Antelope Hunting: A Practical Primer
The white undersides of the antelope comprising the small herd on the sagebrush covered slope shown with a radiant intensity in the rays of the early morning sun as it changed the desert landscape from cold, dull, gray to a warm, soft panorama of shimmering gold. There aren't many sights more awesome than a clear sky sunrise over a high country desert. When you add a herd of pronghorn antelope with a gorgeous buck sporting tall, glistening, black horns, to the whole panorama, the first morning of hunting season, it just doesn't get better than that.
My hunting partners and I spent two hours glassing the pronghorns and hoping another group of hunters didn't blow the situation for us by driving over the ridge and spooking the group. Finally the pronghorns bedded down at the base of the steep slope. A bit more glassing and scoping the area to pinpoint landmarks and plan my approach route and we backed off the ridge where we were parked and drove a long circuitous route to get behind the bedded antelope without spooking them. There was lots of hunter traffic in the area but the bedded antelope were completely out of sight from the roads so it was unlikely they'd be spotted by other hunters. Almost like they planned it that way!
My partners dropped me off at the base of the ridge behind where the pronghorns were bedded. They returned to our original lookout point to glass the action and be in position to keep track of the pronghorns if I blew the stalk. The stiff prairie breeze was rolling over the top of the ridge and blowing in my face as I crawled the last few yards to the top of the ridge. I eased up beside a yucca bush to break my outline and peered over the drop-off hoping fervently that nothing had spooked the pronghorns or they hadn't decided to seek another bedding location.
They were right where we last glassed them with the buck bedded on the upper edge of the group 25 yards closer to me. The buck was bedded broadside 150 yards below me scanning the broad valley below, completely unaware of danger from above. I slid my Ruger No. 1, 6mm Remington into position, and studied the buck through the Nikon scope. Satisfied he was a superb specimen, I centered the crosshairs slightly below the center of the buck's back behind the shoulders and increased the pressure on the trigger. At the sharp bark of the 6mm the buck jerked a couple times and then lay still without ever making it to his feet. My first Colorado pronghorn.
Pronghorn antelope are probably the most dazzling of North American big game animals, with their distinct brown and white coloration accented by black cheek patches and glossy black horns. The pronghorn is unique to the world and North America and is the only big game species that sheds it's out horn sheath each fall. The pronghorn is not an antelope but a member of the goat family because of it's lack of dew claws on the front feet. A pronghorn can attain speeds of 70 mph and cruise at 30 mph for long distances. Their eyesight is phenomenal and compares to a human using 8X binoculars. Living in open, windy, semi-arid country, pronghorns depend mainly on their acute eyesight to warn them of danger but their is nothing wrong with their hearing or sense of smell and a careless hunter that doesn't keep the wind in his favor isn't going to get close to a pronghorn.
Wyoming is the top antelope producing state and issues around 70,000 total antelope licenses each fall followed by Montana with 29,000 licenses and Colorado at 13,000 licenses. Almost all pronghorns licenses are issued on a drawing basis with the exception of a few states that still sell archery only licenses across the counter.
Wyoming is the leader in the production of the most record book pronghorns for both Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young Club's record books but Arizona and New Mexico have been consistently producing some outstanding trophy bucks the last few years and Arizona has produced the World Record pronghorn listed in Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young. The reason for Arizona's success in producing BIG pronghorns is the very limited amount of licenses that have been issued on a "drawing only" basis for a number of years. I've had bowhunters in my camp that had applied every year for 8 or 9 years without drawing a single Arizona antelope archery license. New Mexico is also producing some real "boomer" bucks for bow and gun hunters for the same reason and much of the best antelope hunting in New Mexico is on huge private ranches where they are doing some intensive trophy management for antelope.
Rifle hunting for trophy antelope can be a wild and wooly venture and many hunters don't realize the full potential of their hunt because they get caught up in the frenzy of the hunt by trying to compete with other hunters in the area. Upwards of 90% of the season's antelope kill are taken on the FIRST DAY! The openness of the country and unlimited visibility allow the hunters to keep antelope in sight and keep them moving until they finally get into position for a shot.
