How to Hunt Pronghorn Antelope During the September Rut
DIY hunting skills for the most underrated big-game adventure in the West
It’s mid September, and I’m watching a nice Wyoming sunrise in a valley not far from the town of Gillette. I think of speed when I think of that town, but not because of the Mach 2 razor company. Pronghorn antelope are the second-fastest land animal in the world, and if there’s a Pronghorn Hunting Capital, USA, this is it.
And there’s no better time to watch them run than mid September. It’s barely light enough to shoot, but I already have eyes on 50-plus animals. I’m sitting in a ground blind with a crossbow in hand, but this isn’t the usual early-season water-hole set. It’s chilly enough for long handles, and instead of a tank, my attention is focused on a loose wire in an otherwise taut barbed-wire fence 25 yards from my blind. The fence separates two pastures—antelope in both of them—and there are buck scrapes all alongside it. But the heaviest sign is right next to the gap created by that downed wire.
Often, in a situation like this, the pasture with the most animals is owned by a world-class a‑hole who doesn’t allow hunting. But today, I’m allowed to shoot a buck on either side of the fence, and I’m feeling confident—even though there’s not an antelope within a half-mile at the moment. The rut is on, and at some point today, a buck is going to come to that gap. I pour a cup of coffee, wait, and watch.
Getting a pronghorn with a bow usually means sweating it out in a ground blind during the hottest days of late August and early September, waiting for a buck to come for a cool drink. Later in the fall, when rifle season opens, you cruise ranch roads until you see a buck you like, then sneak into position to shoot him from a couple hundred yards away. Both approaches are a lot of fun and have high odds.
But rutting antelope are decidedly cool, same as lip-curling whitetails, bugling elk, and gobbling turkeys. The courtship all takes place in open country, at 60 miles an hour, and the animals’ breeding rituals create the opportunity for some in-your-face action. You’re missing out on a fantastic and largely overlooked experience if you’re not out there mixing it up with antelope at close range in mid to late September.
“Man, I’ve seen eyeballs gouged out,” says Eric Dunn, head guide for Trophy Ridge Outfitters (trophyridgeoutfitters.com), my host in Wyoming. “Antelope are so territorial and aggressive during the rut. When one buck gets into another’s zone, you might see them chase each other for a half-mile or more.”
Killing a pronghorn with a vertical bow during the rut, especially without a blind, is pretty tough. But a midrange tool, like a crossbow, a muzzleloader, or even an open-sighted rifle, has just the right amount of challenge, especially if you follow these strategies.
Shoot the Gap
Antelope are capable of jumping fences, but they don’t like to. It’s common to see bucks pacing the length of a fence before deciding to jump across it or crawl underneath. But fence gaps between pastures are magnets—especially if you can get a buck pissed off before he crosses.
“A strand of downed barbed wire is a go-to spot, especially during the rut,” Dunn says. “Often, the trails in those crossings will be beaten down to the dirt, and that’s usually where you’ll find a bunch of scrapes too, because they seem to like to paw the ground before they cross.”
Dunn says antelope are rarely shy of pop-up ground blinds, so preparing a bow-range ambush can be as easy as just setting up a blind within range of the gap. But to make it even more effective—and fun—Dunn likes to add a decoy. “We’ve got a full-body mounted antelope buck with a slot in his belly,” he says. “We set him on a metal rod near the fence gap, in front of the blind, just like a turkey decoy. The wind will push him around a little bit, and I’m telling you, if an antelope is walking by that fence, he’s coming to it.”
Of course, you don’t want to sit 25 yards from a taxidermied decoy during rifle season. Still, using a ground blind, even without a decoy, is a good idea for muzzleloader or rifle hunting because you can bring a cooler with lunch and a book. Back it off an extra 50 yards so you lessen the risk of spooking young bucks and does before the buck you want strolls through. If possible, set it near a wash or rise that you can use in case you need to sneak out for a stalk.
Watch and Wait
Miles Fedinec is an outfitter in Craig, Colorado (970-629-9894). He guides for the usual elk and mule deer, but he specializes in antelope—and he has helped a few hunters bag some of the state’s biggest trophies.
When Fedinec has a tag of his own, he especially enjoys hunting the Colorado muzzleloader season, which falls in late September, between archery-only and rifle seasons, and during the peak of the rut. Colorado requires hunters to use open sights, loose powder, and full-bore-size projectiles (no sabots). It’s a relatively close-range game.
“Fence crossings are great spots to set up ambushes if you can find them, but sometimes there’s just not one around,” Fedinec says. “Antelope live in open country, but they still have routines—and if you spend time watching them, you’ll usually see them use certain terrain features day after day.”
Two seasons ago, Fedinec shot a big buck in eastern Colorado, where the country is wide open and seemingly featureless. “I was on a ranch that I’d never hunted, but the day before the muzzleloader opener, I watched a herd with a good buck feed in the general direction of this big dirt wind break,” Fedinec says. “That was about all I had to go on. The next day, I saw them in generally the same place, so I circled around and started my stalk a mile and a half away, so I could get behind that wind break and hopefully intercept them.”
