Basic Information and Beginner's Guide to Hunting in Wyoming
Virginia Outdoors - A Resource for Virginia Anglers and Hunters
Wyoming Pronghorn Antelope and Mule Deer Hunting
by J. Burkholder
Posted January 24, 2009
Like many other avid Eastern hunters, I frequently dream of exciting big
game hunts out west in the Rocky Mountain region. Of course,
professional hunters film TV shows on high-priced private ranches and
others save for years, often accumulating preference points and/or
relying on luck in a big-game tag lottery, for a once-in-a-lifetime fully
guided western hunt for elk, moose, or mule deer.
I live in Virginia, but travel once or twice a year to meet with a colleague
who works at the University of Wyoming. In 2008, the meeting was
scheduled for early October and, of course, the wheels started turning
in my mind: I wonder what species are in season and with what
weapons during that time frame? Are there good public land
opportunities? Can I, an amateur hunter by any measure, have a
realistic chance of success on my own or must I hire a guide? Is
hunting alone in the vast West completely crazy or could I, with some
common-sense precautions, have a relaxing and enjoyable solo hunt?
I was faced with little time to plan a trip where I could hunt just a few
days between work obligations. For me, elk are the ultimate western
big game trophy (I intend to harvest a nice bull someday, but I haven't
yet). However, unlike Colorado, which has over-the-counter bull elk
licenses, Wyoming elk licenses are by lottery only. The most desirable
management units require several years of accumulating preference
points before having a realistic chance of drawing a tag. Moreover,
hunting elk solo would be more than I could confidently attempt.
Forays into deep, dark mountain timber make navigation and travel
difficult. If I were to shoot a nice bull, would I be up to the challenge of
butchering and packing out a six or seven hundred pound animal on
my own? If not, that would mean a very expensive guided trip to the
tune of over $4,000 when I really just wanted an excuse to tromp
around in the great outdoors for a few days.
It does not take much research to discern that, of all the western big
game animals that one could pursue in Wyoming, the pronghorn
antelope is the most accessible and most widely available. In fact,
Wyoming reportedly has a higher population of antelope than it does
humans. Having visited Wyoming several times previously, I was also
aware that antelope inhabit wide open country in the rolling high plains.
Given that I preferred an unguided hunt for several reasons (not the
least of which were financial!), grasslands, sage brush and forgiving
terrain were much more appealing to me than steep mountain terrain
and dark timber. In addition, antelope are of modest size (comparable
to an eastern whitetail deer), so I knew that I could handle my game
should I be successful.
I would be based out of Laramie (the location of the University of
Wyoming), so I tried to do some research online regarding public land
opportunities in the area. There are vast public tracts, but they are
primarily comprised of rugged mountain territory more suitable for other
species. Most of the open high prairie country that is prime antelope
territory is private. One notable exception is the Thunder Basin
National Grasslands in northeast Wyoming. It seemed appealing, but
quite a long drive from Laramie, so I kept looking.
A little more research on the Wyoming Game and Fish website
revealed that some ranchers are willing to allow hunting (unguided) for
a trespass fee. Of course, this is more expensive than hunting free
public land, but it is far more affordable than a fully guided hunt. Plus, I
find it intrinsically appealing to hunt unguided and rely on my own skills
and instincts. I knew that a successful unguided hunt would be much
more satisfying than a guided hunt.
I eventually found Pronghorn Ranch, LLC near Douglas, WY (Phone
number: 307-358-5845). It is owned and operated by Jay and Linda
Butler. It is comprised of 18,000 acres of rolling grasslands and
sagebrush. I paid $1,000 for five days of access to the ranch to hunt
antelope with a rifle from October 10 - 14. A so-called "trespass" hunt
allowed me to hunt independently and affordably, but in an area that I
knew had a high population of game and very limited hunter access.