If you're serious about a trophy pronghorn do your scouting prior to the season making constant use of the best quality binoculars and spotting scope you can afford to help you locate a suitable buck from a distance. Once you locate and judge a buck to determine he's the one you want, stay with him until you get some idea of his feeding, traveling and watering patterns. Antelope do not move at night like most other big game animals so if you can locate a good buck the day before opening and stay with him until he beds down at dark, chances are he'll be in the same spot at daylight the following morning.
The first buck I ever took with a rifle was in northwestern South Dakota where the ranch owner and I spotted the buck and his harem of does feeding in an alfalfa field in the late evening. We observed the pronghorns until they bedded down just before full dark. The following morning I crawled into the center of the field using the numerous bales for cover. When it got light the buck was still bedded in the same place only this time I was within 100 yards of him. When he stood up to start feeding I dropped him in his tracks. A simple but effective method for scoring on a trophy buck. Sure beats chasing them around with a vehicle depending on pure luck to give you a shot at a good buck.
Another effective method of tagging the buck of your choice is to pattern him before the season and locate an area where he waters with some regularity. Pronghorns will usually stay bedded until just before first light and then rise and start feeding. Depending on the temperature and dryness in the area, pronghorns will usually generally head for their favorite waterhole sometime during the morning making such a place an ideal ambush spot. Patience is the key to getting a good buck by ambushing them at a waterhole during the firearms season. Let the rest of the hunters chase them around and get them all hot and bothered ready to slake their thirst at the first opportunity. Chances are every antelope in a given section will hit the nearest waterhole several times during the activity created by the hunting pressure. I've taken several good bucks with a bow and arrow during the gun season by using just such tactics and have never failed to have plenty of activity.
Phil Phillips, well known antelope outfitter operates in the northwestern corner of Colorado on a huge private ranch where the "ranching for wildlife" program guarantees him a set number of pronghorn permits without having to draw for them. Phil concentrates most of his guiding efforts on bowhunters but does take a limited number of rifle hunters each fall. His favorite gun hunting method is to set a hunter in a blind overlooking several watering areas. Rarely do his gun hunters set through the day without getting a chance at a "boomer" buck as he tries to sneak in for a quick drink.
Pronghorn hunting on the open prairie is generally a long range situation where the accuracy and flat trajectory of your firearm of choice are extremely important. Any rifle of .24 caliber or larger with a 100 grain bullet is capable of making clean, kills on pronghorn when put in the boiler room. My all time favorite pronghorn rifles are a 6mm Remington shooting a 100 grain bullet and a .270 utilizing a 130 grain bullet. Both of these rifles have 3- 9X variable Nikon scopes on them and I always utilize a sturdy Harris bipod even when trying to ambush them at close range. I would much rather be patient and wait for a standing shot at 300 yards with a rest, than take a running shot at 100 yards. The characteristic of pronghorns to roar of in a dust raising, burst of speed for 200 or 300 yards, where they feel safe, given their keen eyesight and great speed, and then wheel around to further assess their danger, makes them ideal targets for hunters toting a long range rifle and scope combination. These seemingly easy adversaries often cause steady hunters to lose sight of their pronghorn hunt as a quality hunting experience and turn it into a "slam, bam", chasing and shooting fiasco!
Regardless of what method you employ during the pronghorn firearms season PATIENCE is your best weapon. Don't get caught up in the hunting frenzy exhibited by most pronghorn gun hunters and get careless in your hunting techniques. Keep your calm and utilize the same smart hunting strategies you employ in hunting whitetails, elk or other big game species.
Hunting these speedsters with a bow and arrow has to be one of the most exhilarating and adrenaline generating bowhunting ventures available today and anybody that hasn't given antelope bowhunting a go is missing out, big time!
