Tag Tour

When the draw lets you down, it's time to grab your gear and hit the road for a DIY pronghorn pursuit.

For 20 years I’ve been in love with pronghorn hunting. The romance started with the smell of the sage and continued with the open landscapes, the time of year their hunted and, of course, the animals themselves. Nothing is quite so striking as a mature pronghorn buck with his black mask, curved horns, and tan and white coat.

I’ve pursued “speed goats” as far north as Alberta, Canada, and in Western states such as Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming. At times I’ll hunt as many as three states in one season, and I’ve hunted with guides, on my own, and with gun and with bow. And I usually guide a pronghorn hunt or two along the way, too.

During my pronghorn tours, I travel by plane or old truck, and sleep in tents, hotel rooms or crash on a friend’s couch. Like a starving rock star playing nightclubs for tips, I take my tour wherever a valid tag leads me. But last year I got skunked in the license draws. What to do? Not one to give up so easily, I bought two left-over pronghorn buck tags in Wyoming. The plan: a do-it-yourselfer in August with an old friend on middle-of-nowhere public land.

Next, I purchased a landowner permit for a hunt in Texas. Another DIY hunt, but this time on private ground during late September. Where else but Texas can you stalk pronghorn bucks in the shade of groaning, squeaking pump jacks with the scent of crude oil in the air?

TOUR STOP: WYOMING
My good friend, Jared Mason, is as obsessed with pronghorns as me. He did the hard work for us because he lives near the hunt area. He talked to a local biologist and a game warden for hints on waterhole locations in the unit, and he bought the maps, drove the back roads and scouted from the truck. Eventually, he set ground blinds and scouting cams at cattle troughs and ponds on public land. Water was in short supply, and considering the drought in Wyoming and the August heat, hunting water was sure to be effective.

Due to a lost duffel bag courtesy of the airlines, my hunt got a late start. But by noon on August 20, we were in the middle of nowhere, changing clothes at Jared’s camper. Then we headed for the blinds. The temperature was 80 degrees and the ground was dusty and parched.

I sat from 12:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. and saw one small pronghorn buck at my water tank; it was a slow afternoon. Maybe the gut pile complete with circling crows not 100 yards from my blind was to blame? Remember, this was public land, and we weren’t the only ones in the area; someone had scored on opening weekend.

On day No. 2 I switched blinds, moving 1½ miles from the first setup. It was an old tractor tire converted to a holding tank. From there, a pipe let the excess water run into a small pond. And the dam of the pond had a leak, sending water trickling downhill into a muddy mess in knee-high sagebrush. Most of the tracks and pictures from the scouting cam showed that pronghorns preferred watering in the muddy runoff in the sage.

We called that spot the Coyote Blind because of the numerous dogs on the scouting cam pics. I was nestled in the pop-up blind by 6 a.m.

Pronghorns can water at any time of day, so we try to sit all day to increase our chances. In August that means 14 hours of daylight; it ain’t for wimps. Go prepared with a cooler full of water bottles, sports drinks, fruit, chips and jerky. On an average hot day, I know from past hunts that 64 ounces of water and 32 ounces of sports drinks are about what I need to stay hydrated. A couple of magazines, a book, journal and camera go in the blind, too. Binocular, rangefinder and a comfortable chair are equally important.

The first pronghorns to appear—six does and three small bucks—came in at 6:30 a.m. It was a steady flow, one or two, sometimes seven at a time until 11 a.m. That’s when I spied big horns on the horizon.

The lone buck’s black horns sliced through the blue Wyoming sky like a shark fin breaking the water’s surface. Just the buck’s antenna-like horns were visible above the sage-covered ridge 70 yards in front of my blind. Moments later, his black mask popped into view. I knew instantly he was a shooter.

Slowly, he started down the hill toward the muddy slop 30 yards from my pop-up blind. His probing eyes burned like laser beams through the blind’s main window. I didn’t move. At 30 steps, his nose touched the muddy slop in the runoff trickle. My 62-pound draw bow eased to my cheek, my nose barely touching the bent string. When the bright green pin was tight behind his left shoulder on white hair, I squeezed the release.

The arrow blasted through him like he was only dense fog. He trotted around the hill, but I felt sure of a good hit. After waiting a half-hour, I found the buck 125 yards away, and a vulture was already on top of him, pecking his eye out! His horns were both just over 14 inches tall, with a score of 73 Pope and Young Club points.

