Michael Abell

Pronghorn on the Moon

Michael Abell
Pronghorn on the Moon

I have a friend who just won’t travel to hunt. I have tried to get him to travel out west and hunt with me. He’s almost gone a couple times, but so far, he just cannot do it. You might be thinking it’s money, time off or any number of the normal reasons that stop folks from actually doing a big western hunt. Nope, it’s none of the normal mundane excuses. It’s a real life tangible obstacle, anxiety. You see, he simply cannot bring himself to be more than a few hours away from his wife and beautiful girls. It’s not his fault that he doesn’t want to travel, he’s earned his anxiety. My dear friend is a veteran, who has seen more combat than a man should. He even brought home some shrapnel, that he gets to carry around forever. We hunt together locally in my home state of Kentucky during turkey and deer seasons every year and will do it even more now that I’m retired. We talk all the time and in some of those conversations we imagine big western hunts together. Through those conversations, I’ve learned that pronghorn antelope are his weakness. I doubt we are ever going to travel to hunt. However, that doesn’t stop me from trying to get him in the truck when I leave for the mountains.  

I had finally drawn the trophy mule deer tag for my favorite over-the-counter elk unit. I was familiar with the terrain in the Gunnison and Grand Mesa National Forests and that’s where I’d spend my time. So, I’d have both those tags in my pocket. I would also purchase a black bear tag, over-the-counter with CAPS. But I would start the trip with a pronghorn hunt of course. I tried hard to get my friend to go with me. It didn’t work. He very deftly and graciously changed the subject every time I brought up us hunting speed goats together. As the spring and summer progressed, it was apparent that no amount of cajoling, enticement or down right bribery was going to get him in the truck. So, my post retirement hunting odyssey would be archery, public land, DIY and solo. I would retire from the Army on my 46th birthday, August 10th, 2017. I would drive to Pennsylvania to shoot the IBO World Championships in an amateur class. Then drive back to Kentucky, pack the truck and leave to hunt with elk, pronghorn, black bear and mule deer tags in my pocket.

My research of my favorite elk hunting areas had me firmly believing that I could hunt three species: elk, mule deer and black bear all in the same general area. After coming up with primary, secondary and tertiary plans to find a good mule deer buck, with elk and bear as a bycatch, I set that work aside and began planning in earnest to find public land speed goats. It wasn’t long before I figured out that hunting pronghorn with an over the counter tag on public land is a bit more difficult than hunting other big game species. Across a great deal of their range, they inhabit flat land that is good for row crop agriculture and grazing livestock, thus most of that land is private. There were a few other places to go, but I focused on the Comanche and Pawnee National Grasslands of Colorado. After further research I realized the Pawnee was highly fragmented and checkerboarded with private land that could complicate my hunt. So, I settled on the Comanche National Grassland.

The summer came and went in a flurry of retirement preparation and archery tournaments. August arrived, and I retired. I shot well at the tournament. Rolled home. Packed the truck. And I was off toward the Rockies. I was driving across the Kansas prairie, staring at the horizon and a long straight endless stretch of I-70 West, when I had an epiphany. For the first time in 27 years I wasn’t in command of anyone. I flashed back to my first day at my first assignment, 1st Platoon Leader, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry, 2nd Brigade, 24th Infantry Division. God I was young, maybe too young, but I was immediately given the charge of 31 infantrymen in my platoon. I was so proud. The number of Soldiers assigned to my command grew with each promotion and assignment, peaking as a Brigade Commander and about 3,200 Soldiers. Now, driving across the prairie, staring blankly at the horizon I realized I was in charge of one person – me. It was a thought I meditated on throughout the hunt and still do sometimes today.

