December 07, 2022
In my binocular I watched the tan-and-white speck loitering at the base of hill transform into a mature pronghorn buck. He stood perfectly broadside among a herd of 15 to 20 antelope some distance from the rise where my guide, Brian Schiermiester, and I were crouched. We'd glassed the herd from another ridge about an hour earlier and had just put a stalk on them, army-crawling the last 100 feet.
"How far is he?" I asked Brian, who had swapped his bino for a rangefinder.
"About 450 yards," he whispered back.
My heart thumped. Ahead of this hunt in the vast, open country of east-central Wyoming, I'd worried I might have to take a shot beyond my comfort level to succeed. Now it was happening.
While a reasonable shot for some hunters—and manageable with the Nosler Model 21 rifle and Federal Premium Terminal Ascent 6.5 Creedmoor load I was using—it still felt like a poke. As a Missouri guy who spends more time hunting ducks than big game, most of my shots at whitetails have been inside 200 yards. In fact, the last time I'd shot at a deer beyond that, in western Nebraska, I watched my bullet kick up a cloud of dust and an excellent buck speed away forever.
Sitting below us behind the cover of the hill were our other hunting companions, Sam Forbes, from Petersen's Hunting, and a cameraman who was filming both of our hunts. Like me, Sam is not a Western guy, hailing from Virginia. It was the first time either of us had hunted pronghorns. Minutes earlier, when Brian asked which of us was up first, we'd played an impromptu round of rock-paper-scissors to see who'd get the initial crack at a buck. I had come away victorious and was now up to bat.
Missing here would be embarrassing enough, I thought, as I surveyed the buck in the distance. But missing with an audience, with video evidence to boot … that would be grounds for serious teasing back at camp.
Then there was the even worse possibility of a poor hit. Before this trip, I'd read many pronghorn stories to understand what to expect. While most were tales of triumph, some felt more like horror stories, detailing misplaced hits, hours of tracking and follow-up shots. I did not want a similar outcome. "I don't feel comfortable taking this shot," I finally conceded to Brian.
I asked if we could try for a closer opportunity, and he began surveying the terrain like a chess master examining the board and deliberating his next move. His face hinted that our options weren't ideal, but he eventually suggested we back down the hill and move down a draw to try gaining ground without spooking the herd.
Unfortunately, this didn't pan out. Nor did other stalks we attempted that morning. The pronghorns, with their exceptional vision, would catch us, or they'd move steadily enough across the plains that we couldn't intercept them. Around midday, we returned to camp to see how others had fared and to fuel up for our next attempt. We were discouraged, but with the afternoon and two more days of hunting, we were still in the fight.
HOME ON THE PLAINS
Few places are as stunning in their sparseness as the rolling plains north of Kaycee, Wyo., where the 22,000-acre Schiermiester family cattle ranch lies. High ridges offer sweeping vistas of the abundant hills and the extensive sagebrush flats that extend for miles. To the distant west, the Bighorn Mountains rise gradually. It's an area that hints at a world before human influence.
Positioned on a flat stretch near a deep draw and bordered by rolling hills, our living accommodations for three days of hunting were equally impressive. Our camp included a large wall tent for meals and relaxation, four smaller tents for sleeping and a makeshift latrine. Inside half of the bigger tent, a wood-burning stove kept the chill at bay in the mornings and evenings. The other contained various Camp Chef stoves, grills and ovens that Trevor Clements, the company's vice president of operations—and our personal chef for this hunt—used to create delicious meals.
A hearty lunch was just what we wanted as we rolled back into camp. Two pronghorn bucks already hung on tripod hoists, and hunters were busy processing them. As our successful companions detailed their kills, I was shocked by how easily our group was finding antelope. We saw them everywhere on the Schiermiester Ranch, whether we were walking to the main tent in the morning or bouncing along a cattle road in Brian's truck.
After the hunt, the affable guide would estimate his family's ranch held 1,000 or so pronghorns at any given time. This abundance should not have surprised me, given that Wyoming has averaged close to 400,000 antelope in recent years, with some studies suggesting the state holds roughly half of the world's total pronghorn population.
We were clearly in a target-rich environment, but as Brian would say, seeing antelope is rarely the issue. Finding your target buck and getting a shot opportunity in open terrain without getting caught by any of the herd's many eyes is the challenge. Soon we began game-planning our next spot-and-stalk session, and Brian had another area he wanted to glass. We didn't wait long before piling back into his truck for round two.
HURRY UP AND WAIT
Brian's intuition paid off, as we quickly eyed another decent buck at our guide's glassing spot. The pronghorn was moving right to left with a herd across a wide plain on the opposite side of a steep draw. We immediately made a move, walking along the draw's edge, intending to push ahead of the herd while staying out of sight.
In the process, we experienced two unfortunate realities of pronghorn nature: their tendency to wander and their speed. We reached the spot where Brian wanted to set up, but the target buck was well ahead of where we had believed he would be and offered no shot. The antelope were continuously moving forward, and while their gait appeared unhurried, their pace remained brisk. We'd need to walk faster to overtake them.
