By Gary Lewis
Waves of heat shimmered across the plain and against the green of the juniper trees that stood in the middle distance before the ground sloped away to the lower country beyond.
Thirty miles south of Bly, not far from the California border, Charlie Barley and Vance Allen sat in a homemade blind, dug into the ground and camouflaged with juniper branches and burlap. Glasses up, they kept watch on the expanse before them. Neither spoke.
At sunup, Barley had poured a charge of 90 grains of powder down the muzzle of his 50-caliber Knight rifle. With the ramrod, he had seated a 385-grain Hornady Great Plains bullet. The two men started away from camp to this lone water hole a mile-and-a-half from the nearest road. It was the second day of the hunt now, the second day in a row the mercury topped out at 102 degrees.
In June, Barley had drawn his Gerber Reservoir muzzleloader tag with six preference points. Every weekend for the last six weeks, he had scouted in preparation for this, his first antelope hunt.
Tracks in a transitional corridor between the pronghorn's high country haunts and their lower prairie habitat had led him to this waterhole, an important source of water in dry country.
Water is the key to a hunter's success on an August hunt. Waterholes dry at an accelerated pace and where an animal found cool water in July can be a dried-up mud hole by August. Thirst forces small bands of pronghorns to move to find the moisture they need.
Barley and Allen had set camp on another reservoir where the water had all but disappeared. Abundant vegetation around the lake bed made it a good choice for a comfortable camp.
Barley had seen the wet-to-dry cycle at work and settled on this remote waterhole, over a mile from camp as his best bet. Fresh tracks along the bank had given him encouragement.
On the first day, a buck and two does approached the water but stayed out of range. Now it was day two and Vance Allen had to start back to town. Disappointed, the pair walked away in the afternoon, back to camp.
There comes a time on such days when a hunter's intensity begins to evaporate with heat and thirst. It is easy then to lose a certain amount of focus. And it could have happened after a thirty-minute walk in the heat, but a certain hunter's sixth sense, honed by many seasons in the field stopped them.
It seemed almost too good to be true. A lone pronghorn buck fed at the edge of camp. One more step and the buck would have spotted Barley and Allen when they walked out of the junipers.
From a vantage point in the rimrocks, Allen evaluated and Barley readied his rifle. It was a matter of a moment to pinch a No. 11 percussion cap and set it on the nipple. He took a rest across his backpack.A dead calm settled over the basin. Nothing stirred in the heat, except the pronghorn buck with his head in the grass.
Allen pressed the button on the rangefinder. "One-hundred-eighty-four yards," he whispered.
Well-practiced with his rifle, Barley had set a maximum effective range of 120 yards. The buck was too far away to shoot, he told himself. As he watched, it fed closer and then lay down. A few minutes later, it stood to its feet again and moved closer. Broadside now.
Allen pressed the button again. "Hold on the line of his back," he commanded. Barley put the front post on the buck's spine and took the slack out of the trigger. When the smoke cleared, the buck lay on the ground.
Vance smiled. Knowing the rifle and the load ballistics and the ability of the man behind the gun had made the difference. "That was 151 yards," he said, out loud this time.
From where the pronghorn lay it looked like a short hike back to the truck. After all the miles they'd walked in six scouting trips and two days hunting, Vance turned and ranged their camp to see just how far they'd have to drag their prize.