Pronghorn antelope are generally very abundant throughout the prairie regions of North America. They can often be spotted in open areas all day long. Seeing them from afar is one thing, but field judging them and getting in close enough to harvest a nice buck is where the fun and adventure come into play.
Over the years, I have been able to enjoy multiple trips out west to hunt these tiny little critters. I have enjoyed each hunt immensely and, on each outing, learned more and more about pronghorn antelope habits and how to hunt these unique animals.
The pronghorn’s scientific name, Antilocapra americana, essentially means “American goat-antelope.” While many refer to them as antelope, goats, or speed goats, they are not related to the antelope species of Africa or to any members of the goat family. This makes them a unique species.
Pronghorns have tan bodies with white bellies, rumps, and throat markings. They have a short mane that runs down the back of their neck. Males have black cheek patches, and the bridge of the nose is also black. On average, bucks are three feet at the shoulder and weigh 110 to 115 pounds. Does are slightly smaller and weigh 80 to 90 pounds.
Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America. They have oversized hearts, lungs, and aboutelation to the size of their bodies. The oversized internal organs allow these animals to run at amazing speeds for long distances. It is not uncommon for them to trot at 35 miles per hour or reach and maintain a top running speed of 60-plus miles per hour. This speed helps them avoid predators like coyotes, but can often be observed by hunters who’ve startled them, causing them to take off running.
It’s believed that pronghorns have eyesight equivalent to eight-to-10 power binoculars. In addition, their field of view is close to 300 degrees. This combination gives them extremely keen vision and generally, by the time you spot them, they’ve likely already spotted you.
Being herd animals, pronghorns depend on one another for survival. When something doesn’t seem right to them, they’ll raise their white rump hairs to signal potential danger to the others in the herd and then start to move closer and closer together. At the same time, they’ll quit feeding and start milling around to assess the danger. If they feel they are in danger, they’ll take off running. If they don’t feel they are in danger, they’ll slowly spread out again and drop their rump hairs. If something startles them at close range before they have a chance to herd up and assess the danger, they will let out a high-pitched wheeze to alert the other members of the herd as they blast off on a dead run.
Where to Find Antelope
The rugged rolling pastureland of cattle country is typically home to pronghorns. The combination of short grassland and sagebrush provides prime feeding areas for these animals. This countryside can prove to be vast, so antelope can be anywhere on these prairie landscapes.
Something that helps narrow down the search for pronghorns is that these areas are often very arid, and pronghorns require water daily. If you can locate either natural or manmade water sources, you’ll be likely to find pronghorns in the close vicinity. Another thing to keep in mind is that as fall gives way to winter and the temperatures drop, pronghorns will spend the majority of their days near the sagebrush flats since sagebrush browse provides the necessary energy for these animals to survive winters.
In mixed farmland, where there is a combination of pasture lands and agricultural farmland, pronghorns have adapted their habits according to changing agricultural practices. I first started seeing this occur in areas where farmers grew winter wheat and fall rye crops. The antelope shifted feeding patterns from sagebrush and prairie grass to feeding on the green sprouts within these fields. In more recent years, many farmers have started growing field peas, and the antelope have taken a real liking to eating spilled peas that never made it into the combine. So, they will feed and bed in pea fields. When hunting an area of mixed farmland, the key to finding antelope will be to locate fall rye, winter wheat, and pea stubble fields.
When the weather is cold and windy, pronghorns will naturally seek protection and move to low spots to get out of the wind. When weather conditions are bad, look for pronghorns in the bottoms of large valleys, on the upwind edges of hills where the wind isn’t howling, in low spots in agricultural fields, and even in the open fields behind old farmyards or shelter belts. When hunting pronghorns in these sheltered areas, remember that no matter where they go, they’ll always be in an area that gives them an excellent view of their surroundings.
Optics for Hunting
When hunting pronghorns, I like to use a combination of binoculars, a spotting scope, and a rangefinder. I use binoculars to search the countryside for pronghorns. When I spot some animals, I will use the spotting scope with a much higher magnification factor than my binoculars to really check out each animal and evaluate the headgear on the bucks.
High vantage points will allow you to see lots of countryside. Once you start glassing, check out the entire countryside, including every suspicious-looking rock and weed clump. Grazing pronghorns on the distant horizon are easy to spot and identify. However, bedded pronghorns will often look like small clumps of tumbleweeds or rocks. Sure, you’ll have lots of false alarms and see your share of “rockalopes,” but that’s all part of pronghorn hunting.
