A how-to for America's unique antelope.
By Ralph M. Lermayer
They are uniquely American - a treasure on this continent, found nowhere else. Antilopcapra Americana doesn't even have any close relative. It is unique among species as the only horned animal that will shed its outer sheath every season, and then grow another (bigger) the next year. Antelopes' eyes are among the keenest in the animal kingdom, and they are among the fastest creatures on four legs found anywhere in the world. They are also an incredibly exciting trophy to hunt.
Putting together an antelope hunt is far easier and much less costly than going for muleys or elk, and every bit as rewarding. Outfitters improve your chances and make the logistics easier. They also control some prime country, but you can get by without a professional guide if you do your homework. There are lots of good antelope on public lands.
Pronghorns are found in most Western states. Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Utah, Texas and Arizona all offer a chance at great antelope. Most states are on a drawing system, but it is relatively easy to get drawn. If you submit your application every year, chances are you'll be antelope hunting at least once every three years. Here in New Mexico, the wife and I manage to hunt them at least three out of every five years.
In many states, up to three or four names can be included on a single application, so if one draws, you and your buddies all go. You'll also find areas such as New Mexico's Unit 52, set aside for muzzleloading only. Others have areas for archery only. Contact the game and fish departments in these states to find the hunt that best suits you. Then, get in the draw. If you're not successful, you'll get your money back minus a few bucks for processing the application. If you're drawn, get ready for a great and very addictive hunt.
Guns and Gear
Shots can be long. Antelope are relatively fragile and rarely exceed 75 pounds. They're not tough to kill; they're tough to hit. Any rifle, including the ultra-hot .22 centerfires loaded with well-constructed game bullets of 70 grains or more, will get the job done. In truth, it doesn't matter if you choose a .243, .25-06, .30-06 or a rip-roaring magnum. Some like lighter rifles for easier walking, while others go the bull barrel route to steady up the longer shots.
Do, however, avoid the mirror-like stock finishes and highly polished bluing. You will be hunting these animals all day long in bright sunlight, and the almost guaranteed flash from highly polished hardware can blow a long sit or hard stalk. Whatever rifle you choose, stick with matte finishes on the stock and barrel.
The key is accuracy. The rifle and optics must be capable of shooting 5 inches or less at 300 yards before you attempt such a shot.
Muzzleloaders, handguns and bows are all adequate as long as you stage your hunt to get within their effective range.
Your most important gear will be your binocs and spotting scope. Only with quality glass can you spend the time to evaluate a trophy and watch from a distance as you try to pattern them to plan your approach. Hours will be spent looking through binocs, and inferior glass will soon give you a raging headache. Get the best glass you can afford, and be prepared to spend a lot of time with it.
If you've hunted antelope before, then this is old hat, but if you're only familiar with dense cover or rough terrain, be prepared for a shock. Antelope inhabit the "wide open spaces." They often frequent areas where they can be seen from two miles away. They're brightly marked, out all day and rarely seek cover. You'll see them all day long. That, in itself, is a far cry from most big game hunting.
Some antelope country is billiard-table flat. Other areas might include rolling sage hills and deep draws or water washes that run for miles through the desert floor called arroyos. Oftentimes there's piñon, juniper or big cactus scattered that can provide cover for a stalk or a handy blind. I have also hunted them in areas covered with heavy juniper trees. We call them timberlope, and there, you hunt them like still-hunting whitetails. For the most part, it's wide-open country, and while that does allow you to spot them, rest assured, no matter how far away, they have spotted you and already picked a back door out if they think you're trying to get closer.
Most open-range country is laced with two-track ranch roads, and driving all day in the truck to spot a lone buck or herd is a common technique. Don't be tempted to go off these established roads. That will bring a stiff fine. Finding antelope is never a problem; evaluating a buck and getting to it is a whole different matter.