I gathered my rifle and shooting sticks, and we made a beeline down a hill, continuing to press forward. At the bottom, we caught a glimpse of the buck, but he was skylined atop another hill. With no backstop and no knowledge of what was beyond the buck, it was an unsafe shot. Another bad break.
We hoofed it again, moving beyond the draw into a series of more rolling hills. This time, we stopped at the base of a small rise adjacent to a larger hill. Brian whispered that the herd should soon appear from behind that larger hill and I might get a shot at the buck from atop the rise. Brian advised Sam and the camera guy to stay put, and he and I repeated the morning's drill of crawling on hands and knees toward the rise’s apex.
"Go ahead and set up," Brian said when we could peer over the top. I quickly arranged my shooting sticks and placed the rifle's fore-end firmly in the yoke. Then I waited, wondering if this might be the stalk where things would go as planned.
It didn't take long to find out. Seemingly seconds after I had set up, the herd started clearing the larger hill and emerging in the open prairie to the left of it. The antelope were much closer than I’d expected—less than 100 yards—and suddenly they all began to run. Whether they saw Brian and me lurking atop the rise or began running for another reason, I couldn’t say. I felt certain, though, that I was watching yet another chance at a pronghorn literally pass me by.
Brian identified the buck we'd been following near the back of the pack. While the herd slowed its pace to a gallop, I tracked the buck with my rifle, shifting uncomfortably on my knees and pivoting the barrel to the left in the shooting sticks. The pronghorn was still traveling too fast to shoot, and I had little faith I'd get a chance if he kept moving. More critically, because of where Sam and our camera guy were set up, I couldn’t swing much farther without putting them in an unsafe position.
Inexplicably, the buck slowed, separating from the herd and finally stopping at about 200 yards. I flicked off the safety and lined up the crosshairs. My heart was pounding, my awkwardly positioned legs were strained in discomfort and my brain began the process of pulling the trigger.
Just as I was about to shoot, and in one of those instances where time seems to slow down, I saw the buck lurch forward slightly as if to start moving again. In this high-stress situation, rushing to finally get a shot off at a buck, I committed a cardinal sin of rifle shooting. I fell back on my wing-shooting instincts and ungracefully mashed the trigger instead of completing a careful press. My rifle fired right as the buck surged forward.
The pronghorn dropped out of my view through the scope, and I heard Brian and Sam cheer. The buck was down. However, the result of the animal lurching forward and my poor trigger control quickly became clear. I had hit the buck far back. In a combination of fortune and misfortune, my bullet had at least rendered him immobile, allowing me to get in a better position and fire a second, killing shot.
It wasn't the outcome I had envisioned, and I was upset I hadn't given the buck a cleaner death. I also realized things could’ve gone far worse, and I was relieved I could end his life quickly. We walked up to the buck, and Sam and Brian congratulated me on my first pronghorn. While it wasn't a complete triumph, I was grateful for the opportunity to hunt this animal in such an incredible place, where both success and failure happen in the wide open.
Gear that got the job done in Wyoming
A lightweight, flat-shooting rifle is the ticket for spot-and-stalk hunting on the prairie. The new Nosler Model 21 ($2,795; nosler.com) I carried weighs less than 7 pounds in 6.5 Creedmoor and comes packed with features. Designed in collaboration with South Dakota's Mack Brothers, the action is blueprinted from birth on advanced wire EDM equipment. The one-piece bolt is spiral-fluted and can be taken down without tools, while the Trigger Tech Field trigger is user-adjustable. A threaded muzzle is standard on the Shilen match-grade barrel. The 100-percent carbon-fiber McMillan Hunters Edge Sporter stock further reduces weight.
Federal’s Terminal Ascent ($70.99 per 20 rounds of 6.5 Creedmoor; federalpremium.com) combines features of a match-style projectile with those of a quality hunting bullet, such as a bonded lead core and a long, solid copper rear shank. A secant ogive, small meplat and AccuChannel grooves on the shank enhance long-range ballistics. The SlipStream polymer tip resists heat deformation during flight and initiates expansion.
With its 6:1 zoom ratio, the Leupold VX6-HD 3-18x44 mm riflescope ($1,799.99; leupold.com) offers long-range capabilities while providing low magnification for close shots. It comes with the CDS-ZL2 elevation dial, which has a zero-lock function and can be laser-marked to match the user’s load and conditions. The company's BX-4 Pro Guide HD 10x42 mm binocular ($599.99) rode comfortably all day in the Pro Guide binocular harness ($99.99), and its open-bridge design made for comfortable glassing. It did great in the harsh daylight of the open plains, with no glare issues.
Camp Chef's Trevor Clements whipped up some of the best meals I’ve ever had using various Camp Chef products, including the Pro 14 portable stove ($319.99; campchef.com). Camp-worthy features include two 30,000 BTU burners, matchless ignition and a three-sided windscreen. It accepts a ton of accessories, such as a griddle and a pizza oven.
My Danner Recurve boots ($240; danner.com) handled every sort of terrain encountered. Taking inspiration from some of Danner’s best hiking boots, the Recurve features a Vibram SPE midsole and a TPU heel clip to ensure comfort on long stalks for pronghorns.