Story and photos by: Jon Yokley
Arizona offers some of the finest hunting in the Lower 48, but the drawing process can be frustrating.
Getting that “unsuccessful” notice in the mail isn’t uncommon, but this year I got lucky. After a long anticipated wait, my friend Ken and I drew our Arizona pronghorn tags. Even though they were second-choice tags in a heavily hunted area, we were thrilled. The following weeks would be consumed with hours of scouting, setting cameras, selecting equipment and other activities to prepare for the hunt.
Using Google Earth and previous knowledge of the area, we set out to locate secluded spots. We wanted to find locations to hang cameras and planned to observe game movement as we went. Sitting a water source is always an option, but it’s not our preferred style of hunting for a few reasons. One, our hunt coincided with an OTC archery deer hunt, and two, we expected other hunters would be pre-scouting the area for the upcoming archery elk hunt. We figured water would be getting hit hard by other hunters.
After hanging a few cameras, we took up a position behind our glass. The goal was to make note of the quality and quantity of the speed goats in the area. During our first four weeks of scouting, we learned a lot and found some decent herds holding some good bucks. Three specific bucks commanded our attention.
Yes, we were seeing goats through our binos and spotting scopes, but our cameras were capturing zero pronghorn action. We attributed this to the heavy monsoons that kept producing large amounts of rain. There was standing water everywhere.
Given the amount of rain, we opted for a ground assault. As DIY hunters living in the West, we’ve found that to be a productive tactic in the past. If the conditions are right, with the pre-rut in full swing, decoying can prove to be effective. Success with decoys can be sporadic, but if the buck commits, it’s an experience that won’t soon be forgotten.
As much as we love being on the ground, it does have its drawbacks. We would not only be watching for cactus, but we also needed to keep a keen eye out for the numerous rattlesnakes that live on the desert floor.
Opportunity and Disappointment
The first day of the season was full of opportunity. We found two of our three target bucks within a mile of each other. We figured both would push the tape past the 70-inch mark. Buck number one had six does while buck number two seemed to be circling the herd, looking to steal a lady or two. We watched as the satellite buck tried to gain control of the does numerous times, but the herd buck had other plans. It wasn’t long before we were treated to an amazing fight between these two bucks.
After taking some amazing photos through our 15x56 binos, we grabbed the decoy and moved as fast as possible toward the fighting bucks. We knew that if we could get there in time, we’d likely have a shot. As luck would have it, the fight broke up when we were 150 yards out. The herd buck took his does into the junipers while the satellite buck moved away in the opposite direction. This was a perfect opportunity to use the decoy on the satellite buck.
Once we got into position, Ken presented the decoy but the buck didn’t show much aggression. He did however begin meandering our way. His approach was cautious, and he hung up just inside my effective range. I drew, anchored and released. It was a clean miss. The shot was just a few inches under his chest. Disappointed, I watched as the buck walked out of sight.
Pronghorn Are Fast… REALLY Fast
Ken was up to bat next, so we went in search of shooter buck number three which we found about four miles away. Multiple times during our scouting trips, Ken mentioned how badly he wanted to harvest this animal and it was easy to understand why.
The buck had seven does and was in a great place to make a stalk using the decoy. After getting the wind in our favor, we slowly stalked our way in. Ken readied himself as I raised the decoy. As is typical of a pre-rut buck, he got curious and started coming at a snail’s pace. My rangefinder confirmed he was just inside bow range when he stopped. Ken drew back and released.
The buck jumped the string so fast the arrow hit several feet behind him. Once the dust settled and we gathered out thoughts, we began slowly making our way back to our vantage point while talking about how quickly these speed goats can react.
A Second Chance
On the second day, we decided to pursue the satellite buck I had missed the day before. I was up to shoot again and felt ready. After glassing for about 45 minutes, we picked him up and made a plan. The idea was to make an attempt on him in the wide open. It didn’t work.
Luckily, it wasn’t long before we picked him up again, moving toward the back end of a huge, secluded valley. I burned some boot leather while using the available cover. Just as I reached a stand of junipers, I relocated the buck a few hundred yards out, working toward me. This was great, but he’d picked up a buddy. A smaller buck trailed just behind him.
I slowly crawled into position. The wind was perfect, and the smaller buck fed to about 40 yards while the target buck held up. The five-minute wait felt like an hour. Finally, the big buck appeared from the junipers. I ranged him, settled my pin and released. I heard that familiar crack, and I knew he was hit. He left the area on a dead run, heading toward a huge cactus patch in the middle of the valley.
It took about 30 minutes for me to regain control. There was minimal blood on the ground, but after glassing every cactus, I was finally able to locate my downed buck. As I made my way toward him, my excitement rose. I had filled my tag and he was much larger than I thought, grossing 76 6/8 inches. This buck will always hold a special place in my heart due to the five-week history I had with him.
Buck of a Lifetime
It was now our third day in the field and we continued our search for a worthy buck for Ken. We found plenty of bucks and had a few close calls, but he didn’t release any arrows. It seemed every time we got close, we would run into another hunter. That’s just public-land bowhunting. It can be hard dealing with all the interruptions and competition, but you must remember these other guys and gals are dreaming about the same thing you are: public-land success.
Ken and I had to go back to work for a few days, but we returned with high spirits. We decided to work an area where we had seen some great bucks. We were in at daybreak, slowly glassing and picking apart every inch of the terrain, but we could only turn up a few does. Continuing our search, we headed to an area where we had seen tons of sign during our scouting. It wasn’t long before we picked up a single buck moving quickly through the junipers.
We didn’t have time to study him, but we knew he was a shooter. The plan was to get in front of him, using the junipers as we moved into position. We started working toward the spot where we had last seen him. We kept a slow pace, glassing and picking every little bush apart.
Finally, we picked him up. He was moving through the trees in search of a doe. The buck was completely oblivious to our presence. Again, the wind was right, so we quickly got into position to decoy the buck. This particular pronghorn buck had been seen in the area for years by other hunters, and he was something of a local legend.
The buck was 80 yards out and moving in at an angle that would present a shot. Ken nocked an arrow and I grunted to stop the buck. He stopped and locked on to the decoy. I gave Ken the yardage and he drew, settling his pin before releasing his arrow. We could see by the way the buck spun in his own tracks that Ken had made a great shot. “You just shot the Unicorn Buck!” I told Ken in an excited voice.
As Ken approached his downed prize, he couldn’t believe the mass and character the buck had. Ken’s buck ended up with a gross score of 72 4/8 inches. If his deformed side was the same or close to the good side, he would have grossed right at 80 inches. Ken truly killed a buck of a lifetime.
Scout Hard, Hunt Easy
There are few easy hunts on over-pressured public land. By scouting hard ahead of time, Ken and I were able to kick off an amazing season. No matter what kind of hunt you’re on, adequate preparation can make the actual hunt much more likely to succeed.