For nearly twenty years I have dreamed of hunting the American icon, the symbol found on the old “buffalo” nickel. Finally, this summer I heard of a hunt on a Tribal Reservation in Montana and hit the phone a’runnin. Michael Fox, fish and wildlife director for the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, informed me that there were two remaining hunts for 4 to 6 year old bulls this fall. I called Gale Palmer, my long-time hunting partner, to let him know what I’d found. He said he needed time to check his finances and think it over…. three tenths of a nanosecond later, he said, “Let’s do it”! A quick call back to Montana and we were booked. I didn’t sleep for a week.
Tatonka! The Native Americans referred to their substance of life as ‘Tatonka’. Today, most Americans just call it a ‘buffalo’. But the true term for this 1500 to 2200 pound behemoth is the “American Bison”. Standing seven feet at the shoulder, it once roamed the plains of America as numerous as the stars in the heavens. For hundreds of years, the herds provided the Native Americans with food, clothing, teepees, tools and weapons, and were also important culturally, figuring prominently in their religious traditions. To the railroads, hide hunters and westward bound settlers of the 1800’s, the bison represented money, sport, and a waste of good pastureland.
Once numbering as many as twenty million animals, unregulated hunting and hide gathering decimated the bison herds. This slaughter was condoned by the U.S. Government as a means of controlling the Plains Indians through elimination of their staff of life. The bison massacre started in the 1860’s and took only about twenty years before the great buffalo herds were all but extinct. It has only been through the concentrated efforts of some Native American Tribes and several government agencies that the once thriving herds of bison are slowly but surely coming back.
We were booked! How do you get ready to hunt buffalo with a bow? I pictured myself on a mighty stallion, galloping up beside them as they thundered across the open plains and flinging an arrow into the bunch (too much television). I wondered about stalking up close on the wide-open prairie. I thought of the pictures I’ve seen of Indians bent over, wearing a buffalo robe and horns, sneaking up on a herd. And, since I wouldn’t be sportin’ the old Sharps rifle, I knew it would be pretty hard to sit on a far knob and lob an arrow at a passing animal. I even had visions of getting stomped to death by a mad bull. I guess I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
Since I knew Ted Nugent had taken several bison with a bow, I sent an email asking for advice on arrow weight. In return, I was given the number of an archery shop in the Midwest somewhere. I called and was advised that for maximum penetration I should shoot as heavy an arrow as possible. My Gold Tip carbons weigh in at just over 400 total grains, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. They have worked well on deer and elk, but this was a BIG animal. My son suggested sliding a smaller diameter shaft inside mine to add weight. I had some old, skinny carbons lying around so I gave it a try. To my amazement, they slid perfectly inside my Gold Tips. With a few measurements and cuts, it didn’t take long before I had several of these new brutes made up, weighing in at just under 640 grains. Ally’ooping a Presto Log wasn’t exactly my idea of archery, but I was pleasantly shocked to find these new monsters flew smoothly with point of impact the same out to thirty yards. I wasn’t sure how I’d pull it off, but I didn’t have any intention of shooting beyond that distance anyway. I was set.
The next morning we were bouncing across the plains in Gale’s pickup, trying hard to keep up with a tribal game officer ahead of us. This was a true case of the cowboys chasing the Indians, and he was leaving us in a cloud of dust. All of a sudden, there they were…. Buffalo! Herds of these marvelous animals spread across the prairie. The Fort Belknap Reservation is home to both the Gros Ventre (pronounced ‘Grow Vaughn’) and Assiniboine Tribes who are slowly returning the buffalo to a status of economic importance. Michael Fox took over the management in the mid 90’s with numbers in the low 100’s, and has steadily built the herd to its present state of close to 600 healthy animals. Bison are again being used as a major support system for the tribes economically, and for food, art and spiritual traditions.
We met Michael, who had been waiting for us, and he outlined what we would do. I quickly changed into my buckskins and got ready. This was as far back in history as I could transpose myself. Wearing buckskins, being led by a Native American on tribal lands, in quest of the very essence of the West, the American Bison. It doesn’t get any better! I wondered if I’d been born a century too late.
Michael drove us around and pointed out several very nice bulls from which I could choose. Getting close to these beasts wouldn’t be hard as they are just not afraid of anything. Michael said they have not changed over the centuries, and that’s why the old buffalo hunters could sit in one spot and kill a hundred at a time. The only thing we needed to worry about was if they decided to charge. Boy, that made me feel good!
I picked what I thought to be a good looking bull and got ready. I slowly moved in to about thirty yards and waited for an opening. The animals are constantly milling around, and it was only a matter of time before he would be clear. I wasn’t taking any chances of missing and possibly wounding or killing the wrong animal. I came to full draw and a calf stepped in front of him. I slowly let down and waited some more. This isn’t a quick snap thing like deer hunting, but I needed to be ready when the opportunity arrived. He was clear…. I quickly drew, put my thirty-yard pin behind his front shoulder and touched my release. The arrow buried itself, leaving about eight inches of shaft and vanes sticking out. The shot was low, and looked to be directly through the heart. He trotted off about thirty yards and began to walk around with the other animals. There was no alarm and NO sign of him going down. I waited…. and waited…. Man, how long can this animal live with an arrow through his heart?
Several minutes later, I moved close enough for another shot and waited. He opened up, and I again put my sight-pin behind his front shoulder and released. The 640-grain arrow made a complete pass, going through both lungs and out the far side. He trotted off about 20 yards and stood with the other animals. This was unbelievable…. two fatal wounds, and like the Energizer Bunny, he kept going, and going…. From the time I shot the first arrow until he finally collapsed was close to seven minutes. I was in complete awe of this magnificent beast. I now had nearly 1800 pounds of bison lying on the ground. After congratulatory handshakes and lots of pictures, we began the arduous task of field dressing this animal.
The next day, Gale, also dressed in buckskins, completed our odyssey by harvesting a spectacular bull with an authentic buffalo rifle, the Model 75 Sharps in 45/100. It was a hunt to remember. Our lives were touched by these awesome animals, the closeness we felt to the land, and the kinship with these Native people. Michael Fox and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation run a quality program and it was a pleasure to be a part of it. We stood by old teepee rings, looked at pictographs etched in the rock, and felt a kindred spirit with the Native Americans who hundreds of years ago, did the same thing we just did.
An agonizingly slow summer and early fall drug by as we anticipated this special hunt. (Call it an event) When the time finally came, I drove from Federal Way, Washington to meet my partner, Gale, at his home near Spokane. We loaded his ¾ ton Ford pickup and left for Montana on Sunday, the 22nd of October. The nine-hour drive went quickly as we spent the time “talking buffalo”. Gale and I have dreamed of this hunt for twenty years, and it wasn’t hard finding things to talk about. We arrived at Fort Belknap, fifty-five miles east of Havre, shortly after dark, and set up my large tent by the lights of the truck. Thank goodness for propane heaters as the temperatures dipped into the teens at night.