feature By: Jack Ballard | March, 20
Pursuing pronghorn, like hunting any other big-game species on public land, means rolling with the variabilities of weather and the presence of other hunters. A measure of luck also helps, as does hunting in an area with a stable or expanding antelope population. It pays to have a plan, especially for opening day. In our home state of Montana, similar to other hot pronghorn destinations, the animals can go from surprisingly tolerant of humans to wilder than the fabled March Hare in a matter of hours.
It was with those specific factors in mind that my wife, Lisa, and I found ourselves wandering the back roads of eastern Montana on the second Friday in October. Antelope season opened the following day. Early that morning we’d dropped our camping trailer and pitched a wall tent for Bill, a friend from Missouri joining us for the hunt, at a secluded campground. Lisa and I had both drawn tags. Bill struck out in the nonresident license lottery but chose to tag along to learn more about the quarry with an eye toward a future excursion and to hunt upland birds and waterfowl if opportunities presented themselves.
Now midafternoon, we puttered down a graveled road, its surface covered in the shattered red shale infamously known to state residents for its ability to puncture light-duty tires on pickups and hunting rigs. Between the driver’s and passenger’s seats in our Expedition, we’d cached paper maps showing land ownership and properties enrolled in Montana’s Block Management program, which provides public access to private land. Some units require written permission and reservations from the landowner. Others grant access via same-day enrollment on a simple form at a sign-in box. Attached to the windshield with a suction cup was a Garmin GPS outfitted with software from onX Maps (onxmaps.com) showing the precise boundaries of state, federal and private lands.
The plan, as it was, and generally is each time I hunt antelope on opening day, consisted of locating a herd with a desirable buck, though our tags could be used for does as well. Put a herd to bed, so to speak, at dusk on the previous day, and odds are very high they’ll be nearby in the morning as antelope are much less inclined toward nocturnal wanderings than elk or deer. We’d seen several herds since noon, but all were snoozing on private land, save one band on its feet nibbling regrown alfalfa from a hayfield.
On a long, undulating climb through a grassy vale punctuated with chokecherry thickets, we spied creatures near the road. A background color of yellow on the GPS indicated we were on U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) acres. I carefully backed the Expedition over a low rise out of sight. We hopped out, retrieved our firearms and snuck up a roadside draw toward a tangle of chokecherries.
A half-dozen sharp-tailed grouse burst into flight at our approach. One dropped to my 12 gauge. Bird in hand, we joked that we wouldn’t go home completely skunked despite the outcome of the antelope hunt. The conversation then turned to calculating the price per ounce of the sharptail cutlets (around $65) should they be the only meat added to the chest freezer in our garage.
A half hour before sunset, as the burning orb of celestial gas cast its last rays on the prairie landscape, we completed the transition from “seekers” to “finders.” Exactly 32 pronghorn grazed in a broad depression on BLM land bordered by a square mile of state land on its back side. Most congregated together on the north side of a low hill, its western side consisting of a near-vertical abutment of multi-hued sandstone glowing in the warm light of the setting sun. A dozen of the tan-and-white bodies, illuminated like roadside reflectors in the headlights, were scattered in two outlying bunches near the main herd.
Finding a comfortable perch near the road, I trained twin lenses of 10x Swarovski glass toward the pronghorn. Seven bucks with fully-grown horns along with several youngsters fed among the does. Two carried headgear clearly superior to the others. One possessed rather thin horns with weak prongs but impressive length. There was little “hook” to its horns. Nonetheless, it appeared to be a 15-inch buck. The second bore dark fighting gear in classic configuration, bending above the prongs in a heart shape above its smudgy nose. Heavier with jutting prongs, I estimated its horn length about an inch shorter than its fellow. But with more mass and longer prongs, this was the buck we’d hunt for Lisa at dawn.
Back at camp, Bill had rolled in with his yellow Lab, Hector. While Hector and Percy (our English Setter) got reacquainted after hunting together in Missouri the previous winter, we warmed a pot of elk stew, sipped beverages and estimated driving time to reach the antelope herd at the first seconds of legal shooting light, 30 minutes before sunrise.
