August 23, 2021
By Brian Strickland
He was in the ideal spot for a stalk; perhaps the best opportunity I had in a long time chasing these American originals. It’s not often you get such a gift to capitalize on out west, and by the size of the thick and heavy coal-black horns he was carrying, he was more than worth the effort. But like any endeavor that involves getting close to game with a bow and arrow, the stalk would have to be flawless.
As I studied him from a distance through the spotter, he was obviously the same buck that slipped out of range a few days prior. At that time, I was able to cut the distance to within 150 yards but ran out of real estate with enough cover to finish the job. Popping up a decoy was my only option, but this gypsy buck had other plans.
Luckily for me, a few days later the local rancher who leased the BLM ground I was hunting on was willing to share the buck’s location as I was heading back to my truck from my second failed stalk attempt of the morning. I’m guessing he felt sorry for me because of my weapon of choice; and I must admit, stalking pronghorns with a bow does seem like a fool’s errand at times. That said, in my opinion, there is no better way to hunt the prince of the prairie than with a good sneak.
Just as the rancher described, the buck was nibbling on the green shoots clinging to life on the edge of a tank that was nearly dry. At first glance, the terrain seemed too open to pull it off, but when I repositioned myself for a second look, I realized the slight rise in the tank’s dam would hide my approach. I just had to hope his interest didn’t wander before I could slip into range.
Burning nearly two miles of boot leather, I looped around and eased up the wet-weather wash leading to the tank’s dam. Other than the pair of mule deer bucks I unintentionally bumped from their bed, the stalk was flawless. The few pinion-juniper sprinkled around coupled with the dry wash provided excellent conditions to stay hidden.
After knocking an arrow I peered over the dam. To my surprise he was still there, completely unaware he wasn’t alone anymore. After a quick flash from my rangefinder I drew and settled in. With my 50-yard pin burned low in his chest, I touched the release and put a glorious end to another exhilarating public land pronghorn bowhunt.
Indigenous to North America, it’s honestly hard not to like everything about the American pronghorn. Not only is their striking appearance like nothing else in North America, but their razor-sharp eyes coupled with lightning speed make them a formidable prize in the wide-open spaces they call home. Best of all, the table fare they provide is outstanding, and with hunting seasons starting in August, the pronghorn is the perfect appetizer for any bowhunter’s long season.
When it comes to wrapping your tag around one, guarding a well-used water source is generally the best option for the bowhunter. Nothing draws a mature buck more consistently into range like the liquid gold of the high-desert west in August. And although this may be the most effective way to hunt them, there’s more to it than just throwing up a blind near a wet spot and hoping for the best.
Pronghorns are creatures of habit and they will pass water sources by in lieu of the one they want. I also suspect there are other reasons as well which may have to do with their ability to see while in a vulnerable position. Either way, not all water sources are created equal, so picking the right one is important.
Nothing beats good old fashioned scouting when it comes to finding the right wet spot, and digital mapping sources like OnX Hunt are a good place to start. The less water the better in most cases, so search out sections of ground with limited options. When it’s time to physically scout them out, obviously pay attention to the number of animals you see in a particular area. The more sage rockets you locate the more opportunities you will likely have when it's time to put the hours in the blind.
Water sources can vary significantly. The ones they can see well as they approach, and also have the ability to see their surroundings while sipping, are generally the best ones. Remember, a pronghorn’s best defense is their eyes and speed, and they put that above everything else. Finding tracks around water is often difficult because of the hard, compact ground, but following trails leading from them can yield clues. And for the bowhunter, the smaller the water source the better for obvious reasons, but you ultimately have to be where the action is, so sometimes having a pair of blinds set up on a larger drink is the answer.
Confirming what a water source yields is always your best and nothing beats what you see with your own eyes. Obviously, a good pair of optics is important, but so is a well-placed trail camera or two. Efficiency is key when it comes to monitoring multiple wet spots, as well as not bumping possible target bucks with unnecessary activity around them; therefore, a good trail camera that provides a wide field of view is a great option. Even better, trail cameras with cellular technology like Moultrie’s new Delta will minimize the risk of bumping goats from their favorite water source.
As effective as guarding a water hole is, it’s really hard to beat the excitement of stalking and the use of a decoy. In fact, if there’s only an ounce of cover or uneven terrain, it's about the only way I'll hunt them anymore. All but a couple of the dozen or so goats I’ve killed have come from this method, and although it's not easy, it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
The reason is quite simple. Stalking goats provide action from sunup to sundown. I’ve tallied as many as eight stalks in a single day. I won’t lie, it can certainly be a grind — especially when you see your share of white rumps heading in the opposite direction as you try to sneak in — but it’s also the sweetest feeling when everything falls into place.
Needless to say, cover is a critical element to this endeavor. Although most of the public dirt goats live on is relatively open with sparse cover, there is generally enough bumps and ditches which allow you to have a crawling chance. In many regions, cholla cactus and yucca plants dot the landscape, so these types of areas can be a gamechanger.
Although the more stalks you can string together the better, it’s really a fool’s errand to attempt to get close in ultra-flat ground. Instead of wasting your time and ultimately sending the goat into the next county, keep searching for the right buck in the right spot to give you a fighting chance. Glass, glass and glass some more to find the right buck. Be patient and take your time dissecting the terrain. Also, pronghorn move a lot when on their feet, so keep that in mind while planning a sneak. Think ahead of where you’re likely to intercept him or wait for him to bed.
Just as important as having cover is picking the right buck. Looking back, all but one of the bucks I was able to stalk and kill was completely alone. Theses gypsy bucks tend to be more mature, and earlier in the season you can hunt them better. Oftentimes this means finding out-of-the-way locations with few roads around, but burning some boot leather in this broken country can pay dividends.
When it comes to deploying a decoy, timing is everything. Although they can draw a buck into range early in the season, in my experience the buck you’re trying to fool hangs up well out of range or heads in the opposite direction. However, once you start witnessing mature pronghorns engaged in heavy territorial scraping activity, it’s time to consider the use of a fake.
As the rut heats up, mature bucks start gathering large harems of does. When interlopers sneak in close, the dominant buck will chase them off with lightning speed only to have another buck slip in the back door steal a bride. I've witnessed the same buck chasing for hours, and if you stumble on this situation, it's a prime opportunity to slip in close with a decoy. These are generally fast-paced hunts, and with all the commotion you can move in without being noticed. Once you hit the 150-yard mark or so, pop up the fake. Seeing an interloper that close will certainly get the buck’s attention, and if the timing is right, he’ll blast in your direction.
If he’s really agitated, you’ll think he’s going to run you over. He’ll generally figure something is not quite right, but usually well within bow range. When he stops, light him up and catch your breath. It truly is the most exciting way to hunt this American original.