I have always considered myself as a hunter. My passion in my younger days consisted of a shotgun and a sky full of dove. I was a decent shot; however my dad was a fantastic shot. I had seen him take a limit of birds with only one box of shells. Add in the fact my grandfather hunted big game around the world and you can see I could easily be intimidated by my family’s hunting prowess. In October of 2005 my grandfather, Papa as he was called, left this world to be in a better place. My dad had never been fortunate enough to go on a big game hunt with Papa, so that Christmas we decided we would a special hunt in part remembrance and honor of Papa, and in part to do something together that Papa and Dad never had.
We debated over different species based on cost, distance, and timing. Eventually we decided on something I would call an American treasure. We chose the great bison, a truly magnificent beast with a history like no other animal in North America. The buffalo, as it is also called, is a herd animal, once nearly extinct but now with sustainable populations that with conservation efforts should never have to worry about endangerment again. We felt like this would be a fantastic first choice of a shared big game hunt. In simple terms we would need to spot a herd, and take an animal.
North Dakota became our destination, as we found a guide who had a large land mass with free ranging bison occupying the grounds. Pingree, North Dakota to be more precise. Although it could be found on the map, we later found out it consisted of nothing more than a diner and a crossroad. We would take the hunt in November, during the Thanksgiving week, allowing me time for the hunt without exhausting all my vacation days at work.
Now I was searching for an identity in hunting. Again, when you grow up listening to the stories shared by my grandfather, and watching my dad nearly limit out before a bird ever gets by his zone of fire so you can pull the trigger, intimidation is immense. During the winter of 2005 I was introduced to the compound bow. After taking just a few shots, I felt a fire inside. Wow! This is what I wanted to do. This is how I wanted to hunt. I just needed to learn how and be good enough with the bow to hunt ethically.
The winter and spring passed and by summer I was more comfortable with a bow than I was with a shotgun. I was consistent out to 60 yards, which was my goal for the bison hunt. I refrained from hunting anything with my bow until our trip to North Dakota, as I wanted the bison to be the first animal I took with a bow.
But as with all good stories, there is always a setback. Mine occurred in late June of 2006. I began having pain in my left shoulder. Soon, the pain was great enough that I was losing sleep. I visited several doctors and a rehabilitation facility but the pain would not subside. I eventually got to the point that I could not pick up a 2 liter soda with my left arm. I was only getting about 1 hour of sleep each day and that was with the help of drugs such as Percocet. Finally, one doctor recommended a neurosurgeon in Raleigh for me to see. After a few x-rays, and several attempts at MRI’s, we discovered several vertebrae collapsed on a nerve bundle that led to my left shoulder and arm. The pain had driven me to the point of tears, and during the 45 mile drive to Raleigh my wife had to stop the vehicle several times to allow me to get out and ‘walk it off’, but the other concern was the loss of feeling in my fingers. The nerves were damaged but we were not sure how bad. When the surgeon suggested I have surgery soon, we agreed. When I asked how long before we have it, he responded that week. We had to stop the damage as soon as possible to prevent any permanent loss of feeling, if we were not too late already.
I was not able to work for a couple of months after the surgery, so depression naturally set in. I was not drawing a paycheck, I could not do anything for the most part following the surgery, and I had that one other bit of knowledge sitting in the back of my mind; I had a bison hunt in North Dakota in just a few more months. Late August and early September I decided I was going to beat the pain and get my head on straight. I grabbed my bow, something I had not done since June, and turned the draw weight down as far as I could. I would guess there were no more than a couple of threads inserted through the limbs into the riser of the bow. Even though I was practicing everyday prior with a 65 lb draw, I was not able to pull back 35 lbs when I first started back. But I had reason to prevail. By the first week of November I was not only shooting as well as I had before, but I was now shooting at 75 lb draw weight, and I was shooting consistently out to 70 yards.
Dad and I traveled by pickup to North Dakota, leaving on a Friday at 1pm and arriving at 3pm on that Sunday. The only stops came for gas, food, or bathroom breaks, as we took turns sleeping and driving. Well, we would time the breaks when we came to a Bass Pro, Cabela’s, or Gander Mountain. Yes, I did have each one marked on the map. When we arrived in Pingree, we were greeted by the guide, Oren. Just a few minutes after we were shown the house we would stay in, a couple of teenagers came up and asked Oren if they could use the skinning shelter, as one had just taken a small buck. I asked the kid how big he was and the response came “Oh, he’s just a little 4 pointer. I’m going to cut the antlers and make a rattle out of ‘em.” As we stepped outside to see the small buck, we quickly came to the realization that a 4 pointer here meant a 4 x 4 not counting the brow tines. And as far as small goes, if it is less than 200 lbs, it is small.
Afterwards, Oren drove us several miles through the land, where we spotted the first herd of buffalo. I had not envisioned this scene in my pre-hunt thoughts. North Dakota was an absolute paradise of land, and these creatures seemed to perfect to tend it. Another party was to meet at the house that evening and we headed back. After meeting the other couple of hunters, and getting to know each other, Dad and I headed to bed, as we would be the first to hunt that next day.