For the most part, pronghorns are herd animals, so if you spot one, chances are there will be others nearby. If you spot a single animal, check out the surrounding area very closely. Sometimes there will be other pronghorns bedded nearby or others just behind a hilltop, and they will slowly graze their way into your field of view. Just be patient and make sure to thoroughly check the area.
Once you locate some animals, switch from your binoculars to your spotting scope. If hunting on foot, use a tripod to keep the scope steady. If you are hunting an area that allows you to use your truck on roads and trails, use a window mount for your spotting scope.
Rangefinders are a must on pronghorn hunts. The combination of open hunting terrain and the small size of pronghorns makes field judging very difficult. In many instances, the animals are closer than we realize. On my last pronghorn hunt, I stalked as close as I could to the buck I was after. Looking at the distance with my eyes, I figured he was over 400 yards away. When I ranged him—to my surprise—he was 267 yards away, and well within my shooting range. Without the rangefinder, I would have given him a free pass or pushed my luck to try to get closer.
My go-to rangefinder is the Vortex Fury 10X42, which is actually a combination binocular with built-in rangefinder. Although this unit is slightly bigger than a normal pair of binoculars, I prefer the combination unit. That’s because I don’t need to carry a separate range finder, and while I’m glassing a distance, the measurement is just a push of a button away.
In theory, it might seem next to impossible to successfully hunt small animals that can see better than we do and that run much faster than we could ever imagine. Well, thankfully, there are a few ways to do so.
The first method is to spot and stalk the animals. Once you’ve spotted a buck or doe you want to pursue, take some extra time to glass the area before starting the stalk. Look for areas and terrain that you can use to your advantage to close the distance while at the same time staying out of the pronghorn’s line of vision. Low spots, drainages, dry creek beds and weedy fence lines are some of my favorite objects to use while stalking in close enough for a shot.
At the same time, figure out the wind direction and if it will allow you to stalk in straight from your location, or if you’ll need to circle around and come at the pronghorns from another direction to keep the wind in your face. Another factor to consider is the sun. If you can keep the sun at your back and force the pronghorns to look into the sun, you will have a distinct advantage.
While stalking, move slowly and quietly. The idea is to get within shooting range without the animal knowing you are nearby. During a stalk, expect to do lots of walking. Also, be prepared to move while hunched over, to crawl on your hands and knees, or even to crawl on your belly. When crawling in pronghorn country, keep an eye out for cacti and sharp rocks so you can avoid them.
As you stalk towards the pronghorns, periodically stop to look at them. If they are relaxed, keep moving. If they have their rump hairs raised or are starting to mill around, stop, lay low, and let them relax. Once they are relaxed, start moving again.
Given their good eyesight, pronghorns also tend to be curious. With this in mind, you can have a hunting partner position themselves in such a manner that the pronghorn can see him or her on a hilltop or distant area and focus their attention on them so you can sneak in from another direction.
It’s amazing how well this can work. Several years ago, we spotted a herd of antelope on a distant hilltop. The pronghorns were positioned so they could see all around them and getting within rifle range would be next to impossible with a normal stalk. The buck in the group was a nice shooter, so we tried something crazy. My buddies dropped me off down the trail and proceeded to drive down it, then stopped the truck so the pronghorns could see them at a safe distance. The pronghorns never ran, and instead stood looking at my buddies and the truck. In the meantime, I stalked in from the side. When I got near the crest of the hill, I belly-crawled to the top. My reward was seeing all the pronghorns standing at near point-blank range and them not having any idea I was there.
During the rut, pronghorn bucks will gather harems of does and go to great lengths to keep them to themselves. Each buck will tend his group of does and always run back to a doe that doesn’t follow the group to chase her back to the herd. In addition, he will run off any other bucks that attempt to come close to ensure they don’t steal any does.
These habits make it possible to hunt pronghorns with the use of a decoy. Often this tactic is used in conjunction while stalking into a herd of antelope. While stalking the herd, you keep yourself and your decoy hidden. When you reach the point where you can’t get any closer without being detected, flip up your decoy and get ready to take a shot at a buck charging in on your imposter.
In some instances, the buck may run almost over top of you. On other occasions, a pronghorn will run to a certain point and then stop to posture and assess the situation. While buck decoys tend to bring the most volatile response from herd bucks, a doe decoy can sometimes trigger a buck’s herding instinct. That can bring him in with his guard down as he looks for love rather than a fight.