Slob hunters never leave the vehicle. They stay in the truck, try to herd the animals, outrun them or get close with horsepower. If that's your plan, stay home. These animals deserve more respect than that, and all it does is rile them up and send them into high gear at the first sign of a truck. It's irresponsible, it's wrong, and it's illegal. Wardens watch from afar, and delight in confiscating both firearms and vehicles, then slapping on a stiff fine for those who practice that technique. More power to them. I only wish they'd include time in the pokey.
Undisturbed antelope can be approached, very close, if you understand their psyche. Some of the biggest are taken each season by archers and muzzleloader hunters. It's a patience game. I have taken 20 good antelope and guided hunters for scores more. My wife has eight to her credit. Only three were taken at distances beyond 300 yards, the majority well inside of 150. I can recall several killed within 50 yards! Once you understand their habits, it's easy to set up where they're "going to be," sit still and wait. Scouting plays a big role in the sage goat hunter's success, but patience is equally important.
While it's illegal to set up directly on a water hole, there's nothing to stop you from positioning on a well-used route to and from water. Good binocs and a few hours spent watching from a high, concealed vantage spot will tell you where to wait. Find a handy yucca or whatever cover is available, camo well and sit there. Keep in mind that you must be absolutely still. Often, it's not just one set of keen eyes you have to evade; it can be an entire herd's. Use 3D camo that blends in, get comfortable, preferably in some shade, and stay as motionless as possible. Sitting for antelope is a lot like sitting for spring turkeys, only with less cover.
Antelope won't jump over a barbed wire fence. Instead, they'll travel along it until they reach a well used and easily identified "go under" or hole in the fence. Lone bucks and entire herds frequent these same points to cross. Finding these places before the hunt and strategically setting up will present a close shot, especially when other hunters or vehicle traffic are pushing them around. Waiting within shooting distance of such crossings will usually produce a shot with adequate time to glass the headgear for size.
Spot and Stalk
This is the classic technique, and can be a heart-pounder. Antelope are probably the most cooperative of all big game animals. They'll let you see them all day. Getting to them is another matter. In spite of what seems like relatively open terrain, there are dips, swells, arroyos and the odd cactus bush or scrub juniper that can provide cover for a stalk.
Camo well, go slow, and take advantage of any and all cover, however sparse. Park the truck out of sight, or, better yet, have a buddy drop you off and keep going. Their eyes will follow the truck, at first. Stay low, stop often and be patient. Prepare for lots of belly crawling, and practice shooting from a prone position.
The memory of an agonizing, exciting and eventually successful stalk will stay with you long after the tender backstraps are gone. Spot and stalk is the toughest but most rewarding way to hunt antelope.
Bed Them Down
While not as predictable as whitetails, antelope do have one quirk you can use to your advantage. They bed down early and stay in the same place all night. If you use your glasses to locate the area where they bed down, that's where you'll find them in the morning. Look the terrain over and find a location you can return to before dawn.
Come in quietly, low and slow with no light, set up with good cover at your back, and wait for them to begin rising. It's usually well into good light before they stand. Make sure and check your watch so that you don't shoot before legal shooting times. Sharp wardens will be listening for shots that "jump the gun." Shooting early could cost you your firearm, vehicle and a steep fine. Watch the clock. Get in, get hidden and be there at breakfast time.
Some consider antelope the finest of all wild game. I concur. Others think it's inedible. The difference lies in field care. When it's down, take your pictures as quickly as possible and get the hide off. Use care to avoid getting any hair on the meat, quarter it, remove the backstraps and put it on ice as soon as possible. One large cooler will hold an entire quartered antelope. Get it on ice and in the shade as soon as possible and you'll enjoy some of the finest eating you've ever experienced. Leave it lying in the sun or your pickup for a couple hours with the hide on, and you'll end up feeding it to Fido.
It's an experience every hunter should enjoy. Get together with a few buddies, put in for a goat tag, drive out West, check into a neat motel, and spend a few days hunting a national treasure. But be prepared - it's something you'll want to do every year.
Reprinted from the November 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.