The sign along the highway promised “cheap drinks, lousy food’’ not too many miles ahead, just across the border in Montana.
We ignored the bait and turned off the paved road. We made a long dust trail on a gravel road and turned off again. The next sign pronounced “open range’’ and we slowed and sometimes stopped for the cattle grazing alongside (and on) the road, this one hard-packed. We turned down a rutted trail into a pine woods and made camp.
We had made our way to this corner of northeast Wyoming for our first-ever try at antelope hunting.
Sons Ryan, Erik and yours truly were truly new to this, but we were not entirely clueless as to what we were up against. Ryan lives in Sundance, Wyoming, and had scouted the area we were to hunt ahead of time. There were antelope to spot as we drove along, and mule deer too.
We knew from reading the works of avid hunter Judd Cooney that pronghorn antelope are North America’s fastest land animal, capable of clipping along at an estimated 60 miles an hour and more. They take off like the Road Runner of cartoon fame, minus the beep-beep. Cooney advises that their eyesight is equal to that of a person using 8x binoculars. They keep to the open range, grazing in small herds with their eyes watching all directions. When spooked, they bolt and zigzag unpredictably like a flock of birds at a cruising speed of something like 30 to 40 miles per hour.
They’re known as “speed goats,’’ and there’s some science behind this moniker. They’re genetically related to goats, and are not part of the deer family, according to Cooney.
My first encounter with antelope had been years ago at Custer State Park in South Dakota. I was surprised then by how they seemed more curious than afraid of vehicles, and found the same true now. Yet I discovered quickly what a challenge they are to hunt. They know two-legged creatures are predators to fear and will easily spot you more than a mile away. The only way to get into a football field’s distance of them was to keep out of their sight. That meant stalking them by crawling-sometimes on your belly- to get to a ridge- or tree-line that might offer some cover. Finger and fist-sized cacti made the crawling a tricky endeavor.
The real trick was to figure out the antelope, and where best to intercept them as they made their way towards a watering hole or their favored grazing. Luck helped us too. We each were able to fill our tags.
Blue skies, warm weather and star-filled nights around a campfire made it the perfect adventure.
The true test came when we finished processing the meat, and daughter-in-law Felicia put the first steaks in the frying pan. I’m sure the ranchers who raise some of the world’s best, grass-fed beef on these lands look at antelope meat much like a Minnesotan would a sheepshead (freshwater drum) pulled from a lake. Sure you can catch, fillet and fry them up, but do you really want to when there are walleye available?
Felicia told our dinner companions Alexis, 12, Hunter, 10, and Avery, 9, that chicken- fried steaks were on the night’s menu. They devoured the steaks unaware of their origin, and loved every bite.
We knew the truth, and enjoyed the fare with every bit as much enthusiasm. They made for a meal worthy of being complemented with expensive drinks.