After crawling on my hands and knees some 200 yards up a wrinkle in the prairie, I slipped my binos from my bino harness and carefully looked back over my shoulder. In the distance behind me, I could see my white pickup on the roadside, wavering in mirage, and my buddy, Hunter, watching me through his spotter.
He gave me a thumbs up. The antelope was still in the same spot as he was when the stalk began 40 minutes earlier.
The buck was bedded facing away from me in a little depression in the prairie. The only thing separating us was 80 yards of sage, cactus, and dust. I looked down, watched a bead of sweat roll off my nose and land in the dirt, then I started crawling again.
I belly crawled another 20 yards before the antelope popped up right in front of me. I drew, but in an instant, he was nothing more than a white dot hauling ass across the prairie a quarter mile away. Another blown stalk.
Despite hitting a certified slump, I had a feeling that I was somehow succeeding. After watching me blow stalk after stalk, Hunter was a little concerned for my mental well-being. I told him he needn’t worry and that I felt as if I was learning more about stalking game in one day than I have in some seasons. I was learning in real time: I could analyze mistakes, correct them, and watch my results improve from one stalk to the next.
The lessons learned from my first archery antelope tag will stick with me through the rest of my hunting career. Here are five hot tips from my recent antelope hunt that you can apply to any species of big game this hunting season.
Let’s start with the most important tip: plan your stalk. It’s easy to see a target—antelope, elk, deer, whatever—and go barreling in before you consider all the variables. The four most important factors to evaluate are wind direction, terrain features, the behavior of the animal you’re stalking, and the presence of other animals in the area.
Consider each of these carefully and use them to plan your stalk. Create checkpoints using rock formations, trees, and other terrain features as references, starting from where you are and ending at the shot. If you can, use mapping software like OnX to drop pins on features as well as the animal you’re stalking.
Above all else, don't take off-the-cuff shortcuts and follow the script. You’ll never have a more complete picture of what you need to do on your stalk than you’ll have before you start it.
I grew up bowhunting in Pennsylvania, and aside from chasing ungulates around with pointy sticks, there’s really only one thing that it has in common with the Western hunting I do now: wind is everything. You cannot cheat the wind.
A snapping twig could be an elk, bear, or deer. A little movement could be the same. But there is only one thing that smells like a person, and that is a person. If they smell you, whatever you’re stalking is either on its way out or already gone.
So it’s imperative you get the wind right. Read up on thermals, know the prevailing wind direction in the area you intend to hunt, and constantly wind check. Finally, as you’re planning your stalk, if there’s ever a spot where you think the wind might get you busted, plan a new route.
While antelope have evolved to rely more on their eyes than their nose, I’m pretty sure the buck I busted in the story above was tipped off by bad wind.
On another stalk, we spotted a group of antelope feeding beside a creek bottom in a very stalkable position, but by the time I made my way to where I thought I’d have a shot, they had fed towards the base of a hill leading to a large flat at its top. As I knelt there in the tall grass watching them feed uphill 500 yards away, I made a decision: the second that last white ass crested the hill and out of sight, I was sprinting after them.
It almost paid off. If I came up 50 yards to my left instead of following the line they took, I would have had a shot at 40 yards. With no time to re-approach and no cover to cut the distance, I could only watch as they fed further into the flat.
Although we often think of stalking as slow and meticulous, the reality is that sometimes you need to cover as much ground as possible when the opportunity presents itself. That means walking through coulees, running when covered by terrain features, or in my case, sprinting uphill. Crawl when you have to, but don’t be afraid to cover ground aggressively when you can.
A lot of folks think of their range finder as a tool for a singular purpose: ranging an animal right before the shot. But when I’m stalking in on something, I use my range finder constantly. I’m always ranging the next terrain feature to see how much ground I have to cover or possible escape routes a buck might use as he tries to slip away, potentially offering a shot in the process.
One of the most important ways I use it is to determine my final approach on an animal and what my shot will look like long before I get to where I’ll take it. A good example of that happened on the last stalk of the hunt, shortly before I lost my release and had to call it quits.
I found a buck and doe bedded in a little bowl on a hillside. I made my way up to them, only to see I’d been tricked by perspective, and they were actually 100 yards further away than I anticipated.
They were tight against the back side of the bowl with a flat above them. I ranged the pair at 150 yards, then ranged a prominent boulder on the edge of the flat behind them at 185 yards. If I backed off, reapproached from above, and crawled over to that boulder, I’d have a 35-yard chip shot.
A range finder is so much more than a final step before you take the shot. Always be ranging; it’ll help inform your stalk and help you make better game-time decisions.
When I saw where that buck was bedded around 35 yards away, I knew that I had a decent shot opportunity. It looked like a gimme—or about as close as you can get to a gimme when spot and stalk antelope hunting. I’ll be honest, as I was creeping towards that boulder on my hands and knees, I was already bemoaning the fact I’d left my knife in the truck.
In short, I was overexcited. So much so that I made a critical error. I glassed them up for about half a second before I made my stalk, but I didn’t look carefully enough for additional antelope hanging out with the buck and his doe.
Sure enough, just as I was about to get to my knees for the shot, the antelope—all eight of them—shot out of the bowl, over a rise, and out of my life forever.
I can’t stress enough just how important it is to make sure you’re aware of all the animals in an area before you start your stalk. Let mine be a cautionary tale: I blew it on a great archery buck because I was just too darn excited to get after him and too impatient with my glassing. To borrow a term from the sports world, it was a totally unforced error.
Hunter and I hunted hard for the better part of three days, and after consistently getting shut down at just about the 70-yard mark, stalk after stalk, I was starting to feel the pressure. I wanted antelope in the freezer, and I only had about a day and a half left when I glassed a lone doe feeding up a hill.
When she crested the ridge, I cut the distance. I worked my way up to some sagebrush at the top of the hill and saw her feeding directly away from me, and through a gap in the sage, I ranged her at 50 yards, just as she began to quarter away. The arrow flew true, and moments later, I was standing over a successfully harvested spot-and-stalk archery antelope.
Persistence paid. To not give up through trying times is perhaps the single most important piece of advice for any Western hunter. Whether you’re after antelope, mule deer, elk, or bear, take these tips with you. Spot and stalk hunting can be incredibly challenging, but the rewards are well worth the effort. Get out there, find the animals, make a game plan, and execute. It won’t always play out perfectly, but if you stick with it, spot and stalk success can be a seriously exhilarating and effective hunting technique.