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Hunting Antelope in Wyoming's Red Desert, Part 1

September 13, 2010.

About 15 years ago, I read an essay about antelope hunting in Wyoming's Red Desert. I don't remember the details of the story, but I do remember that it concluded with the author successfully taking an antelope with 16-inch long horns. The article helped solidify two of my key antelope hunting goals: Hunting the Red Desert — the best part of the best state for antelope — and taking a 16-incher.

When Wyoming instituted a preference point system for antelope a few years ago, I immediately knew that I'd be saving points to apply in the Red Desert.

In general, the area known as the Red Desert is located on both sides of I-80 between Rock Springs and Rawlins. The most highly-regarded Red Desert antelope unit is Unit 60, with Unit 61 coming in as the second toughest-to-draw unit.

Unit 61 has a season that runs from approximately the first saturday in September until the end of September, while units like 60 have October seasons that are more likely to conflict with other hunts. Because of the September season dates, I always applied for Unit 61.

In 2010, with maximum preference points in the Regular draw, I figured I had about a 1 in 8 chance of drawing a Unit 61 tag. When Wyoming posted draw results, I was pleased to hear that I had pulled the tag. (I subsequently learned that Unit 61 had 1 in 4 draw odds for applicants with the maximum number of points this year).

I was also a little apprehensive. Hunting antelope in the Red Desert was the culmination of a long-standing goal — if I didn't make the most of the hunt, I'd be kicking myself over it for the next 20 years. And the unit offered the chance at a really good buck — if I put this tag on a marginal buck, I'd be kicking myself over it for the next 20 years too.

So I went in to the hunt excited, but stressed.

The Unit 61 season runs from September 4-30 this year. I skipped the opening weekend, not wanting to take chances of battling any crowds, and hit the field on Tuesday, September 7. If I had my preference, I probably would have gone a little later, but these dates fit best around other family commitments.

Unit 61 is bordered on the south by I-80, with Rawlins on the southeast corner and Wamsutter on the southwest corner. The top half of the unit is almost 100% BLM. The bottom half is checkerboarded private/public, with a couple larger blocks of public land.

I spent Day 1 of my hunt doing a lot of driving, ALL over the unit, and grew pretty confident that the area around the town of Bairoil was the most interesting area in the unit. It had lots of public land, and lots of antelope — classic, dream-come-true antelope hunting, where there was basically a herd just over every hill.

I made camp that night, and then dedicated the next day to try to find a buck that I'd be happy hanging this special tag on.

I covered a lot of ground in the truck on Day 2, looking over maybe 100 different bucks 12 inches or larger. There were a LOT of antelope around. Very fun to see so many, but also frustrating ... none of the antelope seemed to carry oversized horns. 12-inchers and 13-inchers were everywhere, and definitely some 14-inchers.

Occassionally I'd see a buck that was bigger, but not so big that I was compelled to attempt a stalk.

By the end of the day, back in my tent trailer, I was pretty discouraged. This was a fun unit with tons of antelope, but the big bruisers I had hoped for just didn't seem to be present.

Looking for inspiration, I pulled out a copy of Mike Eastman's "Hunting Trophy Antelope" that I had brought along.

Looking at the pictures of bucks in the books, most of them didn't seem that huge to me. But, many of these were Boone & Crockett bucks.

People say that antelope are hard to judge, but I had really thought that a monster antelope would be obvious. But looking at the photos in the book, I began to doubt my judgment.

I started to suspect that many of the bucks I had looked over were bigger than I was giving them credit for.

Back at home now, writing this up, I looked through my photos. The buck to the left, one I passed on one morning, was a pretty darned nice buck, for example.

Going to bed that night, I wasn't really sure what my plan would be for the morning.

I was pretty sure I had been underestimating the quality of bucks I was seeing, but I sure didn't want to talk myself in to taking a buck I'd be disappointed with — considering my high hopes for this tag, and the potential I knew it offered.

I found myself wishing I just had a plain old doe tag — all the fun of antelope hunting, but none of the pressure.

Continued in Part 2.



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