Written by Ted Schnack
Sporting Classics Feature
“Go west young man” was the advice given to the young adventurer of yesteryear looking to get lost in the untamed wilds of a raw America. Men like Jim Bridger, Hatchet Jack, Crazy Horse the notorious Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and countless other free spirited wanderlusts found their way in the western wilds of Wyoming. From the heights of the Teton’s stunning peaks of stone and ice to the bubbling cauldrons of Yellowstone on down to the Hole in the Wall badland hideaways and the smoky blue sage vastness of the rolling flats, the roots of Wyoming hold hard and it still offers the West at its wildest.
Wyoming was where I drew first blood on big game as a boy, and its Pronghorns and the wild prairie they call home hold a sweet spot in my hunter’s heart.
Over the years, I had heard rumors of the perfect buck, yet he remained as elusive as a prairie dust devil. I could see him in my mind’s eye; long of horn, sleek brawn with a jet black face to stare down the boldest of challengers.
Before heading further west to the Red Desert I stopped at a historical gem of a place in Medicine Bow. Jutting up from the surrounding flats like a Stonehenge of the high plains the century old Virginian Hotel was better than many museums I have visited. The bar was something straight out of Bonanza complete with errant bullet holes in the tin ceiling from gunfights in decades past. I half expected to see Hoss and Little Joe stroll in and pound their fists on the bar demanding whiskey.
But it was antelope I was after, and arriving in my unit I started seeing them. Lots of them. Having looked at countless bucks in my life, right off the bat I saw a long horned buck who took my breath away. His badland hideaway was an expanse in the land that could easily be overlooked with a casual glance.
His horns stood tall and proud, mirror images of each other with thick bases and a wicked prong. But it was what happened above the prong that had me muttering to myself, “That is a nice buck….whoa, that’s the best one I’ve ever seen….ever”. His horns just kept going eventually hooking back to sharp ivory tipped points. As far as antelope go, he was a brute and half again bigger than any of the four sleek does which made up his small harem.
He wore a mask of coal black.
I was met by my longtime hunting buddy, Ken Larson who also had big bucks on his mind. We kept scouting and looked at scores of bucks over the next few days. Although we saw some solid trophies, I couldn’t get my mind off of the long horned buck in the hidden valley. I went back to check on him quietly from a distance each day. I was getting his habits and the lay of his domain squared away running over possible scenarios in my mind when the opening day finally arrived.
Dynamite comes in small packages and rutting Pronghorn Bucks don’t take kindly to strangers with the hot’s for their girls. Most of the antelope were herded up and ruled by alert bucks jealously guarding their titles. It was obvious the rut was still in full swing, and we were treated to several main events. If you have never been ringside to see Pronghorns fight it is quite a spectacle. Quicker than quick with sizzling reflexes, blinding combinations, flashing footwork and a killer instinct bar none. Elk and Moose are the heavyweights of the west and sluggers in their own rights, but pound for pound I got to tip my hat to a pissed off Pronghorn Buck with a shot of jealousy in his veins. Luckily, antelope don’t have the rack of a Bull Elk or I am sure there would be some serious carnage and gore spread across the sage each fall.
Ken and I said our good lucks the night before season opener. In the morning I would be leaving an hour earlier as we went our separate ways. Ken had pinned down a couple of big bucks and had a hunt plan of his own.
It would just be me and the buck. One on one.
I had never hunted this area before on opening day and I heard it could be a zoo. I planned to be in position well before first light. If and when I spotted him, I could make a quick move before other hunters started coming through spoiling our one on one meeting. I bitterly remembered being onto the Muley buck of a lifetime and having a pickup truck full of guys lobbing 800 yard shots at him ending that dream. I knew my best and likely only chance would be in the critical first few minutes of daybreak.
A soft hint of dawn was followed by a crisp line over the eastern horizon. Golden pastels of pink and blue showed Mother Nature was serious about starting a new day. Soon the darkness faded to soft grey light, and black shadows surrendered to shape and form. The resting wind of the night was also waking for another relentless day. Just visible his hideaway was a sprawling bowl a mile across bracketed by two rounded bluffs on one side and a long jagged washed out ridge on the other. The highest sage was less than a foot and most of the area and the heart of his hideaway was dead flat.
The stage was set.
Glassing hard something caught my eye. Two white flecks in the sea of grey. It was the herd near the far jagged edge. I had watched him before but this time it was for real. My only hope was a half a mile double back to try and work my way up to the washouts. Problem was they were starting to move to the worst part of the buck’s realm, a featureless flat far from any sort of cover where he seemed to like to spend his days. I would have to be quick to have a chance.
Once out of sight I made a steady run across the broken land knowing it was going to be close. Winded and in position, I was able to low crawl to the edge of the basin. There they were, but further than I hoped. The rangefinder gave me the bad news; 407 yards. A tough shot, makeable, but even tougher with a stiff cross wind. The wildcard of other hunters rolling through nagged at me. I decided it was time for me to make the same flat shooting .270 I carried to Wyoming as a kid and German optics to do their stuff. I tried to calm myself for a perfect shot. Easier said than done. That excited buzz I felt as a boy when onto game still did its dance even after decades of hunting. This was the closest I had been to him after watching him for days. He looked spectacular standing in that pale morning light.
