January 7, 2021

Pronghorn on the Plains

315 Yards, 3.8 MOA.” I heard the dope shouted out from somewhere over my left shoulder. I looked at him looking at me, a world away, but somehow also in my lap. For a fleeting second I thought about how strange it was that this tool makes something so intimate and externalizes it, sends it far away. I wouldn’t have to reckon with my choice for another ten minutes at least, until I walk over and put my hand on its recently stilled chest.

I slapped the trigger and tensed up my whole body. I flinched. I felt the windmill just to my right looming over me like a father trying hard not to be disappointed. I could hear it spinning, whispering, “Slow down, breath out, pull slowly.” Fortunately, for me, I hadn’t wasted my first shot. The safety was on. I flipped it a quarter turn straight up with my thumb like a prayer pointed to the sky – and the prayer was answered. My buck was standing right where I left him, before my flinch, before the windmill’s words of wisdom, before I dropped the first of two big f-bombs of the morning.

To say the trip was going smoothly would have been a mischaracterization. We had managed to squeeze an eight hour trip from Missouri to Amarillo in to just over 13 hours. Day two didn’t pan out much better. It should have consisted of a two hour drive and a day full of scouting. We arrived just after 5:00pm. The rancher gave us a meandering tour of his property, a beautiful & segmented 10,000 acres of high plains in Northeast New Mexico, which left us just enough time for an impromptu photo shoot in front of a thunderstorm that we’d been watching roll in for the last five hours. There were moments throughout the next two days where I wondered if the photos from Friday night’s session would be the sum total of good we got out of the trip.

By Sunday night we’d watched dozens of pronghorns loaf around just on the other side of the property boundaries and killed precious hours hoping without basis that they’d find occasion to cross the fence. We’d also seen dozens more on the ranch we were hunting, absolutely killable, save for the thousands of yards that separated us and them with no cover or terrain features to aid a stalk, and wasted precious time trying to put the sneak on them nonetheless. We’d glassed some a few pastures over, only to get there and discover that those little white and tangerine spots we’d been chasing were still miles away. We’d also gotten within 500 yards of two separate groups and been blown first by wariness and later by curiosity. It felt like we were in a game of chess where the opponent had been gifted the foreknowledge of our future moves.

The plan was to go in hot. I put the gun on the tripod, loaded the magazine, and chambered a round. I then folded up the legs of the tripod and hopped in the passenger seat of the side by side. Our staging area was a little less than a mile from the field our host had directed us toward, so we rolled out just before dawn. The sun had started to crest the horizon by the time we entered the pasture and it wasn’t long before we came under the shadow of the windmill our little two tracked was angling at. That beacon of 1850’s ingenuity was situated atop a small rise that we had been assured would reveal to us a pronghorn buck going about his morning routine as soon as it had been summited. I was in such doubt about the prospects of our plan that when Nathaniel said “there he is” it didn’t register and I made no motion. My understanding wasn’t helped by the casual tone with which the phrase had been uttered, but the second time he said it, it clicked.

Cut to scene one. I bailed out of the UTV and spread the tripod. After finding the top of his head in my scope, I realized he was almost completely concealed by the rise of the hill. Without hesitation, I grabbed the rig and booked it 20 yards in his direction, shouldered the gun and got a bead on him. The gun clicked. I cursed and flipped it to fire, but he was still there, wondering what we were and if he should be worried. He waited patiently as I found my picture again, exhaled and slowly squeezed. A clean miss. There was no time for wondering or cursing – just the shrill sound of a frequency dying in my hearing range as my instincts took over. I watched this majestic creature escaping along with any hope we had left of salvaging the hunt. Disgusted, I slammed my cheek down into the stock, swung the barrel and slapped the trigger as I passed over his chest. It was a clean shot – straight through the heart, breaking the left shoulder in the process. A wave of emotion washed over the crew as I spun around and dropped a second, more powerful and decided positive second f-bomb. Disappointment and despair had been put to bed.

While I think of myself as a decent shot, I don’t know that I can take credit for that one. I shouldn’t have been able to hit a goat at a full run, much less zing him directly in his heart. Whatever the case, we closed the distance to our prize and spent a moment appreciating a life lost and contemplating our gratitude to be able to pursue this amazing life outdoors.