The pronghorn antelope carries the Latin name of Antilocapra americana. Those words suggest that it is really a kind of antelope-goat. As well-known outdoors writer Colonel Craig Boddington points out in his excellent book, Fair Chase in North America, “he is uniquely American and totally unique. His is a genus with only one species, and he has no close relatives anywhere in the world.”
In my opinion, pronghorns are one of our continent’s most underrated, underhunted big game animals, and they have offered me more challenge, fun, and entertainment in the field than almost any other species I’ve had the privilege of pursuing with my bow. Their huntable range is vast—extending from the eastern parts of the Pacific coastal states of Oregon and California, down through the Southwestern states, east from there through Texas all the way to Kansas and Nebraska, then up through the Dakotas and into Saskatchewan and Alberta. All the Rocky Mountain states hold abundant populations of pronghorn, as well.
Their preferred habitat is open prairie-lands, with virtually no tall vegetation of the sort that could provide predators with cover. Their natural defense system is based on an extraordinary set of eyes, and an even-more-remarkable set of legs that can propel them forward at speeds nearly matching those of the African cheetah. Possessed of huge lungs, however, they can sustain those high speeds much longer than any of the wild cats. Many hunters affectionately refer to antelope as “speed-goats.”
A pronghorn looks bug-eyed, all the time, because his bulging eyes are mounted even more on the sides of his head than are those of deer, elk, or wild sheep. If any game animal has “eyes in the back of his head,” it has to be the pronghorn. Since he is also blessed with binocular-power vision, you simply cannot make a move on him without being seen—unless you have full cover. As is the case with all wild animals, motion is usually what antelope pick up first.
In a way, they are the ideal game animal: offering demanding challenges to every type of hunter. For the rifleman, not only is long-distance marksmanship the challenge, but—in the typically flat, wide-open country they usually inhabit—stalking (or crawling, which is more normally the province of the bowhunter) becomes a necessity, just to get within “marksmanship range.” For the bowhunter, who must get so much closer to his quarry before attempting a shot, stalking is seldom even a possibility, unless the open terrain is quite rolling or fractured. In most situations where an archer is able to harvest a pronghorn buck, the shot is made near a water hole from a blind, a ground pit, or the top of a windmill. I do know bowhunters who’ve succeeded in stalking to within bow range of a “prairie-goat,” and I’ve done so once, myself, but the feat requires dogged determination, extreme patience, some topographical help, and a fair dosage of good luck.
In recent years, it has bemused me more and more to hear the difference in the ways rifle hunters and bowhunters tend to boast about their respective accomplishments in the field. More often than not, when you hear a rifleman brag about the shot he made, the boast is generally about how long a shot he made. “Six-hundred twenty yards!” I heard one friend proclaim just last week. In the past, when I’ve heard an archer brag about his shot, it has usually been in the context of how close a shot he made. In the first instance, the pride evidenced seems to revolve around marksmanship (“How far away can I be and still make the kill?”). In the second, the pride seems to be based upon the hunter’s stalking skills (“How close was I able to get before making the kill?”). This is changing, however, and I don’t really think the change is necessarily good for bowhunting. With so many bowhunters now relying on mechanical trigger releases and yardage sight-pins—in combination with rangefinders—I’m hearing more and more boasting about how the hunter “double-lunged” his deer (or whatever) at 85, 95, or even 105 yards! I think some of the challenge (and fun) of the stalk is now being short-circuited!
One thing I know, for sure, is that bowhunting places a premium on stalking skills, and I know of no two-season hunter (one who hunts with both firearms and a bow) who is not quick to tell you that archery hunting has made him or her a much better gun hunter than they ever were before they started hunting with a bow. Nonetheless, regardless of your chosen weapon, the pronghorn antelope will test all your abilities and instincts, and truly provides a wonderful challenge to every age, and every kind of hunter. Unlike many other types of North American big game, hunting him doesn’t put a big premium on your physical conditioning; only on your patience, your persistence, your stalking ability, and your marksmanship—and usually in that order.
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It is to veteran bowhunter, Steve Gorr, of Arlington, Washington, that I am indebted for my first opportunity to bowhunt pronghorns. In 1980, he and his wife, Donna, started offering five-day, archery-only hunts on the Smith Sheep Ranch near Douglas, Wyoming. I booked a hunt with them in their very first year. For more than 20 years, they leased the hunting rights to that ranch during the archery season and produced many, many Pope & Young bucks for their clients. All hunting was done over water holes, either from the top of the adjacent windmill, or else from a cached position at ground-level within the four legs of the windmill. When Steve dropped you off within walking distance of your assigned water hole just before daybreak, you knew it was going to be a long day until your ride returned at dusk.
