November 04, 2010
When hunting antelope, nothing is ever as easy as it seems.
By the time I graduated from college in 1987, my wife and I already had one kid on the ground and another on the way, so there were plenty of diversions for the starvation-grade salary I was earning as a fledgling life insurance agent.
Illustration by Mike Del Rizzo
One summer evening, I was at my good friend Doug Larsen's house, trying to pester him into buying some life insurance. He deflected the issue by asking if I was going to get in on the early season archery antelope hunt near Idaho Falls in the management units. "Should be a piece of cake," he told me. "Lots of antelope, eating the farmer's crops like a blizzard of pronghorned grasshoppers. The old-timers almost wiped them out of the West by putting a white hanky on a stick and luring them into range, for crying out loud. How hard could it be?"
How hard, I didn't know. But I got excited, that's for sure.
Driving home, I was daydreaming about being in Bowhunter Magazine with my record-book antelope when I happened to see the blank insurance application on the passenger seat. Cold, hard reality set in. I needed arrows and broadheads, an antelope tag, and a few tanks of gas. Thanks to a timely Christ-mas present the year before, I already had a bow, a PSE Gamesport. The money for the rest of it seemed impossible. But I was young and ambitious, and so after three or four all-nighters gathering nightcrawlers and selling them to a bait company, I had my antelope tag, six pawnshop arrows, and the cheapest broadheads money could buy.
The United States government owns a huge swath of high desert land in southern Idaho for the purpose of nuclear research and development. At the time, it was called the Idaho National Engin-eering Laboratory (INEL), but most people just called it "The Site." Due to the nature of atomic research, access to The Site was strictly limited. Absolutely no hunting or trespassing was allowed be-yond the clearly posted boundary. Be-cause of this secure habitat, the pronghorn antelope population had exploded, and agricultural landowners, whose crops were being mauled, demanded some relief. The result was the archery antelope season.
So under the stars of a mid-August opening morning, Troy Thompson, Doug Larsen, and I rattled out to the desert in Troy's old blue Ford pickup to kill us a few Pope and Young antelope. On the drive, trying to show off my new college degree, I asked if anybody knew the Latin name for the pronghorn antelope. Nobody did.
"Antus lopus," I replied matter-of-factly.
"We're so proud of you," Troy mocked.
We pulled off the gravel road just as daylight was breaking and quickly spotted some antelope, but they spotted us just as quickly and left a little dust trail marking their safe retreat into The Site. Undeterred, we spotted and stalked the rest of that day and most of the next.
A few days later, Doug and I were on the grass behind my apartment with a refrigerator box, some spray paint, and a couple of razor cutters. We had noticed that the antelope that came off The Site onto the croplands seemed perfectly content to let cattle graze within feet of them. We had heard of decoying antelope, so we were doing our best to morph the box into a Hereford cow. Somewhere along the line, my wife Kim showed up, peeking over our shoulders to see what we were up to. I answered before the question could be asked.
"We're making a cow," I said flatly.
"Oh," she replied just as flatly. "Making a cow. Sure."
Doug never looked up but was grinning ear to ear.
"I'll explain it to her later," I said to no one in particular.
The next morning found us at the corner of a huge pasture that bordered The Site.
By now, we had respect for the spotting-scope vision of antelope, so we crept low and out of sight of the antelope and cows until we were in the bottom of a small ditch. We grinned at each other as we unfolded the cardboard cow and propped it up in front of us, crawling along behind, one hand on our bows and the other on the little handles we had so brilliantly devised to keep the cow upright. I peeked around the rump roast. So far, so good.
We made it another hundred yards or so before even the cows ran off. The antelope were already long gone.
As the season wore on, we began to notice things about antus lopus. The old timer who said you could put a white hanky on a stick and lure them into range was definitely not archery hunting with a PSE Gamesport, and in a drunken stupor must have confused antelope with snow geese. Antelope have two primary defenses -- 10X eyesight and speed.
They like to cross fences in the same places and will walk a fenceline a long ways to get to a crossing. They'll move at any time of the day. They'll drink at any time of the day. If they see you first, they're gone. If you hear an alarm wheeze, which sounds like a whitetail's, they're gone. So we tried to take advantage of our hard-earned knowledge. We sat on waterholes. We sat on fence crossings. We found better terrain to stalk.
Mostly, we failed, but one morning, as we drove out, we noticed a herd of antelope bunched up in a corner of a hayfield along a farm road. From a long ways away, Troy slowed the truck to a snail's pace, and Doug slipped out of the cab on the opposite side of the truck. Trotting along, using the truck for cover, he pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it. When he was directly across from the antelope, he ducked into the ditch along the road while we kept going in the truck. The antelope, riveted on the truck, got real nervous but stayed put. Doug drew his bow and shot. A clean miss, but a legitimate chance, and with that shot, a gush of helium filled our flattened balloons of hope.
