A Guide to Hunting Pronghorn Antelope

A Guide to Hunting Pronghorn Antelope

More than any other creature, antelope are emblematic of the lonesome, wide-open spaces of America’s Great Plains. It’s a hostile and barren environment, in which the animals face temperature ranges from -40 to a 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

Passing trains sometimes kill dozens at a time as the animals seek out the snow-free conditions of plowed railroad tracks, and in the summer they’ve been known to stand within the slender ribbons of shade provided by telephone poles in order to escape the crackling heat of an otherwise featureless environment.

Scientific Name
Antilocapra americana

American pronghorn, speed goat, prong buck

Bar Room Banter
The American antelope, or pronghorn, has the longest migration of any land mammal in the lower 48. It is also the fastest land mammal on the continent, capable of reaching speeds in excess of 55 mph. The only faster mammal on earth is the African cheetah, though the antelope can sustain top speeds longer than the cheetah thanks to its relatively enormous-sized lungs, heart, and airway. Paleontologists believe that the antelope co-evolved on the Great Plains with the now-extinct American cheetah, which helps explain its swiftness.

Physical Characteristics
Colored an orange-hued tannish brown, with prominent white markings on sides, rump, and throat. Males have a conspicuous black marking over their mandible. While some female antelope have either one or two small, underdeveloped horns, males carry prominent horns made of a hair-like substance that forms as a sheaf over a bone core. This sheaf sheds and re-grows on an annual basis. Mature males weigh between 90-140 lbs; females, between 75-110.

Pronghorn feed on a wide variety of forbes, shrubs, grasses, and cacti, including many that are toxic to livestock.

Life and Death
It’s common for antelope to reach 10 years of age. They’ve been known to live as long as 15. Predators include bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, and golden eagles. Fawns are particularly susceptible to predators. Habitat loss and blocked migration corridors are the primary long-term threats to antelope.

Breeding and Reproduction
Antelope typically breed in mid-September; the females drop calves in late May.

Grasslands, typically, but also desert and brushlands with predominantly knee-high vegetation that doesn’t impair the animal’s vision. Large concentrations are sometimes found on the Great Plains, notably the eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. Smaller, more isolated herds can be found in intermountain valleys and atop large mesas and benchlands in mountainous regions.

Telltale Sign
Sign isn’t so important with antelope because they inhabit open country and are easily located. Besides tracks and scat, you can look for tufts of hair clinging to barbed wire at well-used fence crossings.

Antelope meat gets mixed reactions from the general public due to a strong, sometimes musky flavor, though wild game connoisseurs almost invariably express appreciation for the flesh. Good for any red meat application.

Hunting Opportunities
State residents generally find that antelope tags are easy to come by, though they are rarely issued as over-the-counter tags. You usually have to apply for a tag several months in advance, though units in many states, including Montana and Wyoming, are undersubscribed and tags are all but guaranteed.

Tags in the southwest are a bit harder to come by, though persistent applicants will be rewarded within a couple years of starting the draw process. Non-resident tags are widely available, though not as abundant as resident tags. If you want a nearly guaranteed draw, look to Wyoming and Montana. Archery hunters have an even easier time getting antelope tags. A bowhunter can hunt antelope across the West every year if he or she wants to.

Hunting Methods
For the big game hunter, finding antelope is not the challenge. They live in open country where it’s possible for the hunter to see great distances, and they’ve got a prominent patch of bright white hair on their flanks, in direct sun, a herd of them looks almost as conspicuous as a clothing line full of bed sheets hung out in the wind to dry.

Often, small dust clouds kicked up by their hooves reveal antelope that are out of sight beyond contours in the land. If you spend a day or two in your antelope hunting area without seeing any, you can be pretty sure you’re in a bad spot.

Do not let the ease of locating antelope fool you. The challenge is getting into reasonable shooting distance of these exceptionally wary critters, and then connecting with a clean, long-range kill shot on a target that is considerably smaller than your typical whitetail buck. To do this consistently, a hunter needs to learn how to “read” the landscape in order to plan and execute superb stalks. And he or she needs to be able to shoot under circumstances that are far less favorable than the rifle or archery range. Plan on long belly crawls, long shots, and knees and elbows full of cactus thorns.

Rifle Hunting
Rifle hunters take the vast majority of their antelope using spot and stalk methods. As mentioned above, locating antelope is not difficult. In good antelope country it’s common to see a dozen or more, sometimes, way more of the animals per day, though they could be a couple of miles away.

Thankfully you can tell the males and females apart at distances of a mile or more if you’re using good optics, so if you’re hunting on a sex-specific tag you should be able to select your desired animal before you begin what might become a painful and arduous stalk. You don’t want to walk a 2-mile half-circle in 90-degree heat just to get within crawling distance of a lone antelope and then discover that you’re stalking a buck when all you’ve got in your pocket is a doe tag.

A peculiarity of stalking antelope is that the animals sometimes bed down in places where they can’t be stalked.  It’s frustrating. They’ll lie on open expanses of table-flat ground where it’s virtually impossible to approach within a  ½ mile of them without getting busted. In these situations, it’s smart to be patient. Wait for your quarry to get up and move, it eventually will, then try to determine where it’s headed.

You’ll find that antelope tend to pick a direction of travel and then stick to it. They don’t zig-zag wildly or change course unless something spooks them, even when they do spook, they will assume a new course and then adhere to that. Unless the animal is headed directly away from you, at which point it’ll be very difficult to catch, you want to pick an avenue of approach that’ll help you get out ahead of it.

Sometimes this is quite easy, like when you can drop behind a ridge and run directly to your desired objective. At other times, this requires long, roundabout journeys in order to get to a place where you can put a hill or butte between you and the animal. Antelope hunters sometimes find themselves walking directly away from an antelope in order to get close to it.

