Bright sunshine, warming temperatures, and a gentle breeze greeted us as the mules grunted under their burden through a spectacular winter wonderland. A forest fire nine years earlier had left a maze of ghostly trunks that now stood like frozen stick figures in stark contrast to the fresh blanket of wind driven snow. Adding to the splendor, the red rimrock country of southeastern Utah stretched to the horizon below us. This was rugged country, and we rode through a scene right out of a coffee table picture book. It was the fourth day of the special cow bison season in the Henry Mountains, and I was wound up tighter than a six year-old on Christmas morning.
The first three days of the trip had not been so kind. Enveloping fog the first two days and a raging blizzard on the third had limited visibility to little more than longbow range. This was spot and stalk hunting, and the weather had effectively taken any spotting out of the equation. There was little we could do but stare at canvas tent walls and bide our time reading books. The hunt of my dreams was slowly slipping away.
All that was behind us now though, and I settled comfortably into the saddle while my mule plodded its way through drifts of snow. Expecting to ride at least an hour or two before reaching good hunting ground, we were shocked when ten minutes out of camp we topped a rise and saw a small herd of bison on the mountainside ahead. Sometimes fate has a way of evening things out, and I hoped this was our reward for the long days spent in the tent. Backtracking quickly out of sight, we planned a new route that would take us above them and put the wind in our face.
A finger ridge led to where we had last seen the bison, and after tying the mules I eased down the snow drifted slope, scanning ahead with each step. Fresh bison trails led the way as I followed to the rocky point on which we had first spotted them. Empty beds and warm manure littered the ground. Oozing forward in a crouch and alternately standing between steps gradually revealed the terrain below. Unspoiled snow across the open valley beyond showed no mark save the dainty trails of mule deer, so I was fairly certain the herd had not left unseen.
A dark humpbacked form drifting through the dead timber below confirmed my suspicions. Eight of them in all, the herd had moved down to the base of the ridge and was feeding casually 100 yards below me. The wind was perfect, but the hillside that separated us was sparsely covered. While I might be able to get a little closer, 60 yards was about the best I could hope for before exposing myself entirely. That was nowhere near close enough for the longbow in my hand, and I chose to wait from my rocky vantage point for the bison to make the next move.
The sun felt warm and a gentle breeze wafted steadily in my face. There was no place on earth I would rather be. Through the course of any hunt, success or failure often boils down to a very few real opportunities. Whether one results in an animal is always in doubt, yet this was one of those precious few and I didn’t want to mess it up.
Hours later the herd finally stirred. My hopes rose as the animals milled around, then sank just as quickly as they lined up single file and marched straight away. Rather than risk pushing them out of the area I held back, and we returned to camp hoping we could pick up the trail again in the morning.
This adventure had started just six short weeks previously. I enter limited entry tag drawings in a number of states every year, but draw dates had long since passed without a tag once again. So it was only with mild curiosity that I opened an envelope from the Utah Division of Wildlife in late October. A recent population survey had resulted ill an additional Henry Mountains cow bison hunt being authorized in December, and I had drawn a tag. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had done absolutely no research or planning on the area or what it would take to put a hunt together. With only six weeks before the season opened, my situation seemed overwhelming. Adding to the pressure, I was given only five days to accept the tag or have it offered to the next hunter in line.
Bison hunting permits are classified as “Once in a Lifetime” by the state of Utah. The odds of drawing for a nonresident are extremely low at approximately one in 100 for a cow-only tag during recent years. If I didn’t take the tag I might never again have the opportunity, and this could well be my only chance ever to hunt bison in a wild herd.
I began a frantic search on internet forums and made phone calls to anyone I could think of who might be able to shed some light on what I was up against. Initial reports were not very encouraging. Most other hunters would be Utah residents using rifles. Bison tags are highly prized, and those who draw them often recruit as many friends and family members as they can to help locate the bison by riding the network of back roads with ATVs and spotting scopes. I prefer to do most of my hunting on my own without the assistance of an outfitter or guide, but it quickly became apparent that wasn’t going to be an option on this trip. Although I have nothing against those who choose to use rifles, I didn’t relish the idea of competing against them in a race to a herd of bison. I needed to find a way to leave the crowds behind somehow, and that would be difficult to do without help.
My inquiries eventually resulted in a lead from friend and fellow PBS member Nathan Kanous who happened to be related by marriage to a guide in Utah with extensive experience in the Henry Mountains. A phone conversation left me feeling that this just might be the man who could make my bison dream hunt a reality. Tom Dowland has guided numerous hunters to successful bison hunts over the years, and while his previous clients had primarily been rifle hunters he seemed to understand exactly what it would take for a traditional bowhunter to be successful. He employs a string of mules to access areas that would leave most of the other hunters behind and was confident that he could at least put me on some bison. From there it would be up to me, and that was exactly what I had hoped to hear.
As it turned out, Tom proved to be everything I could have asked for in a guide. He knew the area well, understood the animals and what they would do, and set up a comfortable camp with excellent equipment. His nephew Nate Dowland accompanied us to assist with the guiding, wrangling, and camp chores. Meals were excellent, and their stories of bison, elk, and lion hunts filled long hours in the tent. These guys were the real deal, and I felt fortunate to have found them on such short notice.
