Sneaking up to the crest of the sage-flecked knoll, we peered down at a pair of stunning tan-and-white pronghorn standing still as statues.

“What a buck,” I said, impressed by the closest antelope. “His horns will go close to 15 inches.”

“Yep,” my guide replied. “Now if he’ll move over a bit we’ll get a better look at the really big one behind him.”

Making a classic novice mistake, I had assumed the taller buck closest to us was the best.

Height is only one of three important measurements to consider if you want to harvest an outstanding antelope. Also vital are good prongs, and most importantly, mass, which is measured four times on each side to contribute to an antelope’s score.

Since many Shenandoah Valley hunters head west for pronghorn antelope hunts in fall, it might be helpful to go through some of the things to look for in deciding whether to harvest a particular animal. And chances are, if you hunt in a good location or with a guide, you’ll have numerous opportunities to pass up pronghorn bucks searching for an outstanding animal. Here are some guidelines to follow.

And don’t forget to pack coolers or insulated duffels to bring the meat home. Antelope provide some of the best venison you will ever taste.

No sight is more emblematic of western hunting than a mature pronghorn buck with coal-black horns staring back at you, poised to race across the prairie at speeds up to 70 mph. He looks majestic. But just how impressive are his horns. (Antelope have true horns, rather than antlers, which deer have.)

How thick and impressive will those horns be when you wrap your hands around them? That’s hard to say. Pronghorns are notorious for being one of the most difficult game animals to judge accurately in the field.

To help with that challenge, here are insights from three veteran pronghorn guides I’ve hunted with who have a century of analyzing antelope horns between them — Bill Ferranti, of New Mexico, Bob Daugherty of Colorado, and Pete Dube of Wyoming. Let their knowledge help you reduce the chance of “ground shrinkage” (walking up to an animal you harvested and finding the horns or antlers are smaller than you thought.)

Length of horns – This is what most hunters focus on. A 12-inch antelope is average, 13 inches good, 14 exceptional. Record book pronghorn often tape 15-16 inches.

Horns that jut straight up appear longer than they are, while those curling back and inward or with ivory tips appear shorter. Try to get multiple view angles so you can see and calculate the curl of the horn tips into your length estimate.

Tip: Use the distance between the tip of the animal’s nose and its eye (about 8 inches), or its ears (12 inches) to compare horn length to. Also, look for a buck whose prongs protrude from the horn an inch or more above its ears.

Prongs – Judging prongs is tricky. They’re measured from the tip of the prong along its upper edge and then across to the back center of the horn. Three to 4 inches is average, 4-5 good, 5-6 excellent, 6-7 record book.

Realize what you see protruding from the horn is only part of the prong measurement. Also, calculate how many more inches you gain across the horn to its back axis.

Judge how much prong actually protrudes from the horn and then add about 2 inches for the width of the horn itself. A prong that juts out 3 inches is excellent once you add those couple inches measured across the horn itself.

Tip: Use the length of the ear, about 6 inches, for comparison. If the full prong measurement is almost that long, it’s a keeper.

Mass – This is an important factor in a buck’s score because it is measured four times after dividing each horn length into quarters. Good mass tends to make horn length and prongs seem shorter than they really are.

Circumference is challenging even for veteran antelope hunters to judge. Complicating things, some animals have partially flattened bases, making them score lower on mass than antelope with more rounded ones. Basal circumference on outstanding bucks will measure 6-7 inches.

Study DVDs and books or visit a taxidermy shop to learn the art of judging mass. When hunting, wait until the animal turns sideways to check whether the bases are round or flattened before making a circumference estimate.

Tip: Use an antelope’s eye circumference for comparison; it’s about 4 inches. Also look at the diameter of the eye, about 2 inches across. If the antelope’s bases look about twice as wide as his eye, they’ll likely measure over 6 inches in circumference, making for an outstanding antelope.

Just remember, the experience of the hunt and the fine antelope venison you bring home are most important on a western expedition. But it never hurts to prolong the hunt by looking over different bucks before you decide to fill your tag.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident