The pronghorn is the speedster of the North American prairies. It presents an exciting hunting challenge because it lives every second of life on the edge of flight. As with all prey species living in wide-open country, the pronghorn’s senses of sight, smell and hearing are highly attuned to danger at all times. And when they detect danger is even a possibility, they don’t wait around to find out … they are gone on the run in a cloud of dust.
The allure of pronghorn hunting is applying hunting skills to get close enough to make a clean, one-shot kill no matter what tool – rifle, handgun, muzzleloader or bow – you are using. Besting the formidable defenses to get within 300 yards, 200 yards, 100 yards and even 50 yards or less is a success of which any hunter can be proud.
It’s the country west of the Missouri River that’s the stronghold of the pronghorn. In many states it’s possible to combine them with whitetails, mule deer or even elk to create a great multispecies hunt on a single trip “Out West.”
Call them pronghorn, goats, prairie goats, or speed goats, but if you want to be “in the know” do not call them antelope. Fact is, there are no true “antelope” species native to North America. The pronghorn is a native North American critter unto itself.
The main differentiation from Old World antelope is the build and growth of the pronghorn’s horns. At the very core is bone growing from the front of the pronghorn’s skull. It is surrounded by a keratinous (aka hair/skin) sheath which the prairie goats shed annually then regrow. Like traditional antelope, both males and females have horns, but they are much more pronounced in bucks than in does. Even when the pronghorn shed the horn sheaths, bucks remain distinctive because of their markings including black facial patches.
In today’s pronghorn range, a “good buck” will have horns that are somewhere from 14-15 inches around the curl at the top. Exceptional bucks will measure 16-18 inches in length. However, in scoring pronghorn, overall mass as well as size of the prong, or “cutter,” are equally important in boosting Boone & Crockett, Pope & Young and Safari Club International (SCI) scores to qualifying levels.
As for body size, pronghorn are among the smallest and slightest of North American big game animals. An adult buck will stand between 34 and 41 inches high at the shoulder and weigh about 90 – 125 pounds. A massive pronghorn buck will tip the scales at 150 pounds live weight. Does have roughly the same frame, but will seldom weigh more than 110 pounds on the hoof.
How fast are pronghorn? It depends on who you ask, but it’s believed that flat out pronghorn can run up to 60 mph on a straight line. They are recognized as the fastest land animal in the Western Hemisphere and probably the second fastest land animal next to the cheetah in Africa. And pronghorn can sustain top speeds for amazing distances.
The pronghorn rut occurs from mid-August into September over most of their range. During the mating season, bucks will aggressively defend both territory and its collected harem of does. Bucks can often be seen fighting each other head to head as well as continually shepherding does to keep them in the territory. Both of these traits can be effectively exploited in hunting pronghorn, particularly during traditional bow hunting seasons. Decoying pronghorn bucks within bow range on the open prairie is as exciting as hunting gets.
Once does are bred, the bucks become far less aggressive and drift back to their usual wariness. Fawns are born in late April and May. They are tiny at just four to eight pounds at birth. The first weeks of their lives, does keep fawns well hidden as they are easy prey for a variety of predators including coyotes, mountain lions, and even golden eagles.
Overall, pronghorn are one of the greatest of North America’s conservation success stories. Drought conditions, habitat loss and unregulated killing reduced pronghorn numbers to less than 15,000 animals across the continent in the early 1900s. Regulations and conservation efforts, funded primarily by hunters’ dollars, have brought the continental population back to as many as a million animals. A simple drive across the freeways of the western Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana, and other parts of the West reveals the tremendous comeback of the speed goat!
Local populations are susceptible to wide swings in numbers due primarily to winter range conditions and occasional epidemics of blue tongue or other diseases. Thankfully, pronghorn are prolific and well suited to the habitat they call home. It doesn’t take many seasons of adequate conditions for the populations to bounce back.
Both Boone and Crockett and SCI recognize pronghorn as a single species though taxonomically the Sonoran subspecies inhabits Arizona and Mexico. As for scoring, pronghorn are one of the most difficult horned or antlered animals to field judge and that’s one of the reasons to employ the services of an experienced, highly-rated outfitter and his/her team of guides, especially if you are a first time pronghorn hunter.
Pronghorn can be hunted in most western states including North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, California, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas as well as a few Canadian provinces and Mexico. Qualified outfitters operate pronghorn concessions in all of these locations and you can find the very best here on OutfittersRating.com.
Pronghorn are hunted by a variety of methods depending largely on the hunting tool employed. Rifle hunters most frequently use traditional glass and stalk strategies. Try to gain a bit of elevation on pronghorn herds, but be careful not to present a silhouette against the skyline. Glass the surrounding territory to find the animals and rely on top quality optics to judge the quality of prospective bucks. The experienced outfitter recognizes careful glassing with top quality binoculars and spotting scopes will save a lot of his hunters’ shoe leather in stalking bucks that turn out not to measure up to quality trophy standards.
Because of the frequently dry habitat in which they live, pronghorn need to come to waterholes and stock tanks to water on a daily or at least every other day basis. Undisturbed, they do so on a pattern that can be used to hunt them. Sitting in a blind at a water source is a technique commonly used by both firearms and bow hunters pursuing pronghorns. However, the animals seem to know this is when they are most vulnerable, so their senses are even more on alert as they approach. An errant sound or movement as they approach will spook a wary buck out of its routine.
Because of the limited range of archery gear, bow hunting opens up additional exciting hunting opportunities for pronghorn. Decoying works very well especially during the time surrounding the rut. Bucks can be fooled into running to the decoy from hundreds of yards away, then the archer rises up at full draw from behind the fake to take the shot in the quick second before the buck realizes he has been tricked.
Some top outfitters utilize sneak techniques to approach within bow range of pronghorn. For example, upon spotting a herd at a distance, the hunter and guide dismount from horses and walk behind the horses on a meandering course toward the pronghorn. The speed goats think it’s just some livestock feeding their direction, so it’s often possible to amble within 50 yards or less of the undisturbed pronghorn.