feature By: Jack Ballard | May, 19
On a blustery October morning after a wet September, a herd of two dozen pronghorn wandered through the old field, browsing on new shoots of green that sprouted from clumps of tall, dry wheatgrass with spiny heads that swayed in a chilly breeze. The woody, waist-high stems of the clover, though, were of little interest to the antelope. But from my position on an elevated lump of prairie some quarter mile from the ambling herd, the lifeless stalks of clover represented an opportunity to make my own meal, for at the rear of the band stood a fat buck.
Closing the distance between myself and the antelope would be a challenge. But two factors were on my side. First, the tangle of clover offered reasonable concealment for a prostrate hunter. Second, the antelope were moving toward me on a path that would take them to where my stalking route and their feeding movements intersected.
Rising from my knees, I ducked into a swale that hid my form for nearly half the distance to my quarry. I hastened to close the gap, conscious of the light breeze in my face and the desire to attain shooting position before the pronghorn changed course or abandoned their midmorning feeding routine for a nap.
At the lip of the swale, I rose slowly to peer ahead. Some 200 strides from my position, I spotted tan and white bodies. But the landscape no longer aided my stalk. There was nothing but flat ground between me and the pronghorn; nothing, that is, except thousands upon thousands of withered stalks of sweet clover. If the pronghorn maintained their course and I could gain 50 yards, an easy shot was in the offing.
Through the screen of clover, I crawled ahead on hands and knees, moving very slowly and stopping frequently to minimize the motion of my passing. I rose to peer above the stalks to check my bearings against the movement of the herd, hoping fervently that I would not be spotted by the keen eyes of the antelope. On the final peek, it appeared the animals were well within range and moving even closer.
The buck showed itself at the edge of the herd, offering a standing, broadside target. The front bead was aligned just behind its shoulder at the point where the white hair on the animal’s lower body meets the tan mantle draped on its back. I shot, sending the herd into high gear. The churning hooves of the frantic pronghorn soon took them over a yonder hillside, but there was no dark-horned buck in the bunch. Looking in the direction of my shot, I couldn’t yet see my prize, but knew that come winter, I would be eating antelope.
That hunt contained one element of a classic pronghorn caper, a stalk. Its success was actually more potently insured by the movement of the antelope in my direction. Most pronghorn stories are replete with elbows rubbed raw from a combat crawl, knees pierced by the spines of prickly pear or thigh and back muscles burning in complaint from a hunching, scrunching duck waddle. I love the high drama of an antelope sneak as much the next guy. But where conditions permit, allowing the animals to approach the shooter is actually a more effective tactic, doubly so when working with mobility-challenged or inexperienced hunters.
Of all visual factors, movement triggers the perception of antelope more quickly than shape, color or size. Pronghorn might walk right by a stationary hunter clad from head to toe in blaze orange at 50 paces, but flee from careless movement created by a stalker dressed in camouflage at 500 yards. The single most effective tactic for countering the pronghorn’s uncanny ability to detect motion is to let moving animals come to you, a strategy that can be accomplished in a variety of ways.
One such technique is to intercept antelope as they travel to and from water sources. In typical pronghorn country, animals find surface water at a limited number of places, primarily stock tanks and reservoirs. Where land management practices allow it, bowhunters often dig a pit blind near a water source. Pit blinds can be constructed in a number of ways, but they are usually dug deep enough to hide the hunter from the waist down, with natural vegetation or camouflage netting used to screen the upper body. Another option is to hunt from an above-ground permanent or portable blind. As it takes antelope some time to become comfortable with such structures placed near a watering area, it’s advisable to set up the blind at least a week in advance of the hunt. For rifle hunters, finding a hiding place within range and waiting is about as simple as it gets.
Keying an ambush on a water source isn’t just for hot-weather hunting. Like other ungulates, antelope use unfrozen surface water well into the fall. Just last season, my wife, daughter and I hunted pronghorn in eastern Montana in late October. Our opening weekend hunt had been scuttled by bad weather three weeks earlier. With “bigger fish to fry” in the form of deer and elk, we had just two days to drop a pair of pronghorn for meat.
On a familiar parcel of lightly hunted public land, we spotted around 40 animals in two dispersed herds early the first morning. Both were located about a half mile away, on the opposite side of a sagging, decrepit barbwire fence demarcating the boundary of private land. However, it appeared a handful of animals might be on our side of the wire.
As I watched, one herd began to amble in our direction. Animals ducked under the fence, clearly bringing them onto legal territory. We began devising a stalk, but scrapped the notion when the direction of the herd’s travel became apparent. A small reservoir nourished a handful of green ash and cottonwood trees in a draw just over a rise. The antelope were headed to water.
We failed to outpace the focused footsteps of the pronghorn, but managed to duck into shooting position when they disappeared behind the berm. Lisa and I split up, looking to increase our odds of being in the right place, knowing that ungulates don’t always depart from a water source the way they came.
