feature By: Jack Ballard | March, 18
The 2010-11 winter slammed into the Northern Plains with a vengeance. Snow depths increased with the progression of the season and temperatures plummeted, punctuated with a handful of brief thawing periods. The warm respites momentarily relieved wildlife of energy-robbing temperatures, but devilishly crusted snowfields severely impeded the local and regional migrations mule deer and pronghorn often rely upon to dodge winter’s worst. Pronghorn in northern Montana took to train tracks to glean grain dropped from railcars and ease the burden of their travels. The horror of the winter for the species was tragically illustrated when 270 animals were wiped out in a single incident pitting the hapless pronghorn against a fast-moving freight train.
When spring arrived, pronghorn numbers were severely diminished over much of the region. Malnourished does dropped few fawns on the green shoots of early June grass. Wildlife management officials in Montana wisely slashed the number of pronghorn tags for the 2011 season. My family’s yearly tradition of trekking eastward to hunt pronghorn, upland birds and waterfowl in the delightful days of early October was put on hold when we failed to draw tags. A late-summer drive across Highway 212, the major artery across southeastern Montana, found me thankful for the license strikeout. In normal years, a vigilant observer is seldom out of sight of a pronghorn herd along the highway. On the 60-plus-mile drive from Broadus to the state line, I counted scarcely a dozen antelope on a segment of highway typically harboring several hundred.
Little did I know our hiatus from pronghorn hunting on the state’s east side would last much longer than expected. Twin fawns are the norm for does in their most productive years in good habitat, giving the species a robust ability to rebound after population crashes. However, a series of disease outbreaks, drought and expansive prairie wildfires kept anticipated growth of the pronghorn bands at modest levels. My wife and daughter both drew tags in 2015, but animals were relatively scarce. The next two years saw fine fawn production and survival. When Lisa and I drew tags for the 2017 hunt, the outlook had improved mightily for a return of the pleasant, successful days of family tradition.
Unable to hunt the opening weekend, I backed a borrowed trailer into a site at a locally owned campground in Broadus eight days into the season. The forecast was ideal for prairie hunting, with temperatures expected to dip below freezing at night, moderating into the 50s at midday. My oldest son, Micah, agreed to tag along to help with spotting and game retrieval chores. With another pair of keen eyes on board, I hoped we would make short-enough work of the pronghorn hunting to allow time for kicking around for sharptail grouse and pheasants as well. The unknown factor involved previous hunting pressure. Few game animals become as skittish as rifle-hazed pronghorns on public land. I wafted off to sleep hoping that at least a few of the small parcels where we had found abundant pronghorn, and few other hunters in the past, would again prove productive.
A light frost covered the grass, sage and prickly pear when we embarked on a predawn hike into a roadside phalanx of broken hills disguising a broad flat on their back side. The scarcely discernible frost was more a testament to exceedingly low humidity than temperature. The vehicle thermometer read just over 20 degrees when we departed from its warmth, with just enough of a breeze to plague the hunting party with watery eyes and dripping noses. We hustled to the first ridgetop, and glassed into a cut where my youngest son had fortuitously missed a buck some years ago, leading us to the shrouded prairielands beyond. Nothing stirred, save a pair of cruising coyotes, so we hiked to the crest of another upthrust in the landscape. From its vantage point, rolling mounds of prairie and yucca-sprinkled serrations fell away to the north and south. To the west, the topography mellowed quickly to flatlands, an antelope hunter’s hideaway reserved only for those with the ambition to point their boots beyond asphalt.
Tucked into the leeward side of the knoll, we set out to do some glassing. A newly risen sun lent color and texture to a pinprick on planet Earth that appeared expansive and empty to my roving eye.
“What’s that?” Micah’s query came with a nudge and a gloved finger pointing down a draw originating a few yards below our perch. The gray form proved to be another coyote, the third of seven we would eventually count on the morning’s outing. Now glassing in earnest, we spied a half-dozen mule deer, does and a pair of forkhorns. Lifting light-hungry Swarovski glass to peer beyond the yearling bucks, the inimitable tan and pale forms of a dozen pronghorn seemed to miraculously appear on the prairie.
The herd was grazing, drifting casually westward into cover that would make for an easy stalk. But on many days, nothing comes “easy” for the pursuer of pronghorn. About the time we prepared to embark upon the sneak, the herd bolted in a quarter-mile sprint southward before stopping to stare back toward their abandoned pasture. A coyote, likely the one Micah spied earlier, was slinking in a stand of low sage, its movements keenly followed by every doe in the antelope herd. After a few minutes the ungulates steadied and resumed their feeding. Lisa and I dropped into the draw below our watchtower and quickly closed the half-mile distance to the herd.
“The goofy buggers are on the move again.” Peering over a mound of sagebrush, I whispered my exasperated report to Lisa, crouched behind me. The pronghorn were now striding purposefully southward, not 200 yards ahead of us, but rapidly diminishing the chance for a shot. Struck with inspiration, I instructed her to follow me. We dipped behind a rise and forged rapidly ahead of the herd. Beating the antelope to a stretch of shallow, broken ravines, we set up along the side of one and waited. Within seconds the first animals appeared, much closer than I expected with the nearest doe at a scant 40 yards away. It saw us and bolted, taking a trio of bucks and a dozen more does along on an early morning dash. When they paused to peer back in our direction at 170 yards, Lisa calmly sent a slug from her Browning .270 Winchester through a buck’s ribcage. Micah had watched the drama unfold from a hilltop and motioned that he was heading back to the highway to fetch the game cart. One down, one to go.
