Normally, I approach these columns with the relish of Hillary and Bubba eyeing unsecured household furnishings. However, when it comes to writing about hunting antelope, my joy is less than total. The little critters have had more rotten things done to them by way of “hunting,” and suffer more as a result of lousy shooting, than any other animal.
Antelope are not the brightest of creatures (although an old buck can be very good at staying alive) and they have never learned to jump fences, so it is considered great sport among certain pickup-driving yahoos to panic a band of goats (which is what most folks call them in the West), herd them against a fence, and start shooting. Sometimes these heroes don’t even bother to aim at a particular animal but fire into the flock, and some antelope run off gut shot, others with shattered legs swinging.
Now, with the craze for long-range shooting, the poor goat has another problem in the form of shooters who fire from many hundreds of yards, where it’s easy to accidentally hit a paunch or a leg or a jaw. No thanks. What I’m going to talk about is rifles and cartridges for hunting antelope.
Getting One’s Goat
Goats (antelope actually are a species of goat, whereas mountain goats are actually antelope, if you care) are not the most adaptable of creatures. For eons they have gotten by on a mixture of wonderful eyesight and tremendous speed, but they lack the cerebral qualities of whitetails and elk, and they suffer from insatiable curiosity.
If they lived in truly flat country you would stand no chance with them, but the land on which the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play (I’ve never seen antelope actually playing; maybe I just don’t know what to look for) is not flat. It is filled with buttes and mesas and coulees and washes and arroyos, all of which allow you to creep and sneak where the goats can’t see. This allows you to get close. Also, antelope have to drink, and where there are water holes, there they will gather, and there you can lurk. Thus, with a little intelligence and some hunting skill you can easily get within 200 yards of most goats, and often within 100 yards or less. In my 30-year goat-hunting history I have killed one at 460 yards and another at 300, and the rest were all between 100 and 200. (The 460-yarder was taken in the last hour of the last day of the season, and it was do or die. I did, and he died.)
A well-fed buck antelope may weigh 80 pounds; a smaller buck can go as little as 65. The animals are thin skinned and light boned, so you do not need much to put them down. In fact, the average deer rifle is actually too much gun.
I am not a fan of the 6mm or .243 for most big-game hunting, but this is one place where they shine. However, there are two things you have to be wary of. First, if you do happen to get a long shot-300 yards or more-those little bullets get pushed very hard by the wind, and a goat is a small target. Second, .243 and 6mm ammo comes loaded with both varmint and game bullets, and you want game bullets. Usually, this will mean a slug of 90 or 100 grains at about 2900 fps (real-world velocity).
Far better than either of these are the .257 Roberts and the .25/06. Both of them are older than even Jerry Gibbs, fishing editor of Outdoor Life, but they are unbeatable. They allow you to use 115- and 120-grain bullets that buck the wind better, penetrate better, and are generally more effective than 100-grain slugs. The Roberts is not hugely popular; ammo for it can be hard to find, and most of that is badly underloaded. But what a handloader can do with the .257 is nothing short of wonderful. The more powerful .25/06 has never set the world on fire, but if I were building a rifle just for antelope, that’s what I’d chamber it for.
The .270 makes a superb antelope rifle, provided you use the 130-grain bullets avvailable for this round. The .30/06 will also do, but you must limit yourself to the 150-grain loadings. Don’t head for the sagebrush flats with your ’06 and the 180-grain ammo you’ll use for elk. These bullets are too tough for goats; they’ll punch right through without expanding and your antelope will run off, seemingly unhit, to suffer and eventually die.
If you would like a rifle that will really lay them out at long range, get one of the new short .270 magnums by Remington, Winchester, or Lazzeroni. They shoot so flat I can hardly credit it, and they don’t kick much, considering the ballistics they develop.
I think the best goat scope is a variable in the 3X¿¿¿10X range, and make sure to bring a good binocular or a good spotting scope, or both, particularly if you’re looking for a trophy.
Most of the antelope bucks you see will have horns (not antlers) that measure 12 inches to 14 inches. A 12-inch goat is a respectable trophy, whereas 14 inches is quite good in many places. Two inches of horn is not all that much, particularly when you’re hundreds of yards away, so before you begin your stalk you want to make sure that the buck in question is worth shooting, and that you can pick him out of the herd. Smart antelope hunters glass much and walk as little as possible. Walking is an intrinsically disgusting activity that makes you sweaty and tired and spooks the wildlife, and no one but John Barsness and Keith McCafferty does it when he doesn’t have to.
It’s been said that goat eyesight is the equivalent of a human’s with 8X or 10X binoculars. Maybe. What I do know is that if you see them, they see you. Keep that in mind.
Why Goats Live Long Lives-Sometimes
Many of the people who hunt antelope come from the East where they rarely see an animal in the open or at long range. When they spot a goat, they assume it’s much farther away than it is, aim over the critter’s back, and send the bullet high. Assuming that they aimed too low, they hold still higher and keep missing until the critter wanders off or they run out of ammunition.
Remember that these creatures are small, and the antelope that seems a whole section away is probably 200 yards off, which is an easy point-blank shot. The golden rule is: Never hold out of the hair for the first shot. If you think a goat is really, truly, a long way off, hold right on its spine-no higher.
But no matter how you go after them, or with what rifle, do it as a sportsman. Antelope have been here a lot longer than we have, and they deserve our respect.