In mid-August, Field & Stream Editor Slaton White and I traveled to New Mexico for a blackpowder antelope hunt. Neither of us had any idea what to expect on our first pronghorn adventure. As we drove for half an hour down the long dirt track from the highway to the log cabin that would be our headquarters, however, one thing became certain: no one was going to make me climb a tree and sit in it. Fat chance of that; they’d have to find a tree first.
The ranch covered of 30,000 acres of glorious desolation: miles of sage and a few short mountains, backed by a spectacular view of the Sangre de Cristo range. The owner had stitched his property together from failed homesteads dating to the 1920s, when people had moved to the northern New Mexico desert in the bizarre hope that they could wrest a living from the dust and sage. They left behind fallen corrals and shells of log homes, one of which served as our cabin.
Drought had emptied the water holes on the ranch, forcing the resident antelope elsewhere. We had counted on the surrounding public area filling with hunters who would push the game back to us, but no one told the hunters about the plan. They forgot to show, leaving us to bump slowly across the desert, searching for a needle in a sage flat.
When the spotting ended and the stalking began, blackpowder antelope hunting turned out to be every bit as fun and challenging as I had hoped it would be.. Pronghorns may stand and look at you from .270 range, but sneaking to within 100 yards of an antelope takes some doing. Mid-morning, we spotted a nice buck and bailed out of the pickup. I followed guide Griz Montoya’s long strides across thick rust-colored dust sprinkled with volcanic rock that reminded me of nothing so much as the Mars Rover’s photos of the Red Planet. Cameraman Jeff Louderback brought up the rear. We put four sneaks on the antelope, circling around to get ahead of him. He nailed us every time with his big bug eyes, effortlessly keeping us out of blackpowder range. I don’t know if it’s true that pronghorns have the equivalent of 8-power vision, but every time I looked at a goat through binoculars that morning, the antelope was looking right back at me. We never got closer than 175 yards–a makable shot for the scoped, sabot-loaded .45 caliber Knight Disk Extreme I carried, but much farther than I wanted to shoot. The buck finally slipped under the fence onto public land where my ranch-only tag didn’t permit us to follow.
Our luck changed late in the afternoon, when Louderback spotted the tips of two horns poking above a tall sage bush. With the wind in our favor we were able to crouch, duck walk, and finally belly-crawl to within 85 yards of the feeding buck. I set up the rifle in the shooting sticks underneath a scraggly cedar tree and waited for the antelope to step into a clearing where I could get a shot. When he did, the wind snatched the smoke away from the muzzle in time for me to see the buck hop, then run 30 yards and topple over.
Slaton, alas, hunted hard for three and half days and never got close enough to shoot. The highlight of his hunt, he told me, was the afternoon he and his guide were stalking an antelope in tall sagebrush and he nearly got hit by a stray bolt of lightning. Tagged out on the first day, I was left to sit on the porch of the cabin and think about the homesteaders who first came to this place. Difference was, I had taken what I came for from this bleak, beautiful land, and I knew I’d be coming back.
Antelope hunters quickly learn the value of good optics. Guides Cody Masingale (left) and Andy Valerio from United States Outfitters ( http://www.huntsuso.com) stand in the bed of a pickup to gain needed elevation in the rolling sagebrush country of northern New Mexico. Masingale is usingg a 60X Swarovski spotting scope; Valerio has opted for 10×42 Kahles binoculars.
The Knight .45 caliber Disk Extreme, Khales TDS 3x-9x variable scope and Hogdon’s new Triple Seven powder represent muzzleloading’s cutting edge. With a maximum load of Triple Seven, the Disk Extreme achieves velocities of 2800 fps with a 150-grain, .40 caliber saboted Barnes bullet and cleans up with tap water.