In the modern hunting game opportunity is a watchword. It means having the opportunity to hunt a given species in a given place, something increasingly relevant as interest in western hunting increased as some game populations decrease. It also means having the chance, in a given hunt, to put a stalk on, actively pursue, and attempt to kill an individual animal. The former question is both a biological and a sociological one. There is substantial latitude* in the number of tags, for most species, which biological integrity will allow, and state preference for revenue and the number of hunters and animals in the field shapes things significantly. Montana residents have long expressed their preference for opportunity based wildlife management, which is why we have long seasons for deer and elk, and why in most places in the state residents can hunt those animals with a tag they can buy every year. While elk hunting in Montana is a high opportunity affair when it comes to possible days in the woods, it is for most people a low opportunity affair when it comes to stalks on a legal animal. My elk hunting path has been unique and self limited, but as of today I’ve shot 100% of the bulls I’ve had in stalkable range. In Montana, a foundational assumption in elk hunting is that the overwhelming majority of your time afield will be spent looking for elk, rather than specifically trying to kill them.
Antelope are the opposite, especially in Montana, where you can get an archery only tag every year which allows you to pursue goats virtually everywhere in the state, for nearly 3 months. The opportunity aspect with antelope is also high in the chances to make stalks, at least with a bow, as the chances of success on each stalk is pretty abysmal, which is why the state can provide so much opportunity, in both senses, in the first place.
Its an opportunity I relish, mainly because it is the opposite of so much of wild hunting in the 21st century. Bison, for instance, is in the hunting all to do with the rarity of the tag, and the potential rarity in the animals on the ground. Once you find one the hunt is essentially over, evidence in most places** of how little experience the bison have with being hunted. Even grouse hunting in Montana is mostly about a lot of walking, about using time and distance to increase your odds. Antelope hunting, especially in my favorite spot, is the opposite.
The antelope generally hang in the same spot, way down off the end of the mesa, on a bench hanging between layers. They usually bed under one of two trees who sit, hundreds of yards from the nearest patch of green, on a seemingly utterly flat field of grass. The challenge is getting close to them, in my case, with a longbow, within 20 yards. After a few tries you figure out quickly how good antelope eyes are. After a few more, you figure out that those grass fields are not flat, and that the little gullies and most importantly the flowing swale of one layer rising into the other can let you get quite close. But close enough?
This most recent go, the answer was almost. I clumsily bumped them out of their favored spot, when I foolishly underestimated the cover begin backstopped by dark timber at 600 yards would provide. I watched them in the spotting scope getting more and more nervous before the lead nanny ran off her twitchiness in a seemingly random direction. The 14 other ladies followed quickly, the lone buck reluctant and well off the back. I walked well back, until my head was hidden by the slope, and then circled the cut bank and eased nearly 180 degrees around them, avoiding the cactus as I crawled up to the edge of a particularly large rock, and peaked over. They were bedded at 100 yards, far enough towards the other edge that I might be able to circle around, again, crawl up that rise, and be within range.
As I can best recall I did everything right, but they were still on their feet acting agitated when my eyes cleared the grass, and already being primed, the buck jumped the string hard. After a hunt a few years ago, in the same spot, I swapped all my knocks for bright orange, and even so it still took me a few minutes of searching to find the arrow. This at a distance where, were I more reliable at throwing, I could have hit them with a rock. But this is the illusion of antelope hunting. On the face you could have 10 stalks a day, bumping the herd, following, bumping them again. But terrain and circumstance might allow for only one of those stalks to have any real chance, and holding fire for a legit opportunity is the best thing I’ve learning from antelope hunting yet.
*Colorado and Montana are first and second in terms of elk population, and also first and second in terms of both elk hunter numbers each year and elk harvested. Oregon is third in both elk population and hunter numbers, but usually fifth (behind Idaho and Wyoming) with respect to elk harvested, one assumes due to the difficulty of hunting elk in coastal rainforest (2/5th of Oregons elk are the coastal Roosevelt species). Wyoming, by contrast, is fourth (or fifth, with similar numbers to Idaho) with respect to elk numbers, but 7th (behind Utah and Washington) when it comes to hunter numbers. Some states, such as Arizona and Nevada, have low elk populations, and commensurately low hunter numbers.
**The Henry Mountains in Utah being a notable exception, with a long history of hunting, and reportedly wary animals who often result in a once-in-a-lifetime tag going unfilled. The bison on the Kaibab Plateau having moved, over the past decade, to wintering within the National Park is another.