An Empty Quiver: Chapter 11. Spirit of the Plains

 

By: Dr. Dave Samuel
By: Dr. Dave Samuel

I’ve bowhunted for bison twice.  The first hunt is the one we cover here.  The second was for woods bison in Northern Alberta with Andrew Lake Lodge.  The woods bison there is a free ranging hunt, but Pope and Young does not qualify these animals for the record book because ti is an unprotected species.  The reason the province does not protect this species is because they want them to stay inside the Woods Buffalo National Park, probably for disease reasons.  When they come out of the park, they are unprotected. 

 In 2006 I went with a camera man for the Bowhunter magazine television program to hunt the woods bisonOn the way to the hunt we stopped over for a day in Edmonton, and visited my twin brother who was a wildlife professor there.  He knew a lot about the woods bison and took us to visit Elk Island National Park, about 40 miles East of Edmonton.  Elk Island National Park is a 150,000 acre park with an Interstate highway cutting it in half.  The southern half has woods bison while the northern half has plains bison.  The woods bison is darker in color, bigger, has a sharper and bigger hump, and has horns that project above the top of the head.  No question, this is one grand animal. 

 From Edmonton we flew to the Northeast corner of Alberta to chase buffalo.  The situation is fairly simple; the bison come out of the park and cross the rather shallow Salt River.  For some reason bulls are much more prone to leave the park than cows, and they apparently are coming out to eat the grass that is present outside the park.  It was a great hunt and given a little more time I believe I could have taken a buffalo.  I did miss two rather long shots, but the outfitter did all he could to get me on bulls.  The shame is that Alberta wildlife officials do not classify this as a game species, because if they did, the Pope and Young Club would then  classify this species as one for their record book.  The hunt is an adventure, it is definitely fair chase, and the animals are impressive.  What follows is my first hunt for buffalo.  It was fair chase on an unfenced ranch in Wyoming, but animals taken do not qualify for the Pope and Young record book.  They do however, qualify for the Safari Club International record book and this story is about the a bison that when taken was number 2 in the world, and is presently # 4 in the SCI bowhunting record book.  

It was January, 1999 and things had not started well at all.  My short buffalo hunt just got shorter.  Snow storms made an early January flight to Gillette, Wyoming difficult.  There were delays and canceled flights, but I made it OK.   My luggage, however, apparently got derailed in Denver.  To top it off, my health was creating a scene.  I was having a heart problem; it had been beating crazy for a month, and the doctors were not at all happy with me for taking this trip.  In fact they had me wearing a heart monitor.  My expectations for this buffalo bowhunt with Marion and Mary Scott with the P Crossbar Ranch were high, but now chance for success seemed to be slipping away.

It was a three-day bowhunt, and that alone put a pinch on possible success.  When I quizzed Marion about the shortness of the hunt and that I was carrying a bow and not a gun, he felt it could be done, so here I was, ready to give it a try.  But the lack of luggage was a major snag in the deal.

My bow arrived the next afternoon and Marion and I raced from the airport, headed for the ranch where we were to bowhunt.   Two of Marion’s guides, Juaquin and Benito Maya, were already there, scouting for buffalo so that we might squeeze in one stalk before dark.  The thirty-minute drive ended with word that six bulls had been located.  We talked as I scrambled into warm clothes and put some Rocky Mt broadheads on a few arrows.  Juaquin and Marion told me that the 6,000-acre area we would hunt had some good bulls, but one was in the world-record class size.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that he hadn’t been seen lately.

With about an hour of daylight left, we hiked into the buttes to find the bulls.  It was cold, I mean really cold, with a few inches of snow on the ground, and the wind was blowing as it always does in that part of the world.  We found the buffalo, but two different attempts to get close were thwarted by our scent.  These bulls  were very skittish, and with only one day left to bowhunt, I had serious reservations about being successful.  But Marion would have none of it.  He was still optimistic.

The woods buffalo is one-third larger and darker in color than the plains bison.
The woods buffalo is one-third larger and darker in color than the plains bison.

For years I’ve been fascinated by our North American buffalo, the plains bison.  Maybe it started when I was a kid, watching many western movies that featured the buffalo.  Maybe it was interest in Indian-lore with the buffalo having literally hundreds of uses for the Plains Indian.  To say that the Plains Indian used the buffalo is a major understatement. Their life revolved around the buffalo.  They utilized every part of the buffalo.  The hide was used for everything from winter robes, belts, quivers, containers, rattles, saddles, to dolls.  The hair was used for pillows, ropes, head dresses, halters, and more.  The tail was used for whips, lodge decorations and fly brushes.  The horns were used for spoons, cups, powder horns, toys, and more.  All the meat was consumed; jerky, pemmican, ribs, and all inner parts.  The skull, brains, tongue, beard, bladder, paunch, scrotum, stomach, feces, bones, muscles, tongue and hoofs were also used in many ways.  Indians saw the buffalo as their spiritual helper, a giver of strength to children, their patron, and part of their ceremonies.  At one time their numbers were thought to be seventy-five million, and some estimate that there were still forty million in the early 1800’s.  As a youngster I was drawn to books and stories about the buffalo.  The interest continued into adult life.  Yes, even the relatively recent movie “Dances With Wolves” helped promote my interest in buffalo.  Finally I’d reached a time in my life where I had the time and finances to consider such a hunt.

