Every non-Western hunter with Rocky Mountain aspirations fantasizes about bugling elk and alpine mule deer bucks. Nothing epitomizes Western hunting better than those two species.
However, a very different species is arguably the best for a first foray West. Pronghorn antelope — the colorful, audacious racer of the plains — are inexpensive to hunt. Pursuing them is diametrically opposed to typical whitetail-type hunting.
This pushes hunters out of their comfort zone and teaches them to think outside the box. Unlike mule deer and elk hunting, success rates of even DIY antelope hunts are very high.
But success in hunting the West, as in all worthy pursuits, begins with a good foundation, and there is no better way to get your Western boots wet than on a DIY pronghorn hunt.
How to Get it Done
While you can book a guided trip, you don't need to spend the money. In fact, guided pronghorn hunts are often disappointing. Many antelope "guides" are offseason ranch workers with little regard for the animal as a game species, and you'll likely roar around in a pickup, jump out when he tells you to, and shoot at an animal from the side of the road or even over the hood of the truck.
Instead, research an area that offers over-the-counter (OTC) tags, which is often an indication of high game populations and/or high percentage of privately owned land. In Wyoming, which is often estimated to have something around 400,000 animals (and is historically the destination of choice for pronghorn), OTC tags come in the form of "leftover" tags, which are available for purchase July 10th. Such areas don't usually offer tremendous trophy potential, but when there are high populations, you can exercise patience and look over a lot of bucks until you find a mature one you like.
Wyoming lists leftover tags on its website shortly after the spring draw, enabling potential hunters to view which areas have tags available for purchase online or at license agents. In isolated cases, hunters may purchase two "any pronghorn" tags and up to four doe tags.
Biologist Erika Peckham of the Sheridan region in northeastern Wyoming indicated that there are leftover tags in most of her units — and in units 17 and 23 (23 alone has an estimated 22,000 pronghorn) even the leftover tags usually don't sell out. Why? Although the habitat there is prime pronghorn country, it's mostly privately owned. Gain access (more on that later) and you're likely to have a great hunt.
Colorado also offers widespread OTC opportunity — as long as you're willing to take stick and string. Many of the state's units are open to early, OTC archery hunting, but the western half of the state has very low numbers and the eastern half is composed of mostly private land. Statewide population estimates are in the 70,000-plus neighborhood, and access is generally hard to gain.
Entering a draw is an option, too, and in states like Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, a draw tag is the only option for a DIY pronghorn hunt. (In some cases you can get a transferable landowner voucher.) If that's the route you decide on, choose an area with decent draw odds, but do a little research first. You don't want to put in for an area that is easy to draw because game populations are scant or because it is primarily private land and locals are unlikely to allow out-of-staters to hunt. Again, state wildlife agency biologists can provide insight into herd demographics and local access conditions.
Some states, like Montana, have far-reaching, very successful landowner/public-access type programs, wherein landowners cooperate with the state to increase hunter access. (But hold off on Montana for a few years — currently antelope populations are very low due to horrendous winterkill.)
Once you've found a promising area, enlist a couple of buddies, rent an SUV, and drive. You can get to eastern Wyoming in one or two days from just about anywhere in the States, unless you live right on the east coast. Driving is much cheaper than flying, and enables you to bring meat, cape, and horns back without incurring additional cost.
Bring your camping gear — much pronghorn country is laced with public land, and you can camp at no cost on BLM or Forest Service ground. Or if you really need a bed at night and a hot shower now and then, check in to the local motel — it won't have a 60-inch flat screen, but it won't cost much, either.
A scouting trip ahead of time will lay the groundwork and allow you to go right to hunting, but if you can't afford the travel and the time off, no worries. If the land in the area you want to hunt is primarily private, knock on doors and politely ask for access.
In many areas landowners will allow you to hunt, but here's a hint: Offer right up front to pay an access fee. Let the landowner know that you respect and value the opportunity to hunt his land and offer to pay a daily fee or a kill fee if you're successful. According to Peckham, the hunters she visits with in the field pay anywhere from $200 to $1,000 for access privileges. She added that many landowners are happy to let folks hunt, but limit the number to what they feel their land can support. That's where an early-year scouting trip — and obtaining permission early — can pay off.
Additionally, you can request a list of landowners — with contact information — from the region office where you plan to hunt. Peckham emailed me the Sheridan region list: seven pages of potential access.
You may get turned down several times, but with perseverance you'll find a willing landowner, and if you hit it off, he may even allow you to camp on his land near where you'll hunt.
An additional way to increase your odds of being granted access to private land is to be willing to hunt after opening day — or better yet, opening weekend — is over. While hunting, demonstrate courtesy, respect for the landowner's property, and high ethics, and you'll likely end up on the list of preferred folks allowed to hunt opening day in following years.
If, on the other hand, you want to hunt public land, obtain a GPS mapping system that shows state school sections, BLM boundaries, and private property. Petersen's Hunting recently featured several of the best such systems in the June/July 2014 issue (petersenshunting.com/mappingtech).
Small parcels of BLM and state school sections are often tucked in among private land and may offer very good hunting. However, it's vital to have your GPS mapping device with you to keep you from straying where you shouldn't and — unfortunately — you may need to use it to prove to a possessive local that you are, indeed, on public land.
Going cold turkey from the whitetail woods to the pronghorn plains will cause you to get inventive, to tap into your dormant predatory brain cells, to sharpen your spotting and stalking skills, and to fine-tune your rifle shooting — all skills that will pay big dividends on your dream elk or mule deer hunt.