By Tim H. Martin
A roadrunner seemed to materialize in front of our ATV, playfully running alongside the vehicle with a dead lizard dangling from its beak. It paralleled our path awhile, and then angled back into the West Texas brush, the tail of its scaly breakfast flopping with every stride.
I laughed at the sight and pointed it out to my driver and guide, Hunter Ross of Desert Safaris. The funny-looking critter was nothing new to the native Texan, but it was pretty darn cool to me.
I said, "In Alabama, you don't see those things everyday."
Hunter politely chuckled, but continued to focus intently on the job at hand: helping me tag my first pronghorn antelope.
He squinted into the morning sun as we rambled across the prairie, scanning intently for shapes in the distance. We'd only been driving for about five minutes when Hunter brought the Yamaha Rhino to a dusty stop and raised his binoculars.
"There's a bunch across that ravine. Yep, the whole hillside's covered with antelope - see?" he said, pointing into the horizon.
I squinted, too, scanning the endless vista through my binos, but came up empty.
Hunter patiently instructed, "Tim, they're about three-quarters of a mile out, on the second hill and just past that long strip of sage."
Buckmasters staff writer Tim Martin had been office-bound for nearly two years, so simply getting back into the field was nearly as exciting as taking his first pronghorn antelope - this 76-inch beauty.
Having never seen a pronghorn, I wasn't exactly sure what I was looking for and continued to twist fruitlessly the Nikon's focus knob. Eventually, I began to make out white and tan figures in the yellow grass. As the tiny shapes moved, they distinguished themselves from trees and blobs of greenish-gray foliage.
Hunter said, "Looks like three bucks in that group. One's worth a closer look."
How he could tell from that distance baffled me.
About the time I discerned black horns, the ATV lurched forward and we cut the distance to 300 yards. We stopped again to observe the first herd of pronghorn I'd ever seen. It was a memorable moment, witnessing something most every American hunter has imagined since childhood.
Having already taken several species of African antelope, as well as an Indian blackbuck, it occurred to me that this was my first crack at an all-American antelope.
Sadly, unexpected schedule-busters, magazine deadlines and prior commitments kept me from hunting the previous year. Months of being chained to a computer helped me better appreciate every sight, sound and breath of fresh air that the morning presented.
Hunter's voice broke the silence. "Nice buck, only about 13 1⁄2 inches, but what a beautiful animal! He's got everything you could ever want in a pronghorn ... just a tad short."
Even my novice eyes could see that this was a tempting trophy. Its horns hooked sharply backward, nearly touching at the tips. From behind, the beams formed a striking heart shape, and its prongs jutted forward like miniature shark fins, making it a keeper in just about any hunter's book.
I anxiously asked, "Looks pretty good to me. Should I grab the shooting sticks?"
Hunter paused before answering, continuing to study the buck. "Well, it's way early, and pronghorns tend to stay in a localized area. Let's put him in our back pocket and keep hunting."
From years of being partnered with guides all over the world, I've learned that if you've got one that's experienced and competent, then shoot when he says "shoot," and don't keep fondling your safety if he says, "We can do better."
Even though I'd just met Hunter Ross, I could tell that this young guide is one of the good ones. So I left the heart-shaped creature to do whatever antelopes do on a beautiful Texas day, a future prize for some other lucky hunter.
Tim and guide, Hunter Ross of Desert Safaris, evaluated nearly 100 bucks before deeming this one stalk-worthy. Oddly enough, this is the author's first American antelope, although he's spent many years chasing African species, such as kudu, gemsbok, bushbuck, waterbuck, impala and blesbok, as well as Indian blackbuck.
As we drove away, I glanced back once more to admire the sight. The buck pranced away, shook its horns like a wet dog and quickly ushered its harem away from danger. It sassily kicked up its heels and shifted into high gear as if to say, "Should've shot me when you had the chance, SUCKAH!"
For the next several hours, I lost count of the number of antelope we saw. Conservatively, we evaluated around 100 bucks, with a couple dozen in a "wish-it-was-another-inch" category. Hunter said we'd "just know" when we saw the one worthy of being immortalized.
These antelope were much more docile than the ones I'd read about from Wyoming and Montana. They were accustomed to farm vehicles and cowboys riding nearby to check on cattle. Plus, this was opening day, so there would be no need for a 300-yard shot.
