Sitting in the cab of Miles Fedinec’s pickup, beside a dirt road on a high sage flat in western Colorado, I can see through binoculars a pronghorn buck. He’s a half-mile away, standing in the 94-degree heat, and my arrow is pinned through both scapulae — 2 inches forward of fatal.
In the blind an hour before, I had the buck broadside at 25 yards. When I drew back, I prematurely hit the trigger on my thumb-button release and sent a half-drawn arrow over his back. When the buck came back and stood at 30, my target panic was so bad I don’t remember the second shot. That arrow connected too far forward. If I’d had any bit of mental control, I wouldn’t have shot again.
Bad shots happen in archery. When I first started bowhunting, the panic was so bad I almost quit hunting altogether. I got through it mainly by shooting a lot of whitetail does. But here I was again, sick to my stomach over this wounded animal, over my abysmal performance.
“I can’t shoot the bow for the client,” Miles deadpans as we watch the buck through binocs. Then, in a rare display of sympathy, he says, “We’ll get him.”
Miles Fedinec might be the best pronghorn guide in the world. He’s the only one I know of — or anyone I know knows of — who is 100% on archery pronghorn. There are outfitters in Arizona and New Mexico who regularly put down bigger bucks, but in the trophy units of northwest Colorado, Fedinec has an unmatched consistency. For the last 10 years, 100% of his clients have bow-killed pronghorns. Except for maybe me.
Poor shots happen in archery. Not as often as some think, but they happen. The question quickly turns to what to do after wounding an animal. In this case, it felt like a special kind of tragedy. I’d fallen down the rabbit hole of everything pronghorn, nerded out on them for weeks before the hunt, and came into this hunt with nothing but respect for this often-disrespected animal.
Pronghorns are more American than the bald eagle, but no one is putting them on a flag or money. They’re not really antelope, but the sole living representative of an ancient order — a North American original, save for one very distant cousin: the giraffe. Pronghorns are fast. They run up to 55 miles per hour. That gearbox evolved to evade the now-extinct American cheetah. They’re weird, too. Migrating like elk. Rutting and scraping like whitetails. They have wide, all-seeing eyes that glint green in the sunlight. Their muzzles have nostrils that help super-cool their blood for long and fast endurance runs. Up-close, they look kind of dopey, but in motion, they’re a thing of beauty — charging across the sagebrush flats like a flight of low-flying birds. Lewis and Clark fell in love with them.
“They’re the most underrated species in North America, by far, and one of the most underrated species in the world,” Fedinec said later. “Even the locals don’t give them credit. They think they’re uneatable. They call them land maggots. They call them just another goat. But the problem is they haven’t taken the time to really learn the species and understand how unique they are.”
Pronghorns are the sole survivor of a large group of prehistoric spiral-horned and fork-horned ungulates that populated North America 1 million to 2 million years ago. They are strictly North American. They did not travel across the Bering land bridge to Asia. They did not drift down to South America. One of their ancient relatives made it to Africa where over the millennia it evolved into the giraffe. Look at a whitetail in New York or a mule deer in Wyoming or a roe deer in the UK or axis deer in India. There’s a commonality, a look, a feel, a closeness that pronghorns share with nothing. You’d think we’d embrace them as our own, but across the West, locals tend to look down on them, as if they’re commoners, a class below the regal elk.
“They’re probably my favorite of our big-game species,” Julie Stiver, a senior wildlife biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, told me before the hunt. “It’s heresy to say that in an agency that has a bighorn sheep in their logo, but I think they’re pretty amazing.”
They’re built for speed. Pronghorns top out around 55 mph, but they can cruise long distances comfortably around 40 mph, making them by far the fastest animal in the New World. To get all that speed, they stand on the tips of their hooves, lengthening their stride. Unlike other ungulates, their leg bones taper at the end, so they swing with more speed, sort of like a lightened ax head. Their joints have more range of motion compared with deer or elk, acting as hinges for those fast-swinging, toe-walking feet. Some sources say this adaption for quick leg speed means they can’t jump, but that’s not true. Stiver has seen them clear fences when chased. They can keep this speed up for long distances because like an elite marathon runner, they’re better tuned to process oxygen. They consume as much oxygen as ungulates three times their size with disproportionately large lungs. They sweat through hollow hair.
“One thing that’s way, way, way cool,” Stiver said, “is they’re the smallest ungulates in North America but have the same gestation period as elk. Fawns are born well developed, at about 20% of mom’s weight.”
Pronghorns are born fast and hard to kill. They outlived their ancient predator, the now-extinct American cheetah, and unlike mammoths, they survived humans — ancient and modern.
Lewis and Clark made special note of the water in the West and how it affected pronghorns. The explorers are responsible for the misnomer “antelope,” thinking the fleet little ungulates looked like African gazelles.
In his diary, Lewis wrote: a “great numbers of goats on the banks of the river … saw large flocks of them in the water … driven into the river by the Indians, who now lined the shore so as to prevent their escape, and were firing on them … boys went into the river and killed them with sticks … we counted 58 which they had killed.”
Lewis sent Thomas Jefferson a pronghorn skull in a box of artifacts from their adventure. Jefferson complained that his explorers, who believed they’d discovered something new, simply didn’t know a roe deer. The president kept unpacking his boxes and found the black pronged horn sheath that slipped over the skull’s bony appendage. The president apologized in his follow-up letter and commended them on the fine gazelle.