Doug put his bow in the back of the truck and went into the field to look for his arrow. The antelope ran to the far opposite corner of the field as Troy and I drove off, hoping for a repeat performance. However, antus lopus learns quickly, and before the truck even got close, the antelope bolted back toward the original corner of the field. I shall long remember the sight of Doug crouched in the hayfield, holding his useless arrow in his hand as the antelope poured pointblank around him like river water around a rock. Doug hurled his arrow and many new Latin names at antus lopus that day, blended creatively with some classic one-syllable American English.
Permanently etched in my mind is the sight picture of that gigantic antelope buck, broadside, framed by a window of straw bales, my broadhead sitting on the arrow rest, pointed at his heart.
Finally, we dug pit blinds, right on the border of The Site and on the edges of the hayfields. We dug them about three feet deep and lined them with a couple layers of straw bales, leaving some shooting windows open. We scavenged up some sagebrush to stick in the bales to cover the movement of our bows. In the dark of early morning, we'd slip into our blinds and wait for the sun to come up. A couple of blown opportunities taught us to let the antelope walk past the blind and into the field before drawing our bows. I went out by myself one morning, jumped into my blind, propped up the sagebrush, and fell asleep.
When I woke up, I scanned the edge of the desert with my binoculars. Poking along single file were two or three does and a huge buck that we'd seen out on The Site a few times but had never had a chance at. They were still 300 yards out, but they were coming. I tried to quiet the blood pounding in my ears, but my breath came short and raspy. I nocked an arrow and propped my bow toward the anticipated shooting lane. Every so often, I'd peek up. They were still coming. My knees went sodden.
"Come on, Chris," I told myself. "Get it together. Breathe. Breathe."
When the antelope were about a hundred yards from my blind, the does broke and trotted right past my blind and into the field. I held my breath, but the black-faced buck stood back, frozen in the sagebrush. He was huge! I guessed him conservatively at 16 inches. A Pope and Younger for sure. Maybe the Idaho State Record Archery Antelope! But he just stood there, facing the blind. I figured I must be busted and considered briefly a shot at one of the does. All of a sudden, the buck started coming. I tensed up, slowly bracing myself for the shot. He trotted by the blind at 10 yards and turned broadside in the hayfield at about 30. He placidly grazed as I drew my bow.
Permanently etched in my mind is the sight picture of that gigantic antelope buck, broadside, framed by a window of straw bales, my broadhead sitting on the arrow rest, pointed at his heart. My 30-yard pin settled behind his shoulder and I released, the path of the arrow in slow motion, flying perfectly, then dropping and cutting a swath of air two or three inches below his brisket. Oh, no! I choked! The antelope blew out and ran past the horizon. I stood up and watched them leave, my stomach turning over. I almost vomited. It seemed like nothing in my whole life had been over so fast. I had calmed down a little on the drive home, but still had to swallow a knot in my throat when I told Kim about my missed buck.
A couple of mornings later, right near the end of the season, I went out for one last chance. I slipped confidently up the road in the dark to my blind. I felt good. A little extra sleep and the fact that the field had been rested for a couple days had my hopes high.
When the sun came up, there wasn't an antelope in sight. I waited for a couple of hours and, finally, a small herd appeared on the heat-waved desert horizon. I could tell they were too far north, but I kept a vigilant eye out anyway. A few minutes later, I saw a doe antelope sky-lined 200 yards to the north on the top of an irrigation ditch. I kept thinking she'd lead the herd into the hayfield, but they never showed. I was just about to stand up to get a good look when I saw the tops of the antelope's ears a mere three feet from my blind. The ears swayed back and forth, getting larger, until the doe literally stuck her head inside my blind. I crouched frozen on the back wall. There was a look of curiosity on her face for a second or two, and then horrible recognition. Her eyes rolled wildly and she turned almost inside out, scorching across the desert without slowing down until she was out of sight.
I didn't have any other chances, but one day I arrived at the insurance office and the secretary brought in a pink message note. This was unusual, as I had been hunting a lot more than I'd been selling insurance. The time and date were meticulously stenciled and the box marked urgent was crossed.
"Ten-inch antus lopus buck. Blind by the gravel pit. Have a nice day. Doug."
A few days later, Doug brought in the pictures of his buck and showed me his new elk call. All you had to do was bugle on that call during the rut and the bulls would come right in. "Should be a piece of cake." That's what he said. "The old-timers used to have big bulls charge in on the gallop just by blowing on a willow whistle or a piece of fluted copper pipe, for crying out loud."
Not long after that, I quit selling insurance.
When not pursuing Antilocapra americana, the author can be found at home in Drummond, Montana.