Saturday was opening day of my antelope season. This would be the first year that my son would accompany me on a big game hunt. He has been tagging along with me calling coyotes for a year now, and to the range for even longer. I don't know which of us was more excited. He had been pointing out antelope to his mom when they were driving for weeks prior. He may love hunting even more than I do.
This hunt was all about getting him out there and having a good time, as I wasn't really worried about getting a big buck, or even filling the tag.
The early forecast sounded like it would be in our favor, but as the week drew to a close the forecast worsened and we had a decent amount of snow and wind. We left town to head north later than I would have liked, but apparently the highway had been closed earlier, and would close again later, so we slipped through. As we made our way north the roads got worse and the wind kept blowing. The only other vehicles on the road were hunters and truckers, as all the sane folk had stayed home.
The plan was to start on a large ranch I hunt that holds a lot of goats. A few other guys would be out there, but there would be plenty of room for all of us. As I headed in on the main ranch road it was clear that driving on any of the two tracks would be pointless, as I almost got stuck a few times on the main road. The wind was howling at about 30mph and blowing snow across everything. No one else was out yet, so we parked on a few vantage points to glass for bedded pronghorn. It was pretty apparent that they were tucked away tight and we wouldn't be able to spot any good bedding ares without a long, cold hike. I figured I would check a few other public spots I knew of and try back later in the day, hoping the wind would die down.
As we were about to leave the ranch we ran into an outfitter who had two guys from Oregon. They had just got there to start their hunt. I wished them luck and told him of the trouble getting around. My instinct had been right and the outfitter didn't heed my warnings, as I found out today that the rancher had spent most of the day pulling them out of the snow with his tractor.
As we made our way down some back roads I started to get a little worried that we might not make it back out. There were a few tracks, but they were mostly drifted over and I never passed another vehicle. I glassed a few other spots from the truck, but they all looked the same, blowing snow and no antelope. After busting through a couple drifts I looked over and saw Christian tightly gripping the seat rests with a worried expression on his face. I asked him if he was ok and his reply was quick and tense "yea". Are you scared? "No"
On we went, hoping for a respite from the wind. Around noon I pulled over next to a large patch of public land that wasn't quite so snow covered. I knew there were several ridge lines and creek beds that would provide good shelter for pronghorn, and that we would have to hike if we wanted to spot any bedded down. I was a little worried that the weather would be too much for the boy, as I helped him get his coat and gloves on. We struck out and quickly crested a ridge where the wind was literally blowing Christian off his feet. I asked him how he was doing and if he was cold, but he just replied that he was fine and wanted to keep going.
I was glassing hard as we hiked, trying to spot any animals hunkered down out of the wind. Even so, a decent buck busted us and promptly ran up the hill and onto private land. I looked around, but he didn't have any does with him. I knew that meant there was a bigger buck around hoarding all the ladies.
We worked our way up a dry creek bed and began to see the first tracks of the day. Most were deer, but a few goat tracks were mixed in. Finally I saw what I had been looking for, the bedding area of multiple antelope. We worked the tracks up a ridge that was sheltered from the wind. As we crested the hill I glanced animals out of the corner of my eye to the left. I quickly ducked down and told Christian to do the same.
We changed direction and stalked up the hillside. The grade was very slight, which meant that the goats could see me, even laying prone, long before I could get my rifle to a good position. They were all staring, but weren't sure exactly what I was. There was a nice buck bedded a few yards from a group of five does. They were in a large bowl with a wide open view of the surrounding territory. I layed there for a good 15 minutes waiting for them to calm down before I got the rifle in position and started working out my holds. The wind was gusting hard from right to left at full value. even flat on the ground the gusts were rocking me and the rifle off target.
I checked my barrel clearance and had to move further forward to get a clear shot. This would come into play later as well. The range was about 200 yards, and a bedded antelope in 40 mph gusts gave a very small target. I decided I would wait for a better shot and motioned for my boy to crawl up next to me. Even though I knew they would see him, it meant more to me that he see every part of the hunt, even if it was just antelope running off scared.
