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Prairie goat primer: inexpensive and accessible, the pronghorn provides a real taste of the American West.

For most folks, the Western adventure is envisioned as a high-country elk hunt. replete with bugling bulls, a comfortable camp and a long string of pack animals to transport the trophy. Thanks to these hopelessly grand (and expensive) expectations, the run-of-the-mill hunter never makes his cherished hunt except vicariously through the pages of a magazine or on cable television. However, by altering one's perception of paradise, any competent hunter can make the Western dream a reality. Enter the antelope.

Consider the facts that favor antilocapra americana over elk and deer for first-timers m the West. An antelope license routinely costs 50 percent of a comparable elk tag. In some states, drawing odds nearly guarantee a tag, making it much easier to schedule a hunt than it is in the long-odds lotteries that often determine opportunities for other species. Additionally, it takes little specialized gear to hunt pronghorn--a deer rifle and everyday camping equipment make an adequate outfit.

To top things off, the tan and white speedsters often roam on public land, making access a non-issue. Alternatively, hunters seeking a low-pressure experience on private land can typically find excellent hunting on properties whose trespass fees are usually much lower than those charged for deer or elk.

"What's antelope hunting like?" That's a question I often hear from diehard whitetail hunters looking to come West. The simplest response is that antelope hunting is challenging and lots of fun. Pronghorn are often plentiful where they're found, making it sometimes possible to view 100 animals or more in a single day.

Early in the season, the innate curiosity of antelope sometimes makes them fairly easy to stalk. Once they've been pressured, however, the appearance of a vehicle or man a mile away might send them on a forty-mile-per-hour dash across the prairie. Conversely, they may make camp on the center of the biggest, flattest, parcel of real estate, knowing it's over a quarter-mile to the nearest bush capable of hiding a hunkered cottontail. Antelope hunting under such conditions requires every dram of a hunter's stalking skills and perseverance. The sleek beauty of a black-checked buck is the reward for those who succeed in this unique experience.

That's my pitch for pronghorn hunting. How about practicalities? If you've never hiked the open prairies, first prepare yourself for the scale of the landscape antelope inhabit-there's a reason my home state, Montana, is called Big Sky Country. Atmospheric conditions allowing, spotting animals at three miles or more isn't uncommon. You might have to walk that far to engineer a stalk.

Given the broad expanse of the habitat, you may also have to shoot at distances much farther than you're accustomed. A few years back, I shared an antelope hunt with a Tennessee police officer. In the course of prehunt conversation, I found he put in lots of time at the rifle range and had shot competitively. One afternoon we followed three bucks over a rolling series of low hills. Taking a chance, I led him quickly around a bulbous knob to a position overlooking a swale I thought the animals might cross.

Before we moved into position, the first buck came sauntering through the saddle. A hurried crawl put us into shooting range, before the others arrived. With a bipod on his rifle, ample time to prepare and a 260-yard target, I figured the buck with the massive, tightly hooked horns bringing up the rear of the trio was as good as gutted and caped.

"I'll stop him" I hissed, then exhaled a sharp bleat. The buck paused, then looked our way. Bang. A bullet sliced sod over the antelope's back. The confused buck bolted, then stopped again. A second shot also flew harmlessly high. Miraculously, the dark-faced pronghorn milled, then froze again, offering a third standing shot. No matter what you've heard, the third time isn't always a charm.

Analyzing his failure when rationality returned some time later, the frustrated cop admitted that he wasn't ready to shoot at such range and had over-compensated. A common practice among high plains sportsmen is to sight their rifles about three inches high at 100 yards. For reasonably flat shooting calibers, this allows the hunter to hold dead on at ranges to well beyond 200 yards without additional elevation. At close range, I hold on the lower one-third of an antelope's body. At ranges on the longer side, I put the crosshairs on the upper one-third with confidence.

Beyond shooting, the unfortunate officer's experience brings up another important aspect of antelope hunting: Ambushing moving pronghorns is an excellent way to get within shooting range. Like other animals of the open plains, antelope often drift in a particular course as they feed. In warm seasons when water sources are scattered and few, they'll often return to the same reservoir, tank or spring to drink on a daily basis. Successful bowhunters are attuned to the watering schedules of the American antilocapra, as blinds dug or erected near water sources are very effective on an animal whose eyesight is often compared to a human peering through a rifle scope of relatively high magnification.

However, the artful ambush isn't just for bowhunters. I once found myself on an antelope excursion packing a Marlin lever-action .218 Bee. The slim rifle was plenty accurate, but not what you'd call a powerhouse. Given its energy limitations, I figured I needed a perfect shot at less than 100 yards before I'd break the trigger. For hours I stalked antelope, only to have them spook before I'd closed to the magic distance. Just after lunch, though, I spotted a lone buck moving purposefully across the prairie. After a moment's puzzling, I deduced his destination--a faraway stock tank under a towering windmill.

In the windmill's foreground, another feature caught my eye. A deep, eroded gully twisted its way from just short of the tank to a point not far beyond my position. If I hurried, I might get close enough to the windmill to pop from the wash within close range of the buck as he came to water. My hiking boots were heavier than my high school track shoes, but I still made good time up the draw. Where it petered out near the mill, I stopped. After regaining my wind, I parted the sagebrush at the brink of the gully--almost too late. The buck was passing my position not forty yards away. Sensing my movement, he drew to an alert halt. Rifle cocked and ready, I snapped the trigger on the trim little Bee.

