Desert Dilemmas

Desert Dilemmas

In antelope hunting, the outcome often depends far more on judgment than on hunting skill.

At 9 a.m., 10 antelope rushed over a sage hill and streamed recklessly into the spring-fed pond, 20 yards from our blind. They were all young bucks, not shooters, but the pandemonium got me as excited as those young bucks were.

In Nevada, I walked dozens of miles to scout remote springs, and then I carried in my Primos Double Bull blind on my back.

After they'd drank and drifted off, a herd of 15 came in. Ten of these were bucks, and two were big. One had classic pronghorns that might score 80 inches P&Y -- nice indeed. The other's heavy horns crossed over the top of his head. Those horns had to be longer than 16 inches.

"Shoot him!" cameraman Larry D. Jones hissed.

What a dilemma. These were great bucks, but this was only opening day. If I shot one of these, I would never know what else roamed these deserts. I had scouted another spring; a world-record antelope might be watering there. With several days to hunt, we could always return for the crosshorn buck, or his big buddy.

"Shoot him!" Larry persisted.

"No," I said.

At the time, that decision made perfect sense. How could I know it would backfire -- and dictate the outcome of the hunt? Well, actually, from experience I should have known that. Antelope hunting is very simple -- locate a good waterhole, place a blind there, wait for the right antelope, and shoot straight. That's easy enough. But what about the dilemmas? Solving them is the challenge.

In 2007, I drew two limited-entry antelope tags -- one in Nevada, one in Colorado. In Nevada, I would be hunting public lands (BLM); in Colorado, I would pay a trespass fee to hunt a private ranch. Both hunts would be unguided, so I would have to do my homework. Larry D. Jones and his video camera would go along to shoot a program for Bowhunter Magazine TV.

At Spring No. 2, several bucks like this one tempted me to shoot.

The Nevada archery season opened July 27, so in early July I made two scouting trips from my home in Idaho to northwestern Nevada. The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) has designated much of the region as wilderness, so I parked at the wilderness boundaries and hiked many miles to check isolated springs. Some springs were dry, and some already had blinds on them. In Nevada, blind locations are first-come, first-served. The hunter leaves a note in the blind with his name, phone number, and hunting dates, and other hunters honor this. The system works well.

I finally found two promising springs and placed a Primos Double Bull blind on No. 1. Not wanting to tie up two springs, I did not put a blind on No. 2. If it was still unoccupied after opening day, I could hunt it spur-of-the-moment, as a backup.

In addition, my friend Tony Mudd, a Nevada resident, had given me GPS coordinates for a spring deep in a mountain range. I probably wouldn't hunt there, but, still, I hiked to the spring to look it over. In case of desperation, I could fall back on No. 3.

After the crosshorn buck and his group left, other antelope came and went throughout opening morning. Dozens of chukar partridge surrounded our blind and filled the air with their raucous chuck, chuck, chuck! More than 50 sage grouse came to drink. Wild horses battled for position at the water, and then thundered away. A coyote slinked in to drink.

Late in the afternoon, as the blind became an oven under the desert sun and the action slowed, we exited the blind to check Spring No. 2. With a spotting scope, we could see no sign of other hunters, so we hiked in and placed a Primos Double Bull Matrix blind 18 yards from the spring, brushed it in, and left with high hopes for the morning.

While scouting, I used my Nikon spotting scope to do much of the legwork for me.

On July 28, numerous antelope came to Spring No. 2. The biggest buck, with horns measuring in the mid-70s, tempted me for an hour, but he wasn't as big as the two bucks at Spring No. 1.

I would hold out. Larry and I stayed until 5 p.m., and then walked out.

Arriving at the truck, we could see a cluster of tents down toward Spring No. 1. It turned out to be a BLM crew, and the man in charge apologetically told us they were building a fence at Spring No. 1 to keep wild horses out of the spring. They would leave part of the pond outside of the fence where wildlife could drink.

Now dilemmas really raged in my mind. The fence crew would finish the next day and be gone. But would the antelope return immediately? Would the fence throw them out of their normal pattern?

Trying to reason this out, we moved the blind at Spring No. 1 outside the fence, 20 yards from the drinking area. Then, to give that spring time to settle down, we hunted Spring No. 2 the next two days. We saw basically the same animals we'd already seen there. We would return to No. 1, and I would shoot the crosshorn buck.

Thus, at daybreak on July 31, we huddled in our blind just outside the fence, and our hopes soared as four bucks approached just after sunrise. However, rather than go to the accessible water, they circled the fence, trying to figure out how to get to the spring. After two hours, they just gave up and wandered away. Throughout the morning, many others did exactly the same.

Dilemmas! Spring No. 1 had big antelope, but they wouldn't come in. No. 2 apparently had no big bucks. What to do?

"Let's be patient and wait it out," Larry suggested.

"Forget it, Larry. These antelope are totally befuddled," I groused. "And so am I! "We need gas in the truck. Let's drive to town for gas, and then we'll check that place Tony Mudd told me about. If nobody is hunting there, we'll give it a shot."

Thus, that evening we sat on a high ridge, inspecting Spring No. 3 through a spotting scope. We could not see a blind. Nobody was there. So that night we slept in our truck, started hiking

at 3:30 a.m., reached the spring at 4:30, and had our Primos Double Bull blind in place well before first light. Only one question remained: Would antelope come within range of the freshly placed blind?

