The pronghorn was galloping back and forth in energetic bursts, never straying far from its restless harem of six does feeding in the scattered sage. I watched his antics from the base of a creaking windmill; about 900 yards of the flattest, most wide-open ground I'd ever considered stalking across separated me and the antelope.
The nearly constant wind that flowed across the New Mexico high desert brought some relief from the mid-September heat, and it was blowing in my face--the only good news for a potential stalk. I'd hunted antelope in
Wyoming, where the contours of the rolling high plains provided at least some cover for getting within shooting distance of a pronghorn. Here there was no such geographical advantage.
I surveyed the country through 8X binoculars and figured the situation was just about impossible. Seven pairs of North America's most high-powered eyes would be certain to spot me, even if I wanted to crawl on my elbows several hundred yards over the cracked, chollastrewn ground, holding my rifle in front of me--hardly a delightful prospect. I turned to the outfitter, Steve Jones of Backcountry Hunts, and was surprised to see him motioning conspiratorially as he hunkered near a muddy patch beside the windmill and began sketching a route.
I crouched beside him as he hatched his plan. Taking advantage of the few scattered bunches of mesquite and sagebrush between us and the antelope, we'd cover ground as rapidly as we could--staying as low as possible--moving from one bit of skimpy cover to the next. Eventually, if the restless animals didn't spook, Steve figured we could get to within 250 yards of the buck.
Not that I really doubted him, but I could see no way to cross the open ground without drawing the attention of the herd. What I didn't know was that Steve was in possession of a low-tech secret weapon that had served him well over his 15-plus years of guiding antelope hunters.
Pronghorns are one of the great success stories of American wildlife management, returning from near-extinction in the early 20th century to number some 1 million today. Their distinctive tan-and-white profiles, and the magnificent black-streaked faces and high, curving horns of the bucks are a familiar sight across the West. While Wyoming has the greatest numbers of pronghorns, many southwestern states support thriving herds and hold high percentages of trophy-class animals.
Most of New Mexico's 35,000 to 40,000 pronghorns are concentrated in the eastern third of the state and, historically, numbers have been highest in the southeastern counties. However, this area is emerging from an eight year drought that depressed fawn production somewhat. Darrel Weybright, Big Game Program coordinator for the state's Department of Game & Fish, noted that the northeastern segment of the state has been producing better fawn ratios in recent years, but that this area, too, is affected by periodic droughts.
Like other animals in the harsh desert environment, pronghorns thrive or decline based on rainfall patterns. While their diet consists mainly of forbs and brushy plants, grass provides important hiding cover, especially for the fawns. Therefore, plenty of grass-producing moisture in late winter and early spring often translates into high fawn survival rates and plenty of pronghorns for the coming years.
Pronghorns present a special challenge to the hunter because of their remarkable physical attributes. Unlike deer, they prefer open country--the more open, the better--and they are especially suited to the plains and high-desert environments. Their extra-large, bulging eyes are capable of spotting predators three to four miles away.
And if your antelope decides to leave the county, you'll have a tough time catching it, even in a truck. Pronghorns are the second-fastest animals in the world, attaining recorded speeds of up to 70 mph. In a sustained run, a pronghorn could leave its only speed competitor, the African cheetah, in the dust; not only can the antelope sustain a 60 mph pace for three to four minutes, but it can lope along at 30 mph or so for several miles without slowing.
In the fall, bucks become highly territorial and aggressive toward intruders on their turf. The rut period will often see a mature buck guarding a harem of three to eight does, or even more. During this time, hunting antelope involves covering plenty of ground, glassing shimmering plains and studying distant tan-and-white animals until a good buck is spotted. That's when the fun begins.
Plotting and executing a stalk across open ground under the sharpest mammalian eyes in North America tests a hunter's skill and savvy, as well as his ability to stay out of sight. As we squatted beside the windmill, with the two other hunters in our party consulting, I felt as though we were planning a small military maneuver.
Pronghorns are sharp-eyed, to be sure, but they are often tipped off to a hunter's approach by the patently obvious: the shine of a face, the glint of a watch or gun barrel, or simply the shape of the human form. Camouflage is crucial to sneaking up on a pronghorn, and that's where Steve's secret weapon came in.
It was, I discovered, about as unimpressive in appearance as a secret weapon could possibly get--simply a rectangular square of burlap in a faded camouflage pattern. It would completely cover us as we jogged from bush to bush, doubled over and hunched as low as we could go. The pronghorns might see the strange, lumpy shape, but as it would bear no resemblance to a human outline, they'd be unlikely to associate it with danger--or so Steve assured me.
It was either that or a lengthy elbow crawl. And after extracting dozens of painful thorns from my arms following similar stalks in the past, I was more than willing to try Steve's tactic.
It was an odd sensation, crouched under the scratchy cloth and moving in a jog, unable to see anything but the ground directly beneath my feet. The sun beat down mercilessly and waves of heat bounced back from the cracked ground, stifling us under our makeshift cover. Ahead of me, Steve was navigating, peeking out the front of the burlap to mark the location of the next bunch of mesquite. When we'd reach it, we'd sprawl on the ground and peek around it, and I'd be able to get a fix on my antelope, which vas still loping in restless loops around his harem.
My leather boots, gloves and nylon-faced brush pants were ample protection against the desert thorns. But I'd discovered the previous day that an alert hunter does not drop to the ground in the high desert of New Mexico without scanning it first. In the red dust between the scattered clumps of mesquite, snakeweed and yucca live a number of small many-legged creatures--including scorpions and furry tarantulas--that most of us would rather not disturb.