Eventually, Fedinec slipped to within 800 yards of the herd, and at that point, he just had to be patient. “I was flat against that dirt mound for a couple hours, and the buck was just going crazy, chasing does and little bucks around. Several times, he’d almost run to within range, and then he’d be 600 yards away again a few seconds later,” he says. “But all the while, the does kept a steady course feeding toward me—and finally, he came chasing one of them just into range, stopped for a second, and I got him.”
Intercepting antelope in open country requires calculated aggression. “I’ve watched herds for four or five hours through a spotting scope, waiting for them to get to a spot where I know I can get ahead of them without being seen,” Fedinec says. “It’s a lot of hurry up and wait—but when they make their move, you make yours too, and you go hard.”
Fedinec says you can be more aggressive on an antelope stalk than with other critters. “You’re usually not going to blow them out of the country if they bust you,” he says. “If you screw up that morning, there’s a good chance that if you back out, they’ll be standing there again that afternoon. But, still, they’re easier if they’re not pressured. Don’t get antsy until the last two days of the hunt—then you can go for broke.”
Sneak and Deke
The spot-and-decoy method is probably the least effective way to kill a pronghorn, but it’s far and away the most fun. “We use a Montana Decoy on our stalks, and I’d say we get a shot on maybe one in 10,” Dunn says. “But it’s cool when it happens.”
Many hunters try to use silhouette decoys as cover for crossing open terrain to within range of a herd. But that rarely works, especially with archery gear. “Their eyesight is so good, they usually figure something is up pretty fast,” Dunn says.
Instead, the perfect situation has a buck tending does on the slope of a ridge. If the buck is aggressive and running off other bucks in the area, and then gets to such a spot, the odds skyrocket. “You crawl up to the crest of the ridge and just pop that decoy up where he can see it. Ideally, you’re already within 100 yards,” Dunn says. “A lot of the time, when it surprises them like that, they’ll come charging in. It’s like fanning a turkey.”
The strategy works best with two people: one to manipulate the decoy, and the other to snake out to the side for a shot. “I’m usually watching underneath the decoy’s belly, and when the buck starts getting close, I tell my hunter to draw his bow or get his crossbow ready,” Dunn says. “When they’re coming, they’re walking straight in—but they’ll always realize something is up. When that happens, they usually stop and turn broadside for a couple of seconds before they bolt. They might be at 20 yards or 60—but that’s your opportunity. They rarely stop and look and then keep on coming. Their eyes are too good for that.”
I have a few little bucks walk past within range, but for most of the morning, I’m watching a dozen does and an old, wide buck with a busted prong 500 yards away in the pasture to my right. I’d like to shoot that wide buck. For hours, small bucks keep slipping in too close for a look at his does. He seems to have about a 200-yard bubble, and when the little guys break it—which most of them can’t help but try—he runs them out of sight.
But all the time, the herd of does is slowly feeding my way—and within a few hours, they’re 150 yards from my blind. I’m out of coffee and sort of need to pee. But when a little buck suddenly strolls up to the fence gap from the pasture on my left, I know things are about to get good. The wide buck sees him and isn’t having it. I ready my crossbow. The animal that’s been a white dot on the prairie for most of the morning becomes visible in rich detail as he charges into easy range. The little buck hightails it, and the big one stops at the fence gap to paw at a scrape. I can see his vitals just above the downed strand of wire. Whether he’d have continued on to chase the little buck, I don’t know. I take an easy shot and watch him fall dead 70 yards away. I’m a little upset that the show is already over.
Midrange Pronghorn Punchers
CVA Accura V2
Mine is the most accurate muzzleloader I’ve ever shot. Load it with Blackhorn 209 and Federal copper B.O.R. Lock MZ bullets in states like Colorado that don’t allow saboted bullets and require loose powder, and try replacing the rear notch sight with a peep. Fedinec uses the E. Arthur Brown Peep sight, which has a Picatinny rail for easy scope removal.
Barnett Raptor Pro STR
A crossbow has a decided advantage over a vertical bow on a spot-and-stalk hunt. Wyoming allows crossbows during archery season, but a crossbow adds a fun twist during gun season too—when they’re almost universally legal equipment. I’ve used several different Barnett step-through-riser crossbows, and they’re solid for the money. And I’ve never had one that wasn’t lights-out accurate. This one is a 400 fps model, so it has plenty of speed for those 50-plus-yard shots.
Henry Steel Lever Action .30/30
I keep a Henry lever gun behind the seat of my truck, and it’s one of my all-around favorite rifles for general country living—but it’s also a hell of a shooter that looks great, without the price tag of a new Model 94. You’ll get some funny looks taking this out on opening day of rifle antelope season, but relax—you can keep your 6.5 Creedmoor in the truck next to your man-bun clips, just in case. —W.B.