Antelope Hunting - Start to Finish
You've heard about pronghorn hunting and can't wait to try it! Truth is, you're not sure where to begin. Here's the skinny on tagging an antelope.
Nearly a century ago antelope meat sustained many prairie dwelling settlers. A relatively accessible game animal, they were a vulnerable species. Overharvest and, for lack of a better term, mismanagement devastated populations. Over the latter half of the 20th century and now into the new millennium, wildlife management authorities have realized the importance of controlled hunting. Bouncing back in most prairie grassland biomes across North America, hunters continue to enjoy the sporting opportunity afforded by the fastest ungulate on our continent.
Acquiring a Tag
Antelope tags can be tough to get. Available over the counter only to archery hunters in limited jurisdictions (i.e., Montana), most are only accessible through state or province-run limited entry draws. Having taken a few over the years with a bow, I was fortunate enough to draw a coveted Alberta rifle permit in September of 2004. Following five consecutive years of entries, my name was finally pulled. But that was just the beginning. To capitalize on all that antelope hunting has to offer, the work started there.
Antelope are nomadic by nature. Yes, they have a territory and the same family groups can often be seen in a given area. But make no mistake that doesn't necessarily mean they're easy to hunt. Proper planning and preparation can make your experience much more enjoyable.
If you're booking a hunt with an outfitter, they've hopefully covered this legwork. If you're on a self-guided hunt, then take heed.
Acquiring maps is a first priority. County maps will give you an idea of who owns what land. Topographic maps can be helpful, but much of the landscape is the same in antelope country - gently rolling plains as far as the eye can see.
Then comes the access issue. As prairie-dwelling ungulates, antelope can roam across great distances. They perpetually graze and can often be seen at watering holes. In many states and provinces vast tracts of land are owned by a single farmer. In fact in Alberta where I took my most recent buck, a single family controls several townships. Secure permission from any of these landowners and you're well on your way to tagging your buck.
Phone calls or in-person visits over a cup of coffee can go a long way in helping you gather background information on the antelope numbers, what kind of bucks the farmer has seen on his land, what the trophy potential is, and so on.
Generally when a hunter draws a tag, the state or province dictates season dates. Whenever possible, I like to hunt as close to the rut as possible. Across the northern habitats the rut general peaks between September 20th and 25th. For archers, this is a great time to be in the field. Decoying can be magical when bowhunting, but it not recommended and in fact may not even be allowed in different jurisdictions during gun seasons. With this in mind, when I apply for a rifle antelope permit, I try my best to get the dates closest to the rut. This last fall, I hunted Sept. 27th - October 1st. As a result, I caught the tail end of the rut. My wife and I actually watched my buck servicing does. Obviously a dominant buck, he had a harem of 23 females and was mounting receptive does at every opportunity!
Sounds simple, right? Well rest assured it took some doing to get to that point. First we had to find the antelope and that required both strategy and the necessary equipment. Several attempts to move in close failed as the antelope continued to move. But finally, after following the herd in among some rolling hills, my opportunity finally came. As I crested a knoll, the entire herd bolted and trotted broadside to me. Instinctively slamming the legs of my bipod to the ground I quickly located the buck in the crosshairs of my Leupold scope. They were only 80 yards out, but the stability of a bipod made the shot textbook. Screened by several other animals, the dominant herd buck eventually stopped in the clear. Touching off a round, I watched as he dropped and the does all sped off to safer ground.
Locating & Identifying Antelope
Finding antelope usually involves either of two strategies; one is reactive and the other proactive. If you prefer having game come to you, then sitting at a waterhole is a proven method. Residing in an arid windswept environment, antelope are known to frequently visit the same waterholes. Most common are manmade dugouts used by farmers for watering their cattle. By digging a pit or constructing a ground blind from sage and/or other natural materials you can literally make yourself disappear into the landscape. Alternatively, companies like Gametracker manufacture quality commercial blinds camouflaged to blend in well with natural landscapes. This is a favored strategy employed by many bow hunters.
If you're like me, you can't stand waiting around. Preferring the proactive approach, the next best option is to go out and find the antelope. Bottom line - put yourself in the heart of prime habitat and you'll eventually find pronghorns. A typical day antelope hunting almost always begins at a good vantage point. With no shortage of flat landscape, most grassland habitats have some degree of rolling structure. Either by truck or on foot, moving to the highest point to begin your search is a proven strategy.