Considering the wind and distance I aimed just in front of his chest and eight inches high. The crack of my rifle shocked the morning quiet. Missed! I saw a sickening puff of dust kick up right where I had been aiming. The buck and his does didn’t wait to find out where the shot came from and were off in a hard run. I was stunned.
It made me want him even more. He was out there and I wasn’t going to give up. Rutting bucks love their home turf, and he would not be the first to let his lust do his thinking for him. The prairie is vast and after watching them cross the distant horizon in full stride a mile away I knew it might be days, if ever he came back.
I worked my way to the far ridge and was able to spot the herd about 1000 yards away. The buck was on ultra alert standing stiff and squared chested. The does appeared to be relaxed, feeding unconcerned. A good sign. A very good sign. Surprisingly, I had not seen another hunter.
The sun was rising and the wind was gaining strength, the cool morning giving way to a cold and dusty day. I was seeing other antelope and at first took the time to set up the spotting scope to look. I saw a few nice bucks in the distance but they weren’t him. I stopped looking. It was all or nothing.
During the next seven hours they slowly made their way back to his home basin; and smack dab in the middle of the flattest spot possible. The prairie heat waves cast a liquid wash across the land distorting the mirage of images into a strange dance. I was wishing I had brought more food and drink. I sipped my remaining water slowly holding back the desire to quench my growing thirst in deep satisfying gulps.
During the day when changing positions something in the natural rhythm of the dirt and stones caught my eye: as long as a man’s finger, two sharp edged stones lying side by side. Some sort of curved skinning and cutting blades apparently chipped to a keen edge by the skilled hands of the Indians that hunted these lands. I was sure of it. I was hunting on ground where primitive hunters of the past had stalked their life giving game. I wondered if they might have used the same lookout points, hidden folds in the land and crawled along the same bluffs.
The tall buck looked like a stud and acted like one. Other antelope came and went and a few lone bucks tried their luck at courting his girls. A full throttle charge with those wicked sabers low and serious changed the minds of all the bucks quickly turning them from contenders to cowards. He took out his pent up rage on a few hapless bushes just daring anyone to come in. The does grazed unconcerned having seen this school yard bully act before. A few times he chased one of the doe’s hot and fast in dodging and cutting circles while she played hard to get, unimpressed by his dashing good looks.
Slowly they were drifting ever closer to the far broken ridge half a mile away. It was hard to judge just how far they were from the distant cover. Were they 300 or 600 yards away from the closest ambush point? It would be a several mile backtrack to try and get above them. I could see with the gentle rise it would be a long crawl to the edge. I picked a couple of references and was off.
Long crawls are always an adventure of their own. The ground looked innocent enough, but I knew from past experience it is an evil illusion. The usual suspects of cactus and sharp rocks were having the most fun with me finding their ways around my knee pads and leather gloves. Without the extra protection I would have ended up a shredded mess instead of just feeling like somebody was kicking me with cowboy boots and poking me with pins as I went.
Finally peeking over the edge, there they were. The herd ranged at 380; the gusting wind strong and unpredictable, another tough shot. I knew I had gotten a gift early in the morning when they didn’t clear the county when I missed. Likely it would be a different story now that during the day the distant booms of rifle shots made it clear to an old buck what time of year it was. I would not be forgiven so easily this time. He stood looking and alert as the does slowly walked further away. I knew he would soon follow. It was now or never.
Timing the wind gusts, the cross hairs settled. Remembering the errant shot of that morning my concentration keen. A deep sigh, the thump of my .270 and the buck was down! The same rush of adrenaline I had been chasing my entire life shot through my veins. A clenched fist whoop and in a stumbling run I made my way to him.
He was even better than I imagined. His markings crisp and clean, he smelled of musk and the wild wind. The Prairie King’s crown had me in awe.
Stopping at a game check station, a senior Warden asked to see my buck. In a slow drawl “Well you got yourself a hell of a buck….best one I seen this year.” He called to an even more senior Warden wearing a crumpled Stetson, “you gotta see this buck”. Skeptically the elder warden said, “So did you just come across this buck?” I responded, “No, I've been watching him for fours days.” In a nodding approval he quietly said, “Good job.” I knew if I had the attention of the Wyoming wardens who had seen thousands of bucks over the decades he might be even more special than I thought.
At home the tale of the tape tells me he might make Boone and Crockett with a few inches to spare. I like the thought of having him shoulder to shoulder with the Prairie Kings of all time.
Book or not the buck has found a place in my heart. As always it is so many more things than inches of antlers and horns. Hunting takes you places you would not normally go and the discoveries about yourself, the animals you hunt and the lands they call home. This hunt had taken me back not only to my first hunts as a boy, but to hallowed grounds where roaming bands of Indians hunted their life force and counted coup, and once again I was able to wade back into that river of life.
Home now, but the call of the howling wind and solitude of the Wyoming plains still calls me back. Until my return my daydreams will be filled with the burning pastels of a cold sunset, the cries of coyotes on a star filled night and a hidden valley in an ocean of sage underneath the wide and untamed horizon.