A Guide for First Time Hunters. Part 1
Like many eastern whitetail hunters, I dreamt of heading west into the mountains and plains on a big game hunt. For a long time, making that dream a reality was a “someday” goal; some future day when I would have both the time and money to do it. Time and money. As I got older I learned that it’s very hard for most people to have both. What I am getting at is this; if you’ve always wanted to go west to hunt, then just commit. Go.
I can think of no better first time western hunt than in the pursuit of pronghorn antelope, and no better place to hunt than Wyoming. The state holds more pronghorn than any other; an estimated 527,000 animals. Rifle seasons are long, running from two weeks to a month depending on the unit. Pronghorn thrive on the gently rolling plains, and the relatively mild terrain lends itself toward a hunt that can be tailored to the individual hunter based on their goals and physical condition. This is a hunt that nearly anyone of any age can do.
In this article, I hope to provide novice western hunters a roadmap to plan and execute a Wyoming pronghorn hunt. This will be built around a rifle hunt, but those wishing to use archery equipment can utilize the same strategies, just make sure you apply for the archery tag!
I’m a firm believer in learning as much as I can about the animal and their landscape prior to going afield. Beyond simple learning the skills to kill an animal, understanding the historical and biological context of the fleet-footed pronghorn and its relationship to the Great Plains makes the hunt itself a much deeper and rewarding experience. Because you’ll be applying for tags months before you actually go on your hunt, you have plenty of time to increase your pronghorn knowledge. I’d recommend watching pronghorn-centric episodes from hunting shows like MeatEater and Fresh Tracks with Randy Newburg as well as reading Antelope Country by Valerius Geist and Prairie Ghost: Pronghorn and Human Interaction in Early America by Richard E. McCabe.
RESEARCH YOUR UNIT
Now that you’ve decided to go after WY pronghorn, it’s time to dive in and figure out how you are going to pull it off as a first time hunter. Success hedges on being able to get an easy to draw tag in a unit that you’ve identified as having enough public land access to make room for your hunt. That can seem like a daunting task, but it’s not as hard as it sounds.
Wyoming issues its pronghorn tags on a limited draw system built around accruing preference points over multiple years of applications. The more preference points you have, the better chance of drawing a tag. Access really is the deciding factor here, not just the presence of trophy caliber bucks. There are big pronghorn bucks across the state, the key is being able to get to them; some units with hundreds of thousands of acres of uninterrupted public land might require 9 points to guarantee a tag, a unit with limited public land, perhaps no points at all. Wyoming does save a very small number of tags from every unit for a random draw, but the odds of drawing are slim, and we are trying to guarantee you a pronghorn hunt this year, so we’re not going to take the random draw into consideration. There are plenty of units in the state that you can draw with 0-1 preference points, have a great time hiking across public land and hopefully kill a pronghorn along the way. Those are the kind of units we are going to focus on.
Source: Chris Mack-Olson.
To do that you are going to need to become familiar with the Wyoming Game and Fish website and a GPS and digital map tool like onX Maps. At the Wyoming Game and Fish site you can find almost all the information you need for your hunt, but the two key pieces we are looking for now is a map showing the breakdown of pronghorn units across the state and the Draw Odds report from the previous year. Tags are harder to draw in the western and southern portions of the state, but the central and eastern parts of the state hold abundant numbers of pronghorn and contain many easy to draw units. I suggest your focus your search there.
Here is where the work begins. What you are going to do is identify a handful of units in the area of the state you want to hunt in and then work to narrow the selection down to two or three units with good draw odds, but also have enough public land access. To do that, take the units you’ve identified on the map and cross reference them to the Draw Odds report.
Wyoming Draw Odds Report. Source: WY Game and Fish
From your list of possible hunting units, look for areas that offer near 100% draw odds while requiring 0-1 preference points. Because the draw odds report is generated off of last year’s applications, this still doesn’t guarantee you a tag for this year, but the likelihood is extremely high that this year’s tag allotment will align pretty closely with the previous year.
