High Plains Pronghorns With the 6.8 SPC II
This was my first time drawing a tag for Pronghorn. There have been plenty of hunts for Pronghorn Antelope on the high plains of Montana where I was in attendance as a spotter and companion, however this time I clutched a rifle. The rifle; the recently completed 6.8 SPC featuring a 16" X-Caliber Barrel chambered in 6.8 SPC II, with a 1:11 twist, 5R rifling, Mid-length gas system, SPR profile.
With a precision zero confirmed, and absolute confidence in reliability, a shot opportunity is all I hoped for - knowing without question that this rifle could do the job.
Opening morning on the Great Plains found us just north of the Missouri River, in a shroud of fog enveloping the land. The flat, quiet water of the Big Muddy, slowly cut through a vast, open, empty landscape. A bright, gold canopy of Cottonwood trees framed the banks, as folds in the land and steep coulees filled with silver sage brush and amber grasses plunged off the plains towards the river. The damp, wet fog surrounded everything, choking out any visibility, making an already austere place seem even more silent, more lonesome, more empty. As the sun crested the the eastern horizon we could not see, the white haze of fog began to grow thin, slowly lifting from coulees. A breeze started to move the still grass blades as herds of Mule Deer moved to their bedding areas for the day. With visibility increasing, our time to seek out the fastest land animal in North America had come.
Shortly after the lifting of this dense fog that could have inspired Tolkien himself in his description of Middle Earth, we spotted a herd of Pronghorn. The herd was an estimated 1.5-2 miles away, grazing and moving on the elevated flats with large, deep coulees creating defensible space for them in nearly all directions. There were 2-3 decent bucks among the herd, with what appeared to be some rut activity still taking place.
Planning, strategy, predicting their move and weighing it against what we should or should not do - this is why I love to hunt Antelope. It becomes a game of chess, played out on a vast board where each square is not a black or white square measured in inches, but 640 acre square sections of land measuring a mile by a mile. Each of these mile sections is covered in sage brush, cactus, native grasses, undulating folds of land and coulees cutting up the terrain, creating a 3 dimensional arena where the Pronghorn is most adept, most comfortable. Their eyesight and speed are unmatched. The ability of this animal to appear relaxed on one rise of land, only to then reappear grazing on another rise 2-3 miles away is a routine observation when hunting these high speed symbols of the open prairie. We could plan and move into positions, only to find the herd we were now peering at through binoculars, had moved miles out of reach, or even beyond our ability to see by the time we made our moves.
The plan conceived, involved my leaving the party and moving quickly, solo, through a series of coulees and folds in the landscape, out of sight towards the herd. Meanwhile, the rest of the hunting party would move several miles away, via vehicle and insert themselves in other parts of the terrain. The hope was, as the herd of Antelope moved and grazed, they would either move inadvertently into a member of the hunting party, or perhaps one of us would bump the herd towards the others.
I deployed from the truck, onto a rutted and muddy road that was a brown ribbon in a sea of grass. Cinching down my Mystery Ranch Spartan pack containing my essentials (knife, medic kit, food, water, layers, tags, ammunition), I slung my 6.8 SPC rifle and set off at a jog/run. I quickly trotted through a series of coulees, weaving back and forth. First I was heading south, then cut east, then south again, then east, north east, east, then south. My heart rate and respirations elevated, my boots pounding the soft grass and mud of the Great Plains with a rhythm, I ran alone. The coulee meandered, with me at its mercy, depending upon it for concealment from the unforgiving eyes of the Antelope.
Three quarters of a mile into my movement, I decided to approach the high ground on my right that forms the South wall of the coulee spilling onto the plains, so as to see if the herd had moved. Slowly I crept up the side of the coulee, taking each step with ease, being sure not to backlight or "skyline" myself on the crest of the rise. Hunching over, slowly moving upwards, the view of the surrounding plain came into view. On a higher piece of ground, hardly a hill at all, I peered out east across the very coulee I was journeying through. The coulee takes a hard cut ahead, moving towards the south, where it originates and slowly disappears, blending into the plain itself. Another coulee, coming from the east, dumps into this coulee, joining together at the bend where my coulee cuts southward. The two, formed a triangle of land, a high flat. Out on this slice of grass, sat the herd.
Using the MRAD reticle of the Vortex PST EBR1 2.5-10x32 I attempted to take a measure of the Pronghorn in order to estimate their distance. Earlier, we had all agreed that a Pronghorn measured roughly one meter at the shoulder. Using the ranging formula: (Size in Meters x 1000 / MRAD Measurement in scope = distance in meters) I measured the animals as 1 MRAD tall, thus 1000 meters away now.
"Definitely two maybe three nice bucks in that herd," I thought to myself. What to do? The herd appeared to be moving South, slowly grazing, rutting, and moving. They appeared a little skittish as well. Did they see other members of the party? From my experience, when Pronghorn spook, they sprint, in a large arcing circle, coming to rest between folds of land to conceal their new location, and at times coming full circle to nearly their original position.