A barren, thoroughly trampled cattle trail exited the ravine at the southeastern corner of the earthen catchment on the opposite side of the herd’s entrance. Within minutes, antelope trotted up the path. The first wave of five failed to stop before gaining a rise out of shooting range above the draw. Moments later, a trio of young bucks took to the cow path but turned abruptly from its dusty rut to nibble at a patch of shrubs. Too far for Lisa, the animals were 240 yards from where Zoe and I hunkered behind sagebrush. The stock of the Browning .270 Winchester was snugged up against my cheek. A 150-grain Federal Fusion bullet dropped the nearest buck on contact, making a speedy start to the hunt and underscoring the ambush potency of water in pronghorn country.
In my home there’s another testament to the efficacy of ambushing antelope at water. The largest pronghorn I’ve killed came from south-central Wyoming and measures just over 80 inches. A guide and I hid amidst the dead branches of a fallen cottonwood near a broad reservoir in midafternoon. The buck’s trek to quench its thirst on the warm afternoon not only resulted in an exceptional trophy, but one of the easiest shots I’ve ever had at an antelope.
Beyond ambushing antelope at water, intercepting animals as they move while feeding is another excellent strategy for getting close. Pronghorn usually bed for extended periods of time at midday but are up browsing in the early morning and evening hours. If a herd is feeding in a discernible direction, advance quickly to a concealed spot in the direction of their travel, keeping to the downwind side. Croplands or hayfields sporting green forage are magnets to antelope. Intercepting animals as they head for such forage is predictably productive.
Pronghorn are also extremely reluctant to jump fences, so also be mindful of places where antelope duck under the wire to enter a field or move about the prairie. These routes are often used day after day, making them superb spots to wait in ambush. Antelope often create easily discernible trails to such fence breaks.
Some years ago, I annually wrote an article for VFW Magazine. The setting of the story was Broadus, Montana. Characters in the yearly cast included four Vietnam veterans who were technically classified as fully disabled, a formal but highly misleading label that often masked remarkable mental and physical talents. Maimed survivors of booby traps, sniper fire, rocket-propelled grenades and landmines, these fellows generally arrived missing legs, arms, hands, fingers or various portions thereof. Some retained incredible marksmanship from their military training, whether shooting from a wheelchair or out the open window of a pickup (Montana allows fully disabled individuals to hunt from a vehicle). In the five years I covered the hunt, not a single vet departed without killing an antelope.
The tactics that the guides employed to get these men on pronghorn are worth noting for any antelope hunter. Stalks were sometimes devised, but very frequently the patient professionals positioned a physically challenged hunter on the route of moving antelope and simply waited.
My eldest son shot his first pronghorn at age 12 by way of an interception. On opening weekend, the eastern side of the district for which he’d drawn a tag was bogged in gumbo after two days of rain. The western portion was damp, but navigable on foot. On the downside, it held far fewer blocks of public land. Unfamiliar with the area, I pinpointed a square mile of state land adjacent to a well-traveled county road. Concerned that other hunters might also choose the parcel, we arrived at dawn and set out toward an elevated point about a half mile away, intending to glass the surrounding area. As we hiked, several other rigs chugged by on the ribbon of gravel, but none stopped.
Reaching the small butte, we puffed our way to the top, immediately spotting a band of antelope feeding on the prairie not 600 yards from our position. Easing from the summit, we began a looping hike around the base of the hill to stalk the feeding animals. Suddenly, I spotted antelope ahead, a buck and doe, moving perpendicular to our position on a course that would take them through a depression a short distance ahead. Dominic, Micah’s younger brother, remained behind as we forged ahead. Dropping into the squatting duck walk that turns a hunter’s legs to rubber in very short order, we waddled through the sage, beating our quarry to the saddle.
After readying Micah to shoot, I eased to my knees above a screen of sagebrush, hoping to spot the pair of pronghorn. Failing to see them, my eyes drifted in the opposite direction, widening to saucers when I spotted a different buck and several does approaching from the offside of our prairie hideout. “Antelope,” I hissed. Crawling quickly, we eased into an open area for an unobstructed shot in their direction. Then, like clockwork, the buck crested a rise and stopped, not 80 yards away. Sitting with his arms braced against his knees and ready to fire, Micah peered through the scope. “Shoot when you’re ready,” I whispered.
Simultaneously, two salient perceptions seared my consciousness: the roar of the rifle and the image of an antelope buck driven backward with the impact of a 140-grain Federal bullet from a .260 Remington. Then the world returned to a still, blushing morning on the prairie with no visible indication of the drama save the motionless tan and white form on the ground. After gutting the buck, we ambled back toward the pickup to retrieve a game cart. Then the boys ferried the buck across the prairie on the wheeled litter, arriving back at the road with sweat on their brows and no uncertain amount of pride in their steps.
The experience, I hope, taught them two things. First, hiking away from motorized access leads to fine hunting. They also observed a timeless antelope tactic in action. Position yourself to intercept moving animals and you’re well on the way to outwitting the keen eyes of pronghorn.