Monday, September 30, 2013


The black spots are cows. In between the cows are some white spots which are pronghorn alarm signals, or bottoms. Your task is to stalk to within 300 yards of these animals across the open plains..

We decided to try a pronghorn antelope hunt this year, instead of elk hunting, as the pronghorn are supposed to be easier than the seldom seen elk. This sure didn't look easy to me. Quite apart from the emptiness of the plains, the cows are even spookier than the game (which gives one to wonder what it is the cowboys are doing, that the cows find us so alarming). Ian and I dropped into an old water supply ditch, two to three feet deep, and followed its divagations slavishly, on hands and knees. Most of the pronghorn drifted off over the hill or down into little gullies out of sight, but one remained on the hill. We lay flat and watched. When the head dipped down to graze, we'd skulk a little nearer, freezing as soon as he looked around again. This got us within shot, but he was posed against the skyline. The hunter education course we both took is graphic in its illustrations of the horrors of skyline shots, where a missed shot could descend upon unwitting innocents out of sight below the hill. So, we waited, and waited, willing him to take five steps to the right where the shot would be safe: of course he took five steps to the left, and vanished over the hill. We sat up and contemplated the rich harvest of cactus spikes in our kneecaps. 

Empty empty Wyoming lands, miles of green rolling hills and not cover for an ant, anything not a pronghorn or cow gets spotted and spooked at instantly. Crawling doesn't help, they know full well what a crawling hunter looks like, and not so much as a sage bush to hide behind. Ian tried using cows for cover on one stalk, said that worked quite well to 400 yards out, then the cows got peeved and moved off. Apparently it can be helpful to have a horse, walk next to the horse and keep him between you and the antelope; they don't count legs, so a six-legged horse can get quite close. 

After the first day of the season, they figure out what is going on and no longer spook and bolt miles away, too exhausting my dear. Instead they keep a weather eye on you and drift slowly off, staying a safe 800 yards or so ahead. It's possible to cover a lot of country following a herd around, which we did before we figured out what was going on. I learn a little slower than the prey animals, no wonder I remain a hungry hunter. 

This is camp in the morning, after pitching the tent at 9pm last night. Two handsome beasts crossed the road a mile away in the first light, their white flanks absolutely glowing in the sun so they appeared spectrally large, spirit antelope in the dawn. Ian ran away from them and over a little ridge, hoping to sneak closer out of sight behind the ridge. About five minutes later both took fright at something in the unseen world and fled at top speed: a fine sight though discouraging. 

We breakfasted pensively. The Wyoming Game & Fish showed up in one of their monster pickups to check our hunting and camping permits. A different ranger had checked us the previous evening as I backed the minivan up a two-track road blocked by a couple of massive potholes. He said, "ah, just gun it, give it enough gas and you'll make it through". Neither of them said anything out loud about the minivan, but I could see them thinking. 

Parked on the side of the main county dirt road and wandered off again. Although the country is empty and treeless, there's a surprising amount of dead ground (US: dead space) where animals can be concealed. We found a nice big herd, ducked into a handy creek bed and ran two miles around, poked our noses out of the gully and there were 12 heads and 24 eyes all turned around and glaring straight at us. There must have been some noise or scent, fairly sure we were out of sight in the creek bed since I'd used the cows as height markers and couldn't see the cows, never mind the pronghorn behind them.

By this time the hunt area was being patrolled steadily on every two-track by some seven or eight trucks. We took refuge in our ditch again and waited to see if the other hunters would push some animals past us. There are three pronghorn in the picture above, which is why you carry 10x50 binoculars. It's also noticeable that I can no longer keep the camera level when taking a picture. EM Forster observed of Cavafy that the poet stood forever at a slight angle to the universe: in my case I appear to be listing slightly to the left as the years and I approach our meeting point. 

The unfortunate hunted beasts were by now thoroughly alarmed not to mention absent, so we quit and went home. They were all lined up along the main road to wave goodbye, standing safely on private land. 

Some weeks later Ian had Friday off school, so we drove up Thursday night in pouring rain and wind for the last weekend of the season. Since I am now old and weak we did not camp but instead stayed in the cheapest hotel I could find. In the case of success, we would have to stay in that hotel for all future hunts, by way of a talisman. This is a sort of hedging the bets: either we'd endure a cheap hotel night and have luck in the hunt, or we'd be able to pick a better hotel next time. If you don't have skills you have to bargain with the hunting gods as best you can.

Friday pre-dawn drive through the mud to the ranch was interesting at 10mph, fishtailing through the slop. If I could have seen the road conditions I would not have driven the minivan down there. We tried for a herd of a dozen or so, but they were using the ranch cows for cover. As we crawled through the snow in the ditch for half a mile, they just faded away to stay the regulation half-mile out. On the plus side, the snow protected us from another injection of cactus spines. 

Back over the hill and into the ditch on that side, there were three getting ready to bed down in the creek bed. I stayed back in the dead ground and sent Ian to crawl up on them. Again they drifted off, not spooked but not staying to be stalked either. After an hour Ian fired a warning shot in frustration. They trotted up the ridge, stopped to look back, then went over. Ian ran up a mile or so of uphill, used an old water tank on the top of the hill for cover, and approached keeping the tank between him and them. As he came out from behind the tank they started running, but he took the shot and got it. GPS showed it was a running shot at a hundred yards plus, in 25mph gusting wind, after dashing a mile or so uphill. The shot was about 3-6" back from a perfect hit. Clearly I just need to drive Ian to the hunting grounds and then get out of the way. 

Later we had pronghorn backstrap medallions for dinner. The Latin name for the pronghorn is Antilocapra americana, which means American goat-antelope, although it is neither a goat nor an antelope but sui generis. They are affectionately known in Wyoming as speed goats. The choice of wine was therefore obviously a nourishing gulp of Goats do Roam blend (Côtes du Rhône). 

The estate used to be known as Fairview, but this wine succeeded to such an extent the company became eponymous. They always had goats on the farm, for the milk to make artisanal goat cheese. I remember visiting the estate and its goat tower, buying some wine and cheese to have a pleasantly befuddled afternoon. They now have resident springbok as well, though the winelands of the western Cape are far from their native heath. 

These look much like pronghorn and occupy much the same ecological niche, though as the name implies their specialty is leaping rather than the straight run of the speed goat. A nostalgia for springbok may be one of the reasons I love to see pronghorn on the plains. 

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