Sharp vision. Lightning quickness. Skittish nature. When you’re hunting an animal with these traits, you need to develop a gameplan to off-set them. Pronghorns play cleverly, and it pays to prepare for the unexpected when chasing such a crafty creature. Just in case the wind’s not right. Or it’s blowing too hard. Or the goats are moving too fast to intercept. Or the bucks are chasing does and won’t stay put. Or snow and rain makes conditions miserable for pronghorns and hunter alike.
To counter common problems you might encounter chasing pronghorns, I developed a pronghorn playbook.
Work to find a buck or band of pronghorns during the late afternoon. Watch them through dusk, memorizing the lay of the land and identifying a strategic spot, within rifle range of the animals, to return to. Take a GPS reading if needed. Wake up a half-hour earlier than you think you need to the next morning and walk (don’t drive) quietly to the “roosting” spot under the cover of darkness. Set up and wait for shooting light. The pronghorns will be where they were the previous night, or darn close. Take your shot.
Has someone told you that pronghorn hunting is civilized and that you can sleep in, hunt a few midday hours and then have supper at the diner back in town with the regulars? That’s wrong. Real pronghorn hunting is just like other big game hunting: The animals are more actively feeding and moving, hence visible and easier to find, early and late in the day.
Early, as the sun is coming up, pronghorns are less flighty than usual, so they can be more easily approached. During the evening, it always amazes me how I can find feeding, moving pronghorns that must have been bedded or tucked away in the folds of the land all day. Morning and evening, the wind is generally calmer and more predictable, making for better stalking. And you can use the low sun as cover at your back and in the prong?horns’ eyes.
All stalks aren’t perfect. Sometimes the animals figure out that something’s up and get nervous, but they don’t bolt. So I carry pronghorn calls while I stalk. The sounds can calm and hold the animals long enough for a shot and, in some cases, pull them closer. I carry an Antelope Talk call (E.L.K. Inc.) in my mouth to make the squeals, mews and barks of talking pronghorns.
During the rut, I’ll wear an Antelope Challenge call from Lohman around my neck to make buck grunts and challenges and try to lure the animals in, or at least put them at ease. Get a good tape and learn the sounds for both calls.
If your target pronghorn takes off for the next county, don’t despair. Pronghorns are homebodies. So try this the next time that you miss a shot or booger the animals: Find a convenient prairie wash, dip, boulder or other hidey hole, snuggle in and stay put. I call pronghorns “loopers” because within an hour or two, sometimes less, they will often loop around and rebound back to where they started. And there you wait!
Here’s another play for boogered pronghorns: Don’t give up! If you don’t have the patience to wait for the loopers, head in the direction that they went, sneaking and skulking and looking for them. Circle into the wind if it’s blowing, like the pronghorns will. They won’t go as far as you might think, before stopping and calming down again.
They’ll be alert, but are approachable if you plan another stalk carefully.
This is the perfect play for rifle season’s opening day or any time when hunting pressure has pronghorns on the move. Or, maybe the rut is on and the bucks are chasing does with a vengeance.
Now is the time to choose a pronghorn stand and wait for your buck.
The best stands: travel routes that you see pronghorns using. Good places include saddles or dips in ridges between drainages, points of higher land that project into the flats and corner fences where pronghorns might bunch up because of their reluctance to jump or duck barbed wire. Hide as well as you can, have your rifle at-the-ready to minimize movement and be still.
On a recent muzzleloader hunt, my friend, James Martin, shot a doe on the last morning using this play. He set up before first light near a fence crossing that we had seen the goats using consistently, and at 8 a.m., right on schedule, we heard one big “boom!”
Yes you can, while carrying a rifle, hunt pronghorns that are coming to water. In fact, this could be your best technique if the prong?horns are travelling willy-nilly about the prairie, because they will be thirsty and come to water more than usual. Pick a hiding spot on a route to the watering spot and wait for the thirsty runners to come in. They will be on the alert, so stay still. Today’s portable fabric blinds are great for this type of hunting; be sure to attach an orange flag for safety and to steer other hunters away.
Sometimes during the course of a hunt you’ll locate a group of does without a buck. Don’t give this group the short shrift. If it’s September or October, the bucks are interested in the ladies and might come calling. While you don’t have to follow the does constantly, it’s worth the effort to not scare them. Just let them be, and sneak in to check on them every once in awhile to see if a beau has joined them.
Sometimes you won’t be able to find a pronghorn in beautiful country where they’re supposed to be. Solution? Search the backcountry where no one else goes, using your feet to carry you into the rough badlands where the pickup and ATV hunters can’t travel. This country is accessible if you just walk a little, and it’s amazing how nobody takes the time to work into it and hunt! The pronghorns that you’ll find here, either up high or in the badlands mule deer country, will reward you with calmer dispositions: You can actually stalk them here … and the rough, broken terrain helps.
Learn what browsing prong?horns eat during the fall (shrubs like sage and bitterbrush, forbs and weeds, not grass) and when they eat (concentrated during the morning and evening), then hunt near the food sources. Especially good spots include natural dips, bowls and basins that catch a little more runoff water.
Often, during a dry fall, you can see the green in these spots. That’s where to go. Crop fields, too, especially green alfalfa and sprouting winter wheat, will draw the animals if you have private-ranch access.
Here’s an example of a hunt in which I encountered difficult conditions for chasing pronghorns:
We were closing in on the last day of the hunt. Wyoming’s late-September weather had turned sour, dropping rain the first day, a rain-snow mix the second. Not only was the weather horrible, but the pronghorns were extra spooky because of the wind and some recent hunting pressure. My brother, Chuck, and his namesake son had managed a couple of good bucks—we worked like heck for them—but times were tough for poor old me.
The third afternoon found us high on a windy ridge, following a buck and his harem. The snowflakes on one side of the ridge would, when they melted, flow to the Platte and the Missouri and on down to the Atlantic; on the other side, they’d remain in the great Red Desert Basin.
Then visibility went to zero. Snow accumulated to our boot-tops. We packed it in and slipped and skidded the truck five miles to find a sagging tent and buried camp. The wind was howling. It was 20 degrees and dropping fast. We threw the mess into the back of the truck and plodded 30 miles to town and a roadside motel for the night. But lying there in a warm bed, proud of my survival skills (saved by credit card plastic!) there was a gnawing in my stomach.
I had a tag to fill, and a day to do it. I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t going to gauge my worth as a human being on whether I shot an animal.
But I wanted to shoot a pronghorn fairly, on its turf, like I always play the game.
We awoke the next morning to a temperature of 10 degrees and 30 mph winds gusting upward from there. As we drove to our hunting grounds, I knew which play I was going to start with—”Visit the Does.” Over the past several days, a big group of buckless does had been hanging around a nice, protected basin, far from any road or trail. The rut was on. Surely a buck would find them. We trudged a mile and a half across the sage, first on our feet and then, near the last rise, on our knees, and finally slithered on our bellies through the new snow. The does were there.
And a buck, a good one, had claimed them. We rested a moment, breathing the cleanest air imaginable, then I came back up and nestled into the shooting sticks.
My first shot missed in the driving wind. The buck looked around, not knowing what was up. Quickly, I threw a new cartridge in the A-Bolt’s chamber, but the does were milling. When they cleared, I sent my second shot, held to the right against the wind, on its way. The buck collapsed in a heap on the sagebrush turf.
I fell asleep that night a happy hunter, and I dreamed about someday writing an article on techniques to use when the stalks aren’t working, the hunt isn’t going quite as planned and it’s time for a change in strategy. When I woke, a title appeared to me, “A Pronghorn Playbook.”