By Michael Patrick McCarty
What do antelope, wily coyotes, and wild fires have to do with each other, you might ask? Well, since it seems to be the year of surprise and big adventures just let me take a minute to tell you about it.
Let me also say right from the start, that no – I’m not making it up. Ernest Hemingway once said that the secret to his writing was that he had no imagination, and that he had to experience a thing to be able to write about it. Or something like that, said he, I am quite sure.
I would not be so brazen as to compare myself to Hemingway, but I can relate to his predicament. My imagination has never been that well-developed, and in some cases it just wouldn’t matter. No one would believe you anyway.
I had decided to treat myself this year to an unguided, private land archery pronghorn hunt in northwest Colorado. Bowhunting for the king of the high sagebrush desert is one of my absolute favorite endeavors, but years of public land hunting have taken their toll on both body and spirit and have worn me quite thin. Tags are increasingly more difficult to draw, and competition for a prime waterhole has become fierce. It has become, quite literally, more than I can bear.
And so, reluctantly, I yield. I yield to the younger guys, and gals, and to those much hungrier and more aggressive than I. Private lands held the key to my peace of mind, and a waterhole all my own.
I found the right place.
Mine was a very special slice of mother earth, a true oasis, home to pronghorn, and sage grouse, mule deer and a myriad of small and furtive creatures. To sit there, relaxed and hidden, even for part of a day, was worth every penny that I spent.
The antelope on this particular ranch were plentiful and had been only lightly hunted for several years, creating a healthy supply of trophy class bucks.
Weather conditions were perfect. It had been hot, dry, and windy for several weeks. Water was in short supply, and they were very, very thirsty. Cautious and still careful when coming to drink, but not wound like a heavy spring as they so often are on more heavily hunted ambush spots.
So, as you can see, all factors suggested that this would be a very special bowhunt, and indeed, it was. You could say that I was more than successful by standard measures, though perhaps not exactly in the way I would have liked. Still, “success” is a very special word in the life of a bowhunter.
Yet, this is not so much a story about success, or strategy, or any of the many things involved in a great antelope hunt. This is a tale that begins after the shot. It is a story about follow-up, pursuit, and… recovery. I made a great shot, but not a clean kill, though deadly in the end. It happens, and when such circumstance lays its burden upon you it is always bittersweet.
But to backtrack a bit, there had been one major glitch in my gittyup, which was my choice, or lack thereof, of a bow for this hunt.
I am a traditionalist at heart, and I almost hate to say it but I prefer to shoot a finely tuned compound bow with a sight and release when hunting trophy pronghorns over the water. Archery has always been a game of inches, and those inches are particularly critical when a live target is involved.
Yes, the distance is short and you can generally pick your shot, if they stand still long enough. The reality is that an antelope presents a relatively small target with an even smaller vital area. More importantly, they can jump a string like no other animal on the planet. Their reactions to the sound of an arrow coming out of the bow can stretch the outer limits of acrobatics, and belief. Arrow speed and precision rule the day.
Unfortunately, I was unable to follow my own advice this time. To put it plainly, I am injured. My shoulders have not been working like they used to for quite some time, and a fall on the mountain a month ago really shook me up and has left my joints out of whack. At this point I am still unable to draw my compound or my heavy recurve, but I had booked this hunt a year before and was just unwilling to admit defeat.
I filled my tag with an off-the-shelf 40# Samick recurve named the Spirit II, with no sights and three leather-covered fingers on the string. It was like being twelve years old again.
I had positioned my pop-up blind on a mild slope above the stock pond one week prior, to let the animals adjust to a new-found element in their world. First light on opening day could not come soon enough, and the action began right away.
The first two small bucks came to drink at 7:30 a.m., stared at the blind for just a moment, and had their fill. They strolled about without a care in the world, and I knew right then that things were going to go well.
From then on out I was visited about every half hour by does and fawns and bucks of all ages and sizes. It was my own little wildlife show.
