One Bad KNEE and Three Good ANTELOPE!
The wind, the sun, even the sand and the rocks felt good. It was great to just simply be hunting again.
Within the past month I’ve twice posted on this forum about how I injured my right knee while bowhunting in Montana in mid-August, and about how that injury threatened to sink every hunting plan I had for this fall. The emergency-room doctor diagnosed the injury as a torn tendon. A week later an orthopedic specialist called it probable torn cartilage. Either way it looked like surgery was the next step, and my fall was shot to hell.
Then, surprising everyone, an MRI revealed serious bruising of the ligaments, some fluid on the knee and lots of residual inflammation, but no actual tears in any of the knee tendons, ligaments or cartilage. Hearing that news was like getting a reprieve from a very bad sentence.
“Your knee is pretty beat up,” the doc said. “But there’s no need for surgery. It will heal if you take it easy and follow a course of escalating physical therapy to regain the range of motion in that knee and build its strength back up. And I want you to get rid of those crutches. ”
“Can I hunt,” I asked, half dreading what he might say.
“Mild exercise is actually good for your knee at this point. But don’t push it too far. No serious climbing and don’t put too much pressure on it. ”
That was Monday morning. On Wednesday I packed up and left for Wyoming and a solo rifle hunt for antelope. I promised everyone, especially my wife who was not pleased, that I’d take things as “mildly” as I knew how.
I love hunting antelope. To me, stalking antelope on the wide-open prairie represents one of the most classic of all western rifle hunts. The country is fascinating, the animals are striking and the hunting is often a pure pleasure.
It was late in the day when I finally arrived at the edge of the public-land unit where I’d drawn three antelope tags – a buck tag and two additional doe tags. I’ve hunted antelope on my own in Wyoming almost every year for nearly 30 years, and I’ve frequently jumped around from one public-land unit to another. This was the first time I’d been in this particular unit and also the first time I’d applied for and drawn three tags.
In preparation for this hunt (and before I injured my knee) I’d ordered and thoroughly studied BLM maps of the unit, and in that process had identified several areas that seemed to hold promise. “Holding promise” to me means that the terrain isn’t as flat as a pool table, there’s some water and there are almost no roads of any sort. The no-roads bit is key to me because I prefer to hunt antelope on foot, hiking into untracked pockets to spot and stalk mostly undisturbed antelope. I typically camp right on the edge of those areas and walk straight out of camp each morning to hunt.
Even with my injury, that remained my plan. I’d simply have to see how much ground my ailing right knee would allow me to cover.
That first evening I set up a Spartan camp in a slight depression on the edge of one of those promising tracts. In all of that vastness, my truck and little dome tent seemed pretty insignificant.
The biggest problem I faced was that I still could hardly bend my right knee. That made setting up a more elaborate camp difficult, and I decided that simpler was better. The free-standing dome tent set up easily (no kneeling to pound in stakes) and I even left the camp stove at home, relying instead on cold soup and sandwiches, cereal, jerky, fruit and energy bars to keep me going.
Right behind camp was a high knob with a gradual slope that led up to its peak. From that high vantage point I could see and glass a long ways to the east and north. Before I turned in that first night, I slowly climbed the knob and spotted antelope bands scattered all across the landscape. Things were looking good…as long as I went slowly.
Thursday morning dawned clear and still. At first light I climbed back up onto the camp knob, sat down and glassed. So far, my right knee was cooperating fairly well. Underneath my camo pants a thick neoprene knee sleeve supported my knee and kept it warm. On the outside of my pants I’d strapped on an additional, stouter knee brace. Together, that two-pronged approach seemed to be working. As long as I walked slowly and carefully and avoided squatting, kneeling or bending the knee too much, everything seemed fine. This could work, I kept telling myself.
The dawn view from my little vantage-point was spectacular. I suppose if you’re used to trees and brush (and treestands) it may look a bit shocking. But welcome to great antelope country!
As the light gathered, I spotted a distant and particularly large band of antelope. Through my spotting scope I could just barely make out what appeared to be a dominate buck running lesser bucks away from his harem of 20 or so does. That band would be good enough. I packed things up, tightened the straps on my outside knee brace and headed out. The band was nearly 2 miles away.