The beauty of getting out ahead of a traveling antelope is that they aren’t that good at picking out stationary objects. At least not as good as they are at picking out moving objects, which is their specialty. So make sure to select a potential shooting position that offers a wide field of view, a place where you can wait without having to move around too much. If the animal was following the bottom of a valley or dry wash, then make sure you can cover the entirety of the valley.

If it seemed to be headed toward a gap between two mesas, make sure you can see and cover the entire gap. You don’t want to be lying there for an hour and then start wondering if the animal passed you by without you knowing it. Keep your rifle ready at all times, be patient, and hold dead still. When the antelope comes into sight, there’s a very good chance that you’ll get a shot before it sees you.

If you’re getting up on your knees to sneak glances at the approaching animal over the tops of the sagebrush plants, or shifting around too much from place to place because of cactus thorns in your legs, you might find that the antelope never shows up. You got busted, and it ran off without you seeing it.

When stalking stationary or bedded animals, the use of topography still applies. Use rocks, hills, buttes, arroyos, old homestead buildings, anything that will hide you as you creep into range. Not all antelope are easily spooked, but you should treat them like they are. Knee pads and elbow pads are a great asset. In country with a lot of sagebrush, or other low-lying ground cover, it’s possible to belly crawl straight in if you keep below the vegetation.

Either drop your backpack or push it ahead of you as you crawl. And don’t carry your rifle on your back, as the barrel will wave around too much. Keep it in your hand as you crawl, or cradled in your arm. Another trick is to put it in a soft-sided case made of durable fabric and tow it behind you, unloaded, of course. If the antelope is standing, or rises to its feet during your stalk, watch its body posture.

An antelope that’s feeding is almost certainly unaware of you. An antelope that’s staring in your direction, or walking away with the hair on its rump poofed out, almost certainly is. If that happens, it’s time to either make your shot or back out and try again later. If neither of those options is tenable, try waving a white handkerchief at the antelope. This is an old plainsman’s trick. Maybe the antelope think it’s another antelope, maybe it’s just curious, but sometimes it’ll bring the animal toward you or at least stop it from getting farther away.

A stalking situation should not become a shooting situation until you’re so close that you’re 100% positive of making a clean, one-shot kill. This might happen at 50 yards or 600 yards, depending on environmental conditions, the position of the animal relative to its surroundings, your marksmanship skills, and the type of weapon you’re shooting. But when it is time to shoot, remember that the animal can potentially see you whenever you can see it. So move very, very slowly as you get your weapon into a well-supported shooting position. If everything’s done properly, the antelope won’t know what hit it.

Due to the extremely wary nature of antelope, it is often difficult for bowhunters to kill them using spot-and-stalk strategies. Not only is it tough to get within effective archery range of an antelope, it can be even tougher to get into an effective shooting position. Whereas a rifle hunter can make his shot from a concealed prone position, an archer needs to rise up to a kneeling position before he can shoot. At close quarters, this extra bit of movement is all that it takes to send an antelope tearing across the prairie.

By setting up an ambush position inside a pop-up ground blind, bowhunters can get extremely close to antelope while still having the necessary protection to draw their bow and make a shot. The most common ambush locations are watering holes, particularly during the dry conditions of late summer. Your best bet is to spend a day or two trying to pattern the antelope in your hunting area. Find out what water sources they are using, and when they are using them.

Two days of scouting might save five days of uneventful waiting in your blind. If you have the time, place your blind and let the antelope acclimate for a couple of days before you hunt it. That’ll reduce their wariness. And while it’s smart to set the blind in a downwind position from the water source, don’t get too carried away.

Commercially produced pop-up blinds help prevent the dissipation of your odor, enabling you to place your blind in the best position for the best possible shot opportunities. Ideally, you want to be less than fifty yards away from the furthest portion of the water hole. Finally, you have to be patient. Plan on sitting your blind the whole day, sunrise to sundown. This is not a strategy for fidgety hunters.

Decoying is probably the most exhilarating way to hunt for antelope. It’s a method for the archery rut season, when bucks are feeling amorous toward does and hateful toward other bucks. A decoy hunt begins as a spot-and-stalk hunt. You need to locate a mature buck that appears to be “fired up,” chasing around other bucks and generally acting belligerent. Then plan a stalk that’ll get you close, ideally within a couple hundred yards. At that point, you “show” the decoy to the buck, usually by having your hunting partner stand up while concealing himself behind the decoy. You, the archer, stays hidden behind the partner and the decoy.

The most effective decoys are of younger, immature bucks, which will sometimes get an aggressive response from the older buck. That’s why this technique can only be used during the archery season; you don’t want a far-off rifle hunter taking aim at the paper “buck” you’re hiding behind.

Experienced antelope hunters say that perhaps 1 in 10 bucks will come charging in. Slightly more will come cautiously, posturing and posing as they approach. As the buck draws in, your hunting partner uses a laser range finder to take distance readings. Don’t plan on getting a close shot. Instead, when the buck reaches your maximum effective range, it’s time to rise to your knees and draw back. When you say go, your partner lowers the decoy enough to give you a clear shot. Hopefully the buck will give you a few seconds to aim as he tries to figure out why there’s a person kneeling in exactly the same place where a rival buck was standing just moments ago.

Open Country
When hunting in open country on sunny days, be wary of sunlight flashes against the lenses of your optics. When pointing rifle scope, binoculars, or spotting scopes toward the sun, shade the objective lenses with a cap or piece or clothing. If you don’t, the bright flash might send your quarry heading in the opposite direction.

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