Editor’s Note: On Friday we dust off a gem from the extensive SCI archives and offer a story from past issues. Today we join a father and son team as they hunt the wary and fleet pronghorn antelope with muzzle loading rifles in Wyoming. This article first appeared in the November/December 1993 issue of Safari Magazine.
A strong west-by-northwest wind blew steadily around the slope of Elk Mountain and across the big grassy flat as we drove to the Palm Ranch headquarters. At the ranch, we obtained the foreman’s signature on our antelope licenses and paid the modest trespass fees. Far out on the grassy flat a lone buck antelope lay with its back to the wind, surveying the sage brush flats. We stopped to take a look at it with the 60-power spotting scope.
“Maybe he’ll go 14 inches but I don’t think any more than that,” was Dave’s assessment.
My son Jon and I were on our annual father-and-son antelope hunt with our friend David Gregory of Hanna, Wyoming. Dave’s son Philip and friend Carol accompanied us; Dave and Philip had taken their antelope with muzzleloaders the previous weekend.
Hunters who use centerfire rifles and have followed the ways of antelope tend to think hunting them with a muzzleloader is a near impossible proposition. They are accustomed to shooting 250-400 yards across the flats at running antelope. They don’t know the real pleasure of antelope hunting. Years ago, I shared their opinion but now nothing could be further from the truth. If we were successful on this hunt, it would be my 17th antelope with a muzzleloader and an even dozen for Jon.
Hunting antelope with a muzzleloading rifle creates a whole new approach to hunting. Gone are the opening day mornings that sound like a rifle range, the clouds of dust from moving vehicles and the disappearance of the antelope you’d just spent hours stalking as someone else took an impossible shot. During muzzleloading season, the mornings are quiet except for the sounds of the ever present wind and perhaps the call of a hawk or the yapping of coyotes. If you see another vehicle, the chances are it is the rancher going about his daily duties.
No hunter goes rushing around when hunting with a muzzle loader. The sound of a rifle shot seldom disturbs the calm and when the faint thump of some distant front-loader intrudes on the solitude it reminds one more of something from the distant past than a real occurrence. With a muzzleloader, antelope hunting is what hunting is all about; the opportunity to share new experiences with family and friends, the time to enjoy the beauty of the sagebrush as the sun rises and the patterns of shadows change on the mountains. Planning a successful stalk, correctly estimating distance and wind and making an accurate shot far exceed any consideration of length of horn or circumference of base. This is hunting as hunting used to be!
We left the ranch headquarters and took one of the roads along the slopes below timberline on Elk Mountain. Small groups of antelope dotted the ridges and washes below us. We saw nothing better than the lone buck we had seen earlier on the flats with its back to the wind.
“Let’s go back and take another look at him,” Dave said.
The buck still lay in the same position. We watched for a few minutes. No change. It didn’t even look toward its backside.
“Maybe you can make a stalk on him. ‘Want to try?”
“I might as well. I’ll try to use the irrigation ditch that Jon sat in last year,” I replied.
Crouched over, I took my Parker Hale and started slowly for the ditch. As ditches go, this one didn’t offer much. One could be hidden, but only in a crawl – and I’m too old for crawling more than 400 yards. The crouch was difficult enough. When I reached the ditch, I checked the sight setting on the rifle. My rifle has a ladder-style rear sight and I’d sighted in the two blades for 100 and 200 yards. For antelope I use the 200-yard setting, which puts the long 475-grain conical bullet 13-14 inches high from 100-150 yards and right on at 200 with a 120-grain load of FFg. Because of the wind, I would try to get to within 150 yards.
Crawling takes more breath than traveling crouched, and my frequent stops served more than just to check that the antelope still was facing the other way. When I finally reached what I estimated to be 200 yards, I considered trying a shot but then crawled another 50 yards and carefully eased the rifle over the irrigation ditch’s lip and sighted on the antelope. The front sight covers 13 inches at 200 yards. In comparison to the antelope it looked like about 150. Wind is never a friend of the muzzle-loading antelope hunter but this time was an exception -the antelope never looked back into it. I held the required distance low and pulled the sight two feet in front of the antelope to account for wind drift. My elevation was correct, but I had over-compensated for the wind. It obviously was blowing more from my back than from the side as I’d thought. The bullet passed in front of the buck and kicked up dust on its far side.
