I love the high desert of the West with its sage- and rabbit-brush blanketed prairies. The smell of the prairie and the abundant wildlife there have a fond place in my heart, bringing back memories of hunting and fishing the Snake River plain of Idaho in my youth. But southeast Wyoming is a lonely place, especially when you are sitting over a water tank waiting for a pronghorn antelope to come whet its thirst. And sitting I was, on a platform six feet high on a windmill next to a stock tank with a few dozen curious bovines milling around me.
“Get out of here!” I yelled, but they just stood there and stared, rubbing against the metal frame of the windmill and stomping through the tank. The sun was rising in the east and the temperature was following right behind it. Before long I was down to my shorts staring out across the emptiest piece of real estate I had ever seen.
It’s hard to have faith at such times.
* * * * *
I was sitting at my desk working one winter day when the UPS driver delivered a long box to my office. “Another bow,” he said as I stared at the package. I hadn’t ordered anything lately and wondered what was in it, until I read the return address. As I carefully opened the box I was immediately caught in the awe of one of the most beautiful pieces of artwork I have ever seen — a Jerry Pierce Choctaw recurve, exactly my draw weight, with my name on it.
To those who knew Jerry, his bows are the most sought-after handcrafted works of art in the bowhunting world. He never sold them, but instead made each one specifically for a reason — either as a gift to someone he thought deserved one or for a donation to a bowhunting organization to use for a raffle or auction to raise money. Well, I wasn’t sure I belonged to either group after reading the simple note Jerry had sent along with the bow, so I called him and offered to pay for it. He got mad and said if I sent a check, I might as well send the bow back as well. I may be foolish at times, but I’m not stupid.
Mid February found me speaking to the United Bowhunters of Missouri at their annual Festival in Columbus. Jerry was there and we spent some time talking about the bow. I couldn’t talk him into taking any money for it, and I guess I hurt his feelings. Hey, I like a gift as well as the next guy but I was humbled to have been given the bow. “I’ll tell you what,” Jerry said. “Why don’t you come hunting with me this year in Wyoming for antelope. That would be a fair price, don’t you think?”
Sounded fair enough to me, until I found myself sitting on a desolate piece of the prairie with nothing but cows around me for miles later that August.
* * * * *
The sun was high in the sky and the temperature hovered around 90° F. as I cursed the cows and glassed the horizon. I turned to glass to the north and spotted a black shape moving through the olive drab sagebrush. As I watched, the black became horns. Soon a buck antelope appeared a mile away and was headed toward my stand. At about 300 yards he stopped to look over the cow situation and decided to bed down. Great. Here I am, down to my shorts in plain view of this buck, getting hotter by the minute and unable to move.
It was fully two hours before the cows tired of the water scene and started tromping off over the prairie to parts unknown except to them. As they slowly grew smaller in the distant plain, I turned my head around and found the pronghorn headed directly toward me. Not wanting to spook the buck, I slowly reached down and grabbed my bow that had an arrow nocked just for this situation. The buck kept coming almost straight at me, scanning the water tank and surrounding sagebrush like a radar dish. At 20 yards he abruptly changed directions and passed by me without offering a shot. I sat there not wanting to move for fear I may scare him away, but I was also sitting facing away from the water tank where he was most likely standing.
It was quiet except for the liquid ringing of blood pumping through my ears. Ever so slowly I tried to turn my head around to see where the buck had gone. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the orange colored antelope approach the tank and start drinking. I purposely spun around on my stool, drew and released in one fluid movement toward the drinking buck not fifteen yards away. There was an instant crash of wood; my bow arm jerked forward and I heard a loud, metallic twang as the arrow penetrated into the water tank’s lip about one inch below the rim. Water shot into the air and over the surprised antelope and dust was flying as I searched to see what happened, checking my prized bow for any damage. In the meantime the cotton ball tail-end of the buck was a hundred yards away, leading a rising column of dust, and getting smaller every second.
Retrieving my arrow from the tank, I found a half inch slice through the galvanized steel. An inch or so higher and I would have cut through the buck’s chest at heart level. But the fact I was sitting low on the platform, leaning toward the buck when I shot, caused the lower limb to hit the front brace on the platform sending the arrow low and the buck out into the prairie. As I looked off into the horizon, all I could see was a trail of smoke disappearing into the sagebrush. That was dumb, I thought to myself as I climbed back onto the platform. Now I had to explain to the landowner why I poked a hole in the lip of his tank. If the prairie was desolate before, it was downright depressing now. And to make matters worse, the buck stopped at the edge of the horizon and started feeding before he bedded down in sight.
It was going to be a long day.
* * * * *
I sat there and glassed the buck for four hours in the impossibly hot sun belittling myself and wishing — no, praying — I could have the shot back. But as we all know, these are wishes that do not come true. I thought about calling it a day and heading back to camp. But I’ve always believed a bowhunter needs to have faith in what he or she is doing, so I tried to stay positive about the whole episode and continue my vigilance. Hey, sometimes miracles really do happen.
