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Pronghorn Perseverance: When a Hunt Goes Off the Rails in the Blink of an Eye

A Wyoming pronghorn hunt that doesn't go as planned is lesson in endurance of hunter and game.

Pronghorn Perseverance: When Hunt Goes Off the Rails in Blink of an Eye

Cagey, fast and blessed with incredible eyesight, the pronghorn is one of North America's most challenging big-game species to hunt. (Shutterstock image)

Brian Schiermiester's Chevy Colorado slowly bucked and juked its way up the sage-covered, rock-strewn hill like an arthritic rodeo bull. I was regretting the second helping of biscuits and gravy I'd downed at our tent camp a couple hours earlier when my friend Brooks Hansen let out a "Hold up!" from the back seat.


Brian came to a stop, and he and I turned to see which way Brooks was looking, then dutifully pointed our binos in the same direction. About 200 yards away stood the best pronghorn buck we'd seen to that point, casually grazing with some does. Not a grab-the-rifle-jump-out-of-the-truck-and-shoot kind of buck, but a good one.

With no shortage of pronghorns on the Schiermiester family's 26,000-acre cattle ranch north of Kaycee, Wyo., and three-plus days left to hunt, we opted to press on.

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The flat light beneath the slate-gray sky and endless miles of brown shortgrass prairie would've made spotting pronghorns difficult if it weren't for their betraying white rumps. After a bit more driving, we observed five of those Judas keisters in the distance and decided to get a closer look on foot. Using knobs and ravines to hide our approach, we managed to slip to within about 250 yards of the quintet of bucks, two of which were quite nice.

One was very wide and the other tall, and I decided I would take a poke at the former if I could get a clear shot. Unfortunately, a clump of sage 10 feet in front of me obscured my view of the group, and the goats pegged us as I attempted to switch spots with Brian. They buggered before I could put either of the two larger bucks in my crosshair.

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Successful hunters quickly learn to use the varied terrain of pronghorn country to their advantage, just as the animals do. (Photo by John Taranto)

We waited for them to fully disappear from sight before standing and plotting a route that would hopefully put us in front of them. After 20 minutes of hiking, it became clear that the bucks had put more ground between us than we could make up on foot, and our focus shifted to glassing nearby draws and flats from a high vantage point.

It wasn't long before the buck we had seen earlier in the morning from the comfort of Brian's truck materialized at the bottom of a draw, though without the does that had accompanied him earlier. Judging from his purposeful gait, it was clear he had his sights set on something we couldn't see, so once again we attempted to circle around and get in front of a determined pronghorn.

We got to a position that would afford me a downhill shot on the buck as it exited the draw, but after 10 minutes of lying prone on the wet ground, it became obvious that the buck had vamoosed before we'd even gotten set up. Brian eased around the ridge on which we were positioned and confirmed that the buck was on the move to another part of the ranch, having hooked up with a large group of does and a few other bucks.

Pronghorn-Perseverance
Brian Schiermiester (left) and Brooks Hansen take a gander at a distant herd. (Photo by John Taranto)

A WAITING GAME

I'll freely admit that hunting pronghorns on private land in Wyoming isn't terribly difficult. That isn't to say it can't be incredibly frustrating, given the animals' hair-trigger wariness, incomparable eyesight and blinding speed. Their proclivity to travel in large groups only augments the other traits. But, by and large, if you are patient, diligent, not obsessed with killing a record-book animal, and competent enough to make what could be a lengthy shot, you're almost guaranteed to fill a tag.

There are nearly 400,000 pronghorns in the Cowboy State, and any given ranch could hold hundreds, if not thousands of them. It boils down to a waiting game. You either wait to cross paths with a buck that offers at least a fleeting shot opportunity, or you sit on one that’s perhaps not quite in position for a shot and wait for him to make a mistake.

Now feeling invested in this particular buck, we headed back to the truck and drove around to where Brian thought the large group was headed. Sure enough, we found them in a large pasture just off the ranch's frontage road that runs parallel to Interstate 25. After parking at a gate several hundred yards south of where the pronghorns were, the three of us used a rise to hide our approach. When we neared the lip of the rise, we dropped to our hands and knees and eased up to find that the herd of 20 or so was mingling and feeding about 200 yards away.