The electronic jangle from the alarm on Lisa’s phone sounded precisely at 4:45 a.m. Outside, the temperature had dropped to a brisk 20 degrees overnight and a most unwelcome west wind moaned in the curving, emerald needles of the aged ponderosa pines on the uphill side of our campsite. Inside a flannel-lined sleeping bag warmed by a furnace and the body heat from a setter at my toes, an afternoon hunt seemed much more appropriate for the conditions. But we roused ourselves in moments, brewed coffee and cooked pancakes. By the conclusion of breakfast, a sunrise foray in the pronghorn pastures wasn’t such a bad prospect after all.
The route back to the location of the antelope sighting the previous evening commenced with a drive on a state highway to the humble prairie outpost of Baker. From there we’d turned west for some 15 miles, then wind further north and east on graveled county roads.
Lady Luck had a different plan. Buzzing along the highway, a bit tardy on the intended schedule, I spotted a herd of pronghorn adjacent to the roadway. In an “aha” moment, I simultaneously noted the yellow background on the screen of the GPS flagging public land. We slowed to get a better look. Around 20 antelope moved casually among faded grass and drab sagebrush. One of several bucks looked very nice, but stopping to take a gander and alerting the animals was out of the question.
We U-turned at a pullover a mile up the highway then repeated the maneuver after passing the herd in the opposite direction. All adherence to the hunting plan was severed by the opportunity of the moment. I recognized the tract of land the antelope tracked, having hunted there in a previous season. The band was meandering across a shallow draw in the direction of a pointed hill, somewhat in the shape of an upturned funnel. An adjacent ravine curved around the yonder flank of the hill. This, I suspected, was the pronghorns’ direction of travel.
My watch indicated we were already into legal shooting time by several minutes as we pulled well off the asphalt, out of sight of the antelope. Admonishing Lisa and Bill to hurry, we jogged into a cut that kept us out of sight of the prying eyes of the pronghorn. Seemingly created for the occasion, it angled toward the hill, welcomely into the wind. By the time it petered out we were successfully obscured behind the earthen hummock. I ranged the most probable point of the herd’s appearance at 200 yards, settled Lisa behind her bipod and instructed her to chamber a round.
“I’m going to crawl up the hill to where I can see them,” I whispered. “If a buck comes through that you want, just shoot.”
I’d wormed no more than a few yards when a doe materialized in the draw, striding purposely up to the modest incline. A dozen steps behind her came a buck, almost certainly the one I’d pegged as the best of the band.
“As soon as he stops, take him,” I whispered. Seeing her brief nod from behind the scope, I bleated softly to catch the animals’ attention. The doe’s head snapped our way, but instead of stopping, it tensed to bolt, as did the buck behind.
Before its bunched muscles could unwind, a Hornady 130-grain GMX bullet from Lisa’s .270 passed cleanly through its ribcage, shattering the shoulder blade on its offside before exiting just where its tan upper coat transitioned to white. It reared like a rodeo bronc, then crumpled nearly at the feet of the doe.
Sighting my own rifle in the direction of the remaining pronghorn, I picked out another buck as they milled in confusion. Any prospects of a double disappeared when a young doe stepped in front of my intended target. For a few seconds they paused, then sprinted away in typical antelope fashion, an “educated” herd that wouldn’t be easily approached for the remainder of the season.
I checked my watch against our departure time from the vehicle. For the remainder of the trip, we’d happily recall Lisa’s seven-minute pronghorn hunt. The buck was the finest she’d killed, with 14-inch horns, good prongs and mass.
For the next three days, I stalked pronghorn with Bill, but spent much of the time hunting wild turkeys, grouse and waterfowl with my companions. One antelope stalk ended when the herd moved from public land to private. Another blew up when three unseen mule deer erupted from their beds to scuttle an ideal set up on a bunch of feeding pronghorn in late afternoon.
When the hunt ended, we left for home with a mixed bag of birds and Lisa’s buck. I returned to the area two weeks later. Unlike her seven-minute affair, I pounded the prairie for three days before dropping a buck in the waning hours of the long weekend just after a snow squall.
Pronghorn hunting seldom goes by plan. But there’s always a plus, be it the chance to incidentally hunt other critters, share precious time afield with family and friends or simply relish the unexpected angles inherent in antelope hunting.