It was my first time ever hunting antelope and also my first time to hunt Wyoming. I connected with a family through social media that had several girls that hunted, including a 3 year old named Lilly that completely stole my heart. Wall tent camp on public land with a new group of avid bowhunters sounded so fun and I couldn’t wait to get there. I’d been practicing every day and feeling so confident with my setup. I honestly went into it thinking it was going to be fairly easy because I always heard there were so many antelope everywhere you looked. We camped at 9,000 feet to beat the summer heat, then dropped down each morning to glass up the perfect first antelope in an approachable area: good wind, rolling terrain to help us stay hidden as we closed the gap, and preferably a lone buck over anything else.
OfF to a Rough Start
I released an arrow, connecting at 60 yards with a buck that was bedded on the side of a hill. He stood up before I could come to full draw, then spun my arrow and I hit him high above the spine. It was the worst start to my hunt. My confidence was immediately shot. I knew that I’d be stretching my comfort zone coming into the hunt, and I had been practicing that shot for months in my front yard. I also attended multiple 3D shoots throughout the summer where we released arrows over 100 yards. What I didn’t prepare for was the wind, which kicked my arrow to the left more than I would’ve liked. We watched him for hours and put a spotting scope on him to confirm the hit was high. I even attempted to make another stalk on him, but quickly realized I misjudged the location when his head popped up at 50 yards and took off again. Then we watched him graze and go about his business like nothing had happened. I could at least rest easy knowing I didn’t fatally wound one.
The first two days were pretty slow in terms of good opportunity. I made some attempts because you never really know if something will work until you try, but they failed miserably. We tried a decoy, waving a white material, calling, etc. Nothing was working. It wasn’t until day 3 that things started picking up. We were seeing more bucks than before and I had drawn back several more times, but I continued to miss one antelope after another. My elevation was pretty good but my left and right was so far off. Sure, a couple of them spun the arrow but it was me more than anything. The wind was kicking my butt. Every shot I made on the entire hunt was between 54-82 yards. I’ve only shot one animal in that range…ever. Typically I’m 40 yards and under when I release an arrow. Again, I felt like I was capable of hitting my mark after preparing at home so I kept trying. That might sound crazy to some people, but we shot my bow back at camp after missing so much (which was 100% out of the wind), and I was drilling. My bow was fine. My confidence, however….that’s debatable.
My Breaking Point
On the evening of day 4 I sent two arrows at a lone doe feeding on the side of a hill. At this point I had already ruined the other arrows in my quiver from hitting rocks. I missed 2 more times, and she just looked back at me after running off a bit. I got within 40 yards of her with nothing to shoot at her - the closest shot opportunity I would’ve had at that point. I was fuming mad. I walked over the hill where Mike couldn’t see me well, then leaned over my knees and just bawled my eyes out. I let it all out because I hadn’t really done that yet. I was trying to stay strong and I needed a good release of frustration. 4 days had come and gone with nothing to show for it but a bunch of busted up broadheads, hell even one bloody one. By the end of that day, I had failed 6 times. SIX TIMES between the first shot that hit high and the 5 clean misses that followed.
Needless to say, I was feeling really down on myself, the absolute lowest of lows that I’ve ever felt. I even sent my husband (Braxton) a message and said, “I’m just not a good enough hunter for this yet. I was in over my head to come here.” By the way, it kills me to admit that I said that, but it’s how I felt. I went to bed each night and prayed for a new start the next day, for a clear mind and positive attitude. I even journaled on my phone to get the nasty negative thoughts out of my head rather than keep them inside. I considered throwing in the towel multiple times, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell Mike that I was done. I didn’t want to be a quitter, and more importantly I didn’t want to give up on myself. The voice in our heads is the absolute loudest, most consistent voice we’ll ever hear, and I practiced kindness and forgiveness when all I felt was defeat. Each stalk that I made, I told myself to approach like it was my very first opportunity. It really helped me not focus on the number of failures, but instead the fact that I had the opportunity to be there on a new adventure in the first place. THAT is a gift that I don’t take lightly.