Wyoming Big Game Tags
Of course, the trespass fee was just one of many expenses associated
with the hunt. Big game tags are very expensive for non-residents
throughout the Rocky Mountain region. Nonresident antelope tags
were $272 in 2008. That's some expensive meat. Filet mignon would
be cheaper by the pound. Fortunately, many Wyoming game
management units have leftover antelope tags every year. I
participated in the July "leftover lottery", but antelope tags could be
purchased over the counter for the units around Douglas (Area 26 &
Area 29) right up to opening day of the season. Pronghorn Ranch
does not advertise or promote its mule deer hunting, but some mule
deer are present on the ranch. For another $312, I decided to apply
for a Region B mule deer tag as well as the antelope tag. It was a
tough decision, but it was a rare opportunity for me to hunt in Wyoming
and I decided to take a chance on a mule deer since the seasons
coincide. After all, how disappointing would it be to see a nice mule
deer buck and not have a tag? I agreed with the Butlers to pay an
additional $500 trophy fee should I be fortunate enough to harvest a
mule deer. Note that the antelope tag was for any antelope (either sex)
whereas the deer tag was for any antlered deer (mule deer or whitetail,
which are rare, but present, in the area).
Day 1 - Tagging an Antelope Buck
After several productive days working in Laramie, I drove to Douglas
(approximately a 2 hr drive) across the beautiful Laramie Range on
Route 34. The travel itself was a joy. Upon arriving at the ranch the
afternoon before my hunt, Jay took me and the one other hunter
scheduled for the same time period (James Alexander of Biloxi, MS) on
a quick drive around the ranch. Jay showed us the property lines,
gates, and ranch roads that we would use throughout the hunt.
The first morning of the hunt (Oct 10) dawned cold and blowing snow -
welcome to Wyoming! The western part of the ranch featured the
highest, densest sage brush and, according to Jay, was the most
promising mule deer habitat. Since antelope move throughout the day
(they are one big game species that is not primarily nocturnal), I
decided to hunt for mule deer for the first several hours of daylight. I
would have guessed that it would be easy to spot game in the wide
open country, but it takes some practice. That first morning, I walked a
couple of miles glassing carefully (or so I thought) until I bumped into a
nice buck with a small harem of does. They spotted me first and before
I could even get my gun off my shoulder, they were over the next ridge.
I assumed that I could sneak up on the ridge and probably find the
buck again in the wide open country, but I sat atop that ridge for two
hours glassing the entire region and that small herd of deer had simply
After lunch, James and I headed to open grasslands on the eastern
side of the ranch (where our antelope tags were valid) and set out to
find some antelope. By this time, the weather was getting worse, the
winds were strengthening, and the snow was continuing. We cruised
the ranch roads wondering where all the speedgoats had gone until we
spotted a large herd hiding low in a ravine, presumably to stay out of
the wind. Antelope bucks are exceedingly hard for first-time hunters to
judge, but I could see that the herd of 25 animals included two
nice-looking bucks (the forward-facing "point" is called a cutter and a
shooter buck should have cutters that are higher than the tips of the
ears). With James photographing the entire stalk (see photos at right),
I crept to the edge of the ravine and peered inside. Much to my
surprise, approximately 20 sets of eyes were staring directly up at me.
Apparently my stalking skills need some work! I quickly placed my
borrowed shooting sticks, but before I could find one of the nice bucks
in the scope, the entire herd took off. I was disappointed until suddenly
another buck appeared from lower in the ravine...seemingly uncertain
of why the others were moving out. He hesitated and I took him
broadside from 210 yards. I did not have enough time to carefully
judge the buck before shooting, but the forecast was for continued
snow and high winds for the next several days and I was anxious to fill a
tag. As it turns out, when the weather finally cleared it was no problem
spotting large herds of antelope roaming throughout the grasslands of
the eastern side of the ranch. Over the course of the remainder of the
hunt, I probably saw 20 bucks larger than the one that I killed. Oh well.
My first antelope will always be a trophy to me!
One more quick note on pronghorn antelope headgear. They are
horns, not antlers. The outer black shell is a hair-like material that is
essentially the same material as a rhinoceros horn; however, it sheds
the outer shell every year, which reveals a bony substructure that does
not shed annually. Pronghorn antelope are quite a unique species with
no close relatives in North America. They are the only species that
sheds and regrows a horn ever year. In fact, even females (does)
have horns, but they are much smaller than the horns of bucks.
