This isn’t so much a hunting story as a story about family, the passage of years, the things that change, the things that never change, and what it all means to us.
In 1972 during one of the Boeing busts my father had to leave Mom and the kids behind and go work in Ohio because there were no jobs in Seattle where we lived. Two years later things got better and he was able to come home. On the way back he stopped in Wyoming to hunt Antelope. For a farm boy from Pennsylvania, this was a real adventure. He shot a small buck (about 8 or 9 inch) with Grandfather’s Savage 99 in 358 Winchester and was totally thrilled. The horns and hide went into the basement chest freezer till there was enough money to pay a taxidermist. 4 months later the freezer croaked and everything in it was ruined. The picture was all that was left, hanging on the wall and fading over the years.
Dad taught me and my brother to hunt and deer season was a family ritual with us. We hunted close to home, in places we knew well, with family and close friends. Many years went by, pictures accumulated on the walls and horns in the garage. Then mom got sick. Dad took care of her, seldom leaving her side, and for the next 7 years did not hunt. Mom passed away in the summer of 2016. Dad was 83 now and I asked him if he thought he had a few more hunting seasons left in him. He thought maybe he did, so I started planning a hunt.
I had enough preference points saved up to draw an antelope tag in a decent unit in Wyoming that had adequate public land access, so that was no problem. I told him we could likely find a bigger buck for him than the one he took back in 74, but he didn’t care much about that. He’d grown up dirt poor on a farm and had always been a meat hunter. That wasn’t likely to change now.
The tag wasn’t a problem, but his knee might be. Dad had a bad knee that he had put off getting repaired while he took care of mom. Time to get that fixed. He got in to the Doc and got the surgery scheduled. It would be done 8 months before the hunt, which would mean he would not be 100% recovered, but the Doc gave him a green light, with some limitations… he couldn’t kneel on that knee, and it probably would not have full range of motion yet. That would present some limitations on shooting position and he couldn’t walk more than a few miles a day, but we figured we could work that out.
Last problem was a rifle. Dad hunted with an old, beat up model 700 with a 4X fixed power scope. He always bragged on how accurate that rifle was, but with a low power scope and cheap factory ammo, how would you ever know? Not the ideal rig for antelope, but Dads shots had always been 100 yards and under, so it had never been a problem. He’s also a lefty, which meant I couldn’t loan him one of my rifles.
He came down to my place in September and brought the old rifle so we could give it makeover and see if we could get it set for the kind of longer shots you sometimes get in antelope country. I scrounged an old Weaver 3X9 I had sitting in the gun safe and we swapped scopes then we worked up some hand loads to test and headed to the range. With the load it liked best, allowing for a called flyer, that old beater of a rifle shot ¾ minute. He was right about that old rifle… and he could still shoot. Mission accomplished, we headed out to Tillamook bay to do some crabbing, which was another thing we hadn’t done in a while. We killed them. Best crab season they’ve had in ten years. There really are few things better than sitting in a lawn chair, eating fresh crab with a cold beer and watching the sunset over the ocean.
In mid-October Dad came down to my place again. He had all the family camping gear in the back of his truck. I had called him the week prior and he had already started packing. In the end, he pretty much brought everything. Nothing had been used in at least 7 years, and some of that gear I hadn’t seen since I was a kid. Lot of memories there. We sorted through everything, weeded it down to what we thought we would actually use and stared driving.
We drove 16 hours straight through, with a stop in Boise to visit my niece who is going to school there. When my brother and I were little, Dad would load us in sleeping bags in the back of the truck with the gear and drive all night to eastern Washington to hunt. Now Dad got to sleep some while I drove. Lots of time to talk about family, old friends, and hunting seasons past. We arrived at Medicine Bow in the morning, gassed up, and headed into our hunt unit to look for lopes.
This late (mid-October) lopes would be forming up into bigger bands and the large bands are hard to get close to. We started looking for lopes in the foothills above the sage flats since the terrain often broke up the big herds into smaller groups and would give us some cover to work close.
Heading up into the hills we spotted a couple bucks that had broken off from a larger band. They were about 400 yards out and wary, but had not bolted. We piled out of the truck to see if the ground gave us any options for a stalk.
