“One hundred sixty yards. Hold right on the center of the vitals,” I say as Abbie sets up in her shooting position. The tripod, in conjunction with my backpack tucked under her arm, makes for a rock-steady rest. Just like we practiced the week before as we prepared for our Montana pronghorn antelope hunt.
Perfect, I think to myself.
After a few minutes, the buck stands up, facing directly away from us. Knowing Abbie as well as I do, I know she won’t take the “Texas Heart Shot.” I don’t need to say a word as we wait for him to turn.
This was the culmination of a hunt we’d both been excited about for a long time.
Abbie, my wife, accompanied me on our first antelope hunt together last year. Despite the terrible mud and rain that inundated the sagebrush sea of Eastern Montana that weekend, she wanted to come back for more.
This wasn’t her first hunt by any means — she’s been successful with other species — but I’ve never been there to witness or share it with her.
Truthfully, she’s the best hunting partner I could ask for. Abbie keeps me from doing anything too stupid and can spot game and read sign with the best of them. Despite having hunted many times together, this pronghorn buck in her sights would be her first successful hunt with me along.
Punishments from the Pronghorn Antelope Hunt Gods
That antelope hunt last year in Montana was downright miserable. Heavy rains made the sage flats nearly impossible to traverse. Vehicles can get stuck in the smallest ruts, and wheel wells fill with heavy clay. This limited our hunting area and made the fun meter plunge.
We slipped and slid as we worked our way around. Finally, we found a group, and I was able to take a buck. The pack out was challenging, as the mud built up on our boots, adding literal pounds to each foot and each step.
It was Abbie’s first experience on a pronghorn antelope hunt. She didn’t have a tag, but she went along and camped out with me as we tried to fill mine.
“It’s never like this,” I assured her, hoping she’d still want to do it next year. Surprisingly, she enjoyed it. She liked all of it: the preparation, the camping, the hunt, and even the following week of processing meat.
As we head east on Interstate 90, cruise control set at 85 mph, Abbie rattles off a list of items we’ve forgotten at the house on previous hunting trips. “Boots? Rifles? Ammo? Sleeping bags?” We’ve waited for this all year, and the weather looks much better than last year’s, with no rain in sight, and Abbie has a tag of her own.
Having spent about 30 nights in our little 8×10-foot wall tent the previous year, Abbie and I have perfected our setup routine. As soon as the 4Runner is put in park, everything just flows, and we go about our tasks.
The first parts of the tent we need are on top of the rest of our gear. After that, we each know which bags to grab and what parts to assemble. We haven’t rehearsed this, just repeated it over and over.
Once the steel frame is assembled, the old stained canvas is stretched over it and staked down. We arrange the two Cabelas cots around the wood stove in an L-shape.
Finally, foam mattress toppers covered with surplus wool army blankets make up our beds.
As I get everything set up inside the tent, Abbie unloads the cooking tote and starts dinner.
On the first official night of this hunt, we have two steaks from the backstrap of the bison I killed in North Dakota last year.
Pronghorn hunting should be fun and relaxed — work hard all day, and have a relaxing night at camp.
This weekend’s drink is gin and tonic with Angostura bitters — a drink Hemingway’s Thomas Hudson would approve of.
The full moon lights up the landscape after the sun dips, and the prairie is full of life. Cattle, sandhill cranes, and at least four packs of coyotes sound off. It makes the perfect soundtrack. The wood stove crackles as I top it off and settle in for a peaceful night.
Finding the Speed Goats
Those white butts are a dead giveaway.
A sage flat’s colors change from gray to green depending on the lighting condition. An overcast sky produces a gray color, while the sun brings out a muted green. Having spent a ton of time in these sage flats over the past few years, I’ve truly admired the surprisingly varying hues offered by such seemingly mundane terrain.
Everything appears so flat that distance is impossible for me to judge without a rangefinder.
Where we are, the sagebrush varies in height from just over a foot tall to 3 or 4 feet in some places. Little finger ridges with elevation changes of no more than 10 feet are everywhere, hiding the wide variety of wildlife that the seemingly empty landscape holds. Mule deer, antelope, badgers, coyotes, and sometimes even elk call this home.
“I see two. They’re at least a mile away, maybe more,” I say. We’re an hour into the opening morning, walking and glassing, hoping to turn up a herd of antelope. As I said, the perception of distance is skewed in terrain like this. The antelope we had eyes on turned out to be more than 2 miles away! Plus, the bright colors of the animals’ hides contrast with the mild vegetation and make them look a lot closer than they are.
We walk slowly, in a single-file line, reducing our two silhouettes to one. There are cows in the area, but our movement this far out doesn’t alert them. The closer we get, the more antelope materialize before us. Now we can see seven: three bucks and four does.
