December 05, 2011
By Brandon Ray
I hunted pronghorns for 10 years before I got a crack at a really big one. What I wouldn't give to have that chance again today ...
I found that buck the day before the archery season opened. I was hunting private land in central New Mexico. I scouted from the shoulder of the highway, a big spotting scope clamped to my truck window. In a pasture dotted with cholla and yucca cactus, the big lope was visible throughout the day near the fence that bordered the highway. He had huge, heavy bases like stovepipes. His prongs were thick and curved well above his ears like cupped hands. I guessed his massive horns at 15 inches tall and gave him a score of 80 inches. In hindsight, I was way off.
Opening morning, following a brief rain shower, I spotted the buck. He was by himself, feeding in a thin screen of chollas. The stalk was on.
I got within 100 yards on hands and knees, then positioned myself behind a cholla in the oncoming buck's apparent travel route. Slowly, he fed closer until my rangefinder read 52 yards.
The bowstring came back smooth and easy, the buck totally unaware. As I started to settle the bottom pin, I also started to shake. The reality of the moment suddenly flooded my body with adrenaline and buck fever, not a good combination.
I shot, but the buck ducked and my arrow sailed right over his back. He trotted out to the 80 yard mark, blowing at me, stomping his feet, then finally churning up dust as he galloped over the prickly horizon.
A rifle hunter encountered that same buck a month later in the same pasture. He got him. The heavy-horned pronghorn had bases over 7 inches, mass all the way up and horns right at 16 inches tall. The buck gross-scored 86-inches Boone and Crockett (B&C). That's a giant pronghorn!
I've tagged about two dozen pronghorn bucks across the West; my best-ever a public land Booner that netted 84 2/8 B&C. I shot that big buck over a waterhole at midday. However, none of my bucks have been as big as that massive buck I missed that hot August morning in New Mexico so many years ago. But I keep trying. By applying for tags in proven areas, another close encounter with a giant buck is inevitable. To kill a giant, you have to hunt in the right spot.
Multiple states are capable of growing above-average bucks, but some are clearly more consistent producers than others. Southwestern states like Arizona, New Mexico and even Texas shine when it comes to pronghorns. Milder winters and a longer growing season compared to northern states helps. Arizona accounts for the true giants, 90-inchers, with top spots in both B&C and Pope and Young (P&Y). But tags are as rare as $2 per gallon gas!
For quantity of antelope, you can't beat Wyoming. In wet years, the state boasts more pronghorns than people! Among all those thousands of tan and white sage speedsters are some whoppers. Colorado and Montana are other places I've hunted. Here's a closer look at where odds are best for a stud buck.
WHERE TO HUNT
Record book data is the easiest first reference. Organizations like the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) and the Pope and Young Club (P&Y) compile data from thousands of entries to rank the best states and counties for big bucks. From there, further research with state biologists, booking agents and taxidermists can reveal hot units inside those proven counties. Check with a biologist on winter kill and other factors before burning valuable points in the draw. Apply in multiple states to increase your odds at a primo tag. Once you have the right tag, the rest comes down to diligent scouting behind big optics, and smart hunting.
TACTICS FOR SPEED GOATS
If you hunt with a bow, hunting water should be your first strategy. When conditions are dry, water limited and temperatures warm, waiting in a ground blind near a windmill offers the best odds for success. I've shot most of my waterhole bucks at midday, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The next most productive time over water is late afternoon. Shots over water are typically close, 10-30 yards.
During the mid- to late-September rut, hunting with a partner and a decoy is effective. One hunter holds the decoy and calls out the shot distance using a laser rangefinder as the buck closes the gap. The second hunter focuses only on making the shot. Crawl unseen within 200-300 yards of a herd buck guarding his does, then pop-up the small buck decoy. If he's in the right mood, the herd buck will run off the intruder (you) and offer a shot.
Spot-and-stalk is the most difficult method for bowhunters. Avoid open, featureless pastures if you want to have a prayer. Hunting pastures with deep ravines, tall sage or other obstacles will offer concealment. Pack a laser rangefinder and be prepared to shoot from your knees. Shots in the 40-60 yard range are common when decoying and stalking.
For rifle hunters, spot-and-stalk is the best method. Either from a high ridge or mesa, or even the bed of a pick-up, use a big spotting scope to locate a target buck. Get the wind in your face, and use cover to close the gap. Most hunters carry too much gun for pronghorns. A mature buck only tips the scales at 100-150 pounds live weight. Look at calibers with manageable recoil and a flat trajectory.
My favorite antelope guns include bolt-actions in the following calibers: .25-06 Remington, .257 Weatherby Magnum and the .270 Winchester. Top that rifle with a 3-9 or 4-12 variable scope with a 40mm objective so it mounts low to the gun barrel. Pack a set of shooting sticks to help steady your aim. Pronghorns live in big country, but by using the terrain it's usually possible to get a shot at a reasonable distance.
