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Red Desert Pronghorns
By Mike Lamade
Feb 13, 2008 – 6:55:45 PM
There they stood, just as Ronell Skinner had described them on the phone. The two Springbar tents were clearly visible from two miles away. They looked as though they belonged on the set of Lawrence of Arabia, as they shone through the rolling, 95-degree heat waves. I realized then why they call it desert and not prairie.
A lone buck antelope stood about 100 yards off the dirt road as I drove by. He was a big buck-perhaps a prelude of things to come the following morning, the opening day of the 1990 antelope season. A dead jackrabbit lay in the road. It must have died from the heat or old age, I thought, because there sure wasn’t enough traffic back here six miles off the highway to have a roadkill.
As my truck approached the tents, I could see no sign of life in the camp. I was the first to arrive. Ronell was meeting the other hunters in Jackson, and wouldn’t arrive until after dark. I’d have the afternoon and evening to myself. Closing the barbed-wire gate behind me, I parked the Ranger, unpacked my gear, and chose the most comfortablelooking cot in the nearest tent. Another bowhunting adventure was about to begin. I felt ready.
I had just come from a successful antelope hunt in Colorado, where I hunted with Phil Phillips of Phil’s Colorado Adventures, and had made a good lung shot on a nice buck that scored 69 5/8 Pope & Young. Now I would be hunting with Ronell Skinner, a professional guide and outfitter out of Bedford, Wyoming. He guides not only for antelope, but mule deer, elk, moose, and mountain lion as well. He had come highly recommended and I was looking forward to a good hunt. Pulling up a lawn chair in the shadow of the tent, I suddenly realized how alone and isolated I was. The solitude was overpowering. The sweet, pungent smell of sage permeated everything. The prairie grass bent in the ever-blowing wind, as whirligigs of dust spiraled into the azure sky. In the distance, the snow-capped craigs of the Bridger-Teton range rose from the floor of the desert.
I was on the high plains of western Wyoming at over 6,000 feet elevation, an area not usually thought of as prime antelope country. It was definitely different from the antelope territory of eastern Wyoming, where animals are abundant and permits plentiful. But here, unknown to many, the antelope population had been steadily rising in recent years and some real trophy heads had come from the area.
As I sat alone, huge cumulus clouds cast vast, black shadows on the floor of the desert, and off in the distance a storm was building. Gray sheets of rain dropped from the sky, falling in patterns that curved with the wind. I guess it does the same thing back home, but was more noticeable on the open prairie. The rain was accompanied by horizontal as well as vertical streaks of lightning. How far away? Who knew-30, 40 miles perhaps? It was hard to judge distance in this vast treeless land. The storm kept its distance and subsided, as a beautiful rainbow brought peace again to the Red Desert. With nothing to do but wait for Ronell and the others, I decided to take a few shots and put finishing touches on my Black Diamond Eskimos. I’ve gone back to traditional equipment the last few years and am enjoying every minute of it. I was shooting a 60″ Cascade Super Black Hawk take-down made by Steve Gorr of Arlington, Washington. It pulls 60 pounds at 28 inches and is a sweet shooting bow. I also packed a 64-inch Brackenbury “Shadow,” a new model from Jim Brackenbury in Oregon. I chose the Cascade for this particular hunt because of its shorter length. Some pronghorn blinds are low and the shorter bow would give me better clearance. For the first time in 28 years of bowhunting I was shooting cedar arrows that I had made from raw shafts the previous winter. Crested by hand, the arrows were fletched with the primary wing feathers from gobblers I had harvested from around my home. I had shot the first one at live game only ten days earlier in Colorado, and collected that Pope & Young pronghorn mentioned earlier. At this point in my life, traditional equipment has put the fun back in bowhunting.
After shooting a few arrows, I was satisfied everything was in order for the next morning. I cooked a quick supper and relaxed, watching a spectacular western sun slide behind the foothills.
A short time later I was surprised to see a car pulling into camp. It was Bob George, another hunter from Michigan. He had flown into Jackson early, and rather than wait for the third hunter who wasn’t arriving until 8 p.m., he rented a car and drove down alone. We traded “war stories” of previous hunts for about an hour and headed for the sack. At about 10 p.m., truck lights appeared. Ronell and Greg Guardo from Quebec had arrived. A quick introduction and everyone slid into sleeping bags, as the morning would come early.
