I arrived in Big Sky Country in early September, excited as always about elk, mule deer and pronghorns. Elk and muleys were abundant, and my guide and I located mature bulls and muley bucks almost every day. Within a week, I’d shot a big 6x6 elk and a trophy 5x6 mule deer, but not one large pronghorn did I see.
Finally, my guide went about his business and let me continue the search on my own. Montana doesn’t require an outfitter for nonresident pronghorn hunters, and I had access to plenty of public and private land. I was determined to stick it out for at least another week; walking, driving and glassing from sunrise until sunset. But as days melted away, I was beginning to wonder: Were there any decent goats around?
The weather was warm, but that’s no handicap on an archery hunt for pronghorns. These animals prefer open terrain; they bed and feed where you can find them. I had two Double Bull ground blinds in my pickup, and if I found a big buck to work on, I wouldn’t rule out an ambush over a waterhole. This was cattle country, and stock tanks dotted the landscape.
I was seeing plenty of pronghorns, but I couldn’t lay eyes on a buck good enough to warrant a second look. The September rut was still in full swing, with groups of does escorted by dominant males. Animals were up and running most of every day, harassed by lesser bucks and pushed by jealous herd masters.
Unlike most pronghorn country, my favorite spots are “fringe” habitats where wide-open prairie land meets foothills with scattered trees; Montana has many such places. These allow an archer to spot-and-stalk keen-eyed animals using broken ground and foliage. Stalking is the ultimate challenge—never boring and very complex.
During the first 10 days of my bowhunt, I saw perhaps a dozen pronghorn bucks I thought might green-score 65 Pope and Young Club points, which are decent goats—12-inch-long horns, 3-inch prongs, medium mass. But where were the big guys? I’d hunted this area for 15 years and had always seen at least one or two animals scoring in the mid-70s.
Local ranchers were blaming dry spring and summer weather. A lush, wet spring with lots of feed certainly produces larger horns. Oh well, I was already here and my only option was to keep hiking, looking and hoping.
Counting The Days
On day No. 17 I was hunting a sage-dotted ridge when a lone pronghorn popped from a draw 200 yards away. I fell flat as a pancake in knee-deep brush. Pronghorns have the best eyes in North America, and they instantly spot an out-of-place object, and an upright 6-foot man on a sagebrush ridge certainly qualifies as out of place!
I rolled to one elbow and focused my binoculars. Wow! This buck had the tallest horns I’d seen in weeks—at least 21/2 times higher than his ears. His beams weren’t heavy, but he looked good as he sauntered toward me through the sage.
Then the buck turned. Nuts. He had only a 1-inch prong on the right horn and no prong on the left; he wasn’t any better than three bucks I’d seen earlier in the day. I watched until he cruised over the ridge and out of sight. He was a subordinate buck, trying to snoop out females he might nab for himself.
Later the same day, I saw another buck that required a second look. I’d decided to drive a few dirt roads on public BLM land, glassing distant slopes for pronghorns. The buck in question didn’t seem to have especially long horns, but my spotting scope showed decent prongs and above-average mass. Heat waves made the pronghorn wiggle like a belly dancer from a half-mile away. I needed a closer look.
I parked in a gully and started my approach. A half-hour later, I peeked from a dry wash and groaned—the buck’s right horn was broken off two-thirds from the top.
That night I decided that 2 1/2 weeks was enough. If I didn’t find a big buck the following day, I was heading home. It would be the first time in several years I hadn’t stalked and shot a Montana pronghorn, but good trophies didn’t seem to exist.
Day No. 18 dawned clear and warm. I hiked a 5-mile-long ridge —a place I hadn’t yet hunted in 2008. I saw dozens of pronghorns, but nothing worth stalking.
I hopped in my pickup and headed to camp for some lunch and a little pre-departure packing. With thoughts of an unused tag occupying my head, I almost missed the horns sticking above a knob a 1/4-mile from the road. A juniper snag, I thought as I stopped the truck and raised my binoculars.
Holy Toledo! The tall, hooking headgear looked surreal on the horizon—surely an optical illusion in the early afternoon heat. The rack swiveled slightly … just enough to show big prongs above the tips of the ears. Minutes later, I parked the pickup and sprinted along a dry wash toward the buck.
Sometimes the best stalk is a fast stalk. You don’t give an animal time to move, and you slow down only for the final approach. That’s how this one went down.
The buck was bedded on a small, juniper-dotted knob overlooking the sagebrush prairie. An excellent lookout for a wary goat, but not perfect. He was lying in a dip, just low enough to hide me as I drove the distant road, and just low enough to hide me as I tiptoed toward the knob with a steady breeze in my face.
The horns appeared first—and they were just as tall as they had seemed from a distance. My heart leaped as I nocked an arrow and eased another step ahead.
It was one step too many. A doe pronghorn’s ear and eyeball appeared 20 yards ahead. And when you see a pronghorn’s eye, that eye always sees you.
The female shot from her bed like a rocket and thundered out of sight. I drew as the buck stood 30 yards ahead, peering after the doe in puzzled disbelief. Like magic, the bowsight pin settled on the buck’s sweet spot where white hair meets brown behind the shoulder. A split-second later, the big two-blade Rage mechanical broadhead hit like a hammer and sliced a fist-sized hole through the buck’s chest. He wheeled and disappeared, but not for long. I galloped over the top just in time to see him tumble 75 yards away, his black horns thrust above the sage like something in a dream.
The buck’s horns weren’t unusually thick, but they incredibly long, measuring 161/8 inches on each side; both prongs measured 41/2 inches. In a year when I couldn’t seem to find a keeper of any sort, this buck was huge. My 2008 pronghorn was indeed a dream come true.
A pronghorn scoring more than the pope and young club minimum of 67 points isn’t difficult to size up: Horns stand at least twice as tall as his ears; prongs branch even with or above the ear tips, and appear as long, deep spades thrusting well ahead of the main beams. A good-sized buck’s prongs are at least half as long as the animal’s ears. Better horns hook at least a little bit at the top, increasing overall length an inch or two. Horn spread counts for nothing in score, but mass means a lot. After you look at a few pronghorn bucks, you quickly develop a feel for average versus heavy sets of horns.
photo by Chuck Adams