Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Stalk Into Spirit Land - The Last Antelope

This is a guest story by Ric Hunter. Ric is currently working on the novel FIREHAMMER,  a story of an American fighter pilot settling an old score at the end of the Vietnam War.

Van slammed on the brakes.  We skidded to a stop on the brush-covered Wyoming ranch road.  The musty aroma of sage steaming under the Tahoe's exhaust filled my nose and the trailing dust clouded the air as it drifted by.

"Look at all those 'goats' out there!" Van pointed to a herd of pronghorn antelope three-quarters of a mile ahead of us.  He had those Chuck Yeager eyes and always seemed to spot game before I did.

This was our fifteenth season on the LAK Ranch in the Black Hills near Newcastle.  At one time this was ancient tribal holy land.  Some say the spirits of Crazy Horse and the Oglala Souix have made this home.  Today was going to be like no other for us on this ranch. . .

Raising the compact binoculars strung from my neck, I studied the largest herd we'd seen this year.  "Whew," I said in a half whistle, scanning several hundred yards of antelope through the windshield.  "There must be 40 to 50 there, maybe more bedded down in the sage."
"Any bucks?" Van said, groping for his binoculars which had flown from the seat--to the dash--to the floor during the sudden stop.

"I see several.  They don't act like they're spooked.  Maybe this is the one herd that hasn't been shot up yet this year." 

"Think you can slip in for a closer look?" 

 We had glassed this area from a bluff the day before, and watched a coyote trying to catch prairie dogs. 

"If I take that arroyo we spotted yesterday, maybe I can get close enough.  I'll give it a try,"  I said, pointing to our right. 

Easing out of the door, I quietly loaded the Sako 25-06 with five rounds of 115-grain Federal Premiums.  I had drawn the antelope license in Wyoming's state hunting lottery.  Van had drawn for deer.  It would have to be my stalk.  Trotting in a low half-crouch through the sagebrush, I ducked into the arroyo.  Its banks were deep enough to conceal me for the first hundred yards or so, but shallowed as I eased toward the antelope, placing each step precisely. 
Pronghorns favor the prairie. They're tricky to hunt and a challenge to drop at their full speed, which tops 50 miles per hour.  North America's fastest land mammal, they can see you blink at a mile.  One misstep and I knew the best herd of the year would be history. 

The approach was near perfect with the wind in my face.  For several hundred yards I kept low, sometimes crawling to stay concealed when the arroyo shallowed.  Sweat soaked my back from the excitement of the hunt and the rare 80-degree temperature of an October afternoon in 1997.

