July 22, 2021
By Brandon Ray
It was second day of the 2019 New Mexico pronghorn season, and it was hot. After 14-plus hours in the blind the previous day and another 12 so far on Day Two, I was mentally drained. I’d already passed up multiple 20-yard shots at average bucks, because I was waiting on one specific antelope I’d named “Hook.” He had high prongs, good mass, and a lot of curl on the end of both horns. He was worth waiting for.
Day Two started slow, but now the animals seemed to be drifting toward water as it got later in the afternoon. The first two bucks were small. They slaked their thirst from the cattle tank at 28 yards. Numerous does also passed by my blind at 20 yards. In the distance, I could see Hook.
When Hook neared the water, still 80 yards away, an older buck with short horns ran him away from the girls, and the water. Daylight was fading. Long minutes later, Hook again approached the water. And again, the old buck with dink horns ran him off — this time clear to the horizon in a trail of dust. Two other respectable bucks stood inside 30 yards. Conceding that it wasn’t meant to be on Hook that day and recognizing the bird in the hand right in front of me, I sent an arrow through a fine buck at 28 yards, after which said buck quickly went down for good in the yuccas.
Exhausted from the heat, I was happy to both fill my tag on this DIY hunt, and to escape the hotbox that was my blind. As I admired my buck in the fading light, Hook appeared behind me only 60 yards away.
“Maybe next year,” I muttered under my breath.
If you’re looking for your first-ever, out-of-state adventure, pronghorns are a good choice. Nonresident tag costs are reasonable — usually $250-$500. With a buddy splitting costs for food and gas, it’s possible to do a public-land hunt like this for under a grand.
Pronghorn seasons start early, so you won’t miss whitetail season back home. Pronghorns are also more visible than deer and elk, making scouting for them easier.
My two favorite antelope states for a DIY hunt are Wyoming and New Mexico. Wyoming has lots of public land, and more antelope than any other state. New Mexico is closer to my home, with quality bucks and ground open to the public, plus access to private land via a trespass fee.
Start with a phone call to the game and fish office for the state you want to hunt. Find out tag-application deadlines. Biologists for the region can share clues on best areas for big bucks. Inquire about drought or winter kill, which can affect an otherwise proven area. Ask for a list of landowners willing to grant hunters access to their property, just in case you don’t draw a tag on public. A fee of $500-$2,000 for access to hunt private land is what I’ve encountered recently (the price dependent on the size of the property and quality of bucks).
Once you’ve narrowed down where you plan to hunt, start researching the closest towns to find out if they have a hotel, grocery store, gas station, etc. Also, make sure to note business closing times and alternative food options. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a hot blind all day, and then driving to town after dark only to find out the only restaurant for miles has just closed!
I prefer to stay in a hotel/motel within a short drive of my hunt area, whenever possible. August bow seasons are hot, and a shower and comfortable bed at the end of the day do wonders for a weary bowhunter. Another option is a trailer with water, air-conditioning, and a refrigerator. If tent-camping is your preference, find a shady spot on the prairie. A small grove of cottonwoods will provide relief from the heat, as well as a cool place to hang a buck for skinning.
On any pronghorn adventure, my truck looks like something from the “Beverly Hillbillies.” My rig is loaded with coolers, blinds, chairs, bow cases, targets, gas cans, and more.
Even though August bow seasons usually mean sitting blinds near water, I always come prepared to hunt other ways in case a thunderstorm soaks the prairie. I’ve had good luck with decoys from Montana Decoy, Ultimate Predator, and vintage Mel Dutton designs. The Ultimate Predator decoy attaches to your bow, so it’s perfect for a solo hunter. Other designs are best with a buddy: One guy holds the decoy and calls out the distance to the target, and the other shoots. In August, you rarely get an aggressive charge from a dominant buck like you might experience in the rut, but a decoy can help close the gap at any time.
Pronghorns have stellar vision, and they are always curious. A solo buck I stalked on state land in New Mexico in 2017 came right to my decoy. I glassed the buck late in the morning. He was feeding in an open pasture, but he was headed to a clump of head-high cactus and mesquite. I ducked down and headed for the brush patch. The big buck wandered that direction, spotted the doe antelope decoy on my bow from 150 yards away, and came at a slow walk right at me. The 74-inch buck was down in seconds, thanks to my well-placed arrow.
Watch the wind when you stalk antelope, just like you would for deer. Practice shooting from your knees, and expect longer shots when stalking or decoying than from waterhole blinds.
The best odds for success for a bowhunter are hunting water. It takes lots of patience to sit in a blind for 12 to 15 hours a day, but the result is usually a close shot at an unsuspecting buck. In my experience, midday, and the last two hours before dark, are when most bucks drink. That said, I’ve had bucks water at every hour from sunrise to dark, so I always plan to sit all day.
Pay attention to the dominant wind direction when setting a blind. I’ve had mature bucks circle a blind, get downwind, and leave without taking a drink. I’ve even brushed-in old trailers or farm junk near a remote waterhole as an effective blind. Camo netting, a shovel, pruners, and a few tumbleweeds are all you need. I place a blanket on the floor of the blind to keep dust from boiling on me during the day. Pack a small cooler with ice, water, sports drinks, and snacks. Books, magazines, and a journal also help pass the time. Good optics, like a window-mounted spotting scope and 10X binoculars, will help with scouting chores. A quality rangefinder will pin down shot distances.
