The Newbie’s Guide to Hunting Pronghorn
Whether you’ve drawn a public-land tag or are going with an outfitter, here’s how to prepare for your first antelope hunt
I grew up in Illinois, where there wasn’t much reason to learn to shoot a rifle. Apart from coyotes, you can’t shoot any wild game animal with a centerfire here. The only time a bolt gun was ever placed in my hands as a kid was at my grandparents’ house. Grandpa loaded his own ammo and even created a hand-crafted lead coil system, which he mounted to the wall so he could test-fire his hand-loads in the basement. I vividly remember my dad taking me down there one time and showing me the old rifles, and we even shot a few .22 LRs into the coil. The distance was only about 30 feet.
I tell this story to give you some perspective of the very short distances I grew up shooting. It took a lot of hard work for me to learn to stretch out to longer yardages, and I still won’t shoot an animal much past 300 yards with a rifle.
When hunters head west for the first time, pronghorn antelope are often their introductory big-game animal (although cow elk offer a great entry-level Western hunt, too). The good thing about antelope is, if you’re hunting the right place, there are a lot of them. It’s not like a whitetail hunt where you’re waiting all day in a treestand for that one buck to come in. If you’re busted on a spot-and-stalk pronghorn hunt, you can often find another antelope. You will almost always see speed goats as long as you’re willing to cover some ground. (If you don’t, then get the hell out of that unit, or never book with that outfitter again.) The only real drawback is that antelope have a smaller vital area than whitetails, so they can be tougher to hit even at shorter distances.
To ease your mind, and get you ready for your first antelope hunt, we’ve pulled together some tips to get you started, along with notes on the gear you’ll need.
1. Hunt with an Experienced Buddy
I have shot two bucks in the last two years. One was on public land and the other on a private 16,000-acre ranch. I couldn’t have taken either without the help of a seasoned hunter. This season in Wyoming I wounded my buck with a shot that hit just below the vitals. He was going to bleed out eventually, but I still wanted to put him down as quick and ethically as possible. Thanks to my new friend Jeff Sipe of Nosler, who has hunted the West extensively, I was able to follow up with a killing shot in a matter of minutes.
We saw the buck bed down and started creeping toward him. He stood up and I was able to get prone—the ideal position to shoot from because you are rock steady. The goat wouldn’t turn broadside, so I had to take a quartering-away shot. I was confident about where I needed to place the bullet, but double-checked with Jeff before pulling the trigger for confirmation. I shot the antelope cleaning through the vitals, and tagged my buck.
Locating bucks is a daunting task, too. If you’ve never even seen an antelope, you’ll find them hard to spot and even harder to judge, particularly in inclement weather and on overcast days, both of which we experienced on this trip to Wyoming. It’s good to have someone with you who is more seasoned, especially because they are used to finding goats in difficult conditions. Without their help, you can waste significant time trying to find bucks, or chasing smaller bucks, because it’s often difficult for an inexperienced hunter to know what constitutes a “good” goat. That said, there is absolutely nothing wrong with shooting a small buck. In fact, if you’re hunting public land, it’s more likely that will be the case. It’s just nice to have someone else there you can look to for advice or to bounce strategy off of.
2. Dial in Your Rifle
If you don’t have much experience with a centerfire, I encourage you to learn from someone who can shoot a rifle exceptionally well. Even after a few years of training, it’s never a snap for me to mount a scope, boresight it, and zero a rifle. You need to know what the hell you’re doing in order to accurately set up your rifle. Once that’s done, you have to practice…a lot. Get comfortable shooting out to 400 or 500 yards. You likely won’t shoot an antelope at that distance (it’s a long shot for a newbie, and many Eastern hunters), but if you can be accurate out to 400 or 500 at the range, it’ll make shots at 200 much easier. You need to practice different shooting positions, too. Don’t just shoot off a bench because that’s not how you will shoot in the field. Put a bipod on your rifle and learn to shoot prone. The Javelin Spartan is a good one because it’s exceptionally stable. It’s carbon-fiber, which means it’s lighter and it also just locks in, so you don’t have to screw it into the swivel stud of the fore-end. You also need to learn to shoot comfortably off shooting sticks, because a bipod often won’t give you the elevation needed to make a clear shot. I’m right-handed, so I place the rifle on the tripod and kneel on my left knee. This allows me to place my right elbow on my right knee, offering much better stability.
When it comes to ammunition selection, that’s a personal preference. We shot Federal’s 155-grain 28 Nosler Terminal Ascent in Wyoming. It has plenty of killing power and the ability to take down elk, but wasn’t too much bullet for antelope, either. I’ve used a rifle chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor for pronghorn as well. The 6.5 PRC and .270 are also viable options. There are a litany of cartridges you can use. Just pick something you’re comfortable with.
