November 04, 2010
Ground-blind solitude erupts into heart-pounding action.
"YOU'RE NOT GOING to believe this," Brian said as he logged off of weather.com. "It's raining out there right now, and there's a tornado warning for the Gillette area."
"No way!" I said, rocking back in my chair so that I could see Assistant Editor Brian Fortenbaugh in his office across the hall. I've been waiting for years to hunt antelope again, I thought. This can't be happening.
After a short night we made the drive from Harrisburg, then the flight from Baltimore to Rapid City, South Dakota, and then the drive through the Black Hills -- and past Devils Tower -- to Gillette, Wyoming, which just might be the capital of the antelope world. Once in the city limits, Bowhunter Contributor Jeff Frey, who had arranged the hunt, called outfitter Doug Miller on the cell phone. We all awaited the verdict on the evening's hunt.
With noses full of the fresh scent of sage brush, and visions of the hundreds of pronghorns we'd seen on the drive in, we were all primed to get out there and jump-start our video hunt for Bowhunter Magazine TV. It was a beautiful mid-September day for hunting antelope, but we couldn't ignore all the water pooled in parking lots and along curbs in town. Imagine what those prairie waterholes would look like. Still, we were surprised when Jeff said, "The hunt's off for this afternoon, guys. Let's get something to eat."
When you head up the lane to Doug Miller's ranch, it's time to get serious about antelope hunting. Don't be surprised if you spot a few really nice bucks from Doug's front porch. The town of Gillette, Wyoming, is over the hill to the right. Below, senior guides Ron Mobley and Billy Hudson flank Doug Miller. While Doug's antelope outfit is fairly new, his team has many, many years' experience hunting prairie goats. And they've perfected ground-blind hunting over water.
Turns out those heavy storms, including tornadic winds, had hit a couple of the units we'd be hunting, and outfitter Doug Miller and his guides, Ron Mobley, Billy Hudson, and Drew Pearson, had to run down some of the Double Bull and Eastman Outfitters blinds that were blown off their moorings. What are the chances? Some outfitters might stick you out there prematurely, but not Doug. He and his family (wife, Mary, and daughters Sheila and Staci) have been hosting antelope hunters out of their comfortable Gillette-side ranch for about five years, and Doug and his guides have perfected ground-blind hunting over water.
Doug is an easy-going guy, but when it comes to hunting antelope he's dead serious about the details. Every hunter is expected to play by his rules. And Doug isn't shy about telling prospective hunters that ground-blind hunting for antelope isn't for everybody. If you can't stay in the blind and wait patiently until you get your opportunity, then you likely won't be successful. When Doug says it's time to go to the blind, you go to the blind. When he tells you to stay in the blind until you're picked up, you listen. Nobody walks around Doug's blind setups unless they're being dropped off or picked up. Trucks pick up downed animals and even arrows, both errant and otherwise. You see, Doug knows ground-blind hunting, and his hunters boast a phenomenal record on quality animals. Rather than list a success rate, let's just say that very, very few antelope hunters have ever left Doug's place without a buck. Besides having a team of good, dedicated, hard-working people with a keen knowledge of antelope and how to get close-range shots at them over water, one of the secrets to Miller Outfitting's success is simply limiting the number of hunters and the chances those hunters have in the field to educate antelope around the blinds. Doug's system works because he enforces a disciplined approach to ground-blind hunting.
So, as we ate at the local Golden Corral that afternoon, we fought off any uneasy feelings of anticipation -- the adrenaline was coming.
IT HAD BEEN years since I last hunted antelope, and I remembered all those long hours in a pit blind. Spending days in a hot blind is the grueling norm. In fact, over past hunts I'd spent weeks in sometimes bug-infested sweathouses, and I didn't always get a buck. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. As in life, every bowhunting experience has value. The tougher things are, the more you tend to learn about yourself. Still, I had a hard time envisioning how we'd pull off a successful bowhunt at Doug's -- and videotape a TV segment -- in just three days.
Early the next morning, under cover of darkness, Guide Ron Mobley dropped Jeff Frey and me off at our hunting setup comprised of two blinds aligned corner to corner. I'd be in the blind closer to the long, narrow waterhole. Jeff would man the second blind with our new Sony 390 DV cam. I stowed my cooler lunch, folding chair, pee bottle, and daypack in the back of the blind. Then I rolled out a thick bath towel on the floor and positioned my bow before me, arrow at the ready. With boots removed so that I could move about the blind quickly and quietly, I was prepared for a long wait. Jeff was ready, too, and we talked in hushed tones through the open corner windows as we watched for the sunrise.
Including Assistant Editor Brian Fortenbaugh and freelance cameraman Robby Rohm, nine other bowhunters were set up in waterhole blinds across four hunting units in the Gillette area.
