Cruising along the backroads of Montana, Lyle Hebel spots the outline of antelope, grazing deep within the sagebrush landscape. He’s about a mile away, but knows that getting close is a game of cat and mouse. Stopping his truck, he throws it in park, raising his binos so he can scan the herd to see if one is stalkable. He smiles and motions for his 10-year-old son, Archie, to take a look: it’s time to close the distance between them and this buck on foot.
To Hebel, antelope hunting is a rite of passage. For him, that happened at 19 when he traded his rifle for bow and arrow to hunt speed goats in his home state of Montana. For his kids, that happens when they turn five years old and get to go on their first antelope hunt with him. Hebel’s middle child, Luke, now 7, has two years under his belt; his daughter, Hailey, turns five this year and cannot wait to get out there.
“It’s a great way to introduce somebody that age—or really any age—to the sport of hunting,” says Hebel, who has been hunting antelope for over a decade now. “The sheer challenge of it, how good an antelope’s eyesight is, the terrain they’re in—which makes it difficult to sneak in on them—it’s a pretty unique experience.”
Growing up in Sheridan, Wyoming, Hebel’s introduction to hunting was one of full immersion. His family worked the land as ranchers and hunters with Hebel a synonymous part of the process, helping fill the freezer with elk and mule deer, learning the nuances of the land from kith and kin.
“All of my family members were hunters,” says Hebel. “I think in a lot of ways it just came naturally that I would be a hunter, too. Getting gear ready, learning about conservation and all the other factors associated with it came very naturally and felt very right.”
Yet, it took a chance encounter during college with a fellow employee to switch his focus from rifle to archery. Hebel, who was working for his uncle while completing his graphic arts degree at Montana State University in Bozeman, met Jesse Nelson, an archery rep also working for his uncle. Hebel credits Nelson with teaching him the ins and outs of what it took to harvest an animal with a compound bow. That fall, he arrowed his first mule deer.
“From that day on, I was hooked,” says Hebel. “While I still do a fair amount of rifle hunting, given the choice, I’d rather have bow in hand.”
Hebel’s long-time hunting buddy, Tony Larsen, picked up a bow around the same time.
“He was there on the first antelope hunt and has been present at 85 to 90% of all the animals I've ever harvested,” says Hebel. “We’ve had a lot of success together and we both really got into bowhunting at that same time.”
Since then, the thrill of each shared hunt has created memories to last a lifetime, especially when chasing Hebel’s current quarry: antelope—an animal he finds rewarding to pursue, especially after spending the winter honing his form and technique, e-scouting online and evaluating his gear in anticipation of Aug. 15: opening day for antelope in Montana and Wyoming.
“We take the time to practice the craft of archery to ensure when we go out there and do get that opportunity, we make a quick harvest so that the animal doesn’t suffer,” says Hebel, who notes that he prefers keeping his kill range at 60 yards or less.
Hebel’s learning curve is minimal after all of his years hunting speed goats, he knows what to expect for the most part after studying—and hunting—antelope for years.
“They’re pretty territorial, herd to herd, antelope to antelope,” says Hebel. “There’s a lot of ways to approach antelope hunting. I don’t have the stamina or patience to sit over water and wait all day. I prefer a spot and stalk on the prairie.”
This means lots of glassing, trying to get a read on a herd, which can be miles away at times, and dealing with sweltering heat. “It’s kind of like a chess match. You need to figure out how to get into bow range and, sometimes, my move is no move and I wait for an opportunity.”
Yet, glassing and searching for antelope by truck, traveling backroads that merge public land with private, waiting for that perfect opportunity to arise, means more time to chat with your hunting buddy or absorb backcountry beauty.
“Antelope are typically doing something all day so you get a lot more opportunities, which makes it a lot of fun, especially if you bring the kids along,” says Hebel. “Even on a hunt, we always take time to catch frogs or horny toads, to give them that experience and show them that there’s a larger ecosystem out there that they can explore.”
At 10, Archie has already been on a handful of hunts, but this one is special: it’s Hebel’s 20th antelope harvest. While Larsen kept tabs on the antelope buck through his binos, Hebel and Archie started to make their stalk.
“We worked together and tried to move at the same time,” says Hebel, who patiently answered his son’s questions—even during the stalk. “Sometimes, he would stand up and do things he shouldn’t be doing and the antelope would run off, but that’s part of that whole experience of teaching somebody who doesn’t really understand the tactics of hunting what it takes to go out and hunt.”
For Hebel, teaching his kids how to stalk antelope, work with the winds and thermals and, essentially, become great antelope hunters sets them up to be good elk and deer hunters, too. While this harvest may have been his 20th antelope, Hebel acknowledges that hunting is much more than just the kill.
“It’s not about the number, but the experience we’re able to pass on,” says Hebel. “It goes beyond the act of hunting. It teaches good ethics, gun safety and gun laws, where your food comes from. You’re just more in tune if you’re a hunter.”