In mid to late September the antelope in Wyoming slip into the rut, older dominate bucks gather sizeable harems of does and the smaller satellite bucks race around from ridge to ridge and harem to harem trying to steal a girlfriend. It’s a really entertaining, and effective, time to hunt open-country antelope.
Given my wounded knee, I keep my pace slow and picked my path carefully, avoiding steep climbs and rapid descents. Several hours later I’d managed to close the distance to about a 600 yards. This particular band of antelope had spent the night on a high, open ridge. With the morning, the band had feed slowly down the finger ridges that fed off tall main ridge. You can visualize the terrain by holding your right hand out, palm down, in front of your face. The antelope that spent the night high on the back of your hand. They had then feed down your middle finger ridge and crossed over to your index finger. I had approached unseen from the far side of your hand and had eventually climbed up onto your pinky finger at the last joint. When the dominant buck and his harem had eventually crossed over to your index finder, I had very carefully snuck to some rimrock on the knuckle of your ring finger. As I did that, the band moved down to the fingernail of your index finder. At that point, approximately 400 yards of clear Wyoming air separated us. Then I caught a break.
A second buck appeared over another big ridge about a half mile in front of your hand. As that second buck moved closer, the herd buck ran out to meet him. Upon seeing the dominant buck racing straight at him, the nerves of the second buck crumpled and he quickly retreated back over his ridge. That left the herd buck standing on a small flat spot between the tips of your index and middle fingers. My Leica Geovids flashed 302 yards to his chest.
I’d brought several rifles on this hunt, but on that first day I was carrying my svelte Remington Model 700 Alaskan Ti chambered in .280 Remington. Above the action was a Leupold VX-III 2.5-8 scope with Boone and Crockett reticle. I’d sighted-in the main crosshairs of that scope for 200 yards. That put the next reticle line down dead-on at 300 yards. I’d checked that repeatedly at the range.
When the herd buck stopped at 302 yards, I already had that second reticle line on the center of his chest. Laying there in the shade of the rimrock and shooting prone off of my Kifaru Late Season pack it took only a wee bit of pressure to release the shot.
As I came down out of recoil I saw the buck hit the ground, kick and few times and then lay still. I watched him for another ten minutes as his does feed away. Then I massaged my knee to loosen it up a bit and slowly walked down to see what I had done.
He was a dandy, beautifully colored and fat. His longest horn measured just over 14 inches. Big well-shaped prongs completed the package. Right then, my knee didn’t bother me even a little bit.
To give you an even better idea of the terrain and the shot, I staged this photo. The rimrock from which I shot (knuckle of your ring finger) is just below the muzzle of my rifle. The buck is where he dropped 302 yards away. Note my knee brace.
After photos, I skinned and quartered the buck on the spot using a new knife I’d purchased on the Kifaru Trading Post just days before I left on this hunt – a Dozier K16 Yukon Pro Skinner. After hearing so many glowing reports by Kifaru posters on Dozier knives, I knew I’d have to give one try one sooner or later. This therapeutic antelope hunt seemed the perfect opportunity.
One of the most enjoyable tasks in the world is notching out the date indicators on big game tags. The Dozier and I did that with a smile.
On this forum some months ago we got into a discussion on just how big a mature antelope buck really was. The buck I’d just shot was big, in his prime and stout for an antelope. Thinking about that discussion I carefully measured the buck with a cloth tape I’d brought along just for this purpose. From the bottom of his extended front leg to the top of his shoulder, he measured 36 inches. From his brisket to the back of his ham he was 37 inches. From the top of his back to the bottom of his chest right behind his front shoulder, the tape read 14 inches. I estimated and measured the actual kill zone within that chest area to be approximately 8 inches tall by 7 inches wide, at most. Put a bullet in that tight zone and you’ll very quickly have your goat. Put your shot almost anywhere outside of that area on a broadside pronghorn antelope and you’ll likely have a merry chase on your hands.
Afterwards the buck’s four quarters (bones still in), backstraps and neck meat slid right into Kifaru Meat Baggies and then into my Late Season pack with room to spare. Total pack weight with my gear was probably around 50 pounds. Camp seemed double the distance away, but the pack/hike was made slowly and without incident.
