Landing in Casper, WY was the culmination of many months of dreaming and planning and practicing; but it was also the very beginning of an entirely new shared experience for my Dad and I.
We came into the trip knowing that we would see a lot of game, but I don't think anything could have prepared us for just how many Pronghorn we would see.
Jason Hill from SNS Outfitter picked us up from the Casper Airport in his pickup truck, and before we could even get to the highway to head towards camp, we were already seeing herds of antelope hanging out on every third hillside.
We were pleased to learn that there would only be four hunters in camp this particular weekend, which made for a peaceful and more personal experience while in camp.
Unlike deer, Pronghorn are active during the day, and bed down at night. Which means breakfast could start at 5:30 rather than 4:30.
After bellies were filled by our gracious cooks, we headed out the door in Jason's truck to roam the 60,000 acre ranch that we had access to, and prepared to glass some antelope. (Side-note: really glad I invested in good binoculars, they truly are every bit as important to a successful hunt as a rifle or bow.)
Once on the ranch, we were seeing tons of game from the get-go. Some herds less wary than others, which gave us an opportunity to see plenty of heads and horns, and begin to get a feel for the caliber of animals on the ranch. To some degree, all the bucks we were seeing looked very similar: mature but by no means exceptional.
Before too long, we spotted a buck herding his does up a hill, directly adjacent to the road, who appeared substantially more interesting in the horn department than any of the other fellows we had glassed that morning. It didn't take but a quick glance to recognize that he was bigger in both horn and body to what our eyes had grown accustomed to.
He headed off over the hill and out of sight with a group of about four or five does. One interesting thing about Pronghorn behavior: this was the later-stage of the rut, and the bucks were still in mating-season form. The bucks will accumulate a harem of does, and physically herd them to keep them together. If one breaks away, the buck will chase her down and push her back to the herd.
Just as it appeared our fellow was about to put a country mile between himself and our truck, he reappeared over the hill and descended back towards the road. He crossed the dirt track, a mere 80 yards behind the truck, and headed down into a deep ravine, and out of sight. He had returned to herd another doe who had strayed behind, and rejoin the group we had initially witnessed leaving town.
Since it was previously decided that I was going to be the first shooter, Jason turned around and said "Well, get your stuff, let's go!" Honestly, it caught me a little off-guard, the action accelerates quickly when hunting, so I started tearing through my backpack looking for my box of ammo, so that I could catch up with the rest of what was going on around me.
Once I had my rifle loaded and in-hand, we crept towards the edge of the ravine to peak down and see where our quarry had gone, as it had now been about a full minute since we saw him descend out of view.
To my surprise the ravine we peaked down into dropped down sharply to a body of water. The perimeter of the water was lined with various size hills that all sloped down from road-level into the basin.
Also to my surprise, our antelope buck was no where in sight.
"Well, I've never seen one swim, so he has to be around that next slope" Jason wisely supposed.
We worked our way along the ridge line to the next hill, knowing the antelope and his lady friend had to be below us somewhere, but there was no telling which side of the hill he would be on, or how far down he would be. Jason instructed me to dial back the power on my scope from 9X to 4X (which was a wise move considering this could be a short shot that required quick target acquisition.)
Since pronghorns have a tendency to continue their trajectory, we decided to work our way to the far edge of the hill, upon which we currently stood, which would reduce the chance that he would make a straight run for it before we could catch up.
As we approached the edge again, we peered over, rifle in hand, ready to fire an off-hand shot if necessary. Jason had the shooting sticks ready to go, in the event that we had time to set up for a shot.
Apparently we had beat him to the spot, because he was not in this draw, as we expected him to be, in fact, he was just rounding the corner of the hill, about 3/4 of the way down to the water's edge. All we could see was his face peaking around the curvature of the hill, looking untrustingly into our eyes.
The pronghorn doubled-back, and out of sight once more.
We started the brisk walk back to the ravine where we initially had looked for him, now approaching from the opposite direction, and with a slightly better idea of where our buck was headed. (In the back of my mind, I was a little concerned that he could double-back again, and have a free path out of sight, once he got back up onto level ground.)
Jason set up the shooting sticks, right as we had a clear line of sight down into the ravine.
There was our buck, headed up the opposite slope, with the lone doe he had gone back for (insert your own metaphors here) I fumbled to get settled on the shooting sticks, and calm my hands and heart. I really, really did not want to gut-shoot my first big game animal. The buck was working his way up the hill, and paused for a moment to look over his right shoulder at us, he stood perfectly broadside for a few moments.
Naturally, I was still swinging the hairs of the scope around like a drunken sailor on dry land, unable to slow my breathing enough to steady my aim. All the while still thinking, "don't gut shoot this thing..."
Right as I was settling in on his shoulder, he turned and headed back up the slope, resuming his escape plan. Fortunately, this buck either saw the fear in my eyes, or felt he still needed to give us another once-over to evaluate our level of threat; because he paused not once, but twice more.
On the third (thank you, Lord) pause and broadside turn, I finally got my head and hands working in the same direction, and squeezed off a round with the crosshairs in the vicinity of his shoulder.
The shot struck a little high and to the right (away from his guts) and landed in the base of his neck, dropping him in his tracks immediately. He slid a few feet down the hill, and came to a final rest 1/4 of the way down a grassy slope, 200 feet above what I would later learn was an abandoned Uranium mine, that had since filled with water.
Jason ranged the shot at 154 yards, and we paused to take in the moment, and the weight of what had just occurred. This was the first big game animal whose life I had ever taken, and the culmination of many years of reading and imagining what this would feel like.
From a strictly "trophy photo" perspective, I have better photos than this, but I felt like this image captured the moment, because the reality is, it's a bittersweet affair. The antelope's life, and the hunt are both now over. I am thankful to be headed home with 30 or 40 pounds of meat, and I am thankful to have been able to do so using a rifle with such personal significance, but there is more at play in this moment than simply those two things.