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Anthelope hunt

“Keep your head up; here come three more,” my buddy Frank Smith had just texted me. I slowly pulled down the zippered window flap on my ground blind and surveyed the scene to my left. “No shooters in that group,” I replied back, texting as fast as my fingers would allow. Something about his response caused me to pause and look up. It simply read, “Uh, ok…” but somehow a ton of bewilderment had accompanied the two-word message.

“What’s he talking about?” I thought to myself as my gaze shifted from my phone to the water hole in front of me. Seemingly having materialized out of the very water he was now drinking deeply of stood a huge pronghorn with big cutters and deep, curving hooks. Unbeknownst to me during my furious texting session, he had approached and waded out into the water so far that even his back feet were covered by a few inches of water.

I quickly raised my rangefinder and lasered him at 33 yards. Shifting into position, I slowly raised the little BowTech Admiral and eased it to full draw, taking my time to settle in as I hit my anchor. Antelope don’t need a reason to slip. The words of my taxidermist once again floated through my head as I laid my index finger over my release. I allowed my 30-yard pin to drift rearward, holding over the very back edge of where I figured the buck’s lungs would end. As one of the best taxidermists in the world, I knew that the advice I’d received prior to my trip to Wyoming was not without sound reasoning, and I was going to attempt to take my trophy by getting as little blood as possible on his cape as we had discussed.

I took a couple breaths before beginning to apply pressure to the trigger. Once firmly engaged, I began slowly squeezing my shoulder muscles together. The imperceptible movement taking place in my back suddenly yielded into an explosion of my right elbow flying rearward and the arrow was on its way. I watched as the Muzzy MX-3 sliced cleanly through the mid-section of the big antelope, perhaps a tad more rearward than I would have liked. The buck whirled, spraying water and mud in all directions as the other speedgoats that had come up behind him scattered in every direction. I kept my eyes on my antelope and breathed a sigh of relief when he reared up like a wild stallion a mere 80 yards away and flipped over backward.

The trip had begun nearly three years prior. Two of my friends had booked a trip through Miller Outfitting in Gillette, WY that year and couldn’t contain themselves when relaying their experience to me. The comfy accommodations, scrumptious meals made from scratch, and the incredible hospitality extended by hosts Doug and Mary made the sheer numbers of antelope they had coming to their blinds almost an afterthought. Still, I wasn’t convinced I actually wanted to tag along when they went back three years later. After all, I’m a whitetail guy. Not only that, I’m almost proud to a fault of my do-it-yourself, public-land history that’s comprised the bulk of my hunting career. That all changed when my buddy e-mailed me pictures of the finished wall pedestal of his P&Y buck. Seeing just how beautiful a mount pronghorns made was all it took for me to mail him my deposit money for my first outfitted hunt.

I swear someone drilled out the center of the hourglass behind our backs while we were waiting for those three years to go by. In no time at all, Frank was sending e-mails reminding us to bring something black to wear in our blinds, that we would find zip-off pants coming in handy given the temperature fluctuations from morning to mid-afternoon, and that a few magazines or an iPod may not be a bad idea to help pass the time in our blinds. I began practicing exclusively while seated in my swiveling blind chair in my back yard, forgoing the normal standing shot I was accustomed to executing on my beloved whitetails from a lofty perch.

The time came to pack for the airline flight, and I leaned on the advice of Bowhunting Hall of Famer Jim Daugherty. I had replaced Jim as the back-page columnist for a national archery trade magazine in the year leading up to my pronghorn hunt, and in an effort to learn more about one of my literary heroes I had ordered a book containing a collection of his highly respected “Trail’s End” columns. This was to be my first hunt that I’d flown to, and I was nervous about my bow arriving unscathed. Jim has literally travelled the world over in pursuit of big game, and in one column he relayed his findings of trying everything from expensive hard cases to every conceivable contraption thought to provide protection to his bows. The best solution he’d hit upon after decades of flying was to slip his bow inside a soft case and stuff all his hunting clothes around it. If it was good enough for Jim, it was good enough for me. Besides, with airlines starting to charge upwards of $50 per bag, I needed to consolidate as much as possible. With thousands upon thousands of shots through my Admiral and everything packed up, it was time to head west.

