The sun had not yet risen when I awoke to find my hunting partner peering over the side of the pickup bed, which had served as our camp that night. Without a breath of wind or a cloud in the sky the temperature promised to climb to, and probably above, the century mark, as it does most days in August on the plains of eastern Montana.
Rubbing my eyes and wishing I had taken my contacts out before burrowing into my sleeping bag and collapsing the night before, I asked Jesse if he saw anything.
Apathetically he responded, "Three does," then flopped back into the pickup.
I sat up and looked around. The three does were feeding contently along the side of the road in the borrow ditch 80 yards away. I turned around 180 degrees and looked through the cab. Fifty yards away, walking past the front of my truck like it was parked there everyday, was a dandy pronghorn.
As stealthily as is possible in a full-size, white pickup parked on the edge of a hayfield, I lowered myself back down and in a hushed voice told Jesse about the buck.
"Is he a good buck?" Jesse asked, while resisting the urge to poke his head up and look for himself.
"He's a shooter," I replied. "Pretty tall, good mass, good prongs."
"Are you going to shoot him?"
"I'm going to try."
After waiting for the buck to feed over a small rise and into a field scattered with large round hay bales, I climbed out of my sleeping bag. I threw on some shorts, a t-shirt, and my boots, then I grabbed my gear, strapped on my release and took off. I got a large round bale between the buck and myself and moved as fast as possible hoping to catch up to him before he made it out of the field and into more open country.
The wind was in my face, and I made good time to the last bale that stood between the buck and me. I slid in behind it, grabbed my rangefinder and ranged the buck as he grazed, totally unaware. I pressed the button three, maybe four times. Each time it read the same, 60 yards. Especially pleased with the nice round number, I clicked my release to the string and gave myself the regular pep talk; 'Pick a spot, squeeze, and follow through.' Then in one fluid motion I drew my bow, found my anchor, and centered my pin in the peep. As the pin settled on the antelope, I started to squeeze the trigger. Then suddenly the arrow was on its way.
You know how every once in a while when you loose an arrow and before it even makes it out of the bow you know it's going exactly where you want it? Well this wasn't that arrow. In fact it was the opposite of that arrow. Before the arrow cleared the riser a sick feeling came over me, and I knew I had blown my chance. I watched the arrow sail high and wide. Disgusted with myself, I watched the buck race off to what he considered a safe distance then he stopped, turned, and began snorting at me. The jig was up. My only chance was to get out of there as quickly as possible without spooking him any worse and hope I could relocate him later that afternoon once he had calmed down.
When I got back to the truck, Jesse already had our gear neatly piled in the back. As I grabbed an ice cold water from one of the coolers, I noticed his Televid perched atop the window mount pointed in the direction I had just returned from.
Jesse jumped out of the cab and walked around to the back of the pickup and looked at me with a questioning gaze.
I knew he had watched the stalk unfold through his spotting scope so that wasn't what he was asking about. He wanted to know why I missed.
"I don't know. I choked I guess," I replied.
"Well let's give him some time. There's a pretty good buck with some does over the hill. Let's go. I want to put a sneak on them," he said.
That's how antelope hunting goes for us. Drive roads and glass until we find a buck one of us wants to stalk, then go to the maps to find out if the land it's on is public or private. If it's private we'll ask permission, which works out sometimes. Sometimes not. We usually take turns stalking while the other guy hikes to a nearby vantage point, sets up the tripod and spotting scope, and watches; trying to help by giving hand signals or waving the stalker off if something goes awry. The spotter also gets a chance to rest which is appreciated as the average stalk eating up 2-3 miles and with each hunter getting several stalks a day, the miles add up quickly.
Jesse's first stalk of the morning ended prematurely when the wind changed and sent the small herd he was stalking tearing across the prairie in a cloud of dust only stopping to give him a chorus of their annoying and all too familiar alarm snorts.
My next stalk had a similar outcome when I read Jesse's hand signals wrong and stumbled into the herd one ridge before I expected them. It was a stupid mistake, but I still had my mind on the buck I had stalked that morning, and I wasn't giving the stalk my full attention.
