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It was a September afternoon, brightly back-dropped by cerulean skies, when I concluded my cross-country trek from my home in Arkansas to the familiar sage brush and prairie grass of Wyoming’s Spearhead Ranch. As I drove along the dusty, winding five mile ranch road toward the lodge and bunkhouse, I scanned the infinite acres for a glimpse of the creatures that had drawn me to this hallowed hunting ground. Rounding a bend near the creek, and as if by magic the Greek goddess Artemis had swept her mythic hand across the prairie, there they were: pronghorns!
This was my second bow hunting trip to the Spearhead, but my first with traditional archery gear. As a result, I was particularly excited at the prospect of hunting with this new, more challenging choice of equipment and had packed a selection of my most faithful bent sticks for my western odyssey.
After arriving at camp, unpacking and sharing greetings with both old friends and those who would become new friends by week’s end, Frank Moore, owner/outfitter of the ranch, began the pre-hunt ritual of orientation and assignment of hunting blind locations. Since I was one of only two hunters in camp possessing tags for both mule deer and antelope, Frank suggested that I hunt a blind that was known to be frequented by both species. And so began my acquaintance with "The Video Store".
The Video Store, like most of the hunting blinds on the Spearhead, is a huge inverted steel tank buried two thirds underground, thus creating a pit where hunters wait for game. The tank has a single small shooting window that overlooks a preferred prairie watering hole less than 20 yards away. In addition, there are tiny viewing ports, just inches in diameter, cut in the tanks to allow hunters to scan for approaching game. Each blind is equipped with a comfortable chair and hunters are dropped off well before daylight to begin their daily vigil.
Like most of my hunting trips, I awoke well before my alarm clock was scheduled to ring on the next morning, my first day of hunting. I wasted no time climbing into my camo, doing a final inspection of my bow, arrows and broadheads, and checking the contents of my pack before heading into the lodge for a welcome cup of coffee and the substantial breakfast that Shirley, camp cook and Spearhead kitchen icon serves up with more warmth and cheer that can ever be articulated in print.
After breakfast, each hunter picked up a small cooler filled with cold drinks and a packed lunch for the day afield. Then we climbed into vehicles to be transported by our guides through the cool predawn to our blinds and whatever may await in the hours ahead. As one by one each person was taken to his designated location and seen off with wishes of luck from those of who remained, I was reminded of the sincerity that I have come to appreciate in most bow hunters. With few exceptions, phrases like "shoot straight", "good luck", and "get a big one", are said as much as an encouragement as a hope for good fortune. It is one of the many reasons I have come to love my time in hunting camps and my time with hunters.
I arrived at the Video Store just as pinkish light began to peer over the eastern horizon, splashing the prairie sky with the first hint of muted color. Crawling into my blind, I looked forward to watching the world awake to a new day.
The early morning resulted in little movement on the ridges surrounding the Video Store. However, by mid-morning several small bands of antelope became visible feeding in all directions from my location. Watching them browse the sage and contiguously scan the prairie for predators was a delightful way to pass the morning hours.
At about one in the afternoon, after watching some 50 antelope throughout the morning, I was surprised to see a velvet antlered mule deer appear on the western ridge some 350 yards away and feeding beside a group of about a dozen prairie goats. Given that no mature antelope bucks had elected to visit the waterhole, my interest in the deer heightened.
I watched the mulie buck disappear and reappear in the hilly creases at ranges of up to 400 yards for the next hour. Then, without notice, he began a determined trot down the ridge and quickly closed the distance between us until he was standing at the edge of the languid pool. As he cautiously lowered his head to drink, forelegs and muzzle submerged in the water, I drew my 47# recurve bow and unleashed a 560 grain carbon shaft. The arrow hit the wrinkle of skin just behind the shoulder, crashing into the flesh just as the buck exploded and disappeared behind the blind at break-neck speed. Heart pounding, I endeavored to catch my breath and calm my nerves while waiting for the prudent minutes to pass between my shot and any effort toward game recovery.
