The temperature was a sultry 95 degrees and I was beat. In the last five hours, the only visible signs of life were a pair of blue quail and 40 fly-covered moo cows. Then, I caught movement. Shimmering orange and white shapes, pronghorns, started to materialize in the distant heat waves.
After 12 hours in a ground blind over water, my chance was slowly approaching. A good buck with his harem of does stepped from the mirage. He was on a sure course with my windmill. I reached for my dust-covered bow.
BOWHUNTING PRONGHORN OVER WATER
Why endure long hours in a blind? If you have the patience, it’s far easier to let a good buck come to you than it is to try and stalk him in the short grass. In fact, according to data from the Pope & Young Club’s 26th Recording Period Statistical Summary Book, 57 percent of all pronghorn entries were taken from a ground blind. Still, it’s rarely easy. But for those that follow a plan, it works. These are the things I do to guard water.
#1 – FIND THE WATER
In unfamiliar country, step one is to scan the horizon. Windmills are the easiest landmarks to find out West, and they usually indicate the presence of water. And, since ranchers use windmills to water livestock, you can bet they will be turned on year-round, or as long as cattle are in that pasture. By contrast, dirt tanks or earthen ponds can be only seasonal water sources.
Look at maps. Follow the two-track roads that lead to water. Small dirt tanks, ponds that only hold water some of the time, won’t appear on all maps. Legwork and glassing is required to cover the countryside and find these overlooked ponds.
Local ranchers and cowboys are oftentimes the easiest solution to finding a productive waterhole. They usually know what time of day antelope quench their thirst and where. Once you find that prime waterhole, determine how far away the next water source is.
If two waterholes are a half-mile apart or less in the same pasture, it’s a gamble which one a certain buck will visit. If they are a mile or more apart, your odds are better that he’ll water near the one where you see him most often, especially if a fence separates the two pastures containing water. Better yet, sit one waterhole and have your hunting buddy sit the next closest spot. That way, somebody’s gonna see the target buck!
#2 – SCOUT BEFORE THE HUNT
If I’ve located a good buck with my spotting scope, or a guide has verified that there’s a big one around or a rancher tells me where the big boy lives, then I can sit forever. If I don’t see a big buck before the season, I’d rather cover more ground looking for one than waste valuable time sitting in just any old blind. But if odds are good, meaning water is limited and temperatures are warm, and I have a big buck scouted, I’ll sit as long as it takes.
There’s no substitute for windshield time. On do-it-myself hunts, I try to arrive at my hunting area two days before the season opens and I spend that pre-hunt time driving the back roads. The backseat of my dusty Toyota is lined with optics. I use an 80mm scope on a tripod to glass when standing in the bed of the truck. I keep another scope on a window mount and 10X binoculars always hang around my neck.
When I spy a big buck, I mark that location on my map, making careful note of the closest water source. Finding a good buck in close proximity to a water tank is the first step in building confidence that a specific waterhole is worth hunting.
Even though antelope country is huge, mature bucks typically stick to a relatively small core area. I’ve tracked several 80-inch-plus bucks across multiple seasons. They show up in the same pasture year after year. When they get pushed, they leave for a day or two, but they almost always return to that core area, especially if there’s water there.
#3 – CHECK THE WEATHER
The month before I hunt summer pronghorns, I become a weather watcher. Every day I check the forecast, watching predictions for rain and daily high temperatures. I also check the annual precipitation to see if it’s above or below average so far. As the days get closer to my hunt, I have a good idea how wet or dry the area will be before I ever get there.
Once the season opens, if it’s been dry and the forecast is for the same, conditions are ripe for sitting water. The hotter and drier it is the better I like it. If it’s been wet, there might be too much water or too many dirt tanks holding water to pin down a buck to one specific watering site. Stalking might be a better use of your time.
One of the biggest reasons for watching the weather is so you know when to shoot and when to wait. If predictions are for rain tomorrow, a medium-sized buck might be worth shooting today. If the forecast is for hot and dry all week, I’ll be patient and wait for Mr. Big Black Horns.
#4 – SETTING UP THE BLIND
Once you’ve found an oasis that pronghorns seem to prefer, you need a place to hide. Many western windmills have a single elm or cottonwood tree within range of the water’s edge. Pronghorns rarely look up, so a treestand might be your best bet in such a spot. Just be prepared to fry in the sun if there’s no foliage.
Some states have restrictions on use of blinds on public, state or BLM land over water, so check the regulations. Pit blinds and natural brush blinds work just fine. Use local fauna like sage, tumbleweeds, or mesquite branches to camouflage the setup. Make it as dark as possible inside with plenty of cover to put yourself in the shade all day. A shovel, pick, brush loppers, camo netting, slick wire, and leather gloves are standard gear for DIY blind builders.