Pronghorns have forked horns, not antlers. They have a “prong” — that forward fork to the horn — that’s unique to the horned game. They’re the only horned game that sheds their horns every year. The horns grow over a bony extension that Jefferson took for nubs of a roe deer fawn. A new sheath forms under the old like a snakeskin. Just after the rut, the old horns are dropped. The best bucks will grow horns thicker at the base and longer than their ears. The largest examples come out of northern Arizona and New Mexico.
Centuries after Lewis and Clark, hunters still target pronghorns at the water. On ranches with cattle, it’s easy enough — ranchers have sunk solar well pumps to keep their animals going. Some wells feed into steel tanks or oversized ancient tractor tires. Others spill into natural holes. Man-made or natural, you can spot these honey holes from a long way off. There’s bird traffic overhead. The purple scrub brush grows thicker near the water, too. Private ranch or public land, walk or drive, and you can find them — little Western oases for all manner of critters, wild and domestic.
Miles has set up blinds and cameras on all the water holes on this spread. Where there are cattle, the pop-up blinds are caged in hog panels. It keeps the beefers from knocking them over and chewing them up. The cameras give a good idea of what’s coming in and when, but it’s impossible to lock down a pronghorn buck. You can only pick the most likely place, set up there early, and wait. A buddy who hunted with Miles here at Double H Outfitters didn’t see a single speed goat after 22 hours in the blind — almost three days of sitting in these blacked-out little saunas. But he got one. Another friend killed one after his first 30 minutes. When I asked my buddy what I should bring for this hunt, he said, “Three good long books.” I told him I had packed two. “Get a third book at the airport,” he said.
If spot and stalk is an exercise in humiliation, sitting watering holes is a test of patience and endurance. He who can sit the longest is rewarded.
Well into my first sit, feeling read out, zoned out, mind in the clouds, I am brought back to the present by a thunder of hooves on earth. Those light ax-head feet pound the earth like machine gun fire. I pick them out at my 10 o’clock, maybe 80 yards away and coming in hot, then they all turn off, like a flock of starlings swinging through the air. They stop and look at the water, then they’re off, over the sage hills, and far out of sight.
Forty-five minutes later, a pronghorn fawn charges in and makes a lap around the water, then bursts off. A few minutes later, she’s back with another fawn. A doe materializes from behind me and moves in to drink, then another, and another. Seven of them toe the bank and settle in to drink. One of the fawns splashes in up to her spots. The buck is nowhere to be seen.
Pronghorns do not wait. The big ones drink for but a few seconds, then bugger off. There’s no pause like the way a whitetail or mule deer hesitates for a second, then busts. Pronghorns are at zero, then 40 mph in an instant.
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in Meditations on Hunting, famously wrote, “the hunter does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, he kills in order to have hunted.” Hunting requires the high-stakes act of taking life to awaken the senses to this very time and place, this immediate present, an immersion in the very right now. As all hunters know, when that animal comes in range all else falls away — thoughts of work, of family, of friends, of all the noise that cycles daily through our heads. It’s a perfect, heightened kind of reality.
When the first good buck of my three-day hunt shows up, standing broadside at 30 yards, I don’t want to send an arrow because I don’t want to stop hunting. The buck drinks, then takes off with a twitch of instant speed. It is my first evening of four. There will be more, I thought.
When I tell this to Miles, he doesn’t say much. It’s clear from his expression he doesn’t think much of my philosophy.
By day three of this four-day hunt, I’m doubting it, too. We have walked, run, crawled, and generally failed to close the distance on a spot-and-stalk buck. Two times, we got to 60 yards. One time, I got to full draw. But facing me head on, that instant-fast animal stared me down, looking deep into my soul, and seemed to say, You’re going to screw this up. I did not send that arrow, so with a dozen failed stalks behind me, and my days whittling away, it was back to the water in a blacked-out little blind.
Some consider pronghorns dumb because it’s possible to knock them down from the roadside with a long rifle shot. “It seems not that difficult, but big ones, the big mature ones, are different,” Miles says. “They see you before you see them.” If you see them at all.
Some say antelope meat tastes bad. “People either love them, they’re their favorite game meat, or they hate them and think you can’t eat them,” Miles said. “Walk into a grocery store in Craig, and we’re covered in antelope here, and people will tell you you can’t eat them. That’s just not true. They’re absolutely delicious. The biggest thing is how you kill them. And that’s true of anything, with cattle. If you chase them around all day long, get their blood flowing, adrenaline up, lactic acid built up in their muscles, they’re not going to taste good. It’s just common sense.”
This is why Miles is such a fan of water holes. “They’re relaxed, and it’s quick.” Pronghorn is his favorite game meat. Water is the surest route to backstraps.
After an hour watching the buck I wounded from the road, we pack some water and head out after him. Three hours later, in the baking sun, Miles says again not to worry. We’ll get him. After a messy spot and stalk, we do. I send another arrow, and it’s over.
It’s just as easy to take a bad shot up-close with a bow as it is from way far away with a rifle. My only consolation was this pronghorn didn’t seem to have suffered much.
It’s an odd thing, to get so interested in a critter, to obsess over it, to love it, and to want to kill it. To want to eat it. I’d be lying if I said I understood it. I came into this hunt racked with the feeling that pronghorns get no respect, then felt disrespectful myself because I made a shitty shot. I wonder about the Native Americans Lewis and Clark watched, clubbing goats in the river, dragging them home for dinner. Were they so wrapped up in the cleanliness of the kill, of perceived suffering? Was their self-worth so tangled up in how they swung the club?
“It happens,” Miles says as we gut out the goat. “The meat is still good.”
As we’re dragging the buck to the truck, he stops and points. “Look.” Standing on the ridgeline, sky-lit and silhouetted in the midday sun, are two great pronghorn bucks, watching us, and then, in an instant, they’re gone.