We found another herd on a single square mile of state land adjacent to another highway after lunch. A dandy buck patrolled nearly 30 head of does. However, the outcome of the next hour proved a bit painful. Unable to stalk closer, I missed a 320-yard shot from a solid rest at a standing animal with a proven rifle. No wind, no confounding conditions, no excuses. The herd hightailed it northward onto private property in a single, mile-long gallop, the frantic procession led by a flighty doe.
The afternoon was waning, so I declined to search further for antelope. An adjacent segment of public land had been planted in alfalfa and was lightly grazed. Lisa and I launched Percy (our English Setter) from the vehicle in search of birds. Micah elected to nap in the back seat. He heard nary a shot in the next hour, but we managed to down four sharptail grouse the setter artfully pointed in the field before sunset.
At dawn the next morning we were back in the same vicinity. Two public parcels failed to yield a pronghorn sighting. Lisa was itching to find more birds, so we headed back toward the grouse hangout. The pending bird hunt was postponed when I spied a herd of antelope on the block of land where I missed the buck the previous day. At first it appeared to be a smaller band, but when I locked eyes on a buck, its bold, ebony antlers visible to the naked eye at nearly a mile’s distance, I was sure it was the same herd.
This time, conditions were primed for an easy stalk. A dry, deep creek bed wound from a parking spot at the edge of the property to its far border, a mile in distance, its sinuous course passing within an easy 150 yards of the pronghorn. I ditched my companions, grabbing Lisa’s lighter weight .270 instead of my own rifle. A layer of clothing was shed before my hasty departure in anticipation of sweat. Halfway to my destination, my hurried footsteps were arrested by movement in a copse of green ash trees and chokecherry bushes at the edge of the wash. Two muley bucks, both with the classic “forked and forked again” antlers of adult males, were ambling toward me, adjacent to the draw. I pressed my body into the nearest dusty embankment, remaining motionless and as silent as possible. After a few minutes a cautious peek over the crumbly earthen precipice revealed two white rumps with spindly, black-tipped tails departing on the prairie.
Another hasty scramble along the course of the wash found me beneath a second large thicket of chokecherry, concealment for a crawl out of the creek bed and the landmark that perfectly signaled my planned exit toward the pronghorn. I squirmed through the tangle, exiting into a patch of flaxen grass on the far side. Rising on elbows, I spotted a standing pronghorn doe well within shooting range. This, I thought, just might be easy.
At that moment, I heard a “cluck, cluck, cluck” from the grass a short way ahead. Three feathered skulls popped from the prairie vegetation; three sharptail grouse, eyes strained in my direction. The trio flushed after several long moments despite my best efforts to mimic a fieldstone. The sentinel doe was joined on her feet at the commotion by another half-dozen does that rose from their bedding places to appraise the noisy departure of the birds. About the time they appeared to settle, I spotted the still-dozing buck on the edge of the herd and detected another, more ominous sound behind me.
The buzz was not that of a hibernation-defying rattlesnake, but the muffled engine on an ATV. The four-wheeler puttered down a two-track on private land opposite the barbwire boundary fence, followed by an immense fertilizer truck. Headed toward a field in need of fortification, the pair lumbered casually in my direction. The skittish matriarch of the herd, still standing, had seen enough and trotted away with the effortless, ground-eating stride of a pronghorn alarmed, but not fully spooked.
The herd headed on roughly the same route of escape as the previous day. Breathlessly hoping their pace would abate, the only hope was to beat them to the northern boundary fence on a concealed dash of my own. Summoning all the remaining stamina from my distance-running days, I ran until exhausted in a shallow ravine on parallel course to the less desperately moving pronghorn herd.
Panting to a rise from which the property line was visible, I simultaneously spotted the pronghorn on a flat below. Cussing an abundant crop of bullet-deflecting grass, I was forced to crawl forward on a tangent that would quickly reveal my human form to the pronghorn. Scarcely believing my luck, I cleared the last stalk undetected and planted the rifle’s bipod in the dusty soil.
As I found the buck in the scope, my nemesis doe locked eyes on the interloping hunter and bolted. Her coal-nosed monarch pivoted to launch its own flight, but its about-face necessitated a momentary pause as it wheeled in my direction. The crosshairs aligned on his shoulder mid-whirl as my index finger pressed on the trigger. The buck dropped on the spot, the Nosler 150-grain Partition from a Federal case piercing through the near shoulder blade to exit at the back of the ribs on the off side.
On the second transmission, the sleepy voice of my wife responded to my radio signal. Yes, she could drive the vehicle up the road. And yes, Micah could wheel in the game cart. No need for the hunter to do anything but enjoy the moment.
I hadn’t really appreciated the caliber of the buck until my fingers clasped around its furrowed black horns. The mass was considerable, the horns lengthy. Later that evening, after another delightful episode in which my son dropped a sharptail with his first-ever shot at a game bird, and my cherished canine companion executed a skillful retrieve on a winged grouse, I put tape to horns. From base to translucent tip, each measured 15.5 inches. With long prongs and exceptional mass, the final tally from specified measurements totaled just over 78 inches, the second-largest pronghorn I’ve killed in my lifetime, the biggest buck on public land.
No matter the species, bucks often grow outsized horns and antlers in recently introduced populations or in areas where low numbers allow for abundant nutrition. The buck’s notable horns were likely a product, at least to some extent, of the “rest” the regional habitat experienced in the previous period of low pronghorn numbers, those long years marking an impatient parenthesis in the history of one of my family’s favorite hunts. Had I never measured the horns, my satisfaction wouldn’t have changed a whit. The renewal of a tradition was cause enough for a family celebration.