You hoped it wouldn’t rain, of course, because then the antelope would have standing water to drink everywhere, and would have no need to come to your ambush location. Yet the sun was like a two-edged sword. You wanted it, but when the skies were cloudless, as they usually are in Wyoming in September, 12 or more hours in the sun, without shade, amounted to cruel and unusual masochism!
Fortunately, on a hot day, the action of antelope coming to water was pretty much nonstop, and that helped the long day pass relatively quickly. I never cease to be amazed at how fast time passes when I’m watching (at close range) wild animals that are unaware of my presence.
My first hunt on the Smith Ranch I found very exciting, very challenging, and very frustrating. I drove back to Seattle empty-handed, because I had flat-out missed every shot I’d taken from the top of the two or three windmills out of which I’d hunted. I wasn’t used to shooting down at such a steep angle, and somehow I just couldn’t seem to judge the distance correctly. I actually shot several dandy bucks with my camera, but that was probably part of my problem. By the time I’d managed to get the picture I wanted, and then got my bow back in hand, the moment for just the right archery shot had come and gone. It would not be the last time in my bowhunting career that my desire for a great wildlife photo trumped the desire to release an arrow at my quarry. You often figure you’ll have time for both, or that you can do both without giving yourself away, but the reality is usually otherwise.
My second hunt on the Smith Ranch took place in 1983, as my wife, Jeanne, and I drove over into Wyoming and then headed south for an elk hunt on the Baca Ranch in New Mexico. On each of the five days of the pronghorn adventure, we hunted over separate water holes. Again, I didn’t manage to take a buck during that time—suffering the same kind of frustrations I had endured during my first try in 1980.
Jeanne, however, did kill a nice buck, with one clean shot to the rib cage as the animal began drinking at her water tank. It ran off and bedded on a ridge about 200 yards away. Jeanne stayed put in her blind for a few minutes until she was pretty sure she had seen the buck expire. Only then did she climb down and walk over to verify that the animal was dead. Finding it was, she walked out to the nearby road and hitched a ride back to the Ranch to fetch Steve Gorr and his help in getting her prize back to camp. She paid scant attention to the black pickup that was parked less than 300 yards from her downed archery-buck.
When she and Steve returned in his truck some thirty minutes later, her pronghorn was gone—and so was the black pickup. It was a case of grand larceny on the High Plains! Nothing more, nothing less. Jeanne was crushed, as well as angry, in about equal measure. Her mistake, of course, had been in not putting her tag on the dead animal right away. A hard lesson learned, for sure! Duly punched and attached to the carcass, the tag might well have prevented the theft.
Knowing that we would have one extra day we could spend hunting on the way home after our New Mexico elk foray, we asked Steve, as we prepared to head south from the Smith Ranch, if we could hunt there a sixth and final day on our way back up north two weeks later. He told us he only had two more five-day hunts to go, but that the archery season would still be open at that time. Even though he’d be gone and back home by then, himself, he promised to make arrangements with Mr. Smith—since both my tag and Jeanne’s remained unfilled.
Consequently, two weeks later, we arrived back at the Smith Ranch, determined to give this antelope business one more try. Jeanne was really in need of a victory, since she had had only more bad luck down on the Baca Ranch. My luck had taken a turn for the better during the elk hunt, but that did little to ease Jeanne’s pain. She had only one day left, and—if I recall correctly—that one day just happened to be the last day of the Wyoming archery season.
Naturally, I really wished to fill my antelope tag also, as I certainly didn’t want to return home and have to tell my sons that their dad had failed for a second time. So, after checking in with Mr. Smith and getting his suggestions on where he thought we ought to hunt the final morning, we made camp near the ranch house, cooked up some supper, and got an early start on a good night’s sleep.
Long before the colorful sunrise succeeded in painting the entire dome of the sky a crimson pink, I had dropped Jeanne off near her windmill and then had parked a quarter-mile from my own. Our plan was to rendezvous at her drop-off point no later than 1 o’clock, unless someone scored sooner. The parting look in her eye had told me that she was a woman who meant business that day. The game had now gone into extra innings, and some poor critter was going to die.
As things turned out, the 10th inning was enough. Even though we did use up all the reserves left in our bullpen, we managed to come up with two more “outs,” and a game-ending double-play. By 11 a.m., two bucks—two miles apart—were down and out. I had finally gotten my elevation problems figured out, and Jeanne had managed to arrow a second Pronghorn perfectly, through both lungs, with a textbook 25-yard shot. Neither of our bucks traveled farther than 45 yards from our respective water holes. As the reader can well imagine, the long drive back to Seattle passed quickly, as high spirits were clearly the order of the next two days!
Editor’s note: This article is the sixteenth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the fifteenth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson