Antelope Hunt in Chukar Country

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October 2, 2012 at 9:10 am #934

Key Master


Rock Hunting for Pronghorns

            ©1999 by Pat Wray


The look on Kelly Smith’s face was one of disbelief, consternation and just plain “what the hell is wrong with you?”

I’d said nothing particularly shocking; just asked him to carry a plant in front of his face.  The fact that he was tired and already carrying some of my rocks in his pack probably made him a little less cooperative.  If he’d known that a few minutes later he was going to slip as we crossed a fence and put a barb deeply into his hand, Kelly might have been even more difficult to convince.  As it was, he picked up the sagebrush branch, positioned it just in front of his face and we worked our way slowly down the long hill toward the pronghorn buck, still feeding in a small meadow.

I thought our chances of making it down the hill in partial view of the buck would be better if our faces were masked.  We were on the fifth mile of a stalk that had begun at daylight that morning…and this was the third day that we’d tried to get a shot at this particular buck.  We would have been tired even if I hadn’t been putting rocks in our packs.

I don’t normally fill my pack with rocks while hunting but this was a unique situation.  First of all, I was hunting on Steens Mountain, in southeast Oregon, where beautiful rocks litter the ground like shells on a beach.  Second, I had Kelly there to help me carry them.  I was a little concerned about his reaction when he found the rocks in his pack but I was counting on him being too tired by then to hurt me badly.

The rocks would enlarge the rockpile I built in my backyard as a home to snakes, lizards and other denizens of dark places. If I’m going to have a rockpile for wildlife, my logic goes, it may as well consist of beautiful rocks from all over the state.  And since we all have a responsibility to wildlife, carrying those rocks could be Kelly’s contribution.

I should note here that my home in western Oregon is free of poisonous snakes and lizards, so it’s not as though I’m creating a dangerous situation for nearby children, just for nearby slugs, mice and insects, who deserve all the danger I can arrange.

I couldn’t help thinking, as I surreptitiously slipped another rock into Kelly’s pack, that this was not like antelope hunts I’d heard about.  First of all the Steens Mountain country is, interestingly enough, very mountainous.  We’d begun the day by climbing nearly 1,000 feet just to look around.  Second, these antelope are nowhere near as cooperative as I’d been led to believe.

I might have been a better prepared if I’d ever been antelope hunting before but I’ve spent the last 15 years NOT drawing an antelope tag.  In fact, my luck had been so bad that people were calling me to ask about my application process…so they could do something else.

My wife was not surprised by my inability to draw a tag.  She was there when the Las Vegas pit boss, after observing my prowess at the craps table, leaned over and gently said.  “Sir, you should consider just mailing your money in.  You could save a lot of time.”

Having whipped my personal bad luck demon and drawn one of the most sought after antelope tags in Oregon, I still had to find and shoot one.  My chances of doing that increased dramatically when two good friends, Kelly and Karen Smith, offered to come along and help.

Kelly and I were in excellent shape.  Karen has an excellent shape but was recovering from a badly sprained ankle which she worried would limit her mobility.

“You guys go on along,” she said as we prepared for the first day’s hunt.  “I’ll just tag along behind and meet you back at the truck.”  So, freed to move as quickly as we wanted, Kelly and I charged off across the sage covered hills, leaving Karen to bring up the rear.  After an hour of hard, uphill walking, Karen was 50 yards behind.  After two hours, she was 50 yards behind and after three hours, when we topped out on a rimrock cliff, she was still 50 yards behind.

“Criminy,” I wheezed to Kelly.  “What’s she like when she’s healthy?”  He just shook his head and continued breathing hard.

We decided to leave Karen on the rimrock to guide us by hand signals toward the buck, a mile away.  After a two-hour stalk we were far enough from Karen that we set up our spotting scope to see her signals.

“She seems animated.” said Kelly. “She’s waving her hands a lot,”

“The buck should be just over this hill,” I said.  “Let’s crawl up there and collect him.”

It was not until evening that we learned Karen’s wild gyrations had been an attempt to signal the presence of the buck just 50 yards up the hill from us.  He’d circled around and watched with some interest as we began a painful and unsuccessful crawl to disappointment.

And so it was that Kelly and I were in the final stages of yet another, longer stalk on the same buck three days later, this time holding sagebrush branches to our faces like fans. Karen had stayed in camp.

At 400 yards, Kelly slipped and impaled his hand on the barbed wire fence.  At 300 yards we dropped our packs to begin the final stalk.  Kelly’s pack clinked.  This was not good.

“Jeez, it sounds like this thing’s full of rocks,” Kelly remarked, and his eyes got real narrow.

At 200 yards the wind shifted 180 degrees, rendering our four-hour stalk a waste of time.

Disgusted and sick with disappointment, we still crawled the last 50 yards to a small rise and peeked over.  Imagine my surprise when the buck was standing there looking directly at me, obviously confused by the strange mixture of scents, blood, sweat and rocks.

As planned, I collected him.  What was not planned was Kelly’s offer to carry the buck over to hang it from a nearby juniper tree.

“You go ahead back and pick up the rocks, er, packs,” he said, smiling like he knew he’d gotten the best part of the deal.


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