Desert Ambush

By Neil Thagard

Neil ThagardNeil Thagard
Wyoming, Public Land, DIY, 2006

This story isn't about the beginning of my 2006 hunting season; however it is about the first harvest of the year. After a couple of dry runs for spring turkey in Texas and Oregon - okay I'll be honest, after two misses on those hunts, I was ready to redeem myself. The vital target area on an American pronghorn lends itself to be a little friendlier to bowhunters than do the wild turkeys of North America.

Previously, my antelope hunting experience had been limited to the Owyhee Canyon lands of southwest Idaho, but three years ago, my job in wildlife conservation resulted in a move from the Gem State to Wyoming. I began doing some research on the best places to hunt all big game in the Cowboy State. During the Wyoming Game & Fish Department's permit application period, I applied in an area that provided plenty of public land that also had a history of producing some good bucks. Though many of these good bucks had fallen to fi rearms hunters, there was still plenty of opportunity for a bowhunter to be successful. As most bowhunters have learned over the years, hunting antelope from ground blinds at watering sources has proven quite productive.

This area however, this area did not possess many waterhole hunting opportunities except on private land, on which I had no permission to hunt. The crafty bowhunter must be adaptable and willing to utilize other techniques when hunting the eagle-eyed antelope. My scouting had been limited to the two days prior to the season opener. I spent my time finding and eliminating places, as well as trying to fi nd as many good bucks as I could, hopefully allowing for multiple stalking opportunities if one stalk were to go awry - which is very much a possibility when hunting Antelocapra americana; the fastest land mammal in North America.

Camp would be modest and tucked away in a sandstone basin with the idea of keeping the wild Wyoming winds from blowing me and my gear to Nebraska. The first evening in camp I had several young antelope bucks come within mere yards of my temporary home. Later that evening I was entertained by hundreds of bats that lived inside the small caves within the sandstone hillsides. As I snapped my fingers to create vibration, they would swoop down in hopes of finding some unlucky insect. Instead, they just found me, an invader of their territory, and they would quickly ascend to continue their search for food.

The next evening gave me a close encounter with a local scorpion. As I was relaxing and enjoying the last remnants of daylight, I felt something against my foot. Yes, I know, you shouldn't be out here without your shoes on. Of course, after this episode I began to take a few precautions. First, putting on some shoes - actually I looked inside the shoes first! Secondly, I got all my gear off of the ground and made certain that no strings or straps from my sleeping bag were dangling to the ground from the cot it was on. And then, I scooped up the scorpion on a piece of paper and carried him about 100 yards from camp and turned him loose hoping he would not enter 'my domain' again.

The morning of opening day arrived and my previous night's sleep was light at best. I'm not sure if it was because of the excitement of the kick-off of my fall hunting season, or if I had scorpions on the brain. No matter, I felt really good about the area I was going to focus my energy on that fi rst day. The previous day had found me watching a great number of antelope from a distance including three very good bucks. They were traveling back-and-forth along a dry creek bed as they went to feed. The creek bed had a gentle rolling bank on the east side, covered with Antelope Sage Brush. The west side of the bed was broken and rough, with steep sandstone cliffs. My initial plan was to set-up a portable blind on the east side of the creek bed at a narrow passage in an attempt to funnel the animals within close range as well as keeping the morning sun at my back. The problem was that there was little cover to conceal the newly erected blind, therefore the antelope were very cautious of this structure. As the sun got higher, I decided to collapse the blind and position myself in the sandstone cliffs on the opposite side of the creek. This again put the sun at my back and gave me a good vantage point that moved me above the on-coming animals' line-of-sight. The disadvantage of this strategy is that I had willingly given up my shade that the blind had provided and now I was exposed to the intense desert sun.

After sitting in my new perch for only two hours, I noticed a buck coming from the north. I had ample time to evaluate him. I could see that he was the lightfaced buck with heavy horns I had seen the day before. I needed to look at him no more; it was time to grab my bow and prepare for the shot. The afternoon wind and sun were in my favor, I just needed him to continue down the path. He was in no hurry and my anticipation grew to anxiety as I just wanted him to hustle my way. As he approached my shooting lane, he entered the narrow funnel of the creek bed which put him a mere 25 yards from where I was stationed. At this point he was walking briskly, so I came to full-draw, found my anchor point, then made a soft vocal sound at him - he stopped, and my arrow was soon on its way. The 'thud' of the arrow clearly indicated that I had hit the chest cavity and as I watched the buck run south, I could see crimson red behind the shoulder. In a matter of moments I witnessed the buck going down.

After taking a number of record book qualifying antelope over the years, it did not take long for the realization to sink in, as I approached the downed animal, that this was truly a magnificent specimen. As I observed this buck, it was obvious that he was a very large- bodied desert dweller that possessed a unique and massive set of ebony horns. Each horn was long, carried its mass well, had long cutters, as well as extra cutters on the backside of the horns. In other words, I would not be a victim of 'ground shrinkage!'

I set up my tripod and camera for a number of photos. Then I just sat there for a moment and simply observed the beautiful flora and fauna of the Red Desert. The type of place that many folks have described as a mere wasteland - well, I will say, 'they are dead wrong!'

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Editor's note: Neil Thagard is the Director of Development for the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) which is headquartered in Cody, Wyoming. FNAWS has funded more than $50,000,000 for the enhancement of wild sheep and other wildlife. They have played a major role in infl uencing proper state and federal wildlife and public land management policy. These efforts have helped sustain wildlife populations and our hunting opportunities. The Eastman Family have been long-time members and supporters of this fi ne organization. Each year FNAWS honors one of its members with 'The Gordon Eastman Grassroots Award' named after the legacy of Eastmans' Journal. Gordon was very dedicated to the conservation of wild sheep and other wildlife. That dedication lives on within the Eastman Family and Staff.

The Red Desert of Wyoming is merely an example of the pressures being placed on wildlife habitats throughout the Rocky Mountains, mid-West, and Pacifi c Rim regions of North America. In these areas, critical habitat and migration corridors are being disrupted by urban and mineral development causing displacement for a number of wildlife species. In some affected areas, it may appear to some people that wildlife populations are doing quite well, or even booming. However, the continued fragmentation and degradation of key habitats will not sustain wildlife populations for the long-term. The hunting community must continue its fight to utilize hunting as a game management tool; but just as important, we must take a strong stance for the future of our wildlife and the places they call home! You may say, 'This writer has got an agenda!' Well, you are correct - I want every hunter and wildlife enthusiast to support pro-hunting organizations that dedicate their resources for the betterment of wildlife. That's my honest agenda!