High Plains Drifter

Written by Ted Schnack Jr.

A six legged demon was ripping pieces out of my face. But I didn’t dream of flinching. Not after all I had been through.

The wind shifted a sea of emeralds into subtle patterns. In that green sea was a lone buck, his white, tan and black mask a stark contrast staring back at me hard. This was likely the 30th buck I’d had glass that day and it was just after noon. A nice buck. A damn nice buck. But not a buck I wanted.

It is always good to be back in the plains of Wyoming, where some of my most vivid life experiences as a young hunter were played out decades before. The higher peaks of the west command attention and attract tourists with their undeniable beauty. The plains quietly grow on you with their endless space and loneliness.

The more I travel to different corners of the world, the more I realize what an amazing gift from God the American West is. The vast public lands my boots trod on. The abounding game, raw wilderness, and the freedom to relish it and hunt the animals that call it home. The open uncluttered space of it all, the open vistas and freedom to sit on “my” land, looking at a rolling, living carpet of sage stretching to the horizon. Imagine it was once a prehistoric ocean and 150 years before a half a blink in time, these planes were black with thundering herds of Bison and the Indians that relied on their life blood.

The Wyoming wind is relentless and almost biblical at times, and day long averages of 50 mph wind with gusts up to maybe 80. Day after day. Not a big plus when sporting your bow and trying to stay steady when a little wobble at the shot or trying to send a projectile with a trio of wind vanes to a precise spot on an animal with a small kill zone. With hyper quick reflexes, they’re known to duck arrows from 20 yards coming at 300 fps. Hard moody was the enemy, but like the sage around me, wasn’t going anywhere and would be part of Wyoming long after I was gone and you can only hope for a break

The Achilles heel of dominant Pronghorn bucks is their dedication to their home turf. If you find where a buck lives and where he likes to roam, you can find him again 99 percent of the time when shooting season rolls around.

I had seen countless bucks during my scouting trips and was on a spot and stalk trek now that the season was on. I was two miles from my truck. It had been an overcast and windy day and quickly the sky was turning a wicked black. Marching quickly across the plains, brandishing lighting bolt swords and thunderclaps, was a serious storm. An army of black angry clouds were on a hunt of their own. The wind was picking up and the I found myself looking for the telltale funnel clouds that mark a storm changing from a barroom brawler to a serial killer. Stinging sleet pellets urged me on and I was able to make it back to my truck on the cutting edge as the gale hit with full force.

Time for a new plan. I went to a part of the ranch I had only been to once. Sort of a remote corner. I remembered I had jumped a nice buck a few days before who had blazed to the horizon hundreds of yards away. He’d had me thinking even without a spotting scope look, “Nice One.” As I looked across the land formulating my next move a small wisp of vibrant green caught my eye. The sage was a little taller, it seemed slightly more lush in that spot. Could it be a water hole? I grabbed my bow and headed out for the two mile hike. Hundreds of yards away I could feel moisture in the air and the scent of water. I caught a twinkle of water through the sage.

On closer inspection, it was a sweet hidden spot with a high bank of tall sage on the short dam side. A scattering of fresh tracks showed one set was surely attached to a big buck, and my next plan was forming. It was a perfect set up for a natural blind.

I cut sage, found some sticks and bailing wire, and it was starting to take shape. I felt like I was making a fort when I was a kid, and was really enjoying the design. This was going to be little more than a small sage nest just enough to sit or crouch in. The entire primitive design had one driving idea. Stealth. The only comfort factor was a slight hole I kicked out with my booths to sit in the avoid sliding down the sloped bank. Just big enough to sit in, crouch and shoot. It would have to be perfect or else I’d send the sharp-eyed pronghorn to find their water elsewhere.

Setting off on the mile hike to my blind, the night was cold and clear with a steady breeze.

Slipping into the blind using only the light of a half moon I settled in. I did another check to see if there was anything that might catch or pop when I drew my bow. Any shot across the pond was right at 40 yards….35 yards to the hard right. Any shooting would be on one knee and a butt cheek on the sloping dirt bank. A little different from standing flat footed at the range in a t-shirt and shorts, or a pop up blind with room to move around.

