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Photos by Aaron Agosto - https://www.aaronagostophoto.com/
Beating the Clock
The muscles in the corner of Erics left eye twitched every few yards and I could tell he had just crawled through another cactus. Eric never winced or paused to pick the thorns out of his knees and palms, his eyes stayed glued on the horizon. A heat-distorted breakup of sage and dust beyond which we knew a buck antelope was bedded. Eric and I started this stalk a mile ago at a crouched walk that devolved first into a hands and knees bear crawl, then into a worm-like slither inches at a time. We crawled through a thousand yards of scrub sage and shortgrass prairie in the unseasonable warm October afternoon sun. Sand and salt rimmed our eyelids like miniature margarita glasses. I could see he sun setting behind us through the refection in a droplet of sweat working its way down my brow and out to the edge my hat brim. We were running out of time.
Eric and I met only days ago through Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Armed Forces Initiative, a non-profit focused on adjunct outdoor therapy for veterans through hunting, angling, and conservation. A group of veterans and active military from all over the country converged on the prairies of eastern Montana to help each other work through the complex process of coming back from twenty years at war, to talk about conservation, and with luck to harvest a few antelope. Eric was new to hunting and had been a helicopter pilot with over 100 missions under his belt. He now worked as a civilian contract pilot flying around various executive types from the office to various ski resorts and back. Eric didn’t offer much more about himself then that. He wasn’t rude by any means just quiet and reserved.
We had been hunting for two days. I spent the previous days mentoring another member of the group before filling his tag that morning. When I got back to our small camp, I helped my mentee break down the antelope before grabbing my straw cowboy hat and relaxing after a hard morning stalk. I lazily stared through a spotting scope at a small pond a half mile away while sipping water in the shade of a tarp.
The thing about eastern Montana is that you can see for miles, a novelty for those like myself, who do most of their hunting back east. With a good set of optics, you can really unpack the landscape. What starts as a menagerie of varying shades of beige begins to morph into distinct and separate islands of habitat. Ancient salt deposits in the earth create large mud flats that fill with water and swell in the spring rains then dry up again in August. The ankle high shortgrass, brown now with fall approaching holds sharp-tail grouse, jackrabbits, rattlesnakes, and the occasional Sage hen. Interspersed in this proverbial desert are the sage flats. At knee height these are the tallest plants on the prairie and when the grass is gone or covered in feet of snow this is the only food source that sustains the massive herds of elk, antelope and mule deer through winter.
After twenty minutes of looking at the pond a herd of fifteen antelope with two bucks crept forward from a small coulee and stopped at the waterhole. As I stood there with no tag, and no rifle, all I could do was watch and wait for another hunter to come back to camp for lunch. I watched the herd for forty-five minutes before having drunk their fill, they began to drift slowly down the draw moving away from camp toward private land.
As if on cue, Eric and his mentor walked up behind me and got their binoculars out to see what I was looking at. By this time the antelope had slipped behind a small ridge out of sight. Eric and his mentor Aaron had been hunting in the vicinity of camp all morning and were hot, out of water, and dead tired from a few failed stalks. After a quick explanation of the opportunity at hand, we grabbed our packs, refilled water, and struck out to cut the heard off before they crossed the boundary onto private land. A mile later we closed in on the area I thought the Antelope would cross a fence onto private land. Eric saw the first animal of the heard, a doe leading the group through a section of fence missing the bottom strand of barbed wire. Soon the rest of the herd sauntered into view, pausing shortly before ducking one by one under the fence.
Thinking this may be an afternoon pattern, that more antelope would be walking this same route we decided to push in the direction this herd had come from to see if we could find a high point to glass from. Upon reaching the crest of a small hill we spotted a lone buck trotting through the sage two miles away trying to avoid a road hunter cruising the dirt two track road in a pickup. The hunter quickly gave up the pursuit and started back toward his truck while the buck crossed a small dry creek washout before bedding down on an open mud flat.
