Antelope Up Close How to use the lay of the land to get within range of skittish pronghorns

How to approach the band of pronghorn antelope in the mile-wide basin in the distance was the big question. I was using a muzzleloader, so I would have to crawl especially close to get a decent shot. But the only possible cover for a stalk was a low ridge that ran along the northern edge of the basin. Even then, a miracle of maneuvering would be required to narrow the gap on the nice buck that I had spotted in the middle of the herd.

Just when I was ready to admit defeat even before trying, I recalled some of the things a Wyoming antelope guide told me. As I moved toward the antelope, it occurred to me that I might have a chance after all.

SPOT, THEN STALK

"If a guy really wants to, there are a number of ways he can get as close to antelope as he wants," Taft Love told me when we were doing some preliminary scouting and palavering before my muzzleloader hunt.

The classic way to hunt pronghorns is to spot a distant antelope, then make a cagey stalk to get within range of the unsuspecting buck. Love likes to spot antelope from the side of a hill. He climbs to near the top, then sits below the skyline with the morning sun at his back and a good view of the country. He first looks for the white flanks and rumps of pronghorns in the distance. Antelope are more difficult to spot during the dull light of a cloudy day, especially if they are standing or bedded in sagebrush.

Love scans the immediate area with his binocular. Then he switches to his spotting scope to search a mile to five miles out. "Your biggest advantage on antelope is when you see them, but they have no idea you're anywhere around," Love said.

Love maps a route for a stalk by noting creek bottoms, coulees and ridges that run into one another and will keep him out of sight during his sneak. A binocular helps reveal the details of the lay of the land. "A stalk is really pretty simple--you go from here to there as quietly and inconspicuously as possible," Love said. "Antelope recognize the upright human form immediately, so stay low. Go around a hill, instead of over the top. But if you have to go over a hill, crawl over."

DOWN AND DIRTY

Antelope can be stalked to within rifle range even across flat ground with no more cover than a few sparse sagebrush bushes. "You want to crawl on your belly--and I mean your belly--in scarce cover. You'll be surprised how close you can get," Love added. During a stalk, pause at every bend in the trail to scan ahead so you don't spook unseen antelope that will run and blow the approach. If possible, stalk at first and last shooting light of day, which is when an antelope's sharp vision dims. Those few minutes might be all that's needed to make a risky move across the open to within range of a buck.

Love's hunters shoot their antelope at an average distance of 175 yards, but I would have to be extra sneaky to get a shot at the pronghorn I was after. I hurried down the backside of the ridge skirting the basin and peeked through the branches of sagebrush to check the pronghorns' location. The animals drifted across ground about 400 yards away, without even a blade of grass for cover. A few of them were strung out, walking toward a saddle farther down the ridge. It was hopeless, I thought at first; then I remembered something else Love had told me.

ANTELOPE AVENUES

"Antelope travel routes might be the junction of two draws, a plateau along a hill and a saddle in a ridge," said Love. "Antelope follow natural funnels or fencelines if they have to."

With Love's observation in mind, I hurried down the ridge to the saddle where the antelope were headed. A single clump of sagebrush hid my prone form. The head of a doe appeared on the skyline and I put a cap on the rifle. A half-dozen more does walked by. Horn tips appeared in the saddle and I cocked the rifle. The buck walked into view and stopped. It was so close I could see the nubs at the base of its horns.

The rifle's sights settled on the buck and the bullet found the pocket behind its shoulder. The other antelope ran, turning and cutting as one in a zigzag course across the plain. The buck tried to join them, but sank to the ground and was still. I stood up, brushed the prairie dirt from my clothes and walked the short distance to get a closer look at it.

Contact: Taft Love, Milliron TJ Outfitting, 307-632-6848.

Sizing Up a Pronghorn's Headgear

The amount of moisture an area receives from year to year is a critical factor in regulating the size of antelope horns. For example, a study in Montana's Fort Belknap Indian Reservation found that the area typically supported bucks with larger horns, on average, than those in other test areas. However, in drought years bucks on the reservation grew shorter horns. The study also concluded that pronghorns attained adult horn size at 2 to 3 years of age and bucks' horn size failed to increase much in following years. So chances are good of seeing a big buck, even in an area with lots of hunters, and especially following a year or two of good rains.

To judge the size of the horns on an antelope buck, compare the horns to the size of his body. Truly big horns on an antelope buck look longer than the buck's head--at least a third longer than the distance from the buck's nose to its ears, which is about a foot. Trophy-size horns look as long as the distance between a buck's backbone and brisket, a distance that measures about 15 inches. Exceptionally good horns have thick bases with the prongs forking well above the ear tops, which stick up about 5 inches above the base of the horns. Long prongs of 4 to 5 inches also add to the overall score of horns.