Wyoming Speed Goats
Understanding and Navigating through the tag process to hunt Antelope in the Cowboy State
By Chris Ellis
The first morning of my son Tom’s and my 2017 Wyoming antelope hunt showed us a lot of bucks, but none that were shooters or on land we could hunt until almost 10 a.m. on opening morning. As we glassed a herd on a big chunk of huntable land, we saw a buck that looked promising about a half a mile away. We immediately put together a plan.
The buck and his does were herded up several hundred yards out from a sandstone spine that ran east to west through the field. If I could sneak to the end of the sandstone spine, I might be in range. But getting into position would require a long, circuitous hike and a high likelihood of being busted before I reached the end of the sandstone spine.
I put on my gloves and elbow pads (there are golf ball-sized cactus on the ground everywhere, and it only takes one run-in with them to make one a believer in this particular sort of PPE), grabbed the rangefinder, and took off to the south. I planned to loop around to the tail end of the sandstone and work toward where we’d seen the herd. Tom had his radio on and parked to watch the show unfold from about a mile or so away.
My plan was to keep the sandstone between me and where I thought the antelope would be until the very last possible second. This meant I had to sneak and glass my way in, going slow and glassing all the country on the way in. I’ve blown more than one stalk by spooking antelope that seemingly appeared out of nowhere and dashed madly through the ones being hunted. Finally, I got to where there was one piece of terrain I hadn’t seen—the piece only visible if I cleared the south tail of the sandstone spine. I crawled on my hands and knees for the last 20 yards or so, and when I was about to the very tip of the spine, I saw an antelope.
Instantly, I dropped to my belly and waited for a minute or two so my breathing could slow down. I slowly lifted my head and the rangefinder. I couldn’t get a range due to the grass in front of me. I had inch my way to the very tip of the spine to clear the grass, a tiny bit at a time, scooting my rifle, catching up to it, and repeating the process. Eventually I was clear of the grass and found the buck. The rangefinder said he was 378 yards, and he was a shooter. He was three-quarters broadside, with his right side slightly quartering to me.
I opened up my bipod, settled into the rifle, took my time. The buck didn’t have any idea I was there, and eventually he turned enough that I could get a broadside shot. I held for 380 yards right where the brown and the white came together behind his shoulder. The bullet striking him was clearly audible. As the scope came down out of recoil, I saw the buck take a couple of bounding steps over the hill he was standing on, and out of my view. Then he ran back up into view for a second, then disappeared again. I got up and started toward where I’d last seen the buck, when my radio crackled with my son saying those magic words: “He’s down.” Then, “There are two does just standing there, looking at him. Walk toward them.”
He was about what I thought, and he’s the kind of buck I’d be glad to take with an every-year antelope license every time. He taped just over 13 inches, with good curl and mass, and good prongs. We got him dragged out, hung up, and cut up that afternoon and evening. The next morning, Tom got a really cool, twisted, corkscrew-looking buck that was probably a good 10 to 15 pounds heavier than mine. In the next few days, we filled three doe tags before heading home. All in all, a great trip.
Antelope — sometimes known as pronghorn or speed goats — present a unique hunting experience. While their range overlaps with deer and elk, for the most part they use the terrain and their senses differently and as a result they present the hunter with an entirely different set of challenges. But for someone like me who grew up in Oregon’s Coast Range and the Cascade foothills, these challenges are part of the allure. In Oregon, thousands of big game hunters apply for a small pool of available antelope tags each year. A few get lucky and draw a tag in the random 25 percent pool, but for the most part, drawing a decent antelope tag in Oregon means applying unsuccessfully for at least a dozen years. For some of Oregon’s most sought-after antelope tags the wait is closer to 18 or 20 years. For a select few hunts the number is still higher. This is one of the main reasons that this Oregonian hunts antelope in Wyoming.
The United States had approximately 400,000 antelope in 1976. According to the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish, Wyoming itself currently has that many or more. In fact, it is believed that half or more of the antelope in North America call Wyoming home.
What this means is that there are many, many more opportunities to hunt antelope in Wyoming than there are in Oregon. In fact, a hunter who is willing to do some virtual pre-season scouting and who is willing to hunt fairly high-pressure areas can hunt Wyoming for antelope every single year. To do this, it is important to understand Wyoming’s hunt application and draw system.
Wyoming’s has a “preference point” system, and hunters with the most preference points have the best odds of being drawn. For every year that an applicant is unsuccessful in drawing his preferred hunt, he can purchase a preference point. Unlike other states, preference points are not automatically awarded to unsuccessful applicants. Points can be purchased without any application process from July 1 through Oct. 31 each year.
