A little help from lady luck on a bison hunt
Snow started to fall when I was loading up the truck for my once-in-a-lifetime bison bull hunt. From the time I found out that I drew such a highly sought after tag, I knew that this year would not be like the rest of them. 2016 started out rough for me. As the year went on, it brought more ups than downs. One of those ups was this tag. When fire season started, all I could focus on was what to expect on this hunt. I spent so much time researching trophy bulls to understand what to look for, what type of hunt to expect, etc.
Fire season was soon in full swing, which meant spending most of the summer—if not all of it—on the Beaver Creek fire. Regardless, one thing was for certain: I wanted a trophy bull or nothing at all. I would make it a hunt. It didn’t matter that I had heard from a lot of people how this hunt can be nothing but a pot shoot. The truck was loaded and I was on my way to pick up my buddy and start the six hour drive to Jackson, Wyoming.
At night, I would pour over photos of trophy bulls that made it to the record books. I looked at them and dissected everything I could about how to field judge a trophy bull. There is very little Internet information on how to learn to properly field judge bison. So, I took my questions to social media. I asked a couple of guys that have hunted them before to give me some photos that I can look at and a score. I talked to an outfitter up in the Jackson area about bulls, too. He gave me some valuable info, but all of it was very hazy. It was hazy because without actually seeing a bison on the hoof, it’s hard to put it all together.
I stayed up for hours in my sleeping bag looking over photos that I had and photos that my good buddy, Chris, would send me on his scouting trips. I would get up early each morning excited for the season to come and motivated more than ever to get my trophy. As fire season came to an end and the weather started to get colder, anticipation was getting high for this hunt. I felt as ready as I could be.
The date was set. The second weekend in October was going to be my first crack at trying to kill my trophy bull. In the few weeks leading up to this hunt, my buddy, Clint, and I were talking over the logistics. By the time the hunt rolled around, we had it all ironed out. Both of us had no clue what to expect really, but we were going to give it all we had to have a great hunt. My good buddy, Chris, lives in Jackson. He offered a place to stay during the hunt and he also planned to help me scout and keep tabs on the bulls while I was busy with fire season since I couldn’t get away to scout myself.
We left a day earlier than I initially planned to because I wanted to make the best of the hunt and the vacation time I had. I had four days to get it down on either national forest or state ground; I wanted to take advantage of every minute of it. So, we left Laramie that Thursday evening and arrived in Jackson at 1 a.m. Tired from driving six hours after a full day’s work only wore the spirits just a little. I think I only slept two hours that night.
The morning came and Clint and I headed to the Wyoming Game and Fish Department office in Jackson because we needed to check in. We also needed to get our sample kit for the bison should we kill one and get the lowdown on where the bison were, where to go and not to go. We left the office and decided that we were going to hunt our way south to the north. By 9 a.m, we had already seen three bulls, but they were in a spot where we couldn’t hunt. So, we continued our quest north to find more, keeping those bulls in mind.
As we headed to the far north end of what we wanted to look at, I couldn’t help but feel how special this hunt really was. Jackson is so beautiful. With the recent storm just dusting the Tetons it really made for great scenery. As the sun was rising you could see the snow almost as if it was neatly placed in each crack, tree and canyon. Below the snowline, the dew from the night’s frost made everything glisten in the morning’s rays. You can easily get distracted with all the scenery around Jackson.
Noon rolled around. I looked at my onXmaps app and found some spots that I thought would turn a bison up. We drove to the closest road and hiked in. The hike in was two miles one way. I was excited about that because I knew there wouldn’t be anyone else there or, at least, not anyone on foot. Within the first few hundred yards, we saw fresh sign from that day where a bison had walked through an old trail. We continued to head north covering as much ground as we could. Clint and I walked down one draw and, on the way back out we spotted some more sign. Clint suggested we head to the top and take a look because it started to open up into the habitat that bison like. As soon as we got to the top, we spotted four bulls. Three were bedded and on park boundary; the fourth was on public ground. I pulled out the spotting scope and looked him over, took video and photos. This was the first bull that I had seen on public ground and I was pumped. I mentioned to Clint that we should try and get a closer look. He agreed and off we went.
As we got closer to the bull, we discovered more country. I stopped and glassed it. No sooner had I done that I saw one bull, then another, then a third. By the end of it, there were 20 bulls all in this one spot. The best part was they were feeding to the forest boundary.
I told Clint, “Let’s get closer and take a look at those bulls.”
He agreed and we set up shop. After figuring out which ones were not shooters, my focus quickly went to the ones that were. I took my time, looking through the spotter, taking photos, video, referenced all the info I had obtained from the summer to compare and see if one, in fact, was the trophy I was after. We determined that there was one or two in there that would merit an even closer look, including the one I had spotted before.
We had to cross this big draw in order for us to get within a couple hundred yards of the bulls. I was nervous. The wind was swirling and it was warm, too. As Clint and I got into position to look at the bachelor group of bulls, I noticed the wind had shifted for the better. By then, the afternoon was going by fast. It was 3 p.m. and I needed to figure out what these other bulls were like. Fortunately, we had set up perfectly and could see all of the bulls. When I looked at the two that I thought would be trophies, my mind kept wandering to the other bull I had spotted earlier. I quickly located him and stalked within 170 yards. He and I stared at each other for a few minutes before he decided to get up from his bed and join the big bachelor group of bulls. I passed on him because I thought he wasn’t quite what I was looking for. But, then again, did I really know what I was looking for?
