but first Michener takes a moment to linger with him, rubbing his fuzzy, damp head.
Then with a burst Edmondson yells out to the buck, “Who’s your daddy?”At Lodge Creek Whitetails, that is a question that can be answered with certainty. “Platinum,” Michener replies, naming the buck who was used to artificially inseminate the does in this pen.
Forty years ago, stumbling upon a newborn fawn, cradling and caring for it, was something that only happened in fairy tales. But over the last four decades, it has become a common scene in the very real world of deer breeding, a billion-dollar industry that sells statuesque bucks to moneyed hunters pursuing perfect trophies for their perfect dens. And in North Texas, Madison Michener knows them all.
After passing through the gate at the entrance to Lodge Creek Whitetails, a mile-long dirt road leads to the main lodge where visiting hunters stay. In addition to breeding deer and selling them to buyers across the state, Lodge Creek also operates as a hunting ranch. Thirteen miles of 8-foot-tall fencing surrounds 2,500 private acres. Roadrunners scurry about by day, wild boars by night.
The ranch was opened in 2003 by Bryan Mitchell, a 65-year-old homebuilder based in Fort Worth. “We wanted to improve the quality of the deer herd that was already there, and then we wanted to raise some big deer for potential hunting, just for family and friends,” Mitchell says. “We realized the way we could achieve that was to become breeders, and so eventually the business developed.”
The deer breeding industry can be traced back to an Amish farmer named Abe Miller, who, as early as 1974, raised deer as pets and began selling them to friends who also wanted to rear them as pets. Eventually, Miller also sold to buyers who wanted to release the animals onto high-fence hunting ranches like Lodge Creek. One of Miller’s deer, Patrick, started a lineage that produced a buck named X-Factor, valued by some trophy collectors in his prime at $1 million. His 580-inch antlers are so dense and intricate—jetting up and out and down all at once—it is hard to comprehend that his head can manage the weight of it all.
Today there are more than 10,000 deer breeding ranches across North America—heavily concentrated in Texas, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Texas A&M University conducted a 2007 survey that identified deer and elk breeding as possibly the “fastest-growing industry in rural America.”
“It’s like men wanting a fancy car,” Madison Michener says. “It literally is about who grows the biggest.”
“It’s highly, highly competitive,” Michener says. “There are great deer everywhere. There’s high fences being built all across Texas.”
“It’s like men wanting a fancy car,” Madison Michener says. “It literally is about who grows the biggest.”
Michener (who, full disclosure, is my cousin) arrived at Lodge Creek four years after it opened. He made the transition to deer breeding after years of working with cattle, going from an age-old form of ranching to one of the most contemporary. With Edmondson, he looks after 400 bucks, does, and fawns, all grouped in pens according to age and sex. The pens are separated by 5-foot-wide fighting alleys, buffer zones that keep bucks from getting into costly tussles through the fencing that could damage their antlers.
“People want to find out what kind of formula Lodge Creek is feeding,” Michener says, watching Edmondson refresh a water trough. “And there’s a lot of science behind it. But I’m kind of an open book. I’ll tell people what we’re feeding them, because—look, I’m not saying this to be arrogant—but just try to outwork us. Big bucks aren’t just grown. It takes a lot of elbow grease.”
The ranch hands live in a small house on the property within view of the main lodge. Over the fireplace hangs the bust of a wild boar shot by Michener’s daughter, Ellie, when she was 11.
Michener answers a text from his wife, who is back in Trophy Club with their two daughters. He gets home on the weekends and tries for as many midweek visits as possible. It’s a 75-mile drive. Between her texts come those from multiple clients. Michener is always working the phone, always accessible, his rotation of ring and text tones serving as the soundtrack for all ranch work.
While Mitchell works the ranch on each visit, he prefers to leave the deal-making to Michener. “Sales require a lot of hard work,” he says. “And I promise you, Madison is known by every ranch in Texas.”
Hearing Michener work the phone is to witness a master at work—a stream of effortless small talk always winding up with the client itching to see the latest inventory. “Really, on the sales side, it’s more about relationships than anything,” he says.
Clients not only call and text, but they show up at the gate, too. This sense of urgency, this unwillingness to miss the next biggest buck, creates intense competition among the rich hunters who drive in from Dallas. A man once saw a deer he wanted and paid Michener $44,000 in $20 bills on the spot upon delivery.
“I’m not saying this to brag, but just to put it in perspective, I probably have in my cellphone five billionaires—” His phone rings. He takes the call, then continues: “See, it’s calls like that. They want to come out and see the deer. It’s just nonstop. I probably have five billionaires—with a ‘b’—that are not accessible to anyone else, but if I call them, they’ll answer. Now, I’m just the ranch hand. But they want to talk about deer.”
Two of those billionaires are Farris and Dan Wilks, burly brothers from Cisco, two hours west of Dallas. Forbes lists their individual wealth at $1.5 billion, and they are quintessential self-made men. Originally bricklayers, the brothers built up a masonry outfit, then reinvented themselves as energy industry entrepreneurs. Owners of several high-fence ranches and regular customers at Lodge Creek, the Wilkses are ideal clients for the deer breeding industry: trophy-hungry hunters who are short on the time required to wait out deer in the wild but flush with enough cash to have prized bucks brought into their crosshairs.
