We watched for several minutes as the buck raked his horns against the bush. He snorted and thrashed and was obviously in full rut mode. He would occasionally step back for a break then walk stiff legged toward the bush again, waving his head back and forth before launching his renewed assault.
From a distance it can be difficult to tell the difference between an average antelope buck and a true trophy. But we were very close - less than 30 yards, so it was clear to see this was not the buck we wanted. The buck was so addled by his raging hormones that he ignored our approach even though he had to know we were there.
We were hunting in western Wyoming and the pronghorn antelope rut was in full swing. Many hunters are not aware that during their breeding season pronghorns exhibit rutting behavior similar to more familiar ungulates like elk and deer. They fight with other males for the attention of females, they grunt and snort and they use scent cues. They make scrapes. They gather harems of does.
The antelope buck mentioned above was working over a bush in much the same way as antlered animals do. The rubbing serves a dual purpose: it leaves a scent marker for other antelope and it helps prepare them for the pushing and sparring that takes place with other bucks. Also like deer, elk and moose, during the rut the males are so focused on breeding that they lose much of the natural wariness that protects them most of the year.
In spring and early summer, it is common to see several pronghorn bucks hanging out together without any does or fawns in sight. After the breeding season, antelope gather together into large herds with a mixture of bucks and does. But during the rut if two bucks come in contact a pushing match will usually ensue.
Pronghorn antelope buck group
Antelope begin their pre-rut preparations as early as mid-August. As the rut nears, the bucks split apart and begin hanging out around the groups of does. Most of the breeding activity is over by early October. As with many other game animals, weather can impact rutting activity. Cool weather can get the pronghorn rut off to an early start. Last season early heavy snows in much of Wyoming abruptly prematurely ended typical rut behavior.
During the rut a single dominant buck will collect a harem of does. He often keeps them near a mound or hill that provides him with a good vantage point. He will stand in such a location for hours and he will drive off any other buck that approaches.
Pronghorn antelope does and fawns
It is common to see other bucks staying nearby trying to steal away a doe that wanders too far from the others. During this portion of the rut, the dominant buck will run himself ragged trying to keep the does together and to drive off potential rivals. The buck will not leave the does during this time - a trait that can make him more vulnerable to hunters.
A few years ago I had a tag for a doe antelope. It was an agricultural area where antelope were overly abundant and feeding heavily on irrigated crop fields. It was late August and the rut was just beginning. I found a group of does in a large alfalfa field. I dropped the doe near the edge of the field and the others quickly disappeared, but not the tending buck. The doe I killed must have been in full estrus, because even after she was dead, the buck refused to leave.
I didn't have a buck tag and this one wasn't big enough for me anyway. He stayed about 75 yards away during the entire field dressing process. Every now and again he would make a bleating sound or a snort. He finally ran off, but only after we hauled the dead doe over to the waiting truck.
Pronghorns have keen eyesight and a reputation for fleeing from hunters while still several hundred yards away. Antelope hang out in groups as a safety check against predators; the more eyes watching for danger the better. But breeding bucks can be so focused on keeping their harems together that they ignore their usual instinct to flee.
The need to keep control of his females proved to be a fatal flaw for one nice buck I killed two seasons past. We spotted some antelope from the road on a distant hill and there was a buck that deserved a closer look. The rangefinder showed about 800 yards. We hid our approach in a small ravine. We reached the top of a hill opposite from the antelope and carefully eased up until we could see them.
The hilltop was barren and although I was on my belly trying to stay hidden, a couple of the does that were with the buck spotted my movement. They were acting nervous and tried to leave. The buck had not seen me and when the does tried to flee, he ran out and herded them back to the group like a cowboy rounding up a straying calf. This gave me the time I needed to get set up and to verify that the buck was big enough that I did not want to pass. A single shot at 267 yards dropped him in his tracks.
Hunters can use the rutting urge to their advantage by employing an antelope decoy. Hiding behind a silhouette decoy of another antelope will sometimes allow a hunter to stalk within shooting range of a rutting buck. Other times a lovesick buck will be so curious that he will actually run toward the decoy presenting a better target. This can be particularly effective for archers who need to get within bow range of a normally wary buck.
Another plus of hunting during the rut is that bucks are standing all day long-either tending does or chasing away other bucks. This makes them readily visible. Normally during the middle of the day antelope will bed down in the sage or grass, making them almost impossible to see for much of the day. Rutting bucks are active even during the hottest part of the day. My best antelope buck was killed when the sun was high in the sky and the temperature was about 75 degrees-nice weather for the high plains in September.
Small bunches of antelope are widely scattered during this season. Covering lots of ground by vehicle and looking over as many antelope as possible is an effective technique for locating big bucks. It is also the only method used by many hunters. So in areas that get lots of hunting pressure, bug bucks don't live long if they hang out in places where they can be readily seen from the road.
I like to concentrate my efforts in non-traditional spots-places that have more hills and vegetation than typical antelope habitat. These areas afford cover that makes it easier for big bucks to hide from hunters who stay strictly on the roads. Then I keep a close watch for any antelope-even does and fawns. During breeding season any group of does and fawns is likely to have a buck close by.
During the rut, any buck by itself deserves a close look. Usually these are younger bucks that have been chased away by the dominant males. But occasionally one of these loner bucks turns out to be an older buck past his prime that can no longer compete for the attention of females.
One year after three days of looking over dozens of bucks I tagged out with a very nice pronghorn. On the drive home less than an hour later I saw a much bigger buck by himself standing in high sage not far from a water source. There were no other antelope near. He was obviously an old buck with ragged coat and scarred face. His horns were not much longer than average, but the mass was amazing. Fortunately for him, my hunt was over.
Antelope are my favorite big game quarry for a number of reasons. And given the chance I will also pick the rut as the preferred time to hunt them. No other season offers as much excitement along with an opportunity to hunt a great trophy.
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.