Day 5 - Tagging a Mule Deer
Days 2 - 4 are hardly worth mentioning. They were cold, wet, and
foggy. The soil (referred to by locals as "gumbo") turns into a sticky,
pasty cement-like mixture that immediately clings to truck tires when
wet. One rotation of the tires and all tread is covered and traction is
lost. I had my rental 4WD truck (a must for any hunting trip!) sliding
sideways on several occasions. I spent most of those days hanging
around my hotel room (Super 8 in Douglas) working and using the free
wireless internet. The fog really was the showstopper for Days 2 - 4. I
carried a handheld GPS, so I could navigate in the fog. (On a clear
day, there were plenty of landmarks, even in the seemingly endless
prairie, to facilitate easy navigation without GPS.) However, when the
idea is to spot and stalk game, there is not much point in hunting when
the visibility is only a hundred yards.
The last day of the hunt dawned cool and crisp with a relatively light
10-20 mph wind. The wind never seems to stop blowing across the
high plains. Since it was a workday (Tuesday, Oct 14), I worked half a
day in Laramie and then drove out to Douglas at noon. I made it to the
ranch by 3:30 and headed to the mule deer country. It did not take
long to spot a group of six does strolling through the sagebrush. While
watching them through the binoculars, I spotted another deer off by
itself a quarter mile ahead of the does. I could tell that it was a buck
and that its antlers were wider than its sizable ears (mule deer are
so-named because of their oversized ears). I watched the buck
through my binoculars for at least half an hour before I could see even
a brown dot with the naked eye. James, having already filled his
antelope and deer tags, was out scouting for me. Luckily for me, he
was carrying a Leupold spotting scope. I got his attention and he
brought me the spotting scope. One look at the buck at 25 times
magnification, and I felt like he was a shooter (remember, I owed a
$500 trophy fee for a deer, so even though I had never killed a muley, I
was still only interested in a nice buck).
Now the hard part...how to get in range of the deer as dusk was quickly
approaching. More good luck. It soon became apparent that all of the
deer (the buck that I was hunting and the group of does that I had seen
earlier) were converging on a distant watering hole that Jay maintains
for the livestock. As the buck reached the watering hole and lowered
its head, I scooted down from my high vantage point. I tried to stay low
in the brush, but I'm sure that my ultimate success was mostly due to
the fact that the deer had their heads down drinking water for most of
my stalk. I finally reached a low area where I could try to catch my
breath and get my shooting sticks ready. My heart was pounding -
partly due to physical exertion and partly due to buck fever. I willed my
breathing to slow and tried to regain my composure before tiptoeing to
the top of a small rise approximately 250 yards from the watering hole.
As I peeked over the top, I saw perhaps the most beautiful sight that I
have ever been blessed to behold. The buck had moved a few steps
from the water, a high full moon in the background, and was standing
perfectly still, broadside with its head held high. I did not feel that I had
time to use the rangefinder, but I knew that it was a long shot. I placed
the vertical crosshair behind the shoulder and the horizontal crosshair
on the top of the buck's back. I held my breath and touched off the
shot. The .270 hopped off the shooting sticks, which fell to the ground.
By the time I looked up, deer were going everywhere...all of them
except the buck. James, who had been watching it all through his
spotting scope, reached my position and assured me that I had hit the
buck hard. We headed for the watering hole and, sure enough, my
250+ yard shot had been true. The buck was only a 3 x 2 (a
five-pointer for us easterners), but it featured good mass and at least a
24-inch inside spread. I know they grow big in the Rockies, but I have
been told that this was a very good deer for the open country that I was
hunting. I was ecstatic and more than happy to pay the trophy and
Meat Handling and Shipping
Now I had a good problem: how do I get all that meat back to Virginia?
