PRONGHORN: UNDER-RATED PRIZE

We’d seen a few small bucks, nothing to get excited about and then a seeming giant crossed the road in front of us, tall and heavy with exceptional prongs. He trotted up a little rise and vanished over the skyline just 150 yards from us.

I climbed out while my buddies went on, waited a bit and then I started a long circle to the west. Over the ridge the terrain was much the same, a series of gentle valleys without much cover, no trees but low brush and tall yuccas in the bottoms. There were no vantage points to glass from, so I went slowly, keeping low as I crossed the tops. I was pretty sure the buck hadn’t been badly spooked and if I could spot him without being spotted, I thought I had a pretty good chance.

It took a while; he’d gone farther than I expected (don’t they always?), but I caught him in a low spot, going behind some yuccas and hustled into low ground. When I saw him again, he’d reversed, apparently circling back like pronghorns often do.

Now I had some cover, the wind was good and he was working his way toward me. There was nothing in sight that would serve for a rest, but if he kept coming he’d pass well within range. I crawled into the lee of a big, spiky yucca. Prone would be too low, so I got into a crossed-leg sitting position, undid my rear sling swivel and tightened the sling high on my supporting arm.

The buck was moving slowly, just the occasional flash of white through brush and between yuccas, but he was coming. I relaxed as best I could and waited him out. I figured he was about 250 yards when he stepped from behind one last yucca. When he paused the trigger broke and he went straight down He was my best pronghorn, maybe not the longest, but definitely the heaviest and for sure my most memorable stalk on these sharp-eyed prairie speedsters.

BACK TO THE BEGINNING

The pronghorn antelope is one of my all-time favorite game animals. We all like to go back to our beginnings. Most American hunters of my generation started with deer. However, I grew up in a Kansas with no modern deer season, so the pronghorn was my first big-game animal. Dad and I had no real clue what we were doing, but we drew Wyoming tags, drove to Gillette before the season opener and knocked on doors until we found a friendly rancher who would let us hunt. Amazingly, Dad and I both took pretty nice bucks.

More importantly, we had a great time. And we were struck by the beauty of the high plains in early fall, crisp mornings with a hint of sage in the air. Uh, we did not exactly take the first pronghorns we shot at! In years to come we did better, but we saw lots of pronghorns, had plenty of chances and eventually came through.

That, too, is part of pronghorn hunting. You will see many, you will have opportunities and you will probably be successful. Perhaps you won’t get a monster, but any mature buck is a gorgeous creature, with built-in 10X binoculars for eyes and speed suited to wide-open habitat.

That big one was taken in West Texas, but over the years I’ve also hunted them in Arizona, Colorado, Montana and New Mexico. I don’t go every year, but pursuing pronghorns is a hunt I look forward to and miss when it’s been too long!

THE AMERICAN ANTELOPE

The pronghorn is a unique North American animal: Antilocapra americana, one genus, one species. The Latin name suggests an “antelope/goat.” We call them by both names, but neither is correct. The pronghorn has no close relatives anywhere in the world. Closest, surprisingly, are the giraffe and okapi! Our pronghorn is the last survivor of a Pleistocene family, Antilocapridae, which once had three genera and a dozen species in North America.

The pronghorn is often cited as the second-fastest animal after the cheetah, attaining 55 miles per hour for short distances. Over the long haul, a pronghorn will pull away from any cheetah. Hooves are cushioned for shock absorption and the bone structure, though light for speed, has some of the highest tensile strength in the animal kingdom. Windpipe, lungs and heart are extra-large for increased oxygen intake. Eye sockets are set wide and high, giving the pronghorn near 360-degree vision. Pronghorns are built to use keen vision and speed to avoid predators.

The horns are unique in the animal kingdom. A bony core is covered by a keratin sheath, which is a bit like the giraffe. Except: The sheath is shed and regrown annually, always with one forward-pointing “prong” about halfway up. There is nothing else like this anywhere in the world, although there could have been among its Pleistocene cousins.

The pronghorn seems to get minimal respect as a game animal. It’s true that its buff-and-white coat is highly visible in its treeless habitat. It’s also true that, thanks to good management, pronghorns are fairly plentiful where hunted today. A pronghorn hunt is not expensive and usually takes just a few days. Success is never assured and depends a whole lot on how picky you are. With pronghorns, it also depends on how well you shoot. However, pronghorn hunting is, on average, more successful than most North American pursuits.

