Tackling Bison

Downed buffalo

Sitting high atop the painted pony’s back with loose coils of rope and rawhide wound around the body, the brave has just enough room to slide his knees as he rides in pursuit of one of the greatest icons of American history – the American Buffalo.

Buffalo have been hunted in a variety of different ways. Probably the oldest method was the buffalo pound. Buffalo were lured or herded into a coulee or ravine by a hunter who was dressed in buffalo robes. Other hunters were hidden along the walls of the coulee and helped stampede the animals into a closed-in canyon were the buffalo could then be killed with spears.

Herd of buffalo
Finding the herd isn’t hard, even among the trees.

Dating back several thousand years, archaeologists found evidence that buffalo were also killed using the Jump Method. Here, a group of Chasers would move the animals toward a cliff where the rest of the hunting party would hide behind trees and rocks. When the buffalo passed, they would wave blankets while shouting to force the buffalo over a cliff where others waited to finish off crippled animals that survived the fall.

However, the most popular method though was the Chase Method immortalized in dozens of famous paintings and movies where a hunting party would charge the herd getting as close as possible before shooting. This method was popularized after the Spaniards introduced horses to North American natives. A hunting party would then charge the herd from the rear and get as close as they could to a bison, shooting an arrow at the soft spot between the hip bones and the last rib for a quartering-away shot at the vitals.

The most devastating method of hunting buffalo most certainly came in the 1870s and 1880s after the completion of the transcontinental railroad—the introduction of the Sharps Breech Loading rifle for the cost of a mere $56. The buffalo hunters would observe a herd of buffalo until they determined the hierarchy. By gut-shooting the herd cow first, they could normally prevent the rest of the herd from fleeing to give the shooters time to decimate the remaining buffalo in one location. Any animals that started to stray from the group were shot next, which kept the rest of the herd calm.

To The Brink Extinction

As devastating as the buffalo hunters were, the real damage was part of a government effort to completely wipe out the buffalo. In an effort to force Native Americans onto Reservations and thus quelling the Indian Wars, the government took an official approach to wipe out the buffalo using settlers fulfilling the Manifest Destiny, agents and professional hunters contracted to provide meat for the army and the workers building the railroad.

“Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.” – General Philip Sheridan

Most of the commercial harvesting took place in the early- to mid-1870s. A good shooter would pack 250 pounds of lead in 25-pound bars and 4000 primers for a three month hunt. Over a summer season, one hunter could take 3000-5000 animals. By 1875 the herd had been reduced from an estimated 60-100 million before the arrival of Columbus to about 1 million. By 1890, an estimated 750 bison were still in existence, howerver the Bronx Zoo did maintain a remnant herd. From there, populations were eventually reestablished in Yellowstone and other wildlife preserves. In addition to the herds in the National Parks, a variety of privately owned herds have been established.

Hunter crawling to stalk buffalo
Approaching the herd, you’ll want to stay low and move at a pace of about one to two yards per minute.

Contrary to the belief of many, today’s buffalo numbers are far from extinction and thrive somewhere over 500,000.

Buffalo Anatomy

Bison have a shaggy, dark brown coat in the winter and a coat that is lighter in weight and color in the summer. A mature bull can stand six feet tall, measure 10 feet in length and weigh over 2,000 pounds. Both bulls and cows have horns they use for defense and for fighting to establish social status within the herd. Buffalo mate in late August and September. The cow will the birth a single calf the following spring and will nurse it for a year. Bison reach maturity at three years and can have a life expectancy of about 20 years.

The massive body size, thick hide and dramatic bone structure including stout ribs make the buffalo a challenge for archery tackle. High kinetic energy setups including heavy arrows, high-poundage bows and proper broadhead selection were all factors I considered before my hunt.

Buffalo Tackle

Due to my size, heavy poundage was not a viable option so I settled at 65 pounds as the maximum I felt I could pull in cold weather conditions without sacrificing accuracy. Given the energy produced by today’s compound bows, I had plenty of kinetic energy with something around 74-foot pounds as I recall. The kinetic energy came in large part due to the increased energy afforded by the extra weight of heavy carbon arrows.

Selecting a broadhead is probably the hardest decision when tackling big game. Broadheads that cut with the leading edge offer the best penetration. I tested a few by stretching a piece of deer hide that I had laying around over a coffee can. I then placed the can on a small scale. Leading edge cuts pushed through with two to three pounds of pressure. Fixed-blade heads with chisel points on the other hand required about 11-12 pounds of pressure. Even though I knew the leading-edge broadheads would penetrate deeper, the worry of hitting a rib bone won out in the end and I opted for a four blade head with a Trocar (chisel) tip.

Downed buffalo
Bison can be hunted with variety of weapons. The author was not confident enough with a traditional bow and opted for modern archery tackle. Many hunters opt for traditional muzzleloaders or Sharps rifles.

The Hunt

I arrived in the second week of December. The Mercury pointed to something in the mid single digits—way too low for a boy from California, but perfect to ensure a thick-haired buffalo in Iowa. I was met by a white, furry dog, sleeping on the porch over a dusting of snow. Feeling sorry for the pup, I reached down and tapped the ice with the back of my knuckle, breaking it so he could get a drink.

My host, Dan McFarland, owner of the Hawkeye Buffalo Ranch, had a fine dinner of buffalo stew ready. Also in camp was fellow friend and hunter, Jim Jones. Over dinner we grilled Dan about buffalo history, anatomy and other assorted facts. We adjourned to the living room where we watched several videos including one where a wounded buffalo charged and a quick shot from Dan was necessary to keep a cameraman from becoming a part of the landscape—literally!