Immediately alert, the buck jumped to its feet-as did two does we hadn’t seen, and all three started into the wind and back toward me. I can’t shoot without reloading, and I can’t reload without the antelope seeing me and running off.
Two shots at the same animal are few and far between in the muzzle-loading game. I lay low, watched and muttered silent incantations as the animals milled around and moved within 100 yards of my hiding place. Then, still uncertain as to the source of sound and dust, they started to move away from me. I reloaded while on my side, just keeping the barrel up enough for the powder to go down. My arm and ramrod went unnoticed even though both protruded above the ditch when I rammed the bullet home. I looked back at the antelope as my hand felt for a percussion cap. The buck had moved off to about 115 yards with its back quartering toward me. The does were even farther away, and .. looking in the other direction.
The Parker-Hale shoots a heavy bullet capable of sufficient penetration for a quartering shot so I again eased the rifle over the low bank and held low, this time realizing the wind direction allowed only six inches for drift. I squeezed the trigger. The wind immediately blew the smoke away and the sound of a solid thump spoke of a good hit.
My buck was down. One antelope in hand and one to go.
With the dressing, tagging and photographs completed we again headed for the slopes of Elk Mountain. It was mid-morning and the antelope were feeding and moving before bedding down for their noontime rest. We saw several small bucks within range of the .535 round ball of Jon’s custom Hawken rifle, but Jon elected to pass them because it still was early in the hunt. My son has enjoyed spectacular success when hunting antelope with his rifle. Eight years in a row he’d taken bucks at 150-200 yards. While fathers may teach sons to shoot, Jon hadn’t been so successful in teaching his father to judge distance and wind with such accuracy. They say that all strings are to be broken some time, would this be the year?
An hour later as we came over one of the many ridges that run from the mountain to the plains, we saw a fair-sized buck coming down the hillside in front of us. Jon and Dave hurried down the ridge out of sight of the buck. From the truck we could see the buck move down the opposite ridge and out of sight into the draw. Then we saw the head of the buck again as it came up our side of the ridge with Jon and Dave just on the other side. “I don’t think they see the antelope,” Philip said.
“I agree. It may come up and be on them before they see it,” I replied.
So it turned out. The antelope suddenly appeared before Jon and Dave. A puff of smoke drifted away with the wind and the antelope followed in the same direction. Surprised to have the antelope suddenly appear in front of him, Jon had hurried his shot and missed. Disgusted, he quickly reloaded.
There were several antelope far down the hill and unapproachable from our position. As we were about to exit one of the many strips of willows and trees that accompanied the small streams from mountain to plains, we saw another buck on the hillside about 125 yards away. Jon took a good look and decided this buck would do. He made a short stalk to the edge of the trees, took careful aim off-hand and touched his rifle’s set trigger. This time the buck went down with the shot.
Our antelope hunt was over but our hunting was not. We still had a decision to make. Would we go hunting for prairie dogs or for jackrabbits the next day? Hunting prairie dogs and jackrabbits is a strong plus to a Wyoming antelope hunt. With a muzzle loading rifle, both provide a considerable test of marksmanship but one involves long range at a small target and the other requires running shots through the sage brush. The year before we had chosen prairie dogs, so this time it would be jackrabbits. Hunting jackrabbits with a muzzleloading rifle can be even more fun than antelope hunting. There certainly is more shooting and more challenges. Dave, Carol, Philip, Jon and I all scored on the long-eared speedsters and it was time to depart for another year.
The two buck antelope we took with the muzzleloading rifles on this hunt were not our largest. Even so, they still exceeded SCI minimums.
You can successfully hunt antelope with a muzzleloading rifle and if you do, you will discover the thrill of hunting as it was when you began hunting and everything was exciting and new.
The” old way” really is the best.–Don Kettlekamp