Pronghorn, bowhunters, and decoys
By JIM MATTHEWS
A friend stopped by this week with some packages of pronghorn ground meat and some loin chops from his recent hunting trip to Wyoming. He knows my favorite wild game is pronghorn and always drops me off a package or two after his near-annual trips to the sagebrush county where they live.
When he told me he shot the buck at less than 50 yards, it brought a flood of memories when I became infatuated with pronghorn hunting with short-range weaponry for a few years and hunted them passionately with handguns, muzzleloaders, and archery gear.
It was 25 years ago this month that I hunted with Mel Dutton in his home state of South Dakota. Dutton is the father of big game decoys. The South Dakota school teacher began making antelope decoys in the late 1970s in an attempt to lure the animals into him during the bow seasons that were held during the peak of the antelope rut or breeding season.
Male pronghorn, like elk, round up a harem of does during the breeding season. He spends much of his time running away smaller bucks from his herd of does. Dutton decided that a silhouette cutout of a small buck, painted to look like a pronghorn would bring the bucks close enough for a shot during the mid- to late-September bow seasons in his home state. Starting with masonite and plywood cutouts, Dutton quickly found the technique worked, but portability was a real problem for a hunter who roamed over the plains and often had to get down on all fours or crawl for some distance before showing the decoy to a herd buck.
Dutton developed a folding version of the decoys, and the first plastic prototypes were made in 1983 and were offered for sale in 1984. There are dozens on the market today. Dutton’s plastic versions were light, could be carried folded like a briefcase, quickly unfolded, and set up.
The real proof of the success of the decoy concept is its effectiveness. Perhaps no other hunting method is so successful for antelope. In hunting with Dutton for two days those 25 years ago, we decoyed nine animals into shooting range for my bow. They ranged from less than 15 yards away to as far as 45 yards. One buck -- the 13-inch pronghorn I killed -- came to the decoys from over 200 yards away, racking brush with his horns en route.
That same season Dutton killed bucks in South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming with his bow, all were decoyed and the biggest was a fine 15-inch buck.
The problem is not getting the bucks to come, but remaining calm enough to make a decent shot after watching an animal run at you as soon as you raise up the decoy. Dutton's decoys have a small hole in the silhouette body -- really the handle -- that you can look through and watch the antelope after you raise the decoy. By the time the buck gallops up within bow range, your heart is thundering and your hands are shaking. Trust me on this.
After missing five shots the day before, I had thought I had settled down enough to go through the drill that a hunter must follow when doing this hunting: Try to remain calm as the buck gallops in; get into a crouch quickly behind the decoy once the animal begins moving in; and then when the buck is within range, raise up and draw in a fluid motion so you are at full draw when you reach your kneeling position.
The first day I had raised up too quickly and spooked a buck; dropped an arrow off my bow, gonging it one the side of my compound; drew to a full draw from behind the decoy too early, the movement alerting the buck; and was so rattled by the size of one pronghorn that ran up to us that I missed by three feet. In short I had made all the usual mistakes.
The second day I thought I was ready when we spied a nice buck with his harem. Dutton and I crawled up a grassy slope, each of us sliding decoys ahead of us on the grass. Slowly we edged them into view of the herd of antelope and the does immediately spotted the decoys. The big buck was preoccupied chasing a small buck over the ridge, but he quickly returned to the does. As soon as he saw the decoys he came at a gallop. I watched calmly – well, as calmly as you can when an antelope most people never see closer than about 250 yards -- as he ran over to us. I squirmed into a kneeling crouch and got ready; this buck was going to be mine. He came into 25 yards and grunted his challenge call; completely unnerving me. I came up slowly, but my hands were so unsteady that the sight pins on the bow wouldn't settle onto the chest of the buck. He turned just as I let the arrow go and was two strides ahead on my arrow.
While many hunters have heard of antelope decoys -- mostly thanks to Dutton -- most have not heard, literally or figuratively, the mating or challenge call of pronghorn in the rut. Throughout our trip, Dutton was using a call that imitates the pronghorn's challenge. In most instances, the response was instant. If the bucks had not seen our decoys, this got their attention.
Earlier that season, while working on a video for Lohman calls (this was back in the day of VCRs and long before the Outdoor Channel), Dutton called a buck in to him that was over a ridge and out of sight. He did that just with the call. When used in conjunction with the decoy, it is deadly.
The key to using both the decoy and call is to time your hunting during the peak of the pronghorn breeding activity. It usually begins in early September and concludes about the end of the month. (The decoys are realistic enough that you wouldn't want to use them during any general rifle season as a safety precaution.) You also must stay hidden from the antelope's view prior to lifting up the decoy. If they are suspicious, they won't come in. Several times either a buck or one of the does in his harem became suspicious and sounded their alarm call -- ending any chance we may have had. Hunters must watch the wind and keep movement behind the decoys to a minimum.
Once a buck comes in you have only a few seconds before the buck eventually sorts things out and realizes something is amiss here, but it is often long enough for a bowhunter to make a killing shot on one of the nation's most incredible and best eating game animals.
“I call it poor man’s elk hunting, and it really is,” said Dutton to me one day while we were glassing for antelope. “This is a real way to promote archery antelope hunting.”
I was addicted for a lot of years.
Jim Matthews is a syndicated Southern California-based outdoor reporter and columnist. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 909-887-3444.