By Guest Writer, Gerald Martin

A thick pall of smoke hung heavy in the tent, acrid fumes burning my bleary eyes as I tried to determine what was happening. A blustery wind buffeted the canvas. With each gust, another belch of smoke poured from the front of the stove.

My wife and five children, ages six to fifteen, were asleep in their nearby cots. They didn’t stir as I opened the damper and futilely attempted to get the smoke to draft back up the chimney. Finally, I gave up in frustration and doused the fire, figuring that being cold beat suffocating in the middle of the night.

The beautiful prairie of Eastern Montana.

I unzipped the end wall of the tent and crawled back into my sleeping bag. As the cold air escorted the smoke from our tent, I reflected on a perfect opening day.

Starting out

Our adventure began early the previous morning as we left our home in Northwest Montana and made the long drive to Eastern Montana. Heavily laden with a full Suburban, a trailer full of firewood, food, and gear in tow, we drove until dusk. As the light faded, we turned into a campsite on public land administrated by the Bureau of Land Management. With five children energetic from being cooped up in a car all day, setting up camp didn’t take long. Our family ate a hasty dinner then my thirteen year old son, Timothy, fifteen year old daughter, Olivia and I organized our back packs and strategized for the opening morning of antelope season.

We set our sights on blocks of public land, both state and federal, that would allow us to walk beyond the sight of the road. I knew from past experience that there would be plenty of other hunters driving the county roads, ready to give chase to any antelope they saw on public land. When the antelope moved away from the pressure, we would be waiting.

Warm and dry feet make for a much more successful, and happy, day of hunting.

A few stars twinkled dimly through wispy clouds as we parked the Suburban the next morning and hiked eastward toward the horizon. As darkness transitioned to daylight, it became obvious that we had chosen a good strategy. The first legal minutes of shooting light revealed a lone doe which Timothy elected to pass, hoping for a chance at a buck.

Patience pays off

We pressed further into the block of public ground, checking the OnX Map on my GPS to ensure we gave adequate berth to legal boundaries between public land and private ranchland. At the head of a shallow ravine, we saw several distant dots: multiple antelope, bucks and does, still engrossed in their fall mating rituals. Although the peak of the rut had passed and most does had already bred, the herd bucks were intolerant of smaller bucks interloping on their turf.  We watched them for a while, disappointed that they were off the public land we could hunt, on private land we did not have permission to access. Turning away from this herd we continue our search.

After hiking along for more than an hour, our patience was rewarded by a small herd of antelope cresting a butte back in the direction of our truck.  A mature buck stood sentinel over his does. When they eventually bedded, we quickly planned a stalk, looping far out around the herd to keep the wind in our faces and hills between us and our quarry.

Crawling to the rim of the last hill, we used a lone sage bush as the final bit of cover. The antelope were well within range and unconcerned as Timothy carefully rested his rifle across his pack.  Minutes dragged by as he studied the buck through his scope and calmed his breathing, waiting for the buck to stand and give him a better shot.

Once again, patience paid off. As the buck stood and casually made his rounds to check on his harem, he paused, broadside. That’s when Timothy squeezed the trigger. Upon impact of the bullet, the buck whirled and ran a few yards, stopping as Timothy shot again. The second shot mirrored the first. Both bullets passed through the center of the buck’s lungs and he was down in seconds.

Butchering and packing the meat back to the truck occupied the next couple hours. Then it was time to head back to camp to show the rest of the family his prize and eat a hearty lunch.

The best feeling- tagging out!

Family tradition

As a father, I was incredibly proud of the patience and skill that Timothy and Olivia had displayed on the morning hunt.  Just as my father introduced me to the tradition of hunting and taught me outdoor skills and safety from a young age, I have been taking all of my children into the woods soon after they could walk. Long before they could hold a gun or have hunting license of their own, Olivia and Timothy walked beside me and shared in my hunts.  Now, the roles are changing. I am still the teacher, but the kills are theirs as their ability increases. Soon they will have the skills to hunt on their own as I focus more attention on their younger siblings. I hope the lessons they learn in the woods of the need for perseverance, patience, strong ethics and the irrevocable consequences of pulling a trigger, help prepare and equip them to make good choices in other areas of their lives.

Timothy’s early success spread excitement to the rest of the tag holders in our family. My wife Irene, daughter Olivia and I all had tags.  As Timothy recounted the story of his hunt, his eleven year old brother Gareth, and two younger sisters, Allison, age eight and six year old, Elise, were eager to join us for another scouting drive that evening, with the hope of finding more antelope.