Where the arroyo flattened into sage-covered prairie, six fence posts stood like weathered sentries along a bank.  Partially obscured by a large sagebrush, I crept toward them.  There wasn't much to hide behind in this vastness.  An old post would have to do.
Had I spooked them?  Would they be there?  I slowly unfolded from kneeling to a crouch, then half-stood behind the post.
The herd was scattered in a wide semi-circle.  There were at least 50 animals, and I was right in their middle.  My smile faded when a yearling doe locked eyes with me at 40 yards.  Had she seen me move?  I froze, trying to become one with the fence post for the next 20 minutes.  Motionless, I kept my eyes glued to the yearling's.  It was a stare-down.  If I moved a muscle, she would bolt.  And if she bolted, the  herd would follow.  Not good.  A standing shot from a good stalk is always the best option.  A running shot might result in a miss, or worse, a wound. 
I remained a mannequin.  The wind was still with me.  I had to outlast them.  A bead of sweat trickled into my left eye, and I strained to stifle the blink.  My rigid body ached as minutes passed.  Finally the yearling began to wander, then lowered her head to graze.  But now two does about a hundred yards away spied me. They bleated and stomped their feet, twitching their tails nervously.  Another eternity passed before they dropped their guard and wandered away.
Slowly, I eased the binoculars up and panned the area.  There were several fine bucks, but one was magnificent.  He stood out like the top line on an eye test chart.  I was locked on the lord of the herd; probably the lord of Weston County.  Quartering me at 250 yards, he was the only antelope not grazing.  His horns stretched high and wide, easily double the length of his ears and spread in a classic "V."  My little binoculars couldn't bring the detail I wanted at that range.  I had to get closer. 
Waiting for the buck to resume feeding, I scanned the herd one more time, looking for any that might be bedded down.  What the . . . Oh, this is great!  I saw a coyote slipping through the sagebrush, probably headed to the prairie dog town 200 yards away.  His path would bisect the herd! 
The coyote slunk along, fooling nobody.  He might as well ride a Harley through there!  Sure enough, a doe saw him and bolted, then the entire herd accelerated to highway speed, darting from my left to right.  The buck was in the middle of the charging herd, his head and high-masted horns bouncing well above the others as they arced right at 250 yards.  I shouldered the 25-06, the reticles of my scope tracking the fleeing herd.  There was no clear shot at the buck.  All I could see was a beautiful head and horns thrusting as he raced amidst a tan and white blur.
My only chance was to backtrack down the arroyo.  If the herd continued in the same direction, I could climb out at a point a half mile away with several small, sage-covered hills between me and my trophy.  It was a gamble, but worth a try since they had spooked on the coyote and not me.  I ran back down the arroyo, now and then raising up to glance at the herd.  Some antelope had slowed to a walk.  I paralleled their course toward the small hills that would, I hoped, put me on one side and them on the other.
The dome-shaped hills finally came between us.  I straightened up and walked rapidly through knee-high sage.  If I could climb one of the mounds and ease over the top, I might have a chance at the buck.  The hill was 200 feet high, steep and rocky.  Nearing the crest, I dropped and crawled on hands and knees to check for antelope on the other side.  Nothing.  I continued crawling toward a large, creosoted power line pole 40 yards to my right.       
Using the pole for cover, I eased to a stand.  Slowly, antelope became visible at the base of the hill below me.  First horns, then an entire dark-faced buck and some does were staring in my direction through prairie grass.  How did they know I was there?  It had to be Antelope magic. I lifted the binoculars in slow motion, the power pole breaking my silhouette.         
There he was, ears fully erect, the big, dark eyes fixed on my position only a hundred yards away.  He was in his prime with thick, black horns curving to ivory tips and long prongs that bent inward.  Adrenaline rushed. My pulse raced.  It was the best buck I'd seen in 15 seasons of hunting this fleet-footed "Prince of the Plains."
As I lowered my binoculars and slowly brought up the 25-06, a nearby doe alerted and ran toward the buck. That's all it took.  Instantly, the entire herd was off again as I thumbed the safety and struggled to find him in my scope.               
Dammit! He's surrounded by does again!  It's going to be a running shot or nothing.
Bounding toward a stand of ponderosa pine, the prairie dwellers turned along the tree line and swung to my right. 
Soon they were at 250 yards and still running.  Suddenly, the buck was clear of the does and I found him again in the reticles.  Moving the aim point just in front of his shoulder, I squeezed off a shot.  The round kicked up the dirt well behind him!  The range was greater than I thought.  My shot put the herd in high gear, and they were devouring yards of prairie with every stride.  I felt the solid click of the Sako action as I chambered another round.  There was only one more chance to shoot as they kicked up dust headed toward a small hill.
The range grew to 300 yards as they scrambled up the sagebrush rise.  Dropping to one knee and wrapping my left arm around the sling to steady the rifle, I zeroed in on the buck.  This time a voice whispered in the depths of my  mind, "Pull more lead, son."  Understanding, I brought the reticles from behind, through, and then a full length in front of the charging buck.  I exhaled with a soft hiss before holding my breath for the long shot.  With my barrel still moving, I squeezed off a round.  The report of my 25-06 broke the prairie stillness and a salty smell of cordite hung in the air.  The Nozler partition bullet brought the buck down cleanly at 308 yards.  The rest of the herd disappeared over the hill, save three does that stopped to stare at the big buck where he lay.  Curiously. . .it was as if they were paying their last respects. . . .
Excitement gone, age old silence returned to my little section of the plains.  Clean Wyoming air laced with the aroma of sagebrush soon replaced the cordite.  High noon came as I arose from my kneeling position. 
As I wound my way through the sage and shallow washes toward where the buck fell, adrenaline fade was replaced by the bitter-sweet feeling of taking a grand animal.  Some call it “hunter’s remorse.” It had been fair-chase, a lot of work and 15 years of chasing this speed demon on the plains. Would this be my last? I began to think about all the years my father and I had hunted the 85,000 acre LAK ranch since 1982.  Native Americans considered the Black Hills sacred, and it was easy for us to see why.  Towering granite walls jut from rich green forests of ponderosa pine.  Interludes of grassy meadows and sage-covered prairie offer spectacular vistas.  Spirits surely must rest there. 
Dad's last trip was in 1993.  He died in 1995 at the age of 73.  A career military officer, he served 30 years in the Air Force during three wars.  He was dedicated to his country, to his family....and to hunting. 

