Year Two: A Montana antelope tradition

After my first archery antelope success last year, fellow onX Hunt pro staffer, Amanda Caldwell and I immediately began planning for round two in Montana this year. As the hunt was approaching, we’d chat about locations, gear, and of course who was going to take the first shot opportunity. I insisted on Amanda getting the first opportunity to punch her tag, since I tagged out on the last hunt. Try as I might, though, I couldn't convince her. 

Because I was traveling from Pennsylvania, she insisted I take the first opportunity. Amanda has a fiercely kind heart and is the most generous person you’ll ever meet, but you’ll never win an argument against her.

By mid-August, I was practiced, packed, and ready to head west.

This time I was prepared with some snazzy elbow pads which complimented my padded knee Sitka Gear Women’s Timberline pants. Knee and elbow pads are a necessity when you have hundreds of yards of belly crawling ahead of you.

After landing in Bozeman, we loaded our YETIs with ice and food and organized our gear.

Excitement and anticipation quickly turned into panic, as I rifled through an unexpectedly messy bag, looking for my arrows. I had bubble wrapped them in their quivers and placed them strategically under my bow in a layer of clothes, tightly confined by compression straps, but they weren’t there.

After completely emptying the huge bag housing all my gear and my Mathews Avail, I found my arrows and broadheads strewn in the bottom where TSA threw them after their inspection. Luckily, I managed not to slice my fingers off and none of my gear or arrows were damaged.

After regaining my cool, we decided to get in a little last minute shooting at Extreme Performance Archery in Bozeman, then rolling.

Amanda Caldwell makes some last minute adjustments to her sight, at Extreme Performance Archery in Bozeman, before hitting the prairie with Jess DeLorenzo in search of Montana antelope.

Instead of setting up a tent base camp for the week, we called an audible and used Amanda’s living quarters horse trailer as our mobile camp.

We started off glassing some areas and getting ourselves pumped for possible spot and stalk antelope assaults, when our first opportunity played out. We found a great buck hanging out on the edge of a small herd in an area with a ditch circling around the backside. That afforded us a quick and easy way to get set up within range. A few steps into our pursuit I realized that I should have packed two pairs of boots. The ditch was filled knee high with some stagnant, scummy water and visions of snakes and leeches danced through my head as we slowly waded through.

When we reached our staging area, I belly crawled up the embankment and settled in between the tall grasses, which made it almost impossible for Amanda to get a solid number with the rangefinder.

The buck meandered around and quartered away to the left when we got a good range at around 65 yards. It was a shot I was comfortable taking and a distance I rehearsed many times at home. However, I made the most common mistake and punched the trigger when I thought he might turn away from me and I didn’t make it. We watched him a while longer to make certain that there wasn’t any injury from my arrow. After confirming it, we bowed out unnoticed. I swapped my wet boots for dry sneakers and checked for any slimy hitchhikers on my legs.

I beat myself up doing the play-by-play in my head and reprimanded myself for not sticking to the process I repeated every day, weeks prior. It was the classic cracking under pressure scenario. I relinquished the position of shooter over to Amanda so I could slap myself around and get back in the game. I felt I pressed my luck and already knew the amount of opportunities we were going to have at an archery buck in a week’s time were slim. I was afraid I blew my only chance.

I was getting more familiar with the area, however, and I bought property nearby and used the onX Hunt webmap to thoroughly scout hiking and fishing opportunities. I knew there was plenty more country to find antelope, so we continued on toward some waypoints Amanda plotted on her app

Jess DeLorenzo (left) and Amanda Caldwell (right) follow some waypoints on the onX Hunt App in hopes of finding an antelope buck in central Montana.

Amanda Caldwell stands in the back of her truck, for a better vantage point, as she scans the prairie for antelope.

I didn’t count the number of times we both geared up and crawled belly down towards antelope, but it was enough to get itchy, tired, and hot each day.

