A Battle Worthy of National Geographic
The year 2010 was an interesting but productive one for my big game hunting. It was only the second time (and just so happened to be the second consecutive year) that I completed the mule deer, elk and pronghorn trifecta. My family’s pronghorn hunting group, along with some new additions, made the trip up to the antelope rich prairie lands of Wyoming this past October. And as luck would have it, we would limit out. This is the story of my quick, but exciting 2010 pronghorn hunt.
I left for the hunt after class and pointed my truck towards the north, with dreams of expansive herds of speed goats flooding the prairie. These day dreams did not bode well for my driving record, as my speedometer crept further and further past the speed limit. I was just too darn excited to be making my second trip up to Wyoming to pursue pronghorn. Our trip the year prior had produced a bumper crop of antelope and so the speed limit was the last thing on my mind. I was lucky to not have gotten a ticket however, as I must have past nearly 15 or 20 highway patrolmen on my long journey to camp. My dad was driving up his rig and camper and was also making good time, although I made it a point to always stay in the lead. The desire to best one’s father is inherent in just about everything we do, at least for most young men. I wonder where that drive comes from.
Once I got within 10 miles of our normal camp, I came the closest to hitting a deer that I have ever come. There is a small mountain range that we have to travel through before dropping down into our stomping grounds. The walls of the canyon that the road traverses are steep and covered in thick shrubs. You cannot see more than four feet into that impenetrable wall of brush on either side of the road. Due to the road’s washboard nature, and its many narrow turns, I was not being quite the speed demon that I had been on the interstate. I was going down a steep slope, at probably about 30 miles per hour and was about to downshift when it happened. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye on the left side of the road. A doe mule deer burst out of the shrubs and ran across the road not 20 feet in front of the truck. But that wasn’t the end of it. Before I could even process what had just happened I had a deer flying through the air in front of me. Another doe had followed the first out of the shrubs and had decided that it stood a better chance of surviving this encounter by jumping across the narrow road than by turning back and waiting for me to go by. I am not going to claim that the deer literally jumped over my truck but it was close enough that the doe felt like it had to jump in order to make it. I do not think it is a stretch to say that the front of my hood was below her near the end of her leap of faith. It was a sight to behold and I was disappointed to not have anyone in the truck to share the moment with.
I reached camp a few hours before sundown. When my dad showed up a couple minutes behind me, he asked if I had seen the deer crossing the road coming down the last hill. Boy, did I ever! After getting the basics of camp thrown together, and dealing with a strange announcement by a neighboring camp that they were going to be “pretty damn loud”, we decided that we had enough time for a quick hunt. Our plan was to try and get me a pronghorn that evening, so that I could then turn my attention to guiding the three newbies that would be showing up to camp later that night. Or so we thought. My cousin, his wife and a couple that they know, did not show up to camp until me and my dad were about to leave the camp fire and call it a day. My brother-in-law, the other pronghorn newbie, did not show up to camp that night at all. He ended up not being able to find our camp and ended up sleeping in his truck on the side of the road. I guess it is just part of the adventure of hunting new territories.
With maybe two hours of light left, me and my dad set out for a familiar area that produced pronghorn the year prior. We normally see pronghorn on the 20 minute drive to the area and were planning on finding antelope along the way. We were not so lucky this time. We did not glass a darn thing until we made it to our destination. But not far from where a fellow hunter took a doe last year, we had goats in the binoculars. And we got treated to quite the show.
