August 23, 2023
It was mid-afternoon by the time the shooter buck I'd been watching finally moved over a ridge, giving me a window to commence a stalk. Fifteen minutes later I was glassing from where I'd seen the buck and its harem disappear, but there was no sign of them.
Then, more than a mile away, flashes of white caught my eye. Setting up the spotting scope, I watched smaller bucks chase does in circles through the sagebrush. Moments later, my buck stepped into view. The pronghorn was easy to recognize, and just the sight of it made me gasp. Its body dwarfed those of the inferior bucks in the group, and its black face almost shined. But it was the right horn that jutted 90 degrees to the side of its head that left no doubt this was the buck.
My dad was with me on this hunt, and we both had a tag for the northeast corner of Wyoming. We'd seen this buck the day before while scouting, and I immediately knew I was going home with it or nothing.
While Dad and I had shared many hunts over the past 40 years, this was our first pronghorn hunt together. Dad had taken a few antelope on his own, including a high-scoring record-book buck that neither of us will likely ever beat. I'd been on a number of hunts in various states with both bow and rifle. But this was the first time we'd chased the desert dwellers together, and we were in no hurry to fill tags. Like my dad, I grew up in western Oregon. We've hunted Columbia blacktail deer and Roosevelt elk our whole lives. The habitat they call home is more like a jungle rainforest, so we welcome any hunt that takes us to wide-open spaces, like pronghorns do.
With my dream buck too far to chase, I backtracked and caught up with Dad. He'd been glassing another area and found three bucks worth taking a closer look at. One buck was with more than 20 does and was incessantly chasing them. Dad decided to pass on that buck, for who knew where their antics would lead. Another nice buck was with a harem of its own, but several small bucks kept pestering it. There was some strong competition happening in that herd.
We turned the spotting scopes to another buck Dad had been watching. It was a nice representative buck, but as I reminded Dad we had four days left, he interrupted me.
"There's the one I want, bedded down behind the one we've been watching," he said. Looking carefully, I could see the top of the head and the horns of the buck. "It's not huge, but it has nice mass and it's in a fun spot to try a stalk," Dad noted, folding up his spotting scope tripod.
We cut the distance in half, progressing to 800 yards. Then the herd moved off, going out of sight over the backside of a knoll. Dad's buck still lay there, taking in a commanding view of a falling sun. We dropped into a swale and quickly covered ground, hidden from the buck. We were 400 yards closer now, and when we peeked over the sagebrush, Dad's buck was bedded in the same spot. But five other bucks had moved in, along with some does. Now we had multiple eyeballs to contend with.
We sat for 45 minutes, watching bucks chase each other and pester does. One doe seemed to be in heat, which set off the whole herd, a typical occurrence late in the rut. When the herd was preoccupied, we crawled on hands and knees. We cut the distance to 263 yards and couldn't get any closer. Dad felt more than confident with his trusty .270, a cartridge he's taken a lot of game with over the years.
Finally, Dad's buck couldn't take it anymore. It arose, stretched and walked over to the suspected doe in heat. All the other bucks in the herd gave way. The buck then turned broadside, and Dad made a perfect shot. (He's one of the best shots I've ever seen with a rifle and shotgun.)
We dragged the speedgoat back to the truck and headed to camp. Hanging it in the trees, we skinned it, cleaned up the bloodshot behind the shoulders and put a game bag over it. The night was cold, and the meat would keep.
The next morning, we were back where I'd last seen the bent-horned buck. It was nowhere. I was nervous because at the last spot I'd seen the buck, it was chasing does only a few paces from the Montana border to the north and the South Dakota state line to the east. If the buck had kept pushing in the direction it was heading, I may never see it again. We found one herd, but it was minus the bent-horned buck. Then we located another herd in tall sage, about 300 yards inside the Wyoming line. In the middle of the herd was the bent-horned buck.
My heart raced when I laid eyes on the buck through the spotting scope. Pronghorns don't usually get my pulse surging, but this one did. I'm not sure if it was the elation with having simply located the buck in the right state or the fact it had such unique headgear. I think it was a combination. When you target a specific pronghorn in the open desert and find it two days in a row, it's a special feeling that defines what makes hunting these grand ungulates so momentous.
Dad and I watched as the herd slowly moved into the flats, all 60-plus head. With so many animals in such a level setting, we had no choice but to wait. Two hours later, the herd finally started moving in our direction. It didn't take long till they were 600 yards away, then 500, then 400.
"Is this really going to happen?" I whispered to Dad.
