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Author: Craig Boddington
Plentiful, available, and fun to hunt-he's got my vote for "Best in the West!"
A century ago just a few thousand pronghorn antelope remained in widely scattered remnant populations, and their total extinction was predicted by early conservationists. Fortunately this didn't happen. Last-minute protection saved the species and, with protection, the pronghorn proved quite prolific. There will never again be the untold millions (almost certainly outnumbering the bison) that roamed the plains in the 1860's, but today there are plenty of pronghorns. All permits are tightly controlled, but they exist in huntable numbers from western Kansas to California, and from the Mexican border north into Canada.
In their core range, the high plains east of the Rockies, you can see them from almost any highway. Sometimes you'll see them feeding just off the road, and you can marvel at the buff bodies with white highlights, mature males dramatic with their black noses and unique horns. More often you have to look a little more closely. Gaze out across the sagebrush flats and rolling hills, and look for small scatterings of white dots. They're probably out there . . . and if you have seen them they have probably seen you!
The various deer most of us are accustomed to hunting have quite good eyesight, but their sense of smell is their first line of defense, backed up by sensitive hearing. It's just the opposite with pronghorns. They can smell and they can hear just fine, but in their open, windy country they place their reliance on their high-power-binocular vision to spot danger-and on their speed for escape.
The pronghorn antelope, Antilocapra americana, is one of the world's most unusual creatures. Biologically something of a cross between a goat and an antelope, he has no extremely close relatives anywhere in the world-and a number of unique characteristics. His coarse, hollow hair provides insulation against the bitter winters and sun-scorched summers of his treeless Great Plains habitat. His eyesight is legendary, but no more famous than his great speed. The bones of those seemingly spindly legs have the tensile strength of a Hereford bull's legs, and outsized lungs that feed great quantities of oxygen propel them. The pronghorn is believed to be the second fastest animal after the cheetah. The horns, too, are unique in the animal kingdom. The outer sheath, a pure protein material more like solidified hair than actual bone, is cast away in the late fall and grows anew around a bony core every spring. The shape is as unusual as the construction, a single forward-jutting prong off of a main beam sharply hooked at the top.
This unique headgear coupled with buff cape, white throat patches, and black highlights makes the pronghorn a striking trophy, to my mind not only one of the most uniquely and classically American trophies, but also one of the most beautiful. The good news about the pronghorn is that his is not a trophy that is so hard-won as a good buck deer of any variety, nor nearly so costly as the great American prizes such as sheep and grizzly. Most pronghorn tags today must be won in drawings, exceptions being private land tags that must be paid for in coin of the realm. The latter are far more costly than the former, but in the world of modern big game hunting neither are outlandishly expensive. With tag in hand, hunter success on pronghorn is universally high, on average the highest of any North American big game animal.
There's nothing wrong with hunting success, but this shouldn't imply that the pronghorn is a pushover. Rather, it's a reflection of two basic facts. First, because our current pronghorn populations have been rebuilt from almost nothing, game managers watch the herds with some care, and where pronghorn permits are issued there are usually plenty of them around. Second, because their favored habitat is wide-open country where they can use their eyes to best advantage, pronghorns are extremely visible. Unlike so many other big game species, locating pronghorns isn't usually a problem.
Nor is it usually a problem to fill a pronghorn tag. Most licenses are issued for either sex. Despite their sharp vision and natural tendency to flee from anything suspicious within several hundred yards, over the course of just a couple of days it's fairly likely that some unsuspecting young buck or doe will stand still within easy range. This is why the overall success is so high. There's certainly nothing wrong with simply filling a pronghorn tag; that depends on how picky you are and how long you have to look, and also on the local population where you can hunt-which can change dramatically depending on the severity of the previous winter. There is always a bonus, too: Properly handled, which means prompt field care and cooling, pronghorn venison is some of the very finest. It is actually my personal favorite among all wild meat, including delicacies such as elk, moose, and wild sheep.
But the real fun of pronghorn hunting isn't just filling a tag. Rather, it's finding the right pronghorn and beating him at his own game on his own, open ground! To me "the right pronghorn" isn't a matter of record book score. There are certain spots that continually produce whoppers-northern Arizona; northern California; around Wagon Mound, New Mexico; the Red Desert of southwestern Wyoming and adjacent Colorado. But one of the wonderfully democratic aspects of pronghorn hunting is that, given a few mild winters and gentle spring rains, almost any area that has pronghorns can produce monsters. And, unfortunately, given a bad winter or an exceptionally dry spring, even the best areas may not have any really big heads in a given year.
Instead, my idea of "the right pronghorn" is simply taking time to look over the current crop-from a distance, with good optics-and seeing what's out there. Usually this is best done by scouting for a couple of days before the season, especially on public land. But pronghorns are visible enough that you can do this throughout the season. The point is to not be in a big hurry. Take your time, enjoy the wide-open spaces and the glorious weather that usually accompanies the September and October seasons. Look them over, get a feel for what constitutes an average buck in that area in that year . . . and then look for one that's a little big bigger.
Remember him, and then look some more. No, you won't see them all, there are too many hills and folds and gullies, and the plains are too big. But given enough time you'll see most of the pronghorns in the country you can hunt. Remember the one you liked best? That's the one to go after!
Can you find him again? Chances are you can. The plains may look the same to you and to me, but not to the pronghorn antelope. They are strongly territorial, and if you see a buck in a certain area and leave him alone chances are he will be feeding, bedding, and watering somewhere within a mile or two of that spot. Even if you disturb him and see him vanish over the far horizon there's a strong likelihood that he will return with a day or two.
The trick, and the fun, of course, is not to disturb him at all, but to size him up with binoculars and spotting scope from as far away as possible. Then, if he's the right buck, to close within shooting distance and take your shot without him ever being aware you exist. This is usually not easy and not always possible. Smart old bucks will sometimes find a wide-open sagebrush flat where they are completely safe and absolutely unapproachable. Depending on your time and patience, you can wait them out or you can go find another one! Usually, however, that seemingly open ground isn't really all that open. There are little folds and hills and gullies, and to me the very best part of pronghorn hunting is trying to read the ground and get close enough for a shot.
Often this means crawling from low sage to low sage, watching out for the prickly little cacti and even pricklier rattlesnakes-but that, too, is part of the fun. Especially when you pull it off. The legend of pronghorn hunting is that long shots are the norm. If you read the ground carefully and plan your approach well this isn't usually the case. It is true that the average shot is much farther than is the case with eastern whitetails, but in the more than 35 years since I took my first pronghorn I have made only a couple of genuinely long shots, meaning, to me, beyond about 350 yards. I have shot a couple at less than 50 yards and quite a few between 50 and 150 yards, but I think my own "normal" shot at a pronghorn is somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 to 225 yards. The target is not large, so this is not necessarily an easy shot-but with any scoped centerfire rifle it is certainly neither long range nor especially difficult.
But to get a standing shot at that kind of range you cannot hunt from the pickup truck, and you cannot simply stroll across the plains. You have to glass from afar, read the ground, plan your approach, and stay absolutely and perfectly out of sight. That is the real fun of pronghorn hunting, and if you do it that way I rate the experience as one of North America's most enjoyable hunts-and one that is accessible, available, and quite economical. The pronghorn was my very first big game animal, but I've never tired of hunting him. Sometimes I take the time to look for a really good buck, and sometimes I don't-but to me a fall hunting season isn't quite complete unless I spend some of it crawling through the sage after pronghorns!
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