August 25, 2021
My heartbeat accelerated with an explosive burst as I watched the pronghorn buck swap ends and charge my decoy. I had previously witnessed the behavior as a bystander, but now, armed with a bow, it was as real as it gets.
The buck did not slow until he trotted inside of 30 yards, and only then to scrutinize my arrow draw. By the time he sensed danger, it was too late. I had tagged my first pronghorn with a bow on a DIY hunt in South Dakota.
The Mount Rushmore State has a well-earned reputation as a pheasant paradise, especially east of the Missouri River. But hop the river and head west, and you will discover a world of prairies, badlands and rising buttes that pronghorns call home.
South Dakota is one of the few places in the Midwest where you can bowhunt pronghorns without years of planning, and it is also one of the earliest seasons. The state vies annually for third or fourth place with nearby Colorado for overall pronghorn density. Only Wyoming and Montana have more of the speedsters.
Density varies from year to year and decade to decade, depending on a variety of factors—especially weather. As I type this article, South Dakota is experiencing a mild winter. Even so, killer blizzards can break out in March or April and decimate animals weakened from enduring even average winter conditions.
Predation, loss of habitat and even migration can alter the overall population of a pronghorn area, too. Always check with biologists on the status of the herd in an area you might consider hunting. Even with the ups and downs, though, expect pronghorn to be plentiful in South Dakota this year.
A consistent population and an unlimited number of archery licenses pretty much guarantee you can start planning your hunt. If you visit the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks website, you'll see it refers to pronghorns as "antelope," so, that's what we’ll call them while discussing department details.
An archery antelope license costs nonresidents $286 for any antelope and $80 for a doe tag, but according to regulations, you can only have one. You can apply for a guaranteed tag beginning July 19, and the window to purchase a tag remains open until the close of the season. You may also purchase a tag at the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks Fort Pierre office during business hours.
Archery antelope season in South Dakota begins Aug. 21 and ends Oct. 31 this year, but it is closed from Oct. 1 through Oct. 17 for the firearm season. In 2019 (the most recent year for which information is available), the state sold a combined 2,414 archery antelope tags for both resident and nonresident hunters and the success rate was 25 percent.
HAUNTS TO HUNT
South Dakota's pronghorns (we're switching back to their true name now) are mostly confined to regions west of the Missouri River, though you'll find some in scattered counties that border the river on the east side. The bulk of pronghorns are found in the southwest and northwest corners of the state, which coincidentally border both Wyoming and Montana. Again, those states lead North America in pronghorn density, and herds migrate across the borders routinely, especially during harsh winters.
Despite this widespread distribution, pronghorns require certain habitat needs. They appreciate agriculture, but regions with massive transitions from native prairie or sagebrush to tillable ground oftentimes lack large masses. Pronghorns travel to hayfields, winter wheat and other crops on occasion, but a sagebrush or prairie environment, highlighted with browse and forbs, ensures survival. The northwest and southwest corners fit the bill. Farther east, around the Missouri River, finding native habitats not touched by a plow requires a bit more scouting.
The majority of South Dakota is privately owned, but if a DIY, public-land pronghorn hunt is your mission, you have several options. Consider small Bureau of Land Management tracts, portions of the Custer National Forest, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, the Grand River National Grassland and the Fort Pierre National Grassland. The state also allows hunting on Game Production Areas and School and Public Lands.
The three national grasslands provide thousands of acres of hunting access, while the state parcels open gates to a checkerboard of public land surrounded by private deed holders. A quality hunting app, like the free HuntStand app, is invaluable when navigating a sea of private ownership.
Luckily, South Dakota has been an innovator in opening additional private land to public hunting. The state's crown jewel is its Walk-In Program for public hunting. Annually, this program enables access to one million or more acres across the state. Much of it is scattered across potential pronghorn country, and during summer the state publishes an atlas of all leased properties. It’s also available online.
In recent years, South Dakota has also launched the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program and the Controlled Hunting Access Program for more access to private land. Both have a focus on big game hunting, so be sure to check to see which new enrollees for this season are located within the pronghorn landscape.
Also, never underestimate the hospitality of a rural landowner in the outback of South Dakota. Stopping to talk to a rancher could result in a new hunting area as you scout public options. Offer to help mend a fence or spend an hour sorting cattle. Generosity goes a long way in acquiring permission to hunt in rural America.
By the third week of August, the rumble of motorcycles from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally has subsided in pronghorn country. You have several options to begin your bowhunting quest. Three standout strategies include blind hunting near a waterhole, spot-and-stalk hunting and utilizing a decoy. Use each tactic alone or combine them to freelance your own approach.
A high-success hunt is possible if you locate a water source pronghorns regularly use. Unlike whitetails that spook at a newly staked blind, pronghorns warm to new additions rather quickly. On several occasions I've staked a blind in the dark of morning and shot a pronghorn hours later while hiding within its confines.
That said, South Dakota is typically wetter than other states where pronghorns are found, thus making waterhole hunting questionable. That, and the fact that ranchers everywhere have been developing water for livestock, creates ample water sources for picky pronghorns.
If you find waterhole hunting to be a bust, move on to a spot-and-stalk approach. The large expanses of prairie, such as the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, enable hours of wandering. Slow down at each rise and slowly peek over with your binocular to scan. Pronghorns have eyesight comparable to a six-power binocular or more. They spot any movement immediately. Once you spy a likely candidate for stalking, use terrain to hide your downwind approach. Rise to shoot only when a pronghorn is looking completely away or has its head buried in grass while feeding.
Finally, consider using a decoy. South Dakota is the home of the decoying craze, which skyrocketed after Mel Dutton introduced the first commercially available pronghorn decoy. Decoying can work anytime from the opener through October. The pronghorn rut typically runs the month of September with the peak occurring mid-month.
Decoys that look like an immature male grab the attention of any herd buck guarding females. Approach a herd downwind to within 200 yards and slowly raise your decoy. It could spark the herd buck to race your way.
Primitive camping is allowed on all national forest service lands, which includes South Dakota’s national grasslands. State parks are scattered widely through the western half of the state, so expect a long drive between most campgrounds and hunting areas. You may find a landowner willing to put up with you and your camper, but if not, use small towns like Bison, Buffalo, Belle Fourche, Wall, Hot Springs, Kadoka, Murdo and others for a base. Locals may even help steer you in the direction of pronghorns. Get travel information at travelsouthdakota.com.
Nail down your best bets for tagging a pronghorn.
Zeroing in on hot spots for South Dakota archery pronghorns is relatively easy. Although your archery license is good across the western half of the state and a handful of eastern counties, the entire hunting area is listed as a single unit. The South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks breaks areas down further for their own research uses, including population density maps, by the county units designated for firearm hunting.
These helpful online pronghorn density maps illustrate spring counts and show if there were increases or decreases. The latest map tells a tale similar to previous years, as do surveys on hunting success. Of the 22 management units where pronghorns were harvested, 63 percent of that harvest came from the northwest in Harding and Butte counties. The adjacent regions of southern Perkins and northern Meade counties also have a higher pronghorn population, with three to five animals per square mile.
The next best management unit is Fall River County in the southwest corner, next door to Wyoming. Portions of this county also have pronghorn distributions of up to four animals per square mile from recent surveys. The remainder of the western half of South Dakota varies from zero to two animals per square mile.
Regarding trophy opportunities, most high-scoring bucks come from the popular counties outlined above. However, sometimes a less-advertised area has potential to produce a mature animal scoring more than 70 inches.