I could see the dust settling behind the very confused speed goat that I had rudely awoken from an afternoon slumber. He was staring at me, ears twitching, wondering what had just grazed his back.
His look said, "Close, girl. But not close enough."
The sharp pain of a cactus spine working its way through two layers of clothing and into my skin couldn't top the feeling of embarrassment running through my mind. I was lying prone on the side of a sandy hill in southern Colorado with a good dose of adrenaline beginning to wear off. I could now feel every sharp rock my body was resting on, and I remembered the two rattlesnake holes beneath me.
The muzzleloader was still resting against my shoulder as I stared in disbelief. I'm the first to admit that this wasn't a gun problem, it was a "me" problem.
Nerves: 1, Hunter: 0
We had spotted this buck and his four female counterparts from afar. "There's a goat on that hill," Curt Tichenor, my guide from FullDraw Outfitters, had calmly said while glassing from the bed of his truck. Friend and fellow hunter, Mark Sidelinger, and I raised our binos in the direction Curt was pointing.
The antelope were head down and grazing without so much as a glance our way. We were on day two of our three-day hunt, with no shortage of antelope sightings over the past 24 hours. But this buck had been oblivious to our existence, and we had plenty of stalking cover to get close to him. A quick plan of attack had been developed, and with gear in hand, we had hiked, crawled, and inched our way to within 300 yards.
This is where it got good. Until I blew it.
We were hidden behind a row of three small hills, a surprising break in the flat, sagebrush-covered terrain typically found in southeastern Colorado. Slowly lifting my head over the rise, I spied the tall, dark horns of the buck through wisps of prairie grass.
Knowing 300 yards was too far of a poke for a muzzleloader, stalking closer was my only option.
"If you think you can get closer, go for it," Curt said. This was the fun part. How close could I get to the animal before placing him in my crosshairs? Lying as flat as I could make my 5'10" frame, and using the rise of the hills to my advantage, I began to crawl.
I could feel my heart pounding through my chest as it scraped against jagged desert rock and cacti, not feeling any pain as adrenaline had taken over all of my senses. I edged my muzzleloader as far forward as I could reach, following closely behind it.
Two hundred fifty yards and counting'¦.
I had made my way over the rise of the hill when the curious eyes of one of the does spotted me and alerted her companions. Not sure what all the fuss was about, the buck jumped up from his resting spot. This was my opportunity, but my rangefinder couldn't pinpoint the distance. Technology at its finest.
Knowing for certain I was within 200 yards, this was it and a shot was a must. Having no rest besides my elbows and the hillside underneath me, I took aim. The crosshairs bounced as I tried to maintain my breathing. Crawling, first-timer nerves, and anticipation of the shot were overtaking me. "Two hundred yards'¦aim high." I reminded myself. Apparently, I aimed too high.
Hunting Antelope with a Muzzleloader?
This was my first antelope hunt with a muzzleloader. The odds of a successful hunt had taken a turn when discovering I would be chasing the fastest land animal in North America with a front-stuffer and not a rifle. Challenge accepted.
I would be hunting goats with the Traditions Vortek StrikerFire. It's known for its accuracy in the field, so I had confidence in the muzzleloader's ability. Opting for 90 grains of Blackhorn 209 powder and a .50-caliber, 270-grain Federal Trophy Copper bullet, I was spot-on at 100 yards and four to five inches low at 200 yards.
Antelope are known for their keen eyesight, so hunting them with anything other than a rifle is not an easy task. I would have to get within at least 200 yards — and I was hoping for 150.
Using the Terrain
Hunting speed goats is one thing, hunting them in the desert-like environment of southeastern Colorado is another. Day three of the hunt was upon us, and luckily, beginning at sunrise, we were swarmed by antelope. The problem: The open desert offered little cover to embark on a successful stalk.
We would need the help of the rolling hills that were peppered across the valley. But that meant locating goats in the precise position for a sneak attack over an accompanying hill. Unfortunately, I couldn't wave a wand to make that happen.
Instead, we spent the morning attempting to conceal ourselves behind an Eichler Antelope Decoy or crabwalking from sagebrush to cactus — a cat and mouse game that wasn't working. The more we crawled, the farther ahead they got.
With the sun just beginning to turn the day hot, we sat glassing and searching for the next herd.
"Do you see that?" I said to my comrades. "On the side of that hill. A buck and two does." Turning their binos in my direction, we stared in wonder. After we had stalked the same group of goats all morning, these three had appeared out of nowhere.
Grazing on the side of a hill, the antelope were unaware of our presence. Two hills sat just west of their location and butted up perfectly. If we could do a large "U" around and hike over the two western hills, that would put us directly on top of them.
Being sure to give the speed goats extra space, Curt and I made our way around their location, and began trekking up the neighboring hill. We stayed low and hiked bent over — if the ante-lope had grazed up to the top of their hill they would have a perfect perch to spot us. I could feel a change in my attitude. This was going to happen. It was the opportunity we had waited for the entirety of the hunt.
Aim Small, Miss Small
Hiking, hiking, hiking — 500 yards later we had to be almost directly on top of them I thought to myself. Suddenly, the buck and his girlfriends appeared in front of us. But they weren't grazing now — they were trotting as if spooked. They had winded us.
Standing perfectly still, I watched as the goats began running — my hopes of getting a shot off diminishing by the second. Only this time, they didn't run in the opposite direction, they were making a "U" around us.
"Get ready," Curt whispered. "He's going to have to pause at that fence!"
Blood pounding in my ears, I raised the muzzleloader and watched the buck through my crosshairs. Curt was right. The buck had to pause at the downed barbed wire fence in front of him. But he wasn't going to pause for long. Two seconds, three seconds, five seconds. Perfectly broadside to me, I knew he was within 200 yards. I placed the center of my crosshairs on the top of his back to compensate for the bullet drop, exhaled, and pulled the trigger.
I saw dust erupt behind the buck.
He jumped at the sound of the muzzleloader and ran in the opposite direction. The legs of the goat buckled 10 yards from where he had originally stood. He fell, his tall, dark cutters disappearing into the thick grass.
The shot had been dead on.
"He's down! He's down!" Curt shouted. As we ran in the direction of the buck, I pulled a spare rapid reloader from my vest and rushed to reload in case a follow-up shot was needed. Reloading a muzzleloader on the run — a true test of skill!
We approached with caution, his form growing as I got closer. I watched the buck take his last breath and a wave of emotions took over. Tears of joy welled behind my eyes as I knelt over the buck and quietly thanked him for his sacrifice and the meat he would provide.
The thick horns sitting atop his head were curled at the point, and his front cutters were broken off. This buck had been a fighter.
After three days of hard hunting over miles of Colorado desert, a wave of exhaustion hit me. I too felt a little like a fighter who had gone 11 rounds and finally scored a KO in the 12th.