We headed down the highway at twilight with me staring at a downloaded map of public/private land ownership boundaries and a rock-paper-scissors tournament going down in the front 4 seats of the Dodge Durango. I’d interrupt only to point out each sliver of public land we passed through as the tournament played itself out. Andrew over Todd. Dad over Alan. Dad over Todd. Dad was up first. At this point, I threatened to (but didn’t actually) lock up the ammunition for the first day of hunting. The way I saw it, there was no reason to shoot on Day 1 with a full 7 days of hunting time available to us…unless it was a monster! I had mixed emotions about dad drawing first trigger, but knew that with high quality optics and everybody critiquing every buck we put in the spotter – he was safe not to punch out too quickly on a buck too small.
The action started within the first 15 minutes of daylight as each section of public land we passed seemed to hold at least one small herd of pronghorn with a buck or two, some sections held 2 or 3 perhaps even 4 different herds of antelope. It was quickly apparent that seeing antelope wasn’t going to be a problem. We saw our first nice buck about an hour into the day, glassing from a highway through a sliver of private land but upslope into a large block of walk-in area. There was no way to access from that side of the unit but we marked the map where we had seen the big buck – 14″+, heavy bottom mass, questionable top mass, nice curls, and long prongs. We’d re-visit that property on Day 2…
Drive a bit more, more antelope, repeat, repeat, repeat. It became apparent that we needed to leave earlier in morning – pre-dawn – to actually get where we intended to hunt each day. Otherwise, daylight presented too many distractions and it would be foolish to drive past potential shooter antelope standing on public land just to access other public land where there may or may not be a good buck. It was a dilemma that we encountered all week long, definitely a byproduct of a strong antelope herd.
Around mid-morning, we finally arrived at the public ground where I wanted to spend the majority of our opening day. BIG country but really flat – a great spot to view and judge a ton of antelope but making a stalk would likely be dicey. Immediately upon pulling in we stumbled into some sage grouse – a first for me. Beautiful birds and larger than I had anticipated.
We climbed 3 or 4 outlooks on the mountain in the background and then rimmed around the country periodically checking the expansive sage flats below for more and more herds of antelope.
It took us the better part of the day to cover all of the flats in that area – roughly 8 square miles of quality antelope habitat absolutely loaded with antelope. We saw a ton of good bucks and 2 or 3 really good bucks – potentially one first day shooter. A heavy and tall buck with strong prongs – we actually stalked in to within 700 yards of him before realizing there was no way to sneak any closer. Not wanting to booger him into the next country and with no rush to push the stalk, we backed off and contented ourselves to mark him on the map for another day. Here is but a tiny sample of the bucks we saw in the area. Our day’s tally ran over 60 different bucks once we added up the strike marks on the bottom of my topo map. The number of 68-72″ bucks was insane, it was sorting the 72″ers from the 75″ers that was tricky and we had convinced ourselves that we had seen several in that class as well – just no “jump off the page, make you wet your pants” first day shooters to that point.
With 3 hours daylight left on our first full day of hunting, we decided to abandon the flats and head for some more broken country where spotting a big buck might also yield a feasible stalking option. The first ledge we walked to had 6 different bucks within sight, but nothing exceptional and worth pursuing. At the next overlook though, I swung the spotter onto a distant buck just in time to see stunning mass and a lengthy prong. A quick confirmation from Andrew before the buck disappeared behind a rise, and we were planning our first stalk of the trip. First day shooter all the way. It was a quick look and a hasty conclusion, but a convincing look it was – BIG! From just over a mile out, we closed to within 350 yards – working around a few other herds of pronghorn as well as 2 nosy coyotes. 2 does had us pinned for over 10 minutes at one point, but things were falling into place as we inched into position. We found a decently flat rock to prop dad’s rifle across the spotting scope and one of my unlaced boots completed the unconventional bench rest. Now it was time to wait until the buck broadsided and send a bullet his direction. I exchanged nervous glances with Andrew, Todd and Alan watched from the overlook a mile distant through their binoculars, and dad settled into position. Nerves, distance, and night closing in made for sketchy shooting conditions, but thankfully dad’s first warning shot scared the buck 40 yards closer. His second volley, however, wasn’t a warning shot. It connected and the buck never twitched.
We went nuts!
Rarely does ground “growage” occur, but it did in this case. We knew he was a good buck, but we hadn’t had a long time to analyze him in the spotter. We waited for the whole group to assemble and went to work caping and quartering by headlamp. A quick stretch of the tape and we knew the bar had been set quite high for the rest of us – 79″ even!! A first day shooter if ever there was one! High prong on the buck’s left side squeezed in a 3rd mass measurement below and he wound up taping just over 14″ on both sides, large prong was 5.5″, and 5 circumferences went over 6.25″.
I could have flown back to Ohio right then and there and been “over the moon” ecstatic. Our first full day of hunting was in the books, a pronghorn buck was nearly in the books, and a phenomenal stalk had culminated in a phenomenal memory with dad and friends – how could the rest of the hunt possibly top this!?!?