I see nothing wrong with any of this. Is there an inherent problem with an enjoyable hunt that won’t break your body or bank account and will probably be successful? If you’re a little bit picky and take a buck of mounting quality, then you’ll have a handsome, colorful and uniquely American addition to your den.

WORK FAST

You will also have some of the world’s very best wild meat. You may have heard comments like: “Too strong, too much sage,” or even “not fit for a dog.” These can be true, but it depends more on you than the animal. The secret to good pronghorn meat is to work fast. The pronghorn’s hair is hollow for insulation, sheds easily and is usually coated with sage. For best meat quality, the pronghorn needs to be dressed and skinned quickly, keeping as much of the fragile hair as possible from touching the carcass.

Pronghorn bucks shed their horns in November. Most seasons are held in early fall, when it can be very warm. Warm weather always makes proper meat care difficult, and with pronghorns it’s critical. You simply cannot field-dress a pronghorn, put it in the back of the pickup, continue the hunt for several hours, and expect to have good meat, especially when it’s warm. Take your pictures, field-dress quickly, then take time to skin and cool the meat down immediately. In warm weather, take coolers with you and bone in the field as needed.

Dad and I didn’t know this and our first pronghorns were, well, very strong and full of sage. We learned. Early settlers learned, too. As the wagon trains moved west, the pronghorn was often rated the best venison of all.

DEMOCRACY OF HUNTING

In those days, pronghorns roamed the plains in millions. Perhaps their meat was too good, because by 1910 the pronghorn’s extinction was widely predicted. Fortunately, last-minute measures saved the pronghorn and most native North American species. Our North American Model of wildlife conservation worked and still does. Among its tenets is “democracy of hunting” meaning that law-abiding hunters have equal access to our wildlife resources.

The pronghorn antelope stands as a symbol of successful conservation…and it embodies democracy of hunting. In 1920 the population was estimated at 13,000 and falling. Pronghorns suffer during hard winters. Predators, especially coyotes, can take a heavy toll of fawns and there are periodic disease outbreaks. So modern populations fluctuate, but in good years a million pronghorns roam the plains and in very bad years, more than a half-million.

Throughout my lifetime pronghorn tags have been allocated by public drawing, which is “democracy of hunting” in action. In some areas, there are also landowner tags and Indian Reservation permits. For the latter, you pay more for enhanced opportunity, but this is free enterprise in action. It’s no secret that some areas produce larger pronghorns, usually due to some mixture of limited access, better habitat and better genetics. It might take years to draw a permit in a known trophy area. However, there are many areas throughout the West where drawing a pronghorn tag is almost a sure thing.

I suppose I’ve drawn a couple dozen Wyoming tags, also several in Colorado and Montana, without a rejection, applying in areas where the odds were good. I’ve also used private land permits in New Mexico and Texas; there are choices.

With tag in hand, there are more choices. Outfitted pronghorn hunts are usually short, inexpensive and highly successful. But there are millions of acres of public land where pronghorns roam. I wouldn’t go so far as to say an outfitter isn’t necessary. It’s more a matter of how much research you’re willing to do and how much time you want to spend.

It’s not wise to do as Dad and I did in the ‘60s, driving into pronghorn country with absolutely no plan. But there is plenty of public land available and also plenty of private land where pronghorns roam. Some private land is inaccessible, some is leased to outfitters and much is available with prior arrangement. Any way you do it, it isn’t necessary to spend an arm and a leg but it is essential to have a plan.

An important advantage to an outfitted hunt is that you can expect a place to hunt that has been scouted. Many pronghorn seasons are very short, sometimes as little as two days. In the pronghorn’s wide-open country, opening day is a game-changer. For DIY pronghorn hunting, three hunting days is probably enough, but plan for two or three days to scout before the season.

Scout gently, with good optics. A funny thing about pronghorns, their high plains and sagebrush flats look much the same to you and me, but not to them. Pronghorns are very territorial. If you see a good-looking buck in a certain area you will probably see him there again. You can start planning stalks while scouting. A spooked buck may make a very large circle, but if not pressed, he is likely to wind up exactly where you bumped him, perhaps a few hours later, perhaps the next day.