Last year in Texas, I spotted a buck with tall horns from a mile away. I snugged into my backpack, grabbed my tripod-legged shooting sticks and rifle, then ducked into a nearby draw with steep canyon walls. Like a hungry coyote, I trotted down the bottom of the draw, hidden from view of the sharp-eyed goats on the mesa above. At the end of the draw, I peaked over the top and found my target buck with his does. The shot distance was 180 yards. The 15-inch buck dropped with one round from my .25-06 Browning X-Bolt. Most of my rifle bucks have been taken at less than 200 yards. My longest-ever shot was still less than 300 yards.
RECORD BOOK DETAILS
The following are the ten best states for taking a record-class pronghorn according to data from the Boone and Crockett Club's Trophy Search. The state ranks are based on those states with the highest number of record-class entries. I've also included the top five counties within each state.
You'll find the top 10 states for quantity of record-class entries according to the Pope and Young Club is similar. Any time counties and states overlap between B&C and P&Y data, you can bet you're in the right spot. Keep in mind a B&C qualifying buck scores 82 inches or better, a true gagger. A P&Y buck has a lower minimum score of 67 inches.
TOP 10 STATES FOR GIANT PRONGHORNS
1. Wyoming: 1,059 B&C entries
Wyoming tops the list in terms of quantity of record-class bucks in both B&C and P&Y entries. Western counties are primarily public land with more private land in the eastern half of the state. The highest numbers of antelope exist in the NE quadrant of the state. The top five counties and the number of B&C entries from each include Carbon (275), Sweetwater (174), Fremont (140), Natrona (134) and Campbell (34).
2. New Mexico: 561 B&C entries
New Mexico ranks second in terms of quantity of B&C bucks, but 9th in P&Y entries. Last year, I shot a fine 77-inch P&Y buck with a bow over water on public land in the Land of Enchantment. I've shot other mid-70s bucks by stalking when conditions were wet and hunting water when it was dry during the August bow season. The top five counties and the number of B&C entries from each include Socorro (110), Mora (95), Colfax (79), Catron (73) and Lincoln (66).
3. Arizona: 320 B&C entries
Arizona ranks third in B&C entries and sixth in P&Y. Arizona is home to world records in both B&C and P&Y ranks. The top spot in B&C is a tie between two Mohave County and Coconino County monsters that both net score 95 0/8. The top P&Y spot is a 91 4/8 buck from Yavapai County. The top five counties according to B&C data are Coconino (125), Yavapai (90), Navajo (29), Apache (24) and Mohave (9).
4. Nevada: 262 B&C entries
Nevada ranks fourth in B&C entries and eighth in P&Y entries. The NW corner of the state is the traditional hotspot, with lots of public land. The top head in the books from Nevada is a 94 0/8 B&C buck taken in Washoe County in 2006. The top five counties according to B&C data are Washoe (108), Humboldt (88), Elko (30), Pershing (14) and White Pine (6).
5. Montana: 180 B&C entries
Montana ranks fifth in B&C entries and third in P&Y entries. A few years ago, I sniped a P&Y buck over water at midday in the southeast corner of the state. In the distance, I watched a much larger 80-inch buck chase does, but he never came in for a drink. The top five counties according to B&C are Rosebud (38), Custer (15), Carter (14), Garfield (13) and Powder River (8).
6. Colorado: 141 B&C entries
Colorado ranks sixth in B&C and second in P&Y total entries. I shot my first-ever antelope buck in Moffat County, Colorado in 1993. I returned five years later and arrowed another P&Y buck over water from a dark pit blind. The top five counties in B&C are Moffat (45), Jackson (19), Weld (13), Las Animas (8) and Rio Grande (7).
7. Texas: 138 B&C entries
Texas ranks seventh in B&C and 16th in P&Y entries. Two regions are home to good bucks, the Trans-Pecos in West Texas and the Panhandle region in North Texas. Hudspeth County is king in Texas, but recent die-offs have reduced herd numbers there. The top five counties include Hudspeth (99), Hartley (10), Brewster (8), Dallam (7) and Lipscomb (3).
8. Oregon: 137 B&C entries
Oregon ranks eighth in B&C entries and 12th in P&Y entries. A Harney County buck taken in 2000 net scores 92 6/8 and makes B&C's top 10. Oregon's best-ever archery buck is a Lake County pronghorn shot in 1993 that ranks number four in P&Y with a net score of 90 0/8. The top five counties here include Harney (50), Lake (46), Baker (14), Malheur (13) and Deschutes (3).
9. Utah: 90 B&C entries
Utah ranks ninth in B&C total entries and 10th in P&Y entries. Utah's best-ever buck in the books is a 91 0/8 B&C buck shot in Carbon County in 2003. The top five counties according to B&C are Emery (25), Box Elder (16), Carbon (9), Millard (8) and Uintah (7).
10. South Dakota: 80 B&C entries
South Dakota comes in at number 10 on B&C ranks and number five on P&Y entries. The majority of the state's antelope are found west of the Missouri River. There's lots of public land. The top five counties according to B&C data are Meade (20), Perkins (17), Harding (11), Butte (7) and Dewey (5).