Hunters may apply as parties. When hunters with preference points apply as party members, their total points are added together and divided by the number of hunters to arrive at the party’s point total. However, unlike in Oregon, the number of points is not rounded.
For example, if Al, Bill, Cliff, and Dave apply to hunt antelope in Wyoming and Cliff has 1 preference point, then the whole party ethers the drawing in the “<1 point” category. In several Wyoming antelope hunts, every <1 point applicant draws while only a fraction of the applicants with zero points draw. In Oregon, with its rounding system, Cliff’s point wouldn’t matter and the whole group would effectively have zero points going into the draw. If Cliff instead had 5 points and Dave had 4 points, then the whole party would be in the <3 point category instead of the 2-point category.
Wyoming requires that hunters buy one license for each animal they hunt. Hunters also must buy a $12.50 conservation stamp. Part of each license is the “carcass coupon”, which is detached from the license, has date wedges that are cut out, and is signed and attached to killed animals, just like a “tag”.
Wyoming has different license “types”. Type 1 licenses allow the hunter to kill a buck, but is actually an “any antelope” license, or a “hair tag”. Additional licenses valid only for a doe or a fawn (“Type 6”) can also be purchased, because in most hunt areas, antelope populations are very high. Many hunters apply for the maximum allowable three antelope licenses (one Type 1 and two Type 6) each season.
A certain number of Type 1 and (usually) Type 6 licenses are issued for each hunt “area”. Areas are similar to “units” in Oregon. The major difference is that the areas are numbered differently for each big game species. For example, you may want to hunt antelope in area 34, and figure, “Why not buy an Area 34 Type 1 deer license in case I see a big muley buck?” Well, area 34 for antelope is the extreme southeastern part of the state, and Area 34 for deer is in the middle of the state. It’s not the same as buying a Steens Mountain or Ochoco unit tag in Oregon. For example, to hunt deer in the same geographical place as Area 34 antelope, you’d need an Area 15 deer license.
There is a set number of resident and nonresident licenses available for each species in each Area. If all nonresident licenses sell out, then unsuccessful nonresident applicants may receive resident licenses that residents didn’t apply for. For example, let’s say Area 20 has 200 Type 1 nonresident antelope licenses available and 500 Type 1 resident antelope licenses available. If there are 400 nonresident applicants and 250 resident applicants, then all 400 nonresidents will draw the license. 200 nonresidents will draw licenses “as nonresidents”. In addition, all 250 residents will draw resident licenses, meaning that there are 250 resident licenses left. Wyoming would then award 200 of these 250 remaining resident licenses to the 200 nonresidents who didn’t draw “as nonresidents”. The license is just as valid, and hunters will never know which way they drew the license. In addition, there will be 50 Type 1 licenses “left over”, which are available to both residents and nonresidents after the main draw. So yes, you could conceivably buy an additional Type 1 (“buck”) license if there are any left over. You could even buy one for the neighboring area and hunt multiple areas.
Type 1 Full Price antelope licenses cost $341 ($326 + $15 application fee) and Type 6 Reduced Price doe/fawn licenses are $49 ($34 + $15 application fee) for nonresidents. Applicants must pay these fees in full at the time of application. Hunters not successful in drawing the licenses they apply for will have their money returned (minus the $15 per license application processing fee). If you apply for Type 1 licenses and are unsuccessful, you can choose not to receive or pay for any Type 6 licenses you applied for (minus application fees) either.
Wyoming also offers hunters “Special” licenses to those willing to pay more. A Special Type 1 antelope license costs $629 ($614.00 + $15 application fee). The higher price limits the pool of applicants vying for the licenses. It generally requires fewer points to draw a Special license than it does to draw a Full Price license. Special licenses have the same bag limits and open seasons; the only difference is their increased cost.
Some areas of Wyoming have a lot of accessible BLM, state, National Grassland, and US Forest Service land. These areas often require several preference points to draw. Not all roads that access BLM or Forest Service lands are public roads. As a result, there are massive chunks of prime BLM, US Forest Service and State land that is effectively shut off from hunting simply because the roads that lead into it are privately held.
