Adventure: Bowhunting Wyoming Pronghorn
December 17, 2010
When two old friends meet on the Wyoming prairies, arrows -- and memories -- will fly fast and furious.
THE DUST KICKED UP by a retreating herd of freshly watered pronghorns had barely settled to the sun-baked Wyoming prairie when my mind began to wander. The lobe in my brain that's dedicated to spot-and-stalk hunting was attempting a coup against the rest of my brain.
That's the problem with multi-animal hunts. The mental conflict created presents a challenge, because while you hunt one species you're thinking about the other, and the debate rages. That can sometimes result in a lesser effort for both species rather than a concentrated hunt for one. However, it's a negative I can handle, given two conditions -- adequate time and lots of game. Those two cancel out any negatives.
On the positive side, I simply love to hunt and shoot big game animals, and the more opportunities I have, the better I like it.
The heat of the Wyoming sun was contributing to my internal struggle by turning my blind into an oven. The pronghorn action had been slow until those seven bucks walked in for a drink. So when they disappeared over a distant hill, I started thinking mule deer, which doesn't take much for me. On my list, only elk hunting ranks higher than spotting and stalking muleys. It was time to make the call.
"Paul, things are slow here, so I'd like to go play hide-and-seek with a muley buck," I whispered into my cell phone.
I stalked within 42 yards of this bedded muley the first evening of my hunt, but my plan for getting a shot backfired as the deer vaulted from his bed at full speed.
"No problem," answered Paul Cody, my outfitter. "We bedded down two bucks this morning, and they should still be there. I'll come and pick you up."
Paul was right. The first buck was still lying on a sage flat with his antlers rising above the cover, betraying his location. We glassed for the ever-present "nontarget" deer that could ruin the stalk. We saw several, does and fawns mostly, positioned downwind of the buck. That complicated matters.
I absolutely love the situation analysis and problem solving posed by any stalk. If you design a plan that gets you within bow range of an animal, the stalk is a success. In some cases, a productive stalk is virtually impossible, and you're wise to save your efforts for another day. In other situations, you may have nothing to lose by trying. What may seem an impossible stalk can turn in your favor if the animal gets up and repositions, or even starts feeding in your direction. Every stalk not attempted is a failed stalk.
The first task is getting the wind in your favor, and we did that on this buck by driving around to the east. Using a coulee for cover, we started slipping toward the buck, but two does and two yearlings popped out of a draw and ran over the ridge toward the buck. I thought it was over, but, surprisingly, the buck never moved from his bed, probably thinking he was hidden. However, I soon learned that those does did have an impact on my stalk.
Stalking mule deer like this one and sitting over waterholes for antelope is one of my favorite combo hunts.
With all the ancillary deer out of the way, I picked up the pace to the edge of the sage-covered plateau and then crawled to the lip to relocate the buck's antlers. They were still there, 42 yards away. This is where the mule deer hunter's brain must battle impatience. The sun wasn't far from the horizon, so I should have waited until the buck stood on his own. Instead, I sent Paul around to the opposite side of the flat where the buck could see him. The script called for the buck to spot Paul and stand, looking away, giving me the opportunity to draw, aim, and release.
Alas, muley bucks don't read well, and when this one saw Paul, he launched out of his bed at full speed, leaving me kneeling in the sage at half draw. My theory is that those fleeing does had put him on edge. He was waiting for whatever spooked them, and the hesitation I was counting on wasn't there.
No problem. I managed to put myself in bow range of that buck, so I was happy with the stalk. For me, that's 90 percent of the fun.
THE NEXT MORNING, I watched the sun come up from the same waterhole blind as the day before. Plenty of bucks came to water, but most were in the 11 and 12-inch range so I held off, confident a bigger buck would show up. About noon, the intercranial war broke out again, and I started daydreaming about forked mule deer antlers. Within an hour I was back on the prowl, using a spotting scope to glass 12,000 acres of private land for a buck. I wasn't fussy either. Any decent 4x4 was worth the effort.We did spot a heavy-beamed 3x3 bedded on a slope with a forky, so I made a move on that pair. But as often happens, the young sentinel picked me off and blew the stalk for me.
Paul had watched a fair buck walk into a draw that morning, so we went looking for him, scanning the draw from several angles at long range. Eventually, we spotted the buck bedded near the bottom of a finger draw. He also had a young forked-horned guardsman, but the wind was right, so the stalk was on!
In what appears to be a desolate part of the Earth, I saw many pronghorns from this blind and shot my buck as he stood on the shoreline opposite of the blind.
Stalking mule deer alone is difficult enough, but having a cameraman along increases the challenge. My cameraman, Bob Theim, did a great job of staying with me and doing it quietly. We did have a decent breeze, so we carefully sidehilled toward the narrow, deep draw. As it turned out, the buck had his back against a fairly steep wall, with the wind in his face. Standing 15 yards above the buck, I was actually too close. Had I been a mountain lion, that buck would have been in serious trouble!