After photos, skinning, butchering and cooling the meat back at the camper, I returned to the same blind by 2:30 p.m. (two tags, remember!). By dark that day, keeping detailed notes in my journal, I saw 56 pronghorns for the day, 25 of those bucks. Switching blinds had paid off.

The next 2 days blurred together. I sat 14 hours each day, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., without firing an arrow. I recorded 43 pronghorns on day No. 3, and 43 on day No. 4. I saw a couple of good-sized bucks, but they were always tense and just out of bow range. I passed several respectable bucks at close range. The normally windy Wyoming plains were as calm and still as church on Monday, and the slightest shift of weight on my chair in the blind sent wary bucks running away. It was frustrating.

It was the fifth and final day of my hunt, August 24, when my luck changed. I was hunting the Coyote Blind just as I’d done the previous days. I mean, why move when you’re seeing 40-plus pronghorns per day, 16-25 of those bucks? And at least three or four of those bucks each day sported racks measuring more than 70 inches?

At 8 a.m. a herd of three mature bucks and five does started down off the sage-covered hill. They were tense, approaching the water with caution. They would walk toward the main pond, then run back up the hill and stand and stare. Then the lead buck with the heaviest horns started toward the muddy slop in the sage down from the pond. He was the one I wanted.

When he paused at 32 yards, I was waiting at full draw. The scary-sharp broadhead smashed through the joint of the buck’s front left leg and shoulder bone on a slight quartering-toward angle. The arrow penetrated 12 inches into the chest. A cloud of dust erupted as pronghorns charged in every direction. My buck disappeared over the hill still carrying my arrow.

I decided to give him an hour, then found him 125 yards away. The skinny carbon shaft had sliced through one lung, and the broadhead was lodged in the liver. Death was swift. His massive but short horns had smooth ivory tips; the bases were more than 6 inches— about a 71-inch buck. The Wyoming double was complete. (Final note: Jared and his boys all took fine bucks on our left-over license hunt, too.)

TOUR STOP: TEXAS
Lone Star State pronghorns are scattered in two primary regions, the Trans-Pecos in West Texas, and to the north in the Panhandle. Landowners are issued permits that allow them to either sell the right to hunt a buck, use the tags for themselves, or not use them at all. The season is short, about 9 days, starting on the Saturday closest to October 1. I bought the one and only permit issued on a 6,000-acre ranch in the Panhandle.

I spent the day before the season and opening day in search of one specific “ghost” buck. The rancher had seen the big buck almost daily during the summer, and my buddy, Rusty Sims, spied him once on a scouting trip. He guessed the buck’s heavy horns measured in the upper 70s to 80 inches. I never saw him during two preseason scouting trips.

Rusty and I searched the day before the opener and most of opening day, but never found Ghost. We suspect he moved to the neighbor’s place. It wasn’t until sunset on opening day that we even saw a live pronghorn on the property we could hunt! Finally, a herd of eight does and four bucks scooted under the neighbor’s fence and proceeded to chase each other back and forth on our side until dark. Now we had a plan for day No. 2 of the season.

What’s that old saying about the best laid plans? Well, the next morning, thick fog limited visibility to 40 yards. It was 10:30 a.m. when it finally broke under a burning sun.

We found most of the previous night’s herd still on our side of the fence. An aggressive herd buck with only average horns chased two satellite bucks away from the girls. Of the two satellites, one had heavy horns—the best buck we’d seen. I grabbed my pack and started toward them.

These pronghorns were in a grassy, yucca-dotted pasture littered with oil field equipment, so I used the cover of a noisy pump jack to close the gap. The grinding, up-and-down motion of the pump was like a giant mosquito sucking nutrients from the ground. The pronghorns paid the heavy machinery little attention. Hunkered behind the stinky oil-covered metal contraption, the two bucks casually fed within long-distance bow range. My arrow blasted through the bigger buck when he turned broadside.

Under a melting sun, I recovered the buck amid tangled pipes and oil field lines. A half-dozen oil pumps squeaked and yawned all around me.

My Texas buck’s back was scarred beyond recognition, probably from ducking under barbed-wire fences all his life. I’ve shot other Texas bucks with similar scars, but this one was the worst I’d ever seen. His horns sported 6-inch bases and he scored about 71 inches.

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