A Long Road Ahead
This morning, my dad and I pointed the truck west out of Minnesota and headed for Wyoming, for our third consecutive year on a DIY, public land only pronghorn hunt on portions of the Thunder Basin National Grassland. Sneaking out of the house undetected was a feat in itself. Dad had spent the previous night at my home and both my dog and 4-year-old son were clued into the fact that an adventure was about to happen involving Grandpa Dave and his red GMC. That’s a powerful combination in my house, and we practiced our most stealthy escape to keep both the dog and the boy from stowing away.
On the surface, this year’s trip was very similar to the previous two; same unit, same 5 days allocated (2 drive days/3 hunt days). This year however, we shouldered a invisible weight on our drive west, a weight that no doubt dominated my dad’s mind even more so than mine.
Just twelve days ago, my dad suffered a heart attack, his first. As it turns out, 30 years of smoking a pack of Marb 100’s a day isn’t exactly conducive to your health. The odds of the attack were increased even more due to the fact that for the last 14 years following the death of my mother, he had lived the life of a bachelor. He was 48 when she passed and had never really lived on his own before, and his diet reflected that of my freshman year of college. Lots of heavily processed “just add meat” box meals, the cigarettes and a fair share of Busch Lite.
It’s a strange thought, contemplating losing your father and hunting partner at the same time.
Fortunately for him, he drove himself to the hospital at the first sign of chest pains and didn’t actually have the full blown heart attack until he was sitting in the waiting room of the ER. When the attack did come, it was addressed quickly by hospital staff, requiring a stent be placed in his left circumflex artery. A few days in the hospital and he was back at home, albeit with a highly restricted low-sodium diet, nicotine patches instead of cigarettes and a month of cardiac rehabilitation instruction ahead of him. Luckily, both of his doctors were hunters and understood what pronghorn hunting is all about; that you could make it as physically hard or easy as you wanted to. They gave him the green light to go on the trip, provided he take it easy and not burn himself out.
So with all that in mind, we made it through Minnesota and across South Dakota in short order, stopping only for gas and a quick diversion to Deadwood, SD to pick up a yearly order of Chubby Chipmunk truffles and a case of Crow Peak Brewing, 11 Hour IPA for my wife. If you want to ensure yourself years of hunting pronghorn in Wyoming, keeping your spouse hooked on specialty chocolate and beer found only in the Black Hills is a great way to do it.
When we neared our unit, we decided to forgo the hotel and drive directly into the field to do some speed scouting from the road. We had arrived during week two of a two-week season, and the pronghorn had no doubt been harried already. Although the focus was to scout, we could legally shoot so we kept my Remington Model 700 25.06 and his Tikka T3 Hunter .243 at the ready.
We spotted a dandy of a buck right away in the unit, and one of us probably would have taken a shot at him had he been on public land. We were soon to learn that the animals, in their own way, seemed to know which land was private and safe and which was publicly accessible and dangerous. Their behavior would change almost instantly, moving alert and fast across public land, only to walk into a private alfalfa field and bed down to eat not more than a stones throw from a public road.
The portion of the Thunder Basin national Grasslands we were hunting is comprised not of one contiguous chunk of publically accessible land, but of many broken up blocks of both private and public that one has to navigate carefully to keep from accidentally trespassing onto private land. Because of this, the few roads leading through and onto public portions of the Grasslands tends to congregate hunters in predictable areas. It was along one of these roads that we met up with our first group, a young couple from California decked head to toe in the latest hunter fashion and pulling a customized UTV on a adventure trailer behind a color matching Chevy 1500 . They were stopped on the ridge top road, glassing a group of pronghorn about 3/4 of a mile away. They, like us were here on a either sex tag, held by the young lady, and were frustrated at the lack of large chunks of public land to hunt. The sky was beginning to blacken, and warning them of getting caught on these two-tracks in a hard rain, we left them to their glassing and made our way back to the blacktop just as the rain began to fall
The good news was that there were antelope about, spread out across the private and public land parcels that intersect in this unit. Seeing the mule deer bucks was a great bonus and we decided we may have to consider coming back with deer tags in hand some day.
Darkness fell quickly, and having made a plan for the next day, we headed to the hotel to settle in for the night.