I was edgy—and the guys at the office were calling me “Nervous Nancy,” which turned my face red every time. I’d never been hunting Out West before; in fact, I’d never even seen a live pronghorn. Tales of 350-yard shots on windy Wyoming flat lands, aiming at an animal the size of my son’s small BMX bike, were definitely freaking me out.
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I’ve always spent my fall days hunting whitetails in the thick woods of Wisconsin or black bears in the swampy thickets of Minnesota. I was a slug gun hunter, not used to long-range shots. I didn’t even own a center-fire rifle. Twenty-yard shots with arrows and 65-yard shots with slugs was my comfort zone.
Trophy pronghorn headgear was not a personal goal for this trip. A big pronghorn features long, deeply-curved horns with thick circumference—plus sizeable, beautifully shaped prongs— but I didn’t care about all that.
For me, hunting is all about adventure, no matter what game I’m after. It’s about learning new skills, soaking in new information, trying new gear, experiencing new places, meeting new people and accomplishing new goals. So for this trip, my goal was simply a quick and humane kill on a mature pronghorn buck. I spent several months prior to the hunt learning, practicing and preparing for what would be my trophy: one perfect shot.
I was lucky enough to receive an excellent loaner rifle for the hunt—a Weatherby Vanguard Sub-MOA chambered in .257 Wthby. Mag. and equipped with a Zeiss Victory Varipoint 2.5- 10X42mm riflescope.
After a handful of shots from the bench, the Vanguard was sighted-in. With an accurate rifle equipped with a top-of-the-line scope, it doesn’t take long to zero. The firearm was hitting the top center of the bull’s-eye at 150 yards, and I felt extremely confident with my borrowed hardware.
Although the confidence that comes with carrying good gear is a huge part of the equation, practice and familiarity with firepower and optics is even more crucial to success.
I heard that some hunters pride themselves on being accurate with 300- or 400-yards shots. Was I expected to make shots three or four football fields long? Just thinking about it made me anxious. I didn’t even know of a rifle range in my area where I could practice at those extreme distances.
Then I learned that many long-time pronghorn hunters (especially guides) really only slap themselves on the back if they can get close enough for a 75-yard kill opportunity. They say getting close to these spook-easy mammals in wide-open country is a more impressive accomplishment than making a super long shot. I liked that theory and decided on my game plan: I would hunt hard and keep at it until I was on a decent-sized pronghorn within my comfort zone.
But what was my comfort zone? I knew it was up to me to determine my maximum shooting range and plan accordingly. So prior to the hunt I scheduled three weekends of practice, planning for 2-3 hours and a box of 20 rounds for each visit.
First, I spent a lot of time practicing how to acquire the target with a 10X scope set at the highest power. I heard horror stories of missed shot opportunities because the hunter just couldn’t find an animal quickly with a high-powered scope.
Then I practiced hitting the bull’s-eye at 175 yards (the longest distance my range had to offer). My heart was down in the dumps after the first practice session: My shots were all over the paper and nowhere near the 2-inch blaze-orange aiming dot. “You’re going to need more work,” NAH Editor Gordy Krahn instructed me after he saw some of my attempts. “The prone position is the most consistent; try shooting prone with your gun propped up by your backpack,” he said.
So I took his advice and practiced squeezing off shots while lying flat on my front. I knew enough to expect the unexpected, and prepped myself for other situations by quickly setting up my shooting sticks and shooting from the sitting position. But after every shot I took from the knees-and-elbows or butt-and-sticks positions, my confidence wavered. Even after the second box of 20 cartridges, my shooting skills were not that impressive.
Maybe it was the thought of spending even more money on practice ammo that jolted me into gear, but during my third rehearsal something inside me clicked. On my last 10 cartridges, I was quickly acquiring my target in my high-power optics, and I was squeezing-off fast shots while hitting 8s, 9s and 10s on the bull’s-eye every try. I was finally ready. I was finally confident. I was finally prepped to achieve my goal––and it took only 60 spent casings to do it!
October 3 finally arrived, but Nervous Nancy didn’t get off the plane when it touched down near Casper, Wyoming. Instead, I keenly jogged off the aircraft like an eager beaver ready to work. Two shots at the rifle range proved my rifle successfully made the rough plane ride from Minnesota and was ready to do its job.
Aaron Smith was my guide, and we quickly got on task. The scenery was simply stunning: Thousands of acres of golden, rocky landscape amazed me. Sage brush dotted the hills, dips and draws. Spotting a mature pronghorn buck was not difficult. They seemed to be on every section of the ranch.
When Smith pointed out a mature buck and said it was the one for me, adrenaline rushed through my body and drown any would-be nervous butterflies. We needed to put on a stalk, and I prayed I would get within my 150-yard goal.
Our first attempt at the pronghorn buck failed. We got within 200 yards, but the buck spooked and hopped forward. The Zeiss range-finding binoculars reported it was at 250 yards—a makeable shot for most hunters. But I hesitated. I thought hard about pinching off a shot, but I listened to my gut instead and followed my plan.
We retreated and hiked over to the other side of the hill in hopes of catching up with the spooked buck; we crept in, set up and hoped for the best. The plan worked. Soon the mature buck popped over the hill and came down closer to us. We had cut the distance perfectly. “He’s 150 yards,” whispered Aaron. “Just what you wanted.”
I fumbled with my shooting sticks a bit, but my practice had paid off and soon I was taking aim. The shot hit dead-on—through the front-right shoulder, straight through the heart and out the back of the far lung. The pronghorn jolted forward, stumbled and front-flipped over, expiring on the spot.
“Great shot!” Aaron hollered. His shout of celebration for the harvested pronghorn produced a proud smile that stretched across my face. As I walked up to the beautiful buck and admired his handsome headgear, my adrenaline percolated into pride. Goal accomplished. Trophy earned. Adventure enjoyed.