Finding shade in the scorching heat of the eastern Montana plains can be nothing short of a miracle, so when we found a roadside picnic table under a stand of cottonwood trees it seemed like the perfect place to regroup, have some lunch, and come up with a new plan of attack.
"I really want another shot at that buck I missed this morning," I told Jesse, "and I think he'll come back to that same field tonight so I'd like to stay fairly close."
"We'll there's a couple of state and BLM sections further South. We should be able to hit those and still make it back there by evening unless we find something better.'
"And if we don't make it back tonight we can always be there in the morning," I said, knowing that we have a hard time sticking to our plans.
Two hours later I was sitting just under the edge of a ridge, being careful not to skyline myself, watching Jesse put the finishing touches on a stalk. Through binoculars almost two miles away it looked like he could reach out and touch the antelope buck, but in reality it was about 40 yards. I watched Jesse range the buck, then draw his bow and ease up over the cover a sparse fencerow had afforded him. The buck never knew what hit him. As the arrow passed through and gently laid out on the ground beside him, the antelope whirled, ran out about 30 yards, and stopped to see what had just happened. Before he figured it out, he was down, and Jesse's antelope season was over.
After photos and field dressing it was my turn once again, and I knew exactly where I wanted to be. We raced across the sun-baked prairie to a high point about a mile from where I had stalked my buck early that morning.
"There he is," Jesse said a couple minutes after we had set up our spotting scopes and tripods. "He's just coming over the ridge to the left of the field."
As if on cue the buck fed right back into the field we had found him in that morning. After letting him have some time to get comfortable, I grabbed my gear and dropped off the backside of the ridge we had been spotting from. In order to get the wind in my face I would have to circle all the way around and enter the field in nearly the same place the buck had, a route that would cover about a mile and a half. Then all I had to do was get a bale between him and me like I had that morning and hopefully this time I wouldn't choke.
As I crested the small ridge that separated the sage from the field, Jesse's hand signals confirmed the buck was still there. Focusing my attention totally on the buck I closed the gap to the last bale with relative ease. Once again peering around a bale I put the rangefinder to my eye and clicked the button several times in rapid succession. The buck was 49 yards, well within my comfort zone. As I drew my bow the pronghorn lifted his head. Fighting the urge to panic I calmly found my pin in the peep and centered it on the buck's vitals. This time as the arrow left the bow I felt confident with the shot. I heard the arrow strike the antelope as he spun and ran, his path immediately taking him out of sight behind another bale. By the time I got around the bale to where I could see the buck he was just cresting the next rise. I never did get a chance to see where I had hit him.
As I made the 3/4 mile walk back to the road where Jesse would pick me up, doubt began to creep into my mind. I hadn't seen where the arrow hit and even though the shot felt good, the miss that morning was a direct hit to my confidence. I just hoped that I hadn't wounded him.
Jesse pulled up about the same time I reached the road. "Lets go get your buck," he said excitedly.
"I think we better wait a while. I don't know how well I hit him."
"Oh," Jesse laughed, "you got him."
"Did you see him go down?" I asked, the anticipation killing me.
"Oh yeah, he barely made it over the hill and piled up. I watched the whole thing."
As we walked up to the buck I experienced something for the first time. Never before had I walked up to an animal and it was bigger than what I had expected. I couldn't believe my eyes. The buck was enormous both in body size and the size of his horns.
I looked at Jesse, and I could tell he was surprised also. "I think you did it." That's all he had to say. I knew he meant that he thought the buck would go not only over the Pope & Young minimum but also qualify for Boone & Crockett, a goal we had both been talking about for a long time.
Later that night we came up with a green score of 85 3/8' net P&Y which if it held would beat the current state record by an inch and an eighth. After a drying period of 60 days and a few scheduling problems on my part with the P&Y scorer, which pushed it closer to 120 days, the buck officially netted 82 inches and is the fourth largest antelope to be taken with archery gear in Montana. Regardless of the score or its ranking it was a great hunt and a great buck.