A half an hour finally ticked away as I climbed from the Video Store and out into the sun soaked 85 degree air. My boots crunched against the parched soil, brushing against the abundant sage as I slowly began to walk in the direction the mule deer buck had fled. I picked up the deep crimson trail of blood and followed it for several yards until my patience failed and I gave into the temptation to raise my binoculars and scan the earth ahead. There he was, down and lifeless some 100 yards directly in front of me. I approached slowly, bow and arrow at the ready, even though I knew that another shot would not be necessary. It was obvious, and I was grateful, that this buck has expired quickly. I knelt down by the beautiful creature and took his velvet antlers in my hands, silently thanking God for his life and the gift of his harvest.
Spearhead blinds are equipped with a flag that is to be hung outside the blind when hunters wish to signal their guides for pick up. Guides check for the red banners throughout the day from high vantage points using spotting scopes and binoculars. Thus, it wasn’t long after the deployment of my flag that Leo, my guide, came rumbling down the two-track to where I was sitting in the grass with the buck.
Leo, an accomplished traditional bowman himself, was thrilled with the results of my day afield. As we laughed and talked about the hunt, it was obvious that his appreciation of the day’s efforts were as genuine as the lifetime of western wrangling that had made him not only a great hunting guide, but also the quintessential American cowboy.
Day two saw me back for another engagement with the cast of characters occupying the real estate around the Video Store. The stage began to fill at around 10 am when I observed a good looking pronghorn buck bedded on a high Southwest ridge nearly 600 yards away. I watched anxiously throughout the day as the buck got up, stretched, changed locations and occasionally fed without ever altering his altitude. The wind was gusting from the West on this hot 90 degree day. With the buck bedded on the dry open ground, I hoped that he would eventually become thirsty and come to water.
While having my patience tested by the dark faced buck up the ridge, activity at the Video store was anything but light. The procession of doe and fawn antelope coming in to quench their thirst at the tiny pool kept me well entertained. In addition, there were two more mule deer bucks, both appreciably bigger than the one I had taken the previous day, who kept me company for over half an hour as they repeatedly took turns drinking from the little oasis.
Finally, at 3:30 in the afternoon, after watching the pronghorn buck for most of the day, my prayers were answered when he suddenly rose from his bed and began the descent from his vantage point. After stopping to make two scrapes along his route, he finally appeared just 10 yards in front of my position. As I began to draw my bow on the broadside beast, he sensed something was amiss and turned his head to face directly into the shooting window. I froze in mid-draw, muscles straining against against the bamboo limbs until I was forced to meticulously let down. Moments passed and by some twist of luck, Divine intervention, or both, the buck settled, put his head down and began to drink. I could see his cheeks fill and the water ripple as I again began to draw my bow and focus my attention on the target of tufted hair that was evident just behind the antelope’s shoulder.
Instantly the arrow was gone. The buck jumped from the pool, made a semi-circle and at a full run, headed back toward the ridge. I tried to catch my breath as I watched the buck’s futile efforts to escape from what had startled him, but the arrow had already done its job and after 140 yards the big goat collapsed and was finished. After my usual wait, I approached the downed antelope. I stroked his neck and experienced that strange but familiar sense of conflicting emotions…excitement, remorse, and thanksgiving that make hunting such an enriching and full experience.
Waiting for my pick up there under the bright, arid sky, I pondered on the seasons of the hunting life. There are many times when we go afield and return with only our memories of the day. It is the blessing of those times that give us the appreciation for those magical hours when predator and prey come together in the dance of life that is as old as antiquity itself. My time in the Video Store will long be remembered for the success of the harvest, but equally, it will be treasured for the sound of the wind, the scent of the sage, the joy of watching other hunters fill their tags, and the familiar feel of a traditional bow in my hand.
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