When Mother Nature deals you a crummy hand, there’s only one thing to do – go for it!
All summer long in 2006 we had reveled in it. Parts of the southwestern United States were receiving near-record rainfall, and the desert was as lush and vibrant as it had been in a decade. The thorny cactus plants were plumped up like little watermelons, prairie grasses were tall, and the wildlife was putting on weight like there was no tomorrow.
That was all well and good, until I loaded up my truck and headed for the little town of Bosque, New Mexico, where I was to meet outfitter G.T. Nunn of Frontier Outfitting at his home, then embark on what we originally thought would be a ‘slam dunk’ archery pronghorn hunt. Since we were going to be filming the hunt for a 2007 episode of the Gore-Tex Outdoor adventures TV show on the Versus channel, our thinking was pretty simple. Set up a couple of ground blinds near some water, be patient for a day or three, and arrow a dandy buck at close range with the camera rolling. Just like that.
Those of us who have been hunting for a while know that just when you think you have it all figured out, Mother Nature steps in and throws you a curveball. In this case, the record rains had not only given the pronghorn potable water in every little pothole for hundreds of square miles, they were not going to stop in time for our mid-August hunt. In fact, the first weekend of our hunt the rancher’s rain gauge showed that almost seven inches of rain fell in the Friday-Sunday period. Seven inches! I lived and guided hunters in coastal Alaska for many years, and even there that would have been considered pretty serious rain. But in central New Mexico, in the summer? You have got to be kidding me!
Obviously the game had changed. When it rains the pronghorn do not have to come to any one single water source, and thus patterning a good buck would be impossible. And for many bowhunters, it would have been checkmate. Fortunately, I had two things going for me on this hunt that would give me a fighting chance.
First, G.T. Nunn is my kind of outfitter. My friend Wade Derby of Crosshair Consulting (925-679-9232; www.crosshairconsulting.com) who set this hunt up for me, had assured me that G.T. is a real up-and-comer of an outfitter, the kind of young man the hunting community will be hearing lots from in the future. Not yet 30 years old, the native New Mexican has been guiding hunters since his teens. He’s a real cowboy, not the weekend variety, but the real thing, having competed in rodeos – bull riding is his specialty — since he was a puppy. Today, though he doesn’t compete on the PBR circuit, he does do stunt cowboy work from time to time for the movie industry. Conducting fair chase horseback hunts for elk, deer, and other game deep into wilderness areas is one of his specialties. He is also a highly-skilled houndsman, running his own hounds chasing cats, too. In fact, G.T. spends nine months out of the year guiding hunters and spends the rest of the year conducting summer pack trips or preparing for upcoming big game hunts. He hunts both public land and has several private ranches leased as well. He is tough, hard-working, personable, and has the field skills to get the job done, even when conditions are less than ideal. That he keeps a positive attitude when the chips are down is a big bonus.
Second, the private ranch we were hunting was loaded with quality pronghorn. We arrived in the afternoon and immediately took a drive to check things out. G.T. had indeed built blinds over water, and under normal conditions all would have been well. But there was water everywhere, and we knew we’d have to adjust our thinking. The fact that our first drive showed us several bucks with horns that would measure over 15-inches – and a couple I saw were much, much larger – would give more than one buck to hunt.
The terrain is flat, with few hills and some brush to hide sneaking archers. The problem was, the pronghorn congregate in the open plains, where brush for hiding is as rare as a four-leaf clover.
So, for four days we played the spot & stalk game to no avail. Let me just say that trying to creep up on a pronghorn with bow-and-arrow is about as easy as sneaking the sunrise past a rooster. That’s when you are by yourself. Add a guide and TV cameraman to the equation, and the difficulty factor increases exponentially. Throw in near-continuous rain or drizzle just for grins, and you have all the makings of a meal of unpunched tag soup.