At one time I had a juvenile buck at 16 yards to my left and his brother at 16 yards to my right. The buck to my right must have been really parched, and I had to laugh as he worked himself out to the center of the pond and sprawled out like a half-drunk teenager. He slurped and sucked the murky water like he had never tasted anything so good.
I passed twelve legal bucks that morning, and there were five or six that would have easily qualified for the Pope & Young record book. Two of the bucks were particularly nice, but they approached from directly across the pond and left without giving me a perfect shot.
Time just flies along when you are so completely entertained, and it was 1:00 p.m. before I knew it. It appeared that the action had slowed down, but as I reached for my thermos and my last coffee of the day I heard the sound of thumping hooves in the hard-packed dirt behind me. It was a buck, and he flew past the blind and dropped his nose in the water before I could grab my bow.
This buck was big – old and solid and my mind screamed “shooter”. That on-board computer that we all call a brain only took a moment to calculate and prepare.
The arrow was gone as if someone else had released it, and I remember being somewhat amazed as I saw it hit within a millimeter of where I had been aiming. I knew immediately that it was over, though I stifled the urge to celebrate, just yet. Still, I knew that within mere minutes I would be working to get that wonderful meat that I love so much out of the hot sun and into my cooler. Or so I thought…
The buck bolted away from the pond, and then…just stood there, barely out of range, stock still, but a bit wobbly. He stood, and I waited, and waited…, a couple of minutes stretched to five, and then ten, and then I knew that something was terribly wrong.
I ran the image of the shot over and over in my mind, and I knew that without a doubt I could have not placed the shaft any better. It was simply impossible for this not to be a fatal wound.
The buck obviously had other plans, though it was another 45 minutes before he finally began walking again and disappeared over the hill. Certainly, it was simply impossible for him to go very far.
And again, as so I thought…
I peeked cautiously over the top of the hill and found him bedded at about 35 yards, looking away. One more little half-step, and I watched in horror as his head whipped around and he stood…and then ran like he was never hurt down the hill and across a wide open valley.
He didn’t stop until he was 700 or 800 yards away, and for the first time I felt that terrible pang of anxiety of a great hunt gone bad. A bowhunter’s worst fear is to leave behind a wounded animal, and I was beginning to seriously doubt that I would be able to recover this wonderful trophy.
And then, he stopped, and again, just stood there. I stared, took a good like through the binoculars, and prayed that he would just give it up. And then, he laid down, gingerly, and there was hope again.
By now it had become obvious to me that somehow my shaft had penetrated one lung, but not both, even though the buck had been standing fully broadside when I released the arrow. Perhaps the broadhead had hit a rib or other bone, or he had somehow twisted before it had arrived. Either way, it was a deadly wound, and this animal was in big trouble.
Unfortunately, this buck did not get the memo. Before long he was on his feet again, heading for an area of tall sagebrush far up the ridge. I could do nothing but sit helplessly and watch him go. Hope can be a fleeting thing.
A couple of miles later I was on top of that ridge, having made a long, winding circle out of his line of sight. I gave it my best guess, and I tried desperately to locate him as I peered through the brush.
It was important to see him before he saw me, which can be a tall order to fill when dealing with pronghorns. I finally saw him about 80 yards below me, head up. He saw me first; he was up and he was gone.
It had become obvious that the only way to recover this antelope was to forget about stealth and push him hard and fast. The key now was to keep him in sight and deny him any chance to rest and recharge. Of course, that is easier said then done.
The air was desert-lizard dry and dead calm, with shimmering bands of heat rolling ahead like a mirage. I was beginning to feel like one of the bushmen of the Kalahari, and I thought of a documentary film I had once watched.
For the bushmen the hunt really didn’t get started until they had lodged an arrowhead in the body of an animal. Arrow placement was not always so important to them, because it really did not matter where it was hit. A non fatal arrow still takes its toll, and pursuit is what they do best.
