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Early Season Muzzleloader Antelope Hunt in Wyoming (Part 1)

September 1, 2011.

I hunt antelope in Wyoming nearly every year, and for 2011, decided to try something different. Virgil Mathias, Paul Vanderspek, and I drew tags for an early muzzleloader-only buck season.

Wyoming allows scoped muzzleloaders, and with good bullets (like the 290-grain Barnes Spit-Fire T-EZ) and a good scope (like the Leupold Ultimate Slam Muzzleloader scope) it's amazing how accurate muzzleloaders can be out to 200 yards. Just before the hunt, I shot a 3-shot 1.5" group at 200 yards -- about as good as any centerfire rifle I own.

Hoping to avoid opening weekend crowds (which I think is always a good strategy for Wyoming antelope hunts), we planned our hunt around the second weekend of the season.

Spek had to work on Friday, so Virgil and I headed up without him to set up camp on Thursday. Right at sundown, we parked my pop-up camper in a likely-looking spot and started glassing. There were several herds all around us, which gave us some good reassurance for the morning's hunt. We needed some reassurance, as on the long drive up from Denver, we had seen very few antelope. The population seems to be significantly down this year.

Friday morning, the first full day of hunting for us, we glassed from camp and saw several groups of antelope and several bucks in the 12- to 13-inch range. One nice thing we noticed about the bucks is that they seemed to have large cutters in this area.

We decided to drive the unit a little and get a feel for what it offered.

Unfortunately, the area had unusually open country, even by antelope hunting standards. It was virtually impossible to get within a half mile of a herd without being seen.

We saw some more 12-13 inch bucks, and finally found one we wanted to try a stalk on.

To get across the open country that separated us from the buck, we gave my Montana Decoy Moo-Cow a try. Before the hunt I had been very excited to try this, as I had been intrigued by the possiblity of a cow silouhette for years.

Turns out the antelope weren't as intrigued, however. The Moo Cow tended to spook them, and we could never get closer than 400 yards with it. Our first stalk of the hunt failed miserably.

After we abandoned that first stalk, we put the Moo Cow away and started to close in on some antelope that we could see near some berms -- berms that almost certainly signaled the presence of a water hole. The berms and the draw they dammed finally provided some decent stalking cover, as well.

We got to within 350 yards of the antelope and then Virgil started to close the distance with a good old-fashioned belly crawl.

As Virgil describes the stalk:

I got to within just under 200 yards. I was sweating bullets from the 85 degree heat and had to clean glasses before shooting. In addition, the ground was pretty flat and I was having difficulty setting up a prone shot where I could see more than the bucks head.

I kept adjusting till I finally got a shot. When I pulled the trigger, nothing happened. This happened 6 more times!

I sat up and broke down my rifle to discover the trigger assembly wasn’t seated correctly. With that fixed I attempted a shot and missed. The antelope had moved out to 250 yards, and in hindsight, I shouldn’t have attempted that shot.

We kept hunting, and by the end of the day we had a pretty good feel for what the unit had to offer. It was hard to judge bucks, as the effectiveness of our spotting scopes was greatly limited by the heat mirage. From what we could tell, 14 inches would be the high end for bucks in the unit. Stalking cover was very sparse, but we did find that the few waterholes in the unit tended to be crawling with antelope at all hours of the day.

When Spek arrived that evening, we gave him the bad news: The best way to hunt this unit was going to be sitting waterholes, not our preferred method of spot-and-stalk. Sitting waterholes for antelope can be hot, dusty, tedious work. Spotting and stalking can be all of that too, but at least you're constantly on the move and on the initiative.

Saturday morning, well before sunrise, we headed out to our chosen spots. Virgil set up on the waterhole where he had missed the day before. Spek and I set up on a large waterhole we had found in the previous day's scouting, with me covering one end of the waterhole and Spek covering a draw that the antelope used to approach it.

At 7:08am, I heard a shot.

I sent a text to Virgil asking if that was him. A minute later he texted back "BBD" -- Big Buck Down.

Virgil later recapped his hunt:

As I walked in that morning I discovered there were actually two watering holes within 400 yards of one another. I positioned myself in between the two and watched the terrain in front of me light up from the sunrise behind me.

As the sun came up I spotted a couple small herds in the distance and a lone buck at 1,000 yards coming into the watering hole. He continued making his way toward the watering hole for the next 30 minutes. The dam berm between us caused me to lose sight of him temporarily.

Next thing I know, a doe and fawn were walking in to the watering hole from behind me. They were 28 yards away from me when I spotted them. They finally picked me up at 50 yards, but didn’t know what I was. I held still as they kept looking at me, then saw the buck poke his head over the dam berm. He looked at the does and went back down behind the berm out of site. The does start and stop several times, checking me out, on their way to water.

I saw the buck come out around the far side of the dam berm to water at 210 yards, but I couldn't move because of the doe and fawn. They all disappear out of site as they go down to the water.

A few minutes later, the does popped out on the other side of the berm, then the buck. They don’t seem know I’m there. I check the distance with my Leica Rangemaster 1200 at 189 yards.

With yesterday’s problems in the back of my mind, I line up my scope on the broad side buck and “click” -- nothing. I break open the inline and it appears the primer isn’t aligned correctly (I did load it in the dark....) I fix that and get back on the oblivious buck.

As the gun goes off I see the buck instantly hit the ground. The bullet was dead on (pun intended), taking out both shoulders and the lungs.

While skinning later that morning, Virgil recovered the perfectly mushroomed bullet just under the skin.

Meanwhile, back at our waterhole, Spek and I both had several close calls.

Continued in Part 2



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