We got back to camp the evening of August 18th, and Mike helped me sharpen broadheads and replace the couple of arrows that I lost. We talked about his failures in the field and how he’d been where I was multiple times before. He also said it won’t be the last time I’d feel this way, which is something Braxton always tells me. It’s so true - good and bad comes and goes - neither one lasts. The next morning, I packed up my bags and loaded them into the jeep, but decided to hunt one last time as we drove in the direction of the airport. I knew it would bother me if I didn’t take advantage of every second I could, even if it meant eating tag soup in the end. The morning started out rough when I sent 4 more arrows at lone bucks and missed every time. I immediately thought, “Wow, you really suck Jess. Just put the bow down already.” This brought my misses up to a total of 10. I had to force my fingers to type that out, by the way. Just for clarity, I said TEN. Ten freaking arrows.
I jumped back in the jeep and just told myself that it was ok to go home empty-handed, that it wasn’t meant to be. It’s not the norm for me to fill tags, contrary to what many believe. I hunt a lot and I’m successful very little because I’m too stubborn to pick up a gun and I’m simply not a professional archer. I’m just addicted to the challenge and I’m addicted to being better than yesterday. So while it’s not every day that I fill tags, it’s also not the norm for me to fail this much.
This is where bowhunting gets in your blood though:
We were cruising along and glassing when a young buck appeared in a flat field of sage brush. He was already alert, but I figured I had nothing to lose at this point. After struggling to shoot in the wind every time before this, I decided to try something new. I removed my quivalizer in hopes that I could hold the pin on him better if I was given an opportunity at all. Being the curious animals that they are, he began walking straight at me, never looking away. I couldn’t believe it! My heart began pounding, which surprised me because I had stayed fairly calm throughout my entire hunt until that moment. I was crouched low to the ground as Mike was ranging him next to me, “100 yards, 75 yards, 71 yards…he just stopped there….”
I dialed my sight to 71 and came to full draw. He was facing me - fully squared up - I could only see his chest. I found myself in a situation I never thought I’d be in, releasing a long distance arrow on an animal with only a frontal shot to work with. I always said I probably wouldn’t take that shot unless they were 20 yards or closer, but I also know that you have to go with your instinct. There have been times when I knew I could drill at 50 yards, and there have been times when I felt like I couldn’t pull off a 20 yard shot. Every opportunity is different. I pulled through my shot, heard my arrow connect, and watched him run 25 yards before coming to an abrupt stop. I knew he was hit but I couldn’t see his chest because he was quartered away from us, never even looking back. The shot felt good and Mike said he thought he saw blood coming out of his chest, but at this point I had experienced so much heartbreak that I didn’t let myself get excited yet. I backed out and came from another angle that would bring me closer to him to get a better look, when Mike turns to me and says, “He bedded down. I just watched him bed down.”
Several minutes passed (which felt like hours) and we watched him put his head on the ground. I nocked another arrow, slowly moving in a couple steps at at time until I could see his full body to make out where I needed to aim. One more arrow at 20 yards made him jump up, walk a few steps, and fall over. I couldn’t believe what I just saw. Tears came full speed as Mike and I threw our hands in the air and hugged while screaming some choice words. I did it! A dozen arrows later, I filled my first archery antelope tag - no decoy, no blind, no water holes, just pure spot & stalk - with just enough time to snap a handful of photos, quarter him up, take a quick shower at a truck stop 30 miles from the airport, then get on a plane back to Texas. It was a surreal experience, a true example of what it means to fight until the end when you feel like quitting, and the perfect way to start my 2019 archery season.
A Special Thank You
To the Kentner family for inviting me into your annual wall tent camp to chase these critters. You guys were so much fun to be around and welcomed me with open arms. I think the most refreshing part was seeing multiple generations of hunters in one camp, all with that common bond, and for the first time ever having more women in camp than men. That was pretty neat! Thank you to Mike for not giving up on me when I wanted to give up on myself. I couldn’t have done it without you!!!
Last but not least, a thank you to my husband for sending me daily messages that lifted me up and reminded me what hunting is about, and that I will come out better for this experience. You were right. You were so right! Love me some Braxton Byers, y’all!
Side note: I’d like to add that I absolutely love my Quivalizer and will continue to shoot with it on the majority of my adventures, regardless of this one hunt. There are way too many pros and this is the first time it has been a problem for me. I genuinely love the product. This particular experience just pushes me to find a solution for taking it off temporarily - maybe hanging it on my hip? I have a couple of ideas in mind and will be sure to follow up when I find something that works for me. I’m not sponsored by the company and I’m not obligated to use it whatsoever. I feel the need to say that because people often assume otherwise. I’m just not willing to quit using it when I utilize the features so often.