All morning the place was dead. Had we completely blown it? Then, at 11 a.m., two bucks topped a hill 200 yards out front. Neither was the monster of my dreams, but one was nice. Should I shoot him? Visions of the crosshorn buck still haunted me. How long would it take for Spring No. 1 to settle down? With the Col-orado season at hand, I was running out of time. How many more days could I hunt here? Dilemmas!

"If they come in, I'll take the bigger one," I whispered. The bucks hesitated at first, eyeing the blind. Still they came on, and finally the bigger one stood drinking, 20 yards away.

Plan C paid off in this fine desert buck.

When I released, the buck sprinted 30 yards, tumbled head over heels, and vanished in a cloud of desert dust. My dilemmas vanished with him. On August 12, I arrived at Rod Cook's house north of Craig, Colorado. I had paid Rod a trespass fee to hunt on his land. As his only archery hunter, I would have Rod's entire 5,500-acre ranch to myself.

Rod spent the afternoon driving me around his property, showing me antelope and waterholes. Just over the hill from his house, we saw dozens of antelope, three that Rod estimated would score at least 80 inches.

The pond where many of these animals watered was narrow but nearly 100 yards long -- the Long Pond. Rod showed me several other waterholes -- the BLM Pond, Granary Tank, Cow Pond. All had antelope around them -- and all were more than a long bow shot across. The antelope we saw had me excited, but the size of the ponds created dilemmas in my mind. How could I ensure close shots?

With this overview, I parked my camper in the center of Rod's property as a base of operations, and over the next couple of days, I placed blinds on three of the ponds. On August 13, I drove to Craig to pick up Larry, who would again shoot camera for Bowhunter Magazine TV. We spent August 14 organizing, glassing antelope, and placing Stealth Cam trail cameras to monitor some of the alternate water sources.

Over the next three days, Larry and I hunted three waterholes. Long Pond was too long. Lots of antelope came in, many within good bow range, but all the biggest bucks watered 40 to 50 yards out, beyond my comfortable shooting range.

Granary Pond was too wide. We tried building a "fence" with lath and pink plastic flagging along one side, and that did help to funnel the animals to our side. Still, none of the bigger bucks came within good range.

At Cow Pond, a herd of cows clustered around the blind, apparently wondering what was inside. Several good bucks came in, but with the cows around the blind, the antelope stayed 40 yards away and drank facing straight at the blind.

So far, three days of scouting and three of hunting had created more dilemmas than solutions. Finding antelope was not a problem; they were everywhere. Seeing large bucks was not a problem; they were numerous. But getting good shots at the biggest bucks was proving tough. Which pond should we hunt? How should we hunt it?

Overall, we had seen the biggest bucks at Long Pond. If we could just get them to water close to the blind, that location seemed our best bet.

On August 18, the fourth day of the season, we took a couple of steps to solve the dilemma. First, we carried a second blind, which we could place at the far end in case of a change in wind direction. Second, we built a fence with lath and plastic flagging across the dam end of the pond. That had worked at Granary Pond; maybe it would work here.

We were situated in the blind by 5:15 a.m. At 6:30, right at first light, a doe came in by the dam. She looked at the fence, acted a little confused, and then came around our side and drank 30 yards from the blind. It worked!

In Colorado, antelope came and went on the Long Pond all day -- just beyond my bow range.

Well, not really... Throughout the morning, many animals approached the water, and when they saw the lath and pink flagging, they freaked out and vanished. After about the tenth failure, we got out and removed the fence.

What now? Good bucks might come in, but they might never water within bow range. That thought was only confirmed when, about 3 p.m., a new wave of animals started showing up. Most, including a couple of bucks in the 80-inch class, went straight to the dam, 55 yards from the blind. Too far.

We pondered the options. We could move the blind closer to the dam. However, if we did that, animals could come in from behind -- downwind -- of the blind, which would only educate a bunch of antelope. Maybe we could put the lath/flagging fence behind the blind to prevent that...

A 35-yard shot on this Colorado buck ended all of my dilemmas.

A buck crested a distant hill on the far side of the pond. It appeared he would head straight for the dam, like all the others. But suddenly he cut down a steep bank and began to drink just across the pond, 35 yards from the blind.

He was nice, with broad prongs, but we had seen much bigger bucks. He was relaxed, broadside, and within my shooting range. But maybe we could maneuver the blind to get a close shot at one of the monsters. I had a couple of more days to hunt, but that was about it; time was running out. Should I take this sure shot? Should I hold out for one of the monsters? Should I...

Dilemmas. Always dilemmas. And the outcome of an antelope hunt often rests more on solving those dilemmas than on any hunting skills. Thus it was on this hunt. I did not kill one of Rod's monster bucks. But mine was pretty nice. Author's Notes: In Nevada I shot a Reflex Growler at 48 pounds draw weight; Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 250 arrows; and Rage two-blade broadheads. In Colorado, I shot a Hoyt Vulcan set at 48 pounds with the same arrows and broadheads.

Many states give preference or bonus points to enhance your chances of drawing a quality tag. For each year you fail to draw, you earn a point. In Colorado, I had eight preference points; in Nevada, five bonus points. If you want to draw premium antelope

tags, start accumulating points in various states. For information on Colorado, contact: (303) 297-1192, http://wildlife.state.co.us. You can contact Rod Cook at (970) 824-2342. For Nevada, contact: (775) 688-1500, www.ndow.org. Numerous other states have excellent antelope hunting and similar point systems.

These hunts appeared on Bowhunter Magazine TV on Outdoor Channel the first week of July 2008, and they will air again later in the fall.

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