MORNING ON WYOMING'S high desert plains, even on the civilized pasturelands near Gillette, is something all bowhunters should experience. You owe it to yourself to feel the sun come up. It's funny how seeing the first animal of the morning is always a surprise, as though you didn't really expect to see one. And so it was in the early gray light when I spotted a buck several hundred yards off on a hill facing our waterhole.
How's this for antelope adrenaline? Jeff Frey (below) and I were blessed to take these bucks from the same blind setup on the same day, just about eight hours apart. Jeff videotaped my buck in the morning, and later that afternoon I nearly missed getting his great shot on video!
"There's an antelope out there," I whispered to Jeff, which proved to be quite an understatement as the sun climbed above the hill behind us. Revealed before us, several groups of antelope actively fed nearby. Soon a bully of a shooter buck corralled a harem of does and yearlings in the pasture beside our waterhole. I knew that eventually the buck would have to drink. All we had to do was wait him out. Okay, I've done this before. And this time I've got a show.
All morning the herd buck ran off challengers. He has to be getting thirsty. But he didn't drink. And eventually, to my disappointment, the buck gathered up his does and headed off out of sight over the hill before us.
Suddenly, just as the sun really began to warm things up, the prairie grew quiet. Most of the time we could still see antelope, but for the time it seemed the morning chase had ended. Here we go again. Now, this is antelope hunting.
Sunset put Assistant Editor Brian Fortenbaugh's first antelope hunt in the perfect light.
But then, just as quickly as he had run off his competitors, the buck returned. "Here comes that buck," Jeff said. "Shoot him!" I looked up just in time to see the buck trot onto the scene and then gracefully leap over the pasture fence. He paused momentarily and looked at both blinds. Then, to my amazement, he strolled right in and drank. Caught somewhat off guard by the direction and speed of the buck's approach to the waterhole, Jeff Frey had to pick up the big video camera and move it to another window. Holding camera and tripod in his arms, he still managed to get the animal on screen as I released, sending an arrow through the buck's chest. About 50 yards from the waterhole the buck slid to the ground, rocked once or twice, and then lay still. It was over quickly, and I thanked the Lord for such an end.
Not long after, Guide Ron Mobley cruised up to our blinds in his pickup. Knowing Jeff Frey had his bow with him, Mobley hissed, "There's a big buck headed over the hill toward the blind. Do you want me to just leave and come back later?" We decided to leap into the truck, pick up my buck and arrow, and get out of there to preserve the spot for later. We had some more video to shoot.
We soon learned that about half of Doug's hunters had already taken bucks, including another dandy video buck taken by Brian Fortenbaugh. After the shot, the buck raced right through the waterhole, making for some exciting video and leaving Brian with a healthy case of the shakes.
Later that afternoon Jeff Frey and I returned to our same waterhole, and this time Jeff hunted and I tried my hand with the camera. We didn't have to wait long for some action. Almost immediately we spotted antelope heading our way, including a couple of very nice bucks. Then another group arrived from behind us, only to shy off. With the sun beating down, I'd closed up all the windows but one. And with all the action, I'd failed to pick up on one lone buck that came in from behind me. When I saw Jeff drawing his bow, I searched frantically for the camera switch. I clicked it on just in time to see Jeff's arrow pass through the buck and ricochet off the opposite bank. The buck exploded away from the waterhole and was down in seconds. This is unreal, I thought. I didn't know antelope hunting could be like this. Just like kids, we wanted to do it all over again. Now that's antelope adrenaline!
The Pennsylvania father-and-son duo of Bob and Rob Weibley got into the act, too. Rob took his buck the first day. But patience paid off for his dad, who waited until the following morning and took one of the biggest bucks of the hunt.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: By Day Two, only a couple of hunters were still in their ground blinds, and everyone had finished by lunch. Probably six of the 10 bucks taken were P&Y class, the biggest measuring about 75 inches. To set up a three-day bowhunt of your own, contact Doug Miller at Miller Outfitting, 2080 Hannum Rd., Gillette, WY 82716; (307) 682-5815; firstname.lastname@example.org.
During the hunt I shot a Hoyt XTEC compound bow and Beman ICS Hunter shafts tipped with Barrie Archery's Rocky Mountain Ti-100 broadheads. Jeff Frey shot a Hoyt UltraTec. Brian Fortenbaugh shot a Mathews Outback and used a Nikon Monarch Laser800 rangefinder. For clothing, I wore Robinson Outdoors' super-light Safari clothing in Realtree Hardwoods Green.
Video of this hunt will be featured on Bowhunter Magazine TV the first week of July. Tune in on Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m., Saturdays at 8:30 a.m., and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., (EDT) on The Outdoor Channel. View show schedule and video clips.