July 14, 2016
Casual bowhunters might not know there are two distinct varieties of antelope in North America.
One variety approaches a stock pond with razor-keen eyeballs, surveys the terrain and then drifts in to drink, even if a newly erected pop-up blind or freshly dug and covered pit sits like a sore thumb along the water's edge.
As long as nothing moves within the antelope's view, he always decides things are safe. This type of pronghorn stares blankly at the black viewing window of the blind, drops his head to drink, and gets nailed by a pointblank shot from the dark interior. Another record-book contender bites the dust.
By comparison, the second variety of pronghorn is also keen of eye. But there are no dark-bowelled ambush structures in his domain. There is too much water around for that, too little in hidden spots seldom discovered by a hunter, or ponds that are protected by nearby private and posted property.
This type of antelope sees everything at eye level, and steers clear of humans on hooves that are faster than any others on our continent. Unlike the pond-drinking dummy antelope, this antelope is extremely difficult to bowhunt.
I have pursued pronghorns of both varieties, and both sorts of experiences have been fun. But waterhole antelope are easy. If you study past volumes of the Pope & Young Records, there were relatively few antelope in those books until archers began sitting in enclosed blinds near drinking spots. Only after bowhunters began digging holes in the 1980s did pronghorn record lists begin to quickly expand.
Blind sitting for pronghorns is checkers. Spot-and-stalk hunting is chess. Any archer can whack pronghorns at close range, if that person has the gumption to erect a commercial blind or dig a pit and cover it with tarpaper, cardboard, poly tarps, or any other lightproof material. If they cannot see inside, antelope do not care about the color, shape, or location of your blind.
As I watched another pronghorn herd race away from me just last October, I almost wished for a game of checkers instead of chess. Almost. But I love the sheer challenge of sneaking up on antelope, so I did not give up on the task.
Of course, I am kidding when I say there are two varieties of antelope. But two very different hunting methods sure make it seem that way. I was in eastern Montana, long after the hot summer weather that drives "prairie goats" to water each day. This area had lots of meandering creeks and abundant springs anyway, which would have made patterning antelope impossible regardless of weather or time of year. The only feasible method here was sneaking across rolling and occasionally broken terrain.
Some bowhunters believe that stalking pronghorns is crazy. They take one look at the wide-open terrain and start looking for a waterhole. After all, pronghorns possess the best eyeballs in nature, and run away if they see anything suspicious. They tend to hang in herds, which multiplies the liability. How could anyone possibly approach these animals on foot?
"Blind sitting for pronghorns is checkers. Spot-and-stalk hunting is chess."
Truth is, I have shot several dozen pronghorns with my bow, and I fooled most of them by sneaking. If you avoid flat country, glass from long distance, and shuffle across low ground, you will occasionally get within solid bow range. From there, you must draw below the sightline of the target, wait till he looks away, and then strike!
My pronghorn hunt last fall was in an area with plenty of antelope. But in a week of hunting I only located two bucks that had long, massive horns with decent-sized prongs. A local game warden told me that harsh winter weather and spring drought had stunted the growth of horns and killed off most of the older bucks. That made sense.
One of the two big antelope I did find lived on a huge, public-land flat with knee-deep sagebrush. I decided after three spoiled stalks that I was wasting my time.
The other buck lived in a better area, also on public property. Sagebrush was low here too, but the hills were rolling and two wet ravines sliced across the land. I glassed from a high point every day, waited till the buck and his two-dozen does fed near a ravine, and then started weaseling toward them.
Not unexpectedly, my first few tries were pathetic. Foot-hunting pronghorns is never easy, and you have to be a glutton for punishment. One time, a stray doe antelope fed my way and popped over the edge of the draw. Another time, the wind switched and spooked the herd. Pronghorn noses are not as keen as those of deer, but they still work well.
On my third try at the big buck, I trotted up a ravine, dropped to my belly in a side draw, and crawled until the small ditch petered out. I peeked over the edge through a sage bush, and nearly dropped my teeth! The buck was less than 20 yards away and walking directly at me. The rest of the herd was right on his tail.
I knew the situation was impossible, but I drew my Hoyt bow low to the ground with hopes the animal would turn. He never did, and I eased up to shoot at less than 10 yards. As soon as my bow's upper limb cleared the bush, that buck nearly fell over backwards in a mad scramble to escape. Within seconds, the herd was a half-mile away and running hard. That's easy to do when you can clock 60 miles per hour!
On the tenth day of my hunt, I spotted the big antelope buck again. I already knew the terrain, so I hustled up a deep cut in the prairie, turned into a smaller draw, and eased upwind with an occasional peek beyond the lip — always through a bush to hide my head and shoulders. My well-washed Realtree Xtra camo blended well with the sun-beaten prairie, but I knew an antelope's amazing eyes can see beyond a 270-degree arc. You cannot take chances with these animals.
Thirty minutes later, I peeked for the last time. The whole antelope herd was less than 40 yards away, strung out in a semicircle at the head of the draw. All were angling away!
I snapped a reading on the buck with my rangefinder — 38 yards. I backed deeper into the draw, drew my bow, and eased back up to the edge. I waited till the buck looked straight away, rose six inches higher, and released. The huge Rage broadhead sliced through both lungs with devastating effect, and the pronghorn staggered 20 yards and pitched on his nose.
My 2015 Montana antelope was beautiful, with 15-inch horns, decent mass, prongs a touch over five inches, and a green score above 75 P&Y points. With patience and basic bowhunting technique, pronghorns can be stalked!