August 21, 2011
By Patrick Meitin
Earning a close-range shot at a swift-footed, sharp-eyed pronghorn with archery gear can prove one of bowhunting's toughest assignments. Or it can prove relatively easy, though "easy" always comes with qualifiers. Stalking antelope in open country while toting archery gear can prove as frustrating as college calculus, including tedious belly crawls and plenty of long-range shooting. Set up on the right water during the right weather, however, and archery pronghorn success is nearly guaranteed with proper preparation.
Yet pronghorn hunts too often arrive with rain that turns every dip and road ditch into a potential watering site. In these cases -- and for bowhunters who abhor strenuous hands-and-knees approaches beneath a blazing sun -- a blind set up near an antelope territorial scrape sometimes works magic. And if you're lucky enough to bowhunt a state where seasons are held during the antelope's rut, decoying offers heart-pounding excitement like no other mode of operation.
1. THE WATER CONNECTION
Most bowhunters find antelope success while guarding water, because during August and early September (when most antelope are pursued) animals must drink daily to survive. Water means dirt-dam ponds, float-equipped stock tanks, windmill troughs or natural springs. Finding water becomes priority one. Water holes may be wholly obvious or more difficult to locate, but investing in concerted pre-season scouting will make for more fruitful hunting later.
Once an obviously "hot" watering site is located, you have several choices in terms of concealment. Windmill towers offer a viable treestand base, adding lumber and ratchet straps as needed for safety and security.
On private lands or remote areas where theft is less likely, pop-up blinds make great options. Place them well ahead of the season to allow speed goats to grow accustomed to them (consider a week minimum, two when dealing with trophy bucks).
The hand-dug pit blind is standard in pronghorn country, and normally the price you'll pay for an "easy" antelope. They not only provide inconspicuous concealment but the most comfort. A pop-up on a 95-degree day, an exposed treestand situated beneath searing sun, can prove downright murderous!
Always ask permission before digging on private lands, and fill pits when your hunt is completed. Understand also that some land agencies or states (Idaho, for instance) may prohibit digging on public lands. Consult current game regulations to be sure.
Consider prevailing breezes and available cover before beginning with pick and shovel. Your goal is a pit deep enough that your bow handle just clears its front lip while sitting and at full draw. You also want it spacious enough to allow bow clearance in all directions, plus a seat at its rear. As you dig, pile loose soil to create a backdrop and an anchor for camouflaging vegetation.
After digging is completed, add camouflaging material so your blind blends seamlessly with surrounding terrain, when possible adding a tree-limb frame covered with disguising material to create a dark cave better concealing movement and keeping you shaded during hot days. Natural blinds allow you to begin hunting immediately, something not true of freshly placed pop-ups.
Guarding water is time consuming. Take a lunch, plenty of fluids (it's going to get hot after all) and a pee bottle. It's also a good idea to keep a fat novel handy to occupy yourself during all-day vigils. Pronghorn might arrive any time, from dawn to dusk.
Shot timing is hyper critical to pronghorn success, as antelope are sometimes jumpier than hard-hunted whitetails.
After approaching water, pronghorn will often go through several false starts before settling to drink, jerking their heads up repeatedly in an attempt to catch ambushing predators.
Don't move a muscle until you see a buck's neck muscles moving water upward. You then have about 30 seconds to execute your shot. Don't be in a hurry.
If you've done your homework (scouted a sure-fire water hole, assembled a top-notch blind, etc.), rest assured more pronghorn are on the way. It's then just a matter of remaining calm and making your shot count.
2. STALKING SPEEDSTERS
Let me start by saying that stalking pronghorn, even in open terrain, isn't impossible. The last pronghorn I took, with a recurve bow, came after a three-hour stalk in featureless terrain. Still, to make the best of this mode of operation, it's best to seek terrain that gives you an edge and arrive with equipment assembled for long-range shooting.
Though antelope are creatures of open habitat, they certainly aren't opposed to wandering the edges of vegetated arroyos and sharp rim rock, or even occasionally venturing into wooded areas.
The savvy pronghorn hunter forced to stalk due to rain ignores pan-flat, sparsely vegetated areas, taking time to locate antelope in broken or otherwise bowhunter-friendly terrain.
Never dismiss even the scantest cover while stalking, as it only takes a single fold of topography, knee-deep sage or a single waist-deep arroyo -- and the patience to allow a buck to wander near such a place -- to make a successful stalk.
This isn't easy or painless, but a bit of extra effort can get you within range of more speed goats than you think. Knee pads and leather gloves are a must, as you'll surely encounter sun-baked earth, sharp rock and ground-hugging cacti.
