“What is that smell?” I asked Kody, as I stepped out of the truck. The pungent aroma assaulted my nose with that of freshly sliced peppers. Kody was my guide for the next three days and could be best described as a “Cowboy”. The Stetson on his head, western shirt, boots on his feet and his quiet demeanor completed the persona. “Dunno the name but that smell is coming from the bean like pods on these plants.” He pointed to a small flowing plant roughly two feet in height with lavender colored flowers. “I love the smell of peppers” I replied, as I resumed collecting my gear and placed it all next to the blind. As Kody drove away, I reminded myself of a promise I made in Georgia two days before. “Take it all in, do not let the smallest detail go unnoticed.” The sun was not yet visible on the horizon but the pre-dawn glow foretold of its coming. I scanned the prairie in all directions for the next few minutes. “It will be hours before I see any antelope” I thought. My untrained eyes saw only the vastness of the flat prairie. I could see for miles in any given direction, plus the vegetation was never more than a couple feet in height. “There is nowhere for them to hide, they will have to travel miles to reach this waterhole.”
I took a stroll around the waterhole with the expectation that I had a lot of waiting time ahead of me. I could see where animals were coming to the water and it was easy to see the various trails indicating arrival and departure routes. I paced off distances from three different points to my blind. I knew the open terrain would make judging distance tricky, so I committed these to memory. Once back at my blind, I opened the door and quickly scanned the inside with a flashlight. I did not want my first day of pronghorn season to begin with an unwanted Prairie Rattlesnake encounter. I was happy to see there were none there to greet me. I stuffed my chair, bow, snacks and water into the blind and, as I shut the door, the sun broke the horizon behind me.
With gear checked and at the ready, I took a quick tour of the inside of the blind. There was a large opening overlooking the waterhole, plus several small slits and openings scattered throughout. Using the smaller openings, I determined it was possible to see a full 360 degrees of the outside world. I settled back into my chair and was completely shocked to find something headed towards me. “How can that be?” I asked myself in astonishment. I’d only been there 45 minutes. I looked again, this time with binoculars. An antelope! Only 50 yards from water and closing fast. It was my first close encounter but I knew I was looking at a doe and she was a majestic site to behold. Her back was a cream color that faded to white around her belly. Her alert face was a mix of tan and brown that changed to black at her nose. Wary and cautious with a purposeful gate, she closed the distance to water in less than five minutes. She spent several minutes monitoring the area before drinking. I watched her lower her nose to touch the water only to see her snap her head up at the slightest noise. She repeated the process two more times before committing. I would see this dance practiced by nearly every antelope at the hole, over the course of my trip. As I listened to her drink, my thoughts returned to the obvious question. “Where had she come from so quickly?” I resumed my assessment of my surroundings with my binos. I began to see a more complex landscape than realized in my earlier assessment. Instead of a sprawling and completely flat prairie, I began to notice little draws and valleys I had missed earlier. They used the cover provided by these tiny terrain changes to their advantage. I came to realize it was difficult but not impossible to see an antelope approaching from over a mile away by recognizing these changes. I would need to be vigilant.
My journal tallied 53 Antelope to visit the waterhole by 11 a.m. Most were does and fawns with a few bucks mixed in. One buck in particular will never realize how lucky he was. He had satisfied his thirst at the nearest point outside my blind and had no idea I was there. He was a modest size buck — a trophy for any bowhunter — especially one shooting a longbow. I really struggled with the decision not to shoot. At five yards broadside, the buck had offered me a “can’t miss” opportunity. Only the voice in my head whispering “take it all in” prevented me from loosing an arrow. The decision began to haunt me immediately, as I watched that buck slowly blend back into the prairie. Luckily for me, it wouldn’t last long.
I followed the routine I’d created for scanning the perimeter around my blind: scan the largest area I could see with my binoculars out the large window that overlooked the waterhole; then work my way around the blind in a counter-clockwise fashion. As I stopped at each little slit in the fabric, I would peer out and scan as far right and then left as I could. At 11:10am I peeked out one of the smaller holes near the back of my blind and spotted two does and two yearlings moving towards me at 30 yards. Then, 80 yards behind them, I saw the black mask of a buck staring my direction. I knew he was a decent buck and lifted my binos to get a better look. My heartbeat quickened the moment I found him. I quickly went through my mental check list: his horns were twice as high as his ears; his bases were half again as wide as his eye; his cutters were also wide and at least as long his bases were wide; and he had ivory tips an inch in length. He was a shooter and I decided I would take him if offered the shot.
Unlike the does who marched directly to the water, the buck stopped at 80 yards and stared intently at the does, the waterhole, and everything surrounding them all. He did not move, for what seemed like an hour. It was as if he knew there was danger waiting at the water’s edge. Bow in hand, I kept an eye on him through the small slit while watching the does through the shooting window. One-by-one, the does and fawns completed their refreshment. I watched them turn and move back out to the prairie grasses with little fanfare. I turned my attention back to my tiny vantage point to find the buck gone. A quick feeling of panic swelled in my chest but, finding him to my left, was short lived. He was now galloping towards the water. I supposed seeing the does drinking safely relieved his anxiety and he remembered how thirsty he was. For a moment, I believed he would run directly outside the window like the slightly smaller buck had earlier. He paused just outside of the blind instead. The caution, that only moments ago had been hurled to the wind, quickly returned. With renewed vigilance he walked the perimeter of the waterhole; head held high, eyes locked to movement, and muscles coiled for a speedy escape if needed. Ten minutes crept by, as I tried to control my breathing and keep the sweat from my eyes. Finally, he made his way to water and positioned himself across the waterhole at the furthest possible distance for a shot.
I had the location mentally marked at 23 yards. A long shot, but one I had spent months practicing back home. Time stood still as he stooped to drink. I reached full draw, staring at a shadow created by his shoulder. My index finger touched the corner of my mouth at the exact time the cock feather touched the tip of my nose. Then, the arrow was on its way. The silence of the prairie was destroyed as it buried deeply into the buck’s shoulder. He bawled and spun in a cloud of dust, sending arrow fragments flying. Then, just as suddenly as the ruckus began, the prairie returned to silence. The buck limped away, slipping into the sage. I lifted the binos, hoping the suffering would be short lived. I watched, as he bedded down. The pursuit was over.
I have always recognized the kill as a means to an end. The time spent pursuing game and the time spent watching and enjoying nature are the true rewards. As I approached my buck I felt the sorrow that had become all too familiar. It was a sorrow I had come to appreciate. I had taken his life with a simple action and owed him a silent thanks and apology. I looked forward to and celebrated the meals that would remind me of this day for months to come.
With that thought it was time to get to work.
This article was originally published in the fall 2016 edition of the Traditional Bowhunters of Georgia newsletter.