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West Texas: where the antelope play

By Mike Leggett

SIERRA BLANCA - A head-high cholla cactus, shadowy skeletons pointing spiny fingers of misdirection toward every point of the compass, was a poor landmark for night navigation.

Somewhere across two miles of West Texas desert lay a sun-parched dirt tank holding just enough water to keep the hole on the regular pronghorn antelope drinking rounds. I needed to be there before daylight to climb into my hidden bow blind without disturbing too much of the morning's peace and calm.

But in the dark, the desert was flat and featureless except for the mountains in the background and the cholla, which offered nothing more than a macabre invitation to pain and torture.

El Paso, 80 miles to the west, threw up a mushroom cloud of dull light above the dark horizon. The sun, roughly 93 million miles to the east, was sending up its own beacon in the battle for the night. I seemed to be halfway between them. The sun would win. It always wins in West Texas, where drought is everybody's closest neighbor.

But before the sun came up to fracture any faint hope of a cool October day, there was still the Big Dipper shining in the morning sky, pointing its far side toward the north star. I took a heading on that and trekked off in hope of intercepting a big pronghorn.

Gerald "Jeep" McBride and I had chosen the tank as my starting place for the hunt, my first ever for antelope. Actually, McBride, whose brother Dan is a Burnet veterinarian and a close friend, had chosen the tank for me. Both men are among Texas' best and best-known hunters, with a reputation for finding big whitetails, antelope and mule deer.

Jack Brittingham had scheduled the Hudspeth County hunt with Dan McBride, but Brittingham had been unable to make it because of a conflicting trip. "Why don't you go and try to kill a big antelope with your bow?" he had suggested. Dan McBride said he had a small ranch, 5,000 acres is small in West Texas, picked out for the hunt, where antelope often went to rest after being hunted on neighboring ranches.

"We always see lots of antelope in here while we're hunting next door," said Jeep McBride. "There are some big ones, too." The trick was to get close enough for a shot with a bow at an animal whose sense of space made half a mile close.

McBride started by taking me to the tiny tank in the far northeast corner of the Honeycutt Ranch. The first thing he did was walk around the remaining pool of water. "Antelope always come and go from the water in the same place," he said. "They don't like to stand in the mud when they drink, so they almost always all drink at the same place."

Just as he predicted, there was a well-defined trail cutting across the southeast corner of the tank and down to the water's edge. Dozens of heart-shaped antelope tracks dotted one small wet spot on the east side of the tank, a 30-yard shot from the spot where my blind was located.

"Ten o'clock, give or take 30 minutes," McBride predicted. "Antelope will usually go to water somewhere about that time of the morning. And they'll usually water between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m."

Sweating lost chance

West Texas antelope, along with mule deer and quail, have been hit pretty hard by a prolonged drought. Nearly a decade has passed without a break, and the terrain shows it. Gone are grasslands that stretched to the horizon, not to mention many of the cattle operations that once depended on the grass for grazing.

Antelope are accustomed to the rugged landscape, but still need rain for water and food, as well as cover for fawns. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department limits antelope hunting to a nine-day season in early October and issues permits to landowners based on an annual population census. Dan McBride keeps a close watch on the situation and manages to collect permits to sell to hunters who come from all over the country for a chance at a big pronghorn.

Most of them do it with a gun, however. A bow puts a different spin on the situation. The antelope has to be close, which is not part of his nature. A vehicle a mile away can send a pronghorn buck on a cross-country road trip from which he might not return until the season has ended. To get one into bow range would require a well-hidden blind and the patience to sit still for hours.

I was doing that well, I thought, for seven hours the first day. I'd seen birds and tortoises come down to drink, but not antelope. But now the sun was beginning to turn the inside of the blind, which was built to hold human scent inside, into a sauna. Gone were my long-sleeved T-shirt and my hat. I was rapidly depleting my supply of water, but still the sweat was pouring off my head, running down my back and burning my eyes.

"We'll be hunting east of you, so if you don't see any antelope early you might want to sneak out and glass back that way," Jeep McBride had said the night before. "If you see any antelope headed your way, you can sneak back down and get ready for them."

At 2 p.m., seven hours after I climbed in the blind, I crawled out for some fresh air and a stretch, and to scan the desert flat between me and the adjoining ranch. I crawled up the tank dam a foot at a time, watching carefully for antelope. Nothing. I made it all the way to the top of the dam, where I sat down and began to scan with my binoculars.

The first thing I saw was an antelope buck, 80 yards away, looking right at me. He'd walked down a well-worn trail, coming straight to the tank for water. He didn't know what I was, but he definitely knew I didn't belong on that tank dam. An antelope's eyes are his living, and he knows every cactus, every rock and every bush in his territory. He's going to pick off a hunter sitting right out in the open every time.

I'm not an antelope hunter, but this animal looked pretty good to me. Classic heart-shaped horns. Dark cheek patches. Good hooks on top where his horns reached their peak and turned back down toward his head. The last words of warning from a friend popped into my head: "You better take a rifle with you," he'd said. "You're gonna kick yourself if you see a big antelope at 200 yards and can't even shoot at it."

I was within 80 yards of an antelope and couldn't shoot at it. If I'd stayed in my blind for 10 more minutes, I would have had a shot with the bow. If I'd had a rifle, I'd have had a shot now. Instead, I could only join the antelope in a momentary staring contest and watch the only chance of a two-day hunt drift back into the cholla and disappear.

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