Always moving, tracking and trailing, never quitting. Here, the earth becomes quiet and still. Perception slides into the realm of discernment and immaculate vison, and most of all human concerns vanish upon the wings of an ancient prayer.
But, there was an ill wind on the way that day, and things were about to get very strange…
The first thunderclap went off over my right shoulder, causing me to stop suddenly and stare up into a slightly hazy but otherwise cloudless sky. I looked far to the southwest and saw the darkening horizon of an approaching storm, as the wind came up and another boom of thunder rumbled over my left shoulder. I took a step and saw a bright flash over the near ridge in front and to my left, as the sun burned the sage through a faltering sky.
It took some time, but I found my buck. He was really tucked in the brush this time, but stalkable. I did my best to use the roll of the hill to close the distance. At forty yards, I nocked an arrow. One more step, I thought, and then he was up, again, and pounding down and away along the edge of a rough-looking ravine.
Not to be outdone, I quivered my arrow and made a run for it. He looked tired and stiff, and I remembered thinking that this would be his last good run. I was ready to put this cosmic misadventure far, far behind me. I was not planning on telling too many people about it either.
It was then that I saw two coyotes rise from the shadows and come to rapt attention as all hell broke loose.
They had been bedded in the shade under a deep cutbank, and they must have been shocked out of their paws when an obviously wounded and otherwise compromised antelope practically bowled them over.
From that point on it was all just a blur.
They were on him in a flash, nipping at his heels as one coyote really poured it on and outflanked him to his right. The buck turned and gave one last burst of speed as the other coyote swung to cut him off. He turned again, but it was too late. He began to slow, then stopped…and waited for what was surely next to come.
I had some catching up to do, and the last thing I wanted was to watch a pair of big, snarling coyotes rip and strip my precious prize. I screamed for all I was worth as I stumbled down the draw, racing to insert myself into that classic standoff between predator and prey.
One coyote stood in front of the buck, looking up from under his nose. The other hung back and behind, sliding back and forth and looking for an opportunity to charge and hamstring the buck in one quick, surgical slash.
I wished that I could tell you what happened next, but I can’t. I had to go down again before I could climb to the other side, and for what seemed like forever I was out of sight of the action. When I reached the top the buck was down on his side, and still. The coyotes circled, ready to dive in and tear. I was almost there…
I screamed at the top of my lungs and screamed some more, and they either could not hear me or were simply too focused on the kill. Finally, when I was about fifty yards away they spun around to face me, in obvious shock and disbelief that I had seemed to materialize out of nowhere. Both hesitated just enough to make me a little uncomfortable, and then they turned-tail and bolted like their hair had exploded.
Half-stunned myself, I followed their progress while gasping for air, sighting down my sweat covered nose, and saw…fire.
Oh my God!…
Thick, billowing clouds of black smoke rose steadily from behind the next hill. Now it was my turn to be jolted with a wave of electric current, and I practically dropped my bow in the dirt right then and there.
A blast of wind snapped me out of it, and I turned behind me to see a wall of black clouds and dust headed my way. I dropped my pack at the downed animal and stood, a bit confused and unsteady on what had suddenly become very shaky ground.
But not for long, for I had some decisions to make.
The quickening wind buffeted and swirled, and I watched with almost morbid fascination as the plume of smoke twisted to the east, then to the north and away, and then back around – towards me. Could this really be happening, I mumbled?
More than once I put down the urge to step away, and run. I have seen wildfire in action, and I know how fast it can move and how rapidly things can go seriously wrong. I began to cape and quarter, and I can tell you that my knife was cutting along much faster than normal.
I suppose the next decision was not really all that tough at all. I was over 1 1/2 miles from my blind and another mile from my truck. To carry out everything in one load in my small pack was not possible, as much as I had wished otherwise. I wondered what might be left when I returned to gather up my second load.
A bow or a pair of binoculars can be replaced. Antelope horns are funny looking things that stand upon the head and are made out of hair, and I am pretty sure that the coyotes didn’t care much about them either. Meat is meat, red and real, made of fiber and protein, and in death, gives life.