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Patience and diligence are the keys to glassing the many folds, cuts, coulees and draws of eastern Wyoming. (Photo by John Taranto)

I removed my pack, set it on the ground in front of me and laid the fore-end of my Nosler Model 48 across it. The animals' location was above ours, and no matter how hard I tried to get low enough to achieve the proper angle for a shot, I couldn't get the right line of sight to the big buck. Brooks offered to run back to the truck and grab shooting sticks while Brian and I kept watch. In the time it took Brooks to return, the big buck had bedded down.

While better than the pack, the sticks proved to be somewhat awkward due to the lay of the land where we were positioned, and I had to sit sideways in order to shoulder the rifle. Nonetheless, I managed to get the fore-end in the yoke and acquire the buck in the scope. With other animals milling around, I'd have to wait for him to stand and present a clear shot.

An interminable 15 minutes passed before he did. By then, my legs had started to go numb and I'd lost strength in my right arm, which was supporting the rifle. Given those circumstances, I never should've taken the shot, but when the crosshairs hovered over the upper right-hand corner of the white patch on the buck's right side, I pressed the trigger.




HELTER-SKELTER

Trying to keep tabs on one of 20 pronghorns as they all run in the same direction at top speed is like trying to track the descent of a single snowflake in a blizzard.

Brooks said he thought he saw blood on the side of one of the bucks in the herd, and after a while that animal started to slow and then walk with a noticeable limp. The herd split into two, and the wounded buck disappeared over a ridge with a group of eight to 10 others.

I immediately began to question my judgment in taking the shot as we gathered up our gear and walked to where the buck was standing when I let the bullet fly. To my temporary relief, we found a good amount of blood that suggested a solid hit, but after a couple hundred yards, it all but dried up. We spread out and continued our search for the better part of an hour, but eventually decided to get the truck and drive around to the pasture where Brian figured the group was headed. I slumped in the passenger seat and attempted to beat back the demons in my head as Brian and Brooks offered encouragement.

"They're tough animals, man."

"Yeah, I've seen this sort of thing lots of times."

"Don't worry, we'll find him."

As the truck rolled across the cattle guard, we could see the group the buck had run off with at the far end of the pasture. We all raised our binos in hopes of spotting the wounded buck, but he was not there. We concluded that he must've either bedded down in the deep ravine that separated this pasture from the one where he was shot, or he'd circled back to that pasture after we had vacated the premises.

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The hiking isn’t horribly arduous, but a pronghorn hunter can cover many miles in a day just trying to locate a huntable buck. (Photo by John Taranto)

Methodically checking every nook and cranny of the ravine didn't turn him up, so we drove back to the pasture where I'd shot. We sat in the truck and tried to piece together everything that had happened. We discussed all the possibilities of where the buck might've gone. It had now been more than two hours since I'd pulled the trigger, and despite Brian's and Brooks' reassurances that we would find him, I was starting to have my doubts.

For one, it was clear by now that he was not fatally hit. Otherwise, we would've either seen him go down or we would've found considerably more blood. Additionally, the vastness of the ranch and our current proximity to the neighboring property made the prospect of locating this buck increasingly feel like a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. Each of us was scanning a different section of the immense pasture when Brooks blurted out, "I think that's him!"

Just as we had done more than six hours earlier, Brian and I checked to see where Brooks was looking, then threw up our own binos. Sure enough, the buck, now alone, was limping across the upper end of the pasture toward the property line. We piled out of the truck and sprinted to catch up to him before he got to the neighboring ranch, doing our best to use the various folds in the terrain to our advantage.

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Back at camp, bucks were hung, skinned, broken down and put on ice for the trip home. (Photo by John Taranto)

We hustled to a particular knob, thinking the buck was behind it. Finally reaching the spot, I tried in vain to control my breathing as I slowly eased my way around the knob. I hadn't taken 10 steps before I came eye-to-eye with the buck at about 30 yards. He started to run, and I quickly shouldered the rifle and snapped off a shot, smashing the buck's front left shoulder with a 155-grain Federal Terminal Ascent.