Day two dawned much like day one, and first light found me again up on the knob behind camp. The only difference being that I’d changed orange hats and rifles for new luck on a new day.
A mile to the north, six doe antelope fed in a small, grassy swale between rocky ridges. My right knee was a bit stiff and swollen from the day before, but seemed eager to go. I set out after them. Motrin and a tight knee brace helped.
If you think that all antelope stalks succeed, you are sadly mistaken. I didn’t get within a half mile of those first does before being spotted. Nor did I manage to close the deal on the second, third or even the forth stalk I made on different antelope bands that morning. Of course, having already filled by buck tag pretty much guaranteed that I would be practically covered by my half-witted antelope bucks that morning. And that’s exactly what happened. But a big old doe proved elusive.
By late morning I was hot, tired and a dull ache had taken deep root in my injured knee. I was beyond where I had killed my buck, but I had also just spotted a moving band of antelope and they were headed my way, feeding quickly and meandering as only antelope will do. I found a patch of cover, pulled out some water and a sandwich, ate and watched them.
Eventually they fed down out of sight in a little draw 400 yards in front of me. When that happened, I moved forward as fast as my complaining knee would allow. By the time the band started to feed up out of the draw, I was lying prone, using my pack as a shooting rest and tracking their movements with my crosshairs. My rangefinder said 173 yards.
One big old girl stood momentarily broadhead, and I slid my rifle’s crosshairs tight behind her shoulder and squeezed. On this clear blue day the rifle I was using was a Winchester M70 Featherweight chambered in the venerable 7x57 Mauser. 140-grain Nosler Partitions had proven super-accurate in this rifle and that potent pill knocked her flat. She never got up.
Once more I skinned and quartered the animal, removed the backstraps and neck meat and loaded up my Late Season pack. Then came the long trudge back to camp, looping around the rougher spots and listening carefully to my right knee.
On day three a new and unexplored canyon and series of ridges beckoned. With that in mind, I skipped the behind-the-camp vantage point and simply headed in the direction I wanted to go. By mid-morning I was deep into unfamiliar country and looking into a broad brown valley. All the way across that valley lay a small patch of green, an indication of surface water. In that green, six antelope fed.
I watched those antelope for a long time. It was at least a mile to the far side of the basin, and I was worried that the band would move before I could make my way slowly down off of the rocky rim and traverse the valley floor. I was also worried that I’d be spotted during my approach because the valley floor was relatively open and bare. Slowly though, the antelope fed behind a rocky knob on the far side of the valley. When they did that, I put that knob between us and headed straight out.
On two good legs the rim descent and the valley crossing would have been accomplished quickly. I moved slower, weaving through boulders and the scattered sagebrush, avoiding the badger holes and circling around the washouts. But eventually, I reached the distant rocky knob. Just beyond, the antelope band fed unaware.
After easing two-thirds of the way up the left side of the knob, I peered over a chalky chest-high boulder. What luck. The antelope were within 100 yards. Half of the animals were bedded. The other half were up and feeding.
I ducked back down behind the boulder, slipped out of my pack, opened its top and pulled out my jacket. Slowly and with extreme care I placed the rolled up jacket on top of the boulder and then slipped my rifle into position. Unfortunately, I wasn’t careful enough. One of the does spotted the movement and in an instant the whole band was up and nervously moving up the valley side toward its lip.
I reacted quickly, maybe too quickly. I picked out a doe, swung the Winchester M70 with her and snapped off a fast offhand shot. She went down like she had been pole axed, but just as quickly struggled to regain her feet. I’d hit her high, breaking her spine, but failing to kill her cleanly. Re-rolling the jacket, I slowed down and finished her with a surgical shot between her shoulder blades. Effective, but messy.
By then I was starting to feel a bit like a professional meat cutter. Out came the Dozier and the Meat Baggies, and off came the doe’s hide. Each meaty quarter was carefully removed from the carcass in the gutless manner. With a bigger deer or certainly with an elk I would have boned out those quarters on the spot before packing. But with the much smaller antelope, I simply left the bones in (minus the feet) to make the quarters easier to handle. The precious backstraps were filleted off the spine and the neck meat removed. In less than 30 minutes I was headed back across the valley and toward my distance camp with the third heavy pack in three days. Meat cutter and Sherpa combined.
