“We found the Antelope shy and watchful insofar as we were unable to get a shot at them. I got within about 200 paces of them when they smelt me and fled … the antelopes which had disappeared into a steep ravine now appeared at a distance of about 3 miles. So soon had these antelopes gained the distance that at first I doubted they were the same I had just surprised, but soon my doubts vanished when I beheld the rapidity of their flight along the ridge before me. It appeared rather the rapid flight of birds than the motion of quadrapeds.” –Meriwether Lewis, Sept. 17, 1804.
I made my first pronghorn hunt in the mid-1970s, as a Californian who went to eastern Montana at the invitation of some friends who had family there. We hunted roughly between Jordan and Fort Peck Reservoir, and made the trip every year for almost a decade. In 1980 I drew a California pronghorn tag, and took a nice buck near the town of Alturas. I used a Browning BAR in 7mm Mag. back then, and worked up a special handload featuring a 130-grain Speer Spitzer that screamed out of the muzzle. Not knowing much about hunting pronghorns except what I’d read—that you need to shoot a long way, which in later years I found to generally be very untrue—I made a shot of 75 yards on the buck as he herded his harem under the bottom strand of a barbed wire fence.
I can’t tell you how many pronghorns, both bucks and does, I’ve shot since that time, or how many I’ve seen others kill. They’ve always been an animal that fascinates me, and early on I made it a point to read as much about what they are and how they live as I did about how to hunt them.
The Need For Speed
To say pronghorns are fast is like saying pitcher Randy Johnson can throw some heat or Michael Jackson is a little goofy—a classic understatement. They are, in fact, the second fastest land animal in the world, surpassed only by the cheetah. Pronghorns have been clocked at 60 mph for up to 4 minutes at a time, and can cruise at 30 mph for 15 miles or more.
They rely primarily on this blazing speed and their extremely acute eyesight as their first line of defense against predators. It took me a while to figure out they also have a tremendous sense of smell, and will bugger off if you don’t play the wind. For years I’d make a stalk, belly crawl to the top of a rise where I was sure I could get a shot, only to find the animals long gone. “Wow!” I used to think, “How the heck did they see me?” The answer is, they didn’t—a snootful of my human scent was enough.
I’ve also learned that while their eyes are incredible—after opening day of rifle season, I’ve seen herds of pronghorns hit high gear at the sight of a pickup truck topping a rise 3 miles away—you can minimize their effectiveness. On cloudy days it seems they have more trouble spotting me than on bright, sunny days. By wearing dull-colored or camouflage hats where legal, a blaze orange vest with the shoulder portion colored over with drab paint and not moving around a lot after you poke your head over the rise, you minimize the chances of being seen. I like to cut a small sagebrush bush and place it in front of my face as I belly crawl as slow as a snake to the top of a hill before peeking over. I’ve done this many times and have been able to watch bands of pronghorn for as long as I wanted at less than 100 yards.
Tried-And-True Pronghorn Tactics
There are several tactics I’ve found that will help increase your success when pronghorn hunting. Waterhole hunting can be dynamite early in the season and is the primary way archers hunt the animals. Bowhunters have
also found that during the rut—sometime in September and October, depending on the latitude—using a life-sized silhouette buck decoy can bring other bucks with a testosterone overload in on a dead run. When that happens, the action is fast and furious! You can also lure a buck into shooting range by blowing a snort-wheeze challenge call. I’ve done this several times, both with and without a decoy.
Then there’s the “circle game.” At times pronghorns—especially those that have been spooked by other hunters—seem to be racing randomly about the prairie. Often, though, they’ll run in a big circle, not unlike a rabbit. If you happen to spook a herd and they race off out of sight, rather than take up a futile chase on foot, find a vantage point within range of where they just were, and wait a while. More times than you might imagine they’ll be back within a few hours, if not a few minutes.
If you’re looking for an old, trophy-class buck, you’ll often need to look
beyond the obvious. While most pronghorns might be easy to see in the
wide open plains, the older bucks know the hunting game. Try hunting in areas that seem unlikely spots to hold pronghorns. I’ve found some good bucks inside a tree line, high up in the thickly brushed foothills or down in steep washes.
Friendship and fun—that’s what pronghorn hunting is all about. It’s the perfect hunt for someone with little big game hunting experience, or an east-of-the-Mississippi River hunter with little Western experience—to cut their teeth on. At the same time, for someone who has decades of hunting experience under their belt, pronghorn hunting can still be a challenge. It’s definitely guaranteed to make you smile.