Field Judging Pronghorns
Pronghorn antelope can be difficult to judge on the hoof. I was reminded of this on a recent antelope hunt in Wyoming. Three younger bucks and one mature buck mingled with the group of a dozen does near a waterhole. My wife, Heather, and I had looked at so many that we were beginning to question our judgement... they were all beginning to look similar. I had to force myself to carefully analyze subtle features.
"Is that a 13 or a 14 inch antelope?" I asked myself. Secretly hoping for the elusive 15 inch or better buck, we continued our search. Off to the left we glimpsed a handsome buck. He was reasonably wide, had good prongs, appeared to be heavy, and his horns lay forward. A handsome trophy indeed, try as we might, we couldn't make his horns grow more than 12 inches in height. And so, our quest continued.
Sunrise, on the first day, had found us entering the Cole Creek Sheep Company Ranch at prime time. To shoot a buck in Wyoming isn't the problem; they are abundant. The hunt is about locating a sizable specimen, and that can require a trained eye to help accurately field judge trophy quality. After the first couple hours and the usual discussions about what to look for and how best to judge them, we spotted a nice buck as we crested a hill.
Our guide, Kelly Glause, of Cole Creek Outfitters is a seasoned antelope hunter and knew what to look for. Right off the bat, he advised us to look for height, mass, width, deep prongs, curled tips, and ivory tips if they're visible. If we could find one with non-typical characteristics, that might be desirable as well.
"You should try a stalk," I urged my Heather. "It's great practice. No pressure to shoot. Do the stalk, get him in your crosshairs and if you like what you see, well, you be the judge."
Reluctant at first, she finally agreed. In no time Kelly and Heather were scurrying across the prairie and I straggled behind. Fumbling to turn on my camera, I was hoping to capture some good action photos when suddenly things accelerated. Before I knew it, Heather had her Harris bipod in place and shouldered her rifle. At 250 yards the 160 grain Winchester Accubond hit its mark! As we approached, the reason became obvious. Her buck had heavy horns, measured just under 14 inches in height, and we taped him at 74 inches B&C - certainly a fine trophy in anyone's books.
The balance of the day was invested covering ground and evaluating what appeared to be an endless supply of pronghorns. I've taken several in my home province of Alberta but I've never managed to take anything over 76 inches. In Wyoming I learned that while monster bucks exist in that state, i.e., those measuring over 16 inches in height and scoring over 85 inches B&C, they are few and far between. Genetically speaking, I'm told a really big buck in the region we were hunting has horns measuring between 14 and 15 inches in length. The elusive 17-incher is rare indeed. But height isn't everything. What Wyoming pronghorns have is mass! With that information in hand I revised my goals for the next day.
Day two was a repeat in weather conditions; a cold morning with mixed sun and cloud. By mid-morning we'd scanned several hundred antelope. Finally locating a fine buck, his horns laid forward and out to the sides. Certainly a unique specimen, I'd have been pleased to take him. As luck would have it, the stalk didn't work out. In the end that was a blessing in disguise.
Those hills proved to be an oasis for hundreds more antelope. Now on foot, Kelly, Heather and I wandered through the undulating landscape in hopes of finding another shooter. Ridge after ridge we hiked, every few minutes stopping to assess countless bucks and more does than you can imagine. We carefully evaluated each for those requisite attributes of height, mass, prongs, and curled tips. Then it happened. As we sat high up on a rocky knoll we noticed a big mature buck mingling with a large harem almost a mile down the valley. In no time the sneak was on. Problem was this buck was bedded far out on a flat making the approach difficult. Even at that great distance, field judging him was straightforward. His mass alone suggested he was a shooter. Thankfully a nearby gulch offered invaluable cover. Even though it didn't lead directly to the herd, it would sure enough allow us to parallel them and get without a few hundred yards. Eventually we crept over the bank. Easing over the edge, we quickly saw does through the tall grass. With my bipod down, I scanned the horizon.