Late in the afternoon the buck got up and started feeding away from me. I was glad he was leaving. I needed to put closure on the terrible events of the morning, but all of a sudden he looked back toward the water tank I sat upon. I don’t really know how to say this, but he had the look like he wanted to come back in. And then he was making a beeline straight toward me from over 800 yards away.
When the buck dropped into a depression to where he was out of my sight, I grabbed my bow, nocked an arrow, and stood straight up on the platform. If he was dumb enough to come back to the tank, I wasn’t going to be dumb enough to replay the first shot. As unbelievable as it seems, he did exactly that — he walked straight in to the tank, facing me, came right around the side, and put his head in the water. At ten yards broadside my arrow took him through the lungs, low in the chest, and sailed off into the sagebrush beyond. He stood there looking up like nothing happened, and then his eyes got huge and he was off like a racehorse, making S-shaped turns through the sage and finally bulldozing into the prairie for the last time.
As I walked up to the fallen pronghorn, I couldn’t help myself from admiring his horns and hollow hair, and the color scheme of a Popsicle 50/50 bar he sported — cream and orange. I stood up and stared out over the vast nothingness of the prairie, which once again made me feel so lonely and insignificant.
* * * * *
Our group consisted of Jerry Pierce and myself, along with Rich Johnson, Ken Hartlein, Joe Osvath, and Gordon Rule, all of them from Missouri. We had made acquaintances at the UBM Banquet earlier that spring and were now sharing an antelope camp with Clark Noble of Hunton Creek Outfitters. It was a fine group of men and a great camp.
That first evening at dinner the stories of the day’s hunt spilled out across the table as each of the bowhunters relayed their experiences with big bucks. In fact, everyone had a shot that day, but I was the only one who connected. With five days left there was no doubt more antelope would be taken. And although I had already filled my tag for the season, there were a lot of things I wanted to see.
Our camp was nestled in a draw that was surrounded with rocky hills and juniper brush. Clark had told me this was an old Indian encampment and he had found lots of artifacts, including arrowheads. The following morning I packed my camera equipment and spent the day hiking through the hills looking for artifacts and taking photos. I found an old, partially petrified buffalo horn that was wedged between some rocks along with other strange items. And on an adjacent hilltop I came across what later proved to be an old Indian camp with literally dozens of rock rings from their tipis. Chips of red flint-like rock and obsidian caught my eye as I scoured the land. I ended up shooting three rolls of slides of a cottontail that let me spend an hour within ten feet of it, and another two rolls of a flock of sage grouse that were traveling by me.
That afternoon the landowner stopped by our camp and I explained the hole in his stock tank. He wasn’t concerned since it was near the rim and could be fixed with a simple bolt and washer. Besides, he said, he wanted the antelope thinned out.
Joe came back to camp with a fine buck antelope later in the day. His first shot had hit the buck high in the neck after having the same problem I did; his lower limb of his longbow hit the floor of his platform and sent the arrow on an erratic flight. After watching the buck for some time until it bedded down, Joe stalked up and slipped it a Snuffer to put it down for good.
In the meantime, Jerry was sitting in a ground blind a few miles from camp when a herd of cattle came in to water. Two bulls got into a scuffle and started banging into the blind he was sitting in making him worry they might knock it down. A cow stuck her head through one of the shooting windows and scared Jerry so bad he punched her in the nose. She let out a bellow and roared through the herd. All of a sudden the biggest bull came over to see what was going on and proceeded to get involved in a shoving match with the other two bulls. When they careened into the blind again, Jerry had had enough and jumped up and yelled at the bulls and headed back to camp. He was quite excited when he came walking into camp that evening and said, “I’m not afraid to say I was scared. I thought they were going to roll over me out there!”
The following day was my last in camp. I had wanted to see Jerry take an antelope before I left so we discussed his options and he decided to sit the windmill I shot my buck from. Late that afternoon a buck made its way toward him and he nocked an arrow. As the buck closed in, a swarm of flying ants came through and Jerry soon had the insects crawling over his face and arms. But when they crawled into his shirt and pants and started biting him, he drew back his bow and let loose the arrow, missing the buck high. He then proceeded to completely strip down to his shorts to remove the ants. As soon as the buck was well over the horizon the ants disappeared too, leaving Jerry alone in the windmill once again … with nothing on but his underwear.
* * * * *
The next day I had to leave, so I bid farewell to my friends and pulled out of camp, my rig pointed toward Montana. Driving through the sage-covered prairie, I thought back to the first day sitting in that windmill. What had seemed like a bleak attempt to outwit a crafty antelope turned into a learning experience I will never forget. I had taken a fine antelope with Jerry’s bow, and he was there in camp to share the experience with me. But had I not kept my positive attitude in the windmill I might never have had the second chance at the buck.
The prairie didn’t look so lonely anymore as I motored down the highway into the coming night. Sometimes it pays to have faith.
Editor’s note: This hunt took place in 1996, (which explains why T.J. has dark hair) and the article was published in the Oct/Nov 1997 issue of Traditional Bowhunter. It was later included in T.J.’s book Campfire Reflections.
Artwork by Andrew Warrington