Move only when your target animal has its head down to feed, pushing your bow ahead to scramble ahead on hands and knees, or slithering on your belly, according to available cover.
When using the term "long-range shooting" in relation to bowhunting, we're talking in terms of a personal maximum effective range. Consider 40 yards a slam-dunk opportunity. Choose light arrows (6.5-8.5 grains per inch) and streamlined mechanical broadheads (75-100 grains) made for pure speed.
The light arrows flatten trajectory, providing a wider margin of error should your laser rangefinder find a grass stem five yards in front of your goat instead of his hide.
The mechanicals not only provide superior long-range flight, but open up to put a hurting on thin-skinned, light-boned pronghorns hit marginally. A shoulder- or liver-hit pronghorn, for instance, won't go far, and certainly can't get out of sight in open country. Your sight will need some additional pins, or choose a single-pin mover capable of extra yardage.
It also doesn't hurt to crank up the draw weight on your bow to give your arrows extra zip. You'll certainly stay warm during the hunt, making the added draw weight more easily managed.
Scrape hunting isn't a normal ploy in most antelope-hunting circles, but it can prove highly effective with enough pre-hunt scouting. And when water hole hunting is at its worst -- meaning rainy, wet days -- scrape hunting is at its very best. When it's raining regularly, pronghorn bucks visit territorial scrapes more often in order to keep them freshened.
The best scrapes are those shared by several bucks. These are normally found at the corner of overlapping territories. Look for a large, hoof-scraped area and multiple clusters of small, ball bearing-sized droppings and pungent urine stains.
Finding an active scrape requires plenty of time and effort, covering plenty of ground afoot or getting lucky and stumbling onto them while driving back roads. The best way to locate scrapes is to target a particular buck, a trophy you have pinned your hopes on, and spend long pre-season days spying on him from a safe distance through a powerful spotting scope.
At some point during the day, especially following heavy thunderstorms (plan scouting trips accordingly), you'll witness your buck pause, scrape the ground furiously and squat to deposit droppings and urine. Mark the spot carefully and continue watching. Your buck might make several scrapes in a single day. Your job is to determine, by reading sign, which scrape is most active. Ideally, you'll find additional time to watch a scrape you've earmarked, witnessing other bucks adding their scent.
Once you've determined the most likely scrape to hunt, it's time to erect your blind. An inconspicuous pit blind is preferable, though given enough time pop-ups (preferably set a bit farther from a scrape than you might a watering site) should suffice. Scraping bucks normally aren't as on edge as they are at water.
4. DECOYING ALL ANTELOPE
Depending on latitude and altitude, most antelope rut from mid-September through early October. Many states don't offer archery seasons during these dates, though bowhunters are often welcome to employ archery tackle during general rifle seasons held later in the fall. That's a viable option on private land where competition is limited. Montana, the Dakotas and Alberta, Canada (there may be others I'm unaware of), allow bowhunters to hit the field during prime rut dates, and if there's anything more exciting than a charging pronghorn buck, hackles on end, snorting like a steam engine, I've yet to experience it.
The most effective decoys normally imitate an immature buck; dominate bucks arriving to chase the upstart out of the country while marshalling collected harems. Doe decoys are also worth trying (many pronghorn decoys have removable horns for this reason), bringing a randy buck in looking for action, but the reactions aren't as dramatic as those witnessed while using buck decoys.
The basic approach is to locate a target buck from a distance through careful glassing, preferably one with a knot of gathered does, though lone bucks are often worthwhile targets. Using terrain and your best snake-belly stalking skills, attempt to approach to within 200 or 300 yards without being detected (the closer the better). The decoy is then tipped up and the wait begins. Normally, a rutting buck will spot your fake quickly and the reaction is often immediate. If you go unnoticed after a time, produce a series of chuckling snorts (like a hyperventilating whitetail) to get his attention. Pronghorn calls are offered by Knight & Hale and Primos, among others.
The bowhunter kneels behind the decoy inconspicuously, using the decoy as cover as the buck draws within range Draw your bow behind this unlikely cover and pop up to shoot over the deke's back. Shots range from 45 yards standing to five yards grazing past your position. You must shoot quickly, because once you pop over the top of the decoy the ruse fades quickly. For a pure adrenaline rush, nothing beats decoying antelope.
Pronghorn are uniquely gorgeous and challenging, related to nothing else in North America, and simply fun to hunt. Plus, their seasons don't cut into regularly scheduled events such as elk or deer. When all systems are go, look to water for high-odds success. But when rain dampens action at water, when seeking the greatest challenge possible, or to experience pronghorn hunting at its most exciting, stalking, scrape hunting and decoying rutting bucks offer viable options, getting you into antelope when less adventurous bowhunters might throw up their hands in defeat.