When I was away at college, my Dad and I used to meet up halfway between home and my apartment to hunt pheasants and chukar at a Game Bird Club in the Valley. It was about an hour and a half drive for him and only about 45 minutes for me. Sometimes, my mom would come along too. Dad would call ahead and have the guys plant 3 birds in our reserved field. We would hunt for a little over an hour, grab a bite to eat at a nearby diner afterward, then say our good-byes. I have been hunting alongside my Dad since I was three years old. I remember riding on his shoulders and having to duck under the tree branches as he hiked his way through the brush on my very first hunt. We have since shared a tremendous amount of adventures and can sit and tell stories for hours on end, but those short and sweet hunts at the club during my college years were some of the most sentimental. They kept me engaged in hunting during a time in life that I could have easily prioritized other things. I was an extremely lucky little girl to have a Dad that let me come along on all his adventures. I didn’t realize it back then, but there are a lot of men who made different choices for their daughters, deciding that hunting was a boys-only activity. Since that first hunt at age 3 until now, my dad has always invested in my love for hunting. And even now, whether it be a solo backcountry hunt, a group hunt with friends, or even a solo hunt in another country, my Dad is always with me. It’s his voice that I hear coaching me along and the cool thing is that will never change. So parents take note.
In addition to all the different hunts that Dad toted me along on, another incredible way that my Dad has invested in my hunting passion is that he annually applied for me in the Big Game Tag Allocation Drawing here in California. He started doing that as soon as I earned my Hunters Education Certification up until I got married. Even though there has been a couple of years in that time that I didn’t apply for myself, his investment in my hunting future is something that I will be forever grateful for. This application year, just like the years before, I researched the draw odds and made plans for the different hunts that I wanted to apply for. My strategy for the antelope has been the same for the last ten or so years. Alternating between the Lassen Unit and the Big Valley Unit every other year. 2019 would fall on the Big Valley Unit. The odds are a tad better to draw this unit over the Lassen unit, but still pretty crappy nonetheless, even as a max point holder applicant. After applications are submitted, it becomes a waiting game for the draw results to post. Social media makes this easy nowadays as the word of draw results being posted doesn’t take long to make it through the newsfeeds. As soon as I saw the first post announcing that results had been posted, I immediately logged into my account to check my luck.
Scrolling down the list of hunt applications, the Did you Win Column was a constant roll of N’s through the very bottom of the list. The Pronghorn Antelope Hunt Application was at the very bottom and although it also displayed a giant N, as in No, in the Did you Win Column, the Alternate # Column next to it, oddly had the Number 2 listed inside! Second Alternate???? What does that even mean? I quickly looked up the details of being drawn as a second alternate. Someone would have to forfeit a tag, and the first alternate would have to pass, for me to get the tag. First of all, who would forfeit if they just applied. And secondly, even if that did happen, no way would the first alternate pass up the chance. What a crock I thought. I instantly pictured myself as a T-Rex trying to reach something that my short arms just couldn’t grasp! Ugh!!!!! Frustrated by the whole thing, I put the idea of hunting a California antelope this year, out of mind.
Within a few days, friends and acquaintances were messaging me their stories of alternate chances, giving me hope that maybe someone else’s misfortune of not being able to accept the tag, could be my lucky chance. Almost a month after the draw results posted, my 17 points for California Pronghorn Antelope cashed themselves in when I received a phone call from Fish & Wildlife asking if I wanted the Zone 5 – Big Valley Pronghorn Buck Tag that I had been drawn as the #2 Alternate. Without hesitation, I accepted the tag. One of 20 tags issued this year. And the hunt planning pursued.
I would like to tell you that I spent several weekends scouting and patterning herds of antelope throughout the zone, but to be honest, I didn’t. Yes, we made a trip up to the area once before the hunt, but with only 4 weeks to prep, it just wasn’t in the cards to spend a ton of time pre-hunting. I spent time studying maps, calling a local biologist and chatting with a couple of different ranchers in the area. Luckily, we had some great friends with connections to a private ranch bordering BLM ground. We would get access to the property and hope that a good buck or two would show themselves once the season opened. The season is only a short seven days! Talk about pressure to get it done. I was nervous. Casey and I had limited access to the private piece (only two days) and even after that our schedules had already been booked solid because of the short notice of having received the tag. We didn’t know if we could get it done but knew that we had to hunt as hard as we possibly could for those two days that we had.
Our first morning of the hunt quickly turned into the hot afternoon of the hunt. It was warmer that day than it had been in quite some time and I think that the normal routine of antelope herds out feeding all day and bedding down at night, completely reversed. We didn’t see any of the herds that everyone had been telling us about. We walked through thickets and around water sources and just didn’t see a fresh sign of antelope. We burned the backs of our eyes glassing for the buggers. We just couldn’t turn anything up. Finally, on the way back in that evening, we spotted a buck far out, but he also spotted us and was instantly on the move. I quickly chambered a round into my .280 Ackley but just wasn’t fast enough. He was running by the time I lined him up in my scope and he never stopped. We chased after him for a bit, but never got on him to make a solid shot. He was a solid buck for sure. I am not the best at field judging antelope, but I did notice that his cutters were above his ears, a tip I’ve heard over and over. So he was tall and wide, and he was all alone, which makes me think he was a bigger lone buck.
The weather felt much cooler the minute we stepped outside the morning of the second day. I hadn’t watched the weather, but I could tell already that it was going to be a cooler day. We went down to the alfalfa fields that morning to see what may be feeding there before we headed into the rangeland. Nothing but cranes and Mule Deer. Still no sign of antelope. It was a good sign, that maybe they would be in the area we were allowed to hunt. So we headed that way. After climbing a few little rolling hills the area opened up to a large valley of volcanic rocks and dry grasses. At the furthest end of the valley just outside a grove of cedars was a small herd of antelope and one of them was a good buck. Their white rear ends stick out like a sore thumb against that yellow dry grass. We quickly made our way closer to them, trying to close the distance, but they were locked on us from the start. We stopped briefly to glass the herd through our bino’s and we agreed that the one buck was defiantly a shooter. He had good cutters and they too were above his ears. The herd moved to the other side of the cedars and as we came around the point of the trees, their curiosity stopped them. Casey quickly ranged them and reported 350 yards, I turned my turret, got set up and waited for what seemed like minutes for the buck to step away from the does and give me a good safe shot at him. As soon as he did, I could hear my Dad’s voice in my head, coaching me through the shot, “Breathe in slowly and squeeze on the exhale.” I slowly took a deep breath in and gently squeezed the trigger as I exhaled out. Smack! He was hit and the herd cleared out within seconds of him dropping. I had done it! A hunt that was such a long time in the making had finally played itself out. What a neat animal these antelope are. Amazing to look at, they have such stunning capes and incredible horns. This buck measured in at just over 71”. He isn’t a record-breaking buck by any means, but in the amount of time that it takes me to build up enough points to draw another antelope tag in this State, hunting will most likely be banned. So I think he is a heck of a buck! This hunt was such an incredible gift. From the application points that my Dad started for me years ago, to the friends that allowed us access to private ground. Every aspect is such a keepsake to cherish and well worth the 17 year wait!!