There are only three places on the continent where one can hunt free-ranging buffalo that qualify for Pope and Young.   The Henry Mountain herd in Utah is a rather low-chance draw hunt, and the herd on Afognak Island, Alaska is also a draw hunt.  There is a free-ranging herd in Northern British Columbia, and the hunts are limited in number.  Two years earlier I heard about Marion Scott’s buffalo hunt and after some calls, I decided to give it a try.  The herd wasn’t true free ranging because it was on a ranch, but the animals would qualify for Safari Club International’s bow record book.  I couldn’t do the British Columbia hunt, so this was my best bet.

My last day at Scott’s  P Cross Bar Ranch found us wolfing down one of  Mary’s great breakfasts, and getting ready for my first full day of  hunting.  But then it happened, my heart monitor showed bad arrhythmia and when that monitor went off, the doctors would call.  And he did.  First my wife at home, and then me.  That call ended with bad news.  “No hunting for you today Dave.  If the heart starts beating normally, then call in a new monitor and we’ll talk.  Until then, you need to sit tight.”  So much for my buffalo hunt; things were happening that were out of my control.  However, luck and God were on my side, because within five minutes my heart was back  in rhythm, and a quick call in and I had the go ahead to do normal activities.  “Dave, you can hunt, but no strenuous exertion” my doctor cautioned.  Music to my ears and before he could change his mind, and mine, we were off.   Almost immediately upon arrival, seven bulls were spotted feeding one-half mile from the road.  Juaquin put the spotting scope on them and quickly became excited.  “Dave, those are the six bulls we stalked yesterday, but that seventh bull is the big guy we have been looking for.”

OK, we found the big bull, and that would be fine for a gun hunter, but how was I to get close?  There was almost no cover in this country, maybe some sparse grass poking through the snow, and an occasional boulder strewn about the landscape, but that was about all.  “Juaquin, where do these bulls go to bed?”, I asked.  “Anywhere back through the buttes” he responded.  The country was expansive, but we decided to drive behind the buttes and attempt an ambush in a likely spot.  Our problem was simple; these buffalo could move through the buttes at any place and time.  No matter, this was the only option, so we put our heads together, made a choice and set up on a butte that had likely trails running on both sides.  A short hike put us at the top of the butte.  Juaquin positioned me on one side while he moved forty yards away and watched the bulls.  I looked at my watch. . . 9:30 A. M., and my heart started acting up again.  I said nothing to Juaquin, I was going to stick it out, at least for a little while.  This would probably be a once-in-a-life time chance for a buffalo and I wasn’t about to give up.

Within fifteen minutes the bulls started to move. . . and they were coming our way.  Soon Juaquin motioned me to slide over to his side.  There was a small, two-foot boulder and I knelt behind it.  “Dave, it looks like they will cross through the ravine on this side and when they get here you probably should try for the first bull.  If you let him pass, he will spot us and there will be no chance at another bull” Juaquin whispered.  I looked through the grass and spotted several of the bulls around eighty yards away and coming.  I leaned toward Juaquin and asked, “Which one is the big one?”   He studied the moving animals for a minute then whispered, “Dave, you won’t believe this, but the big guy is right out front.”

It appeared that my bad luck was changing.   I’d given Juaquin my range finder and when the big bull came into view, he hand signaled that the distance was fifty-one yards.  A bit farther than my normal shooting distance, but I’d practiced long and hard at forty and fifty yards, and my confidence level was high.

Just as I got ready to shoot, the bull turned and walked right toward us.  Whoa, another improvement in the bad luck that had been following me.  At forty yards, he turned.  The steepness of the terrain made it just like shooting out of a fifteen foot tree stand, but my crazily-beating heart, and the presence of this huge buffalo, had me shaky.  I drew and mentally challenged myself to hold things together for this one shot . . . and I did.  Just before the release, the bull saw me, but it was too late.  The arrow was away and hit him square in the lungs.  With a grunt he turned to run, with just the white fletching visible from his side.  It is said that buffalo are among the fastest animals in North America, and he quickly proved that by outdistancing the other bulls.  He bucked twice during his run, and some very aggressive grunt calls were heard as well.  But the shot placement was good and his two hundred-yard run ended in just a few seconds.  There was a bit of sadness in my heart, for this great animal, but make no mistake, I was also one happy bowhunter.

