From a high ridge we scanned the plains of Wyoming for blackhorns. Spots of quartz glistened white under the morning sun, mimicking rib cages at a glance, and the gusts rocked our maximum views across the stretch of spots. Distractions and conditions aside, my friend Steven Brutger and I had little trouble finding the game. A mile and a half north, a buck and a buck grazed a meadow. Pursuing the herd would be easy: A clump of aspens trembled between us, and if we could sneak through the trees we would have a clear shot. The dollar rack looked good in the stretch – not a trophy, but respectable. We kept an eye on it while we looked for something else. Two miles to the east, another buck was busy with nine of them. I tried to estimate his size, but he looked bigger than the other buck. However, what we could clearly see was the complete absence of cover that stood between us and him.
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I kept going back and forth between the bucks, looking for any clues that would indicate a size advantage, but found none. All I could decipher were the paths to each animal: a high-percentage stalk from the north to a good stalk versus a stalk to the east with herd-destroying dangers at every turn to a potential trophy. What the hellI thought.
“Let’s try that,” I said. We descended the ridge and headed east.
One and done
This hunt had been going on for years. I first met Brutger on a business trip in 2010. He works for Trout Unlimited, and I visited his home in Wyoming to learn about the conservation projects he oversees. We hit it off and a year later he invited me back to Wyoming for a trout road trip. As we trucked from river to river, we saw hundreds of pronghorn grazing the plains. At the time, my big game hunting experience was limited to tree stands, and I couldn’t help but imagine the thrill of stalking an antler in such a place. “I’d like to shoot one of those,” I told Brutger.
“Maybe this is our next trip,” he said.
Fast forward two years: Brutger and I started getting serious about our pronghorn plans. For the eastern hunter joining for a classic western big game experience, pronghorns make excellent gate hunting. You don’t need a guide, and other than a scope and good binoculars, your deer hunting equipment is sufficient. And especially in Wyoming, public land is plentiful and tags aren’t hard to come by. Brutger and I both tagged hunting area 52 near Saratoga—a popular big-buck section of public land. Before I knew it, I was back in Wyoming on another adventure.
The first morning, as we pushed eastward, we stopped often to glass the animals and plan our next move. We headed for a small gauntlet that threw us into the draw, which we crawled over, leaving the brush to protect us. Grouse flushed around us and the hot air seemed to thicken the closer we got. We stopped at the bottom of the lot, just before a spot that would leave us completely exposed. Brutger pointed to another small stamp 20 yards ahead. We would have to crawl on our bellies and hope the herd didn’t see us.
Crawling toward the knob felt like tiptoeing into your parents’ bedroom after staying out past curfew: You move gingerly, eyes half-closed, as if it will make you less visible. I knew the herd was on my right and that they would easily spot us if they turned our way, but I tried not to worry about it for the moment. Instead, I just focused on going as low and slow as possible. When I reached the knob, I rose to my knees and gasped. I wasn’t tired so much as I was excited. We had avoided the trickiest part of the stalk and now only had a little further to go.
Brutger and I climbed to the top of the handle and peered over the ridge to see the herd – which was gone. “Where the hell did they go?” I whispered. Brutger thought they had dropped down the ridge about 100 yards beyond us. We hurried past the flat to the jumbled rock outcropping where we last saw the herd. We looked over a stone in the opening below – and there they were.
The legs came together as the dominant buck chased away the smaller males. After he exited the last contest and joined the races, we finally got a good look at him. The length of his horns was not very impressive, but their mass seemed strong. However, those details didn’t matter to me now. “We can keep hunting and looking for a different buck,” Brutger whispered, then added exactly what I was thinking. “But this has been one good hunting.”
I nodded. “I’ll make the shot.”
