17 October 2008

Pronghorn Antelope Hunting, Butte Montana

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocarpa americana) are abundant in the river valleys and vast sage-brush prairie hills of southwest Montana. They are a marvelous animal. One of the few surviving large mammals truly native to North America, antelope evolved on these Serengeti-like plains along with horses, cheetahs, short-faced bears, giant sloths, and other now extinct species about 25 million years ago. This was long before newcomers such as elk, deer, and humans reached North America via the Siberian bridge. The last of the big, fast predators became extinct about 10,000 years ago (shortly after humans showed up).

The pronhorn's evolutionary past answers the question: Why do they run so fast? No living predator on this continent can approach their speed. But American cheetahs did, and though the big cat is gone the evolutionary influence is a living memory in the antelope's physiology and social habits. Does dominate this process by continually testing bucks: one doe will begin to wander from the herd, and as the buck chases her and heads her back toward the herd, another doe runs out. This goes on again and again, and is exacerbated when challenging bucks come around.

For pronghorn antelope, the breeding race does not go to the guy with the largest body or biggest horns: it goes to the swift.

Antelope also have big eyes and incredible vision--about the equivalent of 8-power binoculars. They will spot you a mile away. Excellent stalking skills -- using the terrain, staying out of sight, and making the final approach using cover to break up your outline -- are required for good shooting (i.e. not missing or wounding animals).

This is a story of two antelope hunts. For the first, Howard picked Allen Puckett (my Little Brother, "AJ") and I up Sunday morning for opening day. I don't usually hunt opening day, as I don't like putting up with bad hunters doing things like riding ATVs off road and shooting from long distances at which they end up wounding animals. But Howard had a hunt planned, which turned out to be at a place where we often hunt mule deer.

We weren't the only hunters out that morning. Here's the track of a fox after a rabbit:

It's a good place to hunt mule deer but a difficult place to hunt antelope. There is only one antelope herd in the area, and it is very selective about its use of the terrain. This makes for difficult stalks and somewhat long shots. Adding to the difficulty was six inches of fresh snow that came in a freak early storm accompanied by fierce wind and 20 deg F temperatures. Footing on the steep rocky hillside was precarious and in some places the snow drifts were crotch-deep. It was more characteristic of elk hunting weather.

Sharp-eyed AJ spotted a herd of antelope up on the ridge as we approached our parking spot. Howard parked and we followed the herd across the open ridge: AJ & I taking a high, rugged route; and Howard following an old road.

After a half-mile the herd paused on a high spot, AJ & I began a stalk, but one of the sharp-eyed does spotted us creeping through the rocky sagebrush. They took off and ran another half-mile, again pausing on a finger ridge a half-mile away. AJ & I walked down to Howard, and though we tried to cross a coulee and make a stalk, the antelope either saw us or became nervous because they could not see us and ran off once again. AJ & I decided to stay after them, while Howard agreed to hike back to the truck and drive around to the other end of the ridge where the antelope seemed to be going.

This time, the herd ran nearly a mile, crossed a large coulee, dropped over a ridge where they were out of sight, and bedded down. Again, AJ & I made a long stalk, staying out of sight behind the ridge and then crawling through the snow and sagebrush to a point about 200 yards above the antelope. AJ shot and missed cleanly, the herd ran off a short ways but then milled around as they did not know where we were. AJ did not feel confident shooting at that distance, and so he handed the rifle over to me. The little .257 Roberts cracked once and we had one down:

I dragged the doe antelope down to where Howard would meet us while AJ tracked the herd once more. They cut a large circle and then headed up toward a high point on the ridge, at which point AJ gave up the hunt. We were all wet, cold, and hungry.

I picked AJ up yesterday afternoon for a hunt on a favorite area that we refer to as the "antelope hills" of the lower Big Hole River valley. We drove to a high point and glassed the vast, wide-open prairie. Spotting a small herd about a mile away in a shallow valley, we began the stalk--staying below the south ridge and out of sight. Here's AJ, carrying his shooting sticks (a bi-pod made of two fiberglass tent poles) in his left hand:

When we crawled through the cactus and peaked over the ridge, the antelope had moved some and were much too far away for a good shot. We discussed a number of alternatives, and AJ came up with a plan. Several times he has heard me describe hunts where I stalked along a fenceline, more or less in sight of the antelope. But something about their vision makes detection difficult so long as you stay low and move slow. We hiked back to the truck and then down to the valley a half-mile or so below the herd. Along the way, we saw this fantastic Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) woven like a trained vine into an old fence:

AJ began his stalk, following the fence that would lead him to the antelope, while I sat down to enjoy the view and a sandwich:

I love this immense landscape that swallows us like Leviathan:

Nearly an hour later the sound of a single rifle rolled out over the prairie. I slung on my knapsack and went to meet AJ at his kill. He made a splendid stalk, approaching within well under 100-yards of the herd for a very sure shot:

AJ is an experienced hunter now and needed no help with field dressing the fat doe:

I took the rifle, hiked the mile back to the truck, drove a short distance, parked as closely as I could, and headed back up the little valley. We found an old fence pole, lashed the front and rear feet to it, and carried the antelope doe back to the truck. Back in town, AJ hung the carcass in his family's garage and skinned it immediately so the sweet, tender meat would cool down for today's butchering job.

Good work, and we give thanks for this meat upon our table.


sceamon said...

Excellent stories.
I remember long walks with my veternarian grandfather Doc Smith in the empty valleys around Feely/Divide. We would cautiously approach antelope. He could bugle (I'm not sure what the antelope call is) and they would speak to him from within 150 yards. My younger brother and I were both quietly amazed, yet we had no idea how elusive those animals are.

It's great how you present the art and skill of hunting.
AJ sounds like a well learned skillsman. Good luck to both of you in future treks and hopefully you'll post more intriguing, educational stories with vivid photography. I sat down with a microbrew tonight and had a great time reading this.
~Sean Eamon~

Tulsi said...

I prefer to photo shoot. But I'm in the majority in my family. The hunt and I shop. A successful hunt for me is no deer. it is great to see families get together doing what they like. that does bring me joy. We all have our happy times we look forward to each year.

Anonymous said...

Well, as your Grampa would say, "Howard wouldn't make a pimple on a hunter's ass."

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