The buck wheeled around, stumbled hard and began to go down. I was certain the ordeal was finally over. Instead, my stomach dropped and my brain short-circuited as it tried to process the sight of the buck regaining its balance and running up and over a steep ridge.


THE CHASE CONTINUES

I scrambled up the face of the ridge, stupidly allowing myself to believe that the buck would be lying dead on the other side. Instead, the only sign of him were splatters of blood he'd left behind. I waited for Brian and Brooks to catch up, and we caught our breath before proceeding. We knew that now we would either find him dead or I would need to be ready to quickly put yet another bullet in him.

Easing down and around a cliff, we spotted the buck bedded on a bench some 300 yards away. We quickly backtracked and topped the cliff so that I would have a clear shot down on him. I lay prone with my rifle on my pack, steadied the crosshairs and delivered yet another blow to the toughest pronghorn in Johnson County. Incredibly, it didn't finish him. Instead, the impact just sort of rotated him to the point that I no longer had a clear shot at his vitals from my position.

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Seven hours passed between the first sighting of this buck and when the author finally put his tag on it. (Photo by John Taranto)

Certain this time that he wasn't going anywhere, Brian closed the distance to get a better angle while Brooks stayed up high to keep an eye on him. As Brian and I navigated the steep terrain, Brooks called out from above, "He's up!"

Channeling his inner Cape buffalo, the buck had managed to get to his feet once more and hobbled down into and back up another ravine before bedding down again. This time, I was able to close to 100 yards and mercifully deliver a killing shot to the buck's outstretched neck.

I chambered another round before approaching the buck, half expecting him to muster the strength for another jaunt across the prairie. Thankfully, he did not. As I knelt beside him, I contemplated his incredible will to live and thought about how he deserved a better death than he received. Hunting pronghorns on private land in Wyoming may not be terribly difficult, but killing them sure can be.

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Skinned bucks hang from tripod gambrels as the sun rises over Wyoming pronghorn camp. (Photo by John Taranto)

GOAT GEAR

Rifle, ammo and optics, plus creature comforts for camp.

When the forecast for a hunt is anything but predictable, good gear helps improve your success in the field and comfort in camp.

The Rifle

Pronghorn hunts often call for lots of walking and potentially long shots. As such, a lightweight, flat-shooting, hard-hitting rifle is in order. Enter the Nosler Model 48 Mountain Carbon. Without a scope, it tips the scales at just 6 pounds thanks to several weight-shaving features.

First is a 100-percent carbon-fiber Mountain Hunter stock that’s specially made for the M48 action. It’s completely weather resistant, and glass- and aluminum-pillar bedded for durability and precision. The fore-end and generous palm swell have an excellent molded texture.

Second is the thin Sendero Light-contour barrel that's wrapped in carbon fiber to lend rigidity and aid in cooling. It tapes 24 inches with a 1:9-inch twist rate and has a 5/8x24 threaded muzzle to accept a brake or silencer. Either is recommended to deaden some of the recoil inherent in such a lightweight rifle.

Additional features include a delightfully crisp and creep-free Timney trigger set to break at 3 pounds; tungsten-gray Cerakote on all metal parts to guard against corrosion and cut down on glare; a lightweight aluminum floorplate; and Model 700-pattern screw holes for a two-piece scope base. Chamberings range from 6 mm Creedmoor up to .33 Nosler. Mine was chambered in the stout .28 Nosler.

It’s not the cheapest rifle on the rack, but considering its top-end features, innovative design, expert engineering and boundless versatility, it might be the last hunting rifle you buy for a while. ($3,140; nosler.com)

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Goat gear. (Photo by John Taranto)

The Ammo

The problem with a lot of ammunition designed specifically for long-range hunting is that the bullets’ thin walls, meant to allow for expansion at the lower speeds that occur several hundred yards downrange, often lead to fragmenting and low weight retention when impact happens inside 100 yards. Federal’s Terminal Ascent avoids this issue by combining traits of a bonded hunting bullet and a match-style projectile.