Four-thirty a.m. The night was as black as a newborn Labrador pup, with the stars in the heavens brighter and more numerous than I have ever seen in my life. The coffee pot perked to life and the day began.
This camp was different from the previous one in Colorado. In Moffett County, we were hunting private land and the water holes were close to the road. Consequently, the animals were used to seeing traffic. We didn’t go to our blinds until 7:30 or 8 because the antelope didn’t come to water until the sun got high.
It was also possible for the guides to check on the hunters every hour by merely driving by. If you had an animal down, you simply stepped from your blind, waved, and the guide would stop to help carry your animal out, or help with the tracking.
Here in Wyoming, it was public, BLM land, and a pickup going by could be accompanied by a rifle shot. The antelope knew this and were very wary of any vehicle. The bottom line-get in your blind before dawn and stay all day. “I can’t
check on you during the day,” Ronell said, “so take plenty of water and plenty of patience.” He promised to pick us up around 6 or 7 p.m.
After a quick breakfast we piled into the pickup and headed for our blinds in the dark. The dawn was just beginning to glow on the horizon, and as we bumped along the desert road, a cloud of dust accompanied us at a steady 40 miles per hour. In the darkness it was impossible to see any more of the pronghorns than the dust behind their flashing feet. It was a neat sight, and reassuring to know there were antelope close by. Maybe one of them was that big buck I had seen driving in yesterday.
Arriving at my blind, I jumped from the back of the truck with lawn chair, water jug, small lunch cooler, bow and quiver. “Good luck” made the rounds in the darkness and the others headed out. As their taillights vanished down the road, I made an awful discovery. I had left my fanny pack in the back of the truck! In it was my shooting glove, armguard, binoculars and camera. Too late now, I’d have to make do. I found a right-handed glove in my jacket pocket, but since I shoot lefthanded I had to put my thumb in the little finger, wearing it backwards on my left hand. It was the best I could do. It was getting to be daylight.
The blind was a plywood box placed on the side of the water hole. Although it stood out in the open with no cover, Ronell had put them up over a month ago, so the animals were used to them. It had a large shooting window in front, facing the water, with small peep holes on the sides and back to check for approaching game. I realized it would be difficult to know if anything was coming in unless they approached from the front. I’d have to stay alert.
At 6:30 a.m. I had my first visitors. A doe and her fawn came in from the south rim of the pond. They started down to the water, but when I shifted my weight in the lawn chair-squeak! They disappeared in a flash of brown and white. At 7 a.m. coyotes began to howl; quite a few and not too far away. How many antelope are scattering because of them? I thought. Including maybe, that big buck that was still on my mind.
To pass the time, I reviewed the buck I was looking for. His horns were at least twice as high as his six-inch ears; his prongs extended well above his ears with good mass overall. Good curls also add up when the steel tape is applied. At 7:15, a single doe came in, drank, and left. At 7:25 another single doe arrived. There wasn’t a lot of action, but then I realized it still wasn’t hot enough to force them to water. In Colorado we wouldn’t have even been in our blinds yet.
At 8:20, another doe and fawn. Where are the bucks?
Everything was coming in to the far side of the water hole. Ronell had placed markers around the perimeter of the pond for the sight shooters. So far, all the antelope were watering at the 30-40 yard markers. Shooting instinctively, I would have preferred seeing fresh footprints filling with water at 20 or 25 yards.
At 9:10, one small “conehead” buck came in. I shifted my weight and it happened again. Squeak! He bolted away. (Some of us are slow learners.) Enough of this. I quietly folded up the lawn chair and placed it out of the way. I still needed a seat, so I turned the small party-time cooler on end and balanced my butt on that. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it was quiet. At 9:15, a band of six appeared. They were nervous, spooky.
Maybe those coyotes had them upset, or it could be their cautious nature, especially around water holes. They spooked when a magpie flew in, but they didn’t go far. Two or three kept looking behind them, in the direction they had come. Coyotes? Or maybe that big buck?
