By Dave Wilson
For many, when we think of Buffalo, our thoughts turn to places like Yellowstone National Park. The bison is a huge and majestic animal, with a long history in the United States. In the early to mid-1800’s buffalo herds were wide spread across many States, and existed in large numbers. I think they are beautiful and I have long admired the buffalo and dreamed of going on a buffalo hunt. Although they are sometimes thought of as rare, there are actually numerous public and private herds across the United States and Canada.
Buffalo are massive! They may stand five to six feet at the shoulder, be up to ten feet long, and weigh up to a ton. For years, I had thought that if I were ever to go Buffalo (American Bison) hunting, I would want to honor the opportunity and the animal by hunting in a more traditional manner.
Arizona has excellent big game hunting and “public land hunting” for buffalo. Most big game hunting in the State is conducted under a “Lottery System”, where the hunter applies for the annual desired hunts, based on locations, tags available, weapon choice, etc. An application fee is paid and a tag fee if drawn/selected, and for some species, a “bonus point” is awarded for non-selection. Bonus points serve to give additional lottery chances for individuals in future hunt drawings.
In Arizona, buffalo tags are made available for yearlings, cows, and bulls, at two different locations in the State, in limited numbers, with a limit of one buffalo a lifetime. The amount and types of tags available varies from year to year. I had decided long ago that if I were only going to be able to hunt once, I would want to hunt a bull. Over the years, I had stockpiled thirty-four bonus points for buffalo, by not getting drawn. I expected this year to be the same, when I was drawn for the one and only bull tag available for the Fall 2014, hunt.
Initially, it was just a thought of, “if I ever get drawn …” and now it was actually happening and the planning began. That is when my old fashioned ways began to take shape. I chose the 45-70 cartridge, which is still readily available in modern production. I chose the Remington cartridge shooting a 405 grain soft point bullet. I had purchased a “Sharp’s style” single shot rifle several years ago with Creedmoor style sights (similar to the famous “Quigley” rifle). Although the rifle is accurate and capable of very long shots, my old eyes are not! I also crafted some old style shooting/cross-sticks. It’s not about fashion, but the 1870’s style clothing, with my suspenders, seemed to complete the look!
Although I was the only one with a tag, I had asked a friend to go along as a helper and photographer. On the day we drove to the hunting area (the day before the season opened) the weather was nice and promising for the hunt. The area was rolling grassland with prairie grass and sage, at an elevation of about 6000 feet, with few trees. As a result, the land offered great visibility. It had rained a little earlier in the day, but the forecast for opening day was good, with a major storm forecast for the second day of the hunt. As we were setting up camp there was a big rainbow in the sky to the East. We were able to spot a herd of buffalo through binoculars, about two miles in the distance, which happened to be right where the rainbow met the horizon. What a great sight, seeing buffalo at the end of the rainbow.
Opening morning was beautiful, with no wind. Hunting from a Ford, instead of from horseback, we headed out under clear and sunny skies. It was fairly easily to locate the herd from a significant distance, close to where we had seen them the evening before. We were able to approach the herd and move to within shooting distance without disturbing them. The animals were just milling about and grazing. We moved into a favorable wind direction to further minimize the disruption to the herd. There were 50 to 60 buffalo in the herd, which consisted of calves, cows and bulls of all sizes. At just over 100 yards, the designated bull was easy to identify within the group, standing about a foot taller than the surrounding cows, calves, and other bulls. The obvious tan colored hump, and sheer size, made it easy to keep track of the desired target. The animals were constantly moving around, but clustered together making a shot impossible. The bull seemed to move through the herd, but cows or calves were always in front or behind the bull. After what seemed like an hour, the bull was finally in the clear.
I tried to take a steady aim behind the bulls broadside shoulder, and fired. At the shot the bull lurched. I thought it was a good shot and waited for the buffalo to drop. I re-loaded, but a second shot was not possible as the other animals once again surrounded the bull. As we waited, I became surprised by the herd dynamics. Cows and calves moved about to check on the bull while other, smaller, bulls almost immediately began challenging the “herd bull” for dominance. There was head butting and pushing. Dust began to rise from the dry dusty ground. Several times the bull appeared to go down, only to roll in the dirt and get back on his feet. After another long wait, the herd cow, the matriarch, decided it was time to move out. As she headed across the prairie, the other buffalo began to fall in behind in single file, and follow the matriarch.
As the herd began to move and spread out, another shot opportunity opened up, but the distance to the animals was increasing. A couple of follow-up shots and the bull was finally down for good. It amazed me how the bull was able to absorb the bullet impact and weight, and remain standing.
In hunting we frequently hear that once the animal is down, the real work begins. That statement really hits home with a mature bull buffalo. It was estimated the bull was 1700 to 1800 pounds, live weight. I was not even able to pick-up the head by myself, let alone maneuver the bull into a favorable position for field dressing. With the help of others, and several hours of work, we were able to get the bull “dressed”, skinned, and ready for transport to the meat processor, and the head ready for transport to the taxidermist. My once in a lifetime tag was filled, and the freezer would be soon, and the head will be proudly displayed to admire for years!