Bowhunting The All-American Pronghorn

What are friends for? Big Kelly selfied us at midday while I took my afternoon siesta waiting for something to happen.

When you spend countless hours sweltering in a ground blind, the mind tends to wander. After the first few hours you go into siege mode, and it’s easy to start thinking weird thoughts. You know, stuff like, why is it that the closer to the horizon the moon gets it appears larger, but the closer to the horizon a ball gets, the smaller it looks? Or, how did the Vikings, in those little ships with no charts, no GPS, no maps, no tide tables, crappy food and not enough fresh water, successfully and safely navigate the North Sea using only the stars, but I can’t find my keys? Things like that.

On a hot day in August 2017, Big Kelly Lee and I were roasting, and we were bored to tears. Kelly is a friend and cameraman for Scott and Angie Denny, a pair who has owned and operated Wyoming-based Table Mountain Outfitters for more than two decades. Big K and I had hunkered down in a ground blind over a little water source at dawn near Douglas, Wyoming hoping to get a shot at a good pronghorn buck and make an episode of the Denny’s cable TV show, THE LIFE at Table Mountain.

Hunting like this is a little different than sitting in a blind or treestand in pursuit of deer, elk or even some African game, in that these other species all tend to move best early and late in the day, with little action expected during the heat of midday. Pronghorn? They’re morning and evening animals, too, but they tend to wander around the prairie at all hours during hot weather — especially to get a quick drink. You’re just as likely to get a shot over a waterhole at midday as you are at sunrise or sunset.

Pronghorn water almost daily in hot weather – one reason setting blinds over water sources is such an effective tactic.

And so, you sit and wait, and this was a slow day. All we had were a couple of small groups of does and young ones come through along with an old, nearly-emaciated buck that had thin horns and his ribs sticking out. After 12 hours of sweltering inside the pop-up blind in 95-degree heat, we got our chance. A lone buck topped a rise a mile away and headed for us at a trot. He came to the water, dropped his head, took a quick drink, then started to walk off again for who knows where. Luckily his path was right in front of the blind at 35 steps and my broadhead took him through both lungs. Just like that, it was over.

In our camp of eight bowhunters, six were done on day one, the others a day later. That’s not unusual when hunting with a quality outfit on private land when hunting from blinds over water or a high-quality food source.

The Magnificent Pronghorn

I’ve been pursuing pronghorn with both firearms and bows since the 1970’s, and it is truly one of the hunting trips I love most. And while I’ve done lots of gun hunting, it is bowhunting Antilocapra americana that really intrigues me.

First, a question. Why do people call them “antelope?” Even the Wyoming hunting regulation booklet refers to them as “pronghorn antelope.” Pronghorn, however, 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 even are their own scientific genus. They are also the second fastest land mammal in the world — only the cheetah is faster — able to attain speeds of nearly 60 mph over short distances and able to hold half that speed for miles. They have adapted physically for this, with long limbs, lightweight bones, a small digestive tract to use less energy during locomotion, and large tracheae, lungs and heart for rapid intake of oxygen and increased rate and power of circulation. They have pointed double hooves, with cartilaginous padding to cushion shock when running over hard ground and rocks, with the front hooves larger than the back ones that carry most of the weight while animal is running.

During the rut when bucks are chasing hard, using a decoy can draw one in close enough for a bow shot.

Historically, pronghorn have ranged from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan south to northern Mexico, and from the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast of Texas in the east to California and Oregon in the west. Today, the highest populations are found in Wyoming and Montana. They are found primarily in shrub lands, Mediterranean-type shrubby vegetation, grassland and temperate desert — though deserts support less than one percent of the population — and are associated most frequently with treeless, flat terrain and short-grass prairies. They are also found in steppe-like terrain with vegetation ranging 5 to 30 inches in height. Animals have been found from near sea level to 11,000 feet elevation, but most live in elevations ranging between 3,000 and 8,000 feet.