Though it occurred some decades ago, I'm still proud of the footrace ambush that resulted in the closest kill I've ever made on antelope. And it begs an important question:

Isn't it downright irresponsible, maybe unethical, to hunt "big game" with such a tiny rifle? My answer is an unqualified "No." As a matter of fact, I've downed at least a halfdozen short-range pronghorn, cleanly and humanely, with the .218. Between my dad and my brothers, several dozen have fallen to the fast moving, but similarly light bullets of a .220 Swift. Some states have minimum-caliber restrictions for antelope, but pretty much any centerfire rifle is fine if used within its limitations. Antelope are small animals; a mature buck will seldom press the scale beyond 120 pounds. What's more, they have very thin skin and light bones, two of the physical characteristics that facilitate their bursts of speed that can exceed fifty miles per hour. At reasonable range, it takes very little rifle to effectively dispatch one.

However, their smaller stature makes them more difficult to hit than a whitetail. If they're moving, forget it. At what appears to be a trot, an antelope is moving faster than you can sprint. You don't need to bring much rifle on an antelope hunt, but a full measure of sense in choosing the shot is required.

If you miss? Two very underappreciated attributes of antelope are their confidence and curiosity, characteristics that can bring surprising opportunities to the patient hunter.

With their blinding speed, antelope are essentially immune from natural predators. Coyotes and eagles sometimes take young. Winter-weakened adults are also vulnerable. On numerous occasions I've seen them bolt, then circle back to identify the source of a rifle shot or human movement.

Last fall I helped a twelve-year-old boy from Maine down his first antelope. Late in the day we snuck within 140 yards of a large herd by dropping into a ravine, then moving in on the field where they were feeding. Once in position, I coached the lad to lie on his belly, elevate his rife over the short grass and shoot. There was, however, one glitch. Due to an orthopedic condition, the boy couldn't lie on his stomach. He had never shot a rifle from a prone position. While we struggled out of the ravine and into a sitting position. A doe in front, then the rest of the herd, went trotting away. I mouthed a bleat at their round, white backsides and in unison they turned, then jogged straight back in our direction. Following a single shot, the crisp, open air trembled with the lusty shouts of an exuberant youth. If you're patient and stay put, an antelope's curiosity might bring it back within range after an errant shot or a botched stalk.

Regardless of the outcome, antelope hunting is a first-rate experience. While hunting them I've lain on my back for hours watching migrating flocks of sandhill cranes wheeling on the thermals, the rolling staccato of their calls wafting clear in the prairie concert hall. I've also lain on my stomach for hours, elbows bloody with cactus needles, sweating it out on a dusty stalk for a dark-horned pronghorn, relishing every minute. That's antelope hunting--adventure of every kind.


GET IN THE GAME Drawing A Permit

MOST WESTERN STATES offer nonresident antelope hunting; tags generally run $200 to $300. Nearly all either-sex or buck-only tags are issued through a lottery-type drawing. Doe tags can sometimes be purchased over-the-counter. Naturally, hunting units with trophy animals provide the poorest drawing odds. However, most states have some type of preference or bonus-point system favoring hunters who apply year after year. Application deadlines generally fall in the spring, making advanced planning essential. Colorado, Wyoming and Montana all offer hunting districts with a fine mix of easy public access and good drawing odds. Arizona and New Mexico are coveted states among trophy hunters, and you may spend a lifetime applying and never receive a tag in the best units.



As With Deer and Elk, Pronghorns can be found By Their Scrapes

HUNTERS KNOW AND read a lot about deer and elk that rut and tend scrapes or frequent wallows. The same holds true for pronghorns, and in many cases scrapes are more likely to yield a trophy buck than a watering hole or irrigated field. That may be why you can wander for days without finding the buck of your dreams-he's probably sticking close to his scrape, waiting for does to come to him.

Like many big game animals, pronghorns create scrapes most often during the pre-rut, which is usually August and September. An active pronghorn scrape is often the size of a food service tray, shallow and noticeably moist--plus it smells. In most cases there's also a clump of scat left nearby.

Pronghorn scrapes follow the patterns of rutting deer and elk-they're most often placed near vantage points and in locations where lots of animals will encounter them such as along fences, irrigation systems and highways, or on natural restrictions like gaps in long hilltop ridges. These funnels can concentrate pronghorns.

Once the rut arrives, bucks seem committed to a region and will develop a defined travel pattern--which can be up to four miles across--to check a network of scrapes.

Successful deer hunting tactics work when hunting rutting pronghorns. You can call, use lures or put out decoys to solicit action after you conceal yourself behind a nearby bush or vantage point that's downwind. If the area is void of suitable vegetation or a proper hiding site, consider using a ground blind.

If you decide to hunt near a gap in a ridgeline, you'll want to climb as high as possible to avoid detection, because Western winds swirl--especially in gaps where the winds push their way through.
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Author:Ballard, Jack
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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