I started to wonder if I made a mistake passing on him. He had mass and width, but not as much length. My attention turned to the other bull that I had thought would be a trophy. As the two came close to one another, I was able to compare them. It was obvious that the second bull was bigger. He had length, mass and width. It was then that I knew that bull with the dirt circle around his left eye was the one I wanted. The trouble was that he was on the Park and Forest Service boundary. I looked at my onXmaps app and it showed that they were on the park boundary. I didn’t want to risk him spooking to the boundary but also didn’t want him to slip away. The three of us agreed that we would come back to this same spot the next day and find him again. After all, this was the first day of my hunt and with over 20 bulls spotted, who knew what the next day would bring?
Day two of the hunt brought some real disappointment. As we crested the ridge to our glassing spot, we didn’t see a single bison. What happened? I was disappointed and didn’t know what to think. I knew we had to keep on. As we were making our way down the big draw, we heard two gunshots. We made our way over to where another bison hunter, who had checked in that day, had already lucked out and found a bull to shoot. We offered our help with getting the bull quartered out and the two gentlemen gladly accepted our help since it was only the two of them. I was then able to get a firsthand look at the bull that the guy had shot. After a quick handshake and a “good luck” we were off to try and find my trophy. Day two didn’t bring much luck other than some bison that went on to the park boundary after the hunter we helped filled his tag.
Chris had to go to work on the third day. So, it was Clint and I at it again. As I was grabbing food for the day, he said, “Stephan, this is our day.” I couldn’t help but feel it, too. Something special was going to happen and I didn’t know what it was.
We left the house a little late. We hiked as fast as we could over to our usual glassing spot. Nothing. Not a thing. I started to think maybe I was just getting myself excited for nothing. Maybe today was not the day. I shook off the negative thoughts and told Clint we needed to go further north. And it paid off! Just as we came over the little rise, I spotted one lone bull. Trying not to get too excited, I wanted to look at him first before heading that way. We found a place to hide and glassed him up. From what I could see, it looked good, real good. I looked at Clint and he said: “let’s get closer.”
Time seemed to stop from that point on. As we were on our way to get a closer look, I kept thinking of my great grandpa and how much I wished he were with me on this hunt. He was a big influence on my hunting passion and I wanted him there, but he wasn’t. My great grandpa was too old to teach me how to hunt when I was first starting out, but he told me stories of past hunts he had and that’s what got my passion for hunting and the outdoors going so strongly. The few years since his passing not a hunt goes by that I don’t think about him. Quickly snapping out of my thought, I looked at the location of the bull on my app and he was on Forest Service land! Things were lining up nicely.
We had gotten to 100 yards of this big bull and he had no idea we were there. I set my pack down, put a couple of extra bullets in my pocket and grabbed my binos.
Preparing to shoot this bull, I put myself and Clint in the middle of the big bull and the Park boundary to eliminate the chance of the bull wanting to run to the boundary. The last time I saw the bull, he was feeding in a low spot. The sagebrush was enough to hide us in a crouched position. As we got closer and closer, my heart was pounding. I was really getting excited. I pulled the binos up and looked him over. He was the one; he was the trophy I was after.
I looked at Clint and said, “I am going to take him.”
I moved just a little further to get into a good shooting lane. By now, the bull knew something was up, but he couldn’t see me. I pulled the hammer back on my C Sharps rifle, took a breath, and aimed for the heart.
KABOOM! I hit him! I quickly reloaded for another round and sent one again in the same spot. The hit was good. The emotions were overbearing. I didn’t know what to say or do. For the first time in my hunting career, I didn’t know how or what to do. As he expired, I couldn’t believe what had happened.
I walked back to grab my pack and walk to the bull. As I stood over him, I realized that he was huge. He was my bull.
As I brushed his wooly back I noticed something that was odd. There was a ladybug on the top of his neck.
I had mentioned it to Clint and he said to me, “You’re one lucky man. This is a trophy bull. This is your trophy bull.”
Clint also told me that when we were glassing this bull, when we first spotted him, there was a white butterfly that was circling my head above. I had no idea that this had happened. When he told me, I put it all together: My great grandpa was with me on that hunt. I could feel him with me while I admired this trophy.
This was a special hunt, but not just any special hunt. This was a hunt of a lifetime for me. To be able to hunt our nation’s mammal and a crucial piece of our American history was not only a privilege but an honor. To be able to enjoy a hunt like this in a free country is something very special. These animals truly are magnificent and big. While we quartered him out, I couldn’t help but think about our ancestors and the history regarding the American bison, how they survived off these animals for many years and how they respected them. All of my hard efforts in studying for a trophy bull had paid off. Being 2.5 miles from the truck and having to work so hard trying to find a trophy bull was hard in itself. A hunt of a lifetime for sure. Thanks to the ladybug. Some people believe that ladybugs are lucky. I know I do.
First off, I’d like to thank the good Lord for blessing me with this tag. I’d like to thank my wife for putting up with my hunting adventures and for supporting me on this hunt. I want to thank Clint and Chris for being such good friends and being a big help on this hunt. And, lastly, thanks to my Great Grandpa Ernie. You meant the world to me and still do. Rest in peace and see you again one day.