Have You Ever Tried This?
The heat of the merciless sun pounded the back of my neck as I glassed through the small gap of the lone cedar bush I was crouched behind. His handsomely colored face and long curved black horns seemed to fill the viewfinder as I studied every inch of him. He was a dandy goat, and there was nothing more I wanted to do at that moment than wrap my hands around his black, 16-inch horns.
This ground-crawling, torturous stalk began some two hours ago, and needless to say my body ached from the countless gouges, pokes and prods from the seemingly endless supply of needle-sharp plants that inhabit this semi-arid landscape. Although I had whittled the mile down to a mere 110 yards, I could go no farther. It wasn't because of my lack of sheer will, there was just no cover between me and my bedded prize. I could easily have reached out and touched him with the help of modern ballistics, but I receive no satisfaction from that fact. I wanted to get archery-close, and that meant somehow closing the gap at least another 60 yards before I would consider a solid broadside shot.
I had been watching him on and off for the past couple of days, and he was finally in a position that offered me this sneaky opportunity. He had been lugging around with a few other bucks, but now they were no where to be found. Living the bachelor's life seemed to suit him for the moment, so I took full advantage of it. It also didn't hurt that his two buddies had found greener pastures elsewhere.
All I could do was wait him out and hope when he got up from his midday nap he would wonder my way. Keeping my fingers crossed, I nocked an arrow and waited. And before I could get comfortable on the jagged ground, he abruptly stood up. I tightened the grip on my bow anticipating a possible shot opportunity. He stood stiff-legged for several minutes scanning the parched landscape. It was as if he was peeling away every ounce of cover looking for a hint of danger.
Suddenly he turned and started hot-footing it in my direction, and before I could wipe the sweat racing down my forehead, the 110-yard gulf that was once between us had vanished—50, 40, 30, 20, 18, 17, 16 flashed my rangefinder—and this Pope and Young candidate was still coming. With only a quartering-to shot I rose to both knees and pressed my Hoyt into service. His eyes almost popped out of his head when he caught my movement, and in one fluid motion he jerked back, turned and darted away running in a semi-circle. Not completely trusting his eyes, he skidded to a stop and looked back at the moving cedar bush to confirm what his eyes had suspected. Estimating the distance at 45 yards, I released, only to see my arrow harmlessly skip into the dirt under his belly. With a wheezing snort he turned and his hooves never seemed to hit the ground as he jetted away toward safer pastures, leaving me shaking my head and wondering what could have been. That was my third stalk of the day, and although I didn't get to hang his handsome head in my trophy room, it was a great experience to file away. It wasn't until the third day and stalk number nine that I claimed my high-desert New Mexico prize, making this pronghorn experience one of my most action-packed and memorable bowhunts to date.
Pronghorns have picked up many nicknames over the years to include speed goats, prairie racers, sage rockets and the common antelope just to name a few. Although these names depict the sure-footed, 55-plus miles-per-hour speed they possess, it's the pronghorns stark reddish tan and white coat, black muzzles, and ink-black curved horns that make them the most colorful and exotic North American big game animal.
Not only is their African-like appearance and cheetah-like speed unique, but they are only found in the high desert West and flat grassy regions of the eastern plains, making this American original a prime target for any stick and string trophy hunter. Because of the flat, relatively open and arid regions they inhabit, matching wits with these high desert kings can be challenging, but consistent success can be found by matching the right hunting tactics to the given situation.
The three main methods most seasoned pronghorn hunters utilize are ground-crawling stalks, deceptive decoying and laying in wait at a well-used water hole. There's no question that ambushing one at the watering-hole beneath the August heat is the most successful method, but decoying at the right time makes for some heart-pounding excitement and breaking into their comfort zone with a clean stalk adds a thrill all its own. All methods will put you archery-close and should be considered if you're dreaming of hanging a tag on these American originals.
Just Add Water
No question about it, hunting over water is the most effective way to put a trophy pronghorn on the wall, as well as put some excellent protein on the table. Given the arid high desert and blazing-hot prairie climate these American icons call home, water is a daily necessity, and it's usually only a matter of time before an unsuspecting buck that deserves your tag wonders in. As easy as this may sound, there is usually a catch, and typically that catch is measured in time, and lots of it. Just a couple of seasons ago, I sat under the blazing Nevada sun in my Ameristep blind for six, fourteen hour days, waiting on the right buck to show up. Needless to say, I was more than eager to release an arrow on the morning of the seventh day, hour 87 no less, on a fine Silver State goat. Although this may sound like a no-fun, no-brain style of hunt, it isn't. Not only does the water draw in every critter in the area for all-day waterhole entertainment but also the long hours can instill and develop a mental toughness few hunts can.
