All joking had stopped; except for my occasional juvenile attempt to lighten the mood. Smiles were forced as we jostled our way in a 4×4 truck along a two-track road. All of us were looking at our current situation from different perspectives, but our purpose was the same. We were determined, as a team, to find a wounded antelope.
We were a funny team, to be sure. My hunting guide was a born and bred rancher in the area and we were hunting on his family’s cattle ranch in North Central Wyoming. My hunting partner was a woman from Wyoming who had never harvested an animal before, although she had hunted a few times with her husband. My companions in the backseat were the eight and eleven year old sons of our guide. Here we were, united by the situation at hand, having all just met the night before.
We had all come together for the second annual Wyoming Women’s Antelope Hunt. A fundraiser for the Wyoming Women’s Foundation; we were all here to help raise money for their programs and to participate in the mentoring opportunities of the hunt. We each were partnered into groups of two with one guide. We met each other at a welcome dinner the night before the first day of the hunt. After hearing that my partner would be harvesting for the first time, assuming she took an antelope, I immediately told her we would be hunting for her antelope first.
We set out in the morning in what could only be described as the polar opposite of the first day of the hunt the year before. That year we were snowed in until noon, with roads closed and power lines down. This year my partner and our guide set out on a typical crisp early autumn morning. The antelope were scarce, but the giggling and the jokes from the boys in the back were not. We cruised around the family ranch for a few hours, barely seeing two antelope and those we spotted from a great distance.
Finally, after a few chance “let’s just peek over this rise” while I stayed back at the truck playing referee to the boys; we had an antelope in range. It was bedded down just off of a two-track road and we had the perfect position behind a rise to park where it couldn’t see us as my partner and our guide unloaded and headed up the hill. The boys and I got antsy. I had seen another antelope headed another direction and swore the kids to keep in the truck while I took a little peek over the hill behind us. Just as I saw there was no antelope on the other side, I heard a shot. I immediately started back and heard another shot, then another. I gathered the boys and we low hiked up the hill in the direction my partner had gone. There she was, with our guide, just watching this wounded antelope through binoculars and scope. It was standing there with blood on its side. I had a perfect view. “Shoot again”, I was thinking, as it just stood there. “Shoot again”, I was whispering, when nothing was happening and it looked ready to move. “Shoot again”, I was practically saying out loud. I almost took the shot myself to finish it off, but I decided to wait. Unbeknownst to me, there was a sagebrush blocking my partner’s view of the antelope. She was waiting for it to step into view and when it did it was with it’s backside showing as it walked away.
The antelope started to amble up the hillside across from the two-track, slowly, but never stopping. My partner and our guide took off after it. We watched as they got further from us. At one point I got the attention of the guide and I was motioning to him with my hands to ask if I should drive his truck closer. He looked at me through his binoculars and then through mine I saw him give me the “thumbs up”.
I hollered at the boys, “Back to the truck!” and we started jogging down the hill. As the three of us were dodging sage brush, the younger boy said, “I sure hope you know how to drive a stick shift.” My mind gave pause but my legs did not. I had to think, when did I last drive a stick shift? Ten years ago, maybe more? I simply answered, “Yes,” and jumped into the driver’s seat of the truck. I looked at the gear shift and the knob is upside down. I am looking at first gear and thinking, “No, that can’t be right.” I put it into what looks like reverse and we jolt forward. Clutch, jolt, stutter, forward….I feel pretty good until I stall it out on the first small hill. We roll backward and I say, “Don’t worry boys, I got this” and I put it in first again but this time really gun it. The younger boy says, “Oh, Lord, help us” but I am just grinning ear to ear.
Here I am, driving this “new to him” old Chevy 4×4 on a two-track road in the middle of Wyoming. This is awesome, I am thinking. That is until I get to the hill my partner had gone up. I’m looking up at it and I am reminded of Baja races and stuff my brother did as a kid on his dirt bike that usually landed him on his back. I am thinking whether I should go for it or not when my conscience comes over the hill in the form of my guide to save his children from this crazy Florida girl behind the wheel. Oh, thank God he did. He and the truck barely made it up that steep incline.
We crested that rise and caught up with my partner who was still trying to get a shot at her antelope. For a wounded antelope it sure as heck wasn’t stopping or lying down. It was way ahead of us again. She jumped in the truck and we took chase. From the back seat I could see the line of her jaw tensing. I could see her half smile at all of my juvenile jokes. I believed I could feel what she was feeling because I have been there before. I have wounded an animal. I have taken a hasty shot. I have misjudged distance and neglected to account for wind. I have followed a blood trail for an hour and still never found my antelope. It’s an awful feeling and I knew she was feeling it right then. There was no question that we would spend the whole day doing this if we had to. We were going to find that antelope.
Nobody complained. The boys thought it was an awesome game of who could spot it first. We saw the most antelope of the whole day right then while looking for one in particular. Our guide was as intent as us on not letting that animal get away. We finally found it bedded down just across a fence line in a neighboring property where we did not have permission to hunt. Luckily, we had cell service and the old fashioned telephone tree. Our guide called the owner but got no answer. So, he called a friend to the owner on another neighboring property and it was decided that the best thing would be to take care of the animal where it lie.
We parked right up close the fence. My partner was able to get into a stable prone position with both of our packs for a rest. The antelope had stood up but was standing broadside. She took her shot and the “THWUMP!” was followed by an antelope down. It did not even stumble forward one inch. It was a perfect lung shot.
We walked through the fence gate and up the hill. She looked at her antelope and I could just feel the relief rolling off of her. She had a smile on her face but it had a tinge of sadness in it. I think I know how she felt. It wasn’t as perfect as she had imagined. She was happy we had found it. She was happy she finished the kill. It was a clean and perfect shot. But she had tasted that bitter pill that so many hunters will have to swallow at some time or another; the feeling we get when we miss that shot or lose track of a wounded animal. We have reverence for what we do and what we harvest. We want it to be pure and quick and clean and when it’s not…it hurts.
The day was a success, though, because of the people that were in it. We all came together with one common goal and we never even had to discuss it. It was simply what we knew we had to do. This is a hunter’s code of conduct and how we respect the land we hunt on and the animals we hunt. This is the legacy we leave.