Montana Antelope: 5 Tips for a Successful Hunt on Public Land
Hunting american pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) is an experience every big game hunter should try at least once. Of the U.S. states with antelope, Montana is one of the best to hunt these animals. One of the main advantages of choosing the “treasure state” is the large amount of public land that is open to hunting.
To be successful hunting antelope on public land, hunters need to have a solid plan, think creatively, be persistent and patient, understand pronghorn behavior, and know the land.
Just last weekend I had great fortune to successfully locate, stalk, and kill a respectable pronghorn buck on Montana’s high plains north of Great Falls. This hunt was the accumulation of several months’ worth of learning the animal and understanding the landscape. There are lessons to be learned from every hunt and so, in the interest of helping other pronghorn hunters, here are a few tips for a successful hunt.
1. Form a Detailed Plan in Advance
On the surface, this sounds obvious. Few hunters go into the field without some sort of plan. However, when it comes to public land hunts for big game like pronghorn, building a plan months in advance is important for success.
For my hunt, the planning started a year ago. My father and I decided to try our hand at waterfowl hunting in central Montana. During that week-long hunt a cold snap came through, locking down the lakes in the region. With the water frozen up, we had nothing to do except scout around. Over the next couple of days, we noticed that there were great antelope in the area.
This district, northwest of Great Falls, did not have a particularly high population of pronghorn, but the animals which were there were fairly large and well-fed. It had been awhile since I went hunting for pronghorn so we immediately started planning for a hunt in the same area next year.
This is the first “phase” of planning a public land hunt, finding a good location, district, or region to hunt that seems to have a good chance of success. It’s important to take this concept and flesh it out into a solid foundation to build a plan on.
a. Ask the Right Questions
There are a few questions that need to be answered right from the start:
- What land in the area is open to public hunting?
- How accessible is the public land in the district?
- Where are campgrounds, hotels, cabins, or RV sites?
- When does the weather in the area typically turn cold?
- What are the draw odds for the district?
- How much pressure are animals under from hunters.
Basically, the idea here is to understand how feasible a hunt would be at a specific location. If there is very little public land, no place to stay overnight, bad weather, poor accessibility to huntable land, or terrible draw odds then investing more time and money makes no sense. Sure, there are some districts with exceptional trophy animals and in those cases some challenges are to be expected.
Those situations are the exception, however. Hunters, especially first-timers, are best off going to an area where logistics, weather, and competition aren’t much of an issue. The weather in central Montana can be an cold in early October and the draw odds are roughly 1 in 3 for a tag, but everything else was in place to make hunting there tolerable.
b. Scope it Out
Since the area looked pretty good, my dad and I decided to give it a try. He had never been on an antelope hunt before so it would be his first experience, and I hadn’t been on a hunt for several years so it would be great to get back into the saddle again.
The next ‘phase’ in building a solid plan is scoping out the area. We already had some boots-on-the-ground scouting time under our belts, but early spring was the time to analyze the area through the use of maps. One product that I love using for this task is OnXMaps. The app and GPS software is a vital tool for hunting on public land. While I won’t go into all the features here, it’s worth checking out.
There are a few things that I am looking for when planning an antelope hunt:
- Location of water sources
- Size of public land plots
- Elevation of terrain
- Public land entry points
Large tracts of public land with water sources every few miles is very important for a thriving antelope population. If the area is too dry, too elevated, or too fenced in then antelope will not prefer to live there. Besides all that, knowing the access points to public property saves time during the hunt and gives me an idea of how far I’d have to hike in to stalk a pronghorn.
It’s important to get this far before applying for a tag. Doing all this research ahead of time means you will know which districts to apply for, increasing your chance of getting a tag for a good area. This planning revealed that there were three districts in Region 4 worth applying for. As soon as Montana FWP opened the application period for antelope, I knew right where to apply.
c. Handle Logistics Early
The final “phase” of planning for a hunt is getting the logistics nailed down ahead of time. As soon as I found out that I won the tag for an antelope district, booking hotels and organizing who would bring what began. At this time I also went out and got stocked up on ammunition. My weapon of choice is a Savage 116 chambered in 300 Win Mag.
Seeing as the country is in the grips of an ammo shortage right now that is only just beginning to ease up, finding ammunition was a bit difficult. I did manage to purchase five boxes of Federal Fusion with 165gr fusion bullets. They proved to be an excellent choice for this hunt. Why five boxes? So that I would have enough to thoroughly practice at the range with that particular load.
While I won’t go into detail on what we specifically had to bring to hunt since that list will vary from one situation to the next, one thing that everyone must consider is how to clean, cool, transport, and butcher game meat. Antelope MUST be cleaned and cooled down as quickly as possible to keep the meat fresh. For some reason, pronghorn meat tends to change flavor very quickly during mild weather.
These three “phases” form a solid plan that supports hunters from the early concept right up until opening day. If everything is planned out properly, the only thing that needs to be done is to fill up the truck with fuel and show up the day before the season opener.
2. Think Creatively
This one isn’t quite as straightforward as having a solid plan, but it is just as important. Hunting on public land, especially for an animal as intelligent as pronghorn, often requires out-of-the-box thinking.
When we had spooked a small herd of antelope with a buck, they immediately ran from the south side of a large hill to the north side. From there they drank water at a nearby stock tank and then bedded down by 10:00 am. My dad and I were able to watch their movements from a road about 3/4ths of a mile away. Once bedded down, it was time to make a stalk on the animals.
Usually, this is when a hunter would step out of the truck, rifle in hand, and attempt to sneak close enough for a shot. That’s just what I tried, but quickly realized the folly of this strategy. The animals had me pegged the moment my feet hit the ground and for every step I took forward, the antelope casually walked away ten steps.