Setting up the shooting sticks, I took a solid rest. The herd was starting to string out, and the buck was at the very back. When the closest animals got within 200 yards, they turned and went up a shallow ravine. Now the whole herd was heading away. Once they disappeared, we dropped into a ravine that paralleled the one the pronghorns were in. The wind was perfect, we were hidden, and we walked fast. The going was quiet in the soft, sandy soil.
My goal was to beat the herd to the head of the draw, where both ravines converged, and set up there. The plan worked, and soon I was back on the shooting sticks, waiting.
When the lead does popped into view, 75 yards away, the wind changed and instantly the whole herd was on a dead run. We let them go, went back to the truck for lunch and gave them time to settle down. They never saw us, just smelled us, so we were in good shape.
Two hours later we found the herd a bit more than a mile away from where it had spooked. The animals milled around, but the bent-horned buck was bedded alone, 100 yards from the rest of the herd. With the wind in my face and the sun at my back, I wasted no time making a move. Dad stayed behind and watched.
It took me more than an hour to get within 400 yards of the buck. By now, 30 mph winds hammered the land, but the buck was lying in a protected bowl, going nowhere. I crawled 150 yards and could get no closer. All I could see was the buck's horns. Lying prone, I secured the gun on my pack, making for a rock-solid rest. All I needed was for the buck to stand. Two hours later, the pronghorn finally gained its feet, stretched and began walking my direction. The sage was short and I had a clear shot, but the buck was walking and getting closer with each step, so I waited.
Tracking the buck's every stride in my scope was a vision I'll never forget. The headgear seemed big in the 9X Trijicon scope. I almost pulled the trigger when the buck closed to 200 yards but chose to keep waiting. The wind was powerful and moving in the right direction. When the buck stopped at 150 yards, I shot. The death sprint didn't last long.
Every time I look at that buck in my office, the vivid memories of this father-son hunt come to life. Everything about that hunt epitomized what makes pursuing open-country pronghorns so enthralling.
I've enjoyed some amazing archery hunts for speedgoats over the years. For every successful hunt there were multiple botched opportunities, and each one resulted in an education.
One time in South Dakota I was determined to arrow a buck by spot-and-stalk. After multiple blown stalks, I found a lone buck bedded in short yellow grass. It was facing straight away. I began the stalk from more than 600 yards, figuring there was no way I'd get within bow range in the shoelace-tall cover. At 400 yards I got serious, taking off my boots and continuing in my socks. At 100 yards I nocked an arrow, and at 32 yards I slipped an arrow behind the shoulder of the bedded buck that had no clue I was near. The stalk seemingly took forever, but staying centered behind the buck's head as it looked the other way the entire time allowed me to pull it off.
I made a similar stalk on a dandy buck bedded in sagebrush during another season. It was the height of the rut, and I figured the buck was just resting, alone, in the middle of the day. When I had closed within range the buck turned its head and should have busted me, but for some reason it didn't. I put an arrow into the boiler room, and the buck ran a short distance and tipped over. When I grabbed the horns, I realized one eye had recently been gouged out from fighting. My buddies never let me live down that stalk.
One August in eastern Montana, I found a smasher buck. The buck always had a harem and there was no way to get close, so I sat on a waterhole smack in the middle of its scrape line. For six days straight, daylight to dark, I sat. It was more than 100 degrees every day. One day I lost 11 pounds, sweating profusely inside that blind. I passed up several bucks until the last day, when I arrowed an average buck just to take meat home. It ran around the backside of the waterhole and fell over dead, 30 yards from me. The big buck was bedded in sagebrush 200 yards away, saw what had happened and came charging in. It horned and kicked my buck then stood there, broadside. That buck remains one of the biggest pronghorns I've ever seen, and all I could do was just watch it.
On another Montana archery hunt, it was unbearably hot and I couldn't find a big buck despite five days of hard searching. I flew home, intending to return a couple weeks later. The day after I got home, a buddy called and said a massive storm was moving in, and it was supposed to dump inches of rain. The next day I was back on a plane. The following morning it was raining hard, and antelope were feeding everywhere. I made a stalk on a whopper buck, and in less than an hour my tag was filled.
I love using a young buck decoy when bowhunting pronghorns. One of the first times I tried a decoy, a buddy was with me. He drew the short straw and held the decoy first. We spotted a nice buck with a few does. The buck was guarding the does, so my buddy held the decoy in front of him and started walking right at them. I followed behind him. When we got to 75 yards the buck took an aggressive posture then came on an all-out run, right at us. I stepped to the side of the decoy, reached full draw, and tried centering my pin on the buck so I could let loose the moment it stopped. The buck never did stop, not until it sideswiped the decoy my buddy was holding, three paces from me. The buck was as shocked as we were, and turned and sprinted off as quickly as it had come in. I had no shot at the erratically moving speedster. My buddy and I just looked at one another in disbelief. Eventually, we both arrowed bucks, thanks to the decoy.
