September 08, 2021
I cut my bowhunting teeth chasing pronghorns across the arid plains. Over 20-plus years, I’ve learned a lot about these prairie dwellers, especially when it comes to pulling an effective water dupe.
First rule: It’s nowhere near as easy as outdoor television, YouTube, and social media videos make it look. Yes, it is the most effective method with the highest success rate for running carbon through the lungs of North America’s fastest land animal, but if you’re on the wrong water, it will likely be the most miserable hunt of your life.
Public dirt abounds in my neck of the woods, and each year I visit with numerous stick-and-stringers who’ve made their maiden voyage West. They chose pronghorn because they heard they were visible, which is true. They got excited when they realized how early the season was and how long it went. Then, when they saw a thirsty speed goat slake his thirst at a water tank on the big screen, they were hooked.
When I ask bowhunters why they chose the water source they did, the typical response is, “There wasn’t a blind on it.” Another top answer, “It just looked like a good spot.” Here’s the deal: There should be nothing random about choosing the water source you do. Pronghorns are creatures of habit and will walk past a water source without ever glancing in its direction to access the one they want. If you’re not on the right water, you can bank on a day of insane heat, bugs, and incredible boredom.
Identify All Possible Water
Maps — both apps and paper — are good things. Before leaving on your hunt or pre-season scouting mission, use a paper map in concert with a digital mapping app to pinpoint all likely water sources in your area. Most paper maps will show springs, dirt ponds, and stock tanks, and you can use your digital mapping app to drop pins on these water locales. The top focus should be on dirt ponds, springs, and seeps. Pronghorn aren’t keen to dipping their binocular-like eyes below the rim of a cattle stock tank. They would rather sip water off the ground and keep their eyes up while they quench their thirst.
Take special note of water sources in vast, open sage flats or raised areas of prairie ground. Pronghorn prefer to see 360-degrees around their water source. Don’t place much attention on ponds, seeps, or tanks found in narrow canyons or areas of heavy cover.
Check ‘Em Out
Whether your show up to scout or hunt, visit each of your marked water sources. Pay attention while driving in. If you spy pronghorn, that’s a bonus. When you arrive at the water source, glass the surrounding landscape once again. I’ve spied goats countless times in the distance, watching me as I inspected a water source.
If it’s a dirt pond, seep, or spring, tracks should be prevalent in the mud. Take a walk around the entire water source and identify where the largest concentration of tracks is. Mark this spot on your digital map and pen a few notes. Some water sources are larger than others, and you want to place your blind in a location that will put the majority of drinking speed goats in bow range.
Don’t just look around the water source and call it good. Branch out your search. Most pronghorn-rich areas are home to cattle, and pronghorn will follow established cattle trails to the water. Walk some trails and keep an eye out for scrapes and tracks. A pronghorn scrape is super easy to identify. Bucks paw out a spot in the ground and then urinate and defecate in that spot.
If the water source is hammered with tracks and multiple scrapes are found close by, chances are the water is being used by numerous goats, and possibly, more than one shooter buck.
If tracks are scant and it doesn’t seem like activity is high, move on to the next water source. If legal, I recommend putting up a trail camera on any water source that seems like it may be a hot spot. By doing this, you can hunt one water source and have a device gathering intel at a different location.
I’ve killed a pile of pronghorn at cattle tanks, so don’t overlook them. If the land is stricken with drought and pond water is nil, pronghorn will hit stock tanks, and hit them hard. This isn't good for ranchers but it's great for you. Stock tanks are small, making it harder for a speed goat to drink and avoid getting an arrow through his lungs.
Tracks around stock tanks can be tough to identify. The ground is usually concrete hard, so be sure and walk trails leading to and from the tank and glass the landscape well before deciding if the tank is a solid hunt spot.
If you happen to find a stock tank with a busted float or one with a small hole spilling water out on the ground, you’ve hit the lottery. An overflow or leak puts water on the ground, and goats can drink without dipping their head in a tank.
Don‘t Blow It Now
You’ve done everything right, and you’ve found the perfect spot for a water ambush. Now it’s time to deploy the blind. Don’t believe what you’ve heard. Pronghorn can be very wary of a new hub, which will stick out like a sore thumb on the prairie. Before setting your blind, consider the prevailing wind, where you anticipate the goats to drink at, and don’t get too close. One of the biggest mistakes I see bowhunters make is putting a blind right on top of (20 yards or less) the water source. This can work if you plan to leave the blind for the season, but if you want to set the blind and kill a goat out of it that day or the following day, back the blind off the water. I like to put a new blind 35 yards off the spot I expect speed goats to drink from.
If you get lucky and find a water source with sagebrush, sunflowers, old tractor parts, tires, or pieces of an ancient windmill around it, use these items to disguise your blind better. It doesn’t take much. If you can get your blind blended in, even just a little, your odds of a pronghorn paying it no mind goes way up.
There is no rhyme or reason to when a pronghorn decides to water. I’ve killed them during the first few minutes of legal light, late in the evening, and about every hour in between. My journal tells me my most productive hours have been between 10 a.m and 2 p.m., but you can’t bank on that. You need to commit. Get in the blind when it's dark and prepare to stay until the western horizon swallows the sun. It may take a few sits, but if you can prepare yourself mentally to make three dark-to-dark sits on a water source that has real potential, you're going to get your opportunity.