At one point, mid-hunt, we were driving far from our previous spot and about to enter the next town, in a mile or so, when flashing lights hastily closed in behind us.  As luck would have it, the officer spotted one of the trailer tires going flat and may have saved us from a dangerous blowout. However, not as luck would have it, the spare tire’s lug pattern didn’t match the pattern of the trailer. So we got a police escort at a snail’s pace to the next “town”, which consisted of a one-room post office and a bar.  We parked the trailer and journeyed on with the unusable spare, the flat tire, and any gear we’d need for the remaining day’s hunt.

The rest of that day provided excellent views of antelope in impossible areas to stalk. We got back at dusk to fix the trailer after a garage took the good tire from the wrong rim and put it on the flat’s rim. Then, we made some sandwiches for dinner while watching the sun set behind the town’s one and only commercial establishment.

Up to that point, our hunt consisted of stalking bucks surrounded by a herd, making it difficult to get close. We wanted to find that easily accessible solo buck, but that wasn’t the way things were working out.  At one point, Amanda got to full draw and had to let down because there were just too many eyes, making cause for alarm. Antelope can burst into a sprint faster than you can focus your pin. Later, I found myself again wading through some kind of murky gulch, although this time I felt really good about where I would pop out for a shot. I was about to crest the bank when I heard a coyote howling somewhere in front of me . The coyote was also stalking around the herd and Amanda watched me unknowingly close in on his hiding place, spooking him out into the open, spooking the herd into the wide open. After getting back to the truck, I did a swampy boots for sneakers swap again.

Jess DeLorenzo stalks across the Montana prairie with a second Montana antelope buck on her mind.

The following morning, we MacGyvered a pot of coffee with a paper towel filter and a Jetboil and set out again. Our next target was spotted not too far from the tall, overgrown edge of a field. The buck was outside a group of five young males and two mature bucks with does. Without even taking much time to make a plan, we inched up the side of the field unnoticed, and undercover, until we knew we were well within a hundred yards of the big guy. Amanda gave me a bit of a pep talk just before we started and reminded me that once I draw to take my time. “Jess you can do this, you’ve done this before”. It wasn’t like she gave me any revelations, but she gave me exactly what I needed to hear.

She knew it was all in my head because we’ve all been there before. I just needed to focus and do what I do.

The buck remained on the edge, standing perfectly broadside and watching over the others. We got a range on him, around 60 yards, when he started to take a few steps further away. I kept my cool and waited for him to stop. Amanda whispered another range to me, “Seventy two yards.” I laid my 70 yard pin just behind his shoulder, held steady, looked through the sight and slowly squeezed. It felt good and calm, and we watched him bolt with the others over the hillside with the end of my arrow sticking from his side. 

Confirmation.

We didn’t waste time and trailed him. This afternoon, it was eighty-something degrees out, so getting the meat cooled was an immediate concern. My shot ended up a bit further back than I wanted and he ran quite a ways, not ideal. Nevertheless, he was recovered quickly and not much time had passed until we had him field dressed and out of there, ready to prep for processing.

We took the rest of the night to reset our gear and our strategies for punching Amanda’s tag with our time left for the next two days. We tried some new locations and exhausted a lot of our earlier options. We weren’t as lucky finding bucks the following day. The last evening, we came back to the spot where I missed the buck on our first day. We glassed the herd for a long time and couldn’t spot him. Finally, he showed his face, dramatically silhouetting himself at the top of the hill as the light was starting to fade. Amanda and I diverted to the backside of a treeline and slinked up the hill as fast as possible. She got within 70 yards of him as I watched her crawl out of my sight and closer to the buck. Eventually, I made my way up the hill behind her where we watched them continue further out in the flat nothingness. 

The last few minutes of the hunt were peaceful as we both sat, glassing and watching the sunset behind us. I was relieved and happy to fill my tag, and I could feel the same feeling emitting from Amanda. Both of us sharing in a sense of pride in getting done what we set out to do.