A day and a half of driving were over. I set up camp. I reviewed my plan and double checked my maps. Then I went scouting. Referencing my OnX map app and driving my 4x4 van across the “national forest” roads on the prairie I realized a few things (1) this place is flat (2) this area is used by off road enthusiasts quite a bit (3) the rains earlier this year had produced a sea of 2’ to 4’ sunflowers that could help me stalk goats in this moonscape and (4) there were pronghorn here – I saw them. Proudly I returned to camp, it was time for dinner and a beer. I was excited. This was my first pronghorn hunt ever. Without any help, I turned my internet research and map reconnaissance into success! I found water holes, a long dry creek bed I could still hunt, a sea of sunflowers and antelope. The question was, how would I hunt them tomorrow? After some meditation and reflection, I decided to hunt the only fragmented terrain I could find, a dry creek bed that ran east to west. Over the eons of time the water had cut through the dust into the bed rock below and although it was dry now, there were pinon and ponderosa pine along it’s shoulders extending fifty to a hundred yards in both directions perpendicular to the course of the creek bed. I would be there at sun up with the rising eastern sun at my back and use its blinding rays to help me close the distance on a buck. I would hunt them until the sun was overhead and was of no further use to me. Then I would return in the afternoon and hunt with the setting sun at my back, in the opposite direction west to east. I called my friend and told him what he was missing. We had a great conversation. He wished me luck. Then I attempted sleep.

I parked the van before dawn on the eastern edge of the hunting unit, where the creek bed passed under the state road. Then I waded through a herd of cattle. Public land is multiple use land and I would wade through cattle quite often over the next month. In short order, I was set up on the slightest piece of high ground waiting for the sun to crest the horizon. It seemed to happen all at once. The sun exploded in a palate of bright shimmering light that lit up the dying night sky into kaleidoscope of yellow, red, orange, purple, pink and turquoise. I marveled at the Lord’s work for quite a while, before I regained my composure and started to glass toward the west. Minutes later I was laughing quietly to myself, I’d spotted a good buck and three does. They were feeding north out into a sea of sunflowers from the cover of the creek bed. I spent the next hour still hunting quietly down the creek bed, always to the west. I stopped regularly to look north and check the position of the buck. The third time I stopped to glass up the buck, I also glassed up some hunters. They were on another road to the north, glassing my buck from a half a mile away. They did not know, they were too late. I was already stalking the buck and they were still trying to get a plan together. At the last bit of cover, I left the creek bed and stepped out onto the open prairie with only sunflowers to hide my movement. The hunters on the road certainly saw me, but the goats did not, not yet. Quickly finding myself out of sunflowers I sat quietly and watched the antelope feed north east. They were approaching a dry rivulet that fed the creek and had filled up with huge sunflowers. They would have to cross it. I back tracked toward the creek, then moved up the rivulet, using the sunflowers as cover. The final stalk was over 600 yards and took most of the morning. The cool prairie was heating up, rapidly and starting to look more like a desert. At 143 yards I had nothing left to hide behind. I wished for a minute that I had a coyote hide to crawl under like a Native American. Then I remembered I had my Montana Decoy Antelope Buck with me. I slowly deployed the decoy whenever the buck’s head was down. Then I crawled toward them behind it. It didn’t work. I’m not sure what range it was, when their famous six power binocular vision sorted me out. But it wasn’t bow range and in true speed goat fashion they were gone in an instant.

Over the next week, I was blessed with great days, book ended with amazing sunrises and sunsets. I stalked antelope every single day. I got within easy rifle range of good bucks, but never closer than 117 yards. Except for the dry creek bed and random fields of waist high sunflowers, the public land I chose to hunt was a moonscape. Frustrated, I pulled out my last trick – contact the local taxidermist. I called him and sincerely asked, “If I kill a goat, would you mount it and hold it until I come back to hunt next year?” He agreed in a warm easy kind way. Then he asked where I was hunting and how I was hunting. I shared that I was on public land and that it was a DIY bowhunt. He asked how I was doing and after I explained, told me that I need to be sitting water. Further, that if I had time he would take me out tomorrow morning and show me some lesser known water holes on public land. The generosity of strangers! I love it. I’d gone as far as I could DIY. I needed a hand.

The next morning, I met Rudy Meyers of Tanglewood Taxidermy, at a local lumberyard. We rolled out onto the prairie in his old Ford. Sure enough, before lunch I was shown the dark side of the moon. It was actually the far corner of a public unit, miles away from where I was hunting, that had a wonderful little waterhole covered in fresh antelope tracks. I was so thankful that I offered to take him out for a steak – my treat. He declined until I had killed a buck. We laughed and said our goodbyes, before I sat up my blind. Then I drove my truck over the horizon, walked a mile back to the blind and crawled in with great anticipation.

