While the frenzied excitement of the whitetail rut is still months away, the pronghorn rut across the West is gaining momentum. Mid-September until the end of the month is typically prime time to see the show. Watching a mature antelope buck sort does and chase rival satellite bucks is like watching a fine cutting horse on steroids. Next to hunting deer, chasing pronghorns is my favorite fall tradition.
I got skunked in the western license draws, so I went to plan B. I found two landowner tags for a ranch in New Mexico for a do-it-yourself hunt in late August. My friend Steven Tisdale, bought the other tag for his employee, 21-year-old college student Josh Gregory. I wish I’d had a boss like that when I was in college!
Arriving in dusty New Mexico, the drought became very real. The first thing I noticed was the cholla cactus was brown and wilted. They had not been sprayed by chemicals; they were dying in the drought. You know it’s an epic drought in the desert when the cactus is dead.
Reality hit me hard when I scouted the 6,000 acre ranch where my tag was issued. Bumping around most of the afternoon in a truck with the landowner the day before the season, we saw three antelope. Three! Steven saw about 20 head on the same property on a scouting trip ten days earlier. Back in the good ole days, 50 head or more was common in a day’s hunt, I was told. It seems that of the three major big game species in New Mexico, elk, deer and antelope, antelope have been hit the hardest by the drought, with little to no fawn recruitment in three years plus some adult mortality.
At sunrise on opening morning, we were parked on a high ridge top. Through the big Leupold glass, I found five antelope in the cholla cactus flats to the south. One of them a solid buck. But they were just across the fence on the neighbors. Why are the big ones always on the neighbors?
Two miles later, we found a herd of seven does and one buck on fair ground. Steven and Josh made a long stalk. Josh fired two rounds at less than 300 yards, but they both went high. It’s tough being a rookie.
It was late in the morning when we found a solo buck. This time, Josh did not miss. He borrowed my Weatherby and put a missile through the ribs. After photos, we skinned and quartered the buck and put everything on ice in a large cooler in the bed of the truck. Next, it was lunch on the tail gate. Then it was time to look for buck number two.
It was late in the afternoon when I spied a single antelope in a patch of cedars and cactus in the far north end of the middle pasture. The animal was so far away, 1 ½ miles, that through the heat waves I could not tell if it was a buck or a doe. We drove closer.
At half a mile we could see it was a buck, and a good buck, too. I slung the rifle over my shoulder, shooting sticks in hand, and started through a gusting crosswind to close the gap on the bedded pronghorn.
Pronghorns typically do not bed for very long, so I crawled inside 200 yards, the buck’s black horns just visible over the short grass, and waited. A grey cloud brewing to the west promised rain. The wind gusted to 25 miles per hour. I sat with the sticks up, eye in the scope and the pounding sun like an anvil on my neck. I sat in the dirt for 1 ½ hours. It’s wise to let a buck stand on his own rather than tossing rocks or whistling. Patience pays.
Finally, the wind shifted and the buck stood up. The crosshair sat steady on the buck’s shoulder at 135 yards, a slight quartering-to angle. I lost him in the blast, but worked the bolt and found him in the scope going down in a cloud of dust behind a cedar tree just 30 yards away.
His horns were heavy with lots of extra bumps and cool character above the prongs. His cape was gorgeous. There is nothing wrong with an upper 70’s class pronghorn any year, but especially in a drought year.
With my buck on ice, we headed to town to celebrate. After a memorable taco dinner at the local cafe, I started the long drive home to Texas. I have two more hunts this fall for pronghorns; in Texas and Wyoming. Next to hunting whitetails and mule deer, pronghorns and pronghorn country is my favorite place to be come fall.