Natural structures work, too. I once used camo netting and an old 55-gallon barrel as a hideout at the corner of an old wooden corral. With netting draped over the top of the fence, tumbleweeds piled behind me and a rusty barrel in front of me, local game paid it no attention.
Most common these days are commercial pop-up blinds. In a perfect scenario, a blind would be set up one to two weeks before the hunt to give animals time to adjust to it. But that’s not always possible, and I’m not even sure it’s really necessary. I’ve killed several bucks from blinds I set up the day before. The thirsty pronghorns might approach with caution, but that does not mean they won’t eventually drink. Make sure the blind is staked down solid on all corners. If it flaps in the wind, it will spook goats. Cattle love to wreck pop-up blinds, so circle them with T-posts and barbed wire if cows are present.
At any waterhole, there’s typically one end of the tank more heavily trafficked than the rest. Set your blind within comfortable range of the most tracks, but not too close. I like a blind positioned 20-40 yards away. Set the blind where the rising and setting sun won’t be shining right into your eyes. If possible, face the blind north or south. Position blinds at two different waterholes, so you have options.
#5 – GO PREPARED
It’s not easy to sit 12-14 hours under a hot sun. Do that for three, four, or five days in a row and you start to understand why solitary confinement is such an extreme punishment!
I’ve had good bucks water at every hour of the day, so when I can mentally prepare myself, I sit from dark till dark. Two things are important to endure such long hours: Knowing from my scouting that there is at least one buck big enough in the area that’s worth waiting for, and having plenty of gear to make life tolerable in the blind.
A comfortable chair is paramount. I prefer fold-up chairs with arm support. Bring enough food to last all day. Chips, sandwiches, nuts, whatever it takes. I also carry several magazines, a book, a journal to record what I see, lip balm, rangefinder, binoculars and a long-lensed camera, all stuffed in a backpack.
Pack a full cooler. I stash water, sports drinks and sodas, and even chill a couple of candy bars. Jam it full of ice. I’ve tried lots of small coolers, but the best I’ve tried is a small Yeti cooler. They cost more, but it really does keep ice and drinks very cold when other coolers would melt.
If all-day vigils sound too extreme, consider sitting during prime time. Year after year, I see the most action at water between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and then again during the last two hours before dark. But know that every time you go in and out of the blind, you are potentially spooking an unseen buck.
#6 – SHOOTING FROM THE BLIND
It sounds simple, but a little practice shooting from a blind before the hunt goes a long way. Check for bow limb clearance with the floor and the roof. Shorter axle bows offer better clearance for shots in antelope blinds. I set up a Primos Double Bull blind in my backyard for frequent summer practice. I shoot seated in a chair and from my knees. In pit blinds or brush blinds, draw your bow a couple of times to check for clearance. Always take an extra second to double-check arrow clearance out of a window before cutting the shot!
Back to my story. The scouting, planning, and preparation were about to pay off — I hoped. I’d been in the blind since 7 a.m. After 12 hours in the broiling sun, could I keep my nerves from frazzling at the very moment I’d waited for all day?
Just 30 minutes before the sun touched the horizon, the buck’s lips were slurping green muck only 30 yards away. I steadied my bow, put the second pin just below where tan meets white, and sent an arrow through the big buck’s chest. The buck went down in sight.
Stepping outside my hideout for the first time all day, my legs were weak, the sun bright. The dreary desert landscape was now bathed in colorful orange and pink from the melting sun. The colors were like a shot of much-needed energy to my weary body. I felt rejuvenated.
The buck’s horns were even more massive than I’d guessed. Guarding water paid off.
The author lives in the Texas Panhandle. He’s spends time bowhunting pronghorn in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta.
On my 2010 waterhole hunt, I toted a 62-lb. Hoyt Carbon Matrix rigged with Winner’s Choice custom strings and cables, a Sonoran Mini D sight, Ripcord Code Red drop-away rest, and a Sims Enhancer and Fuse stabilizer combo. I shot Gold Tip Pro Hunter 5575 carbon shafts fletched with Bohning Blazer Vanes and wraps and tipped with 100-grain Swhacker two-blade broadheads.
My optics included Leupold 10-17×42 Switchpower binoculars, Leupold RX-1000 rangefinder, and a Leupold Kenai 80mm spotting scope. I wore Cabela’s Hunt Tech shirts and pants in Realtree Max-1 camo, Danner Jackal boots, and used a Badlands Super Day backpack.