The distinctly-American pronghorn is one of the modern conservation movement’s biggest success stories. Bowhunting them can be a real challenge.
Last August I found myself sweltering inside a pop-up blind in southern Wyoming, patiently waiting for a pronghorn buck to come to water. I had oodles of time to kill, and as I waited I thought about pronghorn, and pronghorn hunting, and what a wonderful game it is.
First off, why do people call them “antelope?” Pronghorn are not related to antelope, goats, or sheep, but instead are the sole remaining member of an ancient family dating back 20 million years. They are their own scientific genus, Antilocapra americana.
I made my first pronghorn hunt in the late 1970’s as a Californian who went to eastern Montana at the invitation of some friends who had family there. We hunted roughly between Jordan and Ft. Peck Reservoir, and made the trip every year for almost a decade. In those days, you could easily obtain a buck tag, and doe tags were so cheap they were almost free. I think you could get up to three of them then, but whatever it was I always did, as much for the delicious meat as the chance to keep hunting.
Not knowing much about hunting pronghorn except what I’d read–that you needed to shoot a long ways, which in later years I found to be mostly untrue–I had my rifle dialed in for sniper work, but ended up making a shot of about 75 yards on the buck as he herded his harem under the bottom strand of a barbed wire fence. I probably could have killed him with a rock.
I arrowed my first pronghorn in the early 1980’s in western Montana on a spot & stalk hunt where I tried all sorts of things to get a shot. I blew exactly nine different attempts before making it happen, but when it did, I crowed like the baddest rooster in the Madison River valley. I’ve been hooked on bowhunting them since.
I can’t tell you how many pronghorn, both bucks and does, I’ve shot since that time, or how many I’ve seen others take–but it’s been a lot. They’ve always been an animal that fascinated me, and early on I made it a point to read as much about what they are and how they lived as I did about how to hunt them.
To say pronghorn are fast is like saying Giselle Bundsen is hot, Clayton Kershaw throws heat, Hitler was a bad guy–a classic understatement. They are, in fact, the second fastest land animal in the world, surpassed only by the cheetah. Pronghorn have been clocked at 70 mph for up to four minutes at a time, and can cruise at 30 mph. They rely primarily on this blazing speed and their extremely acute eyesight as their first line of defense against predation. It took me a while to figure out that they also have a tremendous sense of smell, and will bugger off if you don’t play the wind. For years, I’d make a stalk, belly-crawl to the top of the rise where I was sure I could get a shot, only to find the animals long gone. “Wow!” I used to think, “howtheheck did they see me?” The answer is, they didn’t. A snootful of my B.O. was enough.
I have also learned that while the eyes are incredible–after opening day of gun season I’ve seen herds of pronghorn hit high gear at the sight of a pickup topping a rise two miles away–you can minimize their effectiveness. By wearing full camouflage–especially important are face masks or paint and gloves–and not moving around a lot after you poke your head over the rise, you minimize the chances of being seen. I like to cut a small sage brush bush and place it in front of my face as I belly-crawl as slow as a snake to the top of the hill before peeking over. I’ve done this many times and been able to watch bands of pronghorn for as long as I want at less than 100 yards.
The introduction of the high-quality pop-up blind changed the way bowhunters pursue pronghorn. Today most archers sit in a ground blind set 15 to 30 yards from a waterhole, and wait ’em out. In dry years in pronghorn country, this can be extremely effective. Sudden rains that create small water sources throughout the area, however, can doom this technique to failure. Such was the case back in 2006 when I was trying to film a TV show in New Mexico. It rained several inches in the two days prior to opening day, meaning there was no chance on earth we’d get a good animal from the blind. Five days later, I finally stalked and shot a nice buck on film, but it was a real grinder of a hunt.
When the animals are rutting, using a life-sized buck decoy can often bring a territorial buck on in a big rush. When it works, I have seen them come running as fast as they can from half-a-mile, stopping in a cloud of dust anywhere from 10 to 50 yards away and stare at the intruder. Your job, of course, is to draw while hidden behind the decoy, then rise over the top and let one fly before the buck turns himself inside out to escape.
To say that the shooter–usually you have a guide or buddy holding the decoy–often launches his arrows over, under, and all around the buck in the few brief moments he has to make it happen would be a gross understatement. Arrows can, and do, fly anywhere and everywhere!
Spot & stalk hunting is what I like to do, but it is really hard. First off, the terrain has to offer you concealment in the form of dips and depressions, hills and tall brush, and the like, or you’re doomed from the get-go. Generally, there are a lot of animals around, and if even the smallest yearling sees or smells you, the alarm is sounded and it’s all over. If that happens to you–and it will–keep in mind that while pronghorn take off in a blaze of tangled hooves and may seem to be racing randomly about the prairie, they often run in a big circle, not unlike a rabbit. If you happen to spook a herd and they race off out of sight, rather than take up a futile chase on foot, find a vantage point within range of where they just were, and wait a while before giving up the ghost.
Bowhunting equipment for this game is pretty straightforward. I like small-diameter carbon shafts tipped with low-profile mechanical broadheads launched at somewhere between 270-300 fps for both flat trajectory and their wind-bucking characteristics. A laser rangefinder is critical, as are a quality binocular and spotting scope. Kneepads and leather gloves help fend off the inevitable cactus thorns and other high-plains “gotchas” you’ll encounter crawling around. If you sit in a blind, you need a comfy chair, reading material and plenty of liquids. I bring an auxiliary power source for my phone like the Firecel.
If you’re looking for an old, trophy-class buck, often you need to look beyond the obvious. While most of the pronghorn might be easy to see in the wide open plains, the older bucks know the hunting game. Try hunting in areas that seem unlikely spots to hold pronghorn. I’ve found good bucks inside the tree line, high up in the thickly-brushed foothills, or along steep washes. Anymore, I start hunting areas that, at first glance, seem the least likeliest places to hold pronghorn.
Three days into my last pronghorn hunt a decent buck for the region came to drink an hour before dark. The buck was not the biggest I’d ever shot, but anymore that’s not the point for me. While Wyoming and Montana hold by far the largest overall numbers of animals, if I was looking for a really big buck I’d be hunting farther south, in New Mexico or, if I were lucky enough to pick a tag, Arizona or Nevada. Today, pronghorn hunting is all about fun and friendship. It’s the perfect hunt for an east-of-the-Mississippi River hunter with little western experience to cut their teeth on. At the same time, for someone who has decades of bowhunting experience under their belt, pronghorn hunting can still be a challenge.
And the meat is to die for.–Bob Robb