Trans-Pecos: West Texas is not generally considered an antelope hotspot--but it should be.
I'd hunted pronghorns in West Texas once before, not terribly far to the northwest. I'd seen relatively few, but one of them was the biggest pronghorn I shot. I didn't expect a repeat performance, but I did expect to see a small scattering of pronghorns and maybe a couple of decent ones. It's always better to go into a hunt without unreasonable expectations, but I hate to get it as wrong as I did this time. In less than an hour we were into the country where, on this ranch, Ross expected the pronghorn to be concentrated. Small groups of pronghorns dotted the prairie here and there. It was late September, with the rut in full swing, and we could see bucks chasing does and moving from one herd to another in any direction we looked. In the next few hours I'm sure we looked at perhaps sixty different bucks.
I've hunted pronghorns in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming, as well as Texas. Wyoming has the greatest density of animals, and this area matched any area I've hunted in Wyoming, and the average quality we were seeing matched good country in New Mexico. It was better than anything I'd expected.
We were actually there as a solution to a problem. Yamaha's Gary Nessl and his marketing team wanted to bring some writers and industry folks together on a hunt to showcase the new Grizzly 700 ATV with power steering, and the Rhino 600 side-by-side. An early pronghorn hunt seemed the obvious solution. The weather would be favorable for us wussy writers, plus covering ground in ATVs and glassing is an ideal way to hunt pronghorns.
Based in San Antonio far to the east, Desert Safaris has a series of big ranches under lease southwest of Fort Davis. Like New Mexico, Texas allocates pronghorn permits to landowners, so no drawing is required. Ross's landowners would allow use of the Yamaha ATV's with reasonable restrictions, and the area had lots of pronghorns. I didn't believe that last part, but it promised to be a fun hunt.
By late morning on opening day we still hadn't fired a shot, but we were all pretty happy. "We" were a group of four, Yamaha's Mike Martinez, Hornady's Steve Johnson, me and Hunter Ross, tooling along the ranch trails on two Grizzlies and a Rhino. The day was getting warm and pleasant, and the ATV's were truly a great way to see the country and the antelope. We traded off now and again, which was good for me.
I hadn't ridden the new generation of four-wheelers, and the Grizzly was superb and a pleasure to drive even for a fossil like me. The side-by-side Rhino, however, gave me a chance to visit with Hunter Ross. He's a young outfitter who knows what he's doing and takes care of business. He impressed me. This was at least partly because I was impressed by his pronghorns. The numbers were like Wyoming, but this wasn't Wyoming. The prairie was quite different--almost no sagebrush, which is often stated to be a required staple for pronghorn. The grass was wonderfully lush and studded with tall yucca.
The pronghorn were different, too. I've never seen such calm antelope and I've been hunting them since the 1960s. Some trotted away as we approached, but others stood and looked at us from as close as 100 yards, and none spooked at a half-mile like I've seen so often. Ross explained that there weren't many permits and he hunted his leases in rotation. He probably wouldn't hunt this ranch again during the short season, so this day was the only day of the year these pronghorns would be disturbed, if you could so describe what we were doing;
I know big pronghorns, but having not hunted here before, I wasn't sure what we were looking for. I was sure that, with no hesitation whatsoever, Ross was passing lots of good, solid bucks. We weren't seeing monsters, and I didn't know what he thought might be here, but we passed up a whole bunch of bucks with heavy, long prongs pushing or exceeding the fourteen-inch mark. He was passing them with such confidence that I was starting to believe there must be a couple of really good ones around.
We worked our way up a long valley below a low ridge. Near the top a few does fed along in long grass, and as we glassed them a buck stood up. Ross knew what he was when he saw him, and so did I. His prongs were exceptional and his horns jutted far forward rather than straight up. I was certain he'd go sixteen inches, and it looked like he had everything else to match.
I would liked to have shot that pronghorn, but I've shot lots of pronghorns and I was having a really good time seeing all the nice bucks. I was in no hurry to end it, and I wanted to see what else was there. I knew Steve Johnson would be stubborn; he's shot a lot of pronghorns as well. Mike Martinez had never shot a pronghorn before, so he was the obvious mark, Steve and I sort of folded our arms and the shot fell to him. He took the shot at 265 yards, I think the longest shot of his experience, and he hammered the buck perfectly. It was a beautiful pronghorn, a bit over the sixteen inches and unusual with those forward-jutting horns. We all made a good decision. It turns out Mike had never before mounted a trophy but he's having that one done.
A couple hours later Steve Johnson made a fine shot on a perfect, heart-shaped fifteen-inch buck. We looked around a little while longer and saw a few more, and then we decided to call it a day. It was a long way back to the ranch house, and a bit longer to camp.
Desert Safaris put on a super barbecue that night, enjoyed by a whole lot of happy hunters. In fact, there were only three of us who hadn't filled out, and certainly not for lack of opportunity. I've never seen such consistent quality. Mass and prong length were exceptional, and length was good, mostly over fourteen inches. Clearly it was a good year for pronghorns in Texas, and just as clearly this herd was well managed and lightly hunted. The biggest buck measured seventeen inches and had massive bases and long prongs, easily meeting the Boone & Crockett minimum with a couple of inches to spare.
Almost oddly, out a dozen bucks taken that day there were no misses or wounded antelope. Few of us like to talk about it, but misses happen and game is wounded. Pronghorn country is wide open, and pronghorns are especially tough if hit wrong. Take a dozen hunters, some of whom have never hunted pronghorn before, and the law of averages suggests that somebody will have a problem. No one did, but no one had to take a long shot and no one had to attempt a moving shot. These results are proof that these antelope are so undisturbed as to be weirdly placid.
One of those dozen bucks taken on the first day was shot by my good friend Joe Fox, president of the Paralyzed Veterans of America's Outdoor Heritage Fund board. Joe's motorized wheelchair wouldn't fit on the Rhino, so he alone was allowed to actually shoot from the vehicle. It was his first pronghorn, and a darned good one.
Since I hadn't expected the area to have so many good buck antelope, I hadn't anticipated first day results like that. Now the pressure was on. I didn't want to be the first--or the only--one to miss. And I was still hoping for a nice buck.
While some of the guys went looking for wild hogs, javelina and the free-range aoudad the Davis Mountains are famed for, Ross and I went to a different ranch where he'd seen a nice buck before the season. He was distinctive, he said, with exceptionally good mass and dramatically long prongs. He'd only seen him once at a distance, but he was sure we'd know him immediately.
The new ranch was drier, more open country with fewer pronghorn, but, after all, we only needed one. He was right, too, we knew him when we saw him. Well, sort of. We spotted a group with a couple of bucks from nearly a mile away, and one seemed worth a close look. At a half-mile he still looked good, but we needed to get closer. At a quarter-mile I wasn't sure. The mass was wonderful and the prongs were exceptional, but he could have been a bit longer. On the other hand, we'd looked at an awful lot of pronghorn and I'd handed off by far the best buck we'd seen. This was a beautiful buck, easily among the very best antelope I've ever had a chance at, and he was plenty big enough.
We closed to about 175 yards with no difficulty at all, then I had to wait for multiple eternities while other antelope ambled past the feeding buck. At last he was clear, and then he fed straight away for several more eternities. Finally he turned almost broadside, and I was very, very careful with the shot. I already knew he wasn't going to be the biggest one shot, but he was otherwise outstanding, and that ended one of the best pronghorn hunts I've ever been on.
Story & Photography By Craig Boddington
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|Date:||Aug 1, 2007|
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