Drawing a rare once-in-a-lifetime permit was not the most difficult part of a Utah bison hunt. I actually drew the permit the first year I applied. The most challenging aspect was the isolation, vastness and ruggedness of the Henry Mountains area--and finding the right animal.
We arrived a day before the hunt to set up camp. My group included my 18-year-old son, my brother-in-law and father-in-law. After we left the pavement, it took two hours over dusty, washboard roads to get to our site.
The first afternoon we moved to a high vantage point overlooking an area called Apple Bush Bench and began glassing. We located a few bison on a sagebrush flat about two miles away. Unfortunately, we could not find a way to get to them.
Eventually, we spotted a trail coming down the opposite hillside that looked like it would bring us to within about a mile of the bison. Riding four-wheelers, it took us about a half hour to get to the opposite rim. Looking down the trail, it was obvious we would never be able to get back out the same way. Nevertheless, we decided to head down and try to find a connecting trail that would take us closer to the bison.
The ride down was thrilling enough that my 18-year-old daredevil son said he never wanted to do it again. But the bad part was that we were unable to find any trails that took us the way we wanted to go. In addition, the terrain was much rougher than it looked from above, making an approach on foot nearly impossible.
We turned our attention from finding the bison to finding a way out. We hiked to the top of a ridge and stopped for a breather when two bison appeared in a ravine directly below us. They were only 75 yards away. I raised my rifle and found them in my scope. One was a young bull and the second was a large mature bull--possibly a Boone and Crockett candidate--definitely a trophy to be proud of.
I couldn't shoot. My permit was for a female.
I admit it. I like the ladies.
I also like to hunt. Three or four big game hunts a year is about right. Unfortunately, I'm not a wealthy man and buying expensive permits or paying for private land hunts is out of the question.
And although I don't enjoy it as much as hunting, I like to eat--often. When I have the choice, I prefer game meat to domestic beef, pork or chicken for a variety of reasons.
I'm not foolish enough to believe that elk steaks cost less than beef. When all the costs of a hunt are figured in, they still add up to more than the finest T-bone. But the benefits are far greater than if I just drive to the corner grocery and fill up the cart.
Consider the hunt described at the beginning of this story. Odds against getting a hunter's choice permit for Utah's Henry Mountains bison are about 75 to 1. Odds for cow permits are much better, sometimes as good as about 2 to 1.
After due consideration, I opted to apply for the cow permit. The prospect of drawing a hunter's choice permit after I was too old to walk had little appeal. Plus, I felt I could achieve everything I wanted by pursuing a cow.
For those who don't know, both sexes of bison have horns. And definitively identifying a cow from a bull can be a challenge. In fact, hunters who draw a cow permit are required to attend an orientation where Utah Division of Wildlife Resources personnel help them learn to distinguish cows from bulls.
Most of all, I wanted the chance to pursue wild, free-roaming bison under conditions like our ancestors experienced. Secondarily, I wanted a bison skull, the hide for a rug, and the meat. I could get all those things as easily from a cow as from a bull.
I went ahead and sent in my permit. (The dates for the first hunt conflicted with the general elk hunt, which undoubtedly reduced the number of applicants.) I got the permit, and a hunt that I will remember and cherish the rest of my life.
This isn't the only time a female fulfilled all my fantasies and desires. Four years ago I drew a tag to hunt one of the premier trophy elk ranches in the west. Public drawing odds for a bull tag that year were 58 to 1. Those who bought outfitter permits for the same ranch paid $8,000. Odds were a little better for the cow tags my son and I drew: 1.3 to 1. Permits were cheaper, too. We paid $55 each.
There were 25 hunters with cow permits on that 50,000-acre ranch. Being unfamiliar with the area, I called ahead and asked the ranch owner if I could get someone to guide us for a day. He said to send a check for $75 and he'd make certain someone was available. When we checked in at the ranch the first morning of the hunt, the owner/outfitter informed us he would be our guide. The ranch owner designated about half the ranch's total acreage for this particular cow hunt. But because he was guiding us, he took us to the other half.
The expensive hunts for the trophy bulls ended the week earlier. But the rut was still going strong and as we headed out that morning, it seemed like bulls were bugling from every ridge top. At one point we were at the edge of a meadow with bulls bugling from hills on either side. Both mature bulls had harems and as we listened to their bugles, cows and calves started pouring into the meadow from both sides. The two bulls followed and began fighting. We had a ringside seat. The show was so spectacular we never thought about firing a shot.
My son and I both ended up taking nice cows. (At the processor my son's cow weighed 480 pounds and dwarfed a four-point raghorn bull that hung next to it.) We also saw some big bulls. By the time we'd filled our tags, we'd also seen three bears and dozens of deer. We experienced fabulous hunting without having to fight any crowds. And the only thing we missed out on was a set of antlers.
Two years ago my son and I both drew antlerless deer tags in a limited-entry area famed for trophy elk. It was late in the year and conditions were miserable. We hunted hard and only filled one tag. But we weren't disappointed. We videotaped three huge 6 x 6 elk. We saw a couple trophy-size antelope bucks and we spotted several coyotes.
Anterless hunts provide a great opportunity for scouting new areas. Trophy tags are hard to come by and there never seems to be enough time to visit all the places I'd like to check out. So before applying for a trophy permit in an area I'm unfamiliar with, I'll often apply for an antlerless tag. It gives me the chance to spend time exploring the area under actual hunting conditions.
