This article was first published August 14, 2019, at sportsmansnews.com
I pushed back from my desk and smiled in disbelief. My computer screen told me I’d just drawn a golden ticket, one of only twenty either-sex pronghorn rifle tags in Oklahoma’s westernmost county, the Cimarron, but I didn’t believe it.
My brother drew the same tag five years ago. I was insanely jealous of him then, and legitimately angry. He didn’t even know I’d put him in for the hunt. For years now, I’ve been responsible for entering my dad and two brothers in Oklahoma’s Controlled Hunt Program. At just $5 per person, it’s an unbelievable bargain. For less than the price of a fast food value meal, hunters have a chance to scout new country and target different species and maybe go home with a cooler full of venison.
So this would be my first rifle hunt for pronghorn in Oklahoma. But it would also be my last. Would a once in a lifetime hunt yield a once in a lifetime antelope?
There are an estimated 1200 pronghorn antelope in Oklahoma so the herd isn’t especially large, not when compared to herds in states like Wyoming or Montana, but it is stable and growing. There’s nearly a ruler’s worth of difference between Oklahoma’s state record and the world record antelope taken in Arizona, but each of the top three bucks shot in Oklahoma were killed in Cimarron County where I’d be hunting so I had high hopes of taking a trophy.
I’d hunted pronghorn once before after drawing a tag in south central Wyoming’s Shirley Basin, and it was the perfect hunt. In fact, I refuse to sweep out my dad’s tent when we set up our deer camp every fall, leaving the two or three aspen leaves from that Wyoming hunt as mementos. But the trip still left me with a sour taste in my mouth. I shot an antelope buck the first day of our hunt, as did the other five members of our hunting party, but it took me four shots to kill him. So I had two goals for this hunt. One, to not shoot the first buck I saw. Mission accomplished. And two, to make a good shot on whichever antelope I settled on. Well, we’ll get to that a little later.
Most of Cimarron County is privately owned land so to insure there’s no poaching, those who draw the rifle tag for antelope have to inform Oklahoma Wildlife Biologist Weston Storer on whose land they’ll be hunting. When I called Mr. Storer to let him know I’d be chasing speed goats with Chandler Henderson, a friend of my brother’s, he said, “I’m not sure what he knows about pronghorn, but he could sure put you on a big mule deer.” Chandler holds the state record for mule deer, a 191 7/8” monster he arrowed back in 2014. He’s also a heck of a nice guy. Chandler introduced me to an antelope he called Tallboy in our first phone conversation. He said he thought the buck might score 80”. That may not seem exceptional to those who hunt in states like Arizona or New Mexico, but a score of 80” would place this buck in the top 3 of Oklahoma’s state record books. Then Chandler told me he thought Tallboy’s horns would stretch the tape to 19”. That kind of length is world class, no matter what state you’re hunting. He’d been watching Tallboy for years, and he said he thought he finally had the old goat’s pattern pegged. September couldn’t come soon enough.
Migrating Swainson’s Hawks perched on pivots and loitered in cut cornfields, watching and waiting for their prey, just like I was from the passenger seat of Chandler’s pickup. We saw six bucks in the first two hours of the hunt and a dozen bucks by noon, one of which was Tallboy. He was lounging on land we couldn’t hunt, though, so we kept driving and glassing. We got onto some other goats and chased two young bucks across a section. Let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve raced a pronghorn in a pickup, head hanging out the window, bugs in your teeth and binoculars glued to your eyes. I love to watch them run, and at speeds approaching 70 mph, they look like sprinters leaning in to the finish line, stretching to break the tape. One of the bucks we chased had the most beautiful cape I’d ever seen on a pronghorn, and if his headgear had been just a bit more impressive, I’d have been shooting at him.
Then we got the phone call. Tallboy was on the move and had been spotted west of Coyote Hill. Good thing, too, because the call came at the end of Chandler’s patience. We hopped in the pickup and headed that way. Trouble was, Tallboy knew he was being hunted. So he ran to the middle of two full sections where he had every inch of 1280 acres of waist high CRP to plop down in and disappear. It was at that moment we faced the reality that he might very well be smarter than us. In the middle of a flurry of phone calls trying to figure out who owned what piece of land, Tallboy picked up a doe and settled down. We finally connected with the right landowner and got the green light to put a stalk on the buck. We duck walked the length of a couple of football fields through the CRP, then dropped to our hands and knees for a couple more. After that, we army crawled, popping our heads up every now and then to try to spot the goat we were hunting. We finally located him, long after he spotted us, of course. Once we both knew where the other was, Chandler took his time to judge the antelope. He looked long and hard through his binoculars and finally muttered, “Maybe 17.” His comment didn’t really register, though, because the minute he said that Tallboy disappeared.
He rematerialized at just over 200 yards, trilling at us, and Chandler convinced me to take a facing shot I didn’t have much faith in. I placed the vibrating crosshairs just under his chin and missed him clean. The goat ran off forty or fifty yards before his curiosity got the best of him. He turned broadside and looked back. A shock of tall grass covered most of his body, but not his shoulder, and in what felt like one motion, I found him in my scope, squeezed the trigger, and watched him fall. I then fell over myself, flat on my back in the CRP, and looked up to see two Swainsons’ Hawks wheeling overhead. I’d done it. I’d shot Tallboy.
Except, I hadn’t. Just after my second shot, Chandler’s phone rang. It was his dad.
“What’re y’all shooting at? Tallboy’s up here.”
Turns out, the old goat had walked into the middle of two full sections, picked up that doe and the buck I wound up shooting, and then slipped out the back door, leaving the two of them holding the bag. I left Chandler to argue with his dad and worked my way to where I thought I’d seen my antelope fall. It took a minute or two and another phone call to triangulate his location, but I eventually found him. I knelt down to admire solid mass, jutting cutters, and distinctive hooks. Chandler was bummed. I was thrilled. He was a beautiful antelope, fully mature and a true testament to his species. But he wasn’t Tallboy.
So did that once in a lifetime draw yield a once in a lifetime antelope? You bet it did.