Great anticipation turned into a war of attrition. Nine days passed, with me sitting from dawn until dusk in that blind on the flat open moonscape prairie. It was part wonder and part torture. In the morning, I would be greeted by an amazing sunrise and cool temps. Then as the glorious orange, red, yellow and pink rays of the sun warmed the moonscape a vast number of birds would visit. As the sun reached its zenith and the blind become an oven, a young badger would sneak in for a swim. Occasionally, I would see coyotes trying to run down a jackrabbit as big as they were. But every day without fail, the heat would come, and I would roast. It was in the afternoon that antelope would be seen. Some even came to the water hole, but only once did any drink and they never presented a shot. I read the entirety of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Journal. I kept up my spirits thinking about the hardships they suffered and telling myself that 15 days hunting antelope unsuccessfully was a drop in the bucket compared to how they suffered. The truth is, I’m not a very good blind hunter. There were times I was sleeping. There were times I was stretching. Hell, there were times I was doing something that might be characterized as a dance. But after a few days, getting into the blind in the morning started feeling like getting into the “the box” from the movie Cool Hand Luke. I lost weight. I talked to myself. I drank two gallons of water a day. I sweated out three gallons of water a day. I still haven’t ruled out the possibility that the badger was a hallucination. The snakes and tarantulas were certainly real. But it was the sighting of antelope daily that kept me coming back.

On the tenth day, at 12:01pm as I was debating eating my sandwich, a buck walked by at 70 yards to the northwest and never stopped. I slowly watched him go, dreaming of making a shot on him. I even quietly got out of my chair and gently lowered a closed window to watch him walk out of my life. Dejected and thinking about giving up, I lowered my head and closed the window. The three other tags in my pocket felt like atlas stones. I breathed deeply and exhaled. I decided today would be my last day. Tomorrow I would pack up and head to the mountains. I had just retired. I had all the time in the world, but I had spent enough time on antelope. For whatever reason, I thought with my head hung low, it just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe it was the pressure of all the other hunters, including the dove hunters that were blasting away on other adjacent water holes. Maybe it was the fact that my blind was positioned wrong or I set it up late and they didn’t have a chance to get used to it. Or maybe, I just suck as a blind hunter. I quietly sat back in my chair, never raising my head. I drifted away to the cool aspen and spruce covered mountains.

I finally raised my head in disgust. Holy Mary Mother of God! A young buck was drinking right in front of me. I reached for my rangefinder slowly, ever so slowly and with the greatest care I ranged him – 41 yards. Then it happened – the slow motion. I was in slow motion. How the hell did I get into slow motion? Get out of your own head buddy. Focus and get this done. Damn, the ringing in my ears was deafening. I reached for my bow and he raised his head. He looked right through me. I was sure he was going to be gone in an instant. To my utter surprise and disbelief, he lowered his head and drank again. I drew my bow, settled my pin and took the slack out of the trigger. The arrow reached him, just as he dropped to run. He was gone. In an instant anguish turned to elation and back to anguish. Weeks of bowhunting a public land moonscape, alone, DIY just turned into a buck, my first buck. It happened so fast. Did I hit him? I think so. In a few minutes, I regained my composure and crawled out of the blind to glass the prairie for him. He was no where to be seen, so I moved slowly over to where he was standing. Praise the Lord! There was a blood trail Ray Charles could follow, so I did too.

A blood trail Ray Charles could follow.

 

Very shortly into the blood trail, a buck stood up out of the sunflowers to my left. Instinctively, I turned and drew my bow. Something stopped me from shooting. This buck was bigger, much bigger than the one I shot. He was not bleeding. I let my bow down. The buck just walked away. Incredible, he was in easy bow range. How did that just happen?  I took a deep breath, sighed and turned around to pick up the blood trail. There was my buck. The shot was fatal.

pronghorn.jpg

I went over to him, knelt, thanked him and thanked God. Honestly, I started to tear up in that moment of silence, then suddenly and uncontrollably I exclaimed, “I did it!” I stood up and screamed. I jumped up and down. I danced like no one was watching, well hell, no one was watching. Then it him me, it was almost 1:00pm and it was 93F. I had to get him taken care of and quickly. I hustled across the prairie for over a mile back to the truck. Then I drove my rig down the “national forest” road close to my buck. I still giggle that they labeled the roads with National Forest signs on the national grassland prairie. I dragged him over to my rig. I pulled out a plastic folding table and my butchering tools. I turned the freezer on and plugged it into my solar generator. In less than an hour I had the buck skinned, caped, deboned and in the freezer.