A dozen miles from camp, we were glassing a herd on the south side of the road, trying to figure out how to navigate around the private land that blocked our access to the antelope a mile away on public land. During this session, I happened to look on the north side of the road and saw another herd feeding over the crest of the hill on ground we could hunt.

My wife Irene and I used the bank of the road to conceal our exit from the vehicle and quickly covered the half mile on the opposite side of the hill to get in front of the feeding antelope. One herd of 10 became 20 as another herd joined them. The bucks tried to keep track of their does while stealing another buck’s lady.

Their distraction allowed us to creep within range and Irene made good on her shot at the herd buck. As his does ran from the sound of the shot, we decided that she would go back to bring the children to help with the recovery while I chased after the other mature buck still with the herd.

I played cat and mouse with the herd for several hundred yards. I was within range, but struggled to get a steady rest on the buck while simultaneously capturing the scene on video. A sharp-eyed doe saw my movements and spooked, taking the herd over the hill with her.

I rejoined my family at Irene’s buck just as the sun was starting to set. The butchering and packing didn’t take long with that much help and we made it back to the Suburban by dark.

Battling the elements

As night settled in, the forecast for rain and strong winds proved true and my episode with the smoky stove made for a short night and fitful sleep. The following morning, steady rain and mud encouraged us to sleep late. I awoke to discover that the spark arresting screen on the end of the stove pipe was clogged with suet. That was an easy fix and the stove drafted nicely once again as we basked in its warmth.

Boredom set in strong as we waited for the rain to pass. We set out in the Suburban to where Irene had killed her buck, but good roads melted into greasy mud. After several miles of white-knuckle driving through gumbo, we made the decision to turn around and head back to camp.

As we made our way back, a lone buck appeared over a hill, just out of rifle range from the road. It was my daughter Olivia’s turn to stalk. With the rain falling steadily, we hoped it would be a short one. We hiked to the top of the hill where the buck had disappeared. As we crested the ridge, we spotted him and two of his does trotting a retreat a mile away with no sign of stopping while we watched.

A mile to the north, two more bucks fed on the spine of the ridge. We were already wet and Olivia wanted to keep going. They continued to drift away from us as we tried to stay concealed and close the distance. Olivia gritted out the hike and two miles into the stalk she made a great shot, filling her tag on a mature buck with heart shaped horns.

A bit of folklore

With everyone else tagged out, Gareth got up with me the next morning to tag along and run my camera. As an apprentice hunter, he is licensed for small game and deer, but can’t yet apply for an antelope tag. We saw dozens of antelope on our hike, including some small bucks. A nice buck sauntered untouchable on a piece of private land, just across the boundary of public land.

Late in the afternoon we found a good buck and made a long stalk to get in position for an easy shot. Our feet were wet from hiking, we were tired and cold. My impatience lead me into a decision I quickly regretted. The entire herd lay bedded below us. Rather than letting the buck stand on his own, I had Gareth wave a white game bag, hoping to arouse their curiosity and cause them to stand. That little bit of frontier folklore did not work to our advantage. When they saw the bag, the entire herd jumped and ran. The buck paused after a few yards and my easy shot transformed to a miss.

On our trudge back to camp, Gareth found a cast lead bullet laying on top of the prairie mud. Our minds entertained thoughts of cowboys and six guns, skirmishes with Native Americans, perhaps a buffalo hunter, or the possibility of a turn-of-the-century antelope hunter like ourselves firing that bullet long ago.

The true reward

Back at camp, the rest of the family regaled us with the tales and treasures they had gathered on their afternoon hike, including a pair of shed mule deer antlers, a prairie dog skull, the sight of a badger’s den, and a variety of pretty pebbles and a feather shed from a passing bird.

Tired. Days spent hunting make for the best nights of sleep.

Redemption for that day’s miss came the on a solo hunt the following morning with a clean shot on an even bigger buck to fill my tag.  As we packed up and headed for home, I knew the coolers full of delicious antelope meat and the horns of the bucks we killed were just a small part of the bounty we collected on our family adventure.

Our time spent in nature on public land that we and every American own, enjoying this adventure together, strengthens our relationships and enriches our lives. This reward can’t be measured in inches or pounds. Instead, it is measured by the smiles on our faces and the glint in our eyes as we retell our stories.   It is in the telling of our stories that we can inspire others to find adventure and stories of their own on the American heritage that is public land.

Gerald Martin lives in Northwest Montana.  A building contractor by trade, he spends as much time on public land as he can with his family and friends, hunting, fishing, foraging for food and enjoying nature.

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