feature By: Gary Lewis | November, 18
I yanked the motorcycle upright, and that’s when I felt it. Ooh. Those ribs are cracked.
I wobbled a little down the road, my wife a respectable distance behind me. This was supposed to be a quick ride to a Saturday morning date at the coffee shop. Now sitting in a cafe with both hands wrapped around a favorite elixir, I looked at my bride of 31 years. I thought about the future. My future: a pronghorn antelope hunt coming up in less than two weeks.
“Are you going to go to the doctor?” she asked. Hmm. Let’s see. What would the doctor say? “Take two ibuprofen and get a lot of rest.” Can do. What else might he say? “No sports, no strenuous activity. Your hunting plans will have to wait ’till next year.” But doc, I’ve waited 13 years to draw this tag! “I think we’ll order an X-ray.” Average cost $370. “And we might have to do a CT scan.” CT scan: $505. And the cost of this little office visit? “That will be $200 please.”
My imaginary doctor did make sense when he said, “Get a lot of rest.”
I could take that advice . . . after the pronghorn hunt. I paid the doctor an imaginary $200 (imaginary doctors have to make Mercedes payments, too) and deferred the X-ray.
Problem of Perspective
Thirteen years. That’s how long I had waited to draw an antelope tag in Oregon. This time I opted to carry a muzzleloader. When the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife posted the drawing results on its website, I blocked everything off the calendar for the second half of August. That was when I heard from my friend Troy Rodakowski. His dad Terry, a Vietnam-era Navy Seal, had drawn the same tag. We would share a camp and scouting reports.
The first order of business was to get new tires for my pickup, 10-ply skins all the way around instead of the street tires I had been running for 18 months. With new rubber under my ride, I headed to the desert with a friend. Troy Boyd, the previous owner of the aforementioned motorcycle, knew the backroads and secret ways to access pockets of U.S. Bureau of Land Management land. We looked for waterholes, pans and catch dams. It was the end of July, and temperatures hovered around 95 degrees that week. Small water holes were quickly going away.
We located three water holes on which to focus. The first two each held a buck at the water when we scouted. At the third we counted 29 pronghorn lazing in the sun and shade. The biggest buck in the group would have measured better than 15 inches per side, a good buck to pursue if a centerfire rifle hunter did not get to it first. But the pluvial pan farthest from the pavement held a special fascination. The little “lake” appeared as a blue jewel in a desert basin. We had been driving for most of two hours when we reached it, a full nine miles from the highway.
Troy made an observation: From a pronghorn’s perspective there was only one good approach. On three sides of the lake a berm hid the water from view. An animal would feel safest on the approach from the east, looking ahead to the water from the sagebrush slopes of the basin. On the way to water, an antelope would pass five old fence posts. At some point in the last century, someone had pierced the natural pan of this desert basin, heaping up the earth on three sides to provide access for sheep or cattle. These fence posts had served a purpose, too. Now they sat forgotten with a coil of barbed wire between two posts.
This would serve my purpose. As we drove away I said to Boyd, “That is a place to kill an antelope.” For the next three weeks I thought through the options, considered the prevailing winds and planned a way to hunt around each water hole. When the motorcycle went out from underneath me, nothing changed in my plan. After 13 years in the tag drawings, I would hobble into the desert on crutches if I had to.
I propped the butt of the Lyman Trade Rifle against my boot and poured 100 grains of powder down the barrel. With a short starter, the pre-lubed 425-grain, .54-caliber conical went into the muzzle, and I seated it against the powder with the ramrod. It was the middle of the day, the start of what could stretch to a nine-day hunt.
Rodakowski prospected a little lake in a pan closer to our camp. Our scouting had confirmed this place as a good location to start. It was where I had seen 29 pronghorns three weeks earlier. For me, the hunt would begin at the farthest lake. To get there I made headway along a dusty road out of one drainage and into another as a long plume of talcum dust billowed behind the truck. Less than a mile from the water hole, I surprised a buck that offered an opportunity to end the hunt early.
Startled by the vehicle, it stood up out of the sage and watched as the pickup came to a halt. The buck stood broadside at less than 100 yards. Its horns were on the way to respectable, but I guessed 10 inches per side. Our futures were not linked. I then parked on a windswept ridge out of sight of the water and found my way down the hill.
In the wide-open expanse of this pan, a blind would look out of place. Instead, there were those five fence posts to break up my outline. I put a three-legged stool in the shadow of a post and began to glass the sides of the basin. Forest fires from three states had filled the sky with smoke for weeks. A gray haze lay in the hills. Here the pronghorn had a choice of two water holes – the other was a mile away. As the golden light filtered through the smoke, two does approached from downwind and scented me between them and the water. They stalked back and forth on the horizon before turning toward the other water source to the north. I found their tracks as I walked back to the truck. Well after dark, my headlights stabbed into camp.
Rodakowski paced back and forth beneath the limbs of the junipers. He had seen a buck, but it was not the buck he was looking for. “There should have been more animals there,” he said. After freeze-dried meals heated over small gas stoves, we crawled into our sleeping bags. The dust of the road hung in the air, and coyotes walked the ridgelines. Young dogs sung to the moon.