Both sexes have horns. Male horns range from 10 to 20 inches in length, though anything measuring more than 16 inches is considered exceptional. Female horns rarely exceed four inches. The horns are fully developed by three years of age and are coal black and composed of a permanent, bony interior knob covered by a keratinous sheath that is shed annually like antlers. The typical horn is lyre shaped, curving back and slightly inward near conical tips, each with one broad, short prong that juts forward and slightly upward approximately halfway from the base.

The pronghorn relies primarily on its keen sense of sight for defense. They have large protruding eyes that appear to be located on the side of the head but are oriented forward enough to allow limited binocular vision. They have the largest eyes of any North American ungulate in relation to body size; each eyeball is about 1.5 inches in diameter. They have nearly a 300-degree arc of vision without moving head or eyes and can easily detect movement up to four miles away.

Bowhunting Pronghorn

Never forget the prairies and deserts that pronghorn love are home to some nasty snakes.

It is this amazing vision that makes stalking within bow range of pronghorn so difficult. I arrowed my first pronghorn in the early 1980’s in western Montana on a spot-and-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.

That initial bow hunt taught me that spot-and-stalk hunting is a very low percentage game. To even have a chance you have to select broken terrain with enough folds and cuts along with sagebrush, tall cactus or other flora that provides some cover to hide behind. Trying to stalk pronghorn of flat tablelands with little brush is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster — it simply ain’t gonna happen. Even in the best of conditions — and just because they can see like they have Superman’s x-ray vision don’t think they won’t smell you, because they will, so make sure the wind is right — you’ll blow more stalks than ones in which you’ll end up with a quality shot.

Also, stalkers should be prepared to shoot at extended distances, which most archers truthfully cannot. I have a good friend in Colorado who killed a buck in 2017 at 72 yards after a successful stalk, but that young man shoots almost every day and can make that kind of shot pretty much every time. Most bowhunters cannot.

Blind hunters must practice drawing and shooting from a chair, and should expect shots ranging from point blank to 50 yards, depending on conditions.

For that reason, the best way to bowhunt pronghorn is to employ something that wasn’t around when I started hunting them way back when — the popup ground blind. Properly-employed ground blinds will hide you in the shadows, allowing you to draw and shoot unseen at a calm animal that’s ideally stationary and broadside with its head down drinking. I like to set my blinds so my shot is somewhere between 20 and 40 yards, so before hunting I do a lot of practice shooting out to 50 yards from the same chair I’ll be sitting in while in the blind.

Unlike whitetails, pronghorn don’t seem terrified by a popup blind that’s been erected near a favorite water source a day or two before you hunt it. Still, I prefer to scout water sources early using scouting cameras and/or glassing from afar, setting a blind up on water that’s being used frequently by a buck I want, then give it a few days before hunting it if I have that kind of time. Outfitters will have this done when you come to camp if you choose to hunt the guided route.

Gearing Up For Guided Hunting

Low-profile mechanical broadheads such as the Rage 100 are the ticket for pronghorn hunting.

All good outfitters will provide you with a list of essential gear to bring. If you’re going to be hunting from a ground blind in hot weather, there are some little things that will make your hunt more comfortable. When driving, I also bring my own blind chair since I’m used to shooting from it and I know it’s in A-1 condition.

On my 2017 hunt, I used a Mathews Halon 32, Carbon Express Maxima Red SD arrows, Nocturnal nocks, Spot-Hogg Hogg-It bow sight, 100-grain Rage Trypan broadheads, Scott Archery Blitz release, Leupold RX-650 laser rangefinder and excellent camo clothing from Pnuma Outdoors.

Robb shot his 2017 buck on day one after 12 long hours in a ground blind. On his last hunt like this, it took 40 hours of sitting before he got his shot.

On spot-and-stalk hunts, two things I never leave home without are sunblock and camouflage that will completely cover every inch of my body — especially hands and shiny face. If I’m flying, I will pack my bow, arrows, broadheads and accessories in a soft bow case inside a hard case along with whatever else I can cram in there, and my clothing in an ice chest with a duffel bag inside. That way I will have a way to bring my meat home as excess baggage — a cheaper option than having it processed and shipped later.–Bob Robb

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