The arrival of fall, with the color changes and cooler air, always ignites memories of hunting and unleashes that burning desire to get outdoors. Unavoidably, in a good way, I’m overwhelmed by memories of those picture-perfect days afield with family and friends, where imperfect plans turned into perfect outings. The sights, sounds, smells, and adrenaline flood the body in a way that only happens on a hunting trip. This seasonal awakening reminds me that hunters hunt, not just to put food on the table, but for those unique experiences that come from full days in the field where challenges to our mind, body and spirit leave us exhausted but filled with a pure sense of satisfaction. It’s also the time of year where the reality of not drawing a big-game limited license hits the hardest. And with months of hunting seasons ahead, sitting the season out is not an option I’m okay with.
Open Minds Find Opportunities
Hunting big game in Colorado is challenging on so many levels. And with record license sales over the past few years, one of the biggest challenges can be securing a hunting license. For me, it’s starting to feel like an annual tradition, where I am unsuccessful at drawing a license and I’m challenged to reframe my approach using Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s leftover hunting license list. Trying something new is a challenge. We like what we know and the majority of us tend to stay in our comfort zone and repeat the same hunting patterns year after year. The first time I purchased a random license, I was definitely out of my comfort zone.
There are some benefits to purchasing a leftover license, however. If you can find a leftover license that works with your schedule, you’ll have the advantage of purchasing a license without using preference points. Additional benefits may include exploring a new part of the state, getting out into the field during a new season, and maybe even hunting a new species. And as I look at the list this year, I’m reminded of all the amazing adventures that began with a somewhat random purchase of a leftover license.
Getting Started is as Easy as Buying a License
On the list this morning, I noticed several interesting pronghorn licenses, including a late season pronghorn tag for southeastern Colorado that had more than more than 200 tags available. This license could be the perfect backup plan for a failed draw or just an opportunity to try something new. This particular license was also my first leftover license purchase and one of the best learning experiences I’ve had out on the Eastern Plains of Colorado. If you’re interested in trying something new, here are some basic pronghorn hunting tips and tactics to help you make the most of your hunting season.
Colorado’s Eastern Plains are known for having good numbers of pronghorns, but much of the land is private with the exception of some isolated pockets of public land. This includes the Pawnee National Grasslands in the northeast and the Comanche National Grasslands in the southeast. Additionally, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has partnered with landowners to offer big game hunting access on many Walk-In Access (WIA) properties in Eastern Colorado. Big-game hunters must possess a valid pronghorn, deer or elk license for the game management unit (GMU) in which the Walk-In Access property lies. For more information and to see if there is property access that matches up with your hunting license, see page 5 of the 2020 Walk-In Atlas Brochure.
Private Land and Permission
Most of the available pronghorn licenses will require that you find permission to hunt on private land. When I was planning my first pronghorn trip, CPW’s hunt planners warned me about the challenge of getting permission to hunt private land. But, I really wasn’t grasping the challenge they had identified.
My initial understanding was that people weren’t likely to give permission. That was far from what they meant. The difficulty is not finding people who are willing to grant you permission. It’s finding people. You can drive for miles without seeing a house or even a person. While you may see amazing hunting spots, you may have difficulty finding a landowner to give you permission. The good news is that when you find ranchers and farmers in eastern Colorado, many are willing to grant permission to those who want to hunt pronghorn. I’ve found that they are often very enthusiastic when they learn you are after pronghorn.
The best approach for gaining access to private land is to ask permission well in advance of the season. If possible, do not wait until the start of the season. If you wait until the day you plan to hunt, you may have trouble connecting with the landowners of the land you would like to hunt. When properly asked in advance, many landowners will even offer directions to the best pronghorn locations, as well as information about watering holes and road access. Regardless of their answer, always be polite and you will receive equal respect. And never drive through planted fields. This seems like common sense, but it is a problem I see every year.
Easy to Spot. Not so Easy to Hunt
Compared to deer or elk, pronghorn are easier to locate. They roam wide-open rangeland, they often travel in large visible herds, and they do not hide in thick vegetation. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to hunt.
Pronghorn evolved with keen eyesight and the ability to outrun predators. The vision of a pronghorn is comparable to a human looking through 8X binoculars. Pronghorns’ ability to quickly burst into a sprint of over 50 miles per hour helps them to stay out of range of even expert marksmen.
So what can a hunter do to increase the odds of harvesting a pronghorn? There are two popular strategies that will cover most hunting opportunities – stalking and ambush.
Stalking an animal with the vision of a pronghorn on the open range can be an exercise in frustration. If it is said that deer and elk hunters must be patient, pronghorn hunters must learn to be REALLY patient. A stalk may include crawling on your belly for an hour, only to have the animals spook and quickly move far out of range. Experts estimate that only one out of five stalks gets the hunter close enough for a shot.
A hunter who sees the animals before being seen gains a huge advantage. That means avoiding ridge tops and hills. Pronghorn can spot objects on a ridgeline at great distances. If they spot a threat, they will effortlessly move away, keeping a comfortable distance between themselves and the perceived threat.
But for hunters, avoiding being seen by a pronghorn is most important. Sometimes it takes hours of hard work to get within range. The initial part of a stalk may require a hunter to move through draws and along the back sides of ridges to avoid detection. Then you should be ready to crawl the final few hundred yards to get close enough for an ethical shot.
Be prepared to crawl over some uncomfortable ground that could include yucca, sagebrush, cactus, burrs and cow pies. Wearing briar resistant pants and knee pads can help protect your legs and knees. A briar resistant jacket and gloves will increase your comfort and allow you to maintain a lengthy stalk.
Crawling through an open field can be exhausting. If you are lucky enough to get close without being spotted, take the time to catch your breath and steady yourself before the shot.
Some hunters prefer to wait for pronghorns to come to them. Watering holes and fence lines are the best places to wait in ambush. But waiting also requires great patience. Pronghorns alternate between feeding grounds and watering holes at varying times of the day. But it’s unpredictable how and when pronghorns move.
Fence lines are good places to wait because although pronghorns have the ability to leap fences, they generally do not jump over unless they are really pushed. They prefer to crawl under or find a way around fences. One reason biologists believe pronghorns don’t like to jump is because their powerful back legs have the capacity to leap, but their front knees are not suited for the impact of landing.
Searching for a place where pronghorn go under a fence can put a hunter in a great position to wait in ambush. This requires advance scouting to find crossing locations and good hiding places.
Shot selection is extremely important. Pronghorn present a small target. At a weight of just over 100 pounds, the vital target area is about the size of a small plate. Shots are usually much longer for pronghorn than other big game animals, especially on windy days when the animals are more alert. The average pronghorn hunter should know the capabilities of his or her rifle. A scope is essential.
The ideal situation for any hunter is to get a shot when the animal is standing still. Don’t try to shoot a pronghorn that is running.
Field Dressing a Pronghorn
First time field dressing a pronghorn? This video guides you step by step and ensure your harvest remains legal and ethical throughout the process.
A Conservation Success Story
Biologists estimate there were 30-40 million pronghorn in North America prior to European settlement. By the 1920’s, there were fewer than 40,000. Hunting laws and sound wildlife management practices helped pronghorn rebound.
In the early 60’s, there were only about 15,000 pronghorn left in Colorado. That number climbed to 30,000 in the 70’s, and stands at 82,000 today.
Good luck and have a safe and memorable hunting season!