At dawn I surprised another buck in the same place the younger pronghorn had been the afternoon before. It sprinted ahead of the truck and angled up a ridge. In the binocular, I watched it watch me with its own built-in binocular vision until the buck deemed me harmless, turned its back and drifted into the sage.
In the cool of the morning, the water was placid and blue, but there was less of it than there had been three weeks before. Cracked and fissured, the mud was dry at the edges. Down close to the pool, I found the prints of a coyote and the heart-shaped prints of a buck. From my pack I took a hen turkey decoy and staked it in the mud at the water’s edge. I couldn’t help but smile; it looked out of place in the desert. There was not a coyote or an antelope that had ever seen a turkey in this country, and that’s what I was banking on.
After 20 cumulative miles of rocky roads, crawling up washes and back down while riding the brake; after sleeping on the hard ground; after a half-mile hike down from the truck, my cracked ribs ached, and the hot spot to the left of the spine throbbed with every heartbeat. I leaned back against one of the posts, laid the .54-caliber muzzleloader across my knees and removed the nipple.
The Lyman is styled after the Hawken rifles used in the fur trade and by pioneers and Shoshonis, whose boots and moccasins left tracks at these same desert water holes. Using a fine metal pick, I cleaned up the firing channel and then dribbled loose powder into the touch hole. Screwing the nipple back into place, I pinched down a No. 11 percussion cap and set the hammer at half-cock. With the rifle primed against a powder charge of 100 grains and a 425-grain conical bullet, I lifted my binocular to scan the sides of the basin. The first thing I saw was a buck pronghorn. I thought: I’ll bet you’re thirsty.
Bright against the sage, it stared across 500 yards of empty pluvial pan toward the berm surrounding the water. The buck trotted a little way, stopped again and glared in various directions as if remembering threats it had bumped into before. Satisfied, it trotted down into the far edge of the pan and marked its territory, urinating and defecating. Then the buck whirled and began to close the distance between us.
The buck’s horns were at least double the length of its ears, maybe a bit longer, the prongs prominent. It came on, stopping for brief moments to look ahead, and then angled straight toward the fence posts as if they were a landmark. I guessed it would swing wide around the berm then angle in. Two of the fence posts were between us, so I kept my outline concealed, leaning one way or the other, opposite to the buck’s trajectory. Tilted against the middle fence post, I rested the rifle, taking a knee in the sawgrass. When the buck stopped again, I clicked the rangefinder at 108 yards. It had closed the distance and was going straight down to the water. That’s when it saw the plastic poultry and put on the brakes.
The buck stared, it gaped – broadside at 85 yards. In the dead flat calm, the hammer clicked to full cock, the front bead found the crease behind the foreleg, and the trigger broke. A curtain of smoke hung in the air. Out of the white cloud, the pronghorn had obviously been hit. It sprinted, angled to the right and then, out in the middle of the pan, turned one final circle and its back end sagged. It went down.
There is not a lot of meat on a pronghorn, but it is fine and sweet with that nuance of sage. With the meat off the carcass, I staggered back across the pan to the fence post stand and up through the sage toward the truck a half-mile away. With the rifles (I had brought two), the decoy and my pack, it made for two trips. Each step brought another stab of white, shining pain that lanced from the lower ribs and out the middle of my back. Thirty minutes after the meat was laid on the sage, it was into the cooler, onto a bed of dry ice and scraped clean of the hollow hair that can taint the meat. In another cooler, the head and cape were safe from heat and flies. It was a slow, sweet, painful ride to camp.
At night we poured over maps; this waterhole had water, but that one did not. Each square on the map represented a mile of bad rocky road, and the waterholes were miles apart. Rodakowski was up early on the third morning and gone under the moon. At midmorning, I called a coyote in a nearby draw and rolled it as it sprinted away from the woodpecker that was not a woodpecker. After sunset, Rodakowski scowled into the dim light of the lantern. “I’m going to have to change something. I’m running out of time,” he said. I was running out of ice. On the fourth morning, I left for home.
It was day six in when the Navy Seal left camp at 3 a.m. and rode six miles to a distant waterhole. “I parked the bike way back and slithered on down there in the dark,” Rodakowski said later. “I no more than tucked in and it started raining on me.” In spite of the rain, two mule deer bucks worked down through the sage and watered. An hour after dawn, a pronghorn buck showed up. It stopped at the water’s edge and Rodakowski already knew the range. At 117 yards, he was about as comfortable with his muzzleloader as he was going to be. “Whoom! I let him have it.” Rodakowski’s buck staggered and went down.
On the follow-up visit, my imaginary doctor said I would live with the ache in the ribs for six weeks or six months as the bones knit back together. I reckon the pain will last as long as the pronghorn in the freezer, but the ache for the desert is there until I draw another pronghorn tag and pour black powder down the barrel of the Hawken. The doctor wanted another $200. That check is in the mail.