I moved to a flat rock that gave me a clear advantage. Leaning on the rock, I looked into the view. The herd was only 120 yards away and I saw two of them. As the buck ran to get away from an annoying human, he stared in my direction. The statement turned and stood behind them, which blocked my shot. My legs started shaking so I braced my legs against a rock. Meanwhile, the eye never closed. They will leave, I thought. Then the dollar started to move. He pulled back and turned wide. My heart hammered the rock under my chest and I swear it was beating so hard my safety was clicking.
The shoe buckled in the crack of my .270 as if the ground beneath it had rumbled. He fled to one side and he to another. He covered 30 meters before his legs, his body, failed him and he fell.
I walked over to Brutger and we shook hands. “Congratulations,” he whispered, as if he still didn’t want to spoil the animals, the peaceful place, or the moment. There were no screams or high fives, which I was thankful for. My first antler hunt had turned out just as I had hoped.
Down to the Wire
Filling the Brutger label required a bit more work and miles covered. After I shot my buck, we made three stalks – each ending in a bust. Twice we failed to get close enough, and once we surprised ourselves and the horns by getting too close.
The next morning we ran another long, exciting shoot. When we got to the last ridge, Brutger had the money in range but couldn’t find a comfortable shot. We returned to our tent camp to regroup before the next hunt.
We took the truck to cover more ground, thinking we could leave it behind if we needed to do a long stalk. The first flock we gobbled up included a sheep that, while on the smaller side, was atypical. Brutger has killed a few antelope, but never an atypical one, so this appealed to him. We parked and started chasing the scary.
We rushed to a place where we thought we could catch the herd. Of course, by the time we arrived, they had already passed us – but we were close enough to see that there was another buck, and it was a giant one. We waited for them to cross a field and over the ridge, then we ran towards them. Of course, we got to the top just in time to see that the herd had already passed another open flat and was about to drop over another ridge. “We’re going to have to run again,” Brutger said. Once again, we were too slow. When we reached the second ridge, the biggest buck we had seen the entire trip was about 400 yards away and showed no sign of stopping.
“Maybe we should call it a day,” Brutger said. “Rest for tomorrow.”
Tired and hungry, I didn’t fight. I should have known better than to believe that Brutger was about to leave. The guy is one of the most determined and persistent hunters I know, so when he spotted another herd on the way back, I wasn’t surprised he pulled over for a better look.
Clockwise from left: A bloody blade behind the field dressing; the author admires his first horn; Brutger’s budget. Photos: Steven Brutger
Brutger gauged where they were going, so we drove back to the bottom of a mound, then hiked to a granite outcropping that overlooked a grassy valley. Just as Brutger had suspected, money and money had come. They were more than 300 meters away, but grazing towards us. Brutger and I hid behind rocks, hoping the buck would move into range while there was still light in the rapidly darkening sky.
Brutger was on my left as I surveyed the herd with binoculars. When the herd shifted and shifted to my right, I whispered to him to switch points.
I rose to my knees, the glass next to the horns – which I saw were also looking at me. I fell behind a rock, fearing the worst: I had ruined the hunt we had come so close to completing. My thoughts were interrupted by an apology to Brutger, but were interrupted by a gunshot. I went out to see. He hurried away, but I did not see the dollar. “Where did he go?” I asked.
“He didn’t go far,” Brutger said.
The bullet traveled about 150 yards before tearing through the boy’s heart on its way out through the right shoulder. The animal fell to the ground. Brutger raised the buck’s horns. “I really enjoy the satisfaction of a well-placed shot,” he said. He didn’t brag. His words were simply true, from a hunter who appreciates a hard and honest chase.
As we drove to camp, the dead boy’s moss had already seeped into the front seats of the truck and the first evening stars broke through the navy sky. Brutger and I made the most of our last night. We lit a roaring fire. We cooked quesadillas with antelope. And we retold stories of past trips and relived the memories of this adventure, now drawing to a close. During one of those moments when your eyes rest on the flames and you almost forget how to speak, my mind raced for a new excuse to return to Wyoming.
“And next for the deer?” I said. Brutger took a swig from his drink and smiled before the fire.
This story was originally published in October 2015.