feature By: Gary Lewis | July, 19
In the “moon of drying grass” when the clouds were heavy on the Sierra Madre, we hunted the pronghorn the Arapaho called nisicehiini. It was late in the season, halfway through October. Wisps of snow, illumined by the lights in a few windows, blew down the streets of Saratoga, Wyoming.
Thirty-four-year-old Dusty Schell strode onto the porch of the Wolf Hotel and stuck out a gloved hand. Our group of four consisted of Dan and Debbie Goetz on their first antelope hunt, Sam Pyke and me. We followed Dusty back out to the street and kept the taillights of the flatbed Ford in view while heading out into the breaks of the Haystack Mountains, where we would hunt for big pronghorns on private and public lands.
At the end of a long driveway, we hauled bags out of the truck and up the stairs to our rooms. I stuck my head out the door and saw the stars beginning to show as the wind blew the clouds away.
Jim Schell, the ramrod of Rough Country Outfitters (roughcountryoutfitters.com), told me about how it would go. “The first day we’ll look at a lot of antelope and find a few big ones,” he said. “The second day we’ll put the rifles to work.” And the third day? Well, the third day could take care of itself.
There is one place where, I’ve been told, pronghorns outnumber the people, and it’s called Wyoming. Antelope season had started in the second week of September, and now it was mid-October, and the pronghorns had been pushed around for most of a month. Dusty drove us up into the mountains where he had seen bigger bucks prior to the storm. Now there were precious few to be found. If we saw a group of does and fawns, they were pointed downhill.
Back down out of the snow we followed the migrating herds and ended up in creek bottoms, driving dirt roads and going in and out of rawhide gates. Every time we spooked a small herd, it melded into a larger group until hundreds of pairs of suspicious eyes were alert to our intentions.
The Arapaho and Shoshoni believed a hunter must prepare his or her heart. Only if the hunter’s heart was pure would the animal give its life. For Dan and Debbie Goetz, they were after their first antelope; to take haunches, heads and hides home for the winter. For me, North America’s original “fast food” is one of our family’s favorite meats. I wanted a big Carbon County buck. If our hearts were not pure enough, well, Wyoming could work on us.
When the second morning dawned, the forecast called for “calm and warming” but promised wind by midday. Down in a canyon, we stalked a big buck with a doe and fawn among a larger herd. With a screen of willows to hide us, Dan had one opportunity, and the bullet went high. Wyoming was purifying the hunter’s heart.
It was Debbie’s turn to try her hand. Through a gate and out into a meadow we glassed a herd of antelope from the truck and while we watched ahead, a lone pronghorn slipped under the fence behind us. It walked up behind the truck, and Debbie eased her door open and took a rest as the animal drew alongside, 85 yards out.
“Take him, Debbie,” I whispered. She pressed the trigger but had left the safety on, recovered, put the safety forward to “fire,” held the crosshair low into the pocket behind the foreleg and squeezed. Hit, the buck ran headlong into the sage, sliding downhill on its chin. Debbie walked up first and knelt beside the animal. For this hunter, who has taken five big-game animals now, it was one of her finest trophies, with 13.5-inch horns.
It was Dan’s turn again. Low in the foothills, just out of the willows and cottonwoods, we saw antelope moving single file, and there were more than a couple of good bucks with them. We checked the wind, the angle of the sun, and covered up metal and glass surfaces that would throw incriminating flashes to our quarry. Then we crawled. At the crest of the hill, we looked down on a dozen animals and one good buck that stood apart from the others. “Two hundred seventy-five yards,” Dusty whispered.
Dan settled in, his scope dialed down to 6x, took a half breath and squeezed. At that moment of commitment, the buck whirled left. A Nosler AccuBond streaked downhill across time and sagebrush and passed right through the space that had just been vacated by a trophy buck.
Dan’s heart grew purer. We walked away, saying nothing. He had made as good a shot as he could. But the buck had whirled out of line in the time it took for the hunter’s brain to tell the trigger finger to shoot.
A story came to us of a certain big buck that a ranch hand spotted up in the high country. We drove along the road, winding up, back toward the receding snows, and after reaching the spot, we realized the buck was on the neighbor’s property. We watched it for a few minutes. Dan’s heart grew purer still.
Back down the mountain we drove, glassing into grassy meadows, stopping to inspect various bucks through the spotting scope. Then, on a lonely stretch of dirt road, Sam spotted two bucks the rest of us had missed. “Ummm,” he mumbled, gesturing with his thumb. The buck was 200 yards out. “The one on the right is the one you want,” Dusty said. And Dan could make it. He set up the shooting sticks, bolted a round into the chamber and leaned into his rifle. The buck began to move, and Dan stopped it before it could gather itself for a second jump.
We walked up on the fallen buck that had given itself to the hunter. Dan ran his fingertips through its long hair and along the heart-shaped horns.
In the Golden Hour
Now that two antelope were in the skinning shed, I emptied 10 rounds of silver-tipped Nosler bullets out of the Winchester box and put them in my pockets where the cartridges would be close to hand. I tucked earplugs into the corner of my front pocket. The sun was still halfway through its afternoon arc when we began to glass the big herds again.
