Bowhunting Wyoming Pronghorns and Whitetails

Being away from home when you’re very ill is never good; it’s even worse when you’re on a bowhunt that’s been planned for many years.

Bowhunting Wyoming Pronghorns and Whitetails

With Wyoming archery pronghorn and deer licenses in hand, I was practically bouncing off the walls with excitement to start the journey. Ralph Dampman with Trophy Ridge Outfitters (www.trophyridgeoutfitters.com) had provided regular updates on animal movement and where he had set up blinds. Ralph tends to be a quiet man and divulges only enough information to tease a hunter along without setting a goal for a specific animal.

One of the reasons northeast Wyoming stays on my radar is because of the pronghorn migration. Depending on the weather, and the rut, new pronghorn can show up at any time, and one never knows when the buck of a lifetime will come for a visit.

I flew to Rapid City, South Dakota, and drove across to Carlile, Wyoming. The early start allowed me to get into camp shortly after lunch. Being in camp early afternoon provided lots of time to shoot my crossbow and squeeze in an evening hunt for whitetails.

My guide, Larry, was excited about the deer hunt, explaining the habitat the deer would travel from to get into a cornfield. A ladder stand was situated on the corner of the field, providing several shooting lanes on well-worn game trails. Larry had seen a few big, mature bucks and likely would have sat with me if there was room in the stand. I was excited but was not feeling 100 percent. Breakfast on the plane had not agreed with my stomach. Sitting in the stand, I was trying to overlook complications of not feeling well in order to proceed with the bowhunt.


Sick in the Stand

There were 4.5 hours of hunting time before the end of legal light, and I carefully ranged spots in the field where deer had traveled. My stomach was churning, and I was starting to feel a little dizzy and feverish. I’ve never cancelled a hunt in my life and did not plan on having some little bug ruin this one. Plans had been made six months prior, and there was no way I was leaving the stand.

Then I changed my mind. The sun was still high in the sky, and the deer had not started moving when I called Larry. My churning stomach had turned into extreme nausea, aches and pains, and I was shivering so bad that the tree was moving. In fact, I felt so weak that I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to descend the ladder. Larry thought I had gone mad and could not believe I wanted him to pick me up during primetime. He reluctantly drove in, walked down the edge of the field, and I lowered gear to him on a tether.

My legs ached so severely that I was not sure I could make it to the truck. My mind ran rampant with what might be happening, but there was no clear explanation. The ride back to camp was silent. It took everything I could do not to ask Larry to stop so that I could toss my cookies. By the time we got to the lodge, I was in a cold sweat and headed for my room. I changed my clothes and made quick friends with the washroom. I developed a fever and buried myself in the covers of my bed to try and slow the shivers and shakes from whatever it was attacking me.

We have all been sick at one time or another, but this was a new level for me. If I lifted my head off the pillow, I’d retch. My abdomen was killing me. Seven months previous, I had undergone surgery to remove part of a kidney that had a cancerous growth. The procedure meant going in through my side, cutting the ends off two ribs, and spreading the incision to remove some innards and clamp them to the table. The room created allowed surgeons to do their work before putting me back together and stitching and stapling their way back out. Recovery wasn’t easy, but I swore I would not let cancer slow my ambition or passion for hunting and living life to the fullest.

To this day, most people don’t know I ever had cancer. Sympathy was never in the cards, and dealing with it and putting it in the past was the best option. Life had been looking pretty rosy since the big cut, and I was tickled that my wife, Stefanie, was expecting.

What I never saw coming was the internal infection that knocked the wind completely out of me when I should have been bowhunting deer and pronghorn. I spent 36 hours in bed and only got up to be sick. By the time I made it downstairs days later, I was the only hunter left in camp. Everyone else had tagged out and gone home early. My long-time friend Kevin Howard had stuck around and was tempted to take me to the hospital. I was weak, but afraid to eat. A couple of soda crackers were a starting point, but they did not sit well, either.

Somehow I mustered the strength to get my hunting gear together and asked Ralph if we could try an evening hunt. Ralph is one of those people who hunts all year, and after sticking his nose out the door to check the wind and weather conditions, he said he had the perfect spot.


Back in the Saddle — Finally!

We drove to a ridge with mature pines on the top, fading out to open grass on the bottom. Ralph knew several big whitetails came off the ridge regularly and put me in a ground blind where two game trails came together.

A little heat was needed in the blind to stay comfortable after not eating for three days.
A little heat was needed in the blind to stay comfortable after not eating for three days.

Ralph and his grandson Jace wished me well and drove off. I cocked my crossbow, slid an arrow down the rail, and was setting up shooting sticks when movement caught my eye. I had been in the blind only 10 minutes, and a beautiful 10-point buck was trotting straight toward the blind. The buck was already adjacent to the blind as I leveled the crossbow to shoot out the window. I had to make a slight move to keep up with the deer, and the chair creaked. The buck skidded to a stop, turned to quarter away, and my arrow caught him behind the ribs and exited near the opposite shoulder. The deer spun and ran over the edge of the ridge, leaving me shaking with excitement.