Wyoming once again leads the pack in producing record class bucks for bowhunters and during the last two year measuring period for the Pope & Young record book, Wyoming produced 222 record book animals with Colorado at 136 and Montana with 65. For the all time totals listed in the record book Wyoming is far ahead with 1830 record book pronghorns while Colorado has produced 717 and Montana 358.
Fifty percent or more of the pronghorns are taken from stands or blinds of some sort, usually blinds overlooking an active waterhole. Stalking accounts for a little over 30% of the pronghorns killed, while decoys and calling produce the balance of the bow kills.
Pit blinds situated on waterholes are by far the most popular and effective method of bowhunting pronghorns and a shovel and pickaxe are your most effective weapons. A pit blind can be employed in areas totally devoid of cover if properly constructed and places. It's always easily to spot a beginner's pit cause they are usually to small with most of the cover at the front of the pit rather than as background. I want my pitblinds comfortable and take the time needed to do them right. I usually dig them 3' deep, 6' long and 3' front to back with a ledge type seat dug along the back side. I utilize sagebrush or tumbleweeds for cover and quite often use 4' sections of 3/8" rebar spaced around the perimeter of the pit with baling wire strung between them to hold the covering in place during the normal windy conditions. In low or nonexistent cover I'll dig a deeper pit and try to keep the brush covering as low as possible. I want the blind high enough so a bowhunter's bow stays below the top of the brush or weeds. Quite often I'll cover the top of the blind with camo net or tumbleweeds to keep the shooting in darkness and make him impossible to spot from the outside. Keep in mind the pronghorn's keen sense of smell when locating your pit. Quite often if a herd of pronghorns wind a hidden hunter they will circle the area until they can't smell him any longer and after a period of settling down, move to water from the upwind direction. An out of smell and sight, out of mind, thought process unique to these prairie dwellers. Keep this in mind when placing your blind on a waterhole take advantage of this characteristic. The last couple of years I've utilized pop-up blinds on waterholes with excellent results as long as the covering doesn't flap or slap in the wind. Closeup pronghorns won't take much of this. Utilizing this type of hide is much quicker and easier than digging a pit blind but for maximum effectiveness you should put the blind in place several days before you plan to hunt, letting the pronghorns get accustomed to it. Phil Phillips makes use of semi-permanent box blinds on many of his waterholes with excellent results on pronghorns. Windmills overlooking waterholes are also an excellent place from which to ambush an unsuspecting pronghorn. There aren't a lot of trees in pronghorn country so they have little sense of danger from high places. If you try to use a windmill for your blind make dang sure you lock the blades and tail of the windmill in place so a gust of wind doesn't swing it around and knock you into space.
Spot and stalk bowhunting for pronghorns is probably the epitome of the bowhunting
challenge. Not only do you have to defeat your adversary's phenomenal eyesight, sharp sense of smell and more than adequate hearing, you'll have to defeat their incredible speed and unparalleled quickness. I've had many clients that were ardent whitetail hunters tell me they thought a whitetail was quick at jumping the string, until they encountered pronghorns. I've watched a number of antelope with their head down browsing, jump the string on recurves and compounds alike and then turn and watch the arrow fly by. Even with an ultra-fast compound there is no way you're going to get an arrow into a pronghorn that is looking your way. Their eyesight and reaction time are just to fast so make sure your target has it's head down or turned before you take the shot. . All these attributes make stalking pronghorns the supreme bowhunting challenge. Add these endowments to the open, sparsely vegetated countryside they call home and you have your work cut out for you. Every fall when I was running my antelope camp, I'd get a few bowhunters that didn't want to take advantage of the pronghorns by hunting out of a blind and wanted to challenge them on their own ground. After a few days of trying to stalk them in their uncompromising habitat these bowhunters were usually glad to sit in a pit blind and ambush their buck.
Pronghorns are as exciting as they are beautiful and whether you hunt them with a rifle, a bow, handgun or muzzleloader, there's no way you can have an unsuccessful hunt. With proper planning, patience, perseverence and a little luck you just might encounter the most action filled and enjoyable hunting experience of your career.