The morning saw a thick layer of frost and a strong blistery wind. The temperature was only 25 degrees, but that was favorable to the norm where the temps could drop below zero. The high was predicted to be in the low to mid 50’s but a wind would steadily blow from the north. I went outside with one of the other hunters to check my sight on the bow. The previous night I had taken a small amount of ‘ribbing’ from the others for bowhunting the buffalo and I was ready to prove myself in front of my new audience. I took 3 shots from 60 yards, placing all within a 3 inch circle. And that was with a 25 mile per hour wind. Redemption, baby!
Oren picked up Dad and I and we headed out to search for the herds. It did not take long to spot a good size group and we decided to take our chances. Shortly after exiting the truck, we proceeded toward the herd trying to be careful of wind direction. Then, in a storm of lightning quick reactions and thundering hooves with billowing clouds of dust, the herd stampeded toward us. Dad and I ran to a large boulder using it to shield us from the thunder beasts. Just as a flock of birds will weave and turn in unison, the buffalo did as well and slowed to a halt near a dry river bed about a half mile away.
This provided an excellent chance for me to stalk the herd without alerting them. While a herd animal like this provides easy shots from a distance, it can be a true challenge for a bowhunter. It only takes one animal to either see or scent you and the whole herd will disappear to the horizon. I explained to Oren and Dad how I intended to stalk up to the herd. Everything worked to plan as I made my way the river bed, slowly followed the bed alongside the tall bank down to where the herd was located, and climbed the edge far enough to get a reading from the rangefinder. At 30 yards, a distance I was very comfortable with stood a nice bull. I set down my pack, drew the bow and eased over the edge once again. Just before squeezing the trigger release I noticed directly behind the bull was a female. If by chance I have a pass-thru on the shot, I could hit the other. I let down the bow and dropped back into the river bed. I noticed Oren and Dad were watching me with binoculars, so I hand-signaled what I was up against. After a few minutes, I drew back once again and tried to position myself for a shot. One female had worked her way closer to the bank, caught sight of me, and just as quick as this sentence ends, the herd was gone.
Over a hill about a mile and half away, we spotted the herd again. I had studied bison behavior prior to the hunt, and confirmed it with Oren, that when a bull, especially the alpha bull goes down, the others will attack it. They will begin by nudging it to get it back on its feet, and if unsuccessful, will basically become more and more forceful in order to revive it or show its own dominance in order to take over the alpha role. Since Dad was using a lever action, I suggested he and Oren position themselves for the bull he wanted and I would work my way around to the side of the herd. Again, the plan seemed to work as if I knew what I was talking about. Dad brought down the alpha bull from 125 yards using a lever action 45-70 with iron sights. Dropped him straight down. The remainder of the herd tried to figure out what to do next. Meanwhile, I had worked my way up to 60 yards when the trailing buffalo spotted me. He was becoming anxious and I could tell this would not play out very long. Again, I was confident at 60 yards, and this is the distance I was anticipating. I set the arrow flying and watched as the arrow spiraled to the right and struck the beast true…in the snout of his nose. In my anticipation, I neglected to adjust for the 25 mph crosswind. Here was a buffalo, somewhat in shock and highly irritated as an arrow shaft was protruding halfway down the bridge between his eyes with blood pulsating outward. The buffalo galloped off. If there is a positive in this, my buffalo startled the rest of the herd, causing them to stampede away from Dad’s trophy. My buffalo also separated from the herd, baffled from the pain, blood, and likely cross-eyed vision. I told Oren and Dad to take care of Dad’s kill, and I was going to follow my buffalo and hopefully get another shot.
After stalking for another mile and a half, the injured buffalo was walking behind a set of mounds with a crevice running between them. This would my opportunity. I jogged to the east, up to the mounds and crouched near the crevice. As the buffalo neared the opening, I quickly ranged the ground for a decent estimate of where the buffalo would cross. When the brown and black bison came into the opening, I drew the bow, stood and let loose the projectile. The broadhead struck the side of the buffalo, causing a quick kick and buck, and he took off once more. Then, about 200 yards later, he stopped and lay down. I walked up to him once more. Thirty yards, broadside, laying down and looking at me, I released one more ethical and measured shot. In just a few more minutes, the great beast of lore and legend was resting peacefully in another place, having left this worldly presence.
I called my wife and mother to tell them of the success. I also shared a prayer of thanks. Thanks for the chance to share this hunt with my dad, something my grandfather and dad never had the chance to do. Thanks for the opportunity to experience such a great creature in his habitat of beautiful and fertile land. Thanks for the challenge of the hunt and providing me with such a formidable prey. Thanks for the nourishment he would provide my family for such a long period of time. Thanks for providing the necessary incentive to push me forward after the injury and surgery. Thanks for the memory I will possess until I too, leave this worldly presence. In God’s name and spirit, I give thanks.
Bill Howard writes a weekly outdoors column for the Wilson Times and Yancey County News and the bowhunting blog site GiveEmTheShaft.com. He is a Hunter Education and International Bowhunter Education instructor, lifetime member of the North Carolina Bowhunters Association, Bowhunter Certification Referral Service Chairman, member and official measurer of Pope and Young, and a regular contributor to North Carolina Bowhunter Magazine.