It’s pretty much inevitable that at some point, every hunter will make a mistake in the field. Whether it’s a bad shot that just injures an animal, putting yourself or someone else at risk, accidentally ending up on private lands or misjudging and taking a shot at something you shouldn’t. Mistakes have consequences, and hopefully will turn into learning opportunities. The actions you take afterwards can mean the difference between being an ethical hunter or flirting with legal action.
John and I both drew two doe/fawn antelope tags for the 2018 Wyoming antelope season, which I was very excited about. I had never had the chance to hunt antelope and I knew it would be a challenge. The unit we were hunting was a checkerboard of public and private land, meaning my hunting app was a must have, and I knew just about any shot would be long range. Unfortunately though, an exciting day of hunting turned into a bad situation when a big mistake was made.
During the early part of the season, we only had access to public lands. While hunting, we constantly double checked our mapping app to ensure we were on legal grounds, but it seemed like the antelope knew the property lines and were only on private lands. Luckily, John was able to harvest one antelope during the early season, then we had to put antelope aside for Idaho elk season, and we still had three tags to fill.
Starting October 15, one of the private ranches that always had a ton of antelope opened to public hunting as long as you got the permit. We had planned to go on the fifteenth, so I applied for the permit and had all of the necessary paperwork that was required for us to legally hunt that area.
When we arrived that morning, there were multiple groups of antelope on this property just like there had been the past three trips. We found the parking area, and set out to put the sneak on one group. They were high up on a hill, but there was a smaller hill that we could sneak up without being seen. We crawled on our hands and knees to the top of the smaller hill, stayed low and got set up. As I looked through my scope, I was on the hunt for a doe or fawn, and had to make sure whatever I was shooting didn’t have horns or the signature black spot behind the jaw that is present on bucks. Finally one stopped at 330 yards and I confirmed: no horns, no black spot. Ready. Aim. Fire. Antelope down.
As we were quartering this doe, a game warden drove up to check tags and permits. He confirmed the antelope was a doe, reviewed our tags, explained what to do with each part of the tag and where to leave the landowner portion of the tag. He also cautioned us to be sure of our target before shooting, as it is very difficult to differentiate between a doe and yearling buck. And lastly, he said “If you happen to make a mistake, it’s best to self-report” and handed us his business card.
We finished quartering the doe, got it in the cooler on ice and went on about our hunt for two more does. We walked up to the top of the hill and peeked over into the valley below. All of the antelope that had been in the original group had gone over and down and were now joined up with a larger group. There were probably 75-100 antelope in the valley.
We noticed two bedded down to our right mid-way down the hill at 150 yards. I looked closely through my scope on full power, John confirmed through his scope at 14 power, and a friend that was along for the ride confirmed through his 10x50 binoculars: no horns, no black spot. It was a larger antelope and smaller one…doe and fawn. Then it got up and started walking, and was limping. This was an easy choice—a doe and fawn together, away from the rest of the group, and she was already injured. I got steady, aimed and fired. She ran about 50 yards and went down. The larger group was still there, and John was able to get a shot and we had a third doe down. All tags filled!
John went to get the truck while our friend and I went to the antelope. When I approached mine, my excitement immediately turned to panic. It had horns. I knew does could have small horns, but it also had a very faint black spot that was barely visible in the sunlight. I lifted it’s back leg to double check. It was a buck. We then went to check John’s and it was a doe, so we were good there. When John got there with the truck, he knew something was wrong. I told him the situation and we called the game warden to let him know what had happened—he didn’t answer so we left a message and hoped he would call back quickly. While we waited, we moved forward with quartering John’s doe. While doing that, the game warden returned the call and told us to send pictures so he could confirm it was a yearling buck and not considered a fawn.
It was a yearling buck. This was a violation, and my tag was not valid for this animal. I was devastated. I strive to make sure every hunt is legal, I follow the rules, I’ve called the Idaho Fish & Wildlife department multiple times just to make sure I understand the regulations and requirements correctly, I’d rather not take a shot than take a bad shot, I have a copy of all of the regulations booklets in both of our vehicles. I am an ethical hunter. I don’t want a violation in my files. I don’t want to risk losing my hunting privileges.
The game warden called back again to give me instructions on what to do next. The first thing he said was “Don’t stress. It’s an easy mistake to make.” He asked what we had done with the antelope and I told him nothing since we didn’t know what we were supposed to do. We had not started quartering yet (since we were working on John’s doe), and he told us that since it was a violation, we would not be able to keep the meat but he had a family that was ready to accept it. He told us we could just field dress it and bring him the gutted animal and the family would take care of quartering. But because antelope meat can get gamey if not cooled quickly, we offered to go ahead and quarter it so it would maintain its quality. We quartered it as we would our own, taking care not to get dirt or hair on the meat, and making sure to get the front shoulders, hinds, back straps and inner loins, and getting it on ice quickly.
We met the game warden in town to give him the meat for the needy family. He reiterated again that this was an easy mistake to make, and that he was glad there were honest hunters that self-reported the mistake. He explained that a yearling buck can easily be mistaken for a doe because their ears may hide their horns depending on the angle, and their black patch is not as defined yet, especially in the later season as their winter coat comes in. He also let us know that it was a mistake that he had made a few years before. While all of this put me at ease, I was still upset with myself for making this mistake. I was lucky to just receive a warning for the violation and was not required to pay a fine. He said this was his call to make, and since we had self-reported, he did not want to penalize me further.
Although I just received a warning, I definitely learned a lesson on this hunt. “Know your target” is one of the 5 basic rules of firearm safety. I was sure of my target, I double checked and had two other people confirm it. It was an honest mistake. I also know for the 2019 season, I will have spotting scope so that I have a better visual before taking any shots.
In the end, a mistake was made but the animal was not wasted. A family in need received meat for their freezer and I learned a lesson that I will remember during every hunt in the future.
Sarah Honadel is an avid outdoorswoman from Kentucky, now living in Idaho, who enjoys hunting elk, deer and turkey. She is a team member at Huntress View, Pro Staff for Browning Trail Cameras and Brand Ambassador for the GoWild app. Follow her on Instagram @waddysarah and @arrowridgecreations.