I shifted my position on the up-ended cooler, but still couldn’t see anything. The antelope were still looking over their shoulder. Something had to be approaching. Suddenly, he appeared, silhouetted against the blue Wyoming sky. He was awesome! He had a huge body, dwarfing the other animals around him. His high, curled horns extended over twice the height of his ears and the wide prongs began well above the ears. He had great mass all around, and I knew I was looking at a trophy pronghorn. Cautiously, he came down the hill to the water and stopped at the 35-yard marker-head-on. No shot. He took a few steps in to the water, turned broadside and lowered his head to drink. Pick a spot drove through my brain as I tried to stay cool. A mental computer, programmed by years of practice, instructed my back and shoulder muscles to “push-pull” against the bow. I felt my middle finger touch the corner of my mouth, and without conscious intent, the arrow was gone. Tock! The homemade shaft smashed into flesh and it looked like a good hit right behind the shoulder where I was aiming, but, I’m not sure-it happened too fast to know exactly. On impact, the big buck exploded from the water hole, throwing mud and water from beneath his driving hooves. I saw part of the arrow drop to the ground on his opposite side as he gained the rim and disappeared over the top.
I can’t find the door to the blind! It was behind the lawn chair. I finally got it open, crawled outside, and scramble to the top of the bank. There, standing 150 yards away, were the antelope, one of them a nice buck. Was it him? If only I had my binoculars. I thought I saw him stagger, but he didn’t go down.
I watched the group for a full two minutes, my eyes watered, but nothing changed. If he was hit where I thought he was, he should have been on the ground. I didn’t want to take my eyes off him, ’cause it’s a big desert out there, but after another full minute of waiting for him to fall, I began to believe he was not the one.
I took a chance and glanced to my left. Nothing. I returned my eyes to the buck I’d been watching-he was still on his feet. I stole a glance to my right, and suddenly I saw it-a white belly shining in the sun, big, black horns protruding above the sagebrush-a big buck, my buck! He was only 90 yards away and he wasn’t moving.
I got back to the blind, got my bow, nock and arrow, and carefully approached him. He didn’t move. He was mine, taken with a perfect heart shot. I felt my face break into a Chuck Adams grin. This guy was a real trophy. I couldn’t have been happier. I carefully field dressed him and half-carried him back to the blind. Pronghorn hair is very fragile, and dragging one through sagebrush is a sure way to ruin a beautiful cape. Time check-it was only 10 a.m. and Ronell wasn’t due back for eight hours. Eight hours in the heat with this trophy, and no camera to take pictures of other animals coming in, is too long for me. I decided to walk back to camp, get my truck, and bring my animal out. I figured it was only about three miles. An hour and a half later I had him back in camp in the shade by the tent. I headed for town, 26 miles away, for ice for both of us. Returning to camp within an hour, I placed a bag of ice in his body cavity, wrapped him in my sleeping bag to keep the cold in, and the two of us spent a quiet afternoon in the shade of a Springbar tent.
Ronell returned at six as promised. He seemed as pleased as
I with my pronghorn. We did the “hero” pictures and got out the tape. He scored 78 plus before deductions, 76 6/8 after, placing him in the top 100 in Pope and Young. It had been a short hunt-about three hours! But, it had been a good one that I’ll remember for a long time. Talking with Ronell a few weeks later, I learned I had been very lucky. It had rained the next three days after I left, making it next to impossible to get an antelope close to a water hole. Gregg finally killed a small buck on day six. Bob experienced equipment problems all week and missed cleanly four times.
Now for the bad news. The area we hunted may be closed some time in the near future due to abuse to the water holes by hunters digging blinds into them to the extent that they collapse. The Bureau of Land Management doesn’t have the personnel to police the area, so the alternative is closing the area. It seems to this bowhunter that we should police ourselves, and hunt responsibly, so this sort of thing doesn’t happen. However, there’s lots of prairie in western Wyoming, and I’m sure Ronell can find another hotspot to set up his tents, so other bowhunters like myself can experience the beauty, the solitude, and the trophy antelope hunting on the Red Desert. Good hunting!