Getting so close a few weeks ago and coming home empty handed changed our plans for the rifle opener. Initially we were planning on scouting for 2 days, and rifle hunting the rest of the week. But after tasting the challenge that spot and stalk archery hunting provided, we modified our plans and headed over 4 days earlier, hoping to get the job done with archery tackle. We’d then have a day or two to pick up our rifles if needed.
In this sage country, cover is very scarce. Our tactic consisted of driving and hiking into canyons and draws, looking for bucks that were in stalk-able locations. We each had multiple stalks every day — some better than others. It wasn’t an issue of getting within range, but being close enough, and letting an arrow fly are much different things in the bowhunting world.
Dad came and met us after a couple of days, and a good friend, Jewkes, also showed up the Saturday before the rifle hunt opened. We spent a lot of time driving, walking, and glassing bucks to stalk. Cole showed up Sunday afternoon. He would only be rifle hunting, but came out a couple of days early to get familiar with the unit and look at some bucks.
Jewkes came about 3 inches shy of killing a buck on Sunday, but the buck had moved a few steps farther than he had though and he shot just under its belly. The young buck dashed off and quickly learned to keep his distance from Jewkes-sized predators.
Monday morning we headed out to check on a few of the bigger bucks we’d seen. We were hoping to find them in their usual haunts, so we could be there at first light on opening morning. But we couldn’t locate any of them. We checked a half dozen different areas, and none of our bigger bucks were to be found. Disheartened we decided to head to another part of the unit that we had visited just once over the past 4 days.
I’d like to say that we put on a difficult stalk, but that wasn’t the case. As we were arriving in the other area and had barely driven onto a strip of public land, we spotted 8 bucks feeding from the truck. We managed to get the truck pulled off the road without spooking them too much, and Jewkes made a short and effective stalk to within range.
I was sizing the bucks up, trying to pick the largest one. They all looked to be about 2.5 year old bucks — none significantly bigger than the others. They all lined up in a row and looked our way as they had caught our movement. The third from the left, however, did have a pretty hook and was a bit more appealing to my eye. I was looking through the camera eyepiece whispering “Third one from the left…third one from the left.”
The arrow flew, the herd jumped and scattered, and the third buck from the left ran off untouched. The second buck from the left, however, had taken an arrow to the spine and dropped on the spot. The shot was a little high, but the buck was down and expired quickly. It was done. We had a pronghorn buck down — spot and stalk style with archery tackle. We were all on cloud nine as we took a few moments to let it all sink in, snap some photos, and then headed back to camp. Tag 1 of 5 was notched. Rifle season started in the morning.
With pronghorn, an inch makes a big difference. In this sense, antelope hunting differs quite a bit from most other hunts as we looked over dozens of different bucks every day, trying to judge an inch here, and an inch there. The majority of the bucks we would see were around 13 inches tall or smaller with small to average prongs and not much mass. As the day wears on and the desert warms, heat waves make discerning inches at distances over 300 yards nearly impossible, even with good optics. We made the decision to split up opening morning. Cole and Jewkes went one way, while Ben, Dad and I took the other truck down into the canyons where we had seen several good bucks on multiple occasions, hoping that they would be back for the rifle opener.
They weren’t. We drove through the usual haunts of several different bucks, only to find them empty. We did find several 14+ inch bucks early in the morning, one in particular had sweeping horns, but we decided that only 10 minutes into the rifle season, he could live a little longer.
We covered a lot of ground, and finally found a solid buck that warranted a stalk, but he was a mile away and two draws over. We consulted the GPS (thanks to GPS Hunting Maps) and found a road that would bring us close. After a bumpy drive and a stalk of a few hundred yards, we eased our way over the edge of the ridge. The herd had moved several hundred yards west and had us pegged. I rushed to find the buck, rested over a large sagebrush, checked the range, and took the shot. I hit low and the buck trailed his fast moving girlfriends across the draw and up the canyon. I had an incorrect range, and must have picked up some brush somewhere between myself and the buck and missed low because of it.
We made our way back out of the canyons and onto a big flat that always holds good amounts of antelope — they lived there because they could see for long distance so getting close to them was tough. We found several herds, and Ben and I were able to stalk up a draw, passing several bucks on the way, but ultimately not getting the bucks we were after.
We returned to camp to find Cole had killed the first buck he saw that morning. His luck paid off big time as his buck was big and had character. We exchanged high fives and stories of the morning, grabbed some lunch, and headed out to find some more bucks.
We found another nice buck, who managed to elude us and were driving back past camp, when we spotted a herd on backside of the ridge above camp, close to where I had one of my closest archery stalks several days prior. This looked to be the same buck and I decided I’d make a stalk. Ben took Dad south to try and find another buck, while Jewkes followed me with the camera as we made our way back to camp and up the draw. Hoping we could sneak around the ridge and find the herd within range.
I left Jewkes when I thought we were close and he stayed back with the camera, as there was very little cover. I had to use the topography of the gradual ridge to make my way towards the herd. I crawled forward and saw a doe, she was moving up the hill so I backed off, looped uphill and crawled forward again. The buck was standing next to a doe at about 200 yards, and for a long time either she was in front of him or he was in front of her so no shot was offered. I studied the buck, trying to decide whether I wanted to fill my tag. The doe cleared and he turned his head to look up the draw, his ivory tips glinted in the sunlight and he made up my mind. I grabbed my pack (which I had set behind me) and laid on my back as I pulled it across my chest to use as a rest. The buck caught my movement and looked my way. He stared me down, as I lay flat on my back in some very short grass. After what felt like an hour (more like a minute) he turned and fed. His lead doe was getting nervous and turned, looking to go around the ridge from me where I wouldn’t be able to see them. The buck was following but turned back. I abruptly sat up and shot. His does raced uphill, quartering towards me as they hurried to the top of the ridge. The buck turned downhill at first, then whirled back and I shot again, but the first shot had found its mark.
Dad and Ben were coming back past camp, so we called and they came up to take a few more photos. They then headed back south of camp to look for a couple more good bucks. Ben found a buck that evening that had a pretty curl, great mass, and good prongs. He put on a very long stalk to within 70 yards in tall sage brush, capping it off with a short shot and tagged out. His buck is 13″ but will likely score the best of all the bucks due to his mass and strong cutters.
We capped the night off with some rice and fresh backstraps, enjoying good company, tired companions, and reliving memories of the day. The next morning Dad, Ben and I headed out to try to find a buck for Dad. We drove down onto a large flat where we had gone the morning prior. The bucks make their way across this flat as they move from water each morning. We spotted the sweeping 14″ from the morning before and Dad decided he wouldn’t pass on him twice. With a short stalk his tag was punched and we had tagged 5 bucks in 36 hours.
I’ve long believed that antelope hunting is a great first hunt — but ultimately, it just makes a great hunt whether you’re new to the sport, or a seasoned veteran. The North American Pronghorn truly is a unique and amazing animal, hunting them in the sage deserts of Wyoming is hard to beat.