I have ALS, a neurological disorder that erodes motor neurons and causes loss of strength and muscle mass. Upon hearing this diagnosis in 2006 I jettisoned from my vocabulary expressions like “someday” and “maybe next year.” I’m able to keep hunting with assistance from my lifelong friend Ron Wagner. (We call ourselves the A-Team.) When I told him I wanted to hunt mule deer and antelope, he said, “Tell me when and where. I’ll be there for you, buddy.” Research on the Internet led me to book a combo hunt with a Wyoming outfitter for October 5-9, 2009. Ron and his wife Jenny live in Pennsylvania; my wife Ligia and I live in Brazil. The Wagners met us in Atlanta and we flew to Denver. Here we are in the Denver airport, heading out to get our rental car.
I fell asleep during the drive north on I-25. Shortly after we passed this sign, Ron tapped my shoulder. “Andy, look…antelope!”
Seeing my first antelope brought me out of a slumber to begin living the dream of our Western adventure. We saw more than 100 pronghorns on the two-hour drive to Cheyenne, where we stopped for dinner and a good night’s rest. Ligia and I were feeling the groggy effect of the previous night’s flight from Rio de Janeiro to Atlanta.
The next day we drove to Douglas, Wyoming and met outfitter Pat Phillipps. We followed him on a 90-minute drive north to the hunting camp. On the way we saw more antelope and our first mule deer. Man, they have big ears! Ron and I–typical Easterners used to hunting whitetails in thick woods–were impressed with Wyoming’s vast openness and the number of game animals we could see from the highway.
Pat leases hunting rights on the 22,000-acre Cross A Ranch, located north of Lusk. Hunters usually stay in this 100-year-old cabin. It’s been modernized with electricity and indoor plumbing, and has two bunkrooms, a kitchen and dining/sitting room.
We opted to stay in this small house (built for ranch hands) right beside the cabin.
I had warned Pat about my condition and prior to our arrival he built this access ramp for the house. I’m not particularly sensitive about describing my problem, whether you use politically correct terms like “physically challenged” or just say “crippled.” I do, however, refuse to use the expression “confined to a wheelchair.” If it weren’t for my wheelchair I would really be confined, as in “stuck at home.”
We chatted as Pat prepared elk steak for dinner the first evening. He’s been guiding for 22 years and operates Wildcat Outfitters (www.wywildcatoutfitters.com). I found him in the list of outfitters posted on the Wyoming Game & Fish Dept’s website and contacted him because his entry said, “We welcome handicapped hunters.” Someone at the dinner table began asking Pat about the homesteaders who had built the cabin. “You’d have to ask the ranch owner about the history of this place,” he said. “I just come here for the hunt’n.” I knew then that we had chosen the right outfitter.
Conscious of my needs, Pat asked if I’d feel more comfortable staying at a motel in town. No way! Even if it took more effort, we wanted to enjoy the atmosphere of a hunting camp and do things like trade stories around the woodburning stove. The cabin window offered a picturesque view of a valley where mule deer came to feed each morning and evening.
Ligia was fascinated by this impressive collection of shed and harvested antlers. The pile contained headgear from elk, whitetail and mule deer.
Windmills dot the landscape because the prairie wind provides a reliable source of energy. This one powered the pump that delivered water from the ranch’s well.
My adaptive shooting equipment always draws the interest of other hunters. Ron explains how we aim a rifle with the ScopeCam from Matco (www.mat-co.com). The battery-powered camera attaches to nearly any scope and displays the scope’s-eye view, crosshairs and all, on a 2.5-inch monitor. Ron steadies the rifle while we both watch the sight picture and I decide when to shoot.
After receiving my antelope and deer tags, I applied for a Disabled Hunter Permit. Provided to qualifying individuals free of charge by the Wyoming Game & Fish Dept, this permit authorizes the holder to shoot from a stationary vehicle. I brought a gun rest that fits over a car door to help cradle the rifle securely.
Ron rigged my equipment on Pat’s custom-built .243 and Bushnell 4x scope. We had ample room in the back seat of Pat’s Dodge Mega Cab pickup to maneuver and shoot out either side. The rifle’s chamber remained empty and the bolt open until we decided to shoot. At first we worried that recoil would make the rifle jump wildly, but we found that it pushed straight back into Ron’s hand and posed no problem.