A quick walk up and down the tiny little airport in Gillette as we waited for our gear to follow us inside provided a little extra motivation: Perched atop magnificent oak bases was a family of pronghorn antelope, with the matriarch of the bunch easily blowing by the Boone & Crockett threshold. If they had goats of that size around, I hoped it wouldn’t be any problem to put one on my wall back home that would at least make the lesser Pope & Young minimum of 67 inches. Our luggage gathered up, we greeted our guides quickly and loaded up for the three-minute drive to the Miller family farm. We tossed our luggage on our beds and quickly broke out the bows to make sure nothing had moved on our flights in. Confident of our equipment, we loaded up for a trip into town to purchase our hunting licenses in advance of our first sit in the blinds.

My first sit had me in a blind on one side and another buddy on the other of what was more of a large pond than a watering hole. The blinds were situated as to give me a better shot to one end and him the other, with about a 40-yard gap from shoreline to shoreline. I was very pleasantly surprised to watch a small herd of pronghorn materialize on the horizon out in front of me. Even at a distance of several hundred yards, I was able to pick out a goat worthy of me sending an arrow his way. The bruiser never came in though, as he stayed back and surveyed the scene as his harem filed down to the water’s edge and cautiously sipped a mere 27 yards away. Still, the experience was exactly what I needed: A chance to let the first jitters come and go, to have a chance to thoroughly look over a couple yearling bucks in the group and decide what I did and what I did not want to loose an arrow at.

Later that sit, a text came in that two out of our party had already killed within the first hour of entering their respective blinds. “Congratulations” responses went back out, and we couldn’t wait to see what our friends had arrowed when we returned back to camp.

We awoke the next morning to the sweet aroma of frying bacon, with the gentle sweetness of buttermilk pancakes wafting in the background. Doug Miller is a big, burly man’s man, but he proved he knew his way around a kitchen on the very first morning of our hunt. What was better was the amount of pancakes he kept heaping upon our plates. If anyone left for their blinds hungry, they had no one to blame but themselves. Still, we all packed soft-side coolers with frozen water bottles and snacks in case the day’s sit turned out to be a long one. Rob Poorman and I jumped in one guide’s truck just as daylight was starting to break on the horizon. Rob had been the one to sit across the pond the previous day from me, and we were heading to a new area this morning. Doug said he had two blinds really close to each other, yet they covered two different water holes and we could possibly have completely different animals coming at us that the other would never see.

That’s exactly what happened, as I was dropped off within mere feet of my blind, quickly scurrying inside and closing the entrance slit as the truck rocketed off to deposit Rob in his blind. I listened intently as the truck disappeared over the hill in front of me, straining my ears to get a feel of how far Rob’s blind was away in the distance. I soon lost sound of the vehicle however and would have to wait until Rob sent me a text a short time later informing me they had driven about a quarter of a mile away before they turned him out so he could slip inside his blind.

All was quiet the first hour until my phone buzzed inside my pocket. Seeing the “Monster coming your way” instantly elevated my heart rate, and I strained to see over the rise which made detecting anything coming from Rob’s direction impossible. I scanned the horizon through my Nikon 10x42s, and was startled when two does walked over the lip of the rise and into view so close to the edge of the water hole that it caused me to jump slightly. I watched them drink and took the opportunity to range them, anticipating the “monster” that Rob had spotted ambling my direction to follow on their heels. More tawny legs seemed to sprout out of the weeds following the first couple does and I nervously applied tension to the bowstring with my release. I slowly exhaled as two fawns made their way to their mothers’ sides and I remained vigilant until I spotted a huge buck off in the distance, carefully watching the four antelope out in front of me. As soon as they finished drinking, they whirled and trotted out to meet him and then continued on their way. Disheartened, I unclipped the release from my d-loop.

All was quiet for the next four hours, prompting John Mueller to send me a text from a few miles away asking if this was the “mid-day lull?” Finally, as the sun climbed to its uppermost position in the sky for the day, I spied a lone figure standing as still as a statue off to my left. I could see for several hundred yards out that direction, contrasting the surprises I had received that morning when they popped up over the hill to my right. I quickly located him in my binos and one look was all it took to determine that he was a shooter. The buck nervously starting advancing, halting every so often to look around; I felt as if his piercing gaze was allowing him to see right through the fabric of the blind. I cautiously re-ranged every clump of grass on the side of the water hole he was approaching from, repeating all the distances from 22 yards at the near corner all the way to the far side which lay 47 yards away.