Then comes the necessity to employ the best optics available to you. A good binocular (e.g., Nikon 10x42) and a spotting scope (e.g., Bushnell 16-48x adjustable magnification with a 60 mm objective lens) are imperative. Just spotting antelope can be difficult enough, but identifying the trophy status of a buck can be a challenge even with quality optics. Most of us only get the chance to hunt antelope a few times in our lives. Unlike whitetailed deer, pronghorns can be tough to field score. To a neophyte antelope hunter, just about any buck can look appealing. Studying antelope mounts and photos prior to your trip can go a long way in avoiding the commonly encountered problem of ground shrink.
Remember, when it comes to a true trophy, the ideal is to find a buck with good length, substantial prongs, and in my opinion a buck that curls in and has some ivory on the tips of the horn. Many hunters strive for the 17-inch ideal. A good buck has 12-inch horns. A very respectable buck is a 14-incher. Anything over 15 inches is considered great. Add mass and character, i.e., non-typical traits and you've got yourself a true trophy. As a point of interest, the Pope & Young minimum Record Book score is 67 inches. Boone & Crockett's minimum eligibility score is 82 inches.
Getting Close & Making the Shot
Once you've located your buck of choice, its time to begin your stalk. When I'm bowhunting, I almost always use a decoy and a call. Lohman Game Calls sells an exceptional call that emulates a challenge vocalization. This call has been very effective in the past. The key to decoying is to move in undetected, to under 200 yards before exposing the decoy. It generally works best in the pre- and peak-rut periods. By erecting the decoy, imitating aggressive posturing and blowing on that challenge call, most bucks can't resist the challenge. I've arrowed numerous bucks using this strategy on previous hunts. The most aggressive response I had was a mature trophy antelope that ran to within 4 yards of me in attempt to scare the perceived intruder off. The closest shot I've made to bring down a buck was 18 yards.
As far as the stalk itself goes, it's often a matter of common sense. When possible, use the wind to your advantage. Approaching into the wind, use whatever topography is available. Remember, antelope have outstanding eyesight. It is one of their most keen defense mechanisms. Let them see you and you may as well pack your bags and go home. That said, once in a while antelope will allow a hunter to approach within a tolerance distance. More the exception than the rule, I've had bucks stand stalwart at 100 yards seemingly oblivious to the threat. Alternatively, particularly in areas that get a lot of hunting pressure, most will take off for safer ground at the first sight of a human.
Stalking to within range, shot opportunities can vary greatly. Long distance shots are not uncommon when hunting antelope, but do your homework and you can often crawl within 100 to 200 yards. In my opinion, a bipod is an essential piece of equipment. High winds are common in prairie grassland regions. Stabilizing your rifle is an absolute must in order to make the shot count. And when it comes to your gun of choice, a flat shooting firearm such as a 7 mm Rem Mag is a good choice. Some hunters prefer a smaller caliber rifle for this slight prairie dweller, but I favour the reliability of long-range accuracy. Most important is accuracy and your ability to put the shot in the boiler room when the moment of truth presents itself.
One of the advantages with antelope is their anatomically inherent aiming point. If you look at an antelope standing broadside, there is a distinct right angle marked behind the shoulder. As if hunters spray-painted it themselves, the 90-degree line separating the brown hair from the white is a great aiming point. Center your crosshairs in the corner of that right angle and you're well on your way to a successful shot.
After the shot, game care is important. Most antelope hunts occur in mild temperatures. For this reason, meat should be properly cared for from start to finish. Antelope, more than any other big game animal I know of, have a wild taste. Whenever possible, eviscerate, skin and de-bone the meat at your earliest convenience. A practical solution is to bring a cooler with ice packs. Antelope are small and you'll typically end up with a similar amount of meat that you'd get from a whitetail doe. Easy to pack and easy to cool down quickly, field care is straightforward but critical.
Pronghorn hunting is something every big game enthusiast should experience. From the wide-open grasslands they call home to their unique defense mechanisms, antelope present hunters with an appealing set of challenges seldom seen with other big game species. From securing a tag to planning your trip, getting out in the field, locating bucks and closing the deal, antelope hunting is an experience unto itself. If you've never tried it before, its time you started planning your own pronghorn adventure.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.