This Wyoming bison is still high in the Safari Club International Record Book
This Wyoming bison is still high in the Safari Club International Record Book

Marion, Benito, and taxidermist John Rinehart were positioned at a good distance and watched the whole thing.  Within minutes they ran up, and were as excited as I was.  Juaquin gave me the high five and we went to inspect the bull.  At 2,000 pounds, he was awesome, and a quick tape showed that we were looking at one of the biggest bison ever taken with the bow (at least in modern times).   John, Juaquin, and Benito used a front-end loader on a tractor to hoist the bull to a skinning position, then made short order of the skinning and gutting.  Throughout the process I was amazed at the size of the animal.  These creatures are unbelievably huge.

If you have been thinking about a buffalo hunt, this option is one you should consider.  No I didn’t careen across the plains guiding my horse with my knees so that both hands were free to shoot the bow as the Indians did.  But I did use my bow, and some experience and ingenuity to fulfill a life long dream . . .to bowhunt for the great buffalo, the bison, the Spirit of the Plains.

 Postscript

 It’s hard to know whether there are any truly 100 percent genetic wood bison anywhere.  Those in Woods Bison National Park in Northeastern Alberta probably have a little plains bison genetics because some plains bison were introduced there in 1920.  That introduction also put tuberculosis and brucellosis into those woods bison.  Not a good thing.  Some woods bison were removed from the park in 1965 and they were supposedly disease free and 100 percent woods bison.  They have been used for breeding and providing stock for free-ranging populations.   

 For a free range plains bison hunt that is not a draw, that is recognized by the Pope and Young Club, you need to go to British Columbia.  By the time you pay for air fare, licenses, and guide expenses, these hunts you will probably spend $10,000-$12,000.  I’ve had many friends take this hunt and it is a wonderful adventure.   The outfitters there only get a small number of bison tags each year so those hunts are expensive.   

 My hunt at the P Crossbar Ranch in Wyoming was a good experience.  No, it wasn’t quite as much of an adventure as going to Andrews Lake Lodge, but it was affordable, doable, and fair chase.  The Andrew Lake Lodge hunt for woods bison was unique.  I was anxious to take a woods bison simply because they are one-third bigger than the plains bison.  Just a huge and impressive animal.  I came oh so close and even though that hunt has gone up in price.  As I understand it, you must combine a black bear hunt with a bison hunt in the spring.  Still, I know of no hunts anywhere that are going down in price.  Not for bison or any species, so this might be something for you to consider.  Though I wasn’t successful, had my health situation not changed Dec. 3, 2007 I’d be going back to Andrew Lake Lodge for woods bison.  

 The P Cross Bar Ranch run their hunts in the fall and through January.  The country is open, and the weather can be cold, snowy, and windy.  Good warm clothing is essential and if you have a Windstopper sweater, wear it.  Good hiking boots, preferably Goretex, are also a plus.  There are no cattle on the ranch where you hunt, just buffalo.  And you will hunt on a portion of that ranch totally devoted to buffalo hunting.  The country is fairly flat, but the many buttes and coolies allow stalking.  The guides know buffalo and they know the area.  Once the animal is down they get him skinned and quartered in short order.  Some hunters drive to Gillette so they can take the meat home.  I  chose to fly, and Marion picked me up in Gillette.  Accommodations are at the Scott ranch which is only twenty minutes from the airport.  Mary does the cooking and you will gain weight on this hunt.  Just google ‘P Crossbar Ranch’ and you will find their web site. 

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. David Samuel spent 30 years as a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He is now in his 44th year with Bowhunter Magazine, where his Know Huntingcolumn still appears. He currently writes the Know Whitetails column for the Whitetail Journal, The Future of Hunting column on www.bowhunting.net and writes a weekly outdoor column for WV newspapers. His activities on behalf of wildlife are diverse: from initiating the West Virginia Bowhunter Education Program to helping get bowhunting legalized in many European and African countries.

He has won honored lifetime achievement awards from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, the Wildlife Society, the Quality Deer Management Association, and Whitetails Unlimited. He is in the SCI Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame, and his greatest honor was being inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2007. He has written 9 books, with his three most recent books being Whitetail Advantage, Whitetail Racks, and the one being presented here, An Empty Quiver – A Lifetime of Bowhunting Adventures which is now SOLD OUT. You can find the table of contents for the two whitetail books, and get autographed copies of all three of these books on Dr. Dave’s website, www.knowhunting.com.

for more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel