If you come West for speed goats, be ready and willing to use every tool in your archery tackle box.
You’re counting the days. I get it. Me too. Of all the critters I chase with a stick-and-string, pronghorn is my favorite. Over the years, my chase-the-prince-of-the-prairies obsession has taken me across the West.
I’ve learned a lot about these fleet-footed prairie dwellers during my 20-plus years, and whether this hunt marks your maiden voyage or a return to the West, the to-come advice will serve you well.
Recently, while giving a seminar, a gentleman asked me what the most common mistake bowhunters make when hunting pronghorn is. The answer, for me, is a simple one. Flexibility. Each year I encounter a solid number of bowhunters — most first-time-pronghorn goers — that arrive with a pre-determined plan for how they’re going to have success. This isn’t wrong. Planning is important. With that noted, you have to be ready and willing to use a variety of techniques.
When the prairies are parched and the heat index climbs, there is no method better than sitting a well-used water source. With that noted, when the prairie is lush and water is holding in every pond, hole and divot, you need to rethink your H2O plan. I’ve seen lots of hunters post up over water for 14 hours a day, five days in a row, and not get a goat within 100 yards. Don’t do that. If rain plagues you trip or you arrive to find your hunt destination under water, make a new plan.
Tip: When the conditions are right, don’t throw a dart on a map and pick a random water source. Investigate them. Look for tracks around tanks and ponds as well as scrapes lining cattle trails and road systems leading to the water. Look for small on-the-ground water sources like a small seep, pond or overflowing tank. Pronghorn prefer these water sources. They allow them to drink with their second-best defense system — their eyes — up. Try and find a pair of being-used water sources, place a camera on one and hunt the other.
It’s been said in many stick-and-string circles that if a bowhunter can harvest a pronghorn by way of spot-and-stalk, that bowhunter can stalk anything. I agree. After all, you’re trying to close the distance on North America’s fastest land animal. No, their sense of smell isn’t that of an elk or cagey whitetail, but their eyes miss nothing.
I love to spot-and-stalk, but it isn’t always in the cards. If I show up to a pronghorn locale and the prairie grass is short and the undulation of the terrain is little, I look to water sources, especially, as previously mentioned, if the conditions are hot and dry. Don’t fight it if the stalking conditions aren’t right. You’ll end up with knees and hands riddled with cactus and piles of encounters that end with a diaper-butt bounding away.
Tip: If stalking conditions are good, get after it. Spend time behind the glass trying to find a lone buck or a small herd. If your target animal wanders into a good locale, get after it. I’ve seen pronghorn walk miles across the prairie, bed for 20 minutes, and then get up and walk out of sight. It’s not like stalking high-country mule deer. You often don’t have all the time in the world. I’ve killed lots of bucks by slipping ahead of them and intercepting their path of travel. If a buck does bed, get a number of good landmarks — things look the same on the prairie — and start your stalk. I’ve learned that shadows lessen a pronghorn’s ability to pick you off. Passing clouds make risky moves easier, and if you get an overcast day, don’t waste a second of it.
Outdoor television has made this tactic look a lot easier than it is. The window when a buck will come charging into a fake is small. My favorite timeframe is from September 8-20. In most western locations, testosterone levels are peaking, and the rut is rocking. Show a buck a decoy on August 15, and chances are, he will gather his herd and run in the opposite direction. Pronghorn bucks guarding a harem of does have a flee-or-fight mentality, and if their testosterone level isn’t through the roof, they will often gather their herd and run.
Decoys can work early in the season; however, I recommend using them on lone bucks to play on their curiosity level, which is typically very high. Both buck and doe fakes can work early-on, but don’t expect a buck to come at full-tilt. The process is often slow and methodical. Be ready to take a 60- to 70-yard shot if you can calm the nerves and get comfortable.
Tip: If the rut is rolling, use your truck, ATV or e-bike to cover country. Look for dust trails and chase them. If you can catch a buck running off another challenger or chasing a doe, you know he’s a good one to go after. My favorite method for success is to let a buck run a challenger out of sight, use any and all available cover and get between the buck and his does. When he returns from running off that live satellite buck and sees a newbie has slipped in, he will often come quick. The goal is to get within 200 yards of the does when slipping in between a buck and his girls.
Other Decoy Options
I’ve had solid success with cow decoys when cows are in the pasture. Don’t walk right at a buck. Take a wandering approach and stop often to feed and mill around; just like a live cow. As far as using live horses, this can be hit and miss. I’ve walked right up on bucks behind a horse, and then, other times, they seem to just wander away from them. As with a cow decoy, it seems to help if the pasture is harboring a few equine animals.
This method has saved my bacon more than once. I’ve had hunts where it’s too wet to sit water, too flat to spot-and-stalk and too early in the season to decoy. If you find yourself in this situation, spend time watching how bucks work a pasture. Speed goats will use specific fence-line crossings to travel from one pasture to the next. I’ve watched bucks and does walk hundreds of yards down a fence to access these crossings. If your glassing sessions show you a hot fence-line location, wait until no goats are in the area and set your blind.
Tip: Don’t get right on top of the crossing. Play the wind and set your blind 45 to 50 yards from it. Pronghorn don’t like a big hub-style blind right on their crossing route. It will spook them, I promise. If you’re on the side of the fence the buck is crossing from, shoot him before he ducks under. Often, goats slide under barbed wire and then make a mad dash for the opposite pasture. If you’re on the side he’s crossing into, wait for him to stop. It’s likely he will stop to look at the blind for a few moments. If possible, use a natural hide. Carve out a big sage or use blown-into-the-fence tumble weeds to make a natural blind.
You’re ready. Go West with confidence and don’t get in your own way. Read the landscape and the attitude of the goats in the area and be ready to use any method necessary to get the job done.