By Bob Robb
We found the Antelope shy and watchful insofar as we were unable to get a shot at them. I got within about 200 paces of them when they smelt me and fled … The antelopes which had disappeared into a steep ravine now appeared at a distance of about three miles. So soon had these antelopes gained the distance that at first I doubted they were the same I had just surprised, but soon my doubts vanished when I beheld the rapidity of their flight along the ridge before me. It appeared rather the rapid flight of birds than the motion of quadrapeds.—Meriwether Lewis, September 17, 1804, from The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
It’s Not Really an Antelope
I’ve been pursuing pronghorn since the 1970s and doing so is truly one of the hunting trips I love most. Seasons are long, stretching from late summer past Halloween, depending on the state and weapon, and pronghorn are one of North America’s most fascinating big-game animals.
But, first, a question: Why do people call them “antelope?” Even the Wyoming hunting regulation booklet refers to them as “pronghorn antelope.” Pronghorn, however, are not related to antelope, goats or sheep. They are, instead, the remaining member of an ancient animal family dating back 20 million years. They even are their own scientific genus—Antilocapra americana. They are also the second-fastest land mammal in the world—only the cheetah is faster—able to attain speeds of nearly 60 mph over short distances and able to hold half that speed for miles. They have adapted physically for this, with long limbs, lightweight bones, a small digestive tract that enables them to use less energy during locomotion, and large tracheae, lungs and heart for rapid intake of oxygen and increased rate and power of circulation. They have pointed double hooves with cartilaginous padding to cushion shock when running over hard ground and rocks, with the front hooves larger than the back ones as the front carry most of the weight while the animal is running.
Historically, pronghorn have ranged from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan south to northern Mexico and from the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast of Texas in the east to California and Oregon in the west. Today, the largest populations are found in Wyoming and Montana. They are found primarily in shrub lands, Mediterranean-type shrubby vegetation, grassland and temperate desert (though deserts support less than one percent of the population) and are associated most frequently with treeless, flat terrain and short-grass prairies. They are also found in steppe-like terrain with vegetation ranging five to 30 inches in height. Animals have been found from near sea level to 11,000 feet elevation, but most live in elevations ranging between 3,000 and 8,000 feet.
Both sexes have horns, not antlers. Male horns range from 10 to 20 inches in length, though anything measuring over 16 inches is considered exceptional. Female horns rarely exceed four inches. The horns are fully developed by three years of age, are coal black and are composed of a bony permanent interior knob covered by a keratinous sheath, which is shed annually like antlers. The typical horn is lyre shaped, curving back and slightly inward near conical tips, each with one broad, short prong that juts forward and slightly upward approximately halfway from the base.
Pronghorn rely primarily on their keen sense of sight for defense. They have large protruding eyes that appear to be located on the side of the head but are oriented forward enough to allow limited binocular vision. They have the largest eyes of any North American ungulate in relation to body size; each eyeball is about 1.5 inches in diameter. They have nearly a 300-degree arc of vision without moving head or eyes and can easily detect movement up to four miles away.
Watch the Wind, Stay Out of Sight
It is that amazing vision that makes stalking within range of pronghorn so difficult. When not hunting from a blind (or using a decoy during the rut), pronghorn hunting is pretty much a spot-and-stalk game.
One thing all pronghorn hunters quickly learn is that you have to both stay out of sight and watch the wind to be successful. There’s generally a lot of belly-crawling and hunched-over walking involved. In addition to their amazing eyesight, pronghorn also have an excellent sense of smell. If they get a whiff of you, it’s adios amigos.
The standard tactic is to access a high vantage point overlooking a massive amount of territory, employ high-quality optics and glass until a buck is located. A stalk is then planned, taking into account the need to stay out of sight and the wind direction. This cannot be overemphasized. I’ve seen pronghorn on heavily-hunted public lands spook at the sight of a pickup truck topping a rise at a distance of two miles. For that reason, it’s best to get out of the vehicle and hike to the top of a hill or ridge, belly-crawling the last few yards, then slowly peeking over the top. I often put a large piece of sagebrush in front of me as I belly to the top if the rise to further hide my face. Wearing a camouflage facemask will also help hide the glare from your face.
Though tenacious, pronghorn are relatively small and, thus, when selecting a cartridge, hunters don’t need a hand cannon. Any relatively flat-shooting cartridge from the .243 Win. up through any of the .300 magnums will suffice, as long as your rifle/ammunition combination is an accurate one. Variable riflescopes in the 2.5–10X and 4–14X magnification class are perfect. Binoculars in the 10×42 class are excellent, and a spotting scope that can be mounted on both a tripod and a truck window is extremely helpful.
Shooting sticks will be helpful when shooting from the sitting position. Many pronghorn hunters find a bipod valuable to help get their muzzle above the sagebrush when shooting from the prone position, which is common. A puffed-up daypack can help with this as well.
Where Are the Biggest Bucks?
If you’re looking for a really big buck, you’re probably wondering where you can find them. Generally speaking, your best chance at a true monster pronghorn will come from states with a very limited number of permits available through the tag draw. Expect that it will likely take a decade or more to draw (if you ever do), so patience is needed. Alternate tag acquisition routes include tag auctions or landowner tags, available in Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico. States with the highest pronghorn populations, Wyoming and Montana, also annually produce record-class bucks, but far fewer per capita. A good way to get a handle on where monster animals come from is to research the Safari Club Online Record Book. The current edition shows that Arizona and New Mexico dominate, with Arizona producing 23 and New Mexico 21 of the current top 50.