Taking it on an airplane was not an option. Under advice from the
locals, I had my antelope made into summer sausage, jerky, and snack
sticks at a local processor. The locals assured me that the antelope
meat was best prepared in this fashion and I should save the funds that
would be required to ship frozen antelope meat to VA. I have some
regret that I did not have a few steaks to try, but the other products are
delicious and I crammed most of them into my luggage and gun case
(by the way, flying with a rifle is no problem at all - it's easier than flying
with shampoo). I had the mule deer cut into the standard steaks and
burger and took it all to Rocky Mountain Meat Processing in Denver to
be frozen, packed in dry ice, and shipped to VA. I shipped 70 lbs (the
weight limit for a single box shipped via postal service) of frozen mule
deer to VA and donated the rest to the local hunters for the hungry.
My dad and I enjoyed several meals of mule deer roast, steaks, and
burgers while camping during our VA deer season and I can honestly
say that "it was the best meat I ever sunk a tooth into". It exceeded my
expectations to say the least.
I do not think that a western big game hunt is something that one
should save for retirement. Although my hunt was not particularly
strenuous, western big game hunting is much more enjoyable for the
young and fit. Finding game was not difficult on the ranch, but there is
an art to stalking. The key is to put some terrain between hunter and
game, anticipate the animal's movement, and find the right location and
timing to intercept the target without being spotted or winded. Easier
said than done. Moreover, I hunt dense eastern forest and had not
taken a shot longer than 50 yards in perhaps fifteen years. Accurate
long-range shooting out to 300 yards is absolutely essential in the
open country. Know your gun and spend some time at the range.
Spending hard-earned money on tags and then not being able to make
the shot would be a terrible feeling. My .270 Win with 150 grain Nosler
partitions did the trick for both animals. A good pair of binoculars, a
bipod or shooting sticks, and a handheld GPS are, in my opinion,
essential. A rangefinder can also come in handy. It's hard to spend
the money on a spotting scope, but I sure am glad that my hunting
companion had one. Judging the headgear on an animal half a mile
away requires some serious optics.
So, my conclusion...DO IT! Whenever your budget and schedule allow
it, head west for some exciting hunting. Hey, I love sitting in a treestand
hunting whitetails as much as anyone, but a few days spotting and
stalking big game in Wyoming will be an experience that you will never
Any questions or comments about hunting in Wyoming? Feel free to
email me at email@example.com.
|The first day of my Wyoming mule deer and pronghorn
antelope hunt. Cold, windy, and blowing snow.
Welcome to Wyoming!!
|Copyright © 2009 Virginia Outdoors, LLC
|I filled my pronghorn antelope tag on the first day. The animals seemed
scarce and the weather forecast was terrible, so I was not very patient.
When the weather cleared, I saw many antelope bucks larger than this
one. In retrospect, I could have been more patient - but I was thrilled to
harvest one of these beautiful animals!
|The Wyoming high country scenery is spectacular when the weather is
clear. What a great change of pace from sitting in a treestand hunting
whitetail deer. Here I am looking through a spotting scope glassing my
mule deer buck, which is well off in the distance. At this time, I could
barely see him as a brown dot without the spotting scope.
|Good optics, shooting sticks, and a flat-shooting gun are key to a
successful pronghorn antelope hunt in the wide open high prairie of
Wyoming. Finding game is easy. Long-range shooting is crucial.
Below I am about to shoot my antelope with my .270 Win off shooting
sticks at approximately 210 yards.
|After the weather cleared, herds of pronghorn antelope were easy to
spot, but it is a challenge to stalk within shooting range. The rut was
winding down in October and a few antelope buck bachelor groups
were forming. Here is a group of four quality bucks together on the last
day of the hunt.
|Mule deer grow bigger in the mountains, but this is a nice buck for the
open country that I was hunting. This 3 x 2 has nice mass and a spread
of over 24 inches. I was thrilled to pursue and harvest such a
spectacular animal while hunting unguided. Even if I hunt every corner
of the globe in my lifetime, successfully spotting and stalking my first
mule deer is an experience that I will treasure as long as I live.