The following appears in the August issue of California Sportsman:
By Nancy Rodriguez
“Pronghorn Antelope Drawing Notice – Alternate.”
Those were the words at the top of the letter that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife sent me. “Alternate?” I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry. After 15 years of applying for a pronghorn tag in my home state, I still felt miles away from drawing the tag. Who in their right mind would give up a premium tag? My husband Joe reassured me that situations come up in people’s lives, and not everyone is able to go.
With my fingers crossed, I hoped luck would swing my way and my dream of hunting pronghorn in my home state would finally come true. And indeed it came to fruition a few weeks later when CDFW called and let me know someone had passed on a tag, so it was mine if I wanted it. Dreams do come true!
AS MY HUNT DREW near, instead of being filled with excitement, I was racked by concern instead. Day after day I looked out the window, and instead of seeing beautiful blue sky, I was staring at a smoky haze brought on by dozens of wildfires burning around the state.
I stayed updated on one fire in particular; it was burning in the area I had scouted a short time before. Heartache started to set in as online wildfire maps showed the blaze slowly burning up my hunt area.
But as the opening date loomed, I could finally breathe a sigh of relief; I watched the fire diminish and containment grow. Just days before my hunt the fire was out, so I checked the fire perimeter one last time before we hit the road. Final result: The fire had burned within yards of my selected areas.
We had scouted three shooter bucks in three different areas over the summer, and the fire map confirmed that the fire had burned to the edge of all three spots. What were the chances of that? All we could do was try to find animals and hope that they were not too scattered from the fire, as well as helicopters, crews and heavy equipment that had worked so hard to contain the blaze.
The day before the opener, Joe and I, along with our good friend Jon and his 9-year-old daughter Ava, made the five-hour drive up to my unit. We were very excited, especially as this would be what Ava considered to be her first pronghorn hunt.
Once we arrived we went to the first place on our list and found that the area hadn’t burned, but close. There was plenty of evidence that heavy machinery had been traveling the dirt roads. We had spotted a great buck in this area while scouting here, so I hoped he was still around.
Joe and I took off out across the hills to see what we could find, while Jon and Ava stayed back to glass the finger ridges below camp. Between all of us, not one pronghorn was spotted. Even so, we decided to stay there and try our luck at first light.
OPENING MORNING STARTED OFF slow. Ava’s eagle eyes eventually spotted a decent buck that I wanted to take a closer look at. We were over 500 yards away, but as we started to sneak out across the sage and juniper tree-covered ridge, he took off like a rocket and didn’t stop. He continued running for miles over two ridgelines before he put on the brakes. Joe and I tried to circle him, but he vanished. Talk about skittish! I knew with it being second pronghorn season, this guy might have been chased before.
We continued to hunt the juniper-covered hills the rest of the afternoon and found nothing, so the four of us decided to head over to a different area that we had scouted.
A large playa held a small amount of water, as the drought had turned the small lake that was once there into a pond. During our scouting trip, we had spotted an extremely tall, thin-horned buck here. His horns curved forward, reminding us of the antennas on a bug, so we nicknamed him “Antennae.” We spotted Antennae in the middle of the lakebed with about 10 does. We used the spotting scope to check him out and realized that with the rut kicking in, his horn tips and prongs had been broken off. Bummer! The rest of the day was spent glassing in search of any decent buck. We got within shooting distance of numerous small bucks, but no shooters. That night we made plans to hike into the next spot on our list, a remote lakebed.
We started our hike at first light and, with a chill in the air, the crisp morning air felt refreshing. This area was where we had spotted the largest buck on our scouting trip and he had thick, slightly heart-shaped horns and what appeared to be 6-inch-plus prongs. This lakebed is very remote and several miles away from any road, so I felt like we had a good chance the buck wouldn’t be pressured.
While we were closing in on our destination we heard the unmistakable sound of a quad in the distance. The sun had just started to break the horizon as we arrived at the top of the mesa that overlooked the lakebed. We set up the spotting scope and the glassing began, and I slowly scanned across the landscape in a grid pattern, spotting a group of pronghorn with a small herd buck in the trees.
A short distance away two quads sat on the lakebed. I knew if the big antelope was around, he certainly wasn’t any longer. “How did these guys get here, since there aren’t any solid roads to travel on?” we wondered.
We had hiked for two hours to get there and we were too late. With the pressure of the quads, we figured the big buck would be gone, but we searched the surrounding areas anyway. The rest of the day only produced a tiny buck with a few does and I was feeling a bit disheartened. That night Jon and Ava wished me luck before they headed home.
The penultimate day of the hunt was spent sitting for eight hours above a waterhole with only two wild horses and three pronghorn coming in. With one day left, I mentioned to Joe that maybe we should head back to Antennae’s lakebed. As we pulled in by the lakebed that evening to set up camp, we saw a nice buck heading out of the foothills to water. Since it was the last few minutes of shooting light, I didn’t have enough time to get set up. Still, I was reinspired by seeing a “new” buck in the area.
Our plan was to hike down to the lakebed the next morning in the dark and set up in the trees at its edge. Once there, we would ride out the day in hopes a decent buck would move into the area searching for does and I would get off a shot.
THE LAST MORNING ARRIVED and I awoke feeling like my head had just hit the pillow. Sunrise wouldn’t wait for us, so we had to get moving. I shouldered my backpack, grabbed my rifle and looked up at millions of stars that were twinkling in the dark sky. I grew comfortable with the idea I might be going home empty-handed, but as the hike began, a smile swept across my face because I realized that “Today could be the day.”
Joe and I hiked a mile down the lakebed by the light of a crescent moon. We set up under the canopy of a large juniper tree on the edge of the lakebed. As the night gave way to morning, we started to see little antelope dots in the distance. Antennae had his small harem out in front of us and a few small bucks mingled about. Momentum seemed to shift as we glassed the far right corner of the lakebed, where we spotted a mature buck with 19 does feeding. It was my last hunting day, he was a shooter, and suddenly the hunt was on.
They were 520 yards out, and since I prefer my shots to be within 400 yards, we needed to close the distance. The two of us crouched over in unison and began the final stalk. We sneaked from tree to tree, closing the distance and racing the sun before it cast long morning shadows and revealed our position. We crawled the final 50 yards to my preselected location and ranged the herd at 350 yards. Suddenly, my target buck took off at high speed, throwing a dirt rooster tail along the way. He was chasing a smaller buck that was trying to move in on his harem, and I used that moment to get my gun set up for the shot.
With his mission accomplished it was time to fulfill mine. The herd buck slowly worked his way back to his harem, and I waited in ambush, with my crosshairs following his every step. Joe called the ranges as the buck moved closer and I adjusted my turrets accordingly.
The buck meandered in and out of the herd while checking the does. I controlled my breathing and patiently waited for a clear shot. My opportunity arrived and I thought for a moment how bittersweet it was. After 15 years of waiting, hoping, and mostly dreaming I slowly squeezed the trigger.
And just like that it was over.
As we hiked back across the lakebed weighed down with meat, wild horses ran by to wish us farewell. I may never hunt pronghorn here again, but I won’t stop California dreaming after the experience. cs
Editor’s note: Nancy Rodriguez lives in Cool (El Dorado County), with her husband Joe. She is an outdoor enthusiast who loves to fish, hunt and backpack. Nancy is on the hunt staff for Prois Hunting & Field Apparel for Women and enjoys inspiring women to get outdoors.