The bullet is based on Federal's popular Trophy Bonded Tip, with a tapered jacket, bonded lead core and solid copper rear shank. This design is mated with match-style features like a gradual, narrow tapering at the front (or secant ogive if you’re a ballistics nerd) and dual grooves around the shank. The grooves allow for greater accuracy across more rifles, but they also minimize drag thanks to sloped rear faces. Finally, the Slipstream polymer tip has a hollow core, which initiates expansion upon impact at both short and long ranges.

Put it all together and you get a bullet with a high ballistic coefficient (G1: .586, G7: .300) that’s capable of bone-crushing power up close and lethal accuracy well past a quarter of a mile. The 155-grain .28 Nosler loads I used produce a reported muzzle velocity of 3,200 fps and travel at 2,407 fps at 500 yards. ($104.99 per 20 rounds of .28 Nosler; federalpremium.com)

The Optics

For this hunt, I used a suite of Bushnell optics that offer a staggering amount of value; my scope-binocular-rangefinder trio retails for less than $500. My rifle was topped with the new Banner 2 4–12x40 mm scope ($109.99; bushnell.com), which features a clean and simple BDC reticle and pairs with Bushnell’s awesome, free ballistics app. You simply enter your scope and configuration, plus your load and firearm information, and it uses real-time environmental data (assuming your location service is turned on) to produce yardages for the hashmarks on the reticle’s vertical axis. The Banner 2 easily has the best glass I’ve ever seen in a $100 scope.

The redesigned Legend line of binoculars features improved ergonomics, a grippy texture and reduced weight, all of which lead to fatigue-free glassing sessions. The 10x50 mm configuration I used ($149.99) weighs just 1 3/4 pounds—pretty incredible for a 50 mm bino.

Finally, the nimble little Prime 1700 laser rangefinder ($209.99) will range reflective objects out to 1,760 yards and live game to about 700 yards. It has angle compensation, three reticle options and a scan mode that updates target distances four times per second while panning—a feature that can come in handy when pronghorns are on the move.

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The hunting party was treated to one delicious meal after another, including fettucine alfredo with venison sausage. (Photo by John Taranto)

Good Grub

Going hungry is not a concern when the Camp Chef crew is around. We enjoyed many tasty meals, all prepared on their exceptional products.

The Woodwind Wifi 24 pellet grill ($1,000–$1,300; campchef.com) did an incredible job on an absolute monolith of a prime rib. It's compatible with the Camp Chef Connect app that lets you change the cooking temperature, set timers and receive notifications when the meat hits a pre-set temp. Meanwhile, the Pro 90X propane grill ($385) managed everything from the aforementioned biscuits and gravy to fettucine alfredo with venison sausage. Each of three burners produces up to 30,000 BTUs, and the total cooking area measures 608 square inches.

Mesa Aluminum Camp Tables ($135), with their adjustable legs, served a variety of purposes. We used them as the camp bar, dining tables and the perfect platforms for breaking down our pronghorns.

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KSB 20 sleeping bag

Sweet Dreams

I experienced some of the best nights of sleep I’ve ever had in a tent on this hunt thanks to a sleeping bag-and-pad combo from Klymit that has quickly become my go-to bedding option when camping. The KSB 20 sleeping bag ($183.96; klymit.com) is stuffed with 650-fill down on top and synthetic fill on the bottom. Expandable baffles and a built-out footbox allow for ease of movement.

Unlike many sleeping pads that tend to slide out from under you, the Static V Luxe ($79.96) is designed to keep you centered and supported all night long.

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Goal Zero lantern

Light it Up

Goal Zero has been producing some truly innovative power and lighting products for more than a decade, and we were lucky to have several of them in our pronghorn camp. The Lighthouse 600 ($69.95; goalzero.com) is a mini lantern that kicks out up to 600 lumens and can be used to charge phones and other small devices. It can be recharged by the sun, a USB source or the integrated crank.

Each tent was outfitted with a string of Light-a-Life mini-LED lanterns ($39.95 each or $79.95 for 4) powered by a Yeti 200X Portable Power Station ($299.95) that delivers 187 watt-hours of lithium power per charge.

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