Saturday, September 29, 2012

Pronghorn Draw Hunt - No Easy Task

Back in May, I entered my first draw hunt application. I applied for several of the coveted hunts like elk, but often times, those take decades of preference points to draw, if ever. I looked at the pronghorn options. Two counties offer pronghorn with both buck and doe tags as options. I apply for both buck options and a doe. Pronghorn rifle draw hunts are once in a lifetime draws. Once drawn, you will never have another chance at public land pronghorn with a rifle unless you hunt private land with land-owner tags.

In mid-july, the draw was completed. I checked the site, and had been drawn for the rifle pronghorn doe hunt! I was excited as I have never hunted an animal that solely inhabitted flat-lands where they can see for miles. I made arrangements to travel to the panhandle of Oklahoma for the hunt. I opted to wait until the weekend the season was open to not take as many days off of work.

My wife, 18-month old, and I hit the road at 8:30am. Once you are 2 hours northwest of Oklahoma City, the terrain is flat. You begin to wonder how far you really can see. Then you keep driving another 5 hours. Your definition of flat has been rewritten by this time. We pulled into Boise City, Oklahoma around 3:30 and got settled into the hotel room. There were 3 other hunters in the parking lot cleaning a doe they had just harvested that morning. My confidence is now much higher. After a brief chat with them, I headed to the Rita Blanca WMA to start glassing.

The first 6 units I checked were barren, not even a prairie dog. The Rita Blanca WMA is not one large section, but rather broken down into 30+ sections spread across the entire county. I drove back by one of the units on my way to another area and spotted a group of pronghorn on the horizon. The wind was blowing right to them and by the time I got my rifle and started their way, they showed why they are referred to as "speed goats."

As I arrived at the next section, it was shaped much like a "T" between private land and several hundred acres in size. I spotted two pronghorn heading east from my southwest. I got on all fours and proceeded to crawl 300 yards to a barbed-wire fence to setup for a shot. After trying to avoice cactus, and not always successfully, I was within 200 yards of the buck and doe. I steadied for a shot and double-checked my map. I then realized that the doe I had dead to rights was on private land. It was a disappointment, but a rush as well. As I walked back to my truck, the sun had started to set and I saw a piece of bone 50 yards away. I noticed it was a vertebrae and found several other ribs and leg bones. I then spotted the skull, confirming it was a pronghorn. Closer inspection showed the bases where the horns should have been. As I scoured the area for another 30 minutes I found both horns with one of them being 100 yards from the rest of the skeleton as I was headed to the truck. This had me pretty excited.

The next morning I head back to this same unit as it had a water tank and I was hoping the pronghorn would wander back by for a drink. I was not expecting the 43 degree temperatures that morning as the forecast showed mid-50's. About 8:30am, I was packing up to warm up in the truck. No pronghorn were within 2 miles and it's rather pointless to sit when pronghorn are not visible while other hunters chase them around.

I had to drive into Texas twice, just to turn around, while glassing the land that Rita Blanca had to offer. I also noticed a bluff appear to my west while checking out unit 102 and 101. The bluff was in New Mexico. By lunch-time on Saturday, I had seen 6 pronghorn and driven 150 miles. Those pronghorn were on a section of private land 400 yards from a very small unit of Rita Blanca. They didn't move more than 100 yards in the 3 hours since I had seen them the first time that morning. I went back to the hotel and picked up my wife and daughter for lunch. We headed to the Rockin' A Cafe there in Boise City. After we ate, I got to talking with the owner. He asked about my luck during the hunt. I told him the pronghorn were scattered and I was unable to even find any on public land that day. He picked up his cell phone and made a couple of calls. A few moments later, he told me to head to Keyes, Oklahoma (about a 20 minute drive) and meet a gentleman by the name of Mr. Stewart. I thanked him and headed to the hotel to grab my gear. My wife wanted to go with me even after I warned that we would most likely be gone for the next 8 hours hunting.

I met Mr. Stewart who provided me a map of all of his land. He must've had 40 different sections scattered across Cimmaron County. He also called a neighbor who owned the land he had just seen a group of pronghorn on and secured permission for me. He said "you'll have a doe dead in 30 minutes" when he got off the phone. I thanked him for giving me permission and rushed to the area. There was a heard of about 15-20 bedded in a field of knee-high milo with 3 standing as sentries. I parked the truck 600 yards from them and started crawling through the field to close the distance. When I got to within probably 350 yards, I noticed several pronghorn standing up and acting skittish. I prepared for a shot, but could not single one out that didn't have another right behind it. When I finally located one by itself, the group took off at a run before I could squeeze the trigger. I dust myself off and watch the heard disappear over a rise. I jump back in the truck only to spot them 2 miles down the road. I had my wife drop me off to start my stalk of them and had her drive around them in an attempt to spook them toward me. Before she could circle them, they took off for another 2-3 mile run. At this point, I decided to try and locate another group. After checking another 10 sections, we ended back near the same group. I parked the truck behind some brush, closed the distance by 400 yards, and estimated they were still at 500 yards. I steadied my bipod and waited for the pronghorn to settle down. I place the crosshairs roughly 2 1/2 feet over the back of a large doe and fired. A cloud of dust kicked up 100 yards short and they didn't stop for probably 5 miles.

As we continued to drive, I spotted a lone doe in a field. I was able to get up on the fence post for a rest. I estimated her to be at 250 yards, then she trotted another 50. When she stopped, I placed the crosshairs a foot over her and fired. Another dirt clod was misted. It was at this point I knew my scope had taken a lethal knock at some point. The scope rings were still tight and the scope was wiggle-free.

At another property, about two hours later, we spotted another group of about 15. My wife drove behind an oil rig and dropped me off before she drove off to keep their attention on her. I kept the rig between them and I and got to within 200 yards. I thought "this is it, I'm going to make it happen finally." I see one doe poke her head around the oil rig so I sit down, prop up my leg, throw the sling around my elbow, and get ready. As the heard steps out, I settle on a doe, place the crosshairs behind her shoulder and pull the tripper. Another dirt clod is sent to heaven. As the pronghorn trott off, I reload and fire twice more at the slowest doe, each time killing dirt successfully.

We spend another 2 hours trying to get shots on this group, who had by that time joined 30 more pronghorn, making it impossible to get anywhere near them. Just as we were about to head back to the hotel for the night, I spot a pronghorn not 100 yards off the road. I pull the truck over, jump out, slide into the ditch, and get ready to fire. I double-check the head only to see antlers that were previously hidden by the ears and a black patch on it's cheek, confirming it is a buck. Going from fever to let down in 5 seconds is a harsh reality at the end of a long day of chasing pronghorn.

The owner of the diner had told me to come back on Sunday morning if I wasn't able to harvest one. Sunday morning, at 7:30 like he had said, I was there drinking a coffee. The farmer that he had arranged for me to meet with didn't show up. I figured I would head back to Mr. Stewart's land and try one more time as the drive home is 7 hours and I wanted to be home by dinner. As I was getting ready to leave, the owner tells me to jump in his truck and we'll go look around. We hit all the land he has access to for about 2 1/2 hours, before seeing a lone doe at the last spot. He slowed down and I jumped into a ditch and took cover near a fence line. Just as I settled my scope, she started to trot. I didn't feel comfortable with taking the shot. With that, I watched my last chance at a pronghorn disappear out of range.

Although I had a wonderful meal of tag soup, the experience was great. Hunting big game in the west is a whole different game and something I'm interested in trying again, but for now, bring on deer season.