The only hunting I've experienced that's anything close to pursuing pronghorns is hunting plains game in Africa. In both scenarios the land is open and vast, there are lots of animals, and if you blow an opportunity there will always be another one. That's what makes hunting pronghorns with family and friends so enjoyable. There's no competition. No need to rush. No hunting for a week just hoping to see one buck and maybe get a shot at it. Heck, you can sleep in if you'd like, for pronghorns are visible all day long.
One season I hosted six hunters from overseas. They had to hunt with a guide because they were foreign citizens, and we chose Wyoming. Animals were everywhere. Three of them tagged out on the first morning, and two later in the day. One gentleman held out, reminding everyone it was a five-day hunt. The next two days, the five who were done shot prairie dogs. The other man looked over and passed up multiple bucks then finally killed a dandy with 16-inch-plus horns. Everyone had the time of their life and loved seeing the American West for the first time.
On another hunt with my dad, I'd already filled a tag. We were in no hurry, and I wanted Dad to get a dandy. We looked over numerous bucks, then Dad found one he wanted. The horns came out of the head at sharp angles, almost lying flat. I told Dad the horns weren't even 12 inches long, that it had no cutters and no ivory tips. He didn't care.
"That's just a cool-looking buck, and I'm not going to eat horns," Dad said with a smile.
We commenced a stalk, blew out the buck and caught up to it a quarter mile later only to have another buck run it off. Ninety minutes later we got on it again, and Dad made a perfect shot at a little more than 300 yards. He was elated with that small buck and the fun stalk we had shared. That's the beauty of pronghorns: Hunters define their own trophies and make their own memories.
I've had my sons on pronghorn hunts while they were growing up, and they loved it. No pressure. Nice weather. Lots of game and so much to explore when the hunt was over.
One season a buddy and I took our oldest kids on a hunt, along with our wives. Everyone had a blast and got representative bucks. My wife, Tiffany, was the last to hunt. We found a herd bedded in the sage in the final hours of daylight. A long belly crawl found my buddy, Tiffany and me popping out of a swale. The herd was 200 yards away and had no idea we were there. A slight crosswind held steady, and Tiffany got set in the bipod that was mounted on her rifle. I could hear my buddy whispering something to Tiff, but I'm half deaf and failed to hear what he said. When the buck I wanted Tiffany to shoot stood, I gave her the green light. She shot, but the buck just stood there. Then she and my buddy exchanged high fives.
"What are you doing? Shoot again," I insisted.
"What do you mean?" my buddy came back. "That buck is dead in its bed!"
They'd picked out a buck 30 yards to the left of the one I'd been watching, a bigger buck that Tiff made a perfect shot on, one I never even saw. Such is pronghorn hunting. It's one of those experiences that, when it's over, you wish you could get it back. If you pull the trigger on the first buck you see, you're likely going to be planning your next hunt right away.
When hunting pronghorns, take your time. Enjoy every sunrise. Relish the smells. Take in the unique habitat and wildlife. And be thankful we have so much public land on which to hunt these special animals of our Western states.
Optics and Digiscoping
- Use good glass and your phone to size up a buck.
One of the joys of pronghorn hunting is watching so many animals. In order to do this efficiently and in comfort, quality optics are important. You want a good binocular for glassing, and a clear spotting scope for evaluating bucks and planning stalks. Heat waves will be an issue when glassing for pronghorns, so make sure you have a sturdy tripod for your spotting scope. This will alleviate eye strain and allow you to glass longer and more comfortably.
When seeking a big buck, I like digiscoping—mounting my smartphone to a spotting scope, and taking pictures and video. This allows me to evaluate the horns of a buck, which are difficult to judge. I’ve been using Novagrade’s Double Gripper digiscoping adapter ($169; novagrade.com) for three years, and I love it. The Double Gripper allows it to fit any cell phone, and a range of available adapters will fit any spotting scope or binocular eyepiece. Compression rings are included for eyepieces from 39 mm to 60 3/4 mm in diameter, with optional rings available for eyepieces less than 39 mm. Constructed of anodized aluminum, the adapter features two soft-touch phone grippers that can be adjusted so as not to interfere with buttons. Once adjusted for your phone, the moving parts can be secured for quick and easy in and out.