The next time I looked up, he had closed the distance to more than halfway, and I no longer needed the binos to see that his cutters began well above his ears – one of the tell-tale tips we’d been given to help identify potential P&Y candidates. He continued coming straight at the pond before suddenly veering off-course slightly, heading for the far distant corner. The buck took one last look around before committing to the water – at exactly the furthest distance from the blind he could possibly get. Still, I had little concern about the distance after regularly practicing out to 60 yards all summer long in an attempt to make 25 look like a chip shot.

Snapping the Admiral to full draw, I bracketed the center of his lungs between my 40- and 50-yard pins, allowing myself a little margin of error in case he dropped at the sound of the shot. I confidently touched the shot off and then watched in horror a split second later as I watched my lightweight 360-grain shaft drift far more rearward than where my pin had settled. My barred feathers disappeared into a tuft of tan hair below the buck’s spine but high above his paunch, causing him to swirl and bolt toward Rob’s blind. Emotions ran wild and came quickly, as the realization that I’d just put my first really bad shot on an animal in almost a decade soaked in.

I replayed the event in my mind, starting with the whole shot sequence. Everything had been right in my execution, I thought. Then it hit me as I looked once again at where the brute had just stood: the sagebrush surrounding the far corner of the water hole was leaning over at a 45-degree angle as it struggled to stand upright against the stiff wind pounding against it. Nestled back into the far corner of the water hole and away from the lip of the rise that the plains wind whipped over, I had been unaware of its force as I was safely tucked inside my blind. The ultralight arrow I had built specifically for this hunt had easily been pushed almost a foot off course in the time it took to cover nearly half a football field.

I sent Rob a text alerting him to what had just happened, asking him to keep an eye out for my goat. He immediately responded, saying “I see him and he’s acting fine.” I forwarded the same text I sent Rob to Frank as well, feeling awful despite Rob’s reassurance. Frank immediately texted me back, saying “Yeah, I know. We saw it all from up here. We can see him and I don’t think he’s hurt bad at all.” Unbeknownst to me, Frank had been sitting in the passenger side of Doug’s pickup over half a mile away, but from an elevated perch and had a commanding view of the surrounding geography.

Even though everyone’s texts back to me were as reassuring as they could make them, my heart was still in the bottom of my stomach. I was mentally kicking myself for not noticing the strength of the wind and compensating for it. Doug and Frank kept watching my antelope for almost half an hour, constantly reassuring me he would be fine, even informing me he was chasing does at one point. I still couldn’t shake what an awful hit I’d put on my quarry though and was lamenting that fact to Frank. That’s when Frank’s next text buzzed in, alerting me to a new group approaching from same westerly direction that the lone buck had just come in from. I had cautiously peered out only to see three does approaching. I hadn’t come this far to wrap my tag around a doe, no matter how despondent I was at the moment. It was only later after we were picking my buck up and carefully laying him in the bed of Doug’s truck that I learned Frank had spotted three bucks coming in and that’s what he was trying to tell me; it just so happened that the first of the approaching group had been three does, and that’s what caused the miscommunication.

We admired my buck for just the briefest of moments in the truck before driving back to Doug and Frank’s original vantage point. I was amazed to discover how far out they could see, and how my blind lay in relation to Rob’s. They also pointed the first buck that had come in to me off in the distance, feeding contentedly. A few minutes later, we watched the antelope that had gathered in front on Rob’s blind explode into a dizzying array of tan and white streaks streaming in all different directions as if someone had set off firework packed with pronghorns. Our eyes settled on a huge buck streaking away as it began to attempt to go airborne as if he was one of Santa’s reindeer. Moments later, we loaded Rob’s antelope into the truck beside mine.

For this trip, I used a 2009 BowTech Admiral set at 65 lbs. My Muzzy MX-3 broadheads were affixed to Victory Archery VF350 V-1 series shafts. Doug & Mary Miller own and operate Miller Outfitting in Gillette, WY, and boast over a 95% harvest rate. Doug can be reached at 307-682-5815.

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