For safety reasons, decoys are typically used by archery hunters during archery season and not by rifle hunters. Regardless of when you use a decoy, you need to be sure that no one else is around who mistakes your decoy for a live antelope and starts shooting at your decoy.
Check Water Sources
As mentioned, pronghorns need to water daily and will often do so multiple times throughout the day. With this in mind, hunters can sit over a water hole and wait for the pronghorns to come in for a drink. Given that the pronghorns will be coming to a particular spot and you can control where you set up, this tactic is great for archery and muzzleloader hunters.
When planning to hunt over a watering hole, it’s important to scout from a distance prior to hunting to see which direction the animals come from and exactly where they like to drink at the water source. With this information in mind, you can set up a blind or hide in natural vegetation.
If you build a blind, it may take the animals a few days to get comfortable around that blind, so wait a few days before actually sitting in the blind. When you decide to sit and wait, make sure the wind is in your favor and only hunt on days when the wind direction is favorable.
Sitting over a water hole requires patience, as there will be long periods of time where you will not see animals. Also, when you do see a pronghorn, it may not be the particular buck or animal you are waiting for. So, you’ll need to sit quietly and not spook the one having a drink as your target animal may be nearby.
Field judging pronghorn bucks is an acquired skill. Mature bucks sport horns that are 12 to 17 inches high. A nice buck will have 14 to 1 ½-inch horns and a super buck will have 16-inch- plus horns. Horn length is not the only factor to take into consideration as the prongs and four circumference measurements are also used to calculate the score on a pronghorn.
A pronghorn’s ears are about 5½ to 6 inches in length. By looking at a buck’s horns and comparing the length of its ears, you can estimate both the horn and prong length. However, the guestimate isn’t really that easy since the horns will curl at the top and prongs often curl as well, making it difficult to estimate just how long each one is.
In terms of mass, a guideline is to look at the buck from the side and use its eyeball as a measuring reference. A pronghorn’s eyeball is about two inches around. If the horn is equal to the size of the eyeball, it should have at least a four-inch diameter at that point. Keep in mind that high-scoring pronghorns have bases and circumference measurements in excess of six inches.
Given the difficulty in field judging these animals, I recommend looking at as many bucks as possible during your hunt and then harvesting the biggest-looking one you’ve spotted. Since pronghorns generally don’t travel too far, it is possible to leave a buck and return later to find it again.
Pronghorns live in wide-open terrain, so expect to do lots of walking, use a flat shooting rifle and always try to have a solid shooting rest when it’s time to pull the trigger. In terms of boots, wear some that are comfortable and well broken-in so that you don’t get blisters on your feet. Be sure to select a pair that gives you good ankle support, because while the terrain looks flat, there are enough hazards out there to easily cause you to twist your ankle.
One of my favorite pronghorn calibers is the .243 as it is very flat shooting and works so well on these small animals. I like to zero at 25 yards. This allows me a dead-on hold from point blank to about 300 yards. I have also taken antelope using .30-06 and .270 calibers. I know other hunters who swear by their 6.5 Creedmoor’s, 6mm, .280, .308 and .25-06 rifles No matter the caliber you choose, be sure you are able to shoot it well and that you understand its ballistics.
A solid shooting rest will dramatically increase your success on these open-range hunts. Bipods such as the Harris Bipod or the Swagger Bipod are extremely solid. Since they are typically attached to your rifle, they are quick to access and work great for prone, sitting and kneeling shots. A pair of shooting sticks are easy to carry and quick to set up. I like them because they are long enough to allow a standing shot and they feature three legs for extra stability.
There are very mixed reviews among hunters about the taste of pronghorn meat. Some say it’s the worst meat ever, while others say it’s fantastic, and on par with the taste of elk. I have eaten both flavors of antelope, and thankfully, the horrible stuff was earlier in my hunting career.
I have learned that the key to prime, mild-tasting pronghorn is to take a few quick field photos and then field dress, skin, and cool down the animal as quickly as possible. I carry a skinning pole in my truck and a large Yei Tundra 75 Cooler full of ice because a quartered antelope fits easily inside the cooler. Ever since I’ve been doing the field dress, skin, and cool process as soon as possible, the meat from my pronghorns has provided first-class meals.