Dan had alluded to two bulls that he thought we should try for. One bull was 13 years old. Dan referred to him as Big Beard. Big Beard topped the scale at over 2,000 pounds! The second bull, Blue Boy, was a bit younger at seven years old and weighed about 1,700 pounds, but was a more complete trophy.

The next morning we dressed early and headed downstairs to the smell of Dan cooking up some buffalo bacon for breakfast. To start the hunt, Dan preformed a Smudge Feather ceremony. Dan first crumpled up a small quantity of sagebrush in an abalone shell. The sage had to light on the first three attempts or it would not be a good day for hunting and we would have to wait another day. The sage caught on the first try and after wafting the smoke across Jim we were ready to head for the field.

Properly prepared from the ceremony, we headed out in the truck to a wood lot the buffalo generally frequented. A short while later, we spotted the heard and went for a closer look. Jim and I decided earlier that day that Jim would get the first crack at the buff.

Jim was the first to get a glimpse of the massive hulk of Big Beard and like Ahab to the Great Whale he was instantly obsessed. We returned to the truck and got our gear. Jim had his bow and I tagged along close behind with a camera to record the action. Whoever thinks that hunting a buffalo is easy is sorely mistaken. We started our first stalk before 9:00 a.m. Jim got his shot just before 4:00 p.m. that afternoon. I’ll admit it is not like sitting in a stand waiting for a monster buck to walk by, but then again, you can’t watch an entire herd of big bucks 200 yards away day in and day out either. Finding a herd of buffalo is easy, stalking up, culling out a specific bull amongst the herd and getting a shot without getting stampeded by the rest of the herd is another matter altogether.

During a half-dozen or so blown attempts, Jim managed to get within 30 yards, once before a spooky cow winded him and took Big Beard with her. At about 3:30 p.m. I teased Jim that if he could not get Big Beard in the next half-hour I was going to sink my arrow in him the next morning. That seemed to be all it took, because just 10 minutes after we split up to try to locate him, I saw him run by me with a crimson streak running down his side; one of Jim’s arrows was buried fletch deep in the buffalo’s side.

Hunter performing a tobacco ceremony over a downed bison.
The hunt became an experience with with traditional ceremonies such as the smudge feather, tobacco and the author being marked with the buffalo’s blood.

The next morning, I headed out for my own adventure with Jim playing photographer this time. Having learned from Jim’s hunt the day before, I realized that the buffalo were stalkable. I just had to stay very low and take it very slow. I located the herd a few hundred yards from where we had found them the day before. I spent two hours stalking the first 200 yards to bring me within 20 yards of one of the cows. The only problem, I could not spot my bull!

I slowly worked my way up and down the line of buffalo, but Blue Beard appeared to have gone solo. I backed off and circling back to my original haunt without so much as glimpse. I settled in and began glassing the herd. Finally, I saw a bull stand up about 60 yards away behind a large bush. The bull had the size, so I backed off and circled the herd to confirm he was the one I was looking for. I spotted him and was awed with his size. After a quick nod from Dan that he was the one I was indeed the one I was looking for, I soon had a shaft in the air. My arrow found its mark and stung deep. Blue Beard immediately spun around to port. I quickly nocked another arrow and sent it in his other side for insurance. I backed off for safety as the herd started to scatter. Twenty minutes later, I collected the largest, and one of the most majestic, animals I have ever had the opportunity to hunt.

After shaking hands, Dan led me through a Lakota Sioux Indian tobacco ceremony. The tobacco ceremony released the bull’s spirit and paid thanks for his sacrifice. It seemed to fit as I reveled in the fact that I had completed more than a hunt; I had successfully finished a hunting experience that I may never equal again.

Have you ever enjoyed a hunting experience? Share your story with us in the comment section.



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Comments (4)

  1. I could never understand “Ice Fishing”, you bring a the comforts of home, just to Fishing. Sounds a lot like a “Canned Hunt”, doesn’t it.

  2. In the late 70’s I worked with an American Indian at the Dodge dealer at Santa Ana, California. Everyone called him “Chief.” He paid what I recall was a lot of money to go somewhere in the mid west to hunt and kill a buffalo. He took up archery and we practiced together a few times. He got pretty good and expected that there was going to be some risk, skill and sport involved.

    When he got there they took him to a pen holding an old animal and handed him a rifle. This was their idea of hunting. He came back really discouraged. Like what Mike said, he felt it was like killing cattle in a slaughter house and never spoke of it again. I don’t think he ever hunted again.

  3. When I was 11 my granddad hit the Yellowstone Park drawing for culling the buffalo herd. We went, were taken by a ranger in a Sno-Cat to where the herd was, my granddad set up and took his shot and the bull went down. Later, on the way home with a pickup truck bed full of meat, he said he’d never do that again — it was more like working a slaughter house than hunting.

    I’ve seen bison take the fender off a Ford truck and tear trees plumb out of the ground. Using a .458 to down one is just meat; using a bow, however, is real sportsmanship and true hunting. A buffalo will ignore you as your size presents no threat to him, but when you get close enough it will irritate him and bad eyes and good ears aren’t going to keep you from getting pitched into the next county with a big hole in you.

  4. Don’t go patting yourself on the back. The American Plains Buffalo, have extremely “poor” eyesight. He probably could have gotten even closer, to within 10-yards. Before to Bison would have taken notice of you. But, that not too say, that all their senses are bad. They have extremely keen sense of smell and hearing as well. Also smell doesn’t travel very far in winter conditions, because of the ambient air temperature, but hearing is another story. In winter conditions the surrounding air is denser, sound travels further and faster. Almost the same away as sound travels through water.

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