October 12, 2020
Before we get into the tactics of hunting pronghorns with bow and arrow, it’s time for a little biology lesson. The first thing you should know is that “pronghorn antelope” is a misnomer. They are not related to antelopes, goats or sheep, but instead are the sole remaining member of an ancient family dating back 20 million years. 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—a pace that even cheetahs can’t maintain.
They have adapted physically for this, with long limbs, lightweight bones, a small digestive tract to use less energy during locomotion and a large trachea, lungs and heart for rapid intake of oxygen and increased rate and power of circulation. They have pointed cloven hooves, with cartilaginous padding to cushion shock when running over hard ground and rocks, and the front hooves are larger than the back ones.
The speed of pronghorns is one challenge hunters must overcome, but an equally important one is that these animals 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 a nearly 320-degree arc of vision without moving head or eyes and can easily detect movement up to four miles away.
In short, they represent extreme adaptation to high-plains habitat and are a true challenge for bowhunters.
Plan a Stalk
It is this amazing vision that makes stalking within bow range of pronghorn so difficult—and so satisfying when you are successful.
I arrowed my first pronghorn in the early 1980s in western Montana on a spot-and-stalk hunt where I tried all sorts of things to get a shot. I blew nine different stalking attempts before making it happen. When it did, I crowed like the baddest rooster in the Madison River Valley. I’ve been hooked on bowhunting them since.
The truth is that each stalk on a pronghorn is a very low-percentage game. Just as they are faster than other mammals, they see better than other mammals in their environment. For pronghorn, these two characteristics are why they haven’t gone extinct. If they see you and you look dangerous, they’re gone.
To even have a chance to stalk them you have to select terrain that takes away their vision advantage. Find broken terrain with enough folds and cuts, along with sagebrush, tall cactus or other flora, so you have plenty of cover to hide behind as you approach. Even in the best of conditions, you’ll end up with more blown stalks than quality shots.
One trap that hunters can fall into is paying attention only to avoiding pronghorns’ eyesight. They also have pretty good noses, so if your perfect stalking route takes you up wind of them, they can bust you, especially if they’ve been pressured by other hunters. That’s why spot-and-stalkers need to choose the ground they hunt carefully, exercise patience and be prepared to back off when everything is not exactly right.
Also, stalkers should be prepared to shoot at extended distances—and the truth is most archers do not practice these shots enough to make them reliably. I have a good friend in Colorado who killed a buck in 2017 at 72 yards after a successful stalk. But he practices almost every day at long ranges and can make that kind of shot every time.
A successful bowhunting stalk of a pronghorn is a real accomplishment and a lot of fun. But there are other ways of killing pronghorns that increase your odds.
Plot an Ambush
The best way to bowhunt pronghorns is to employ something that wasn’t around when I started hunting them—the popup ground blind. Even in wide-open sagebrush flats, properly employed ground blinds will hide you in the shadows, allowing you to draw and shoot unseen at a calm animal. Ideally, the pronghorn will be standing broadside with its head down drinking from an isolated water source. I like to set my blind so my expected shot is somewhere between 20 and 40 yards, so before a hunt I do a lot of practice shooting out to 50 yards from the same chair I’ll be sitting on while in the blind.
Unless you’re hunting pressured animals, pronghorns don’t typically spook at the sight of a popup blind that’s been erected near a favorite water source the same day you hunt it. In this regard they are less cautious than most deer and elk. Still, I prefer to scout water sources early using game cameras and/or glassing from afar. Then, a few days before hunting the spot, I set a blind up on water that’s being used frequently by a buck I want. Outfitters will have this done when you come to camp if you choose to hunt with a guide.
You can identify a promising water source by checking around it for fresh tracks. The ideal water source not only has pronghorn tracks, but also is absent fresh sign of range cattle (which pronghorn dislike with a passion) and other hunters.
Add a Decoy
Another fun way to hunt during the rut, which occurs sometime between mid-September and early October, is to employ a hand-held buck decoy during a stalk. This is a two-person hunting technique: One manipulates the decoy and the other shoots. Like any other hunting tactic, using a decoy doesn’t always work, but when it does and a rutting buck charges the “intruder” you’re holding, the action can be insane. One caveat: Don’t try this during firearms season, for obvious reasons.