It was 2:00 p.m. which meant time is not on our side. Two hours to close the distance, and take a shot, plus added time to track, recover, and break down the animal is a tight schedule. We decided to go for it, after all what are we out here for if not to pursue antelope. In a race against the sun Eric, Aaron, and I, took turns watching the buck while the others rushed ahead keeping as low as possible. While there were some undulations in the land between us and the buck it was never enough to allow us to walk upright without risk of being spotted. We flushed several Jackrabbits and a covey of Sage Grouse causing our groups heartrate to spike thinking the rabbits or grouse would alert the buck to our intentions. Every time we crossed a high point, I thought we would look down and see the empty spot where the buck had been, but each time he was still there.
We had a half mile more to go before we’re in shooting range. The problem was the cover running thin. We crawled on our hands and knees for the last quarter mile after leaving Aaron behind to lessen our silhouette and movement. The setting sun hung behind us like a ticking clock stretching our shadows toward the buck. Eric crested a small rise before quickly dropping to his belly and inch by inch creeping through the sage. First Eric shoved his rifle forward a few feet then pushed the rest of his body forward with his legs. I followed suit, the bino harness’ on our chests acting like snowplows pushing the sand and dirt up into our faces and down our shirt fronts. Crawling for what felt like another quarter mile through cactus thorns, and rattlesnake droppings, I started to doubt if we would make it in time. “We must be within 200 yards” I thought wiping sweat and grime from my eyes.
Eric stopped crawling and did a half pushup with one arm while trying to use his binoculars with the other. He turned back to me and in a harsh rushed whisper said, “I lost the buck, he should be right here!” I crawled up to meet Eric and we spent a few minutes tearing the landscape apart. Eventually I had to admit Eric was right, the buck was gone. I rose to a knee when a flash of jet-black horn caught my eye. It was the buck, but he was bedded 600 yards away. “How could we not be closer by now; the sun is nearly set” I thought. Eric traversed the next hundred yards at an unprecedented speed. I thought to myself, “this guy is squared away for a pilot.” I had thought pilots to be a bit pampered and polished but here this one was down in the dirt like any grunt.
Eric stopped crawling again and when I caught up to him, I saw that the Sage brush had abruptly stopped. There space between the buck was bedded and us offered nothing beyond a gentle down sloping mudflat. Eric would have to take the shot from here. I raised my head above the last sage bush to try and use my rangefinder. Unfortunately, the sage in front of me, and the mud where the buck was bedded blocked the range finding laser. The range bounced between readings of 437 yards and 672 yards. The laser hitting the bushes around the buck combined with my unsteady fatigued hand, made getting an accurate range impossible.
I split the difference and guessed. I whispered to Eric, “Can you shoot 525?” He answered yes and turned the dial on his scope a half-dozen clicks. Unsure how this was going to go, I settled in on my elbows with my face pressed into the binoculars blinking out the sweat around my eyes.
The shot kicked up dirt and dust low center in front of the buck, “miss, low center”, I whispered to Eric. The buck was still bedded, unphased by the shot. “Range 550”, I said to Eric before he shot again. The buck stood up this time. “Low center again” I hissed as Eric worked the bolt for a third shot. “Range 600?” Eric questioned more to himself than me, shooting again. This shot sailed over the antelopes back and sent him running full tilt away from us.
Thinking the stalk was over and preparing myself to comfort Eric, offering the sincere but overused, “Everyone misses sometimes” or “That’s just hunting” I rose to a knee took off my hat and wiped the sweat and grit from my face. Eric stayed on the scope and started working the bolt of his rifle. Surprised by this, I looked back to where the buck had been running. The antelope was amazingly making a wide circle turning back toward us. At first, I thought it must be because the other hunter we had seen earlier, but as the buck kept on a steady pace straight at us, I realized it must be the hat.
I have never hunted antelope with a decoy before, but I knew a few hunters who use a white circle of fabric resembling an antelope’s rump to draw antelope in. I hadn’t realized that when I took a knee and took off my hat, I became a 20-inch circle of white in the middle of the prairie and must have looked like another antelope.
