The incredible vastness of the Montana landscape penetrated by slivers of lightening to our west mesmerized all three of us as we stood silently next to the “Buffalo Hunter’s Graves” which our outfitter Craig Schell had brought us to see at sunrise. We felt the moist morning air and the southwestern wind upon our cheeks as we each glassed briefly for antelope at our ridge-top stopping point before continuing south to our hunting grounds.
Craig informed us they hadn’t had rain in days; we were privy to a spectacular first sunrise, accented by angry and colorful clouds which quickly dissipated and left us with a typical blue sky day.
My hunting buddy and friend, Marti Davis and I had each flown into Billings , MT the night before to spend a week in eastern Montana , just an hour’s drive from the North Dakota border, bowhunting for antelope with Craig Schell of Stillwater Outfitters.
It was early September, and outfitted with antelope decoys from Montana Decoys, we were intent on trying to spot and stalk on our first bowhunt for antelope. The eastern Montana landscape is hard, rugged, rolling prairies and grasslands dotted with fragrant Sagebrush and razor-sharp Yucca no higher than your knee, leaving very little cover for the bowhunter to utilize.
We learned quickly to use both the wind and the land’s natural features; it’s coulees and butte’s, to gain an advantage on North America’s swiftest animal--one equipped with eyesight comparable to 8-power binoculars. Stalks routinely began over a mile away on an unwary antelope located first through our Nikon binoculars or spotting scopes.
We also learned quickly that a spot and stalk antelope hunt was perhaps a bowhunter’s ultimate challenge. It was slow, hard work, and in our case, extremely hot as well. On our five day hunt, we tackled temps in the mid-90’s all but one day. Physically exhausting, yes, but mentally exhilarating as we welcomed this new challenge!
Our first morning out, with Craig’s expert guidance, Marti and I were able to come within 80 yards of two mature bucks using our Montana Decoy antelope decoys for cover. It was a nice first encounter, but still far too far away for a bow shot.
I had spent the summer practicing shots up to 50 yards with my setup; Mathews Outback bow at 60 pounds, Carbon Express Maxima 250 arrows and Muzzy 3-blade 100gr. broadheads. Keep in mind spot and stalk hunting on the open grasslands and prairies of the west makes longer shots both routine and achievable and thereby makes regular pre-season practice imperative for bowhunters to become proficient at executing longer shots. These factors also make a rangefinder essential equipment to carry for correctly judging distance, which can be very deceiving to an eye accustomed to heavily wooded hunting grounds. I relied upon my Nikon 440 each and every day I hunted.
After our first close encounter, we became acutely aware how difficult our task would be. Several times over the next few days we each stalked to within 70 to 100 yards of bucks with the aid of our Montana Decoys, but found closing the distance under 70 to be incredibly difficult.
The decoys allowed us to move in close, although since the antelope weren’t rutting yet, they weren’t yet effective pulling them to us. After one blown stalk on a pair of bucks, I turned and rounded a small rise and did a double-take as I spotted black horns protruding above the golden prairie grasses within 100 yards as I stood upright among the knee-high grass. It was a young buck bedded down and facing north and totally oblivious to my sudden intrusion from the south. I dropped and crawled with my bow to within 70 yards before it became nervous, jumped up, stared at me for an endless amount of time, then ran 100 yards away, only to turn and snort at me in challenge. So close…so frustrating….yet so addicting to keep trying!
Although Craig kept our bodies fortified with ample food and beverages during our week-long stay with Stillwater Outfitters, by our fourth day our feet ached, the heat had wilted us, and we were ready to try blind hunting over a waterhole. We setup two Double Bull blinds within 20 yards of two different water sources, and returned in the morning.
We had good action early at the water’s edge, but nothing offered either of us a close shot. Several bucks were also sighted higher above us.
With the incessant and intense heat we decided to give the waterhole another shot on our last day of hunting. I moved to the eastern edge of the waterhole where we had seen several antelope refresh themselves the day before. Marti and I positioned ourselves among the sagebrush on the north and south banks of a dried up creek bed 20 yards apart. I could see the southern face of the coulee; Marti could catch anything moving in from the northern face. We sat motionless from daybreak until 9am without a sighting. At 9am I decided to move up to a Double Bull blind atop the coulee and left Marti. On my way, I spotted a doe feeding with it’s rear-end to me and started a stalk. For over an hour I moved closer, and then she suddenly turned on a trot and dipped behind a draw. I quickly moved and ran down my side of the draw to intercept her at the bottom where it flattened out. I tucked into some sagebrush & nocked an arrow. I sat listening and minutes later heard something behind me. I remained motionless. Minutes passed without a sound and I finally turned my head to see the doe walking directly at me just 60 yards away! She had circled around behind me. She continued her approach directly at me as I sat there unable to move, knowing she would run at any moment. I was busted and returned to the waterhole before lunch. Marti joined me, only to inform me that a buck and a doe had walked just 20 yards from where I had previously been sitting within an hour after I had left her. She took a 40 yard shot at the buck, but missed. We called it quits for lunch, and returned at 3pm to remain until closing at 7:30 .
All had been quiet for hours, when suddenly at 7pm an antelope came running down to the waterhole from the south and began to drink 100 yards away from my position. I quickly motioned to Marti that I had spotted one antelope and began stalking closer to it. I moved 30 yards closer and watched as it turned and began angling back up the hillside, broadside to me. Just before it stopped broadside, directly across the creek bed from me, I used my Nikon Laser 440 rangefinder to show the distance was 59 yards, quickly drew my bow, placed my 50-pin on its backbone, and released. Just a bit low, my Maxima arrow flew underneath and the antelope jumped, turned and snorted out a challenge to me. I froze, hoping it would approach, but it turned and disappeared in a flash. As darkness set in, our hunt ended quietly with no antelope for either of us this first time around.
Craig arrived to pick us up in the truck at dark, and as we drove back, we discussed a return trip with Stillwater Outfitters for September of 2006. We’d had our first taste of antelope, and our mouths were left watering and our stomachs hungry for more.
For more information on booking your hunt with Stillwater Outfitters, contact Craig Schell at: #406-635-4896.
Stillwater Outfitters offers Antelope, Mule deer, and Merriam turkey hunts in the Terry, MT area. Moose and elk hunts are offered in the Cooke City, MT area, as well as fishing pack trips in the summertime.
Visit their website at: www.stillwateroutfitters.com
Essential Gear List for Bowhunting Antelope: