September 19, 2023
I was in a race against time. As the Jeep crossed the state line into Wyoming at Cheyenne, the roiling black clouds to the north indicated the massive early-season storm was barreling down onto the high plains from the Pacific Northwest. I was running six hours late due to a flight delay getting into Denver. Night was falling and our hunt was going to start in less than 12 hours. Now it looked like the gathering storm was going to shut me down short of my destination. By the time I dropped off the mesa into Douglas, it was pitch black with near white-out conditions. I pulled into the first motel I saw and luckily got one of the last rooms for the night.
Waking before first light the next morning, I pulled the drape aside and looked out on a transformed landscape. About a foot of snow buried the parking lot. The blizzard had slowed considerably, but it had not stopped. The weather gods must have decided I’d seen enough of the storm as it began to clear a short time later. I waited until 9 a.m. for the sun to work some magic on the roads then headed north for the last 60 miles to my destination.
I was in eastern Wyoming for what was supposed to be a normal, early autumn antelope hunt. But nature had thrown us a curve ball, and we’d just have to deal with it as best we could. As I arrived in camp, the hunters were returning from their morning hunts, and already there were a couple of antelope in the salt. Not wanting to waste any more of my hunting time, I unloaded my gear and headed over to the camp’s range to zero my rifle.
This hunt would be my introduction to the new Momentum bolt-action rifle built by Franchi. A well-known Italian manufacturer of high-quality shotguns, Franchi had made the move into bolt-action centerfire rifles in 2018. This hunt would give me the opportunity to use one of the new guns in the field.
Unfortunately, the storm had not passed completely and the wind in camp was howling at nearly gale force. It shook both me and the shooting bench. With my friend Jordan Egli as spotter, we did the best we could. The circumstances left me less than 100 percent confident in my 200-yard zero. I hoped that the custom bullet drop compensating turret set up specifically for the Hornady 147-grain 6.5 Creedmoor ammo I was using would do its job.
I was partnered to hunt with Diana Rupp, editor-in-chief of Sports Afield and an old friend and colleague. In fact, 20 years ago Diana had worked for me at Petersen Publishing. Diana and I were teamed with Brad Kooiman, the owner/ operator of Xtreme Dream Outfitters. We mounted up in his pickup and headed out into the bitter-cold wind.
Eight to 10 inches of new snow covered the ground, and drifts more than 16 inches deep were found in some places. Facing these extreme conditions, we spotted few antelope out on the open prairie. Most of the goats were tucked beneath the cedars that studded rimrock ridges and buttes rising above the flats and coulees.
That afternoon we made several long, cold stalks in attempts to get close enough to the antelope to get Diana a shot. On several occasions we belly-crawled through the snow and were unable to see those small prickly pear cactus that pepper eastern Wyoming’s short grass prairie. If you’ve hunted pronghorn, you can appreciate what I am talking about. The damn cactus are a plague that have a way of finding palms and knees at the worst possible moment—like when you’re pulling the trigger.
The wind continued its frigid onslaught. We would spot a band of antelope and leave the warmth of the pickup for a stalk only to return with frozen balaclavas covering our faces. As the twilight ceded to darkness, we returned to camp for a hot meal and a good night’s rest.
Day two dawned cold, but thankfully the wind had settled down to a tolerable level. Once again, the antelope were found amid the rocky ridges and the safety of the cedars. We would circle far around them and dismount, walking a long circuitous route to stay out of sight and downwind. It was our sixth or seventh attempt late in the afternoon when Diana’s luck took a turn for the better.
Three bucks were feeding their way down a shallow draw. Luckily, we were in the trees, and they had no inkling of our presence. Two of them were most definitely shooters, and one was an exceptional buck for this part of Wyoming and had the horn characteristics you look for in a trophy goat: height, mass, deep hooks, and long cutters.
We moved into position to get Diana a shot, which involved belly-crawling for a considerable distance. Diana was just about to pull the trigger when the bucks disappeared behind a rise. I stayed put while Brad and Diana made a bold move. Standing upright, they used the rise be- tween us and the antelope for cover and hurried to intercept the retreating bucks.
The plan worked. Diana made a great shot at about 300 yards, and the big buck dropped solidly in its tracks, proving once again that Hornady’s 6.5 Creedmoor 147-grain ELD-X bullet deserves all the credit it gets. Diana left camp the next morning to head down to Colorado to meet up with her husband, Scott, in elk camp. Brad and I were now on our own. The weather had warmed up some, and the snow had begun to melt as we made our way to the area where we had seen another good buck the day before.
As luck would have it, the change in the weather had also changed the habits of the antelope. The rimrock and cedars seemed devoid of animals. No longer in search of shelter from the snow and cold winds, the goats had taken advantage of the warm up to head back out onto the open plains for some long overdue grazing. For several hours that morning, we covered a fair bit of ground without seeing a buck worth a second look. Our trek took us to a new area of the ranch we had not hunted before. Eventually, we found ourselves atop a long ridge that overlooked a huge valley. The valley was filled with antelope.
We realized that if we moved to the head of the valley about a mile away, the wind would be in our faces as we hiked toward the closest group of antelope. It would be a good stretch of the legs to get into position for a shot, and our only cover would be the undulations of the land between us and the goats. We made our first attempt at the foot of a small rise. A small band of antelope with a couple of good bucks was just behind the high ground and moving in our direction. We figured that if we were patient, the antelope would feed right past us at no more than 100 yards away. I sat down and set up on the shooting sticks. This was shaping up to be a piece of cake.
Of course, our plan was one of those that was just too good to be true. The antelope never showed up in the kill zone. A coyote had appeared between us and the antelope, and they had scurried back the way they had come. Now we were in a footrace to catch up to them before they moved beyond our reach. Keeping a low hill between us and the band, we got to the top and found ourselves within 300 yards or so of the feeding goats. The bad part was they had seen us. The biggest buck was bedded down as I hurriedly knelt and took up a position for the shot. That was my first mistake. I should have gone prone, but the fear of those damn cactus spines perforating me like a pin cushion influenced my decision.
I don’t remember the exact range call that Brad made for me, but it was just over 300 yards. I quickly made the decision to dial my turret to 300 yards and sent my first round downrange. The buck rose from his bed, unscathed. “Brad, did you see the bullet strike?” I called. He replied in the negative, which was not what I wanted to hear. My gut was telling me the shot went low, so I cranked the turret up to 350 and sent another round. This resulted in the herd running and putting more distance between us.
This was not going well. My mind was racing as I tried to come up with a ballistic solution. It was then that I decided to go for broke. Brad called the buck at 375, and I intentionally over-dialed to the 400-yard scribe line, lined up my crosshair, and let another round fly. This time the buck staggered but remained on his feet. Maintaining my hold, I sent my fourth shot, and the buck dropped.
He was a good buck. Not as long in the horn as Diana’s but with the same heart-shaped rack with decent mass and cutter length. Not my largest antelope by far, but given the mayhem that had ensued, definitely one of the most memorable.
After we returned to camp and the goat had been butchered, I returned to the shooting bench to find out exactly why I had been unable to hit that buck with the first round. It turned out that my 200-yard zero was dead-on when I should have been two inches high. That would allow for the load’s nearly eight inches of drop at 300 yards. Most likely, I just didn’t get it right in that high wind on day one that was blowing me around at the shooting bench while sighting-in.
I hate to relearn lessons I’ve already mastered, but it happens to us all. There are times when “close enough” isn’t close enough, and this time the result was entirely my fault. I’ve said it many times before, and it still holds true: If you run into a hunter who says they never miss, they are either lying or they have not hunted enough!