Presented by High Adventure Company: It was the prelude to perfection. We were an hour out of Casper on the maiden of the pronghorn season, and on the high eastern rim of the plain, the promise of day was borne. Clean and clear in the keen, cold air. It was still too dark to see, except the silhouette of a barred owl in a low, snagly tree.

Whoo-aggh. Wha-wha-wha-whooo-aaggh.

He spoke abruptly, and coarsely, and the haunted inquisition of his query amplified the exhilarating loneliness of the prairie.

“Wayfaring seekers, my feathered friend,” Brad whispered. “Wayfaring seekers.”

Shivering with the chill of anticipation, we huddled beneath a wispy cover of sage and greasewood, under the dusky bones of an ancient and rickety barn. Myself, Duncan Grant, the captain of Sporting Classics, Mac McKeever of the fine old company of L.L. Bean, and Brad Welsh, our guide, of Cole Creek Outfitters. All of us with glasses hard at work, straining to pull the first gray sketch of antelope from the gloomy wrinkles of the near meadows and slopes. While darkness prevailed, but tottered, before the developing dawn.

Sparrows and songbirds twittered around; distantly floated the belling of geese. Coyotes yipped and moaned. A freshet of wind rose and fell. The September-golden leaves of a nearby cottonwood rattled gently with its passing.

“Eighty yards out, ten o’clock,” Brad said quietly. “There’s a buck. A pretty good one.”

Electric moments of searching, and all had found him. First buck of the season, nervously walking the fence that divided pastures. He was good, heart-skip good. Maybe shooting good.

Funny, they’re bigger always in low light.

“Problem is,” Brad said, “he’s on the neighbor’s lease. But all he’s got to do is jump that fence, and he wants too . . .  bad.”

He didn’t. Just paced the fenceline safely out of sight. Maybe “he knowed,” as The Duke said in True Grit. Nobody wanted it over that quickly anyhow.

As now, hope loomed boundless. The pale lemon light of morning was filtering silently into a vast azure sky. Bathed by the natal hues of a sleepy sun, the gray-green expanse of the plains was over-written by washes of lavender, pink and apricot. Everywhere, in a beautifully unfolding pageant as old as the land, bands of foraging pronghorn were appearing. Find one, look right or left, up or down, and happily would appear another.

Filtering out of the mute-gray, brushy draws onto the mellow, multicolored glow of the plains. Materializing from the tawny flanks of the hills, where moments before, they weren’t.

Dainty clusters of does, followed or out-ridden by pre-rut bucks, young and old. Statuesque up-and-comers with thin and spindly curls; thrilling old warriors heavy with cutters and hooks. Chaste white, black and fawn. Primly, magnificently, pronghorns.

Among them were several the measure of our quest. Banked for incomparable moments in the swelling privilege of a flawless drama, while the thrill mingled with the colors, and every sense grew a part of it. Until spirit was transformed into its whole, and heart-rush became harmony.

It was a day to be alive. Unforgettable. That Wyoming morning.

The partnership of Merkel, L.L. Bean and Winchester Ammunition brought us here, with invitation to browse and peruse their wares. What a time. Nobody in the world offers a broader or more eclectic line of fine sporting arms than the venerable Suhl gunmaking establishment of Merkel, in company with its ancillaries Grulla and Anschutz. Grandpa handed down the legacy of L.L. Bean, and today its contemporary line is as useful and distinguished as the traditional. Winchester ammo . . . well, the brand’s an unflagging American icon.

Now, shivering in the excitement and chill of this splendid dawning, Duncan and I were the shooting part of our foursome, each armed with Merkel’s superb KR-1 rifle in .270 WSM, with Win. Supreme Ballistic Tips in the magazine. Duncan had won the toss for first-go, and I was kinda happy over that. I could enjoy his hunt and savor in anticipation my own.

Mac and I pulled up a rocking chair seat against a hump of sage, leaned back with our theater glasses, and watched Duncan and Brad line out closely single-file against a far northern hill. Somewhere behind it had slipped the buck we had considered for the past half-hour, the best of several, trailing a band of does. Honorable he appeared  – high, sweeping and hooked.

Thirty minutes trailed past . . . 45 . . . as we followed hunter and guide, glimpse and glimmer, through the low cover. Brad ahead, Duncan pasted to his lead, belly-crawling now . . . . trying through the daze of sun and shadow to make it unseen to the lip of the rise. Thrilling, for Mac and I as well, for we could see it all, against that magnificent sprawl of country. Just an hour into a glorious new day.

Now the hunters had stopped, flattened to the ground, binoculars cautiously at play. Above them an eagle inscribed bold, broadening circles in a forever-blue sky.

In mind, I could sense their exchange.

“How good?”

“Very good.”

As Duncan slowly maneuvered his rifle into prone.

“Do you want him?”

The heart-pounding, uneven whisper of Duncan’s answer, as the buck loomed stunningly in the scope: “Y-es.”

