Up Close for Antelope

Sometimes an 80-yard target can be the toughest shot of all.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

"Do you see him now? Can you see him now?" Brad's dry whispers were urgent. "He's the one in front."

Crouched above me, with his hands on my shoulders, Brad Ruddell, my hunting partner, could see the tips of three pairs of pronged horns shadowing through the spiky sagebrush, but I could see nothing from my lower sitting position. It was a curious situation to be in, but the best plan three experienced hunters could come up with on short notice, and by no means a sure bet.

"There he is. Get ready." I could feel Brad's grip tighten on my shoulder as I leaned into the rifle and fixed the crosshairs where I expected-hoped-the big antelope would appear. In a solid sitting position with my rifle supported by a sturdy bipod, a 200-yard shot would have been a piece of cake, and there would not have been much of a challenge at 300 yards or even beyond. At my shoulder was an accurate rifle in one of the flattest shooting calibers extant, but distance wasn't the problem. If anything, the pronghorn antelope was too close!

Brad and I and guide Steve Hopkins were in New Mexico, on rangeland that had once been the scene of the state's notorious Lincoln County War, and our quest was trophy antelope. Our outfitter, Kirk Kelso, specializes in trophy hunts and scouts the best areas for good herds. I'd taken an exceptional Coues deer with Kirk the year before on a trophy hunt in Sonora, Mexico, and when he passed the word that he was putting together a trophy hunt in one of New Mexico's best pronghorn areas, Brad and I signed on, along with a small posse of similar-minded trophy-seekers.

On the opening morning of antelope season, the state was in the midst of one of the worst droughts in its history. There was no moisture on the earth, and the parched grass crunched under our boots like burnt toast when we trudged up a hogback ridge in the predawn gloom and set up our spotting scopes just as the first glow of day was outlining a range of mountains to the east. One of my favorite things about hunting pronghorns is that they live in sagebrush country, and as the rising sun spread color across Lincoln County's historic landscape, I inhaled deeply of the dry, sage-perfumed air. From where we were situated, our spotting scopes reached across miles of ranchland, finding here and there the snowy rumps of antelope. Some were in twos or threes, others were in larger bunches, but all were too distant to judge as trophies. The closest animals we could see were trotting along a fence line a good half-mile away. Apparently they had been spooked by hunters, and as sometimes happens when they are spooky, three of the bigger bucks had split off from the main group and angled our way, passing at about 600 yards.

[pagebreak] Steve Hopkins, our guide, is a bank president in Arizona who also happens to be an expert antelope hunter with an enviable knack for sizing up trophies. When judging antelope, the golden rule is "sweet sixteen." Find a buck with 16-inch horns or better and you're on to something good. One of the three bucks was well into that category and our situation looked pretty good for getting a shot. The trio had already slowed to a walk and would probably soon stop. Then it would be easy for us to drop off the backside of our knoll, keep out of sight behind the ridgeline, get within 300 yards for a belly crawl over the ridgeline and find a clear shot for my long-reaching rifle.

Brad Ruddell is a longtime friend who has done a lot of hunting in many places. He also happens to be vice president of sales and marketing at Weatherby and came to our hunt outfitted with a new model rifle that he wanted to show off. It was a spiffy-looking rig with a camo-patterned Fibermark stock, which he later used to pull off a shot that earned him some bona fide bragging rights. I was also carrying a Weatherby rifle, not because it was the politically correct thing to do while hunting with a WeatherbVP, but because it happens to be my favorite antelope rifle.

It's a love affair that began back in the barefoot 1950s, when my prospects of owning such a rifle were about the same as getting a passing grade in spelling. Shooting magazines had lots of articles about Weatherby back then and I mooned over pictures of its sexy rifles the way too-long-at-sea sailors drool over pictures of pinup girls. Even my first attempts at whittling gun stocks from slabs of local black walnut were inspired by the unmistakable Weatherby profile. And while most lads my age collected baseball cards and memorized batting averages, I was busy stuffing my brain with ballistic tables and comparing the trajectories of various calibers and bullet weights.

Back then my big-game expeditions were limited to groundhog hunts, and one caliber that seemed to soar above all others for this purpose was the .257 Weatherby Magnum. With an 87-grain bullet screaming out the muzzle at nearly 4,000 feet per second (fps), the trajectory would be almost as straight as a string stretched tight across a woodchuck-infested alfalfa field. Sighted in with the bullet path only an inch and a half above point of aim at 100 yards, it would be less than three inches low at 300 yards. This meant I could hit any groundhog I was liable to shoot at simply by aiming at its chest, with no holdover to worry about. This was dizzy stuff for a gun-crazy farm boy and I reckoned the .257 Weatherby was nothing less than a gift handed down from Olympus, which I figured was located somewhere in California. Such imaginings are the stuff of boyhood dreams.

Yet dreams have a way of coming true if you keep your fingers crossed long enough. Years later, when my own children were old enough to have their own dreams, I figured the time had at last arrived to own a Weatherby, not just an everyday Weatherby, but the rifle of my boyhood's wildest wishes, with a glistening stock inlayed with patterns of exotic wood and hand-carving at grip and forend. The caliber, of course, had to be .257 Weatherby Magnum. Roy Weatherby and I had become pretty good buddies by then and, as was his manner, he threw in a couple of custom touches that make the rifle one I'll never part with. As an antelope rifle it is unsurpassed. Over the 20-odd years I've hunted with this rifle I've lost count of the antelope it has taken. In fact, there have been so many that it is hard for me to say either "pronghorn antelope" or ".257 Weatherby Magnum" without thinking of the other.