The Henry Mountain herd is one of the few remaining remnants of true free ranging and geneticallypure bison in the United States. They survive there today as a result of conservation efforts during the early 1940s, when three bulls and 15 cows were captured and relocated from Yellowstone National Park. The herd has since grown and is now managed toward a post-season population goal of approximately 275 adult animals. More recently, bison from the Henry Mountains have been captured and transplanted to the Book Cliffs region of Utah, continuing the expansion and recovery of wild bison herds in the state.
The American bison is a majestic creature that captures the imagination of many bowhunters as an enduring symbol of the West. A chance to hunt the largest North American land animal that once roamed this country in vast herds and gave sustenance through the ages to Native Americans is an opportunity that most hunters will never experience. Historically a creature of the open grasslands and plains, the descendants that inhabit the Henry Mountains are instead often found eking out an existence in extremely rugged terrain at elevations in excess of 10,000 feet, more closely resembling mountain goats in their lifestyle and preferred habitat.
Following a restless night’s sleep, our second full morning of actual hunting dawned as bright and calm as the day before. Overnight lows had again dipped below zero, and we waited for the sun to creep over the mountains and help warm the saddle leather before heading out. After a hearty breakfast we loaded the packs with lunches and water, prepared for a long day on the trail of the herd we had left behind.
Cautiously approaching the area where we had seen the bison the previous afternoon, we dismounted before cresting each ridge and proceeding on foot to glass the valley ahead. We searched not only for the animals themselves, but for any sign of the trail they might have left behind. Bison tracks are easily identifiable in the snow even from a distance, and we wanted to have a clue of their whereabouts before blundering in and spooking them out of the country.
A deeply drifted rocky ridge revealed nothing in front of us for as far as we could see. Turning to head back down to the mules, Tom stopped short at the sight of bison on the crest of a ridge that we had ridden past just moments before. It was the same group we had seen the day before, verified by the presence of two cows that wore Utah Division of Wildlife tracking collars around their necks. I left Tom and Nate behind with the mules as I circled around in an attempt to get the wind in my favor.
I picked the distinctive burnt trunk of a large pine as my goal and hoped that the steep terrain and a rock ledge would allow me to approach unseen from below. Easing within 70 yards, I found that the contour of the slope would leave me exposed to at least one of the herd. Worse, the wind was marginal at best. I backed out and circled around the opposite side of the ridge, hoping that it might offer a better approach.
The back side of the ridge offered excellent cover, and powdery snow muffled any noise of my approach. Had the bison stayed where they were, the plan might actually have worked. But as I neared their loitering area, they began to get restless. A cow and her calf moved farther out on the ridge and the rest of the group soon followed, unaware of my presence as they fed from one bunch of grass to the next.
The bison gathered at the very tip of the knife-like ridge with a shallow bowl separating us, making further advance impossible. My original approach however would now allow me to slip up unseen within easy distance of their new location. I was zigging, they were zagging, and I was determined to continue the cat and mouse game until our paths would intersect. I retraced my steps once again. As I eased within view I caught a glimpse of a bison’s back as it disappeared over the end of the ridge. I was close, and as much as I wanted to rush to the edge, now was not the time to hurry. One mistake at this point and it would all be over.
Approaching the point of the ridge once again found me playing the periscope game: crouch forward, stretch as high as I could between steps, and repeat. A slot between two boulders revealed a bison feeding 40 yards away. As I eased forward, another appeared slightly closer. Bent as low as my aching knees would allow, I advanced again. Another crevice in the rock revealed a cow bison facing me, her face buried in the snow with a large tree between us. This one was close, and I could clearly hear as she ripped up clumps of grass.
Slipping five yards closer, I found an opening in the branches between us. As if on cue the cow turned to face downhill, presenting a sharp quartering away angle. She hesitated briefly as I focused on a spot near the last rib and watched in apparent disbelief as my fletching disappeared into the dark hide.
She exploded away, taking the rest of the group with her, but soon stopped, standing with head hung low. Buffalo are strong animals, and they die as hard as they live. The shot had been good, yet some time passed before she eased to her knees and lay gently into the snow. After her final kicks signified that it was over I stood in awe, consciously trying to soak in every detail of the scene before me. I stood alone on my rocky perch, sharing my thoughts only with the mountain and the bison lying in her final snowy bed below. Moments like this come far too infrequently during our hunting careers, and I did not want this one to end just yet. I burned the images indelibly into my mind because in the end, that is all that we will leave this world with.
Bowhunting is my passion in life, and traveling to hunt new animals and locations is a thrill that I hope I never tire of. I will continue to apply for coveted tags, and hope someday that I might have another chance at making a long-time dream come true. I am often told that I am lucky to have the opportunities that I do, and I guess that is true. But I also believe that we make our own luck to a large extent. If you have dreams of someday being able to go on the hunt of a lifetime, do whatever you can to make it happen. Scrimp and save, apply for tags, stay in shape, and be ready when opportunity knocks to make some luck of your own.
New contributor Joe Lasch lives in Lake Mills, Wisconsin with his wife, Irene, where he is retired from the banking business. When he can’t bowhunt, he spends time with his Boykin Spaniel, Arlo the Wonder Dog, attempts woodworking projects, or hides out at his central Wisconsin hunting cabin.