I took the meat.
It took what seemed like forever to arrive back at my waterhole, and then another tough bit of time to return with my truck. The wind flew steady and the rains came, hard and wild, and then were gone as fast as they had appeared.
The fire laid low, for a while, and then took off with renewed vengeance as I marched back towards the cape and horns and other gear. I saw the flashing lights of trucks and other emergency vehicles in the distance, approaching fast. It was going to be a long night for a whole lot of people.
I cannot fully explain that series of cascading events that occurred on that day, and the images on my mind are still close at hand. I could find no tooth marks or punctures on the buck, so I can only assume that having a coyote in his face was finally enough to push him over the edge. The arrow was broken off deep inside his chest just exactly where it needed to be. It should have been a very swift demise right from the beginning.
I have never encountered a tougher animal.
I am also quite certain that those coyotes are also a bit perplexed. After all, just how is it that a big, easy meal could literally appear in their bedroom, die without apparent cause, and disappear just as fast into the hands of a raving, two-legged lunatic? Like I said, some things you simply cannot make up.
A native american friend once listened carefully to a somewhat similar story of mine and said that what had happened had been the universe talking to me. I didn’t understand it at the time, and his words have stuck with me for a good, long time. I would like to think that I am beginning to understand it now.
I have learned a few things about my role as a hunter.
It’s all about respect, for life or death is a most serious business and there is no going back. Life is precious; hard-won and even harder kept, considering that so many factors conspire to take it away.
It is the hunter’s responsibility to kill quickly and cleanly, and in most cases, that is exactly what occurs. The topic of wounded game is never pleasant to talk about. It will never be politically correct, and it is a conversation most often avoided as if it had never happened. When discussed at all, it is usually spoken of in hushed and guarded tones, even among friends.
But truth can be stark. Realities must be faced, even when they are hard. It goes without saying that it is even harder on the animal. Perhaps that is never more evident than when a big game animal simply refuses to succumb.
A wounded animal deserves much more than concerned consideration. It deserves our full attention, and all of the resources that we can muster. We owe them that, and more. We owe them everything. They give up their lives so we may live.
Call it God, or Grandfather – the creator of all things. Call it Spirit; call it whatever you will. There is a life-force which permeates every living cell of every living thing, dancing and vibrating with everything there is and ever was. It is wide-eyed wonder, a masterful mystery, and a gift of all gifts.
It can speak to you about the eternal spark of elemental and sacred things, in a way that simply cannot be ignored. You may hear it, if you listen, in a place where the hunter meets the hunted within the heartbeat of the world .
Occasionally, you need a little help from your friends, even when they didn’t intend to offer it. It also helps when they have fur and fangs and a lust for a belly full of meat.
Sometimes, the universe can play clever tricks on the cleverest of all creatures, called coyote. I see them now, in my mind’s eye, pacing and pondering, howling at the heavens in hunger and unfulfilled need. Strange things can happen in the land of fire and new beginnings.
I wish them better luck with their next meal…
By Michael Patrick McCarty
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“Lightning across northwestern Colorado is suspected of sparking about 30 fires over the weekend, keeping firefighters running from one blaze to another… More than 4,000 lightning strikes hit northwestern Colorado on Saturday and Sunday”.
The biggest fire eventually grew to more than 1.5 square miles before being contained. “The fire was pushed in multiple directions by erratic winds from passing storms”.
There is a good chance that I witnessed the very first lightning strike that started it all.
—-From the Glenwood Post Independent, Tuesday, August 18, 2015, and from 9News.com, Denver, Colorado,
The front cover illustration for Run, Light Buck, Run: The Adventurous Life of a Lone Pronghorn and a Man on Arizona’s Paria Plateau by B. F. Beebe. Illustrated by Larry Toschik. Published by David McKay Company, 1962. Written for the juvenile audience.
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