We had glassed up a group of around a dozen pronghorn. There were two bucks in the mix and if you have ever witnessed pronghorn of the male persuasion during the rut, you know that things can get a little testy. From the get-go, you could sense the bad blood between the two bucks. They were standing about 200 yards apart, on either side of the group of does, and were doing the normal antelope aggressive posturing; lowering and raising their heads in a swift motion. One of the bucks was noticeably larger, even with the 1000 or so yards that separated us. The bucks had locked eyes and were on a collision course. Once they got within 75 yards of each other, they started running full speed at one another. Now I have a lot of experience working with bighorn sheep and I have to tell you, in those split seconds that the bucks were charging each other, I felt like I was watching two rams getting ready to bang heads. Pronghorn morphology is not set up for this type of impact however and if they had, there would have been a couple of dead pronghorn in front of us. With about 10 or 15 feet separating them, they both slammed on the brakes. They came to a full stop but locked their horns together almost instantly. They were fighting on the side of a ridge and thus the fight was complicated by the terrain in which it was taking place. One buck would take the uphill advantage and push the other straight backwards down the slope. And then to our astonishment, the buck on the downhill side would fight his way back up the ridge. This went on for nearly ten minutes and we have some incredible footage of it. It was a battle worthy of National Geographic. During the fight, the does were mesmerized by the battle taking place in front of them. Most of them were transfixed on the fight through its entirety. I knew that shooting light was going to come before we knew it and I prepared for a stalk.
My dad was too busy filming the brawl and said that I should just start my stalk and that he would follow me up. In the excitement of the moment, I did not think about the consequences of his plan, and I hunkered down and dropped into a gully that would take me in the direction of the herd while keeping me out of sight. When I dropped out of sight, the herd was actually moving in the direction of the gully that I was using. There was no telling how close they were going to be when I peered above the edge. I had travelled about 300 yards when I decided to take a peek. As soon as they cleared the sea of sage brush, my eyes locked onto a portion of the herd only about 200 yards away. They had no idea that I was there. I got into a seated position, got my rifle up on my shooting sticks and tucked my rifle into my shoulder. I identified the four pronghorn as the larger buck, and a mature doe with two fawns. I had settled my crosshairs on the doe’s vitals when all of their heads shot up. They were not looking at me… they were looking past me and off to my right. The doe started moving and I tried to get off a running shot but she dropped off the other side of the ridge before I could pull the trigger. With all the pronghorn now out of sight, I turned around to see what had spooked them. I saw my dad coming down a slightly different route that I had traversed. Due to the elevation, he had not been able to see the pronghorn… but they had sure seen him!
I jumped up and ran over the top of the ridge and found the herd now running up the adjacent ridge. Their ability to cover ground always amazes me. In the time it took me to run the 50 yards to the top of the ridge, they had ran to the bottom of it and were now climbing the other side of the gully. Once more, I dropped into a seated position and got ready. I ranged them at somewhere around 350, picked out a doe, and held in the upper three quarters of her chest. A fawn ran behind her and I had to wait for it to clear. Even from this range I could hear the herd making that peculiar pronghorn call. I don’t know how to describe it… UngNeeeee maybe? Most of the herd was locked onto me and I knew that it wasn’t going to be long before they took off, with plans for finding the next county. As soon as she took two steps and cleared the fawn behind her, I sent a 130 grain Ballistic Silvertip from my .270 Winchester in her direction. I watched her drop straight down as the thud of the bullet hitting her drifted back on the wind. The rest of the herd took off instantly. My dad came running up over the top of the ridge and I pointed in the direction that the herd had gone. He took off after them hoping to fill his tag as well.
In the meantime, I hiked over to my doe and got her situated for some pictures. She was a good looking doe and I knew that she would eat well. As the sun set over the Wyoming prairie, and I struggled to get the self-timer pictures hammered out, I couldn’t help but think of the awesome experience that I had just witnessed. I had been treated to one of the most dramatic animal fights I have ever seen and had gotten the opportunity to take a gorgeous doe as well. The first evening of the hunt could not have gone any better.
My dad showed up ten minutes later, after a fruitless attempt at finding the herd. He pitched in and we finished the job by headlamp. I was actually able to drive my truck down a high wire maintenance road to within 200 yards of her. The drag to the truck was a breeze and we were headed back to camp in no time.
Back in camp, we set up the newbies’ tent. The wind had picked up and we envisioned the two couples struggling to set up their new tent (recently purchased from Wal-Mart!) in the dark all the while fighting the wind. Once that chore was done, I started the chore of getting the meat off the bones so that I could get it cooled off and in a cooler for the remainder of the trip. As stated, the rest of the group showed up at random times throughout the weekend. But when it was all said and done, we returned to Colorado with coolers filled, and tags punched. It was another great Wyoming adventure.