Thinking about the shot on the antelope, I remembered the single-shot .22 Dad gave me for my sixth birthday.  An NRA instructor, he patiently worked on my marksmanship and had me winning medals in junior NRA before I was seven.  Later, he coached me on the skeet range until I broke fifty straight; he would stay at my shoulder, following my swing and looking down the barrel.  For the first thousand rounds, it seemed, he would say,  "Pull more lead, son," every time I missed.  He was right, and I finally learned to pull enough lead--most of the time.  At age 71, he gave me one of his last shooting lessons on the LAK Ranch by downing a running mule deer buck at 280 yards.  "A wing shot on a 300-pound mulie" was how he described it.  A clean, one-shot kill. What every real hunter wants.

Ric Hunter and his prize antelope.

Now approaching the downed antelope, I could see how big and beautiful he was.  He lay in a bed of bluish-gray sage, tan and white fur contrasting with his black face.  Atop his head were the finest set of pronghorns I'd ever seen.  They would measure 15 inches long, with prongs more than five inches.  He would be just shy of Boone & Crockett, but somehow that didn't matter.
A dej`a vu sensation came over me as I stood over this champion and gazed about.  In the excitement of the shots, I had not fully realized my location.  Then it hit me.  This wonderful animal had fallen only yards from where my father had taken his last antelope in 1993.  Scanning the rolling prairie from atop my perch on this hill, I felt the irony beginning to sink in.  My face flushed, my chest heaved, and the dam broke.  As I looked down at the antelope buck once again, tears pocked the prairie dust at my feet. 

Van, hearing the shots, had climbed the hill.  As he made the summit, he looked at the buck, then to me.  Grasping the significance, his eyes quickly filled. 
"Your Dad would have liked this," he said. 

"Yeah, that kind of says it all."

The two-hour stalk had been exhilarating.  I had closed to within a hundred yards on this buck; he had made it to 300 yards when I heard my father's words one more time.  Now he lay only yards from Dad's last pronghorn.  The signs were there, and they were powerful.  This would be my last antelope.
 As I write this story in the Minneapolis-St.Paul airport headed home, I realize that taking this champion was a synthesis of two very basic, many times difficult elements; stalking and shooting.  I had learned to stalk pronghorns pretty much on my own, but the shooting skill had come from my father.  We were a team on many hunting and fishing trips to Wyoming, and we were a team once again.
Van was right. Dad would have liked that. That day, I connected with the Oglala Souix, this truly was spirit land.
Story by Ric Hunter

If you enjoyed this story, try:
           Bill Howard's Outdoors Memorable Hunt

           Bill Howard's Outdoors Dream Hunt-Alligator!

Bill Howard writes a weekly outdoors column for the Wilson Times and Yancey County News and the bowhunting blog site He is a Hunter Education and International Bowhunter Education instructor, lifetime member of the North Carolina Bowhunters Association, Bowhunter Certification Referral Service Chairman, member and official measurer of Pope and Young, and a regular contributor to North Carolina Bowhunter Magazine.

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