June 24, 2011
By E. Donnall Thomas, Jr.
One September morning some years back, I rolled out of my sleeping bag, gathered my gear, and under the cover of darkness headed for a nearby creek bottom. By dawn, I was working my way down the trench a little stream had carved out of the prairie, completely hidden from the antelope beginning to stir on either side.
The rut was just getting underway, and as I carefully peeked through the sagebrush I could see a herd buck rounding up his harem while two satellite bucks waited for an opportunity to cut out one of the does. With ideal cover and a favorable wind, I settled in to wait for an opportunity of my own.
It arrived an hour later when one of the younger bucks crossed the invisible line into the Red Zone and precipitated a full-scale charge by the Boss. Just as I hoped, the wild chase crossed the creek bottom 60 yards away. As the pair disappeared into the sage, I tried to plot the herd buck's most likely route of return to his girls. I wound up crouched behind a bush, arrow nocked, just downwind of a gap in the bank.
Five minutes later the buck appeared just as I'd anticipated, his chest heaving from the exertion of the chase. As the buck came broadside, I reminded myself to stay cool and pick a spot. My cedar arrow flew true, and by the time I raced up the bank I could see does scattering as my buck folded to the ground.
I can't think of a better quarry to provide an introduction to Western bowhunting than the pronghorn. Antelope are abundant on public land. The odds of drawing a tag are good in most Western states. Best of all, the habitat they occupy still evokes the unmistakable flavor of the Old West.
Rifle hunters accustomed to seeing antelope fleeing at long distances are often amazed that anyone can kill one with a bow, but it certainly can be done. Here are three tactics for bowhunting pronghorns.
By far, the greatest number of bow-killed antelope fall to hunters in blinds, usually at water sources but occasionally at fence crossings or other points of concentration. While pop-up blinds serve this purpose, I prefer blinds made on the spot of natural materials, supplemented by strips of netting. The ideal waterhole is small enough that any drinking antelope will be in bow range. It'll also have a bit of natural cover, or at least a bank or earthen dam to provide a backdrop to break up the outline of a blind. Rather than setting up at the first waterhole you find, spend some time scouting the shoreline until you locate a spot with lots of sign that meets these requirements.
What if it rains? If enough rain has fallen on the prairie to leave a bit of water in the bottom of a few old cow tracks, setting up over water will be futile, which bring us to Plan B.
Decoying can be an exciting alternative to sitting water. Many years ago, I took my then young son Nick along with me on one of my first decoying attempts. After stalking within a hundred yards of a buck, I had Nick throw up our homemade decoy. Thoughtlessly unprepared, I began to fumble an arrow out of my quiver as the buck disappeared into a cut, headed in our direction. Seconds later, I looked up just in time to see the buck knock the decoy out of Nick's hands five yards away.
While few would dispute the thrill of such an encounter, I never got a shot at that buck. Granted, I might have if I'd been better prepared for the charge, and now that I know more about decoying, that buck might have wound up dead. But a lot of close-range decoy encounters still end up without a good shot opportunity because the alert animal sees you draw, the buck presents an unacceptable shot angle, or a host of other reasons.
The most important point to bear in mind about decoying is that it's only effective during a narrow time window during the early to middle phase of the antelope rut. In Montana, where I do my antelope hunting, that occurs between September 15 and 25. Any time you see two or more antelope bucks tolerating each other's presence, you can leave the decoy in the truck.
Decoying is always more effective with a hunting partner, since it's very difficult to run the decoy and get off a shot. The closer you can get to your target buck the better. The ideal decoying setup? Locate a herd buck that's actively defending his harem, use good cover to approach undetected to within a hundred yards, and position yourself 20 yards or so ahead of your partner, downwind of the buck's likely approach route and with a bit of cover in front of you.
Finally, never overlook the possibilities of spot-and-stalk hunting. The first requirement is suitable terrain. Look for steep-sided creek bottoms or lines of dense brush in coulees. Also, while antelope favor open country, in some places they inhabit wooded terrain that provides plenty of stalking cover.
I'm convinced that stalking antelope at first and last light offers a huge advantage because their legendary vision falters in low light. And while antelope can easily spot you crawling over a horizon a mile away, they are poor pattern recognizers and often let you get away with far more than you might expect at close range.
The magical late September rutting period benefits all three methods discussed here. Bucks chasing does and defending their harems beneath the blazing prairie sun have to go to water several times a day, to the obvious advantage of hunters set up at waterholes. The greater the rutting frenzy, the more likely bucks will respond to decoys. And rutting bucks provide stalking hunters with more opportunities to set up interceptions.
During antelope season, my hunting truck contains items that aren't always there at other times of the year. A small pick and shovel can be useful when it comes time to level out the ground for a blind. A lightweight tripod stool can get you up out of the dirt when you're sitting in a blind. A good folding handsaw and a pair of stout clippers are usually all I need to trim brush during blind construction, and a couple of strips of netting often help me finish off a blind.
In hot weather, meat and capes can spoil in a hurry, so I always carry porous game bags. With a roll of baling twine, I can make tripod corner posts for a blind from sticks or branches gathered on the spot. I like to wear leather gloves and knee and elbow protectors to keep thorns out of my hide when I'm crawling on stalks. Always carry plenty of extra water. I've learned that if I'm not getting thirsty sitting at a waterhole blind, I'm probably not going to see any antelope.
Even with good technique, bowhunting antelope won't be easy and you'll have to put in your time. But putting in time is exactly how I've learned what I know about the subject. You'll be spending that time in some of the most beautiful, unspoiled country around, and the results of a successful hunt — a unique trophy and some prime eating — will more than justify the effort you've expended.