A text let Ralph know that an arrow had been launched. They had not even made it back to the main road and were turning around to help find the buck. We found the arrow on the trail the deer had used to exit the scene. It had good blood on it, but there was not much sign on the ground. Ralph disappeared over the ridge, and minutes later yelled that he found the deer. The lack of blood did not stop Ralph from heading to where other deer shot on the ridge had tried to escape previously.

It was the evening of the fourth day of the trip —my first real sit, however, — and I felt like the man upstairs was taking care of me. I’ve never experienced a 10-minute deer hunt with archery equipment, and was already badgering Ralph about squeezing in the last morning to try and find a pronghorn.

After spending days in bed with an abdominal infection, the author is all smiles with the mature whitetail that showed up on evening four of the hunt.
After spending days in bed with an abdominal infection, the author is all smiles with the mature whitetail that showed up on evening four of the hunt.


Pronghorn Pursuit

Tea and toast helped build a little energy for the morning hunt. It was the last day of a five-day hunt, and Larry had me in a ground blind long before the sun lit the eastern sky. A waterhole on one side and rolling hills out the back provided the backdrop for an exciting day. Pronghorns trickled over the hills, but none came to the water. The rut was in full swing, and several bucks were chasing does about a mile east. Mid-morning, a buck and doe made a brief appearance on the berm beside the watering hole. It was a rut chase, and the two seconds of exposure didn’t provide a shot opportunity.

With bucks chasing does, a set of Montana decoys were placed 20 yards behind the blind. If the pronghorn continued to chase on the distant hills, perhaps one of them would catch a glimpse of the decoys and come to investigate. There were numerous pronghorns on the move, but none were even in range for a rifle, let alone a crossbow.

The warm sun was heating the blind, and I soaked it up like some type of therapy. I reflected on life and why I had persevered in the last year. I consider myself lucky to have caught the cancer early, and had a great wife to support me through the entire ordeal. As my mind raced, a strange sensation overcame me, and I perceived a change in our family. I knew clearly what was happening, and seconds later, my cell phone rang, and it was my wife crying on the other end. I answered the phone, saying, “It is alright dear, we will handle it.”

“Handle what,” she responded.

“We are going to have twins, and I reassure you that everything will work and be okay.”

 As she stood outside the clinic doors, Stef was still trying to figure out how I knew that her ultrasound showed twins. We were deep in conversation when a herd of pronghorns ran toward the blind. Trying to put the phone down politely, I eventually just dropped it, picked up the crossbow, and readied myself as three bucks and a doe came to a screaming stop beside the decoys. I leveled the crosshair on the largest pronghorn and squeezed the trigger. The shot looked perfect.

I watched for a few seconds until the animals disappeared over the ridge and then picked up the cell phone. “Did you shoot? I know I heard you shoot,” asked Stef.

I felt better than I had the entire week. Twin girls would be a new adventure, and finding the pronghorn about 60 yards from the blind was the icing on the cake.

The author had to drop his cell phone to shoot when the pronghorn magically appeared.
The author had to drop his cell phone to shoot when the pronghorn magically appeared.

Life can be extreme, and setting personal goals is the best way to deal with the challenges. I like to say there are no problems in life, just challenges. A five-day hunt was condensed into less than four hours of hunting time. The legwork done by outfitter Ralph Dampman is the reason I enjoy hunting with him. We have lots in common, and both enjoy all aspects of the hunt, from figuring out the local critters to strategizing how to get close.

Montana Decoys were used to entice pronghorns into crossbow range for the author.
Montana Decoys were used to entice pronghorns into crossbow range for the author.

Sidebar: Pronghorn Decoys

Montana Decoy Company makes buck and doe pronghorn decoys that are lightweight, portable, and easy to set up. The decoy is made from fabric with a photo impression of a real pronghorn. A lightweight wire frame provides the structure to hold it in a life-like position. It is flexible enough to be twisted in circles to store and transport. The company has decoys for most North American big game, predators, and even livestock to help hide from game animals. Contact: www.montanadecoy.com

The absolute best pronghorn decoy is a stuffed animal. Ralph Dampman is a taxidermist and transformed the pronghorn I harvested from that trip into a life-sized decoy. The decoy is named Brad, for a good reason, and is regularly used in camp to help hunters draw bucks into bow range.

In the background of the photo above is Brad, the decoy. It’s deadly for luring pronghorn bucks within bow range.
In the background of the photo above is Brad, the decoy. It’s deadly for luring pronghorn bucks within bow range.

Sidebar: Trophy Ridge Outfitters

Ralph and Lenora Dampman have operated Trophy Ridge Outfitters for more than 30 years. The main camp is near Devil’s Tower in northeast Wyoming, and the picturesque Black Hills surrounding them are game rich. Whitetails and mule deer, pronghorns, elk, mountain lions, buffalo, Merriam’s turkey, and even prairie dogs and mountain lions are offered as fully guided hunts. Contact them via phone at (307) 756-9776 or visit www.trophyridgeoutfitters.com.

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