It was going to be cramped, cramped and hot, and the water on the open prairie doesn’t just attract antelope, but also bugs, spiders and rattlers. As the old nature saying goes, water is life. Well, water can be death too. But I was proud and had a good feeling about my little sage nest.

Just after dawn, I had already been treated to an old ogre badger that had waddled down to the water’s edge for a pint of brew, and I was caught up in the the masterpiece of the sunrise when I snapped to attention. SLLLLLUUUURP…I looked hard right and there was a doe sucking up a good drink close enough to see her long lashes blink. She had come in hard right, and was in such a place as there could be 20 antelope just out of sight. I slowly turned...and I mean slowly towards her trying to get in position for what might come. She lifted her head, glared right at me, her eyes widened and she reeled and ran away.

My balloon of hope was popped. You got to be kidding me…she saw me? I had taken great effort on the blind and made extra effort to keep out rays of light that might show my movement, and I had barely moved at that. So now I am thinking GREEEEAT….might wait here forever just to have any antelope bolt on my first movement. Well I would give it a solid shot and see what happened next. Nothing for hour and it was crawling up in the 90’s and the wind had decided to take the day off so far when I was begging for a breeze.

The sun was warming with the intoxicating smell of the sage and sunflowers, bumble bees buzzed and dragonflies were on a hunt of their own. I could feel a nap tapping me on the shoulder. Something told me to take one more hard glass look, before I tilted my hat forward and laid my head back for a short snooze. There! I saw the black face and tall horns of a good buck about 500 yards away staring my way.

The glass brought good news a great buck. The heat waves kept me from a really clean look, but I had looked at hundreds and hundreds of bucks this year and thousands in my life, and many through heat waves, and he was packing some gear.

Hopefully he was coming my way and not just passing by. Antelope are amazingly patient. The buck stood in one spot, head high above the horizon for 15 minutes, staring at my waterhole before taking a step forward. The buck was coming directly downwind. Antelope use their noses, but nothing like deer or elk. For the most part, they seem to only really trust their eyes, but go hyper alert on all sense when approaching water.

It took two more hours for the buck to move 400 yards closer...a step or two and 10 minutes of staring hard at the hole. After my brief run-in with the morning doe, this tightly wound buck likely would be a hard one to draw on and get a clean solid shot without a string jump...or any shot at all.

I had been in my cramped blind for about eight hours and the red ants were having a hay-day with me. The ants were tolerable when you could kill them with vengeance to keep them at bay, and I had taken on some sort of sport to pass the time. But now the tables had turned. Remembering the doe from earlier, I wasn’t going to move a muscle until it was time to shoot. I had lain in the blazing sun, crawled across the desert, was sun burnt, hadn’t had a real shower in a week, started a festering collection of cactus tips in my forearms, crawled face to face with the biggest prairie rattler I had ever seen and too many new aches and pains to count. What is a little ant biting? My chicken bones from yesterday were of little interest to them. They wanted live meat. Me. These red ants were just a bit smaller than their monster cousins, fire ants, and for what they gave up in size, they made up in attitude and resilience. They were doing their best to leave me as a fresh skeleton clutching a bow

I had long ago slowly gotten everything set; arrow nocked, facemask pulled down, bow in place. He was at about 80 yards now and had swung around in a good wind and was coming head on to the hole. Those legendary eyes were dissecting every square inch. I was even trying to blink slowly and keep my pounding heart down to a low bang.

By now I had a good look at him and he was a real stud buck. He was tall, 15 or so, with obviously great prongs and good mass. He would easily make the Pope and Young record book.

He was frozen in place staring…and staring hard. He had likely watered at this hole a thousand times. Was something different?

I felt an ant crawling up my neck. He made his evil way behind my face mask and I could feel him right below my right eye. I don’t know if he was liking my sweat or didn’t like being trapped, but fresh meat was on the menu. That little monster just started biting me as he crawled about. There was no way I was going to flinch after the doe had bolted this morning at my slight move. This was the culmination of a summer of scouting and a week of hard hunting. I had worked way too hard for this and knew this likely would be my best and maybe only chance.