For years, I had been aware of Carbon County’s propensity for producing big pronghorns. Maybe the trophy quality can be traced to minerals in the ground or superior genetics, or both, but the fact that large ranches act as incubators for the herds of antelope mean bucks can grow to old age. Open a copy of The Records of North American Big Game, and Carbon County, Wyoming, is well represented in the top 200 pronghorn bucks ever recorded. Whether I got a chance at one of the largest animals ceased to matter. It was a privilege to hunt those mountains.
We saw large bucks on public land and on private, at distances of a mile or more. The biggest bucks were insulated by herds with hundreds of eyes or surrounded by hundreds of yards of open country with no good approach. In one herd of more than 200, five potential B&C bucks were all together. One of them that carried mass all the way up was the largest pronghorn buck I had ever seen, with shockingly long, massive horns.
According to friend Eldon “Buck” Buckner, writing for the Boone and Crockett Club in Field Judging Pronghorn, a trophy that will make the B&C record book should have horns that “appear to be much longer than the length of the pronghorn’s head, measured from the base of the ear to the tip of the nose.” On previous hunts I have tended to look at the ears, which average 6 inches long. About the ears, Buckner wrote, “If the horns appear to be 2-1/2 to 3 times the ear length, which averages 6 inches, they are probably long enough.”
We looked at hundreds of bucks, and I found myself gauging the length of the horns relative to the head and evaluating the prongs and mass at the bases. With more than a day left, I could afford to be choosy.
We tried approaching the main herd from various angles, but the five big bucks were always protected in the middle. We swung down to a creek bottom and tried again when we spotted a small satellite herd with one big buck. Parking on the dark side of a hill, I loaded the rifle and held four fingers horizontal beneath the sun – 40 minutes of good light left. Grass glistened yellow-brown and the brittle leaves shone gold on the aspens.
Angled against the line the big buck had taken, we figured we would cut it off. Crawling on my belly through the short sagebrush 30 minutes later, I pictured an easy 100-yard opportunity. It was not to be. The animals had disappeared. The sun slid behind the Sierra Madre.
The Moon of Drying Grass
In the morning, Dusty took his time. Storm clouds clung to the backbone of the world, and the light was well up when we left the cabin. Instead of going back to the large herd we hunted the day before, Dusty drove on the narrow eyebrow of gravel where we had seen a large buck on each of the last two days. This one was always on the edge of a greater herd but kept itself aloof, except for one or two other animals. We had seen the buck enough that I could pick it out from a crowd, but Dusty seemed to have a sense of what this particular animal would do, where it would be at different times of the day.
When we parked the truck way up on a ridge and began to glass, I heard Dusty draw in his breath and say, “There he is.” Three animals were together in the long shadow thrown down this west-facing slope, a doe, a fawn and a big buck – the same buck we had stalked with Dan on day two.
It was the closest we had been to this buck in three days. At less than 300 yards, the three animals trotted across the road toward the rim. At 300 yards the buck stopped on the rim, silhouetted, motionless in the morning light. I watched for half a minute and saw the crook of a doe’s leg behind the buck’s. The two animals were side by side. Then the fawn stepped in, and all three were side by side, lined up where a single bullet could have passed through all three. It was a good warning of what not to do, a shot not to take.
The sun, four fingers above the horizon, washed over the ridge and illumined the tops of the silver sage below, washing the grass to hues of gold. When the animals went over the rim, we moved quickly along the road then down in a wash, keeping our heads low. We cut the distance. Antelope feeding down a steep wall would move fast; we had to move faster.
Dusty led the way to the rim, first on hands and knees, then down on his belly. He pushed his backpack in front of me, threw up his glasses then called the shot: “He’s all by himself. One hundred eighty-three yards.” Pulling myself up on my elbows, I pushed the rifle onto Dusty’s pack and found the buck in the scope.
With the crosshairs on the buck, the barrel was pointed directly into the rock of the rim three feet off the muzzle. It is really easy to make this mistake when shooting off a pack. The line of sight through the scope is roughly 1.5 inches above the line of the bore. That 1.5 inches can send the bullet spattering stone if a hunter isn’t careful.
Holding the rifle up off the pack to keep the bullet out of the rocks, I bungled the shot and the bullet cut through hair on the animal’s brisket. That’s when the antelope shifted into high gear, quartering hard, going fast. A pronghorn at top speed can hit almost 60 miles per hour. This one was still accelerating. Throwing the bolt, I swung the crosshair way out in front of the animal and squeezed.
The bullet out of the carbon fiber barrel was going 2,900 feet per second. At 213 yards through that Carbon County air, the projectile was humming a bit faster than 2,600 fps. Any slower and it would have been behind. The bullet angled up through the body and out the other side. The buck slid, staggered and went down.
Down the canyon wall and out into the valley floor, we knelt beside our buck.
There was no question this was the buck to take. With the sun low and the temperature cool, it was a good time to take care of the meat.
Later, when Jim Schell and Dusty, father and son, could look at it, a steel tape was produced. One horn measured 147⁄8 inches and the other 15 inches, while the bases taped out at 67⁄8 and 7 inches. The prongs’ lengths measured 56⁄8 and 57⁄8 inches.
The Arapaho called this the “moon of the drying grass.” That evening, as we sped out ahead of the storm, I thought about the snow. When autumn storms brought ankle-deep snow, it meant the prairie tribes’ long-range hunts were over for the year. The Arapaho would have settled into their winter camps and stretched out the summer’s hides and ate the prime cuts while preserving the rest against the months of cold. We are not that much different. If our hearts are pure.