3. Bring Good Glass
This applies to any optic you are using, whether it be riflescope, binoculars, or spotting scope. Bargain-bin binos that are good enough for the back 40 are not good enough out here. These animals are often several hundred yards (if not miles away) and there is no substitute for good glass. If you notice distortion around the outside rim of the glass when you look through it, it won’t serve you well for this hunt. Good glass is expensive, but worth it, so don’t cheap out on an optic. You will regret it when a buck is at 300 yards, and you’re struggling to judge it and decide whether to make the shot. I learned a similar lesson on my first antelope hunt. I couldn’t judge shooter bucks at distance with any amount of clarity. Plus, I had a cheap riflescope that wasn’t nearly as capable as the rifle I was shooting. So spend as much as you can afford to get the best equipment.
Read Next: A Step-by-Step Guide for New Adult Hunters
4. The Shot Will Happen Quick
Many rifle antelope hunts involve a lot of time in the truck. You spot the buck from your vehicle, then get out, and go after it. Pronghorn can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time and it’s damn difficult to catch up with them on foot, so having a truck can be advantageous. But it’s also rewarding to pursue them on foot, and antelope to get conditioned to associate trucks with danger. It just takes a lot more patience (and energy) with out a vehicle, plus it’s harder. If you don’t believe me, go ask anyone who has bowhunted antelope. It takes a serious amount of skill to get close to a buck, and when you do, your typical shot comes quick. You will be driving along and a buck will appear. You will jump out of the truck and try your best to put a quick stalk on him and get into a good shooting position.
You need to use the topography of the area you are hunting to stay hidden. Coulees, hillsides, sagebrush…all of these can keep a pronghorn from spotting you. Be methodical. Don’t rush up to an antelope and try to shoot it, because they’ll likely see you first and take off. It’s better to take your time, and have eyes on your buck before moving into position for the shot.
It’s important to be confident when you’re on the gun too. Remember, you’re the one pulling the trigger, so even if your buddy or guide tells you to shoot and you are not ready, don’t do it. If you wound the animal and can’t recover it, that’s on you, no one else. Practice at the range before the hunt. See how fast you can get into shooting position and make good, killing shot on a target of your choice at different distances. You can do this with live ammo a few times, but spend a majority of the time dry-firing at the target.
5. You’re Going to Miss (Eventually)
The vitals of an antelope are small (14 to 17 inches) compared to that of an elk (more than 30 inches). That can feel like a tough area to hit when you’re shooting from a hillside in a stiff wind, and a pronghorn is in the crosshairs. Sometimes you are going to miss. Maybe you will whiff multiple times before ever connecting. Don’t let that discourage you. If you do miss, stay right where you are, unload the rifle, and find a shrub or sage brush the antelope was standing close to and practice dry firing on it. The reason you missed is likely because you were not steady or flinched at the pull of the trigger. So dry firing 10 times right there in the field will prepare you for that next shot. A lot of hunters just pick up and keep going…and then they miss again. Take your time. You WILL find another antelope.
Sometimes goats require a second or third follow up shot because those vitals are so small. If you wound a pronghorn, consider where that shot hit. A gut-shot antelope can run for quite a long ways. If that happens, move quickly. Continue to stalk it and get within shooting range (inside 150 yards is optimal for an easier shot). You want to do this in a timely manner, so move swiftly, but don’t abandon stealth—you don’t want to bump the buck by just walking up to it. Instead, continue to use the topography to stay out of sight. If you spine an antelope or drop it with a shot through the hips, move closer for an easier shot and finish the buck off. But those are last resorts—always take your first shot within your comfort zone.
Public Land vs. Private Land
Hunting public land is more challenging than hunting private—no question about it. So if you are hunting public land, realize that it’s going to be competitive. At times, some hunters are going to bust antelope, drive their trucks into pastures, and basically screw up your hunt. That’s why it’s beneficial to go with a seasoned hunter. They will know what areas to go into and which ones to stay away from. I’ll sacrifice the size of a buck’s cutters for the chance to hunt a place with fewer hunters.
On private land, you can be a little more selective about the buck you shoot. But I never like to pass on a buck I would kill on the third day of a hunt if I come across him on the first morning. Of course, there are always more bucks to go after on private land, but if you see a good buck, get after him. There’s plenty of time on future hunts to pass on decent bucks in hopes of something better. For now, the experience is more important than the kill. Let your buddy or outfitter know that’s your priority. And if they disagree, find someone else to go with. You need to be making stalks, learning how to acquire a buck quickly in your scope, shooting accurately, and having a great time during all of it.