"There he is," whispered Kelly, "off to the right, he's bedded down. I've got him ranged at 260 yards. He's unmistakeable, just look at how heavy his horns are."
Several does were working their way toward us and a couple subordinate bucks lingered in my field of view. Within a few minutes the buck stood and stretched. Screened by several does, I had no shot. Even at that distance, there was little question that he was an impressive trophy. In my mind he'd score somewhere in the mid-70's, but Kelly assured me he was bigger. Then, with only seconds to shoot, just as he quartered everything felt right. My TC 7mm Rem Mag barked and the buck lurched forward. Two steps later he toppled.
"Congratulations Kev, he's a good one," exclaimed Kelly! "You'll be pleased with him."
Heather hugged me and agreed with Kelly. I have to say as we approached there was no ground shrinkage at all. In fact he was bigger than I'd estimated. Kelly taped him at 80 inches B&C. When he told me the score, the first thought that came to mind is again how difficult pronghorns are to judge on the hoof. Very typical, his horns were thick, indeed he had deep prongs, good curls, and there was even a bit of ivory on the tips!
What to Look For
I've now had the good fortune to take many different antelope, some small, most medium-sized, and even a few really good ones. Through it all, I've learned that, generally speaking, the same rule applies to antelope as it does to judging deer on the hoof. If it's got the "wow" factor, then it's probably a good one. If you have to think twice, it may not be a high-scoring animal. You'll know if it's small. You'll surely know if it's big, but those medium-sized animals can give the hunter a run for his money. That said there are a few benchmarks and distinct characteristics to watch for as you assess trophy potential.
Ask any antelope hunting guide how they field judge pronghorns and most will offer the ears as a starting point. It is commonly accepted that the ears on a buck stand roughly six inches in height. Simply put, if the horns are twice the height of the ears, he's probably at least a 12-inch buck. From there on, estimating height is a careful exercise in precise judgment. To some extent, a minimal curl can make calculations easier but that most often doesn't help the bottom line score.
Consider the curls themselves. Evaluate symmetry and the amount of curl. Wide, swooping curls will add inches; tight curls less so. Remember, no two antelope are identical; similar perhaps, but never the same. Some tips are relatively straight, others have a slight curl , and still others will curl a great deal. The bigger the curl, the more gross inches will be added to the end score. Depending on the spread between left and right horn, sometimes the tips will curl in and nearly touch each other. If they do this, bottom line score may not matter - a trophy of this nature is extremely sought-after.
Spread is just another feature that adds to the overall aesthetics of the pronghorn's headgear but doesn't count for overall score. It is a measurement noted on the score sheet but not included in the sum-total measurement. In my opinion, wider horns are always more appealing than those with a narrow spread. That said the feature that really does it for most antelope hunters is the depth of the prongs, or "cutters" as they are commonly referred to. The prongs are arguably one of the easier features to field judge. The longer the prongs, the more inches are added to the score.
With a little practice, overall mass can often be the deciding factor in adding valued inches to the end score. With four official circumference measurements included in tallying the record book eligibility score, mass is perhaps the most important factor dictating trophy quality.
Considering all of the aforementioned, is important, but very difficult to do unless you can truly get a good look from all angles. A buck may look spectacular from the side view, but then be abnormally narrow. It might score well, but it will then be up to you to decide if he's what you deem to be true trophy. Whenever possible, be sure to check out the head on, side, and rear view. If every one of those looks appealing, he's probably a keeper.
With the availability of the Internet, books and magazines, videos and television shows, we have plenty of opportunity to practice looking at, and field judging antelope on the hoof. Likewise, taking every opportunity available to analyze antelope mounts will always serve you well. Many large sporting goods stores like Cabela's, Bass Pro Shops, and Sportsman's Warehouse often have impressive taxidermy displays for public viewing.
In the end, no amount of practice can fill in for hands-on field experience. The more you hunt pronghorns, the better you'll become at judging them in the field.
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.