The way the buck had moved in so slowly, I thought the last 80 yards might take a long time. I was wrong. He strolled in the last yards, satisfied the waterhole was clear of sharp surprises. I had planned on drawing my bow when his muzzle was 10 inches about the water. I figured that would be the instant he would have to be looking down for sure. I was afraid he might stop head on and not offer a good shot, as he was coming into the farthest spot directly across the pond. Whoever said waterhole hunting is boring wasn’t feeling what I was feeling. I felt like Sugar Ray Leonard was using my heart as a speed bag.

His horns were high and jet black in the hot sun, and the anticipation during the long week and previous summer of scouting was coming to a pinpoint. After his quick walk to the water’s edge, he stopped just short of broadside with a slight quarter toward me. In the same motion, he bent down and I drew my bow like I had tens of thousands of times before, but this time it was real. The 40 yard pin settled on the sweet spot and I touched the trigger.

Tttoooonk! After hours of trying not to blink or move, and petrified the slightest movement or sound would bring it all to an end in a blur of hooves and dirt. The normally soft “doink” of my bow going off sounded like a cherry bomb in church. The buck reeled and bolted for about 30 yards to a lazy rise and stopped.

I did not see my arrows flight, but heard a quick “Sheeerlapp” of something hitting something. Like a tiny axe into a ripe pumpkin. I was sure I heard it. The buck stood stiff and wide-eyed, looking very much alive and healthy. I was still not sure where my arrow had gone and a miss was a great possibility. And the buck was showing no sign of anything other than being a dragster at the line, ready to peel out.

I was quickly back to being as still as possible. After a few minutes, he took a few steps forward and his head momentarily bobbed low. He was hit. My hopes soared. By now, ten minutes had passed, so a double lung or heart shot possibility was gone.

He turned slightly, and almost in the center of the white patch on his side was a small spot of blood. When I shot he was just short of broadside quarter towards me and slightly lower because of the blind sitting higher. I was thinking about four inches too far back. I had killed a bull elk years back, striking it in the same spot and angle clipping the liver. He went 50 yards and when I cut him open, a wash basin of blood gushed out. I was hoping for the same fatal wound.

He took a few more steps and laid down. My heart was pounding, “I’m gonna get him!!!!” He was behind some sage, but I could see his head, which was bobbing slowly towards the ground and then out of sight. After a minute or so, my silent glee squeaked out in a jaw clenched, “I got him,” that was no louder than telling a secret across a table. Now over 100 yards out, the buck jumped to his feet, startling me back to reality. This was not over. Not by a long shot.

The buck walked slowly away from me and into a deep cut, out of sight.

I slipped out of my blind after marking a few reference points. I snuck to the top of the steep cut. It felt good to be on my feet. I stole a peek through some sage. There he was, bedded down and looking the other direction. The angle compensating range finder said 30 on the nose and almost straight down. I drew behind the sage to mask my movement and then leaned forward…the 30 yards pin high on his shoulder. I told myself, slow down, make it count, this is where it ends. A deep breath and a trigger squeeze. I had never made a steadier shot.

I saw the arrow, a carbon-comet zip right into the shoulder fold. Perfect. The buck snapped his head around, his eyes wide looking uphill. I could almost sense him say “SO YOUR BEHIND THIS!!!!” Until that moment I don’t think he had a clue what actually happened, other than that sip of water had made him feel ill.

He sprung to his feet with surprising quickness, spun hard and sprinted harder and faster than any pronghorn I had ever seen. He was on a 100 yard death run right back towards the waterhole in a whirlwind of dust and a blur of muscle and hooves. I had just seen my arrow bury fletching deep, but he looked more than alive. It look like it had energized him. Midstride, as if struck by lightning, he tumbled down in a 15 yard crash of dirt, sage, horns, hair, flesh and blood, coming to rest 30 yards from the waterhole. I got him!!!!! I was whooping happy and ran to him on trembling legs. Those who have put in endless hours and days trying to make it happen, suffering setbacks, will understand that supercharged ecstatic feeling when it finally happens. That feeling is priceless and I live for it.

He was a stone cold stud. He appeared to be perfectly symmetrical and was right at 15 inches, with good bases and great cutters. I thought he looked to be about 77 inches, which later proved to be spot on. A solid Pope and Young buck with lots to spare. He smelled of musk and the Wild Wind.