Catron County's Mega Pronghorn

When it comes to record-book speed goats, New Mexico's Catron County leads the pack. If you have such a tag in your pocket, it could be your ticket to the buck of your dreams.

Photo by Chuck and Grace Bartlett

As a veteran outfitter and a serious hunter, Albuquerque resident Jim Welles can tell you all about pronghorn in the Land of Enchantment. And when the conversation turns to hunting New Mexico bucks that wear extraordinarily large sets of jet-black headgear, Welles doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk. One glance at his trophy room wall and another at the record books tell of his credentials.

Welles, you see, shot one of the biggest archery antelope bucks to ever come from the Land of Enchantment, a 1991 pronghorn arrowed in legendary Catron County, with horn length measurements of 16 4/8 inches and 16 3/8 inches, and an impressive 83 2/8 final score. Certainly Catron County is home to some of North America's finest trophy speed goat hunting.

When his spot-and-stalk hunting adventure had ended, the proprietor of JFW Ranch Consulting

www.newmexicobiggamehunting.com, 505-294-7861) found himself tagging an antelope buck most hunters will only dream of shooting. Better yet, the big buck's score grabbed hold of the top rung in the Pope & Young Club's archery record book for New Mexico.

While the Welles' buck now ranks sixth in the Pope & Young Club's antelope records for the Land of Enchantment, it helps to underscore Catron County as one of the best spots in the nation to chase trophy antelope bucks.

Pope & Young's current state record archery antelope also hails from Catron County. Martin Silva shot it the 84 4/8 speed goat in 1997. The Boone & Crockett Club's record book shows that the state's second best overall antelope is another Catron County giant, a 90 6/8 buck taken by John P. Grimmett in 1986. That antelope is just a few fractions of an inch better, by the way, than the 90 2/8 antelope taken in Catron County by Robert N. Bushong in 1998.

While such record book antelope bucks obviously don't grow on cholla cactus, if you're fortunate enough to find a tag to hunt antelope in Catron County this fall, you might want to keep the number for your taxidermist on speed dial. With the snow and rain that has finally returned to the state during the past year, things are looking up for antelope herds here and throughout New Mexico, according to Game and Fish Department biologist Julie Cummings, who serves as the state's coordinator for the antelope landowner program.

"We've actually gotten more snow and rain statewide, so we're expecting a much better year (for antelope)," Cummings said.

Snow and rainfall are important to stimulate food growth in New Mexico. As selective foragers, the state's 30,000 or so speed goats obtain much of their annual diet from forbs, then shrubs, and finally, in a very minute portion, from some grasses, according to Cummings.

When more food is available -- and the quality of that food is high -- that normally means improving antelope numbers and better horn growth, two factors that should mean plenty of smiles for New Mexico hunters late this summer and early this fall.

While Cummings hesitated to look too far down the road, she indicated that antelope hunters -- including those in Catron County -- could probably look forward to a solid season of hunting as long as searing drought conditions don't return to the state over the summer.

"As for a prognosis, I probably wouldn't go as far as an 'A' but I'd probably rate it as a 'B,' " Cummings said.

That should be nothing but good news for Catron County antelope hunters, where solid habitat, good forage and impeccable genetics could help propel the county to the forefront of New Mexico speed goat hunting yet again.

What should you do if you're fortunate to have an antelope tag in your back pocket for Catron County's Unit 9, 12 or 13 this year?

Come prepared to make whatever type of opportunity you may be presented with (see sidebar). While just the mere mention of shooting distances can stir up heated conversations among ethical hunters, Welles points out that there are few close-range opportunities on antelope in the Land of Enchantment. Bowhunting these wary creatures presents even more challenges. "If you're archery hunting, you certainly need to increase your lethal range," Welles said.

That's especially true for hunters who harbor the hope of zipping an arrow through a buck on a spot-and-stalk hunt. While shots of less than 30 yards can be had around waterhole blind set-ups, bowhunters will seldom get that tight to speed goats when the stalk is on.

"The average shot on a spot-and-stalk deal is about 40 to 65 yards," Welles said. "The 15- to 20-yard shots that eastern whitetail hunters are accustomed to are just few and far between out here."

METHODS OF HUNTING ANTELOPE
Want to put a tag on an antelope? One or more of these methods will likely fit into any successful hunt.

  • Spot-and-stalk -- After identifying a buck to shoot, the hunter attempts to sneak within shooting range, using terrain, vegetation and careful movements from downwind to gain advantage. This is a popular but difficult technique to use to tag an antelope, thanks to their sharp eyesight and field of vision that nears 360 degrees.

  • Waterhole hunting -- Antelope live in arid country in which water is scarce. Hunters, and especially bowhunters, who sit in blinds near watering holes can select the highest quality pronghorn to shoot.

  • Long-range shooting -- A rifle certainly increases a hunter's chances, but the Land of Enchantment's desert wind and sheer distance (shots are often up to 300 yards or better) can turn a "can't-miss shot" into a puff of dust. Lots of long-range target practice is required to be successful.

  • Decoy hunting -- Rutting pronghorn bucks are highly aggressive and will defend their harems from competing bucks in a heartbeat. Take advantage of this natural instinct by sneaking within 150 yards of a dominant buck and slowly raising up a buck decoy. -- Lynn Burkhead
  • When first laying eyes on the desert terrain that makes up much of the New Mexico landscape, hunters can be deceived into believing that this terra firma is virtually featureless, amounting to nothing more than a cactus-studded billiards table. Closer inspection tells a different story. Welles says spot-and-stalk hunting can

    be an effective and tremendously exciting means of archery hunting if bowhunters would learn to use terrain and vegetation to mask their movements.

    "Most individuals aren't eager to do the spot-and-stalk," Welles said. "They hear about waterhole hunting in other states where hunters are successful. But with the vegetation like yuccas, cholla cactus and even cedars here in New Mexico, there are ways to use the terrain to your advantage."

    All this talk of long-range shots and difficult spot-and-stalk hunting would give the impression that all one needs is a flat-shooting rifle with good optics to be successful. But that's only partly true. Welles says many antelope hunters come into camp unprepared to shoot the long distances necessary in Catron County.

    "A lot of people that (hunt here) are used to 100-yard shots in the woods," Welles said. "Out here, I tell my clients to be ready for a 250- to 300-yard shot." And they need to be able to shoot those distances in windy conditions, which are normal in the desert.

    We're not talking about large calibers for pronghorn, but rifle and hunter must be able to consistently hit a 6-inch diameter kill zone from 300 yards in a variety of conditions.

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