Since archery is my passion of preference, I tried my hand at sitting on a water tank, and then decoying. After several days of frustration, I discovered that this wary critter required more patience and time than I have in either department.
By nature, pronghorn prefer to stay in very wide-open areas, and getting close enough for a 30-yard bow shot only happens for a few intensely dedicated or extremely fortunate archers. Following that year of seasoning, I applied for two years before receiving a rifle permit. With Nebraska's priority system, each year that you don't draw a tag, preference points are added, so if you keep sending in an application you will eventually get a permit.
This was my year. The season opened October 7 with a crisp 24 degree dawn. After doing my fatherly due diligence of driving my youngest son to Sterling, CO for a Pop Warner football game, and then taking him to the annual Octoberfest Parade, it was my turn. I loaded up my gear, and headed west toward Kimball County where I had permission on several pieces of ground. With only about 5 hours of daylight left, my main mission was to locate a few animals and lay the groundwork for the following day.
That's the great thing about pronghorn antelope hunting in western Nebraska. A lot of it is what I call upholstery hunting. There's a lot more land that doesn't have antelope than land that does, so you've got to do some driving. As I made my way west, the Nebraska/Iowa State football game was in full swing and that made the time go quickly. In what seemed like only a few minutes, I had made the hour drive, and Nebraska was driving as well.
After checking in with the landowner, who owns several sections north of Dix, I had three options. I was familiar with one piece, north of his farm, but the other two were new to me and I wasn't sure where they were. I decided to checkout the ground I was familiar with, since he had seen several animals in that area recently. Besides, it was much prettier piece of ground that was bordered by breaks and pine trees on the northern boundary.
I drove out into his pasture and hid my truck in a low area, checked the score one more time, and walked up the hill toward the high ground. Pronghorns prefer to keep a lot of space between themselves and everything. They are usually found in the middle of a section, eating winter wheat or alfalfa during the fall when everything has been brown for several weeks.
From a vantage point, concealed by a ridgeline, I glassed the entire area for a mile in every direction with my 12x50's. With the razor sharp optics I could count the wheat stubble, but there were no goats to be tallied! Worse yet, no fresh tracks. I did find several fresh holes where a badger had dug up the edge of an embankment trying to roust a vole, and several coyote tracks that pleaded for my attention.
Since my first love is coyote hunting, I sat down and blew a few toots to see what I might coax out of the draw below me. After enduring temperatures in the upper 20's at my son's football game that morning, the afternoon had turned out beautifully. I leaned back against the bank and soaked up the warm temperatures. There wasn't a breath of wind. In western Nebraska, that is a rarity indeed. It was a perfect day for something, but at that point no dogs were responding, the prospects for pronghorn weren't looking too good, and the Huskers were behind. I made my way to the truck.
I fired up my truck and cranked up the volume on the game to find that both teams had scored again, but Big Red was still behind. Stopping back by the farm, I checked in to say thank you for the opportunity to hunt, and catch a minute or two of the game on the tube. Howard said he had been thinking that there was one more piece of ground where he has seen 20 antelope two days earlier.
In between glances at the game, he launched into a narrative of how to find it based on a loose descriptive of sunflowers on the left, bean stubble at the intersection and a quarter section of millet just below the ridge that was planted diagonally. The game was on two different televisions while we were talking, and I was doing more listening to football than directions.
In this part of the country, where one wheat field looks about the same as the next, I wanted to be sure that I was on the right land before hunting, but the Huskers were getting more attention than his directions. Sensing that my yea, uh huhs was probably going to get me lost, he quickly produced a hand drawn section map on the back of an envelope. Grabbing one more quick peek at the game, I slipped out the door and rushed to my truck to get back to my radio.
As I drove past the first piece of ground, noting a lack of four-legged game, the other game took a turn for the better as Nebraska surged ahead. Following the envelope map, I turned south and back west at the designated section line. At this point, I was driving down a tractor trail between two wheat fields, going directly into a dropping sun. If this piece didn't pay out, my plan was to upholstery hunt all the way to the Wyoming line if necessary.
The trail I was following climbed gradually up to a crest that overlooked several miles of open fields. There, standing in the middle of a strip of wheat were 6 pronghorns. On the right, a nice buck raised his head and looked in my direction. Banking on them being used to farm trucks, and not being too spooky on the first day of the season, I plunged my truck into reverse and backed out slowly like I was going back to the farm for my tractor.
After loading my rifle, and grabbing my binoculars, I crawled back up the grade. In the freshly plowed ground there were enough rocks to make my progress both slow and painful. At the crest of the rise, peering in between a thin skirt of wild sunflower stalks, I could see that the herd was back to grazing.
I tried a few soft doe bleats, but the only response I got was a raised head from the buck. Although he looked up each time I called, the herd was gradually making their way west, and further away from me with each step. I estimated the distance to the herd at 800 yards. There was no way that I was going to be able to sneak any closer afoot. I had to roll the dice and try another farmer fake.
I topped the ridge in low gear and creeped slowly down the hill. At about 400 yards, the does started to get nervous, so I stopped the truck and got out. It looked like they were going to move south, crossing directly in front of me so I reloaded my rifle just in case the buck would follow and stop long enough to give me a shot.
As I stepped around the door, 4 of the does broke into one of the high speed exits that they are famous for. After glassing them as they made their way over another hill, I looked back to the herd buck to see what he was going to do. I fully expected to see him close on their heels, but he only raised his head to watch them run away. At first I thought he was with another buck, but my guess is that it was a doe with horns that was also in a matrimonial mood. Horns on does are not that uncommon, but one thing was for sure, regardless of his reasons - he was holding his ground.
After seven years of shooting coyotes with my Winchester varmint-barreled .243, I was very confident with what it would do, as well as my ability to shoot it. He was standing sideways to me with a high hill behind him, making for a perfect shot without concerns of what might be behind him. I studied him and the distance several minutes, not wanting to make a mistake. It seemed like an awfully long time, but he just stood there watching his departing harem. I had popped more than one 'yote at that distance, and this buck was a lot bigger than a dog. I squeezed the trigger slowly and was jarred by the rifle's 3350 fps muzzle velocity. Almost immediately I saw a puff of dust on the ridge just behind him.
No way I missed, I thought. Turning quickly north, he bolted and ran about 30 yards, and stopped half way up the rise. As I watched, he turned his head licked his side and shook his head erratically. At that moment I knew that the puff of dust that I had seen was created after the 80-grain Winchester load had passed through him. This pronghorn was mine.
He slowly turned, walked two steps and fell in the tall wheat stubble. Even from this distance, his horns stuck out like a beacon. I jacked another round into my chamber and put the safety back on while I stepped off the distance.
I had just taken a pronghorn at a distance that I would never have even considered five years earlier. It was also at a distance that some might consider inappropriate, but I would never have pulled the trigger if I wasn't sure beyond a doubt that I could make the shot. Making my way up the hill, I stepped off to a distance that was further than most easterners would believe anyway, so there isn't much point to putting the number down. The bullet had double-lunged him only an inch higher than I had intended. I was pleased to see the placement and thankful that it had not been a typical windy day. Had it been a normal 20- to 30-mph Nebraska day, I wouldn't have taken the shot.
Learning to judge distance, knowing my load's trajectory intimately, and spending a lot of time hunting coyotes had just paid off in spades. Oh, and Nebraska won -beating the spread. What else could a man ask for on a beautiful fall day?
For more information on hunting the pronghorn, check out "The Peerless Pronghorn".