I do love antelope hunting. I love the open country and the animals. And I love the classic spot-and-stalk nature that can be the heart and soul of this sort of adventure. Even with a questionable knee, it’s often far more fun than the average day afield.
And there’s always Motrin, and time to fully recover AFTER hunting season.
Supplemental PHOTO IDEAS
I really enjoy good hunting photographs. The truth is I enjoy photography, especially when I can combine it with hunting. One sort of hunting photograph is the hunter-with-trophy success photo.
There are lots of ways to take great hunting-success photos, and lots of different styles. Here’s how I do it.
I always try to incorporate four key elements into every hunting-success photo. Those elements are the 1. animal (tastefully and respectfully posed), 2. the country (I want some flavor of the country to show through), 3. the weapon used (I am an incurable equipment junkie and I want to remember and record what weapon I used) and 4. the hunter (cleaned up as much as possible). Those things are my basics.
Two other BIG things go into the making of my success photos – a tripod and the right camera angle.
To capture the sort of success photos I want, I religiously take my photos right at the kill site utilizing a tripod and my camera’s self timer. I never, ever let anyone else take my success photos, no matter how good they say they are with a camera. Only I know exactly what I want. In addition, the rock-steady tripod allows me to get obtain sharp, clear photographs. Hand holding a camera may not, particularly in dim light. A good digital camera also allows me to check my photos on the spot, and just keep shooting until I get the photographs I want.
And yes, that means that I carry a digital camera and a tripod at all times when hunting. I prefer Canon digital cameras and a lightweight Bushnell Field Tripod. I’ve tried all sorts of tripods over the years, but find the Bushnell Field Tripod the best blend of lightweight portability and solid shooting for photography. This particular tripod weighs just 16 ounces, collapses down to 14 inches for travel, extends up to as much as 32 inches for photography and is surprisingly affordable.
This is not the ideal tripod for serious spotting scope use. For that I want a heavier, steadier tripod. But I have found the Bushnell Field Tripod pretty much ideal for hunting-oriented digital photography. Here’s a link: http://www.opticsplanet.net/busfieltabto.html
A readily available tripod and a digital camera with a self-timer are the foundation for good photos. But the house is really built with camera angle.
When animals are taken, they fall to the ground. The biggest photo-composition mistake I see most hunters make is that their hunting buddy stands upright and shoots down with the camera at the hunter and animal posed on the ground. Let’s explore that mistake by taking the buck antelope I shot and photographing him two different ways.
First, let’s extend my tripod up to its maximum height, which is 32 inches, and take a photo that way.
Here’s the result of that high camera high angle. It’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. And realize that the average hunter standing upright holds the camera much taller than just 32 inches. Shooting down onto the animal tends to diminish the animal. And the higher the camera, the more that diminishing effect occurs.
Let’s now change the camera angle significantly by lowering the tripod and camera down to the buck’s level. In fact, let’s lower the camera all the way down to approximately the height of the animal’s eye. That’s a good reference point, assuming the animal is naturally posed.
Now set the self-timer and take the photo from this low camera angle. Here’s the result. Note how the same animal is enhanced with this sort of much more flattering camera angle. And it’s not a matter of making him look bigger. It’s a matter of making him look fully as big as he really is. An eye-level camera angle does that.
If you want to you show your animals to their best effect, pose them naturally, clean them up, use a tripod and camera with a self timer, and be sure to position your camera approximately level with the animal’s eye. Then, as you take various shots, experiment with positioning the camera just slightly lower and just slightly higher than the animal’s eye level. That’s also much easier to do with the camera on a tripod than if your buddy is hand holding the camera. Check the results of each single angle change in your camera’s digital view screen. Shoot until you get what you want.
Good, clear photos tend to last forever. Less pleasing ones seem to get misplaced.
Last edited by Timberline; 09-27-2010 at 12:13 PM.
"Don't let the things you can't do, stop you from doing the things you can do."