October 28, 2010
With special hunts and bonus tags ripe for the picking, the good old days are now
Whatever your aspirations might be, whether to shoot an extra deer, down a humongous bull bison or take a rare mountain sheep, keeping your enthusiasm and resources at the ready will help you round out your bowhunting horizons.
I crouched in the short grass of the prairie rise like a wolf ready to pounce his prey. I couldn't believe my luck. Beyond me, in a hollow of the endless plain, a herd of 40 or more American bison fed and milled, tossing their oversized heads toward each other occasionally, grunting and blowing in buffalo fashion. If they worked up the rise as my Native American guide predicted I'd soon have some mighty big meat within range.
Of course this was luck, but the opportunity to participate in such a hunt wouldn't have happened if I hadn't jumped at the chance. I learned of the sudden availability of inexpensive buffalo tags from a friend several months earlier. Back-to-back years of drought on Native American grasslands in the Dakotas had threatened the buffalo range and herd managers were determined to cull animals this year to maintain the health of the herd and the range itself.
I immediately called tribal offices to see if I could bag a tag, but I was told they were sold out. There might be another window for purchasing a tag if I called back in a month.
I marked the calendar, called back a month later and was put off again, but when I inquired the person on the telephone gave me a specific date to try again.
Two-and-a-half months after my original contact, I called the reservation and learned there were a few tags available at the $700 price. Now, if you're a resident deer hunter a $700 tag may sound like a lot of money, but for anyone who's drawn any of the special elk or sheep tags out West, this is chicken feed. Consider that a trophy buffalo hunt normally costs in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $5,000, and, for that price, you are only offered the head and the cape. Meat not included.
My buffalo tag included head, hide, meat, and even feet. I was pumped up enough to reserve a tag and a hunting date over the phone, and then started looking for friends to accompany me on the hunt. It was post-Christmas, just before the New Year's holiday, and it was not easy to find any takers for a hunt on the northern plains in early January. I knew this hunt was a great deal, but I was having difficulty convincing anybody else.
I called all the hunting buddies in my phone log, and each had a logical reason why they couldn't go on a buffalo hunt with only a week's notice. Frankly, I think some of them thought I was crazy. Frankly, I was thinking the same about them.
Why is it so difficult to get people off their duff when great hunting opportunities are within easy reach? They're willing to sit in a tree stand for weeks on end, suffer cold, wind and at times endless monotony, but wouldn't cross the street to fill a different kind of tag. Oh, well--more for the rest of us.
And there certainly seems to be more opportunity. Bowhunting Center Shots columnist Bill Winke and I were discussing the possibilities of "bonus" hunting and antlerless deer leaped into the conversation. More and more states are offering antlerless tags to help cull deer populations. Bill fills as many doe tags as he can in a season, and I certainly do the same. Bill's theory, and I concur, is that from a pure experience standpoint, closing the deal on any deer gets you honed-in, and helps you keep your edge.
"It's good for all," Bill told me. "It culls older does, provides food for the table and offers valuable hunting experience. I killed eight deer last year; six with a bow. I get as many antlerless tags as I can. If a doe makes eye contact with me when I'm on a stand, I try to take her. I don't want that deer coming back looking for me again. I don't mind taking does right during the rut.
"There are so many organizations that will take the meat. It's a really good management tool, as well as promoting hunting through good will by feeding the hungry. It's a powerful, positive message to be putting out there."
Shooting a doe used to cause a hunter to "burn" his buck tag in most places, but today many states offer bonus tags in addition to regular tags, so shooting an antlerless deer doesn't go against your quota. Also, many metropolitan areas have set up special "deer eradicator" lists, offering qualified, "trustworthy" hunters to cull deer when the need arises in a particular burg. In addition, state parks often have special bonus hunts with tags that don't count against your regular hunting quota.
Staying In The Game
My friend Boris called last night from a spot in the hinterlands where he was about to retire prior to an early morning run at wild turkeys. Boris said he was feeling a little lonely. I was feeling proud of him for the spirit in which he had carried out this hunt.