In addition, Wyoming has the “walk-in” program, where private landowners allow hunters and fishermen access to their private land. These walk-in areas are usually well-marked, both by license plate-sized signs on the fences, and on On-X maps. Walk-in areas are open to hunters on foot, but as the name implies, hunters cannot drive on walk-in land except where clearly specified. Hunters may not enter walk-in land when it’s not hunting season.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s website is full of great information. They update their statistics in plenty of time for prospective hunters to research hunt areas based on hunter success rates, on how many preference points it takes to draw a particular license, on how much accessible land there is in each area, and even who the Game Wardens are and their contact information. The application process itself is very intuitive for anyone even slightly familiar with online transactions of any kind.
So now that you know the “how”, what about the “why”? Well, there are a few reasons. As I said, I’ve been primarily a western Oregon hunter all my life. Antelope hunting in Wyoming offers a hunting experience that is as different from blacktails and Rosies as pizza is from ice cream. Both are good, but they’re just different.
Antelope hunting offers spot-and-stalk opportunities – it is simply a tremendous amount of fun to spot a shooter buck a mile or two away, then plan how to get close, and play the cat-and-mouse game of getting into range undetected, and pull off a shot. In addition, if you’re already tagged out, it is even more fun to watch your hunting buddy through your spotting scope as he tries to do these things a mile distant.
Antelope provide opportunities to partake shooting at longer distances, which some people are OK with and some aren’t. I look at it this way: there is a big difference between taking a long shot at an antelope in largely flat, open ground with short grass and scanty brush and taking a long shot at a deer or elk in the sorts of areas were that’s even possible in western Oregon or Washington —clear-cuts near timber, re-prod patches, and the like.
If I shoot 500 yards at an antelope in the sort of area antelope inhabit, I will have time to get prone, wait for the wind to die down, get an exact range, and wait for just the right broadside standing shot. I’ll also be able to watch the animal’s reaction to the shot, and if he runs, I’ll usually be able to watch him run and fall down. With an elk or deer at 500 yards, I may not have a place to get in as good a shooting position, I may not have as much time, and if the animals are moving, they’ll go behind a stump, or rock, or a tree, or a vine maple. And if I do connect on the shot, finding the animal can be extremely difficult. Which fir tree, in a re-prod unit that has 8,000 fir trees, did I see him duck behind?
If you’ve been primarily a deer or elk hunter, especially a blacktail or Roosevelt elk hunter, you’ll have to shift your thinking 180 degrees on a couple of things. One, it does little or no good to look for antelope near any sort of cover. If there’s a creek bottom, or a brush-choked ravine, or a patch of trees, don’t even bother. Antelopes’ two main advantages over predators are their speed and their vision, and both advantages are magnified in wide-open spaces. Also, antelope are much less “first light” and “last light” animals than deer and elk are. In fact, when it’s cold, you often won’t see antelope until the sun comes out. They’re active throughout the day.
In terms of firearms, there’s no wrong answer. Antelope are not particularly big or tough. My go-to is a 7mm-08 shooting 120 grain pills at 3,050 feet per second. I’ve seen an 85 grain Sierra GameKing from a .243 pass completely through mature buck antelope at 500-plus yards. My advice is to hunt with whichever gun you’d shoot to win a $350 bet on your ability to hit a paper plate at 400 yards.
I strongly recommend that you put a bipod on whatever rifle you choose. When you don’t need the bipod, it does no harm to have it there. But when you can take your time and get prone for a long shot, the bipod is a much, much better rest than a backpack. A set of shooting sticks is almost as good as a bipod.
In terms of what kind of buck to call a “shooter” that’s up to you. My personal standard is that if the buck has prongs that start above his ears and has decent mass, I shoot. Little guys are obviously little guys, and really big ones are just as obviously really big. When it comes to shooter bucks, part of the fun for me is not knowing exactly what I have until I walk up on it. Does the buck have a couple extra inches of curl that weren’t obvious? Does he hook inward more than I thought? Does he have some cool character?
Boone & Crockett heads of any kind are rare anywhere, so set reasonable expectations for yourself. Spend a day or two scouting before the season to see what kind of bucks your area holds and set your standard accordingly. Personally, I place a lot more emphasis on having an enjoyable hunt than on taking home a certain size of buck. I’d rather have an exciting stalk, hunt, and shot on a 12-inch buck than take a step or two off of a road and pop a 15-inch buck.
Honestly, the most difficult part of hunting antelope in Wyoming is making the decision to do it. The application process is different, but it is not difficult. There is enough information available through the WGFD website that you’ll be able to find your own fit in terms of season dates, huntable land, success rate, doe licenses, proximity to civilization, etc. The mindset in terms of where and how to hunt are also different, but not hard to figure out — a good hunter is a good hunter.