I squeeze the trigger via a cable release made by BE Adaptive ( beadaptive.com). Their original model has small paddles designed to fit in the mouth so quadriplegics can activate it by biting. At my request they made long grips, like pliers handles, that I can control more easily.
Although we stayed in the vehicle, we certainly weren’t road hunting. Pat drove us along this creek bottom that runs through the ranch.
The cottonwoods and tall grass provide cover while the valley offers protection from the wind…a perfect place for mule deer. On Monday morning we put the four-wheel-drive stalk on a couple bucks but had no luck. But that evening we connected.
Just a half-mile from the cabin, Pat stopped the truck and raised his binoculars. Hmmm…that rack’s tall but not very wide. Definitely not a Monday-night buck. He might do if we’re still trying to fill a tag on Friday. Wait a sec, there’s another one…He’s a shooter! Get ready! Pat turned the truck to give us a better angle, Ron held the .243 steady and I touched off a 110-yard shot in the final minutes of shooting light.
It was too dark for photos in the field, so we took these on Tuesday morning. Our proud wives were happy to pose with the successful hunters.
Howzabout one more look? C’mon, humor us. The A-Team’s first mulie! What’s really cool: Videographer Casey Mayo stayed with us all week to film our hunt for an episode of the National Wild Turkey Federation’s TV show.
Clear skies and excellent visibility made Tuesday the best day to hunt pronghorns. We found a small herd and waited patiently for the dominant buck to present a broadside shot. The big boy, whom Pat dubbed “Elvis,” kept chasing two young bucks away from his does. Pat showed his knowledge of antelope behavior by predicting their actions with an entertaining play-by-play commentary. Elvis is gonna chase off those other bucks…He’ll try to nick that one in the butt with his horns…Don’t worry, he’ll come back into range because the does stayed put…Here he comes…Now he’ll walk up to a doe, tilt his head back and say, “Look at my shiny horns.” He’s in the clear now, so let him have it when he turns. The range is 150 yards.
Pow-Whopp! We heard the bullet hit, then watched Elvis stagger and fall. With all due respect to Long John Baldry, we laid some serious boogie-woogie on the king of rock and roll. The North American pronghorn makes a truly unique trophy because natural selection has eliminated all of its close relatives, leaving Antilocapra americana as the only surviving member of its family.
When I touched that antelope’s horns I felt a rush of emotion at having finally fulfilled a longtime dream. Sharing the moment with a great friend made it even more significant.
Pat wasted no time in field dressing the antelope because afternoon temperatures reached the high 50s.
I asked him to save the heart because Ligia considers it a treat. A few evenings later we had it thinly sliced, dusted in flour and fried. Delicious!
About an hour later we bagged our second antelope and set them both out for photos. Buck number two (left) gave us more work than Elvis. He stayed shielded among a group of does, and the few times he stood in the open he never turned broadside. When our opportunity came at 300 yards, we misjudged the windage and fired a harmless warning shot across his bow. We shadowed the restless herd until they settled down and the buck stepped away from the does. Making good on our second chance, we dropped him with a 200-yard shot.
Formed by a hairlike substance, an antelope’s horn sheath grows over a small, bony core. Unlike cattle, goats or African game such as kudu, pronghorns shed their horns annually. Don’t plan on searching the prairie to collect sheds, though. Pat explained that, different from hard deer antlers, the thin-walled, hollow antelope horns decompose quickly.
Hoping to take full advantage of our trip, I had also purchased an over-the-counter doe license. Pat conducts antelope hunts on several properties near Douglas, and there’s no shortage of speed goats. The A-Team soon tagged its third pronghorn, a dry doe that will make excellent table fare.
I suspect the glow in our faces comes from more than the late-afternoon sunlight. Ligia says I always look better when wearing hunting clothes. Cancer patients undergo chemotherapy treatment; I keep ALS at bay with “camo-therapy” sessions. (I’m still trying to convince my health insurance provider to cover hunting expenses.)
Next stop: Tom’s Game Processing in Douglas. We had both buck antelope made into salami and jerky, the doe cut into steaks, and the mule deer converted into steaks and ground meat.
On Wednesday Pat’s wife, Patty, took Jenny and Ligia on a sightseeing excursion to nearby South Dakota. First they went to the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills.