Pushing ahead in such a situation would be foolish, and without adequate cover there was no way I could approach unseen. This is when most hunters would give up and try their luck elsewhere. A creative mindset will see what most people miss. In this case, I realized that approaching from the south instead of the north would mean I could get much closer before I was visible to the antelope.
Basically, I’d approach from the other side of the hill, and then crawl on my knees, then on my belly, to get within comfortable shooting range. At the same time, I’d have a strong crosswind and the sun would be at my back. Using this strategy, I was able to get to within 300 yards the buck despite not having a blade of grass more than a few inches tall to hide behind!
Now, to be fair, plenty of hunters would have thought of something similar. In fact, bow-hunters have to rely on all sorts of tricks to get close enough to antelope, including hiding behind a cut-out of an Angus cow! Of course, most people don’t have one of those in their back pocket, but using the wind, sun, and terrain in unique ways is a tool that’s in everyone’s bag of tricks.
3. Persistence and Patience
Ice fishing is a great way to learn a valuable skill, waiting for the right moment. These days, attention spans have shortened considerably. That isn’t my opinion, it’s actually been measured to have reduced by 33% on average, from 12 seconds to 8 seconds!
Considering activities such as hunting often require long periods of waiting, it’s no wonder that many people have issues staying alert and continuously focused on the hunt. Hunters must be patient enough to wait for the right wind, for the animal to make the wrong move, or simply for the game animal to bed down for the afternoon.
Persistence is important as well, and the two go hand-in-hand. Being persistent means continuing with the hunt no matter how difficult the situation might be. We miss 100% of the shots we don’t take, but sometimes getting a clean shot at an animal requires tackling challenges like a strong wind or no cover.
Often, the key to successfully killing a big game animal is simply out-waiting them. There were certainly several moments when it seemed to be the better option, but continuing to find ways to outwit the small herd of antelope and get close enough to the buck was ultimately the right thing to do.
4. Know Pronghorn Behavior
Dedicated hunters will spend a lifetime trying to better understand animal behavior. Elk and deer both have their own patterns, but so do Antelope. Pronghorn are not the same as deer or elk, and it would be a mistake to assume that they act the same was as other ungulates.
Antelope are creatures that primarily rely on vision. Their eyes are eight times better than humans and can see details all the way to the horizon. Basically, if there is something moving within their line of sight, antelope will see that movement. This is why approaching a pronghorn directly in plain view of the animal is rarely successful.
That being said, antelope also have pretty good noses and ears and can pick up scent an sound just as well as any deer. All combined, antelope have incredible senses that keep them well away from danger. They developed these abilities over millions of years while evading predators similar to Africa’s big cats and canine species.
Pronghorn have a couple of other abilities as well. For one, they can run at least 60 mph in a sprint. They can run at 35-40 mph for miles at a time. If spooked, it’s not uncommon for antelope to run until they are out of sight, which on the plains can vary from a few hundred yards to several miles. Also, pronghorn only sleep 10 minutes at a time and there is always one awake in a herd.
Pronghorn do have two habits that can be exploited, and this is what’s really important to know about these animals. First, antelope are naturally curious and will generally stand still while they assess a threat. Second, antelope need water daily and will usually stay within 4 miles of a water source.
Hunters can therefore use both of these behaviors to their advantage. Often, hunters will identify the water source that the animal is using daily and will put themselves between the antelope and its water. If the hunter is undetected, the animal will approach as usual, coming within either bow or rifle range.
On my hunt last weekend, I opted to exploit the natural curiosity of pronghorn. The animals did detect my presence before I was ready to shoot, but laying prone on the ground disguised my profile and the buck couldn’t figure out that I was human. Even after the first shot from my rifle, the buck only trotted about 100 yards before looking back. It was on the second shot I hit the vitals.
5. Know the Land
This is another tip that, on the surface, seems obvious. However, I’m not saying that we should all just look at a map before heading out. Instead, antelope hunters should understand the landscape just as well as the antelope.
Due to their flighty nature, pronghorn will use their speed and the terrain to evade predators. In 10,000 B.C. that might have meant outrunning the extinct american cheetah, but these days it generally means outrunning vehicles on roads, and hunters attempting to stalk them every fall. Their general strategy seems to be putting a hill between themselves and the threat.
Once out of sight, antelope will then walk in a different direction than they were headed originally. A pursing hunter might pop out at the top of a ridge only to find that the animals have seemingly disappeared, despite the lack of cover. Antelope can pull off this disappearing act because they know their territory well, including every hidden gully or valley amongst the rolling hills.
Fortunately, humans have a couple of tools at our disposal, including a bird’s eye view with satellite imagery, and a telescopic eye by glassing the landscape from a distance. Using these tools properly can reveal where antelope are hiding once they bed down.
Antelope hunting is a joy and is quickly becoming my favorite big game animal to pursue. In my opinion, they are smarter than deer and thus present more of a challenge. With deer or elk, tricking their senses usually does the job. With antelope, trying to trick their eyes, nose, or ears is much more difficult.
In addition, the antelope are a species that need large tracts of public land to thrive. A century ago, the “taming” of the west almost led to the extinction of the pronghorn. Being able to hunt them today is nothing short of a miracle, only possible because of the actions from past generations of conservationists.
I certainly hope to hunt antelope in the future, but harvesting this Montana buck has been the experience of a lifetime. There is no guarantee for success, but you may be able to improve the odds on your own hunt by taking these tips to heart. Finally, I encourage readers to look back at their own hunts and find lessons to learn!