A recent cow elk hunt convinced me that I didn't want to apply for a trophy deer tag in that area. Although I saw hundreds of deer, there was not a single branch-antlered buck among them. So I'll submit my application for an area where the buck/doe ratio is more favorable.
Most game departments want antlerless hunts to be successful. The objective is usually to curb the growth of herds in areas that have too many animals. To accomplish this objective, antlerless hunts are often held later in the year or last longer than general hunts.
A couple years ago, a number of hunters in my neighborhood applied for cow elk tags in the same area. Seven of us drew permits for a hunt scheduled to last two and a half months. That compares to a general elk season that lasts nine days. On the first day of the hunt five of the seven got elk. The other two hunters filled their tags a month later.
Some hunters avoid anterless hunts because they believe they don't pose much challenge. There is no question that killing a fat doe will probably be much easier than holding out for a trophy buck. But there are times when the challenge of taking a doe deer, a doe pronghorn or a cow elk is more than enough.
Several years ago I went on a hunt for antlerless deer with my uncle. Age and disease made walking difficult for him. He no longer had the physical ability to pursue bucks in mountainous country in competition with other hunters.
The doe hunt was perfect. The mostly agricultural area we hunted was just a short drive away. The ground was flat and vehicle access was good. We had an enjoyable and successful hunt. My uncle and I got to spend time doing something we both loved. Today, my uncle can no longer walk. Even easy hunts are no longer possible for him. But I will always cherish the memory of that last hunt we enjoyed.
I have a couple of other acquaintances with physical disabilities that make a difficult hunt out of the question. Yet they enjoy the opportunity to hunt, even if they aren't going to be tagging a big bull elk or trophy buck.
Anterless hunts are great for beginning hunters. My youngest son is 12. In contrast to my oldest son, his interest in hunting is lukewarm. Dragging him along on a hunt where we drive for three hours, then spend 12 hours outdoors in possibly cold or wet conditions only diminishes his desire.
An anterless hunt close to home is the ideal situation. He doesn't get bored just getting to the hunting site. Chances are good that he will see some game and that he may see me take an animal. That gives me a chance to teach him about respect for the animals we pursue and for what they provide us. There is no pressure. If he gets tired, cold or wet, we just go home. At this stage, I want his hunting experiences to be enjoyable.
As a youth growing up in the Midwest, my hunting involved walking out the back door. The quarry was rabbits, pheasants and quail. Seeing any deer was a rare event. The idea of killing a doe was abhorrent. Times have changed. In those same areas, deer populations are exploding. Does need to be taken and there are fewer hunters to do it. However, there are still many hunters who feel that hunting anterless game isn't worth the bother.
This reluctance to engage in a sound wildlife management practice is actually a detriment to hunting. Too much emphasis on bagging trophy animals fuels anti-hunting sentiment because it gives the impression that all hunters care about is a big rack to mount on the wall.
Certainly no hunter needs to feel shame in taking any anterless game. There are many kinds of trophies. To me, game meat in the freezer is much more appealing than another set of antlers to hang on the wall.
During the Great Depression, my grandfather killed a huge, non-typical mule deer with 32 points. I asked him what he did with the antlers. His reply was that he left them where they were. "You can't eat antlers," he said. The interesting thing is that he wasn't hunting a buck. He was hunting a deer. He and his family probably would have preferred a younger, tender doe. But he took what he could to provide food for his family.
My family won't go hungry if I don't bring home an animal. But because of my concern for them, I like having game meat to eat. Game meat is lean. And the animals are not fed antibiotics and shot full of hormones to help them gain weight faster.
I know cattle ranchers who keep the animals they slaughter for their families separate from their other cattle. They don't want their children eating meat filled with chemicals. I don't have the option of raising meat for my family. But hunting gives me an alternative method of providing them with healthy food.
My next hunting goal is to take a Shiras moose. I know that playing the permit game could take a dozen years or more before I get lucky and draw a tag for a bull. I also know that if I apply for an antlerless moose tags, I may get lucky in a shorter time. Then when my lucky day comes and I open the letter that tells me I can hunt Bullwinkle, I'll already have a good idea of what I am up against and where I want to go.
By the way, I took a nice cow bison on the fourth day of my Henry Mountains hunt. On horseback and on foot, we followed sign from a small herd about four miles into a box canyon.
As we crept slowly up a small rise in the trail, a huge bull bison appeared in the shade of a tree less than 20 feet away. He hadn't smelled us yet. Once he did, he was up and running toward the back of the box canyon. A few moments later the ground rumbled as the bull raced back past.
We waited for the rest of the herd, but they didn't appear. After a few minutes, one member of our group climbed a small side hill to see if he could pinpoint the remaining bison. He barely got to his vantage point when he shouted that the bison were moving and the lead animal was a nice cow.
His voice was drowned out by hoof-beats and the animals burst into view just 20 feet away. I sighted on the lead animal and fired. I shot again as she staggered to the bottom of the wash and collapsed. The other animals passed around her, heading back out of the canyon. The whole thing was over in a few seconds, but it was certainly not anticlimactic.
And when I was eating those delicious bison steaks or when I look at my beautiful long-haired buffalo skin, I don't regret for a second that my trophy wasn't a male.