LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
Few game animals in this world will challenge a hunter more than North America’s pronghorn. A holdover from the last Ice Age, the pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) inhabits the western U.S., central Canada, and northern Mexico. Considered an open prairie denizen, the pronghorn can turn up in some unexpected places. I once encountered a herd in Colorado at over 10,000 feet elevation—go figure.
Pronghorn are keen sighted, paranoid, and fast. They are the second fastest land mammal in the world just behind the cheetah. They can hit 60 mph in a sprint and cruise for miles at 30–35 mph. Suffice to say, you’ll not keep up with a herd if they are spooked. Their eyes are equivalent to eight power binoculars. They will see you long before you see them, even sooner if you move suddenly.
Given the pronghorn’s magnificent abilities to both detect and elude predators, how in the world is a slow, ungainly biped such a human supposed to get close enough to shoot one? The obvious answer is it’s not easy. However, it is possible—with the right tools and tactics.
We’ll discuss pronghorn guns in a moment. First, let’s look at the gear you’ll need to improve your chances.
The most critical item in a hunter’s pronghorn kit is excellent optics. Quality binoculars are a must. Remember, those prairie lobsters can see you miles away, so you must even the odds. Your best bets are 10 X 42 binoculars. Ten power will give you a distinct edge over the pronghorn’s eight power eyeballs. Use the binos to scan the wide-open spaces these beasts inhabit. Pronghorns’ bright white rumps and chests stand out well against sagebrush, tall grass, and sandy soil. If there’s snow on the ground, their black throats and buff bodies will give them up.
Although not imperative, a good spotting scope with a high magnification around 50 or 60 power will let you zero in on specific individuals. If your tags are for a particular gender (does’ ears look a lot like smaller buck horns from some angles), it helps to know if a herd has the proper animals in it before you launch a stalk which may cover miles and take hours to complete.
Good boots are a must. Often, you’ll cover long distances on foot as you search for and then move in on pronghorn. Your footwear needs to offer both comfort and good support. Select soles which are designed for rocky, sandy conditions. The U.S. military’s current desert boots, or something similar, are a good choice for early season hunts. For late season, any good insulated hunting boot will suffice.
Get some knee pads while you’re at it. You may have to crawl on hands and knees to complete a stalk. The pads should stay secure on your legs while you walk, but not cut off the circulation to your calves and feet. They should have a puncture-resistant outer shell that is also soft enough to not make noise against brush or rocks.
Guns and Loads
It’s not as hard as you might imagine to pick the right pronghorn gun. These elusive critters have been taken with everything from a .22 rimfire to a .375 Holland & Holland. There are, however, guns that are better suited than others.
Pronghorn country is open, and while it is possible to put the sneak on them (I shot my first at 60 yards), shots in the 200- to 500-yard range are more the norm. A few pronghorn hunters even come to the party with heavy bench rest rifles in exotic, long-range calibers such as 28 Nosler or .30-378 Weatherby. They set up on portable shooting benches and plug away at incredible distances. For the most part, such Chris Kyle-type gear is unnecessary.
Pronghorn are not large beasts, 80–130 pounds is average, but they are distantly related to goats, and thus they hang onto life with tenacity. A heart shot pronghorn stoked with adrenaline retains useful consciousness for 10 to 60 seconds, in which time it can run for up to a mile before it collapses. A lung shot animal can go even further. It’s best to use enough gun, and in particular, enough bullet.
The better speed goat guns are flat shooters such as .25-06, .257 Weatherby, 6.5 Creedmoor, .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum, and even .300 Winchester Magnum, or something similar. Choose a bullet that will transfer energy within the first few inches once it hits the animal. Good bullets include Nosler Ballistic Tip, Hornady A-Max, Sierra Game King, Winchester Power-Point, and Swift Scirocco. Don’t, however, discount the tougher bonded bullets. Nosler’s AccuBond, Federal’s Trophy Bonded, etc. are effective as well, and useful if you’re on a pronghorn hunt which includes larger species such as mule deer or elk.
As with all hunting, bullet placement is critical for pronghorn. Many experienced pronghorn hunters the author has spoken with recommend you break a shoulder to limit how far a speed goat can run after it is hit. This shot, with a good bullet, will also destroy the lungs and major thoracic blood vessels as it passes through. A hit in the upper shoulder is effective if it both damages the spinal cord and breaks the shoulder. It will put the beast down then and there. Meat damage is often less than you might expect with this shot.
Don’t forget to put a top-flight scope on the gun. It’s impossible to stress good optics enough in this game. A good laser range finder couldn’t hurt, either. Shots at pronghorn are often longer than average; it’s vital you know the exact distance before you shoot.
Pronghorn Hunting Tactics
While not as habitual as deer, pronghorn do have a certain routine. Once you learn their preferences, you can use the knowledge to put them in the freezer.
Speed goats live where water is often scarce. Perhaps the best way to hunt them is to identify their water sources and set up an ambush there. They aren’t as sensitive to blinds as deer, so you can settle in a hundred yards or so away and not spook them. If you hunt on grazing property and the owner will permit it, take a day or two before the season starts to tour the area and note where the stock tanks for cattle or sheep are located. If you’re on public land that’s not grazed, find ponds and streams. Look around the water source for signs pronghorn frequent the location, and if they’ve been there recently.
Another good technique is to walk fence lines until you find a spot where the pronghorn cross. These critters always use the same place and it’s easy to recognize. Speed goats slither under fences, they don’t jump them ala deer and elk. They carve a distinctive trench under a fence. Just set up along the fence about 100–200 yards from the crossing and wait. When the pronghorn arrive, they will line up single file to await their turn to slide under. As each one pops out on the other side, you can take your choice. If you don’t have access to the other side, you can pick them off in the line.
If you have to hunt an area cold, without a reconnaissance, you can just walk the area and glass for pronghorn. Take care to not skyline yourself on ridge crests and pay close attention to the wind. If you have access to roads, drive them until you spot a herd, drive on until you can hide your truck behind a fold in the terrain. Then the fun starts—dismount and begin your stalk.
If you can find a herd as it beds down for the night, return to that spot the next morning at first light. You’ll have pronghorn tenderloin and heart for breakfast.
Pronghorn are perhaps the greatest game animal in North America. They will test even the best hunter’s skills. They taste fantastic, and they are just plain marvelous to watch. With the right gear and the right techniques, you are assured a hunt you will never forget.
© 2019 LJ Bonham
Steve Simpson from Northern Nevada on October 17, 2019:
Hi Mr. Bonham, I had thought about doing an article on this topic so I was happy to see yours. I enjoy your writing and just returned from a successful pronghorn hunt a few days ago. I've hunted them several times and I can say your advice here is spot on. I personally love and prefer spot and stalk rather than long range sniping. Outside of my preference to not shoot at any animals beyond 300 yards, the ability to use terrain, wind and technique is the mark of a true hunter in my view. Thanks for a great post and happy hunting!