Antilocapra Americana – The Speed Goat
Experts estimate that more than 30 million pronghorn once roamed North America. That teeming population dwindled to less than 15,000 before hunting conservationists pushed the panic button to save the species. Thanks to those efforts, there are nearly 1 million pronghorns roaming North America today, making them one of the greatest wildlife management success stories in modern times. The difficulty of obtaining a pronghorn tag ranges from nearly impossible odds for the dinosaur sized speed goats of Arizona, to quite easily obtained tags in states like Wyoming and Montana. If you’re looking for a hunt you can plan on regularly, pronghorn are a welcome relief in the draw tag game.
Although most commonly found roaming arid sage and grasslands, pronghorns can be found at elevations above 10,000 feet and I’ve even located them in dense stands of aspen, fir, and pine. Their adaptability, often peculiar behavior, and an abundance of tags make these critters some of my favorite to pursue. They are especially ideal for introducing young hunters to the sport because there is a lot of action to keep their interest level high. As a final enticement, they are delicious table fare. When properly cared for, my family prefers antelope over elk.
In my experience, when it comes to pronghorn hunting, most hunter’s interest in this species can be categorized into three primary categories: trophy only hunts, any weapon opportunity hunts, and archery hunts.
They say everything is bigger in Texas, but when it comes to pronghorn, Arizona deserves that title. Arizona has produced 5 of the top 10 Boone and Crockett entries since 2014 and has produced 12 of the top 20 all-time entries as well. These statistics are particularly impressive considering that the Grand Canyon state has an estimated population of less than 10,000 speed goats. Contrast those numbers with Wyoming’s herd of more than 400,000 pronghorn with no top 20 entries in Boone and Crockett’s all-time scores and you can see why Arizona is such a special place to hunt pronghorn. However, the good part of the Arizona antelope story comes to a screeching halt once draw odds are taken into consideration. If you want to stand in line for one of these coveted tags, you’ll need to recognize that pronghorn points for Arizona’s best units are measured in decades versus years. In light of that, I recommend a multi-state strategy for all serious antelope hunters who are looking to find an 80”+ trophy.
All antelope strategies should start with Wyoming. The Cowboy state has more antelope than all of the other states combined, and they annually issue nearly 50,000 pronghorn tags. Although the ratio of Boone and Crockett bucks harvested to tags issued looks terrible at face value, I’d argue that one of the main reasons there are so few giants harvested in Wyoming is because antelope are very tough to field judge and it is hard to stay off the trigger when you see an impressive buck. With a little self-discipline and polished field judging skills, Wyoming is the place to concentrate on to put an entry in the record books.
At first glance, New Mexico’s behemoth speed goats would be high on the list too since there are no bonus points and the non-refundable price to apply is incredibly low. However, it is important to note that due to access issues, all of New Mexico’s rifle tags are assigned a random ranch after the draw. Scouting time and hunting boundaries are both limited with this system and there is a chance that you may get assigned a ranch that does not have huge goats on it. However, the archery hunts are unit wide so if you’re happy to bow hunt, you should definitely be applying in New Mexico in spite of the terribly bad draw odds.
The trophy table provides some insight on the remaining states like Nevada that traditionally produce huge bucks. In most cases, the cost of applying, and the number of years it takes to draw the best tags doesn’t make sense unless you are already applying in that state for other species and fronting the sunk costs of purchasing the non-refundable hunting licenses.
NOTE: The ratio of Boone & Crockett antelope per total tags issued includes either sex tags and doe tags from states like Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado where thousands of these types of tags are issued each year. This distorts the data somewhat when compared to states like Arizona that issue no doe tags at all. However, the message is clear, the states with the largest abundance of tags require a lot of self-discipline to pass on lesser goats to find a giant.
Any Weapon Opportunities
The story begins and ends with Wyoming and Montana in this category. Including doe tags, the two states provide nearly 80,000 pronghorn tags annually and there are tens of millions of acres of public land antelope habitat to hunt. Additionally, both states have surplus any weapon tags in some units…especially those units with public land access challenges that require a GPS land ownership chip to successfully hunt. In addition to undersubscribed hunts, both states provide units with draw odds that approach 100% with no points. A small amount of research will turn up units with excellent draw odds, good harvest statistics, and reasonable access. Furthermore, Wyoming offers leftover antelope permits in a second draw in June that does not use your bonus points. If drawn, this gives you an opportunity to build points for the better hunts while still chasing these prairie dwellers.