Now our hunter snuggled firmly into the stock, shifting slightly. We could see his body tense. In the suspense resounded his final query.

“How far?”

“One thirty-eight.”

Seemingly interminable seconds, until at last the jolting single clap of the rifle shattered the silence and reverberated off the neighboring hills.

Forever again, it seemed, until hunter and guide pushed themselves to their knees and stood, and you could read into their stance and gesture the happy aura of success. Then they walked away, over the crest of the hill, and we could imagine the silent jubilation as Duncan bent to touch his fallen buck.

While the chill of the aftermath fell against my stomach. Now it was for me to do as well.

A mile and more across the high plains lay a verdant green pasture. In it were two bands of antelope, among them four bucks, either of two worthy of the stalk.

“We need mass,” I told Brad, “I want heavy.” As we weighed a nearer and lighter buck, after we had properly celebrated with Duncan, and were put to our own.

He nodded. “There’s better abroad.”

So we passed, considered at length the stalk, and started on foot to close the considerable distance to the pasture, with the burden of trepidation in my throat. Because we could see the available cover expire uselessly into the wide expanse of open pasture, leaving a yawning gap between its concealing edge and the feeding bucks. How much, was hard to gauge.

Stationing myself behind Brad’s confident stride, we were off to find out.

An hour and half-more, it took, to know. While this time Mac and Duncan watched the show – could see it all, hunters and hunted – and Duncan snapped pictures all the way. That was the rare, extended glory of it; relishing each other’s hunt in that wide-thrown, Godspread country.

The final hundred yards Brad and I spent flat on our stomachs, after the sage ran ragged and sparse, pushing ourselves along by our toes.

“We’ve got to make that last bit of brush, at the break,” Brad demanded.

Me in front with the rifle across my ’bows, knowing he’s right, but dreading the next moment a nose-on encounter with a prairie rattler. Remembering in the hot sands of the African highveld, a similar engagement with kudu, where the foreboding was a mamba. At least with the rattler, there’d be a chance.

In laborious, tension-fretted thrusts, we made it, the antelope unaware. The bucks lay resting, or drifted slowly behind the foraging does. But it looked like half of China between us and them. The sage had breathed out, and there was nowhere left to go.

We studied the bucks at length. The best was south-center. Thick of horn and body, cutters distinct as the knots on a thornapple tree, good sweeping curls. Even in the brilliant magnification of the Docter scope, he looked billy-goat small.

I shook my head. Brad did likewise and grinned. While we kept one cheek to ground to avoid discovery.

Carefully Brad put the rangefinder to service, but it was capricious as a two-bottle blonde.

“It’s saying anything from three hundred to five-twenty-five,” he declared doubtfully.

Great, I thought. About the width of the Continental Divide.

“Hold for four-twenty-five,” Brad advised.

Or anything between, I thought.

I squinted for a time myself. Weighing the landscape. I guessed the shot at 400, and I wasn’t sure I was that good anymore. But I was prone and solid, and I had confidence in my rifle. When a gun is on, I mean “dead-on,” assurance is bespoken. The KR1 had gone faithfully better than MOA, out of the box.

Anchoring the rifle, I hunkered down on the sights, screwed my mouth tight. Relaxed all else. Tried to hold on the buck’s vitals, but my heart was thumping against botching the shot, and the reticle kept bouncing.

Backing off, I talked myself together. Settling in again, I urged the restless crosshairs to the buck’s shoulder, then top of his back. God, he looked big. And small.

Evermore I held, nerve-jangled, while endlessly he fed – straight-on or at a tight quarter – until at long last he eased broadside.

“Now,” Brad said, and gaffe or glory, I squeezed the trigger.

“Down!” Brad exclaimed, the relief a verdict of freedom.

But his head was up. “Just wait,” Brad said.

Sagging, he wasn’t going anywhere, but we walked over and I ended it. It must have taken ten minutes to get there, and maybe I shouldn’t have taken the shot. But I did. When later we could measure it reliably, the distance was 376 yards.

There are people who can do it day-in and day-out, I suppose. Not me.

I was dirt grateful, grateful it had happened. Proud of my buck. He was clean and bright, about the color of the sunlit plain, with bold mascara accents about his face, and a chaste white throat and paunch. His horns were dark gunmetal gray, curved and heavy.

“To you,” Duncan said to me.

“And you,” I returned. We would not forget this thing spun between us.

About us rose the purple ramparts of the rolling prairie hills. Away, and away, sprawled the golden plain. On and on, pushed the vast blue sky.

It was barely noon. Half the sun left to spend.

So we rendezvoused by the bank of the North Platte River with the rest of our party, lunching and palavering under the golden cottonwoods in the warm prairie breeze.