[pagebreak] Novice hunters of American pronghorn antelope are usually surprised at how small they are. Their petite profiles, combined with an unsociable habit of putting long yardage between themselves and anything that looks like a hunter, make them a rifleman's favorite challenge. They don't need a lot of killing, but they do take a lot of hitting. Shooting distances tend to be long-often well over 200 yards-and distance judging over the typically flat or rolling pronghorn landscape can be deceptive. This is why a savvy hunter will tilt the odds of a hit in his favor by using flat-shooting calibers, like the .257 Weatherby, which tend to forgive errors in distance guessing.

Bullets in the 100- to 120-grain range have plenty of punch for pronghorns, and the accent should be on downrange velocity and accuracy. For the New Mexico hunt, I'd handloaded some of Combined Technology's streamlined 115-grain bullets to about 3,400 fps, which, when sighted in to hit 21/2 inches high at 100 yards, will hit within 4 inches of point of aim all the way out to 350 yards. Even at 400 yards the drop is only about nine inches, which means that aiming high on the shoulder will put the bullet about where it needs to be.

My .257 W.M. rifle is by no means a lightweight. With its 26-inch heavy sporter contour barrel, it is just shy of 10 pounds with scope. Antelope rifles don't need to be lightweight and in fact shouldn't be, since the whole idea is to let your bullet do the walking. With the gun propped on the legs of a Harris bipod, the extra weight adds the steadiness necessary for shots out to 300 yards and beyond.

The best-laid hunting plans have a way of being ruined by unexpected events. Our hopes for a successful stalk were suddenly dashed by the crack of a distant rifle. Though it came from a long way off, the rifle's report had an instant effect on the three antelope, who shifted into overdrive and made a beeline for a distant fence that edged the dusty road we'd driven in on.

"Oh no, if they do what I think they're going to do and cross that road, we've got a problem," said Steve. Sure enough, as we watched helplessly, the three bucks ran straight to the fence and ducked under in the funny way antelope do, trotted across the road and ducked under a fence on the opposite side.

Shaking his head with disgust, Steve explained the situation. "We don't have permission to hunt on that side of the road, and those guys hightailed it over there like they knew it. Look at them now." As though they knew they were in safe territory, the three bucks slowed to a casual walk and seemed to be completely at ease.

With no more antelope visible within stalking distance and none of the distant specks of white and tan appearing to be headed our way, we needed to find another lookout position. As a good guide should, Steve had scouted the area previously and had a few options up his sleeve. We checked these out one by one, and though antelope could be spotted from every location, they were either too small, too far or on "no-hunting" property. As midday came closer, the cool, still, early-morning air that had allowed crisp definition and distant trophy judging had now warmed, distorting our spotting scope images with wiggly waves of mirage that made judging more difficult.

[pagebreak] After a long and fruitless search at a final lookout point, Steve suggested we go back to our starting place and see if there had been any movement of the distant herds we'd seen earlier. Once back in his pickup, we were headed back on the gravel ranch road we'd first come in on when Steve slammed on the brakes. "Will you look at that!" he shouted. "It's the three bucks we lost earlier!"

There they were for sure, and as we watched, they ducked under the fence, crossed the road and were once more in our hunting territory.

"Let's just drift by and get some idea of where they're headed," Steve suggested. "Then we'll go down the road a little ways, leave the truck out of sight, hike back and try to cut them off at the pass."

As we drove by, the three bucks were ambling down a shallow draw, hemmed on each side by low, sage-dotted backbone ridges. A quarter-mile down the road we discovered another shallow vale runninnd in fact shouldn't be, since the whole idea is to let your bullet do the walking. With the gun propped on the legs of a Harris bipod, the extra weight adds the steadiness necessary for shots out to 300 yards and beyond.

The best-laid hunting plans have a way of being ruined by unexpected events. Our hopes for a successful stalk were suddenly dashed by the crack of a distant rifle. Though it came from a long way off, the rifle's report had an instant effect on the three antelope, who shifted into overdrive and made a beeline for a distant fence that edged the dusty road we'd driven in on.

"Oh no, if they do what I think they're going to do and cross that road, we've got a problem," said Steve. Sure enough, as we watched helplessly, the three bucks ran straight to the fence and ducked under in the funny way antelope do, trotted across the road and ducked under a fence on the opposite side.

Shaking his head with disgust, Steve explained the situation. "We don't have permission to hunt on that side of the road, and those guys hightailed it over there like they knew it. Look at them now." As though they knew they were in safe territory, the three bucks slowed to a casual walk and seemed to be completely at ease.

With no more antelope visible within stalking distance and none of the distant specks of white and tan appearing to be headed our way, we needed to find another lookout position. As a good guide should, Steve had scouted the area previously and had a few options up his sleeve. We checked these out one by one, and though antelope could be spotted from every location, they were either too small, too far or on "no-hunting" property. As midday came closer, the cool, still, early-morning air that had allowed crisp definition and distant trophy judging had now warmed, distorting our spotting scope images with wiggly waves of mirage that made judging more difficult.

[pagebreak] After a long and fruitless search at a final lookout point, Steve suggested we go back to our starting place and see if there had been any movement of the distant herds we'd seen earlier. Once back in his pickup, we were headed back on the gravel ranch road we'd first come in on when Steve slammed on the brakes. "Will you look at that!" he shouted. "It's the three bucks we lost earlier!"

There they were for sure, and as we watched, they ducked under the fence, crossed the road and were once more in our hunting territory.

"Let's just drift by and get some idea of where they're headed," Steve suggested. "Then we'll go down the road a little ways, leave the truck out of sight, hike back and try to cut them off at the pass."

As we drove by, the three bucks were ambling down a shallow draw, hemmed on each side by low, sage-dotted backbone ridges. A quarter-mile down the road we discovered another shallow vale runnin