Boris lives in Minnesota, a state that requires turkey hunters to successfully draw a tag in order to hunt in a given year. Boris didn't draw a tag this year, but he's hunting nonetheless. Poaching? No way. Boris learned that a limited number of tags were not filled in the regular draw, and they could be applied for on a specified day. He not only showed up on that day but was standing in front of the state-linked licensing computer at a local sporting goods store at the exact hour the tags went on sale. He received his tag for one of the most sought after units in the state, and now he's hunting because he was willing to jump at the chance.
The bowhunting fraternity is filled with stories like Boris'. Some require a lot less standing in line. You've read Bowhunting columnist Jim Dougherty's accounts of shooting feral sheep and pigs off the coastal islands of California. Those islands, now purged of the feral animals by government decree, were a Mecca for archers who jumped on the opportunities presented there for many years. These hunts weren't regular-season opportunities, by any means. The animals weren't considered protected big-game animals by the state, but the guys who hunted the islands were willing to get off their duffs, cross the saltwater channel and climb the steep county in order to realize a few extra days of awesome hunting.
Feral pig opportunities still abound in many places in the West and South, if you're willing to make the connections necessary to find them. You can always buy a guided hunt, or pay a trespass fee to hunt on your own. Some pig hunts turn up where ranchers experience problems with sudden rises in pig numbers and sorely need hunters to come in and do a little pork trimming, so to speak.
Staying In The Loop
Bobby Fromme, of San Diego, California,
takes his bowhunting seriously, and drew a coveted Ogden, Utah, moose tag this year and in scouring for the best outfitter happened to learn of a private landowner who had "mule deer just standing around" on a large piece of ranch. Had Bob not been on a research quest to fill his coveted tag, he may have never heard about such doings.
Bob's a big fan of a newsletter put out by Garth Carter, called The Huntin' Fool. According to Garth, "The good old days are now! Hunting is as good as it's ever been, but it may not be out your back door. Your trophy mule deer may be in Arizona, your trophy ram may be in Montana, while your trophy elk may be in New Mexico. The problem lies in getting you and your trophy together. That's my job. There's mega opportunities out there, you just need to be informed on how to capitalize on them."
Back On The Plains
My friend Eric Sparks couldn't join me on the buffalo hunt, but his wife, Oksana, an ardent hunter and photographer, asked to come along to take photos. We met up in the badlands and the next day rendezvoused with my guide, buffalo herd manager Ralph Bearkiller.
I followed Ralph's advice, as outlined in the beginning of this story, waiting on the herd's movements. I was instructed that my tag included either an older cow or a three-year-old bull and Ralph had pointed out several of these young bulls in the herd before I made my stalk.
Several bulls broke from the herd and ambled out away from me after catching my initial movements, but the rest of the herd stayed put. The bulls pulled a circle and offered a 50-yard shot, but a crosswind precluded that opportunity. I only had to wait a short time before some of the animals began walking across the face of the hill beneath me.
Several cows led the way, followed by a bull with good horns that met everyone's specifications. When the bull paused at 25 yards to study my crouched form, I made a quick move and shot him in the ribs. The arrow from my 70-pound bow must have centered a rib on the way in, because it penetrated only 12 inches. The bull turned and ran back into the center of the herd, bleeding well from the shallow wound, but my mind raced through possible disaster scenarios. A buffalo can run miles with little effort.
With the open terrain on the hillside, I figured all I could do was stay down and see what might happen next. Fortunately, the herd decided to follow those three cows and they all started marching in my general direction, including the wounded fellow. As he passed at 35 yards, I made a lucky heart shot that pierced both sides of the bull, and he was only able to gallop another 50 yards before collapsing.
After butchering the bull, ceremoniously eating raw liver with Ralph and Oksana (including tossing a piece to the good spirit of the North) and loading the meat, hide and head in my pickup truck, I was headed back home with a winter storm at my heels. With 650 pounds of quartered meat to be hung, a beautiful buffalo robe for the making and a noble head to be boiled and cleaned, I was glad I jumped at the chance.