Pronghorn: The Perfect Beginners' Big Game Animal
Imagine you were given the assignment of designing a perfect big game hunt for novice hunters. Your objective would be to make the hunt fun and exciting so the new hunter would come away with a lifelong love of hunting and the outdoors. It would be great if the hunt had some exotic appeal, something a little out of the ordinary so the new hunter wants to keep coming back for more. A high probability of success would be essential. No matter their age, beginning hunters don't want to wait several years to harvest an animal.
You'd probably want to eliminate most late season hunts. Dragging beginning hunters out into cold, wet, or snowy weather in pursuit of any animal carries high risk of disappointment. When someone is soaked and freezing it is hard to appreciate that it is the peak of the rut and you are holding out for a whopper.
Stand hunting probably isn't a great choice, unless it is an area crawling with game. Few things are more boring that sitting for hours, hoping that an animal will appear. That's especially true if you stick a first-time hunter alone in a tree stand and tell him you'll be back to pick him up in three or four hours. If an animal doesn't appear in the first few minutes, those hours are going to seem to take an eternity.
Forget about a wilderness hunt or one where you must backpack or camp in a tent. For someone not experienced in the outdoors, camping by itself can be stressful and frightening. I have a friend who introduced his brother to hunting by taking him on a backcountry elk hunt on horses. It snowed four feet the first night and the younger brother was convinced they would never make it out alive. In five days they did not see an elk and the brother has never gone on another hunt.
Chances are, no matter what criteria you defined for this perfect beginners' big game hunt, pronghorn antelope would rise to the top of the list.
The only real drawback of hunting pronghorns is that they are limited to the western third of the United States. But they still range over many states and populations have increased to the point that they are a nuisance in many areas.
Here are some of the factors, traits and behaviors that make pronghorn antelope a great choice as a first big game animal for beginning hunters:
Highly visible - Pronghorns prefer open country so they can see any approaching danger a long ways off. This also makes it possible for hunters to see them from long distances. Unlike other animals whose coloration blends in with the surroundings, pronghorns have a white rump patch that tends to stand out like a pimple on a prom date.
In wide open country even hunters with minimal experience in spotting game have little trouble picking out herds of antelope. My two-year-old granddaughter came along on an early fall ranch hunt for pronghorns this year. She had no trouble spotting them in the alfalfa fields several hundred yards away.
Spot and stalk - The fact that they are easy to see means the best hunting method is glassing large areas-generally from a vehicle. Antelope country tends to be flat with plenty of dirt roads. Once a herd is spotted, plans can be made for a stalk to bring the hunter within rifle range.
While hunting antelope can require long-range shots, in most cases it is possible to restrict shots to whatever distance is comfortable for the hunter. Most of the antelope killed by members of my family have been less than 200 yards away and many have been under 100.
Hunt friendly behaviors - Antelope have a high level of curiosity. In areas where hunting pressure is light, they respond quite well to decoys. Although their keen eyesight allows them to see things at great distances, if they don't recognize an object as a threat, they often ignore it or even walk toward it. Crawling on hands and knees while holding a leafy branch in front can sometimes get a hunter quite close.
During the rut, pronghorn bucks are just as stupid as the males of most species under similar conditions. They will seldom leave a hot doe no matter the circumstances. One year I had a late doe permit. Antelope in the area were spooky because they'd been hunted for weeks. After blowing stalks on several herds, I killed a nice doe with a 250+ yard shot (my longest ever on a speedgoat). The other does in the group took off, but a nice buck that was with the group stayed within about 75 yards as three of us began dressing the doe. He moved closer as we worked and by the time we finished, he was within handgun or bow range. Luckily for him, no one had a buck tag.
High population density - In areas where they are found, pronghorns are generally abundant. It is often possible to see many small herds in a single day of hunting. Unlike many other types of hunting where a good opportunity comes along once or twice a season, pronghorn areas often offer several good chances in a single day.
