November 04, 2010
By Brandon Ray
Trying to do everything right, I arrived two days before the start of New Mexico's mid-August pronghorn season to scout and build brush blinds on public land. Armed with a machete, loppers, shovel, and pick, I built two roomy ground blinds out of mesquite branches within bow range of windmill ponds littered with antelope tracks. Tiny clouds of dust trailed my boots when I walked across the parched desert. The previous six months had been drier than normal. When I finished building my last blind, the temperature was 90 degrees. The goats would have to drink.
Then the rain hit.
What looked like black curtains were actually sheets of rain slowly swallowing the horizon like some evil monster. The Friday night before the season opener, two inches of rain soaked the cactus-covered prairies, and by morning, the parking lot of my hotel looked like a swimming pool. My best-laid plans had drowned overnight.
Over the past 13 years, I've hunted antelope in New Mexico many times. New Mexico's desert badlands are only a short drive from my Texas home, and the Land of Enchantment grows some super-sized antelope bucks. That's the good news.
The bad news is that the state's mid-August archery season often corresponds with late-summer thunderstorms. Monsoon season. While the previous two months may be hot and dry -- perfect for ambushing pronghorns over water -- torrential rains often flood-out those ideal conditions during the second or third week of August. To compound the challenge, the bow season lasts only five days. Combine wet weather with open landscapes and a short hunt, and the odds aren't exactly screaming "buck in the truck."
Regardless of where you hunt pronghorns, weather can betray your waterhole plans. To assure yourself of opportunities, you need to have alternative strategies. I always tote blinds, loppers, shovels, and other items needed to hunt over water, but I also pack kneepads, elbow pads, headnet, gloves, spotting scope, even a decoy or two, for spot-and-stalk hunting.
Maybe even more important, I adopt a workable philosophy. To successfully stalk pronghorns, I've learned to focus on three important elements:
1. Hunt broken terrain and cover. Coulees and ravines, tall sagebrush, patches of cactus or mesquite -- all aid you in sneaking close to a buck unnoticed. Attempting stalks in barren flats with no cover is usually a waste of time. Look for the right pasture first, and then look for a target buck second.
2. Find a loner. Pronghorns' eyesight is justifiably legendary. Some books say antelope can see as well as a person using 8X binoculars. I don't doubt it. That's why trying to slither within bow range of a herd is usually futile. Too much eye power. Today, unless some terrain feature gives me an obvious advantage, I drive right past multiple animals to look for loners.
3. Execute the shot. Shots around water are usually under 30 yards, but in stalking you can't count on such close shots. Plenty of practice before the hunt with broadhead-tipped arrows at longer distances will serve you well. When I was younger, I tried to stalk within 20 to 30 yards every time, and most stalks inside that intimate range blew up on me. Today, I stall at the outer limits of my effective bow range and wait for the shot to materialize. One last thing -- practice shooting from your knees. That's the most common shooting position in stalking.
Even though heavy rain had sunk my waterhole plans, my preseason efforts were not wasted. I had scouted a couple of dandy bucks, one a heavy 16-incher visible every day from a highway. The first time I saw him he was with two does. The next day I found him bedded alone. He lived in a pasture thick with waist-high cholla cactus -- enough cover for stalking. He was my primary target.
At dawn on the opener, I found the big buck by himself. Ditching my truck 500 yards away, I went into super-sneaky mode but had barely covered 200 yards through the chollas when four does, followed by a 14-inch buck, wandered in front of me. In the dim light, they couldn't make me out. I drew my bow and settled the pin where tan met white on the buck's chest. But the season was only 15 minutes old, and a 16-inch buck was feeding alone just across the pasture. I let down, and the herd galloped away. Would I regret my decision?
For the next four hours, I crawled through cactus, rocks, mud, and puddles to reach the big buck. A herd of cattle spotted me and followed me for most of the stalk, which didn't help. The buck was cautious. Then four does joined with him. Rain drizzled off and on all morning. By noon, dehydrated and sore, I sat 200 yards from the buck and his does, the closest I'd been all day.
They were bedded close to the highway, and when a passing truck slowed to take a look, the whole herd galloped away. I surrendered and headed for the truck.
Rather than push him, I decided to let that buck calm down for the rest of the day. That afternoon I tried stalking a unique three-pronged buck but never got close, and by sunset, I was wondering whether I should have shot that "suicide" buck at sunrise.
Unable to find the big buck anywhere the following day, I decided to explore some new country a friend had marked on my map. With a spotting scope on the roof of my pickup, I scanned the landscape, and, unbelievably, spotted a lone buck similar in size to that other whopper. I checked my map again to make sure he was on legal ground. He was.
With the wind in my favor, I snugged into my pack and set out. The buck was 500 yards away.
Bent at the waist, I jogged the first half of the stalk, ducking behind clumps of mesquite and chollas. At each clump, I paused to glass, making sure no spoilers were bedded around the feeding buck.
Methodically, I picked the landscape apart, moving a few yards each time the buck's head was down. At the 300-yard mark, I resorted to hands and knees -- crawl a short way, rest, and glass. Finally, around 10:30 a.m., the buck bedded, and I belly-crawled to the end of the cover, where I ranged the thick black horns over the yellow grass -- 132 yards. Now I could do nothing but wait and hope he would wander in my direction after his nap.
He did. First, he stood and stared in every direction for three minutes, a watchdog guarding his home turf. I lay with my face in the dirt. Then, miraculously, he started across the prairie toward me, 100 yards, then 80. I could not move.
When he hit the 60-yard mark, he veered quartering away with his head down. I rolled to my knees, drew my bow parallel with the ground, and straightened up at full draw, fully expecting him to see me and explode. But he was so focused on feeding, he never knew I was there.
When my arrow hit, the buck's reaction puzzled me. He trotted a short way, and then stood and stared the opposite way. Then he walked another 50 yards and bedded.
At that point I planned to lay low and keep the buck in sight, but at the worst possible time, another buck wandered onto the scene and forced my buck to his feet.
Then they started to walk. Afraid of losing him in the thick chollas, I decided to dog the buck like a coyote, staying back but always keeping him in sight. Finally, at 5 p.m., exhausted but very proud, I recovered the beautiful buck. He was worth every bit of the effort.
The next day, under continuing soggy skies, I helped spot for my friend Ronnie Parsons. Eventually we found a good buck by himself in stalkable terrain. Ronnie made the stalk and a perfect shot to anchor the buck. Drizzling rain dotted my camera lens as I snapped pictures of Ronnie grinning next to his wet-weather trophy. Hunting pronghorns in the rain is never easy, but when you follow a plan and finally tag a good buck, nothing can dampen your spirits!
An admitted antelope addict, the author has hunted pronghorns in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Alberta.
: I used a 61-pound Diamond Marquis bow; Gold Tip Pro Hunter 5575 arrows; 100-grain, two-blade mechanical broadheads; Sonoran LR sight; Doinker 7-inch stabilizer; Trophy Ridge Drop Zone arrow rest; and Nikon binoculars, spotting scope, and rangefinder.
Ronnie Parsons used a 65-pound BowTech 101st Airborne bow; Gold Tip Pro Hunter 7595 arrows; 100-grain, three-blade Rage broadheads; Spot-Hogg sight; Doinker stabilizer; Trophy Ridge Drop Zone rest; Rancho Safari Catquiver; Swarovski 10x42 SLC binoculars; and Bushnell rangefinder.