Thrill of the aantler gather in northwest Wyoming

Matt Clark, of Afton, Wyo., relieves his horse of two saddle bags full of elk antlers Thursday, May 1, 2014, after spending the night searching for sheds in the Bridger-Teton National Forest near Jackson, Wyo. (AP Photo / Jackson Hole News&Guide, Bradly J. Boner)

JACKSON — Don Hoard and his 16-year-old daughter Alex Howell were the first in line at the South Park Wildlife Habitat Management Area at 9 p.m. April 30.

After a few hours of listening to the radio and talking to visiting friend Shawn Hansel, they were ready when Wyoming Game and Fish Department coordinator Matt Miller opened the gates just shy of midnight. Miller was there making sure everyone was in check.

“People get pretty excited,” he said.

May 1 is the opening of winter range closures on U.S. Forest Service land and the day when the department lifts its prohibition on antler-gathering west of the Continental Divide.

“I did the other side for a long time and it was too much of a rat race,” Hoard said, talking about the midnight rush for antlers from the Gros Ventre Road north of Jackson. “Now we come to the local feedgrounds.”

The first year he went to South Park he found 20 antlers. That was a few years ago. He owns D and A Antler Buyers and uses the horns he finds or buys to make chandeliers for Wild West Designs.

Hoard has been first in line for the antler rush for the past few years. Business and pleasure keep him coming back. Antler buyers like him as well as amateur hunters take part in the annual tradition.

“It’s the thrill of the hunt,” Hoard said. “It’s like a big Easter egg hunt for adults.”

Once Miller swung open the gate the cars followed Hoard into the parking area. Once parked, people busted out of their vehicles and started running across the feedgrounds and into the forest.

“I like running around in the woods,” said Josh Metten, who was out antler hunting for his second time. “It’s a beautiful night for it.”

The sliver of a moon and the clear sky made the stars especially bright as headlamps bobbed through the recreation area.

After a couple of hours hunting, Hoard and his daughter returned to his truck to meet Hansel, of Farmington, New Mexico, with several horns.

“We did all right,” Hoard said to Hansel.

Together they had about a dozen by 2 a.m.

“Good work,” a stymied horn hunter said to Hoard.

“The work has just begun,” he replied.

At 7 a.m. on May 1, the line of cars parked on the Elk Refuge Road just outside the gate to Curtis Canyon was at least a mile long.

Those hunters opted to camp out for a few days for prime spots in the line. What they gave up for the initial access to the Bridger-Teton land adjacent to the refuge, where roughly 8,300 elk congregated this past winter, they made up for in the daylight.

First in line was Cody Steffler and friends, of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho. They’d been holding their spot for several days, he said. But the time waiting is worth it.

“We usually find something,” he said.

Rusty Sanderson, of Dubois, was ready to go before 6 a.m. with his Morgan horses, Sapphire and Can Do.

“We already found them through the spotting scope,” he said. “It’s if we can beat everybody to them.”

The horses are helpful for packing the antlers and for prolonged hunting time.

“If you’re on your feet you get tired,” Sanderson said. “These guys don’t get tired.”

He used the hunt as an antidote to cabin fever.

“It’s something to do,” he said. “It’s not about finding horns because I don’t care about finding any. I’d rather be on a horse on a mountainside than looking at cars.”

He planned on keeping any exotic horns and selling the rest to pay for gas.

No. 5 in line was John Dejong, who drove 1,600 miles from Michigan for his first Jackson Hole antler hunt.

“My goal is one antler, and I’m here for one month,” he said. “That’s pretty good. I’m just out for the experience.”

He planned to take any horns he discovered as souvenirs. If he found enough he might build a chandelier, he said.

Rick Prestwich, of Malad, Idaho, camped for two days to get his spot just a few behind Dejong. The event is an excuse to get outside, he said.

“It’s nice to find the horns, but it’s nice to get out and see the valley,” he said.

He was planning to stay the whole week to hunt for sheds. Prestwich thought the hunt needed a little more government intervention, however.

“I wish they had regulated it a little better,” he said.

He saw flashlights on the hill at midnight, he said. That meant people must have sneaked into the area before the starting time, because they could not have made it that far by midnight after the 6-mile-or-so trek from the Gros Ventre.

Game and Fish public information specialist Mark Gocke said he heard grumbling about the regulations.

“That’s how it is,” he said.

If people want to brave the darkness and the trek from the Gros Ventre, they get first dibs, Gocke said.

Right at 8 a.m. the long line of cars started the drive up the rough dirt road to the Flat Creek trailhead. While some were getting ready to start their day, others who had been out all night were waiting for rides in the small parking lot.

An exhausted Rusty Smith, of Preston, Idaho, had five antlers to show for his hours of searching.

“There are not many horns up here compared to the usual, so that made it a long, cold night,” he said. “All these poor suckers coming up here at 8 o’clock, there’s not many more.”

When people come in behind the initial swarm, chances aren’t as good, he said.

But still they tried. Dozens of cars streamed into the parking area. Passengers hung out of truck beds, ready to jump out the moment they arrived at the trailhead.

People hiked out with racks on their backpacks as others eagerly ran in.

Some headed down the hill to Flat Creek, while others headed up the mountain toward Sleeping Indian.

One man on crutches navigated through the rocky area to begin his search.

Not everyone was anxious for the antlers, though. Jackson residents Katie Epstein and Kate Ceronsky wanted to use the May 1 access to ski Sleeping Indian.

They knew the antler rush was happening but didn’t know it was going to be so crazy, Ceronsky said.

Unlike most hunters, the two women had a mellow morning, waking at 7:30 a.m. and getting their gear together before driving up the road. While they were out there they figured they would take advantage of the day.

“I hope I’m skiing down and in mid-turn pick up a shed,” Epstein said. “It is pretty thrilling. … It’s like buried treasure.”

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