The last day in the field. The rain has moved on, the sun is out and my dad seems to have regained his hunting legs. We need to put something together. If we don’t have a buck down by lunch its doe time, and I will shoot the first one I see to make sure we go home with at least one full cooler.
Leaving town, we headed west and passed a tiny bit of state land, noting there was a herd of pronghorn, that according to the onX app on my phone, were straddling the invisible line between public and private land. Being that they were so close to the highway on such a small piece of public, we bookmarked the spot for later and decide to keep driving. There were two more spots I wanted to check out. We could always hit this spot up again on our way back.
We headed for a section of BLM land that was perhaps 2 miles square. Approaching from the south, we parked the truck and walked down into a rolling plain of grassland that eventually turned to alfalfa fields. In the far distance we could see a heard of pronghorn bisected by a barbwire fence, again straddling the boundaries of public and private land. The private alfalfa field located a few hundred yards away was chock full of them, perhaps 50 or more and this group hanging out by the fence line was no doubt in the process of joining them, taking turns crawling under the barbwire fence, one by one, as pronghorn do.
The animals on our side of the fence didn’t seem to be in a hurry though, and we decided to try to get closer to see if there was a buck in the group that we were not seeing, as we had only observed does and juvenile males up to this point. Between us and the antelope was a dry creek drainage. By using it as cover we could close the distance to within 300 yards and be in a good spot to identify animals, and take a shot.
We made our way across the base of the drainage to pop our heads up over the bank to get a better look at the pronghorn when I saw a flash of brown fur perhaps 50 yards away. Much to my surprise, around a bend in the drainage walks a coyote.
My first though was “cool, you don’t see every day". Getting my dad’s attention, we watched as he cruised in to check us out. Wearing camo and mostly hid behind sage on the bank, I can only assume he saw my pale face and took it for a rabbit. The coyote came in fast, getting within 30 yards before he realized he was mistaken in his analysis and trotted off, stopping occasionally to turn back and take another look. He gave us plenty of opportunities to take a point blank poke at him with a rifle, and I half thought my dad would do so, especially when the yote stopped on top of the drainage bank, in profile. He stood there, back lit by the sun for a moment or two and trotted off. I was a bit surprised that a .243 from my dads new Tikka wasn't chasing him down.
“Shit, that was cool” I whispered. “Why didn’t you shoot.”
“I came here to shoot pronghorn, not coyotes. I can do that at home,” was his only response.
By the time the coyote was out of sight and we turned our attention back to the pronghorn, they had all crawled under the fence and were safety on private property. Agreeing that the run in with the coyote was going to be hard experience to beat on the trip, we headed back to the truck, just two more predators looking for a meal.
Leaving the BLM land we headed back East to take one more shot at a large section of National Grassland. I knew hunting it would likely eat up the rest of our day so before we committed, I thought we should take a swing by the small section of state land that we had seen a herd of pronghorn on that morning.
Glassing from the highway, we saw that the small herd was still in the area. The size of the state land was very small though, less than 50 acres, so we took our time in double and triple checking our maps and Onx Hunt app to make sure we were on public land. We were, and so were two lone bucks. They were feeding on the backside of a ridge, separated from the rest of the group. While not giant, their horns did extend well beyond their ears, indicating neither fawn nor doe. We both decided to take a shot.
We put the sneak on and got in range by shielding our approach behind a gentle ridgeline. Sitting down and using shooting sticks for support, we both found a good anchor and focused on the pronghorn in front of us. The buck I was after was about 250 yards out, with my dads about 50 yards further up slope. When ready, dad indicated I should take the first shot, which I did. Before my finger had even released the trigger, I heard him fire as well. Although I felt I had made a good hit, the pronghorn walked about 20 meters closer to us, looking unfazed. Firing again, he dropped dead. In making sure I had killed my animal as fast and clean as possible, I hadn’t paid attention to the pronghorn my dad had fired at. Looking up over to him, he simply nodded and I understood that he had been successful as well.
Walking up toward his antelope first, I saw a bit of pep in his step, but also relief on his face that we had been successful. There would be time for reflection later, the day was waning and we still had plenty of work to do.
Having spent the last 25 years hunting with my dad, we have the field dressing process down to something resembling a science. He takes his old Buck fixed blade (the only knife he has used on deer for over 30 years) and field dresses the animal, cutting out the tenderloin and removing the heat from the gut pile. Rolling the carcass to the side, we then both get to work skinning and quartering the antelope; first removing the backstraps, followed by front shoulder, neck, hind leg and finally rib meat and trim pieces. Flip the animal over and repeat. Finally, we remove the neck, bone in for roasting later. Bag up the meat and head over to my pronghorn to start the process over. With that old Buck, he is damn near as fast as me with my Havalon.
Holding the heart in his hands, I snap a quick photo. It seems appropriate. This was a tough hunt. He had suffered his heart attack just 12 days before we started and the tough weather made his already limited mobility more difficult. Animals were few and far between, and the ones we did spot on public land, were much more tuned into us as a threat than in the years previous.
Heading back home to Minnesota the next day, we had answered many of the questions that had weighed on us on the drive out. I was happy that we found success, but saddened in the fact that for the first time, I had begun to look at my dad as a man who was on the downward slope of his hunting career. How many hunts does he have left? How many more hills will he get to climb to see what’s on the other side? Only time will tell I guess. Until that point though, we will keep hunting, keep shooting and keep putting our hearts into it, until there is no more left to give.