Michener estimates that he is working with more than 100 clients at any given time. Some come to buy his inventory while others come to hunt it. Now that it is January, the hunting season is drawing to a close. Michener has led a hunt nearly every week since it began in early November. He hosts about 20 hunts every year; three-quarters of his hunters are from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“It’s like men wanting a fancy car,” Michener says. “It literally is about who grows the biggest. People will pull in here and write big six-figure checks for animals and pedigrees that they want. There’s a market for it. Some guy thinks it’s worth that. And it literally is a male, testosterone game. Mine is bigger than yours.”
Michener must keep a strict ledger of his inventory. On any given day, a state game warden can make an unannounced visit and check Michener’s records against the animals in the pens. The well-being of each animal is monitored by the state until it is sold or released as game. And once a deer is released, Texas law mandates that it be given 10 days to acclimate to the environment before it is hunted.
Critiques of the industry often attack the idea of converting wild game into a manufactured product. But beyond the philosophical debate, there are also very real health concerns. Texas, like many states, monitors the spread of chronic wasting disease in the deer population. Movement of the disease across state lines in recent years has convinced 21 states, including Texas, to prohibit the importation of out-of-state deer.
Semen, frozen in tubes called “straws,” is much easier to move. On average, Michener can sell a single straw for $4,000, but has sold straws for as much as $10,000. Of course, not all buyers are up to the task of artificial insemination. For that process, Michener hires a veterinarian who performs the task hundreds of times every November, charging $250 per injection. The work is carried out in the barn, about 100 yards behind the lodge where visitors wake up at sunrise to hunt earlier generations from the same seed.
The profile of the Lodge Creek inventory has grown over several generations. Two bucks, Kryptonite and Backstop, have been featured on fertile-aid packaging. And Michener is always looking to take marketing to the next level. In the summer of 2013, he sought out the Robertson family of Duck Dynasty fame, looking for a celebrity endorsement.
While attending an industry conference in Alabama, he made a stop in West Monroe to case the Duck Commander warehouse. An employee came out and Michener saw an opportunity. “I was in my truck, and I had some humongous antlers. So I called over the assistant, handed him the antlers, and said, ‘Why don’t you take these inside and show them to the boys?’ ”
Minutes later, Jase Robertson walked out, asking who’d brought the antlers. Michener talked with him for a few minutes, eventually asking if he would consider representing Lodge Creek at an upcoming Texas Deer Association event in San Antonio. Jase wasn’t available, but Si Robertson, the family’s patriarch, was.
Si not only appeared at the event, but he made a stop at Lodge Creek to hunt with his grandson Brady, Jase Robertson’s son Cole, and some family friends. “We had a blast,” says Robertson. “The guys were so genuine. It felt like a home away from home. They treated us like family.”
Michener recalls the buzz that hit the town of 4,511. “I was getting calls from the Dairy Queen. ‘Can y’all bring Si over here?’ The game warden came out. And we didn’t even tell anybody. They just knew!”
The Lodge Creek crew joined the Robertson entourage at dinner that night; everyone stayed up for hours telling stories in front of a big fire underneath an even bigger stuffed moose.
Michener guides all the hunts at Lodge Creek, taking clients out to the green hunting stands that pepper the ranch. They head out in a rig under a deep blue sky, or even darkness before the first shades of daylight. Michener crouches quietly beside the raised bow or rifle, whispering the size—indicating the price—of the buck in the client’s sights. “We’ll tell them, ‘That’s a 150-inch,’ or, ‘That’s a 180-inch,’ ” Michener says. “But most of the people who have this kind of money to spend on a deer hunt aren’t sitting there going, ‘What’s that one cost?’ ”
And while Michener can’t guarantee a buck for every hunt, he does say, “If you don’t hit anything, it’s probably your own fault. You’re probably just a bad shot.” He laughs. “You’re going to see deer.”
Everyone in the Robertson entourage took home a buck.
With another hunting season drawing to a close, Michener is out near the pens, eyeing the remaining inventory. One buck catches his eye. “He’s huge,” he says. “That could be a $100,000 animal.”
Emphasis in this world is always on the antlers, getting the trophy. It is not about the challenge of the hunt—finding that perch unclaimed by others or sitting in one spot for hours on end. With the rise of deer breeding and high-fence ranches, there is no reason to leave a big buck sighting to chance, or to face the challenge of hitting him as he hides in an untamed field. The most perfect trophies can be cultivated—and commodified—making the experience more efficient and predictable, a bit more like shopping and a little less like hunting. For high-end collectors, the biggest challenge is not good aim but good relationships with the right breeders.
No one knows this better than Madison Michener. And he knows that the highest-paying hunters will keep answering his calls only if his bucks keep getting bigger. So he’ll keep making that commute from Trophy Club to Jacksboro. He’ll keep raising deer, using his controlled environment to improve his inventory, to engineer trophies above and beyond what nature provides on its own.
“The hunting end of it is huge, and that’s the ultimate end product,” he says. “But the breeding part of it, raising these things, people take a lot of pride in this and like to see them happy. I like taking care of the animals a lot more than hunting.”