We tried several tricks. First we headed to the hills located in the back of the ranch. Here there were cedar thickets that would provide cover should a stalk opportunity present itself. A great plan, except for one thing – the pronghorn weren’t hanging there. Instead they were living in the flats, where brushy cover was almost nonexistent. From the hills, though, we were able to watch bucks bed, which we then tried to stalk. Often we’d get within a hundred yards or so before something would turn it into a fur ball.
One of the problems we ran into was the fact that, with all the water and muggy temperatures, the ranch had experienced a huge hatch of biting insects. Several times we watched good bucks bed in a spot where a stalk might have been possible, only to see them jump up after just a few minuets and race off as they tried to escape the biting flies.. It reminded me far more of north country summer caribou hunting than a pronghorn hunt. Se la geurre.
We then pulled out a decoy. Decoying pronghorn can be extremely effective, but usually only during the rut, which was months down the road. Still, we were sort of desperate, and thought, what have we got to lose?
And the decoy worked – to a point.. Three different times we crept to within a couple hundred yards of bucks, flashed the decoy, and here they came. The problem was the fact that they weren’t totally aggressive and looking to fight, as they will be when the rut comes, but instead just curious, so they race in to somewhere between 100 and 75 yards and slam on the brakes. At that time they’d look over and see a decoy and a cameraman who was trying to capture all the action but had no place to hide. Adios, amigo!
After five days of this we were all beginning to get a bit discouraged. Then early in the morning the weather broke, the sun came out, and we took another spin around the ranch. That’s when our luck changed.
In this game, a laser rangefinder is almost as important as your bow. The author has been using a Bushnell Legend with excellent results for many years.
There, by itself, was a nice buck, bedded down in a spot where a small hill offered perhaps enough concealment to make a stalk. We were out of the truck in a flash, dog-trotting into a gully, up the other side, and there he was, up and moving. As luck would have it, there were some large cholla cactus we could sue to creep behind, so as fast as I could go I hustled up to the edge of a cholla, nocked an arrow, hit the animal with my laser rangefinder, made sure the camera was rolling, and came to full draw.
The shot was longer than I would have preferred, but still within what I call my own MESR – Personal Maximum Effective Range. There was no wind, the buck was calm, and the 5575 Gold Tip shaft flew like a dart. And just like that, we had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat!
Robb’s 15-inch buck was taken at a distance of 75 yards after several days of fruitless stalking in the open prairie following record-setting rains. He used a 70 lb. Mathews Switchback, Gold Tip Pro Hunter 5575 carbon arrows, and 100-grain Thunderhead.
With a long horn measuring right at 15 inches, the buck we took is a dandy, but certainly not the largest we saw on this hunt. Three different times I tried to get within range of a buck both G..T. and I estimated at near 17 inches, but something always helped that old boy keep his scalp. In fact, we saw several bucks that I am sure as the sun rises in the east would qualify for SCI Gold Medal status. It just wasn’t in the cards for us to creep within bow range of any of them. With a firearm it would have been game over.
So after this hunt G.T. and I talked about a return engagement in 2007. I mean, it simply cannot rain like this two years in a row, can it? If the weather in summer of 2007 is more in line with the usual hot, dry conditions, I know right where I want my blind to be built. There’s a tank at the head of three little draws where we saw the 17-incher along with two other end-of-the-rainbow bucks hanging every day.
I want one. How about you?
New Mexico is legend for producing over-sized pronghorn bucks for both archers and riflemen. In the state draw for available tags for all big game species, residents receive up to 78 percent of available licenses, nonresidents who apply to hunt with an outfitter up to 12 percent, and nonresidents who apply to hunt on their own up to 10 percent. However, landowners permits are available, with most sold through outfitters. Prices vary and are usually built into the cost of a guided hunt. There are no over-the-counter pronghorn licenses issued in New Mexico.
Generally speaking, firearms pronghorn season last just two days and are held in mid-September. Archery seasons generally last eight days and held in mid-August.