As good as popping up a portable blind on a liquid oasis can be for antelope, if the opportunity exists, the elevation of a wrought iron tree, aka windmill, can be an exceptional option. Not only does the elevation give you a bird's-eye view of the country but it also gives you an opportunity to size up your buck before he makes it to the drink. In fact, I killed my first P&Y antelope from a New Mexico windmill, and I watched him for over 20 minutes before I finally sent an arrow his way. I would not have had that opportunity if I had been on the ground. Another benefit of a windmill is the constant motion, clangs and groans it put out. Naturally these sharp-eyed residents are used to it so I was able to get away with more movement.
For heart-pumping, fast-paced, all-day action, it's hard to beat the use of a decoy. When the time is right, usually around late August to mid September, nothing can beat the shot opportunities a decoy provides or the sheer excitement when you add one to the antelope experience. One of the first times I used a decoy was on a worn-out Colorado buck during the September rut. From a distance I watched him diligently protecting his harem of does from two smaller bucks. From each side they grazed innocently closer, attempting not to arouse the suspicions of the herd buck. When the herd buck focused on one, the other would come closer. With patience lost, this high-desert bad boy exploded, tearing off in pursuit of his closest foe. With a sense of urgency the smaller buck scrambled across the dusty flat hoping to elude the bulkier herd buck. However, by the time he finished chasing one off, the other would be closer than ever to his does, and he would make a mad dash again, repeating the process.
This was the perfect opportunity to slip in with a decoy, so in I hustled in their direction. After sneaking to within 150 yards of the panting buck, I popped up my Montana Decoy antelope buck decoy, and in an instant he caught a glimpse and headed my way. At first his trot was slow, but in mere seconds dust was billowing in a stream behind him. He was coming fast — too fast to put it bluntly — and I barely had enough time to draw my bow. When he hit the 42 yard mark, he skidded to a stop facing me no less. For nearly a minute he stared my decoy down without ever offering a shot, and as quickly as he came, he sped away when he knew the gig was up.
The key to success with a decoy is slipping close enough to the right buck, and although that distance varies to the buck's temperament and situation, usually it's around 100 yards. Sometimes getting this close can be tough, but if you do just pop up that decoy and you might have an angry goat in your lap.
Without question, trying to get the job done on a critter with 8X eyes, that lives in relatively open terrain, with the natural limitations archery equipment offers, makes stalking antelope one of bowhunting's ultimate challenges. Although it's one of the toughest ways to hunt these speed demons, with enough stalks — and a little luck — it can be done with some success.
Throughout the years, I've been fortunate to sneak close enough to a handful of bucks that deserved my arrow. And although most have ended with me watching the buck's dust trail billow across the county, I've been able to bury a few arrows into the shoulder of some unsuspecting goats. One aspect that has been consistent in all of my successful stalks is the broken and uneven terrain I chose to hunt in. It's true, most antelope live in relatively open country where grassy flats are king and are just not conducive for stalking. However, badlands-type rugged terrain, cactus flats and rolling sagebrush hills of the West hold their share of bucks, and it's this broken landscape that will give the willing bowhunter a solid shot at arrowing a buck. Although this type of country usually only offers shallow ground-crawling, knee-busting attempts, and can take hours to complete in some cases, the reward is the satisfaction of knowing that you got close enough, despite the outcome.
Another aspect to consistent success is choosing loner or gypsy bucks to zero in on. It goes without saying one set of eyes is easier to sneak in on than two or more sets, so picking that unsociable outsider can be key to punching your tag.
Don't forget to keep the wind right and always approach from behind if you can. Because pronghorns have eyes that protrude from the sides of their heads, they have nearly 300 degrees of move-catching eyesight, and it's the rare occasion that you will fool them.
Regardless of how you decide to chase these sage rockets, all offer their own uniqueness and challenges, and it's the consistent bowhunter who seems to get it done.
Editor's note: This was originally published August 14, 2009.