Hunting magazines will often give you advice about shooting in wind, but that advice is always about the effects of wind on a bullet. They never seem of offer advice on how to deal with the effect of wind on the shooter. I got out the Kestrel and it clocked wind gusting from 15 to 35mph in random gusts. It’s impossible to hold steady in that unless you can get prone and really hug the ground. It did not look like we’d be able to close the distance without being spotted. Decided to pass on these two.
Driving further up into the hills, we glassed a lone doe and buck in a basin sheltered from the wind. They saw us but did not looked spooked so we kept driving around the shoulder of the ridge and out of sight to where we could double back and try a sneak. Keeping low in the sage, we topped over the ridge looking down into the little basin and started to glass. We spotted our two animals about 300 yards out. Keeping low and moving only when they were looking away from us, we cut the distance to a little over 200 yards and found a big rock that Dad could shoot from without having to stress the knee too much. It was an awkward position, but best available under the circumstances. I got prone over my pack about 15 yards uphill so I could see Dad’s shot impact and provide a follow up if needed. The sound of the shot was whipped away by the wind almost instantly and there was an eruption of snow and dirt in front of the buck and both lopes took off. 200 yards is a long shot for Dad, and the buffeting wind and awkward position blew the shot. Dad was never a trophy hunter, any buck would do for him, and I was not fussy either as this hunt was about family, not inches of horn, but I started to get the idea that getting Dad a shot that was close enough, that he could take from a comfortable position, was going to be harder that I had thought.
This was disappointing due to the miss, but here we were on morning of day 1 and we were already getting shot opportunities, so from that perspective, things were looking good. We decided to look for a place to set up camp. A BLM employee we met on the way in told us there was a BLM campground on the north end of the unit, in the foothills where prairie starts to turn to timbered draws. We headed north toward the campground and Dad insisted I take shotgun in case we ran across a band of lopes we could make a stalk on.
As we climbed north toward the campsite I kept one eye out for lopes and the other on the GPS screen. This unit is about 50% private ground, checkerboarded in with the BLM and state land and you have to get that right. Learned that from Frank years ago and using onXmaps. The lopes seemed to know there were some areas where they would not be bothered. They tended to group up on private ground.
We spotted a group of lopes headed south, parallel to the road, about 400 yards out and on BLM ground. As they passed behind a little ridge, Dad had me bail out and he continued on up the road to where the lopes would see the truck move on. I worked down to a point where, if they continued their course, the herd would come out from behind the ridge and maybe give me a shot. Right on time they started to appear, first a few does and yearlings, then a decent buck. I already had my rear on the ground and the rifle settled on the sticks. The shot broke with the crosshairs just behind the shoulder at a bit over 200 yards.
Years ago, Frank introduced me to Mike Abel (a fine gentlemen and superb shooter) when Mike drew a South Wagontire tag in Oregon, a unit I had hunted with Franks advice the year before. Mike and I have had a few adventures since then (Blacktails, Bunnies, and Rockchucks, oh my!) and Mike coached me a lot on my shooting (thanks Mike and Frank both), so I had no doubt about the outcome of that shot. The buck ran about 40 yards and piled up.
Dad and I took pictures, field dressed the lope, hauled him to the truck, and followed the road 4 more miles to the campground. A couple other groups of hunters were also there (deer and elk hunters) and we found a site near a creek in a little stand of aspen. I did the heavy lifting as far as setting up camp, but as Dad remarked to some of the other hunters in camp, that was only fair since when I was little he got to do all the work.
The campsite had some elevation and was just a mile or two south of the unit boundary we had tags for. From camp, we could watch lopes through the spotting scope. Not our unit, but still really cool.
Just setting up camp felt good. It felt great to be setting up worn old camp gear that I remembered from my childhood. The lantern we’d used for 40 years, digging out the old camp stove and kettle… every gouge and ding in that old gear was a reminder of hunts and time with family many years ago. When I opened up a can of stew to heat up for supper, it looked a bit odd though. I checked the bottom of the can and the stamp said “best if used by October 2010”. Some gear does not improve with age. Fortunately Dad had packed enough non-vintage food to keep us twice as long as we were likely to stay.