You don’t need a lot of draw weight for pronghorns. Bucks are thin-skinned, with a live weight of 100–140 pounds. My typical antelope rig includes a bow drawing 58–62 pounds coupled with skinny carbon arrows and compact, fixed-blade broadheads, with a finished weight of 400–450 grains. Pack an extra release in your backpack.
When possible, I scout a few days before the hunt. I take inventory of bucks in the area with trail cameras at windmills, and by glassing from my truck. Trail cameras will confirm when and where the biggest bucks are drinking. Seeing them on camera multiple times at a specific waterhole gives me confidence to sit all day. I’ve seen pronghorns drink from fiberglass tubs, metal tanks, mudholes, and runoff ponds. In my experience, if there is both a manmade holding tank at a windmill and a runoff pool or seep of water leaking out into the sage, most pronghorns will drink from the seep or puddle.
When a buck approaches water, he is usually alert and cautious. Pronghorns know they are vulnerable to an ambush from a predator near water. Don’t move when the buck stares at your blind. When he gets to the water, he will often bob his head several times before finally settling down for a long drink (he might drink continuously for several minutes once he’s calm). In my experience, once done drinking, I’d guess half the time the buck ran away from the water. Therefore, I try to time my shot either as the buck is approaching the water, or once he settles down for a long drink. If you wait until he finishes drinking, he might dash away before you have time to settle your pin.
Pronghorns In Hell
I’ve seen hell: It’s central New Mexico during a drought. If man’s version of heaven is lush, green vegetation, clear water and abundant feed, then this place is the polar opposite. The desert is brown, prickly, hot, and mean. Sometimes the monsoon rains hit in the summer and bring the desert back to life, but other years there is no relief, as the temperature tops 110 degrees.
In late-summer 2020, less than three inches of rain had fallen since January on the ranch I was hunting — most of that in one brief, violent thunderstorm. Bleached-white bones and cow skulls dotted the desert. The rancher had moved or sold his surviving cows, because there was no grass.
At one water tank, a place where I’d arrowed a handsome 71-inch buck two years earlier, the stinking, rotting carcass of a pronghorn buck laid in the nearby rocks. I started to wonder if I was wasting my time.
At sunset, while driving a dusty two-track road, I found life. A dozen pronghorns were feeding on green weeds in a dry lakebed — three of them bucks. In the next pasture, I found 10 more. The third pasture produced even more. One of the bucks was gorgeous. He had a black mask, heavy horns, high prongs, and extra curl at the end of his horns. It was Hook. No question!
I set trail cameras at three windmills. Hopefully, they would provide valuable information on where to invest my time. Even then, I knew it would still ultimately come down to patience and luck…
So why hunt in hell? New Mexico consistently grows some of the biggest bucks in North America. Good genetics, mild winters, and good feed in most years means bigger bucks. I shot my best-ever buck, an 85-inch Booner, in New Mexico, back in August 2007. That buck came to water at midday on state land. It was 108 degrees. So sometimes, despite the hellish conditions, there is great reward for enduring tough times.
Opening day, August 4, I was in my blind as the sun chinned itself to life. The forecast called for a high temperature of 97 degrees. No rain. Hell continued for the land and animals, but it was a good recipe for a bowhunter guarding water.
It was 3 p.m., before anything visited my water. Three bucks, two of them yearlings and one a 12-inch buck, quenched their thirst, then disappeared into the yuccas and dancing heatwaves. Another three hours passed with no signs of life. The ice in my small cooler was mostly melted, and the pounding heat sat on my shoulders like an anvil.
It happened at 6:10 p.m. Apparently, my senses were dulled from the heat, wind, and lack of sleep. I looked out the blind’s front window, and there stood a big buck, broadside at 18 yards. Twelve hours into my first day’s sit, and he was just there. It was like being paid in advance for a week’s worth of work. A quick glance confirmed it was indeed Hook. The bowstring came back to my cheek, just as Hook lifted his head to glare at my blind. My 400-grain arrow whistled through Hook’s ribs. He simply walked 20 yards, and tipped over.
The buck was tagged, quartered, and covered in ice in less than one hour. On the horizon, ominous clouds and a black curtain smelled like rain. Maybe tonight there would be relief for the land and animals? Maybe.
With proper planning, patience, and grit, a Western adventure such as this one is possible for any bowhunter.
The author lives on a ranch in Texas. He shot his first pronghorn in 1993. Since then, he has hunted pronghorns in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, and Alberta, Canada.
Author’s Notes: My 2020 pronghorn setup included a PSE Carbon Stealth Mach 1 set at 60 pounds. I used an HHA Optimizer Lite sight, QAD rest, Bee Stinger Microhex stabilizer, Victory VAP shafts tipped with four-blade Slick Trick broadheads, SIG SAUER rangefinding binoculars, and a Nikon spotting scope. Other gear included Primos Double Bull blinds, Browning trail cameras, Danner boots, and KUIU clothing.