The ongoing drought was running at full tilt. Every ounce of moisture had been pulled from the burnt prairies of southeastern Colorado. The landscape was dry and desolate. Howling winds pulled sheets of dirt from the earth and plastered them across the horizon. It was ugly.
The only beautiful thing – the thing that kept me glued to my binos looking over the vast expanse of barren land – was a good number of meandering pronghorn. They were stunning. Vibrant white patches mixed with burnt orange made the prairie speedsters stand out like a sore thumb. There were a few good bucks in the group; one stud roamed up and down a rusted fence line several hundred yards from the main bunch. He was the one I wanted.
I watched the herd for about an hour as the pronghorns made the long trek across the open public land toward an isolated water tank – a tank government land officials required be kept full for the native wildlife. Upon reaching the tank, the group of does, fawns and bucks formed a disgruntled line like the kind you might see at an elementary school drinking fountain after recess. A few would drink while the others paced impatiently. They weren’t cautious. They didn’t approach the tank and jerk their heads up countless times between sips. These goats were thirsty, and they gulped the algae-filled water.
He waited. The rut was weeks away, and the big boy was letting the younger bucks tail the does. He didn’t even rise from his shaded fence-line bed until the last of the herd disappeared over the ridge. Now it was his turn. He tipped his ebony tower forward and started the march toward his midday refreshment stand.
I watched the herd the next day, and the same pattern was repeated. The does, fawns and lesser bucks drank while the big boy napped in the sliver of shade created by a single cedar fencepost. Though he watered about an hour later on this day (1 p.m. as opposed to noon), my public-land prize approached the same tank without fear and started slurping the water.
Don’t Overcomplicate Things
I’m going to skip the research and scouting sections. I know, that’s a public-land article first, but if you’re a public-land bowhunter you’re a master of research and know how to find game. For that reason, were jumping right into how to kill your public-land pronghorn.
By nature I’m a spot-and-stalk guy, but the lack of rainfall had crippled the typically knee-high prairie grasses. What was inching above the unquenched ground was short, stiff, dry and noisy. Spot-and-stalk was out of the question. What about deploying a decoy? The rut was weeks away and getting a mature pronghorn to respond to a decoy isn’t as easy as what we see on television. There is a very small window during which a mature buck will toss caution to the wind and come investigate an imposter. On the 15th of August, that window is closed. I try not to overcomplicate things. The weather was dry and the pronghorn were parched. Water was the best option. And while this may seem obvious from the aforementioned description of the terrain, I see throngs of bowhunters every year who make arrowing a public-land pronghorn more complicated that it needs to be.
Case in point: two years ago in Wyoming, my partner and I were hunting a section of BLM with a small creek snaking through the length of the property. In addition to the creek, the area had several ponds filled to the brim with water. The grass was knee-high and the landscape was cloaked with giant sage. Spot-and-stalk was the only way to go.
On the third day of the hunt I finally got the chance to talk to the pair of bowhunters who’d spent three dawn-to-dark days in their Double Bulls perched over a pair of ponds. They hadn’t seen a thing – not a single pronghorn. When I asked the duo why they weren’t crawling around on their hands and knees they replied, “Not really our style. We’ve always killed goats at these ponds during dry years.” Two days later the pair of bowhunters loaded their truck and headed for home with each arrow in their quiver intact. Don’t fight Mother Nature. Take what she gives you and tailor your bowhunting tactics accordingly.
When Water Is In Play
There is more to killing a pronghorn over water than meets the eye, especially on public land. For starters, you’ll need to use anything and everything the terrain gives you to your advantage. Let me explain. Pronghorn are wary creatures and while some will accept the addition of a new blind to their favorite refreshment stand, most will shy from it. The good news: many prairie pasture ponds and stock tanks are littered with old ranching equipment: feed bunks, piles of wire, wind mill parts, and the list go on. If any of these items are present – items watering goats are accustomed to seeing every day – use them to break up your blind. It works like a charm.
If the area around your chosen water source is squeaky clean, you can still pull a same-day dupe on the speed goats watering there. The key is placing your blind between 35 and 40 yards from the tank. Why? Predators often try and ambush goats while they drink, and a new tent rising up from the ground only 20 yards from the water will put an approaching speed goat on high alert. Yes, goats may eventually commit, but they will be so edgy that the simple act of drawing your bow is likely to spook them. Plus, I’ve seen watering goats do some amazing acrobatics. The whirl of a high-strung goat will often lead to an errant arrow.
It never fails. You find a bunch of thirsty goats in a pasture and there always seems to be two or more water sources. Without spending loads of time scouting, how do you pick the best one? Easy. We’ve already covered the fact that pronghorns are edgy creatures, but their anxiety peaks the moment they approach a watering station. The reason for this paranoia is twofold. First, in order to drink a goat must lower one of its primary defense mechanisms – its eyes. Second, water stations typically boast some type of cover where, as previously mentioned, a predator can lie in wait. If given the option, a pronghorn will always drink from a natural water source like a pond or prairie pothole over an old stock tank. In order to drink from a stock tank, as most don’t run full, goats have to dip their heads down into the tank. Doing so makes their eyes obsolete. Watering from a natural source causes goats to lower their heads, but they aren’t completely blind while they drink.
And though I have no science to back it up aside from the countless hours I’ve spent watching pronghorn afield for 13 years, I highly recommend choosing a small seep or lesser-sized pond over a large natural water source. Big natural ponds typically have big dykes, which make ideal hiding spots for predators. In addition, ponds typically have sloped banks that require speed goats to walk down into and drink at an angle. Walking down and dropping below the horizon minimizes the power of their binocular-like vision, and when danger is present they must squat on their back legs and whirl rather than being able to shoot forward like they can on flat ground. Of course, a thirsty pronghorn will drink wherever water is available. If you only have one option, take whatever the landscape gives you, but if more than one water source exists, consider the aforementioned aqua hierarchy.
This goat, my goat, approached the tank with head down and horns forward. His gait was long and he didn’t pause a single time while covering the half-mile of public dirt between his bed and water. My blind was concealed in a jumble of rusted wire and the half-dozen goats that had already been in and out paid it no mind.
My single-pin Spot-Hogg Hogg Father was dialed to 35 yards and my Victory VAP V1 350 arrow left my Bear Agenda perfectly. The result: a dashing pronghorn with a growing red spot on his side. I had done everything right. I’d found the goats, took what Mother Nature gave me and made a perfect shot. You can do the same this season and kill a public-land pronghorn of your own. Heed the advice in this piece and let me know how your adventure goes by dropping me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.