Once you’ve got your units picked out, it’s time to jump onto the gps program and start looking for public land that’s accessible from a road. Look for federal and state managed lands, as well as lands enrolled in Wyoming’s incredible “Walk In Area” access program. These are private lands that are enrolled in a conservation program to allow public hunting, with some restrictions. In units with limited public land access, WIA’s can sometimes double the amount of land you are able to access. They are an amazing resource and opportunity, but one that I don’t think many hunters consider enough when applying for hunting licenses.
Just because the map shows a road leading to some public land, don’t assume that that road will be open for you to drive on. In fact, unless it is a road managed by the county or a national agency like the BLM or USFS, you’d be better off assuming you won’t be able to use it. The road may no longer exist, or may be posted as no trespassing or gated off by the landowner whose private property the road travels through.
Don’t worry though, you will find some land that meets a public road at some point. The image below is from an easy to draw unit, and in this one small area bordered on 2 sides by county roads, there is over 14,000 acres of state, federal and WIA enrolled lands. Although bordered by roads, much of the area is accessible only by foot. This will keep many hunters within shooting distance of the road. The rest could be all yours, like it was for me in 2016 when I shot my first pronghorn antelope on the small block of state land shown on the map.
Even when looking at units with very little public land, try to find at least 3-5 separate areas that contain multiple square miles of connected public land for you to hunt on. This should give you enough room in the field to locate a herd of pronghorn and make a stalk.
APPLY FOR TAGS
Now that you’ve identified the unit, it’s time to apply for the tag. Applications are done through the Wyoming Fish and Game website and they make it pretty easy to walk through the whole process. There are a couple opportunities for inadvertent mistakes though. Unless you want to hunt only doe pronghorn, make sure to apply for a “Type 1” pronghorn tag. This is the tag most apply for, and gives the opportunity to harvest either a buck or a doe.
Wyoming allots a certain amount of tags for two types of limited entry draws. The “regular” draw is just that, its where most hunters submit for their license. While you were looking at the Draw Odds report, you may have also noticed a separate “Special Draw” that is available as well. In the Special Draw, you pay more money for your tag, but you are put in a much smaller pool of applicants, theoretically increasing your odds to draw. A Type 1 tag from the regular draw costs $325.00, while the exact same tag from the Special Draw costs $614.00, almost double. So why apply for the Special? Go back to the draw odds report and compare the odds for units using both the regular and Special draw. The ability to draw a tag will invariably be better in the Special, sometimes even guaranteeing you a tag in a unit that you might have a low percentage chance of drawing in the regular draw. By utilizing the Special draw wisely, you may be able to essentially “buy” your way into a unit that you would have almost no chance of entry to using the regular draw.
I applied through the Special draw in 2017 with 0 preference points but was able to guarantee a tag in a unit that had required 1 point the previous year and 2 points in 2017 under the regular draw. Did the extra cost sting a bit? For sure, but that was going to be my only western hunt of the season and I knew that spending a few extra hundred dollars would guarantee a tag for a unit that I otherwise would have no chance of getting on with 0 points.
Even if you have 0 preference points, don’t feel like you have to use the Special draw to get a quality hunt. There is pronghorn all over Wyoming’s pronghorn units, and if you’ve put in the time researching those easy to draw but hard to access areas, you’re likely to get on some pronghorn almost anywhere you choose to go. Take the photo below. This pronghorn was shot in a unit that was not only a guaranteed draw at 0 points, but didn’t even sell out of tags during the application process. That’s because a lot of other hunters passed over the unit thinking that there wasn’t enough access. This first time pronghorn hunter identified those access points that others missed, was willing to cover ground on foot and away from the truck and came home with a buck anyone would be proud of.
Wyoming’s non-resident application deadline for pronghorn antelope is May 31. Stay tuned for Part 2, which will cover the planning your hunt after you’ve drawn your first Wyoming pronghorn license.