My heart was thundering with anticipation by the time we sprawled behind another patch of brush and crawled on our elbows for the last dozen yards. "Okay, get ready," Steve whispered. "He's about 235 yards from us."
Shots exceeding 200 yards are typical for high-desert antelope, and accomplished riflemen often take shots out to 400 yards. For hunters who are used, to shooting at less daunting distances, shooting sticks or bipods are crucial additions to an antelope arsenal. I've found shooting sticks to be the most versatile choice, since they're light, easy to carry and adjust quickly to accommodate nearly any shooting position. Steve's were a simple homemade pair--two stout dowels lashed together with a knot that could be raised or lowered depending on the position of the shooter--but there are also plenty of excellent commercial sticks on the market. They're a godsend for shooting at long-range game, particularly when you must stay as close to the ground as possible to remain concealed.
Using a conveniently located mesquite bush to conceal my outline, I eased into a sitting position, propping the sticks on the ground in front of me as I did so. I was in luck; the pronghorn had moved behind a thick patch of sagebrush, and I could see only the black tips of its horns as he moved about. The does were off to my left, out of sight. Steve, also behind the mesquite, glassed the buck as I eased my .270 into the V formed by the shooting sticks. I centered the crosshair of the scope--set on lOX--on an opening in the sage and waited.
It didn't take long. The buck trotted toward the opening and slowed. I waited, silently urging it to stop, and suddenly it did, planting its feet and swiveling its head alertly toward my position. I centered the crosshair just behind the shoulder, squeezed off the shot, and saw the buck drop out of the scope.
Steve slapped my back, all smiles. "This type of stalk works especially well at this time of year, when the bucks are both curious and aggressive with the rut in full swing," he explained. "Several times I've even had antelope charge a hunter who approached under burlap, probably thinking it was another animal come to invade its territory."
We had glassed numerous bucks and found this one to be typical of those in the area: His horns were of fairly average length but were widely spread, with plenty of battle scars--including a broken tip that hung by a thread. The animal had several gouges in its hide, further attesting to the violence of its recent activities. Much of the challenge in finding an exceptional buck is in field-judging the horns, Steve noted. "Look for the heart-shaped horns," he said. "Often, a lot of length is added after the horn tips begin to curve downward."
Because most of New Mexico's pronghorns are found on private ranchland, tags are apportioned in two different ways. Private landowners receive tags they may use themselves or sell to hunters or outfitters, but the state also has public hunts where hunters are assigned to private ranches. Residents are typically allotted 78 percent of the tags, the remaining 22 percent going to nonresidents.
Because of this, hunting with an outfitter can be advantageous to the out-of-state sportsman.
Outfitters often purchase permits from landowners and are therefore able to guarantee tags to their clients. Steve guides hunters in most of the better antelope counties in the state, erecting his trademark tipi camp in each hunting area.
He began housing hunters in tipis some five years ago, after he discovered that lodges hold up better than wall tents and don't flap as much in the desert winds. On this hunt, our comfortable canvas accommodations were pitched on private ranchland in Lincoln County--land once owned by legendary Wild West land baron John Chisum.
Pronghorn hunters who are fortunate enough to hunt good areas are typically quite successful--the statewide success rate averages 87 percent--and over the three-day bunt Steve's group proved that. All 12 of his hunters bagged bucks, most of them sporting fairly typical horn lengths between 12 and 14 inches.
Finding exceptional heads--those with horns as long as 18 inches, sometimes even longer--is a more challenging task. Historically, the state's best bucks have come from its geographical center, in areas north of Corona and Vaughn. Weybright said the heavier rainfall this area typically receives is one reason its bucks grow big, but other factors, including good habitat and well-thought-out management plans by local landowners, have also made a difference.
Regardless of its size, a pronghorn is a worthy trophy for any hunter who enjoys plotting and executing a challenging stalk across open ground. More than any other game, pronghorns are truly a rifleman's quarry, and a hunter who makes a well-placed shot on a sharp-eyed buck earns the chance to take a bit of the high desert home.
GEARING UP FOR PRONGHORNS
Four items ore crucial to a successful antelope hunt--good camouflage, good optics, a flat-shooting rifle and an accurate load. I discovered on this hunt that Mossy Oak's Break-Up does as fine a lob of disguising the human outline in the high desert as it does in a Mississippi riverbottom.
After glossing with Zeiss 8x30 Diafun binoculars for two full days, I was extremely impressed. The lightest 8x30s on the market, these glasses feel like compacts without sacrificing any of the field of view of full-size binoculars. Nor was there any problem centering and steadying the crosshair of the Zeiss Diavari VM/V series 2.5-10x50 scope when it came time to drop the antelope. The scope's new prism system makes it the lightest and most compact variable I've used.
As one who prefers the tried-and-true, I was pleased at the opportunity to shoot Winchester's Model 70 Classic in .270. Few rifles have achieved the stature of this old favorite. In addition to its good looks, the rifle has two features that make it especially appealing: a three-position safety, which allows you to work the bolt with the safety still engaged; and the pre-'64-type action, featuring controlled-round feeding, that allows you to eject a cartridge before it has been fully chambered. There ore no worries about cartridge removal, either. The rifle's claw extractor and manual ejector allow you to gently roll an unused round out of the receiver and into your hand, instead of hunting for it in the desert dust.
I loaded the rifle with Winchester's new 130-grain Supreme Power-Point Plus round, which shot a sub-inch group at 100 yards off the bench. As for the knockdown power of that Power-Point bullet, the antelope steaks speak for themselves.