August 10, 2022
If you're looking to take a true trophy-class pronghorn buck, the first step is to avoid hunting the way everyone else does. If the tactics most hunters use were any good, there'd be more trophy goats taken every fall. Instead, you need to hunt differently, both with respect to how and where you hunt.
Because pronghorn live virtually their entire lives in relatively open, easily accessible, mostly flat terrain, they're much easier to locate than other big-game species. With the ability of rifles and muzzleloaders to reach way out there, it's easy see why all firearms pronghorn tags—and most archery tags, too—are limited and issued through a draw.
If you're looking for a true giant, a buck that will push the Boone & Crockett Club minimum score of 82 inches, you need to hunt in one of the relatively few places where big animals live. That means states that severely restrict the number of tags issued each year in areas with a track record of producing giant bucks. Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada lead the way, as well as select units in Wyoming. However, it takes years to draw a tag in those places (I have 20 points in Arizona right now and haven’t drawn), or some serious cash to buy a New Mexico landowner tag.
Another approach to trophy pronghorn hunting is to focus on the biggest buck in the area in which you hunt. When I’m hunting general draw units, my definition of a "trophy" buck changes. While not all pronghorn states regularly produce Boone & Crockett bucks, in most places there are big pronghorns that hunters don't kill. That's what I'm looking for: the largest, oldest buck that lives in my unit. Here's how to find the best pronghorn hunting where you hunt.
KNOW WHERE TO GO
Finding and killing the largest buck in your hunting area revolves around three elements: pre-hunt research, scouting (both prior to and during the hunt) and executing a plan based on the information your scouting has provided.
If you have a tag for a general-type unit, finding the oldest bucks can take time. Often, they are found on private ground, which may or may not allow hunter access. If the land is locked up, hunt the public-land areas that either border the private ground or are filled with pockets of out-of-the-way, hard-to-access hidey holes where the old bucks (and does) can escape hunting pressure.
Over the years I have found that most general firearms tag holders are lazy. They simply drive the roads, glassing as they go, until they find a herd of pronghorns with a decent legal buck or two in it. Bucks that survive this common strategy tend to gravitate to roadless areas where hills and gullies hide them. I’ve actually seen pronghorn herds in areas that are hunted hard immediately start running for cover when they see a vehicle pop up over a rise as much as two miles away.
Often the most effective thing you can do to find a big pronghorn is both simple and demanding: Be willing and able to walk beyond the point at which other hunters stop walking.
Scouting for big pronghorns usually involves figuring out how to get to places with less hunting pressure. Getting to those areas can require a serious off-road vehicle and/or the ability to hike long distances—whatever it takes to escape the crowd. You have to take great pains to stay out of sight of animals you may not even be able to see due to terrain features. In other words, scout cautiously, exposing yourself as little as possible as you search.
Identify water sources to narrow your search, especially early in the season. Use a binocular of at least 10-power or a good spotting scope, and be persistent and patient.
Also, remember that "flat" pronghorn country is always full off hills, gullies, cuts, river and stream courses and other broken ground. Find a high point that allows maximum visibility, belly crawl to the crest, set up your binocular and/or spotting scope on a tripod and be willing to glass for hours. Wait for animals you don’t see right off the bat to materialize.
Also, be aware of other hunters. Watch how and where they hunt. Both you and the pronghorns will be able to pattern these hunters, so if you can figure out how the animals will move out of the way of them, you can use stealth and effort to set up ahead of where the pronghorns will want to be.
EXECUTION OUTSIDE THE BOX
Big pronghorns will always find unpressured areas with food and water. In the vast majority of pronghorn country, water is in shorter supply than food. And, relative to other big game, pronghorns like to see danger from a long distance. Therefore, isolated, open country with access to water is where you should focus your hunting effort.
If such an area doesn't produce, it may be time to think outside the box. One year in eastern Montana, after having no success in the usual sagebrush flats, I decided to check out some high-elevation ground. I did it out of pure boredom, but on the edge of the pine forest I found an old buck hanging out with a handful of does, using the trees for cover in a place that commanded a great view of the orange-clad army in the flats.
Conventional wisdom at the time said that pronghorns never, ever live where they can't see forever in all directions. Not true with this old stud. For this buck, danger never came from the pines because hunters never came from there. At the edge of the pines, the buck had food, water and a spectacular view in the one direction that mattered to him.
The lesson was clear: Stay flexible and keep in mind that "classic" habitat is not the only habitat that can meet the needs of older bucks. During bow seasons, the most popular tactic is sitting inside a ground blind near a water source peppered with fresh pronghorn tracks.
Sometimes, though, getting out and doing some spot-and-stalk hunting is a better option. Everything has to be right for this to work and the terrain has to offer enough cuts, gullies, hills and other cover to make stalking possible. It’s not easy and can take a ridiculous amount of patience. You will sometimes get busted. But sometimes you’ll have success and a memorable hunt. I arrowed my 2019 and 2020 Wyoming bucks this way.
This can be the season you take your best-ever pronghorn. To do so, put yourself in their hooves. Think about what they need and how they avoid other hunters. Go the extra mile and good things will happen.
Know when a buck has the right stuff.
To kill a trophy buck, you have to recognize him when you see him. Luckily, there are some relatively quick ways of assessing the size
of a buck’s horns.
A pronghorn with heavy 14-inch horns and 4-inch prongs will score about 70 Boone & Crockett or Pope & Young points and is a trophy buck to be proud of. If, however, a trophy qualifying for the current B&C all-time records minimum of 82 inches is your goal, a buck with 15- to 16-inch horns, 6- to 7-inch bases and 5- to 6-inch prongs must be found. Here's how to field judge a pronghorn buck using the relative size of the horn to the animal’s head, ear length and size of eyes to make a fast "shoot/don’t shoot" decision at any distance.
- Horn Length: Horns should appear to be much longer than the length of the pronghorn’s head as measured from the base of the ear to the tip of the nose. This distance averages around 13 inches. Also check the horns against ear length. If the horns appear to be 2 1/2 times the ear length (which averages 6 inches), they are probably long enough. Remember that the "length of horn" measurement means the entire length of the horn, including any curvature.
- Prongs: The prongs of most record-class bucks will appear extremely large and project from the horn at or above the level of the ear tips. Prongs are measured to the rear edge of the horn they project from, so a 6-inch prong will appear to extend about 4 inches from a heavy horn, or about twice the width of the horn when viewed from the side. A head with very high prongs may cause the third quarter circumference measurement to be taken below the prong instead of above it, which usually helps the score.
- Horn Mass: Four circumference measurements are taken on each horn, which means that horn mass is critical. As viewed from the side, the horn base should appear to be twice the width of the animal’s eye, which generally measures a little over 2 inches wide. This equates to a horn base that measures 6 to 7 inches in circumference.
An official Boone & Crockett Club pronghorn scoring form can be downloaded at boone-crockett.org.