Avoid These Pitfalls While Bowhunting Prairie Pronghorn

The following tactics can help you overcome the unkind conditions of pronghorn country.

Avoid These Pitfalls While Bowhunting Prairie Pronghorn

You may find a few pronghorn living in the hay-land lap of luxury in the extreme eastern regions of their range. Those are few and far between, however. Expect the majority of pronghorn to call the interior wastelands of North America home. Characterized by the definition of a desert, these locales typically receive only 10 inches of rainfall annually, with soil that wouldn’t hold a drop of dew on an autumn morning. Temperatures here spike into triple digits, and if a thundershower does dump on the dusty landscape, expect the soil to turn to slime, which further complicates matters.

If a DIY late-summer pronghorn hunt in this unfriendly neighborhood beckons you, then consider yourself a risk taker for backstraps. I have to admit though, pronghorn backstraps are some of the best in the wild game nation.

Stalk, Don’t Stumble

As I peeked over the next ridge, I was still a bit uneasy after the surprise meeting just minutes earlier. The prairie winds were gusty, the extra background din of which shrouded the rattlesnake warning ahead. Fortunately, my ears revealed the subdued warning buzz a moment before landing in the strike zone.

Don’t let that meet-and-greet deter you from stalking pronghorn. The advantages far outweigh the threats you may encounter on a hike across the desert, beginning with the opportunity to scout large amounts of country quickly and efficiently.

Pronghorn country typically has a rolling or craggy character. It’s rough but not unnavigable. This gives you the opportunity to hopscotch between high points to survey for pronghorn sightings. Although some localities may post above-average pronghorn densities, most public lands hold scattered pockets of animals, requiring some fancy footwork to find them.

The second benefit to stalking is a hunt on your terms. For those who excel at stalking, the uneven topography allows you to oftentimes slip within doable archery range. A proven hunting app with downloaded maps of your area can direct you through the rugged maze. Today, most shooters have the ability to launch accurately at pronghorn-sized targets to 60 yards, and even beyond. That’s not an impossible distance to whittle down in most pronghorn environments.

A final bonus is mental exercise. Don’t get me wrong. When I find a hot ambush such as like a frequented waterhole, I’m in lockdown mode until the carbon flies. Nevertheless, in sluggish ambush opportunities, it can be nearly impossible to stay mentally alert as the monotony and oven-like environment of a blind diminish brain power. Stalking keeps you moving and alert.

Stay alert on the go in the inhospitable surroundings. As referenced earlier, rattlesnakes inhabit nearly every corner of pronghorn real estate. I’ve yet to be bitten by a prairie rattlesnake despite spending the majority of my life in their backyard, but never say never. 

Each year, approximately 8,000 venomous snake bites occur in the nation. Of those, approximately five people die. The reason the death rate is so low is due to most receiving immediate medical attention. If you are bitten, don’t put off a visit to the emergency room!

To avoid being bitten, be aware of your surroundings, wear tall snake boots if in a snake-rich environment, and listen. Rattlesnakes almost always rattle a warning before striking.
To avoid being bitten, be aware of your surroundings, wear tall snake boots if in a snake-rich environment, and listen. Rattlesnakes almost always rattle a warning before striking.

Although not as life threatening as a snakebite, you’re more likely to be needled by a prickly pear cactus. Sit on one and you’ll discover quickly who your real friends are when you ask for them to tweezer out the spines after you drop your drawers. Scan ahead, wear leather gloves and pack a tweezer.

Bait the Trap With a Decoy

Did that just happen?, I thought to myself staring at the white underbelly of a dead pronghorn just 60 yards away. After locating a young buck browsing by itself in a desolate, prairie basin, I crawled to within 150 yards, raised and staked the decoy and readied my arrow chucker.

With blazing speed, the buck charged the decoy, causing me to consider self-defense instead of precision aiming. The three-blade broadhead sliced through the buck, which skidded to a halt at 20 yards as he tumbled stone-cold dead seconds later.

There’s no more exciting way to hunt pronghorns than with a decoy. There’s also no more frustrating way to hunt them because you become a Muppet puppeteer in addition to executing William Tell accuracy. Still, if you happen to pull off the ruse, you may have a front row seat to the flared-nostril face of one ticked off buck.

Concrete-hard ground that obstructs stakes, grassland gusts and the art of hiding behind a small pronghorn decoy is challenging. But the reward can be a buck at point-blank range.
Concrete-hard ground that obstructs stakes, grassland gusts and the art of hiding behind a small pronghorn decoy is challenging. But the reward can be a buck at point-blank range.

You can dodge the trials of going to the goats by staking a 3-D decoy at a known pronghorn hangout. As pronghorn mingle into the area, they’ll notice the decoy, possibly revealing their social nature, coming within bow range. Waterholes and hayfields stand out as leading locations. The sturdier decoy stands proudly against any gale-force winds, you hide conveniently in a pre-positioned hide, and the anxiety of shooting in a flash disappears.

Several of the leading archery target manufacturers, including Rinehart, make realistic likenesses of pronghorns. These 3-D foam targets heavier than a hollow-bodied plastic decoy, but the targets can be deployed with the help of an ATV or truck to a location primed with a ground blind.
Several of the leading archery target manufacturers, including Rinehart, make realistic likenesses of pronghorns. These 3-D foam targets heavier than a hollow-bodied plastic decoy, but the targets can be deployed with the help of an ATV or truck to a location primed with a ground blind.
The trap (decoy) is sit. Now it's simply a waterhole waiting game.
The trap (decoy) is sit. Now it's simply a waterhole waiting game.