Along the river glade, through the laze of sunlight filtering through the autumn tint of the trees, Einar Hoff had gone to the fond trouble of a sporting clays course. The invitation was unencumbered, and we chose at heart’s will shotguns from the breadth of the Merkel and Grulla lines: arabesque-adorned 147E boxlock side-bys, lavishly engraved, sidelock Royals in Churchill scroll, chiseled and inlaid 303EL over/unders. Doing our best with dedicated Winchester shells at what proved to be a “sporting” course indeed. High, incoming “doves,” “teal” buzzing water, rising “grouse,” driven “pheasant” and sudden, crossing “quail.”

But then, we decided as the sun bent two o’clock, there was fishing to attend. Of course, the L.L. Bean contingent had along fly gear. The river had been slow, but by accident perhaps, our able outfitter, Kelly Glause, disclosed a clean, cold pond nestled into a green pocket of the great ranch we had hunted. Patently private, ordinarily, and haunted by rainbows longer than a forearm. I don’t think it was originally part of the agenda.

“But could we?”

The rancher/outfitter pushed his hat back on his head. “Well, uh, yeah,” he said, and together with Bill Gorman, Mac, Jeff Miller and Kevin Murray, the Bean Boys, we piled on the trucks – golly, gear and gumption – and Kelly left us there. To while away a happy hour or two with a fly line, seducing fish after fish with black and green Wooly Buggers. Watching for the slight tick of the take, tensing against the tightening of a powerful run, long rods rainbowed to sparkling water under the laughter of the early autumn sun. It might not have been as honest as the river, but it was damn sure fun.

By the time Roger Green arrived with his two keen drathaars, Gracie and Jazz, the yellow hay bales in the long grain field by the Platte were mellowing to orange under the incendiary hues of the waning afternoon. Our mood found just enough of the day left to retrieve the guns again and point a pheasant or two. Especially after Brad and my old friend, Jim Morey, then the media consultant for Merkel USA, thought to come along.

The lapsing sun spilled in long hazy rays across the entirety of the bottom, and we took the cover at the edge of the river, beneath the glowing cottonwoods. The dogs threading the front, swinging in easy quarters to Roger’s gentle whistles. Bent to the hunt.

Here and there, wary bands of mallards and woodies jumped from the winding river course, knotted in shadow behind the trees, then bursting into flaming colors as they banked into the catchlight of the sun. Under the whisper of their flight, you could hear the quiet murmur of the river. For the wind had quieted, and the land was growing close to bed.

Five times the dogs pointed, standing proud and tight in gold and umber in sunspots by field edge, and Duncan and I walked to them – slowly, for we were at pace with the dying day – guns at port and hearts at ease.

“Ready, Gentlemen?” Roger calls, for he is rightfully full of pride.

And can you truly portray in words the splendor of a cackling rooster rising from the mute gray of late-evening cover, beating up and flaring abruptly into the brilliance of the burning sun? The explosive shatter of colors? The shiver at the pit of your soul. As the guns go up in front of two steady dogs, on their toes, eyes ablaze and marking flight?
Mercy God.

A proper affair, Duncan would take one bird, and I another. And if two went out, we waited an apposite few seconds for the birds to fan and doubled, right and left.

Then the day burned out, the charcoal and rose of dusk blanketed the bottom, and Roger bid the dogs to heel.

Home, now, at an idle stroll, the five of us. A little at awe. Musing gently and gaily that the only thing that could have possibly topped that Wyoming morning, was that Wyoming day.

IF YOU WANT TO GO

By no means exclusive, this adventure is open to anyone. I assure you that Kelly Glause, who heads Cole Creek Outfitters in Evansville, Wyoming, will be obliging. His specialty is antelope and mule deer, but with his son, Kody, he also books fishing, whitetail, lion, bear and bird hunts. I’ve never had any outfitting team work harder, or better. Call (307) 234-8940.

FIELD TESTS

Do yourself a kindness: ask the folks at Merkel USA to send their superbly done catalogs of the Merkel, Grulla and Anschutz product lines. The Merkel line, alone, is one of the broadest in the sporting world. Spend an evening in an easy chair, savoring the possibilities. They’re far too vast and distinguished to cover here.

Particularly dreamy: the nimble and exquisitely accurate KR1 rifle, Weimar Grade; the Meister Grade Anschutz 1717 Silhouette Sporter in .17 HRM; the elegant Grulla Escopeta Royal in Churchill scroll. www.merkel-usa.com

What more can you say of L.L. Bean gear, than it’s as good or better than it’s always been. Which says a lot, given that the company is constantly incorporating avant-garde improvements into a broadening product line.

This venture, and since, I’ve put to test several of the company’s latest offerings. Tops anywhere: Bison Big Game Boots, Northweave Camo, Technical Upland Hunting Pants, Classic Upland Shirt. www.llbean.com

Roger Green’s Deutsch Drahtaars were a richly memorable pleasure. If you’re considering a drathaar as a versatile gunning companion, and wish to ply the heart of the breed, vom Elderbach dogs represent the undistilled standard. A registered kennel of the VDD, the German organization most faithfully devoted to the breed, vom Elderbach regularly performance-tests its dogs in Jagdgebrauchhund events. www.rogermgreen.com.

Comments are closed.