21 October 2009

Antelope Hunt, 2009: Big Hole River Valley, Montana

I seldom hunt the first day of antelope season--there are just too many crazies out riding ATVs cross-country, blazing away at running animals out of range, road hunting/shooting from the truck and doing the other things that give hunters a bad name. And then I missed the the first week or so thanks to the bad timing of two back-to-back professional meetings. After a few days in Pittsburgh, I was aching to get out into the Antelope Hills of the lower Big Hole River country (just over the Continental Divide from Butte, Montana).

Yesterday, I had a few hours free. My first year or so in Montana, I avoided the prairie. Having grown up in heavily forested Allegheny hills, the vast wide open windy Big Sky sagebrush country gave me the heebie-jeebies. But I soon came to love the great "empty" desert spaces for their beauty and unique ecology. What's not to love?

Every encounter with Nature is an exercise in Shoshin. There is no book to overdetermine the experience, and each time you step out you & the world are all coming together for the first time. I occasionally find elk sign on the prairie miles from the nearest forest cover, but still think of them as a forest animal. I was agape yesterday to watch a large herd cross a coulee and bed on a nearby ridge (photos taken through binoculars, so they're a bit fuzzy):

My first hike turned up no glimpse of antelope, so I drove to a higher area and parked near a small circular butte that is like a collapsed volcano cone ringed with rock outcrops. Sometimes there are antelope hiding there. Yesterday, there were not. But I hiked up and over the outcrop ring, glassed the surrounding area, and found a herd bedded a half-mile away in a remote spot hidden from view of the roads that crisscross the area. I backtracked over the ring and down another place to approach more closely, and after several hundred yards of stalking across the open, rocky, cactus-laden ground I was within shooting range. A little further than I like to shoot (it was about 300 yards), but with a good rest the little 257 Roberts rifle is accurate at this distance. From the herd of a dozen or so does and fawns, with one nice buck with horns of about 12 inches, I chose a mature doe:

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocarpa americana) are marvelously adapted for life on the sagebrush prairie. They eat a broad range of grasses, shrubs, coarse forbs, and even cacti. Their highly efficient digestive system makes the most of whatever is available. They are fleet of foot, and can sustain high speeds (more than 40 mph) longer than any living land mammal. A herd flows like a stream of living water over the roughest of ground. The fleshy hooves, without dewclaws, help make this possible:

 The antelope's vision is remarkable. I was once stalking a herd and peeked over a rocky outcrop. From a half-mile away, several spotted me instantly. I've since learned to use cover and move very slowly--even sparse vegetation will break up your outline if you stay low and go slow. (But watch out for that cactus--I seldom come home from an antelope hunt without prickly pear cactus spines in my hands, knees, elbows, and butt.) Look at the large eye in relation to the size of an antelope's head, and you get some idea of how sharp their vision is:

I'll spare blog readers pics of a blood-covered me, but after field dressing this doe it was a half-mile back up and over the rim of the butte, and another half-mile to the truck. It is far easier to carry an 80 or 90 pound animal over snowless ground than to drag it. Sort of like backpacking, but messy. We are grateful to this doe antelope for providing us with meat, including some choice steaks and enough Italian sausage (Alex Schneider, a wildgame butcher here in Butte, Montana, wins awards for his sausage) to get us through another year.

Antelope 2007

Antelope 2008


Anonymous said...

Good job ER! Thanks for the tip about Schneider. We brought meat their last year and he's great. Funny as hell too.

Should Fish More said...

Nice doe, bet it will be tasty. I saw a small herd to the east of I15just before Divide on Sunday. Look forward to hearing about your elk trips.

Editor said...

good hunt, I would love a good pic of you with an antelope.

Linda Jacobs said...

Cool! Congratulations!
And such a well-written post! Really interesting.

Arija said...

I have experience the gung=ho shooting at anything that moves hunters in Vt. where I just about had to lock up the children during the season as the idiots would fire from one hil to the other right across our yard.
I am glad you are not one of those, but have due reverence for a life given for the proper purpose of feeding your family.

Janie said...

I'm glad you had a successful hunt to fill the freezer. That Italian sausage sounds good.
We see a lot of ATV crazy drivers and hunting from trucks. The real hunters seem to be few and far between. (We still wear lots of blaze orange, just in case.)

Anonymous said...


Like you, it took a little bit of time, but I've come to enjoy the "empty" "deserts" of the Great Basin. Something about the wide open spaces dotted with oases I just love.

I figure most everything I do I *should* approach with a bit more Shoshin (sometimes it is hard). Nature is indeed a good master if we allow ourselves to be the student.

I wish I could develop the palate for big game steaks and roasts, but jerky, salami and sausage are about the only way I'll eat it.

Enjoy these last few fall days.

Judy said...

Very interesting post! I have read a lot about antelope, but no one has mentioned the feet before! I am glad that you respect the animals you shoot, and use them, rather than just blazing away at anything that moves!!!

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I thought that this activity was prohibited, well now I want to practice it because I like to hunt different animals it will be my hobby.

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I don't like too see how people kill this kind of animals, I think there must be a new law to protect them...