Whether you elect to brandish your decoy like a Captain America shield or wait, you’ll still be exposed to that giant orb in the sky for a portion of the day. It exposes you to the greatest threat in the pronghorn outback: skin cancer.

According to the National Cancer institute, skin cancer is the No. 1 form of cancer, and sun exposure is a significant threat. Guard yourself with sunscreen rated at 15 SPF or above on any exposed skin. Wear long sleeves and guard your head and face with a wide-brimmed hat, such as a military-style boonie hat. You can’t pronghorn hunt without being outside, and being outside puts you under this everyday threat.

Tip: While crawling to set up your decoy, prickly pear cactus will prick you. Stay alert!

Not a Crusie Ship Sauna

Cow, cow, calf, cow ...  buck! The water oasis I was watching over drew in a bovine herd and as they finished filling up, the bunch departed in single-file lineup. Slipping in at the livestock finale was a pronghorn buck, apparently waiting patiently, unnoticed to me, in the blind spot of my ground blind.

It didn’t jump right into the kiddie pool, but stood its guard surveying for danger. Nevertheless, I knew from the constant smacking of lips that water was the final goal, and patience was required to wait for its commitment.

Several minutes later the appeal of a cool drink prompted the buck into a final drinking decision. From past encounters, I knew that once a buck commits, it takes a couple minutes to top off its tank. As the buck bent and started gulping, I ran down my pre-shot checklist before drawing my Mathews bow. Once complete, I anchored and fired the arrow; the waterhole exploded in the futile escape of the buck a moment later.

There’s no question that a busy water source provides any serious pronghorn bowhunter with the highest odds of success. The entire situation has a control-freak atmosphere. Pronghorn come to you. You can range them with ease even if they switch up the slurping location. And from a hidden hide, you have the luxury of drawing your bow without fear of being spotted. No other tactic puts this many positives in your success column.

You can wait in luxury, if the location allows you to easily deliver a roomy ground blind, a cozy chair and an icy cooler full of lunch fare. Not all wilderness destinations have drive-up access, but the majority do because livestock lessees of public lands have created trails to check the volume at water sources. Once established, most trails are open to the public, but check with each land management agency first before use.

So what could go wrong with a living room setting in pronghorn country? “Snakes on a Plane” was a cult movie title in 2006, but snakes in your ground blind is more likely. Trapped heat and a cave-like interior attract the reptiles, so be sure to check corners and under any cushiony mats before getting comfortable. Nothing wakes you up like the rattle of an irritated snake under your camp chair.

Even more threatening is a heat-related affliction. Heat exhaustion or heat stroke is possible in the sauna environment of a ground blind. The best bets for success while hunting over water occur in rain lapses marked with century-nearing temperatures. Unfortunately, when you combine that heat with the scent-containment fabrics of modern ground blinds, you may as well hunker in a Native American sweat lodge.

Heavy sweating, nausea, confusion, dizziness, a rapid pulse and a body temperature exceeding 103 degrees confirmed with a rectal thermometer (not optional according the CDC), ensures that the check engine light is lit. Fainting in the extreme heat of a ground blind is no laughing matter, and even staying hydrated can’t thwart the crisis. At the first signs of your computer screen locking up, get out. Rehydrate and regain control in the shade with a prairie breeze boost.

Depending on where you hunt, other extreme situations could arise, but one oftentimes overlooked is other humans. With drug use spread across more than 10 percent of the population and affecting more than 34 million Americans, running into a drug-related situation is a distinct possibility. Although you may just bump into some recreational drug users camping under the stars, you could also encounter smugglers attempting to circumnavigate authorities on main routes.

And with illegal border crossings highlighting every newscast, it’s not unfathomable to stumble upon a “coyote” moving illegals into the country, especially if you’re hunting pronghorns in the Southwest. Currently there are nearly 2,000 illegal crossings daily. Of course, the truth is that the outback is a refuge for any drifter running from the law. If you’re bowhunting and state law allows, carrying a sidearm could go a long way in helping a bad guy make a good decision. Pronghorn inhabit some of the least-visited regions of flyover country. Threats increase anytime you distance yourself from help in demanding terrain, but the extreme just adds to the allure of hunting the unique pronghorn.

Mathews Vertix
Mathews Vertix

Sidebar: The Argument for Flat-Shooting

You can’t deny pronghorn country is big, oftentimes flat and totally unforgiving. Those vast spaces can create long shots, especially those of you more at home with an 18-yard whitetail layup. Luckily, today’s lineup of bows fit the very definition of what you require in a pronghorn hunting tool. You don’t necessarily need a short bow like you might prefer in elk country, but lightweight and flat-shooting rise to the top of preferred characteristics.

A high-quality example is the new Vertix from Mathews. At 30 inches axle to axle, it’s  a full 2 inches longer that its older brother the Triax. It has a forgiving 6-inch brace height, and Mathews advertises it at 20 percent less hand shock than the Triax, which was already impressive.

For comfort, Mathews incorporated the new Engage hand grip to cradle the very balanced bow. The innovators at Mathews continued with the Crosscentric cam technology to produce a speedy, yet manageable IBO of 343 fps. The bow is easy to tune and offers a new, easy-to-adjust Switchweight technology. Using interchangeable modules you can increase or decrease draw weight with an Allen wrench. Hunt pronghorns and then switch to moose-required draw weight in a matter of minutes.

The entire bow package weighs only  4.7 pounds minus add-ons. And like all Mathews bows, the release of the arrow is impressively quiet due to 3-D Damping.

Hunting images by Mark Kayser

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