By: Randy Tucker
My first pronghorn antelope was a less than textbook hunt. I was teaching history and coaching football, basketball and track in the tiny Wyoming border town of Lusk, just 22 miles west of the Nebraska line.
One of my favorite kids was Kevin “Ace” Ellis. Tall, rangy, strong, with a dry sense of humor, Ace and I hit it off right away.
In the realm of the march of time, I was his 23-year old coach and he was my 18-year old athlete. When we converse these days, we’ve both become the same age. It is an amazing transformation.
Until about two decades ago, you could buy antelope tags over the counter. There was no draw for specific areas as there is today.
Lusk is an agricultural community, the largest town in the smallest county (by population) in the state. Niobrara County has fewer residents that you’d find in a small high rise in Chicago, Philadelphia or New York, but most of them had acreage, some measured in the thousands of acres.
Ace’s dad owned some grass hay ground that they cut once a year. Alfalfa is different, you get at least two cuttings a summer, sometimes three in the arid conditions of Wyoming but that requires irrigation water, and the farmers in Niobrara County practice dry land production, meaning what you get from the sky is what you get period.
It was football season and as Ace and I walked off the field together we talked hunting. I’d taken a few doves the month before in August, but goat season was opening up the following weekend.
I said I’d bought a tag and he suggested I hunt on his dad’s place. The elder Ellis had already cut the grass hay, and had it stacked in large bread-shaped piles we called loaves.
I drove out after practice the five miles east of town and spotted a herd of pronghorn feeding among the newly stacked piles of timothy, crested wheat and brome grass.
It looked promising.
Ace told me he and his brother Bo had placed mineral blocks in the pasture hoping the extra calcium, magnesium, and molasses would prompt 15 or 16 inch horns on the bucks, but in two years of trying, it didn’t change a single horn, it just made a few hefty antelope bucks.
He said the best vantage point was on top of one of those loaves of grass.
So dutifully I drove out before dawn the following Saturday morning.
I packed my Remington 788 .308 over my shoulder on a sling and walked towards the hay stack I remembered as being closest to the antelope.
I climbed it in the blackness of a moonless pre-dawn. If you’ve never climbed a tightly packed pile of grass hay, you haven’t truly experienced the concept of one step forward, two steps back.
After slipping repeatedly, I backed up, sprinted as fast as I could and turned my horizontal momentum into vertical lift while feverously scrambling.
Gasping for breath, I made it to the top.
I sat there looking at the brilliant constellations waiting for the pink glow of sunrise in the east to appear.
A few dozen minutes later Orion, the Pleiades, and Ursa Major began to fade.
As the sun faintly began to illuminate the field I started to make out shapes, large shapes against the surrounding grass.
By 6:45 am it was almost legal shooting time and I gingerly moved to a prone position, with my .308 at my side.
Looking through the scope I spotted the best buck in the herd. He wasn’t huge, I guessed 14, maybe 14 and half inch horns.
At 7 a.m. it was full sunlight.
The herd was facing away from me, perhaps the worst angle to take a shot on a big game animal.
After a few minutes, I aimed at the base of his neck, and gently squeezed the trigger. A .308 doesn’t explode like a .30-06 does, but it still makes plenty of noise.
It roared and the herd took off, all but the buck. I dropped him where he stood without another movement.
Getting down is much easier than going up a loaf style haystack. I left the spent cartridge in the chamber as a backup safety, held the rifle in my crossed arms and slid to the ground.
I counted my paces, 212, from where I shot to where the buck lay.
When I reached him something strange had happened. I’d creased the length of his back with my 150 grain bullet before striking him squarely between the ears.
I pulled up the strip of hide. It was about an inch across and maybe 30 inches long. It looked just like a belt made of antelope hide with the hair left on.
I wrapped the homemade belt and put it in my bucket. A half inch lower, and I would have ruined the entire back strap.
I field dressed the goat, slung my rifle, and picked up the 120 pound or so buck, tossed him over my shoulder and walked the four hundred yards back to my truck.
I’m not a fan of antelope meat, but it makes great jerky and sausage using something like High Mountain jerky mix to process it.
I’ve taken several antelope since, but never made another belt in the process.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at [email protected].