I dropped back into my safe haven, my concealment, my coulee. I ran. I passed the corner where the eastern coulee joins continuing my jog south. The coulee grew more shallow as I ran uphill continuously. Fingers of smaller folds and coulees dumped in from the East and West, coming in off the plain of sage and grass. Again, I decided to creep to higher ground for a vantage of the land, to survey the movement of my prey. Crouched low, I crept up a finger coulee that cut east. Once more paying attention to my silhouette, I strived not to, "skyline" myself. On the higher ground, I could see the herd again. This time, moving briskly South and cutting West, they were still a good 1000 yards away.
"THINK! Look at the terrain, what can you do? The coulee is getting shallow, looks like it splits ahead.....use the coulee as long as you can, it gets you further South in their direction, perhaps they'll arc this way? MOVE! They are. Longer you sit here, the further they are - they don't stop. Get on it!" There was a storm of thoughts in my head. Tapping into the other Antelope hunts I had enjoyed in the past, I moved out, knowing that indecision with Pronghorn hunting, never paid off. Hesitation, lethargy, slowing down - these are the attributes that will remove the probability of harvesting an Antelope.
Dropping back into the coulee, I broke into a trot again. The taller grasses whipped my pants, my boots grew heavy. The shallowness of the coulee would soon reveal me as it spilled onto the upper plain. I slowed my pace, trying to lower my profile on this open and vast landscape. MOVEMENT. Ahead and to my left I made out the quickly moving heads of Antelope as they swept through the folds of terrain ahead. Immediately, instinctively, I ate the dirt. I don't remember how hard I hit, however I know I threw myself into the grass, pressing my body into the plains, thankfully not onto a cactus. I cannot remember deploying my bipod, however I did so. My stock pressed into my shoulder my lens caps up, I now observed the herd, moving and within range.
|The Buck Where He Fell|
As the herd crested a rise, they slowed to a trot and dropped into what little remained of the coulee ahead. Where they entered, the coulee was more of a fold between to rises of grass, no more than a depression on the great plain. A large beautiful buck was out front. His tall black horns, and black face led the way of the herd. He was not slowing down. Alongside him, to complicate any chance at a shot, ran a doe, as well as another doe on his other side. No shot. The line of Pronghorn numbered perhaps 15. Pulling up the rear was another decent buck, also moving. I lay there waiting for a clear shot; merely that fraction of a second, where I could remove my safety and squeeze the trigger with a good sight picture acquired. In the unfolding chaos, I had written off the larger buck, as he was not presenting any opportunity due to his pace, does around him and now, moving into a fold of terrain that shielded him from me entirely. The 2nd buck, then did something that would be his biggest mistake. He slowed down. I watched as his trot, went to a walk. I cannot recall if he was entirely stopped or still slowly walking. I remember a clear shot, his body in my reticle, no doe behind him, just him alone with does in front of him. 250 yards out, I thumbed the safety off, "aim small miss small", I placed the cross hair just rear of his shoulder and down on his chest, slowly I squeezed......CRACK-BOOM!
The herd exploded into a furious blur of brown and white, streaking through the grass. The buck I had just squeezed off a round on was with them. What in the......? How? Did I miss? No way. I stood up and stared as the leaders of the herd moved quickly to the right and around a hillock, up a crest and over the rise out of sight. Then I noticed the buck was falling out of line. As the line of the herd dropped out of sight, he was dropping back. As his pace slowed I could see the pink and red stain against the clean white coat of his side, right where I had aimed. He staggered now, to one side, then the other, walking now sideways, he fell over and lay still on the grass. Alone still, I pumped my fist into the air, "YES! Thank God! YES!" Running over to the buck, I heard his last expiration. He was still. I lay my hand on him and gave him a pat. "Thanks. Thank you". It was a clean shot in the vitals with little damage to the shoulder meat.
Hunting for me is an ultimate connection. There is a spiritual component to it and so much more, including the immersion into the landscape and wilds you find yourself in during the hunt. The kill is not the part of the hunt I enjoy. As a matter of fact, aside from the culmination, the ending of the hunt, the satisfaction of success, the kill is my least favorite part. Before writing this, I put together a quick edit of iPhone footage we shot during our multi day hunt on the plains (video below). My hunt was not recorded at all - because I was hunting, not filming. The footage does not include any kill shots, but merely the hunt itself, the beauty of the Great Plains. I was lambasted by youtube drive by comments, stating that it was just a bunch of walking and no action.
|The Following Days|
Well. It's not always about getting the, "kill shot" caught on camera. Hunting is not about, "action" and "suspense" and "entertainment". In today's culture of 15 second attention spans and the constant insatiable appetite for entertainment and titillation, too many expect loud music, rad camera angles, gun bunnies and explosions. This Monster energy crowd then gets bored during what is most real about hunting - silence, introspection, nature, walking, trudging, hiking, thinking, contemplating. When I hunt, I tend to appreciate the experience of it all more than the final kill, the walk more than the shot, the scenery, the sunrises, the old growth, the symphony of it all. If you are here expecting some super cool whispering, and high fives over the kills, look elsewhere. This was about the hunt, the land and the harvest of pronghorn in the end. A successful hunt is measured by ones interaction with the landscape and the animal.
I was fortunate to harvest my buck hours into the opening of the season. I had the privilege to then spend the remaining days, helping others on their hunts. Once again, I found myself sprinting on the plains, seeking cover and immersing myself into the landscape that is the GREAT PLAINS.