PERFECT FOR PRONGHORN

Long-range shooting is the legend of pronghorn hunting. For sure you can see them at great distances and with the equipment we have today you can reach out and touch them, if you have the skill and can read the read. However, I don’t like extreme-range shots at pronghorns. Pound for pound, pronghorns are extremely tough and I’ve seen poorly-hit bucks escape across property boundaries. The pronghorn offers a small target and calm days are rare on the plains. Wind and the ability to read wind, is a major issue.

It’s wind, not range, that has changed my opinion on what’s “perfect for pronghorn.” I started with a .243 and soon shifted to a .264 Winchester Magnum. Both are fine, but a pronghorn buck weighs just 100 pounds, so it’s difficult to justify any magnum cartridge. For some years I envisioned the .25-06 as the “perfect pronghorn cartridge.” It’s a great choice but, over time, I realized that the 6mms and .25s fall off quickly in wind.

Sure, I’ve taken pronghorns with various 7mm and .30-calibers. They work. The 6.5mms also work well, but the popular 6.5mm Creedmoor and similar 6.5mms aren’t fast enough to resist wind. My old .264 was actually a pretty good choice, and the new 6.5mm PRC would be great, but I still don’t think you need a magnum cartridge for pronghorn. So, color me old-fashioned, I think the good old .270 Winchester is perfect for pronghorns!

A few years ago. I was hunting in Wyoming with high school classmate Rex Morgan, one of those blustery High Plains days where a logging chain would hang out straight. We got onto an okay buck in a little valley, straight crosswind at freeway speed. I was shooting a .270 and the shot was just 200 yards. With the buck facing left and a right-to-left wind, I held on the hip and hit behind the shoulder. At that short distance and that hold I’d have been “on the money” with many cartridges, but could I have taken a longer shot? I think not!

READ THE GROUND

Regardless of conditions, I’ve rarely found extreme-range shots necessary. The ground usually isn’t as flat as it looks. There are hidden folds and furrows and for me that’s the real fun of pronghorn hunting. Reading the ground and figuring out how to get reasonably close. It isn’t necessary to close to 50 yards, but also usually not necessary to set up at 600.

I have no idea how many pronghorns I’ve taken in the last 55 years, but quite a few. My average and the shot I expect, is probably around 200 yards. Much closer is often a surprise. Once, up in Montana, I was hunting with an XP-100 pistol in 7mm-08. I was working down a coulee when, unknown to me, a buck decided to come up the coulee at the same time. We had a meeting engagement at 25 yards, a blur of tan and white in the scope! Primarily a rifle hunter, I neither need nor seek a shot that close.

Most of the time, by reading the ground and doing whatever belly-crawling is needed (through prickly cacti, and hoping the prairie rattlers aren’t out), I’ve been able to close to “better not miss in front of witnesses” range. Pronghorns look bigger than they are and the biggest challenge is getting solidly steady. This is a situation where I often use a bipod, preferably with legs that extend enough to allow shooting from kneeling or sitting. A backpack is also useful; sage bushes are usually stout enough to put a pack over. Absent bipod or pack you have to get creative, like I did on that big Texas pronghorn.

The most difficult shot I ever made on a pronghorn was at very medium distance on a very average buck. He was coming down a bare ridge with a deep cut below. I got low and hustled into the arroyo. Two-thirds down, I figured I should get a shot, but how to get steady?

I spied an abandoned fence post (don’t count on this!) and made my way to it. Perfect! The buck was just 150 yards away. Shooting a Remington .30-06, I fired when the buck turned broadside. That was the winning shot for the 1982 Lander One-Shot Antelope Hunt. Team-mates Dave Petzal (Field & Stream) and Bill Quimby, long-time Editor of this magazine, had already taken their pronghorns. Ties are decided by time and in that year, unusually, three teams went three-for-three. I didn’t know what the other teams were up to, but I knew Dave and Bill had taken their pronghorns with one shot apiece, so I couldn’t miss! With the clock ticking, never have I felt such pressure or been so nervous. Most shots at pronghorns are technically more difficult, but that was the one time when I knew I had to come through.–Craig Boddington

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