October 28, 2010
With boldly-contrasting facial markings and ebony horns the pronghorn is one of bowhunting's most handsome trophies. They're found on wide-open western prairies and mountain basins where exceptional eyesight and incredible speed give them an edge. Their outsized eyes, set on the sides of their head, give them a 330-degree field of view. You'll find them on the fringes of the Great Plains westward to the eastern slopes of the Cascades and every state in between. They breed from September to October, when decoying can prove productive; though most western seasons open well before this. They also commonly inhabit relatively broken habitat, where tedious belly-crawling sometimes proves profitable. But guarding water is what nets the most consistent results.
Pronghorn can be taken by stalking, but ambushing them from a pit blind is typically the most fruitful method. Careful preparation of a blind followed by patience when a good buck approaches will usually tip the odds in an archer's favor.
Pronghorn make nearly daily visits to water to get them through scorching summer days. Finding productive water becomes the most important portion to any successful early-season bowhunt.
When water is widely scattered finding productive water is simple. Stock tanks and especially windmills make obvious ambush sites. It's easy to walk around water edges looking for sign left by visiting pronghorn. The trick's discovering where a particular trophy buck's watering. In areas where pronghorn are scarce less sign may be evident. Remember, too, sign will normally appear at a precise point where animals prefer to drink — a major consideration on larger water.
Other areas provide too many options, or less obvious water sources. Regarding the former, there will typically be a single site that due to minimal disturbance or livestock activity proves most appealing. The latter can require a greater degree of sleuthing; pronghorn drinking from secreted springs or "puddles" in prairie low spots.
It pays to invest in preseason scouting, observing pronghorn from afar to determine their daily activities. Luckily, the hottest days of summer, just prior to most season openers, make visits to water more frequent. Gain a vantage, putting quality optics to work, watching target bucks or animal groups through the day. In time they'll become thirsty and bee-line to water, disappearing into a declivity or wash to be investigated later. Watching trophy bucks visit water repeatedly, over several days time, means you're well ahead of the game.
To assure clean, high-odds shots you'll need a blind. The situation's simplified on private ground, permanent box, brush or pop-up blinds all offering viable solutions (make sure landowners are agreeable to such arrangements before continuing). Place them a couple weeks prior to hunting, allowing pronghorn ample time to become accustomed to them.
Former pronghorn outfitter Phil Phillips used pits tented over with cedar-post A-frames covered in plywood. Montana outfitter Dale Denny uses posts and sheep wire covered in brush to create naturally-blending blinds. Plywood box blinds are another feasible option. Colorado outfitter Fred Eichler uses pop-up blinds with steel T-posts driven at each corner, stringing barbed wire to deter itchy cattle. All allow setting up for close-range shots given enough time for pronghorn to accept them as part of the landscape.
Public-land areas, by law, normally preclude permanent structures. There's also the sad aspect of expensive pop-ups disappearing when left afield ahead of season. When water's scarce, and a water-hole small, a pop-up deployed the same day it's occupied can result in shots, but expect goats to be understandably jumpy, and that trophy bucks will sometimes avoid them altogether. Hanging a whitetail stand on a windmill tower is another useful ploy, using lumber and ratchet straps to secure it safely.
Still, the pit blind is the bowhunting mainstay (consult state hunting regulations because stipulations may apply). Constructed properly, they can prove productive minutes after completion.
Make no mistake; digging productive pit blinds from cattle-packed earth is typically hard, sweaty work. Though pronghorn don't live by their noses like deer or elk, taking prevailing wind direction into account is always wise. Pick a spot with some amount of natural cover, a clump of sage or weedy bank backdrop, for instance, within easy range of your water.
Begin with a pick, or a heavy digging bar in rocky soil. Loosen the earth and remove it with a shovel, piling it behind the hole to create a berm of earth. You'll normally find the going gets easier after digging a foot or two. Remember, the amount of work invested now is directly proportional to the quality of shots you'll receive later. Your goal is to create a pit including a comfortable bench at the rear, with your arrow/bow grip just clearing the front lip while sitting.
After your pit's excavated, natural materials from the surrounding area like clumps of grass and uprooted brush are used for camouflaging. Get creative. Plant grass clumps and brush around your pit in as lifelike a manner as possible. Anchor bigger pieces at the rear to create shade and backdrop cover, front shooting lanes opening to the most likely approach points. When you're finished your blind should become part of the landscape.
Shots At Pronghorn
Shooting from an enclosed blind is easy; shoot when you're ready, not when the animal dictates. Shooting from an exposed windmill stand or pit blind is trickier. Here's the secret: Wait for your animal to approach water, settle down and begin drinking. This may involve a multitude of false starts. A savvy buck will dart in and out, making you believe he's spooked. Don't be fooled into rash moves. Even when standing over water a big buck, will dip his head and then jerk it up unexpectedly, attempting to catch you off guard. Wait and watch and don't move a muscle.
Eventually you'll see neck muscles moving water up his throat. Then, and only then, should you make a move. An antelope committed to drinking typically stays at it until tanked up. This gives you a minimum of 15 seconds to draw and shoot. When their nose is in water pronghorn are temporarily blinded. Slow, careful movements go completely unnoticed.
Pronghorn can provide high-odds opportunity for bowhunting success, but only if you invest the time and work necessary. Pit your wits against antelope this season and discover just how much fun they can be.