A 24-Hour Prairie Goat Hunt

“It snowed 15 inches out there and North Dakota has extended its antelope season.”

That was the word I got from my buddy in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department when I called him to see what he knew about the hunting conditions in southeast Montana in early October 2005. He was going to hunt in southwest North Dakota, just across the state line from where I was planning to hunt in Montana.

Instead of heading out on Saturday to be there for the Sunday opener, I waited until Tuesday, to give the snow a chance to melt. Eastern Montana doesn’t get much precipitation, and just a few tenths of an inch can make mobility next to impossible. The soil gets slicker than slime on a northern pike. Only the paved roads, which are few and far between, are passable, others turn into one-way wheel tracks through the mud, at best.

Hoping for great weather and somewhat dry roads, I took off for southeast Montana at 10 p.m. that Tuesday evening. My hunting buddies did not draw permits, and offered to come along, but I went alone, knowing how hard it is to be in the field and not have the option of hunting.

After pit stops in Jamestown, N.D., and Belfield, N.D., I arrived at Ekalaka, Mont., at 5 a.m., in time for about two hours of sleep before sunrise. After waking up in the rain, I cruised main street, noticing about 10 hunters’ vehicles in town, only one with legs sticking out of a pickup truck’s box.

Snow, Wetness Stops Hunters
As I drove out of town in the early daylight, I could see snow drifts in the road ditch and scattered across the landscape. This would make it a little more difficult to spot prairie goats (aka pronghorn antelope), since it is normally pretty easy to spot their white rumps for long distances across the open prairie.

It was Wednesday, so I didn’t think much about not seeing other hunters. As I came to the end of the pavement, I knew why there weren’t other hunters around. The melting snow and recent 1-inch rain had brought travel to a stand still. Only a few ranchers were out and about with their four-wheel-drives or on horseback.

Since I couldn’t get within 10 miles of my intended destination — a large tract of BLM land where we have hunted many years in the past — I backtracked about 40 miles and tried there from the west side. However, there are no paved roads on the west side of the BLM land and I didn’t get any closer. I did find some high ground to have a muffin and do some spotting, but only heard coyotes yipping in the woody draws nearby.

Normally, from a good vantage point, one could spot many groups of antelope off in the distance; but nothing doing today.

By 10 a.m., the sun was out and it was a pretty decent day. I thought I’d try the east-side route again, driving about six miles down a muddy road with deep ruts. I quickly realized it wasn’t going to work. By now, I was ready to call it quits, head for home, and come back in two weeks when the roads dried up. I decided to start for home and check over some oil fields in BLM land about 50 miles north, another area we have hunted in previous years.

Spots Two Antelope
Right after I turned the truck around, I spotted two suspicious looking white spots in some sage about 1/2-mile from the road. It was antelope — a kid and small buck! I pulled over and watched them for about 30 minutes. During that time, not one other vehicle came by going either way on the only paved road for miles!

Decision time — should I go for the buck and be done with it, hold out for better luck to the north, or come back to hunt when and if it dries up?

Since it is a 7-hour drive to Ekalaka from my home in Minnesota, bagging this buck seemed like the prudent choice.

My BLM maps indicated the section holding the two antelope was a “school” section. That is, it is state land dedicated to financing schools that is open to public hunting. I double-checked my location with my GPS, just to be sure. It took me a while to verify that the latitude-longitude numbers on the GPS jived with the land I was looking at out my truck window.

There was a ranch about 1/2-mile northwest of the school section, so I pulled in to visit with the rancher and let him know I’d be sneaking on that buck. He answered the door and invited me in to meet his wife. I mentioned that we usually hunt the BLM land to the west of his ranch, but couldn’t get there, and that I’d spotted the little buck in the school section. He said that before the snow came, there were 30 antelope in his pasture and everyone else around there had antelope; but they all disappeared after the snow.

Other Hunters Hoof It
There were four hunters camped in his yard who walked the three miles back and forth to the BLM land. They told me they had seen one herd of 108 animals! That must be where all the antelope high-tailed it to during the snow. Normally, walking in these soils ends up making your boots grow by about 50 pounds of mud, so I wasn’t too keen about joining them in the walk.

I told the rancher it might take me a while to nail that buck since it was smack in the middle of the nearly flat section of sage brush.

“They always seem to do that” he answered, “be careful, I’ve got cattle in that pasture.”

I thanked him and drove back out his long driveway, which was, surprisingly, pretty firm.

I checked the wind and spotted a small rise where I would have a good vantage point for a shot. I snuck out of the truck and crawled about 125 yards to the crest of the ridge. It took me a frantic few seconds to spot the buck, thinking I might have spooked him. But he and the kid were still lying in the same spot about 300 yards out.

The wind was blowing about 20 mph, so I was a reluctant to try a 300-yard shot — although that’s not unusual for prairie goats. I was shooting a Ruger #1 in .270, which is capable of a clean kill at that distance and beyond. However, I decided to wait and watch. And just as I had hoped, after a few minutes, they stood up and began grazing into the wind.

Move Into Range
They grazed and walked slowly for about 30 minutes, eventually getting within about 100 yards of me.

I eased the safety off, held the crosshairs on the right shoulder, and squeezed. The 130-grain bullet did the trick and dropped the buck where he stood. When I got to him with my ATV, he was bigger than I expected. He measured just over 13 inches, which isn’t bad for a public land prairie goat — they start to get real respectable at 15 inches.

Here’s the author and his 24-hour antelope.

I took my time field dressing him and getting everything loaded back into my truck. After getting packed up, I swung back to tell the rancher I’d been successful and it didn’t take as long as I’d anticipated. When he saw me walking toward the house he said, “I thought you missed.” He’d seen the kid running away and thought there had been only one antelope there.

He also joked that if I’d taken the buck on his land he would have had to pay me, since there’s no love lost on antelope by these ranchers.

It was now noon, just 14 hours after I left home, and I’m on my way back home with a decent prairie goat, and a new contact for future hunts. With an hour stop for a nap in Wibaux, Mont., a 10-minute break in Belfield, N.D., for gas, and 10 minutes in Jamestown, N.D., for coffee, I arrived back home at 10 p. m., Wednesday, just 24 hours after leaving!

I certainly didn’t intend to make such a fast trip, but given the circumstances I felt pretty fortunate to have a decent buck hanging in my garage. I’m hoping for drier conditions next fall, when I can spend more time and find one over 15 inches!

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