BY JIM MATTHEWS
For over 50 years, my family has been wandering the ancient hillsides of the Tejon Ranch. My hunting mentor Miles “Spike” Harris and his life-long hunting buddy Ray Babb had a hunting membership lease for Area 2 on the ranch’s south side for many years. As a teenager I shot my first deer on this ranch under their watchful eye. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but Spike’s ashes are on the ranch scattered under a favorite oak tree.
Three decades later, I held that same lease for several seasons while my boys were teenagers, and they both shot their first big game on the property — both shooting wild hogs. But they also learned how to move through the woods with firearms, take and shoot from field positions, and stalk game in the years we were there, mostly hunting ground squirrels, quail, and doves on the lease.
For us, it was heaven on earth. It was a place to leave the 20th century behind and see how a historic cattle ranch functioned. We kept spring water plumbed to an historic and rustic cabin, and made sure stock tanks held water for cattle and wildlife, clearing lines and digging out spring boxes. We kept a cranky old generator running. And we hunted.
To the best of my memory, I have taken six deer and at least 12 wild hogs on the property. The first take was taken about 1970. My wife shot her first deer on the ranch not long after we were married 37 years ago. I shot my first wild hog on the ranch in 1998, hunting with recently deceased and beloved guide Darrell Francis. There was a line of five boars moving across the hillside opposite our perch, and he pointed out the biggest, toothy boar as the second in the lineup. I told him I was going to shoot the smaller meat boar at the back of the line. His face lit up with his broad smile and he nodded. Shooting the better-tasting meat pig made sense to Darrell, and we were fast friends from then on. He was guiding on the ranch well into his late 70s, and everyone has Darrell Francis stories. Today’s head guide at the Tejon, Cody Plank, was just out of his teens when I first met him on the ranch, introduced by Darrell. Always a favorite of Darrell’s, Plank has become one of the most competent, personable, and effective guides in the West. Ask Cody about Francis when you go.
During the early 2000s, when I was guns and hunting editor for sadly-defunct Western Outdoors magazine, I was on a number of “industry” hunts with major firearms and ammunition companies where we were tasked with testing the latest and greatest guns and cartridges on wild hogs and ground squirrels. This was when the Tejon’s wild hog population was literally exploding, and we often saw over 100 pigs in a morning or evening of hunting. But mostly, it gave me an opportunity to drive and hike around in amazing oak grassland country. And then there were the lease years when I spent nearly every weekend on the ranch at our “cabin in the woods.”
Wildlife abounds on the Tejon Ranch, and most of the property will never be developed, protected in perpetuity as a wildlife conservancy, working cattle ranch, and hunting ranch. It is still a stronghold for California condors, and seeing the endangered birds is common. The ranch was the last stronghold for grizzly bears before the last one was killed in the region, not far from today’s ranch headquarters. There are still black bears in its hills, and pronghorn antelope once again dot its desert canyons and hillsides in the Antelope Valley. Early in the morning and late in the evening you will see coyotes, gray fox, bobcats, and maybe even mountain lions. With the whole family in the truck, we were driving down the dirt road from our cabin the first year I had the Area 2 lease. A mother lion and three near-adult cubs dropped into the road ahead of us and bounded ahead of us for 100 yards before dropping off the side of the hill. The truck was silent in awe. Everyone who has spent time on the Tejon has similar stories.
I have always said that when you go through the locked gates and onto the ranch, it is like stepping back in time to early California. For some of us, it is like home. Hunters owe themselves at least one trip to the Tejon to see what our state used to be like and experience truly good hunting.