Unlike many big game animals that are most active during low-light conditions, pronghorns are often up and moving all day long. I’ve killed several while hunting over water between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., which is a time when bucks sometimes leave a bedded herd for a quick drink. Be confident that a midday hunt can be quite productive, even if you are hunting a waterhole from a fixed blind.
Care for Your Meat
Finally, despite what some hunters will tell you, pronghorn is arguably the best-tasting wild game meat the West has to offer. In much of their range, September and even October daytime temperatures can be warm, so come prepared to field dress the animal quickly, get it cooled off and keep it clean. If you do, you’ll have some good meals ahead of you.
Gearing Up: What You Carry with You Can Make a Big Difference
Archery-only pronghorn hunts begin in late summer, when temperatures can approach triple digits. Three items I never leave home without are my optics (10X binocular and variable-power spotting scope), sunblock and bug dope. Here’s some other gear that could prove to be essential:
Hunting from a well-placed blind increases your odds of success exponentially. I really like the Double Bull SurroundView 360 blind ($49.99; primos.com), as it allows me to see in all directions without having to open a window.
These fly like field points and cut big holes in game. Check out the Rage Hypodermic NC ($54.99/3 pack; feradyne.com) and SEVR ($13.99 each; sevrbroadheads.com). Both are outstanding for all North American big game.
Exceptionally useful in the open country pronghorn call home. Two excellent choices are the Bushnell Trophy Xtreme ($149.99; bushnell.com) and Vortex Ranger ($499; vortexoptics.com).
To help stay comfy and pass the time during all-day blind sits, I always pack along lots of liquids and snacks in a small cooler, reading material, cellphone and charging pack, a small battery-operated fan and, of course, toilet paper and wet wipes. I use my daypack for a pillow when I just have to catch a quick midday nap.
Tips for Tags: A Few States Have Tags that Are Relatively Easy to Get
With few exceptions, pronghorn tags are issued through a draw, with application deadlines occurring in spring or summer, depending on the state. Colorado and Nebraska offer over-the-counter archery pronghorn tags, and Wyoming sometimes has leftover tags available after the drawing is held (such tags are then available on a first-come, first-served basis). There are also special auction tags provided by individual states to conservation organizations to help raise revenue, and some states issue landowner tags based on a complex formula, which landowners can either sell or use themselves. Tags are usually limited to specific game management units.
In states with the highest pronghorn numbers—Wyoming and Montana—drawing an archery tag carries good odds. States with lower overall numbers can be more difficult to draw. It’s generally much easier to draw an archery-only tag than a firearm tag. Bonus or preference points can also be accrued. Western state tag draw rules and procedures can be complicated and can change from year to year, so be sure to check with the state(s) you’re considering hunting before applying.
Hire a Guide or DIY: One Requires Cash, the Other a Fair Amount of Effort
Do-it-yourself success on public land can be high for pronghorn hunters who do their homework. For bowhunters, that generally means locating a water source being used by pronghorns that isn’t already occupied by another hunter’s blind. Often, that requires a willingness to hike a long ways from where you park and the ability to pack your blind and gear in and out.
In states that issue lots of tags, expect to run into other hunters—which is why scouting ahead of time and having a Plan B or C is always a good idea for the public-land DIY hunter.
The best outfitted hunts offer a near guarantee of a shot opportunity. That’s because outfitters hunt private land with restricted access and have several great blind setups. Scott and Angie Denny at Table Mountain Outfitters (tablemountainoutfitters.com) in Cheyenne, Wyoming, went 67 for 68 with archers in 2019. That’s not an unusual success rate for them; I’ve killed three bow bucks in three trips with the Dennys.
Ralph Dampman of Trophy Ridge Outfitters (trophyridgeoutfitters.com) in Carlile, Wyoming, is also excellent. In southern Colorado, Fred and Michelle Eichler of Fulldraw Outfitters (fulldrawoutfitters.com) are superb, and archery tags can be had over the counter there.
Fully outfitted archery pronghorn hunts are perhaps the most reasonably priced western big-game hunts, with fees generally ranging between $1,750 and $3,000, plus license and tag, for 3 to 4 days of hunting.