One word of caution here is that both Montana and Wyoming require the hunter to know legal public road easements and private land ownership. There are no private property posting requirements for landowners in either state so the onus is on the hunter to avoid a trespassing ticket. Outside of that warning, pick one of these two states and bring your best glassing game and a dialed in rifle for one of the most fun hunts the west has to offer.
If you love the stick and string, extending your hunting seasons, and appreciate being schooled by cagey critters several times each day, then I recommend an archery antelope hunt. Draw odds for archery only hunts range from extremely good to guaranteed for several western states including Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Admittedly, these hunts are being managed for opportunity and as a result, you will see competition and it is rare to turn up trophy sized speed goats. In spite of that, these hunts offer a target rich environment and a vast amount of public land to hunt. To be consistently successful, you’ll need to be a great shot with your bow. You’ll also need to be patient, and methodical.
Getting close to a sharp-eyed prairie dwelling antelope is a relative term. I always range pronghorns more than once because I never believe my rangefinder. They seem so close and yet they are so far away. The terrain, small target size, and often windy conditions demand your best archery skills to consistently put one of the black faced bucks in your cooler.
Patience is a virtue for archery antelope hunters and it can have a lot of different faces. It might be cooking inside of a ground blind on a water hole for 15 hours a day, or laying in the cactus and sage under the burning sun while you wait for a sharp-eyed goat to stand up out of his bed. It can also mean showing your decoy to dozens of bucks before you finally find one that decides he’ll charge in like a fleet-footed freight train leaving you quaking in your boots when the heart-pounding encounter is over.
After having hunted these sharp-eyed speedsters for nearly 20 years with a bow, I’d say that the best advantage a bowhunter can add in the field is a well-placed ground blind. For the most part, antelope are not particularly wary of ground blinds, even though they seem wary of everything else that they see or hear in the wide open country they live in. I’ve had antelope drink within feet of my blind on large waterholes where they could have easily moved 40+ yards away to satisfy their thirst. I’ve also witnessed countless antelope approach blinds that have been set up for only a few hours and pay little to no attention to the new ‘blob’ that is sitting on the edge of their waterhole. In spite of that, I believe that setting your blind up as far in advance of your hunt is always the best solution. Furthermore, utilizing a little bit of brush and/or grass from the local habitat to break up the outline of your blind can never hurt as I believe you should take every precaution possible to stack the odds in your favor on a bowhunt for antelope.
One precaution that is often overlooked is selecting the right ground blind for the job. Pronghorn country is nearly always windy and a loose piece of material flapping on your blind at the wrong time will leave you watching the fastest North American land animal showing you how he earned that title! Furthermore, most water holes are in depressions that leave your blind perched at an angle. Traditional window systems don’t account for steep terrain and leave you with little to no clearance for your arrow when the moment of truth arrives. When we developed the exclusive 4-way stretch window fabric and configuration for our XENEK blinds, we had real-life situations like this in mind. The 4-way stretch gathers its own ‘slack’ and prevents window openings from flapping in the breeze. It also allows the shooter to customize the shape and location of the window for the terrain, equipment, and his or her own situational needs. Regardless of the brand of blind you choose, both of these critical considerations should be taken into account so that you don’t spend days baking in the sun, counting frogs and dragon flies, only to experience disappointment when it all finally comes together.
As an archery hunter, if you combine expert shooting skills and patience with a methodical approach to pronghorns, there is a good chance that you’ll punch your tag every year. Antelope are extremely habitual. They cross fences in the same locations, visit the same water holes, cruise the same ridges marking their territory while looking for does, and they will circle back to their favorite places even when heavily pressured. I’ve felt complete defeat as I watched the buck of my dreams vanish over a horizon two miles away only to have him reappear minutes later in hot pursuit of a doe.
Antelope are tasty, abundant, and fun to hunt. I’d argue they are the best “first” western hunt for kids. Hot chocolate, potato chips, binoculars, spotting scopes, and excellent audio books have all been part of my kids’ first speed goat experiences. I’ve learned that hunting opportunities come and go in our lifetimes. I trust that the modern conservation success story of the pronghorn will only get better with time. However, I wouldn’t leave it to chance. If you want to hunt an antelope, there is a good argument that the best time for that is now.