Then they checked out Mt. Rushmore. Can you name the four U.S. Presidents depicted in the sculpture? One was an avid hunter and pioneering conservationist.
The A-Team slept in, ate a hearty brunch (including generous portions of Pat’s “harsh” browns), and paid a visit to residents of the neighboring community–a prairie dog town! We used Pat’s custom .270 and Shepherd range-finding scope to deliver 130-grain eviction notices to a dozen tenants. Looking through range-finding binoculars, Pat pinpointed distances and told us how far left or right to hold to compensate for the stiff breeze. After nailing these 9-inch-tall targets at ranges from 100 to 350 yards, we felt confident about using the .270 for long shots at deer.
We awoke to 1 ½ inches of fresh snowfall on Thursday. Ligia bundled up, grabbed her camera and started walking along the ranch road toward the south. We got in the truck and headed north to the creek bottom.
Not far down the road, Ligia surprised a pair of young bucks. About a half-hour later she heard a distant shot.
We saw a shooter 4-by-4 just a quarter-mile from the cabin but he bolted before Pat could position us for a shot. Continuing slowly along the double-rut road, we eventually spotted four bucks at the base of a draw. One carried a much larger rack than the others so we waited for him to present a clear shot. He stood behind another buck, facing to the left. Just two steps and he’d be ours. But the big guy turned around to sneak through some brush and disappear in the draw. Standing broadside at 310 yards, this dandy 3-by-4 gave us a golden opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.
Fresh snowfall, an invigorating chill in the air, the thrill of hunting mule deer with a great friend. This scene will always shine as a highlight of our trip.
Our licenses represented passports to adventure that were verified at several checkpoints. We had to tag each animal and provide license info to the game processor and taxidermist.
Driving to Douglas Thursday afternoon we passed Lost Springs on Highway 20 and, like gawking tourists, pulled over to photograph the sign. Wyoming ranks as our tenth-largest state yet hosts a lower population than any other. My neighborhood (Copacabana) in Rio de Janeiro has about a million residents while all of Wyoming has slightly more than 500,000.
After dropping off our deer at the game processor, we went to see the taxidermists at Wildlife Creations International in Glenrock. We went back into gawking-tourist mode as we admired the mounts in the showroom.
Ron decided to get shoulder mounts of Elvis (beautiful white-tipped horns) and our second mulie (whose curved antlers have distinct character). Bringing bulky mounts back to Brazil is a PIA, so I prefer to carry antlers in my suitcase and put them on repro skulls for display. Cutting off my mule deer antlers just below the burr was no problem, but I had never worked with horns before. Stan Taylor explained how to boil the antelope horns until the outer sheaths loosen from the bony core.
Douglas, WY bills itself as the jackalope capital of the world. The city even sells jackalope licenses and establishes a hunting season. We sighted no live specimens, unless that antlerless jackrabbit Ron saw was a doe jackalope.
More gawking tourist photos: Casey came out from behind the camera to help us pose with an 8-foot statue of the city mascot in a town square.
Casey and Ligia saddled up early Friday morning to help the Cross A Ranch cowboys gather 600 steers in the corral. A convoy of cattle trucks soon rumbled in to take the steers to a feed lot.
Happy birthday, Ron! After breakfast, Pat emerged from the kitchen with a flapjack layer cake to celebrate the occasion.
This flat-top hill had been calling Casey’s name all week. He convinced Ligia, Jenny and Ron to join him on the two-mile trek to see it up close. The quartet set out after breakfast, fueled by that special birthday cake.
View from on high: Enduring temps in the low 20s and a screamin’ north wind, they hiked up the 100-foot hill.
While the intrepid explorers braved the elements, Pat boiled the antelope skull cap and removed the horns for me. Pronghorn soup smells nasty!
Jenny found a deer skeleton on the hike back to camp. No telling how the old buck met its demise.
We began the long trip home by driving to Denver on Saturday. Roads got sloppy in Cheyenne, which received more than a foot of snow. On the way we discussed plans for future camo-therapy sessions…how about trying for pronghorns with a crossbow next fall?
“Limited mobility” doesn’t mean “restricted horizons,” so physical disabilities don’t keep enthusiastic outdoorsmen from following their dreams. The A-Team embarks on a Western adventure to hunt pronghorns and mule deer.