Knowing I would not have time to take rangefinder readings if the buck bolted, I quickly ranged the opposite bank at 24 yards and the top of the ridge at 35 yards. If he stopped on the slope or t
he top, I would know exactly how to aim.
Although the wind was good for me, the natural swirling of the breeze was bound to flow uphill at some point and betray me. Something had to happen soon.
And it did. The young buck decided it was close enough to dusk to be suppertime, so he got up. When his head crested the near bank we froze, but he immediately spotted us and stiffened. The larger buck picked up on the subliminal message and nervously ascended the opposite bank to see what was up. He stopped behind the smaller buck, his vitals framed perfectly by the youngsters forked rack. The evil side of my brain whispered, "It's only 24 yards. You can make that shot. Take it!"
The good side threw up visions of hitting the forky between the eyes. So I held at full draw. The 4x4 wasn't happy we'd got so close to his bedroom and trotted to the top of the ridge, where he turned uphill before stopping for a last look. I quickly swung my 40-yard pin onto the last rib of the quartering buck and touched off the release.
Unable to see the arrow hit, I ran to the top of the ridge, hoping to see where the buck had gone. But he'd already dropped out of sight into another draw, and my concern was unfounded as the arrow had bisected his vitals and exited through his opposite scapula, putting him down in seconds.
He wasn't a buck on his way to a taxidermist, but he was a fine animal I was happy to take. The stalk was exciting and 100 percent successful. The size of his antlers had no bearing on those two facts. It was a blast!
MY HUNTING BUDDY on this hunt was Rod Harris from Missouri. Way back in 1971, Rod and I were Air Force brats living on K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Upper Michigan. We actually collaborated on an outdoor column for the school newspaper. Called "Outdoor Scene with Rod and Curt," it was my start as an outdoor writer.
My father spent a lifetime taking my brother, Dave, and me fishing, but he didn't hunt, so Rod is the guy who introduced me to the world of hunting. As you can tell, it stuck. Rod and I have kept in touch over the years and have gone on various hunts for elk, bears, deer, and now antelope. Rod killed an antelope doe that first day in Wyoming and now, like me, he was concentrating on getting a pronghorn buck. This is where multi-animal hunts shine. We each had an animal down, but we weren't finished yet!
SO WE AGAIN took up positions in ground blinds at waterholes the next day. Bob and I overlooked a waterhole precisely 40 yards across. The action was slow until the Wyoming sun started heating things up. I always figure that when I'm sitting still and the sweat streaks down my forehead, I'd better expect to see antelope. It happened at 11 a.m. this day as a buck surprised us by coming from the "wrong" direction.
He was a borderline buck, and I wrestled with the thought of taking him. But as he drank fast and started to leave, I impulsively made the decision. My arrow flew high and gave the buck a reverse Mohawk haircut across the top of the back. The tuft of thick, tan hair hadn't even settled to the ground before the buck was a quarter-mile away, streaking along at Warp 3.
As Bob and I sweated away several more hours, only a few does showed up to drink. Finally, at 4 p.m., a herd came over the distant horizon and headed for the water. When several animals, including the largest buck in the herd, broke into a trot, I quickly slipped off my blind chair, folded it up, and stashed it in the corner. Kneeling makes me more agile for shooting in all directions.
Forty years ago, Rod Harris and I became fast friends as Air Force brats in Upper Michigan. We wrote an outdoor column together back then, and in 2009 we wrote a fresh story together on the Wyoming prairies.
The buck broke from the herd and walked right in for a drink, but he was facing me so I waited, ready to draw. With his thirst satisfied, the buck turned to head back to the herd -- and stopped broadside.
Settling my 40-yard pin on the buck, I touched off the shot. When my arrow hit the buck center-mass, I unzipped the roof of the blind, stuck my head out, and tracked the buck with binoculars. He didn't go far before bedding down, and with the western sky still illuminated by a sun well over the horizon, I walked over the hill to find a fine pronghorn buck with horns over 13 inches long. Like all antelope, he was gorgeous.
While admiring my buck, I spotted Rod walking through the twilight, searching for something. He'd shot a buck just after sundown from his blind a half-mile away, and the buck had fallen 200 yards from mine. Our double kill led to lots of back-slapping and handshakes on the target-rich Wyoming prairie as two old friends enjoyed a moment 40 years in the making. Never could we have imagined back in 1971 we'd be sharing such a hunting experience four decades later.
For a few seconds, I pondered where I'd be had Rod not introduced me to hunting.
Then a cold, scary shiver ran down my spine'¦
Author's Notes: Feeling the need for speed on this hunt, I used a Mathews McPherson Monster at 70 lbs. and Carbon Express Aramid KV arrows. I used Rage 2-blade broadheads, a LimbSaver Prism Sight, QAD Ultra-Rest, Nikon optics, Badlands 2200 pack, and Rocky Broadhead boots for stalking.
If you'd like to take on pronghorns and mule deer in Wyoming, contact: Paul Cody, Cody's Hunting Adventures, (307) 299-8763 (cell), (307) 464-6681, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.codyshuntingadventures.com. Paul has lots of properties to hunt, and there are usually plenty of tags left over after the drawing.