20170909_132012.jpg

As soon as I got signal I called my old friend and told him the story. He was so proud. I told him the only thing that could have made it better is if he were with me. Then I called my new friend, Rudy Meyers. He was ecstatic. We had kept in touch, throughout my journey. He’d never heard of anyone chasing goats all day, every day for 16 days with a bow. It called for a celebration, so he was going to grill some steaks. I stopped and got a bottle of Knob Creek Single Barrel Whiskey and parked the van at his place. He had invited some local friends and we had a wonderful cookout. One of his friends even drew me a map to his elk camp in the Rio Grande National Forest and insisted I meet him there in a week. As the night wound down I stumbled out to my van thinking about how fortunate and blessed I was. Blessed to have set a goal and accomplished it. Blessed to have a wife who is also a big game hunter and understands the quest. Blessed to have the public land to set out on such a quest. Blessed to have harvested a buck. Most of all, I thought, blessed for the treasure of new friends.


Recipe –

Here’s what you need, “soup to nuts” to serve up your own speed goat -

Ingredients:

____ A willing soul, a semi-stout heart, good legs, feet and hips – priceless

____ Time Off – (# of days) x (what you get paid daily) until you get it done = ???

____ Colorado Non-Resident Over the Counter Hunting Fishing Combo, Tag and Habitat Stamp $399

____ Gas $800 (KY to CO and back, plus two weeks driving about 50mi a day)

____ Archery equipment –  you should already own it, your deer rig is perfect

____ KOA Campground for my rig $41 a night for 17 nights = $697

____ Clothes and boots –  you should already own it

____ Montana Decoy – Pronghorn Buck Decoy - $70

____ Blind –  you should already own it

____ Pack –  you should already own it

____ First Aid Kit –  you should already own it

____ A couple good books – you should already own them

____ Food & Water – Breakfast $8; Lunch $8; Dinner $25: $41 per day x 17 days = $697

Total Cost:  $2,663

Directions:

The Colorado Parks and Wildlife website is a very informative place to start your research. After that, you simply need to do some looking at Google Earth and OnX Maps. Normal maps won’t help much, because the terrain is so flat and featureless. There is some relief and roads of course, but if you buy maps of the area from the USGS or some other source, they’re fairly useless. I love their maps for the mountains, but the prairie – not so much. You’re looking for relief in the terrain, hills, knobs, creek beds and bumps that might signal a low spot with water in it. Then get there early and scout. Also, I recommend setting your blind up ASAP on the best water hole you find. Then go to an adjacent unit and spot and stalk hunting for a few days. That gives the antelope a few days to get used to your blind and after they start to drink with the blind sitting there empty, they are more likely to use the waterhole when you’re in the blind. You can also mix it up to keep yourself from having hallucinations and roasting in the blind every day. Spot and stalk one day, sit water the next, it’s your call, because it’s your hunt! The terrain and weather for this hunt are easily suited to someone who is not in the best physical condition. There is really no reason to sit all day every day. You should get there before dawn and walk into your blind in the dark. Depending on which expert you listen to, antelope have 6 or 8 power binocular vision. I believe if they see you get into, our out of your blind, you’re hurting your chances. But you could leave in the middle of the day and get some lunch and come back. Dawn and dusk are when I saw the most antelope. They did come to drink during the heat of the day, but there was so much water in the area that spring that the sunflowers bloomed and all the water holes filled up. If they thought anything was wrong at all at my waterhole, they simply went to the next one. You probably will not need 16 days to get it done, but I sure did. Colorado non-resident tags are not cheap, an elk tag is almost $700, so by comparison a pronghorn tag is cheap. You can get it online and it will be mailed to your house usually within 10 days. The decoy is not necessarily a “must have”, but the later it gets into September, when the bucks start rutting, decoys are effective. The KOA campground was a necessity for me. I needed to run the AC in my rig at night to sleep and a daily shower was a must because of the heat. Food and water could be more expensive or cheaper, just depends on how you roll. Again, if you get it done sooner than later, the cost goes way down. Shoot a buck on the third day and this hunt is $1,215. This really is a bargain of a DIY hunt.