10 October 2007

Pronghorn Antelope Hunt: Big Hole River Valley, Montana

As I put the rifle case in the pickup bed, I looked up through the frosty predawn darkness at Orion, the hunter's constellation. Pausing a moment to gaze, I hoped to see an Orionid meteor or two, but did not. A minute later, ice scraped off the windshield and coffee in hand, I was ready to roll.

Driving from Butte to the Big Hole, I reflected on why I don't like to hunt opening day of antelope season. Pronghorn antelope are odd creatures compared with newcomers to the North American continent such as elk or white tailed deer. As a creature that evolved at a time when cheetahs, short faced bears, sabre tooth lions, and other large, fast predators roamed the North American plains, antelope use their amazingly large eyes and incredibly fleet feet to keep them safe. But the pre-Pleistocene predators did not have rifles capable of shooting accurately at 200 yards. The antelope's 8-power vision and 60 mph speed can make them far too complacent about human hunters within rifle range--as the pre-hunting season photo attests:

Opening day hunters take advantage of this by road hunting. They blast away at every pronghorn within range--and often far out of range of their shooting ability, which results in many wounded antelope. I get so aggravated by the lousy ethics of these hunters that I avoid hunting opening day, rather than be tempted to put a bullet through some moron's engine block. After opening day, antelope fear, flee, and hide from the mere sound of motor vehicles.

I parked down the valley from Old Charlie's place. Although I heard Old Charlie had been sent to a nursing home, it's hard to shake a feeling that the 90-year old codger still, somehow, inhabits the place. But as I climb the steep glacial till of the hillside, I get high enough to look up the valley at the old homesteader's log shack. No smoke curling from the chimney. No lights. He really is gone.

The rancher who was kind enough to give Old Charlie a place for the old boy, his dogs, and his one good horse to live has replaced that distinguished lot with about two hundred head of stinking cattle. It's been a hot, dry summer, and it looks as if they've spent the entire last few months along the spring in the old hay field below the shack. The meadow ground is churned into cowshit-laden mud, the uplands are hammered into dust, and there's not a sign of antelope anywhere in the mile-wide ridgeline radius I swing around Old Charlie's place.

So much for the first hunt of the morning. For the past five years or so I shot my antelope in this area, spent some time talking (well, listening really--the old boy was deaf as a post) with Charlie, and made it home by 10 a.m. This year would require a little more hunting.

The sun is well up on these antelope hills, and it's a vast landscape from which to choose a place to hunt:

For the second hunt of the day I drove up the valley and to the east, and park near a prominent butte where Dave Carter, Rick Douglass, and I occasionally hunted. The butte's outer rim forms a more or less circular steep wall of rock, and in the center lies a hidden depression where antelope often hide after opening day madness. Here I find three buck antelope, none of which I am interested in shooting. I hunt primarily for meat, and have found that buck antelope are too gamy tasting even for me. Furthermore, I'll need to carry this antelope a quarter mile or more to the nearest road, and does will weigh 60 to 80 pounds field dressed, whereas bucks are 20 pounds or so heavier.

Discouraged, I hike back to the truck and drive several miles of low range, rocky, ass-pounding Bureau of Land Management road. My plan is to stop at another spot where Dave and I used to hunt, in some hills and hidy-holes above a rancher's alfalfa field. Though adjacent to a blacktop highway, oddly enough other hunters don't seem aware that there are antelope there--perhaps because you must walk to get to them. Upon reaching the main access road, I drive a mile or so and -- on a whim -- decide to turn back up onto the BLM land.

I drive two miles up the valley, park the truck, and step out to glass the ridgeline to the east. Sure enough, a mile away, I see a herd of eighteen or so antelope feeding along the side ridge. And amazingly enough, several of them are looking right at me. The whole herd becomes nervous and follows the lead doe on a line up and over the ridge, but angling back toward the butte I hunted earlier.

I park as closely as I can--perhaps a half mile from the ridge and a mile from the butte. Hiking up and over, I watch the last few antelope, barely within rifle range, as they top the next ridge leading to the butte. One more hike, I tell my feet that have been pounding all day over this rocky, cactus-strewn desert. And sure enough, they are here in the bowl, some already beginning to bed down. I watch them several minutes, though one young doe notices my silhouette peaking through a sage brush and is coughing nervously. The others gather round, trying to see or smell or hear this reported threat.

The range is only about two hundred yards, but there is no handy rock for a rest and I hate to sprawl prone among all this cactus. I'm thankful for my shooting sticks -- two arrows tied together to form a "V" -- a simple innovation taught me by now-retired professor Jack McGuire. I choose a young doe (I do not want to shoot either the lead doe or a fawn), hold the crosshairs low behind the shoulder, take a deep breath, exhale a bit, and squeeze the trigger on the little 25 Roberts:

Now the work begins. It is 3 p.m. By the time I field dress the doe, hike down to the truck, drive around and up nearer to the butte, hike back to the kill, and carry her 65 pound carcass to the truck, it is 6 p.m. Thank you, Orion.


Anonymous said...

i have a 25 roberts

but have no ammo

if you have any info on a place that has ammo for it please send it to

thanks for the help

Pat Munday said...

hi r.o.u., after 40+ years of messing with rifles i should be more exact--i'm sloppy and refer to the 257 roberts as "25 roberts" simply because that's what i always heard it called growing up. technically, the 25 roberts was an earlier prototype of the 257 with slightly differenct cartridge dimensions (see http://www.gunnersden.com/index.htm.257roberts.html ).

anyway, i reload for the 257r although factory ammo is easy to get. factory ammo is terribly underloaded because of all the wartime-manufacture crappy 7mm mausers that were converted to 257r.

favorite deer/antelop load: 50 gr 4350 w/ 100-gr bullet (been using barnes copper bullets of late).

good luck!