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Pronghorn surprise: when the hunt runs short and the camera roles, a big buck turns up.

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THEY STAND ON stick legs in winds that suck the heat from your core through six layers of high-tech fibers. They bed in vast sage deserts, snow scuttling through the short, black candelabras on its endless journey east. But like that sage, pronghorns emerge from blizzards spare and hard despite their frail forms.

So if you think they're ordinary--because they live where you can drive and because Wyoming may have more pronghorns than people--think of winter. Or summer. The coldest, least hospitable places under prairie snow become the driest, least hospitable places after pronghorns drop their kids in June. OK, call them fawns if you like; biologists will tell you these animals are as much like goats as deer. They don't qualify as antelopes, despite their common name. Pronghorns are the sole surviving members of the family Antilocapridae, with no close relatives in North America, no genetic ties to African or Asian antelopes.

Pronghorns differ from deer in several ways. They have no dewclaws or gall bladder. Instead of antlers, males have permanent spikes anchoring keratin sheaths shed each year. The fastest hoofed animal in North America, pronghorns can clock forty-five miles per hour in a flat sprint. They seem to enjoy running.

A fetching jigsaw of white, black and a rich tan that can run to sorrel, the pronghorn's coat is easy to spot at distance--but so are you. This animal's eyesight rivals that of a raptor, and the eyes protrude high in the head, affording nearly 300-degree vision. A glint of binocular or rifle barrel, a hunter's cap breaking the horizon, a shiver of sage branches on an otherwise still prairie brings a pronghorn to full alert. You'll never win a stare-down. Those keen chocolate eyes seem to have zoom lenses. Once a pronghorn decides to study you, it will in time find you out. Ears and nose are keen enough to foil hunters, but you'll first have to mind that marvelous vision.

"We get 100 percent opportunity," says Tim Barraclough of Kiowa Hunting Services. It's a sure thing, finding a buck in this swatch of central New Mexico. Kiowa's lease encompasses 78,000 acres and has a solid history. "We'll kill around 90 percent. Should get a few that score over eighty." That's eighty inches by Boone & Crockett measure--minimum for entry in the B&C all-time records book is eighty-two.

An hour after dawn the next day, we've seen only distant bucks. Then, as we sneak doubled-over toward a small herd, the rut changes our luck. The buck dashes straight toward us, licking up 400 yards in seconds. I drop to a sit, yank the sling keeper and catch him in the Leupold. Dawn's fire still blackens the horizon--now the pronghorn as it tops a ridge just 100 steps off. The animal races past, closing on a smaller buck we'd not seen. The collision almost happens, but the lesser buck is quick. Both whirl as one and vanish in the sage without stopping. Orange dust hangs in their wake.

"Any closer and you'd have had to defend yourself," grins my partner, Savage Arms president Ron Coburn.

We patrol another pasture, glassing deep. Sun erases the shadows; we pull off our jackets. A hike turns up nothing. Then, just before noon, we spy pronghorns a long rifle shot away. Crouching, we slide into a swale. The buck appears, angling toward us--actually toward a lone female on the ridge to our right. He's 150 yards off when I signal a stop and drop to my belly behind short beige grass too thin to hide an armadillo. The buck slows, then stops, quartering to me. Sage shields his ribs, but the crosswire is clearly defined on the point of his shoulder. The trigger yields and the sear breaks as if of its own mind.

"Whup!" The Federal .308 softpoint staggers the buck. His first step fails, and he's down. A couple of kicks, and he is dead. The drama is caught on tape for "Peterson's HUNTING Adventure Television." It's a good start to the program--and leaves us time to find a big buck for Ron.

"The two-day pronghorn season puts pressure on hunters," says Mike Barraclough, Tim's son, and our guide today. "That's why we scout intensively before the opener and why our guides keep to assigned units. I expect half of the thirty hunters in camp will have had shooting before noon today. By this evening we should be 80 percent finished." Hunters who didn't find a buck to their liking the first day have "pretty much the run of the ranch" the second. "Excepting the pasture set aside for young hunters," he says.

This effort to encourage beginners certainly boosts their odds. As we pull up to a shed once used to harbor livestock, a boy and girl in their early teens emerge from an arc of men ogling pronghorns strung to a beam for skinning. The horns on both bucks show good length. "Fourteen and a half," beams the lad when I ask if one is his. "Got him with one bullet at 160 yards!" I turn to the young lady. "I used a .220 Swift," she says. "My buck's over here." She leads the way down a short queue of field-dressed antelope yet to be hung. It's a gorgeous pronghorn, a fifteen-incher with a very dark face. The bullet lanced both lungs. "Almost 300 yards," she finishes, matter-of-factly. It's better shooting and a better buck than many old-timers here will claim.

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"Let's get lunch, then head west." Mike drives us back to the hacienda, where we wind our way through the chow line that had served up steak, green beans, scalloped potatoes and pie last night. I wolf a salad and pinto beans, grab an extra bottle of water. We're on the highway in half an hour.

"I've scouted a buck in this next pasture," says Mike. "A good one." There he is, a tall-horned buck no more than a stone's toss from the pavement. He's loafing in scattered cedars, with a big contingent of females.

We're forty minutes getting into the unit from the far side. On foot we move crosswind, mindful that if any pronghorn spots us, the effort counts for naught. As is common in antelope country, we find more grass, cedars, rocks and cactus than expected. More topographic relief, too. "That helps and hinders." Mike is voicing what we all know: There's more cover for an approach, but also more to hide pronghorns. We must see each to stay hidden from each. Ron chambers a round in his .270.

Step. Look. Glass. A white wink in a forest of cedars catches my eye 300 yards out. Then Mike spies three antelope double that distance to our left, in a sage basin. Ron at point, we advance south at a glacial pace. On all fours, we creep over a rise bereft of cover. A buck has appeared to our front but well east of the cedars. We're allowed brief glimpses of horn.

"It looks good," whispers Mike.

"Is it the same buck?" Ron isn't sure. Neither am I. Pause. "Your call. We're still 100 yards from the cedars."

Ron elects to go for this buck--alone. We hunker, glassing the antlike forms of pronghorns sifting through the sage and cedars in a broad arc to our front. The sun lifts a tide of mirage into our lenses.

"There!" I spot him angling our way in a swale thick with sage, but Ron can't see the buck. A tree blocks his vision. We hiss and motion, signaling him not to move-only to peek around to his left. Finally, the message gets through. Still, Ron is in a tough spot. A female just to his south has spied his kneeling silhouette. He can no longer move. Nor can he shoot prone because the swale's rim will then hide his target.

We hold our collective breath as the buck catches the doe's apprehension. Stiff-legged, he clears a cedar 150 yards to Ron's front. The prairie air hangs still. The .270 rends it. The buck dashes off. Ron runs the bolt smoothly, fires again. Dust spurts high. At just over 200 yards the animal stops and turns his ribs to the rifle, still unsure of the danger. Ron's third bullet finds the chest. A short, labored sprint is all the antelope has left.

"Nice buck!" Mike is clearly pleased we're finished--and have both kills on camera. But neither he nor the rest of us have yet studied the horns. We stop short of the carcass, transfixed. This antelope is better than any I've seen shot. It will tape more than seventeen inches around the hook, with mass and prong to match. It will green-score eighty-six.

"This isn't the same antelope." I'm thinking out loud.

Mike recovers quickly.

"Like I said," he drawls, "nice buck."

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Title Annotation:Open Country
Author:van Zwoll, Wayne
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2008
Words:1488
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