Next morning we were out glassing a couple big patches of public ground that seemed to attract lopes. We spotted a band grazing and bedding on a flat, just clear of the sage, about a half mile from the road and thought they might be stalkable given the terrain. Once the road passed behind a little hill, Dad bailed out and I drove on about ¼ mile and stopped to watch the show. Dad followed a little dry wash to close most of the distance and made a slow crouching approach through the sage. Wind was gusting at about 20. He kept getting closer, 200, 150, and I kept thinking “What are you waiting for? Shoot!”. Finally they busted him at about 75 yards and the whole band tore out of there at top speed and trailing dust. Turned out the issue was the knee again. The wind was too strong and gusty to take a standing shot, a kneeling shot was not an option due to the recent surgery, and a sitting or prone shot wasn’t possible due to the height of the sage he was using to cover his stalk. By the time he worked past the tall sage, they had spotted him. We decided that this spot was definitely a draw for lopes and we would try to find a way to ambush a band as they filed down from the hills to graze in the evening.
The afternoon we spend driving and glassing an area the BLM guy recommended on the other side of the highway. Lots of lopes, but they had obviously been hunted hard and the terrain there did not offer much in the way of cover for an approach. Found some really cool geodes and some jasper and agate for my sister the rock hound.
On the way back to camp for lunch and some rest, we stopped to check zero on Dad’s rifle. I dug out a cardboard box for a target and set it up at 200 yards. Dad shot across the truck hood over a folded up coat. Great group. The horizontal stringing was all due to the gusting wind, which almost never stopped in this country.
That evening we were staked out at what we though was a logical funnel for lopes headed from some private land in the foothills to the flat we hunted that morning. With about 30 minutes of light left, we saw a lope headed down and it looked like we might be able to get out in front of him. We got closer, but at the last minute, he started to veer away. Dad took a standing shot over the sticks at about 150 yards, but the lope took off running. We watched him go flat out for half a mile and over a ridge. Did our due diligence and found no blood. Again, the inability to get a good position due to the knee and the gusting wind had blown the shot. Dad was starting to get frustrated, but this was only day 2. Lots of time left.
The next morning we decided to cover some new ground, an area east of Pine Creek that we thought might have a small band or two up some dry washes in the foothills. It had snowed the weekend before our hunt started and many of the bands we glassed every day were big groups. The big groups tend to stay on the flats and have way too many eyes on duty. They are very hard to get close to. Lopes tend to group in to larger herds and get more skittish as winter gets closer.
Following a little dirt 2-track up toward the hills we saw several groups, but all were down on the flats below the hills… private ground. Even these spooked and ran at the sight of the truck while still ½ mile away. Seemed like every day the herds were getting larger and harder to approach. We headed back toward the main (gravel) road to get some rest at camp and work out a plan for the evening hunt. It was only day 3, but the big herds, lateness of the season and that constant high wind had us feeling much less confident.
As we were crossing several big blocks of private ground we approached a dry creek bed and saw a small band of lopes coming up out of it toward us. I glanced down at the GPS and was surprised to see there was an odd shaped ¼ square of BLM land right in the middle of the ranch land and we were right in the middle of it. I stopped the truck, Dad piled out, and I got out the binoculars to watch. He kept low in the road cut and got a bit closer as the lopes filed out of the creek bed. The herd just piled up there, about 100 yards away from him, and milled around, seeming not sure what to do. There was one good buck in the bunch, about 10 does and maybe 5 yearlings. Trouble was there was a doe standing right in front of the buck and a doe and yearling right behind him. There was no shot with the does and fawns in the way, and if the herd bolted and ran he’d never get a shot. Dad settled the rifle on the sticks and waited. I watched through the binos for what was probably a minute or two but seemed like much longer. I won’t say I heard angels sing… but the wind died down and the buck took two steps forward. Only the bucks front quarters and neck were in the clear, but Dad was under 100 yards and had good position. I heard the report of the rifle and the buck dropped like a puppet with the strings cut. Dad had his second lope on the ground, 43 years after the first one.
Written by David K. aka Average Joe