Of the three bucks, one is noticeably bigger than the others. We didn’t go into this hunt with a size goal, but Abbie wants to take a good representative of the species. And this one is it.
Closing the Distance
We crawl to within 360 yards. After a little whispered discussion, we decide not to risk trying to get any closer. The vegetation is very low where we are, and it doesn’t provide much cover when crawling through the cactus-laden landscape.
I set up the tripod for Abbie, and she adjusts it for height. She takes a seated position, and I tuck my pack under her right armpit to further steady her, just like we practiced last week. She’s steady and patient, waiting for the buck to turn broadside.
“Put your crosshairs level with the top of its back,” I say, after mentally calculating her bullet’s drop at that range. Seconds that feel like minutes go by as she steadies her breath.
Then, finally, the Remington Model Seven in 6.5 Creedmoor barks.
“Clean miss,” I say as I watch the buck through my binoculars. “Right underneath it. I gave you a bad range call.”
I had her ballistics and mine mixed up in my head. It was a farther shot than I like to have her make, but the lack of wind and steady rest made me feel more confident. She would’ve hit it if I had given her the right range call.
The herd ran about 50 yards after the shot and now looks alert. The buck she targeted had bedded down with another buck. They don’t know what direction the sound came from and still haven’t spotted us.
“Let’s wait a minute or two and try to get closer,” I say. As we move closer, the herd takes off to our left. “Hold off, I only see six, and the one you shot at isn’t there.”
That buck is still bedded in the same position, facing away from us.
“This is odd. Why didn’t he run? I watched the whole thing. It was a clean miss. Maybe you did hit it?” I ask. “Ignore that herd. Let’s go after the one still bedded,” I say, and Abbie agrees.
We close within 160 yards, set up, and wait. Finally, he stands up and turns to the left, and I can see blood very low on his chest from the first shot. It was a gut shot, which explains why he bedded down.
Thank god we stayed on him. I think. Moments later, Abbie exhales slowly, presses the trigger, and drops him back into his bed.
“Got him!” I yell, still looking through my binoculars. She’s all smiles.
Abbie’s First Successful Pronghorn Antelope Hunt
The pronghorn antelope is beautiful. A young Jack O’Connor labeled them “Swallow of the Plains” in his book Game in the Desert, referring to the way a running herd of them skims, wheels, and flows over the landscape, much like a flock of swallows. I’ve been obsessed with them since I moved out West almost four years ago.
They are unique, unlike anything else on this continent, each seemingly hand-painted. Pronghorn aren’t even antelopes, and they aren’t related to any other animal on this continent. Once part of a multi-species family of creatures, they are the only survivors — their closest known relatives alive today are the giraffe and okapi.
Abbie’s buck was an excellent, mature antelope. She was beyond excited as she examined the horns and different colors of the hide. We took a few pictures to remember the moment and then went to work skinning it. The excitement hadn’t worn off as we loaded our packs with meat.
This was the first time she’d had a successful hunt while I was there. The previous season, I was on my way into the hardware store after work, and my phone rang with an excited Abbie on the other end. She had been hunting by herself, killed a nice whitetail buck, and asked if I would help her get it out.
“I’ll be there in 30 minutes!” I replied as I returned to the car — it was an incredibly proud moment as a husband. Being there for her pronghorn was better.
“I wasn’t expecting us to be this far from the vehicle,” I said to Abbie. Don’t get me wrong. There are much tougher pack-outs. However, this one was almost too flat. We didn’t have mountains to climb or blowdowns to go through. It was just a flat 3.3 miles. We had 23 feet of elevation gain and loss ahead of us. An amount equal to the first 50 yards of an elk hunt.
It sucked. Our hips were shot by the time we reached the vehicle.
We put the meat in the cooler and sat down to eat lunch. It was almost 3 p.m., and we hadn’t eaten since 6 a.m. After an hour’s break, we tried to fill my tag. We didn’t have any luck locating the antelope that evening, so we made a plan for the next day.
The Real Work Begins
After an eventful morning, I notched my tag on another nice pronghorn. We chased him for a few miles and finally caught up to his herd while they were bedded. One 110-yard shot from my .270 stopped him in his tracks. The pack-out was much easier than it had been for Abbie’s buck — I shot him just 1 1/2 miles from the truck.
A successful hunt doesn’t end when you get back to the house. Aging, processing, packaging the meat, and boiling skulls take up the following week’s free time. We’ve never had a bad-tasting antelope that we’ve processed, and we attribute that to skinning and quartering them within minutes of the kill.
These two would be the fifth and sixth antelope we’ve added to the freezer over the last few years, having taken them in Wyoming and Montana. We rank their meat above the whitetail and mule deer in the freezer and cherish every bite.
But even more than the meat, I will always cherish every minute of that hunt amidst the sage — my wife’s first kill with me tagging along.