As he moved closer, the buck stood up and started to trot to the left. I assumed he had gotten nervous and the whole herd would soon be on the move, so I decided it was now or never. I swung the gun to the left, held for the wind and touched off a round. Nothing! Quickly I racked another round and sent another one downrange. That time I saw dirt and sagebrush fly...about 3 feet in front of my barrel. When I came left I hadn't seen that the ground in front of me was now blocking my barrel.
On the shots the does were up and running to my right. I then saw why the buck had stood up. It wasn't the small kid in the orange vest, but the buck from earlier coming to steal a doe that had roused him from his bed. I could have watched the show and waited for a better shot. The bigger buck followed the does over the top of the far ridgeline, while the smaller one trailed along the bottom. The rut was on, as the big buck came back over the ridge to make sure that the smaller buck knew who was boss. I was amazed that the drive to protect his harem was stronger than the fear of gunshots. They were too far for an ethical shot so I watched as he chased the intruder away.
I was a bit bummed, as I had a chance at two bucks and thought that with the conditions it might be the only chance we'd had to fill our tag. Christian wasn't daunted though. He was just excited to be out hunting and seeing animals.
We gathered our things and hiked to the ridge where we last saw the antelope, but as I expected, they were nowhere to be seen. For as wide open country as most antelope inhabit, they sure have a knack for disappearing into thin air.
We turned east and continued hiking in the same direction we had been on when we first found the herd. There is a large plateau that offers a view of the rest of the public ground, so we sat down to glass. This section is fairly flat, so it was easy to see that there wasn't another herd on this property.
After a short rest we packed everything up and set off towards the truck and some well earned food. As we came off a sage covered ridgeline the big buck came running over the top across from us. I immediately grabbed Christian and we ducked down in the sage. The buck stopped in his tracks and stared at us, snorting. He must have lost track of his herd and had been running around frantically searching for them. I slowly un-clipped the sling and brought my rifle up to my shoulder. The pronghorn realized something wasn't right and started to turn away, giving me a nice broadside view. I held the reticle just behind his shoulder, adjusted some for the wind, and pressed the trigger. I heard the gratifying thump of a solid hit and as he continued his turn I could see it was a mortal shot. A few more steps and he was down.
I turned to Christian, who was smiling from ear to ear, and gave him a high five. "You shot that antelope good Dad" was his response.
We went to check out the antelope and found a surprisingly nice set of horns with a good curl to them. It's no record book entry, but very respectable for where we were hunting, and much larger than I expected to shoot based on the purpose of the hunt. I carefully explained how we marked our tag and took a few pictures of Christian. He then decided that he wanted to take a picture of dad, which yielded a few interesting pics, but a couple decent ones as well.
A quick estimate in my head and some of the excitement faded, especially when the GPS confirmed what I had feared. We were a good mile and a half from the truck with three large ridges between us. I decided I would take my time field dressing the animal and put off the inevitable a little longer. As I was dressing it out I looked up at my boy who was watching intently. I asked if he was alright "yes" and if he thought it was gross "no". "What is that?" he asks me. "That's his stomach, and that's part of his lung" I replied. "In that case come over here and hold this leg up"
He's watched and helped me skin out quite a few animals since he was very young, but I wasn't sure how he would handle seeing one dressed out the first time. I should have known better. The only guts that scare him come from the inside of a pumpkin.
Once the job was done, I strapped the binos on the boy, slung the rifle across my chest and hefted the goat onto my back. The first half mile was all uphill and by the time we reached the top I was ready for a break. A few more stops and we were on top of the last ridge looking down at the truck 1000 yards away. It seemed so close, yet impossibly far. I dragged the pronghorn down to the bottom of the steep bowl and went to the truck to drop off the rifle and get some water, as I'd used the last of ours to clean up. Slightly rejuvenated, I carried it the last 500 yards and dropped it in the bed of the pickup. We had made it! 5 hours after leaving the truck, we were both hungry, thirsty and tired.
The drive home seemed to take forever, but as we neared town, mixed in amidst a bunch of ranchettes, we saw probably 100 antelope in a handful of herds. I just chuckled to myself at the day we'd had and thought about how sights like these make most non-hunters think that antelope hunting must be equivalent to shooting fish in a barrel. My worn out legs knew otherwise.