Eric stayed prone and watched the buck through the scope. I watched from behind the hat as I fumbled with my range finder to call out an updated range. Now that I was above the sage, I could get accurate readings while steadying the rangefinder against the brim of the hat. “430” I called to Eric. “It’s a frontal shot”, he said, I want him broad side. “300” I whispered with the buck still walking straight toward us. I was sweating gallons trying not to move, balanced on one knee feeling like an elephant hiding behind a palm tree. Eric rolled his shoulders slightly as he dialed his scope back for the new range. “150 yards” I urged, thinking the buck would realize his error any minute and bolt.
At 90 yards the buck paused, cocked his head, and took a half step to our left giving Eric a quartering shot. Before I could whisper shoot, I heard the rifle bark and the buck rolled on the ground before popping up and running again, away from us this time. I called good hit, but Eric still had his ear protection in and in the excitement of the moment cycled the bolt and came up to a knee next to me putting another shot on the buck at 150 yards. He didn’t need to, the first shot had been perfect, straight through both lungs. The buck lay motionless on the prairie in the glow of the setting sun. As Aaron walked up carrying our packs, I couldn’t help but give Eric a hug. I was so excited for his success I just kept telling him how proud I was. Proud of his competence and composure behind the rifle after the misses and proud of how he was able to readjust and make the shot count.
The Armed Forces Initiative focuses on teaching participants to hunt. We aren’t after providing experiences of a lifetime but rather a lifetime of experiences. Three days ago, when all the participants arrived in Montana, we hosted shooing instructions and a litany of classes on range estimation, glassing techniques, and calmness in the moment. Seeing Eric put everything together and find success, watching his face as he put his hands on an animal for the first time knowing he did it all himself, proud is the only word that can describe it.
After the sun had set and we started the walk back to camp, packs loaded down with meat and I had told Eric how proud I was for the 30th time. Eric looked up at me, a big smile just visible under his headlamp in the dark and said, “You know before I was a Pilot, I was a Sniper in the 75th Ranger regiment”. “No Eric, I don’t think you ever told me that” I laughed, “but it makes sense the way you took to the mud and didn’t complain through that whole stalk I should have guessed you had spent some time as a grunt”.
In the evening everyone in camp feasted on heart and tenderloins that night around the camp stove. We retold the story of the hat and the antelope to the rest of the group. We laughed long into the night having filled all the tags in the group we could all get a late start the next day back to our various homes across the country. Eric and I were the last to leave the fire; probably because neither of us wanted the day to end.
Partially from of the perfect ratio of brown liquid and partly from success induced euphoria, I asked Eric, “Is any of this working, learning to hunt, being outside?”. Eric paused and reflected a moment “I’m not sure” he said, “I was in the Army for twenty years so like everyone else my back and knees are in rough shape, but contrary to walking around out here for days, and toting this Antelope on my back for a few miles, I feel better than I have in years. Right now, I can’t help but think of ways to do this again, maybe for elk, maybe for ducks, I don’t know yet.”
The conversation drifted off and eventually so did Eric and I. Walking back to my tent I pondered my question again, “Are we making a difference?”. Maybe I will never get a straight answer. I don’t know if it’s the introduction to hunting a fishing, or perhaps it’s the wild places we take participants to, maybe it’s the message of conservation and how our participants can continue to serve their country by taking part in the conservation conversation. The Armed Forces Initiative introduces 2,000 veterans and active-duty military to hunting and angling a year, 87% of which go on to hunt and fish again on their own, and 37% of which come back to an event to help mentor another veteran. Eric has plans to pursue Elk with another veteran in western Montana this fall. He is also joining the Armed Forces Initiative in July to be camp chef for a fly-fishing event on the Yellowstone. We have 14,000 veterans on our waiting list for events and are only growing from here. “Are we making a difference? I think so.”
Eric and his mentor glassing the heard.
The prairie is full of life
Closing in on the Buck
Eric on Halloween 2023 putting the skills he learned through BHA AFI to use on his first Elk!