Trophy quality - The difference in horn length between an average antelope and an exceptional trophy is only three or four inches. Solid, representative bucks are easy to find and it takes an experienced hunter to tell a great buck from a good buck. In good pronghorn country, it is not uncommon to see a dozen decent bucks in a day of hunting.
Although their keen eyesight means blown stalks are common, that usually isn't a problem because chances are another good buck is just over the next hill. In comparing it to whitetail hunting, imagine if most of the bucks spotted were 120 to 150-class eight pointers. Now imagine seeing several in that size range each day.
Wide distribution - Although restricted to the western third of the U.S. Pronghorn antelope are widely dispersed across that area. They stretch from the Great Plains to the Pacific states and from Texas to Canada. While tags can be hard to draw in some states, there are areas in Wyoming and Montana where leftover tags are available almost every year. Other states offer easy-to-obtain depredation tags for antelope in agricultural areas.
Civilized hunting - Beginning hunters can get discouraged if they are cold, wet, or left alone on a stand for long periods. Most antelope hunts occur in September or early October when weather conditions are still quite mild.
As noted previously, much of the scouting can be done from a vehicle. If an overnight stay is required, a low-priced hotel in a small rural town is usually available nearby. While some hunters might still prefer to camp, it usually offers no strategic advantage.
Antelope also tend to be active throughout the day. There is no need to worry about being in position long before daylight. A 9 a.m. start is likely to be just as productive as 6 a.m.
I appreciate the flat terrain preferred by antelope. Worn knees and ankles make it hard for me to hunt the steeper terrain preferred by mule deer and elk. But pronghorns are polite enough to spend their lives on level ground where I can chase them without risking a heart attack or a broken leg.
No magnums needed - Because of their relatively small size, light caliber, low-recoil rifles work well for antelope. Beginners or small-stature hunters don't need to deal with the punishment of magnum rifles. Calibers like .243, 6 mm, 25-06, or 270 are perfect.
Easy field care - Once down, antelope are a cinch to handle. A big buck will weigh about 130 pounds live weight, making it fairly easy to dress and load even for a lone hunter.
Warm weather meat care is almost always a consideration on antelope hunts. I'm convinced that many hunters have bad experiences with antelope meat because they treat an early September pronghorn kill the same as a November deer. I usually carry a cooler with three or four blocks of ice. Once the antelope is gutted, I pack the body cavity with ice and keep it that way until I get it to a processor later that day. If I process it myself, I skip the traditional aging process and butcher it immediately.
Low cost exotic - Compared to other Western big game like elk or mule deer, antelope hunts are a bargain. A Wyoming non-resident youth buck tag for my son this past season cost $122. Non-resident doe tags were available for just $41, and in some areas, hunters could purchase multiple tags. Most hunts last just a day or two, further reducing costs.
There is also little reason to spend money for a guide. There are plenty of places where antelope are available and easy to find on public land. Even with the high cost of gasoline, most people in the U.S. could enjoy a do-it-yourself antelope hunt for under $1,000 with everything included. Those who live in the West can probably cut the cost to about $500 or so.
High hunter success - The combination of all these factors leads to very high hunter success rates. In many units, rates have been at or near 100% for years.
If you know a beginning hunter that you want to get hooked for life, or if you are an avid hunter who has never pursued pronghorns, you really ought to give antelope hunting a try. There is no other animal in the world like a pronghorn and hunting them is a uniquely pleasurable experience.
Flint Stephens pays his mortgage by writing about investment markets, but his real passions are fishing and hunting. Stephens grew up pursuing fish and wildlife in Ohio, but while attending college in Utah, he fell in love with the mountains, deserts and a girl from Moab. After several years as a journalist in Illinois, the draw of mountain adventures brought them back to central Utah in 1986. Stephens enjoys horses, freelance writing and photography. He spends his spare time making certain his children and grandchildren are completely addicted to outdoor pursuits.