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column By: Lee Hoots | January, 19
That a hunter can outwit an old buck pronghorn outright on a regular basis is an impractical assumption. With perhaps the exception of sitting in a blind over water during early bow seasons, when midday temperatures can strain the 100-degree mark in some parts of the West, and on the more rare occasion when animals can later be patterned on agriculture such as winter wheat fields, North America’s fastest and most sharp-sighted game animal is no pushover.
Mature bucks and does have seen about every trick in the book. They can – and usually do – send a hunter on a long walk back to his pickup, befuddled but scheming. Furthermore, if hunting trophy-class bucks to the exclusion of all others, as many people do (or at least begin a hunt with that challenge in mind), hanging a tag on a set of oversized black horns is no slam dunk. Native to North America, pronghorns have been evading humans longer than deer and elk.
The pronghorn goes by many nicknames, including “prongbuck” (a term largely made popular by one of America’s most influential hunters/conservationists/writers, Teddy Roosevelt), the more common “antelope” and the misleading and improper “prairie goat/speed goat.” This last colloquialism can likely be traced back to the animals’ Latin designation: Antilocapra americana, or in layman’s terms, “American goat-antelope.” Regardless of what hunters call them, prongbucks are no easy target, and their intelligence, as with most big game, increases with age and experience. For the sporting man or woman, this becomes particularly obvious when hunting old bucks that have survived plenty of harsh winters, four-legged predators and rifle seasons.
Many years ago, for example, while hunting on a cattle ranch for three days under big skies east of Great Falls, Montana, it proved difficult to find a mature buck. There were more than enough tan-and-white pronghorns on that undulating property, and stalking to within reasonable shooting distance of herds of eight to 15 animals was common enough. Yet I do not recall seeing a single buck with “eye-popping” horns that was not already trotting or running full-out away from even large, otherwise relaxed herds of does and sub-adult bucks, the latter with which we filled our tags.
That situation could very probably have been the result of hunting pressure, but it’s doubtful due to the fact that the land owner let very few hunters (always unguided) on his property during a given year. More likely, the few old bucks that were seen running off following any hint of something unordinary had already learned that a man crawling through grass and sage was trouble.
There are those rare times, however, when a pronghorn can be duped due to ordinary curiosity, and in spite of what hunting gear marketers would have today’s hunters believe, very little is new under the prairie or high-plains sun. For example, in the well-written and exceptionally researched and illustrated book by Richard C. Rattenbury, Hunting The American West, In Pursuit of Big Game for Life, Profit, and Sport, 1800-1900, published by the Boone and Crockett Club (boone-crockett.org), a reader will find early depictions of hunters “flagging” pronghorns; one in a Charles Marion Russell (who lived in Great Falls for some time) water-color (1898) and the other in a wood-cut engraving from Harper’s Weekly (1874).
The Russell painting depicts an American Indian laying alongside a bearded frontiersman, both with rifles in hand – the bearded fellow holding a stick atop which dangles a fur cap. In the distance is a group of pronghorns, their attention focused on the apparently twirling cap. The engraving shows a curly haired man with his rifle propped on crossed shooting sticks aimed at an oncoming, inquisitive herd of prongbucks while his hunting partner has both of his wiggling feet pointed toward the sky.
As one who largely prefers to wear out some boot leather over sitting in a hot blind with a restricted view, I have tried most of the known tactics said to lure a trophy buck into reasonable shooting distance, including waving some sort of flag and hiding behind pronghorn silhouettes while approaching the most wary critters. So far those tricks – which some hunters swear by – have not worked, but there is another that has.
Most pronghorn country is grazing country, where either cattle or sheep are put out to range – whether public land on which a rancher has grazing rights or private pasture that has belonged to a ranching family for a great many generations. Pronghorns that are used to cattle are said to be easily approached by a hunter hiding behind the silhouette of a cow.
My old friend Jack Polen works at the NRA Whittington Center near Raton, New Mexico (nrawc.org). During hunting season, he often throws-in as a pronghorn guide. Several years back while glassing rolling grasslands for an approachable buck, Jack suggested we try to make a stalk on a lone buck by huddling together behind a camouflage net, thereby hiding any human outline. It was midday, and all the game was bedded, so we figured it would give us something to do, though I remained skeptical about the outcome. Nevertheless, we quickly circled out of sight downwind, then covered up with the netting and walked, partially stooped over, in single file directly toward the pronghorn. At some point the buck began feeding, and for a while it paid no attention to the creeping blob hiding two men.
The high plains and prairie lands lure many hunters to pronghorn country. Season dates and durations are often fairly accommodating and lengthy, depending on the state, and they often overlap with deer and sometimes elk seasons. It would be quite difficult to choose a favored state for pronghorn hunting, but it might be New Mexico. The first pronghorn I shot there dates back to the introduction of Remington’s 7mm Remington Short Action Ultra Mag cartridge in the Model Seven rifle about 17 years ago. There were a few writers involved and a couple people from Remington. We all shot very nice bucks, but none of them represented the fabled “trophy” the state had/has a reputation for.
Nonetheless, it seems to me New Mexico has better genetics overall for large-horned bucks. This, of course, depends on where a hunter spends his time. And if trophy quality is of utmost importance (for me it’s not), the savvy fellow will put in some time researching regions and hunt units – and draw statistics. After all, a buck with horns of record-book proportions cannot be shot without drawing a tag. My home state, Arizona, is well known for “book” pronghorns, but pulling a rifle tag, or even an archery tag, is a rare occurrence.
Now and then letters are received here at the office from readers requesting information about pronghorn rifles, having already planned their first out-of-state hunt. Having shot prongbucks with rifles up to the .30-06, the first thing I tell them is that pronghorns do not require a “lot of killing,” and in my experience, shot distances rarely exceed 300 yards, given a reasonable effort in stalking.
At that distance, about any standard high-velocity rifle cartridge from the .243 Winchester and up shooting most standard cup-and-core bullets will work just fine as the heaviest pronghorns rarely weigh more than 130 pounds on the hoof. Would-be pronghorn hunters likewise have interest in some of the newer bullets that are long for caliber and have higher ballistic coefficients (BC). BCs are irrelevant at the distances most prongbucks (and most big game, for that matter) are shot, but if a new bullet proves to be more accurate from a specific rifle, by all means use it.
Second, always bring a good binocular, boots, shooting sticks and at least one pair of leather gloves. Finally, if their hunting chum or guide suggests covering up with camouflage netting in preparation for a stalk, roll with it.