Entertainment for the remainder of the morning drive was provided by velvet-horned mule deer, javelinas, badgers, tarantulas, Mexican eagles, skunks and myriad desert critters. Once, I was too slow on the trigger when a coyote bolted from a dry creek bed, clutching a jackrabbit in its jaws.
Beforehand, I'd imagined the prairie to be a drab, boring place. I hadn't expected to see things like the valley of yellow flowers that stretched for 10 football fields, nor the countless species of bizarre-looking cacti in full bloom. Each turn brought a new scene, and the distant Trans-Pecos mountain range was a constant and magnificent distraction. All this must have all been just as pleasing to the eye of the Apaches who once had dominion there.
Occasional mountains seemed more suitable on Mars than Texas. The stones looked strangely out of place on the stark prairie, as if God had strategically stacked them there in an attempt to make you stand back and take notice.
Aoudad sheep peered over the ledges, spying from coppery cliffs. They were safe this morning, high among their stony perches. But someday I hoped to return and place one of the fat-horned old rams in grave danger.
We'd hunted well past my normal lunchtime, so Hunter and I drove back to base camp to check on the other hunters and to see if the hungry horde had left us enough homemade tortillas to make a burrito.
Pat Olivas, our thoughtful camp cook, had reserved two portions of beef and beans for us. I assaulted the Dutch ovens, slathering my tortilla with fixings and Pat's homemade salsa. After swigging down a cup of coffee perked over campfire coals, I played an addictive game of washer tossing with other outdoors writers and guides who'd tagged out that morning. It was like horseshoes, except players pitched washers into small holes in the ground.
The game had no name, but deserved one, so I called it "Chupacabra," after a monster I'd overheard local children telling stories about.
Bob Humphrey, a writer from Maine, was unfortunate enough to be my partner. He was glad he had not bet money on our Chupacabra skills after a pair of Desert Safari guides trounced us.
When Bob and I lost our second game, Hunter said it was time to saddle up.
We changed directions for the afternoon hunt, but with access to more than a quarter-million acres, we weren't concerned about running out of space. Multiple antelope herds dotted the horizon within sight of base camp.
The next hour was as much fun as the morning, and we passed up a couple of intriguing bucks that I'd have deflated had Hunter not been there to coach me.
After rounding a curve, we came upon a herd divided by a patch of thorny trees. Hunter cut the engine and we rolled to a stop about 250 yards from them. Now that I was getting better at field-judging, I was taken aback when an impressive buck unexpectedly trotted from behind a wall of grazing does to my left. It was noticeably larger than the ones we'd turned down earlier.
I prodded Hunter, who was glassing off to the right. "Oh yeah! What do you think?"
Unenthusiastically, he drawled, "Nah, he's about like the ones we've been seeing."
"Hunter, are you looking at the buck on the left?"
He scanned a bit, settled his optics on the buck I'd spotted and said, "Oh! Get your rifle!"
I snatched a set of shooting sticks from the bed of the Rhino and we stalked slowly toward the unsuspecting herd, crouch-walking from bush to bush.
When we were within 150 yards, I knelt behind a mesquite tree, nestled the tri-pod's feet into the sand and rested my rifle on the Y.
Unaware of our move, the herd grazed toward us and I was happy to let the buck cut the distance for me. When it reached 120 yards, I didn't squeeze the trigger until the crosshairs locked onto its armpit area, where tawny back-hair intersects white flank.
Pronghorn scattered at the shot, except for my buck, which was lying on its side, hind legs spinning like a dog scratching fleas. Gradually, the hoof-circles ceased as I approached my first American antelope.
Its deeply hooked horns were as sweet as the musky aroma rising from its fur, and I was glad we'd held out for this perfect 15-incher. Between the ivory-tipped beams, prong measurements and overall mass, it scored 76 inches.
Hunter shook my hand several times, genuinely happy for me, and I could tell by his reaction that this trophy was worthy of the extra miles.
Although his clients have taken bigger bucks, some scoring in the mid- to upper-80s, I was proud that this one was going home to Alabama with me.
I didn't want the trip to end so quickly, but it felt as if we'd condensed several weeks of hunting time into a single day. If only there were a way to do that at work.
Editor's Note: If you'd like to experience Texas pronghorn hunting, call Hunter Ross with Desert Safaris at (210) 264-1745, or e-mail him at email@example.com. His website is www.desertsafaris.com.
-- Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine