Bison Below Zero

The forecast caused me more than a bit of trepidation as I checked an Internet weather site prior to my bison hunt. Arctic air was pushing south from Canada and heavy snow, high winds and unusually cold temperatures were expected along my route from Colorado through Wyoming and into South Dakota.  When I received word from Custer State Park that I would be one of the few trophy bison hunters for the coming season, I arranged for an extra day of travel time just in case of such conditions. Now it looked as if I’d need all the time I had available to make it through that storm.

Bison herd in Custer State Park
Bison herds within the park range from a few animals to hundreds.

I had never been to the Black Hills and was eager for the sights and adventure.  Rising like an oasis from the Great Plains, the Black Hills are best known for Mount Rushmore and gold.  The area is rich in history and offers visitors a wide variety of activities.  Custer State Park lies at the south end of the mountain range and encompasses roughly 71,000 acres. It’s home to nearly 2,000 bison as well as whitetail and mule deer, elk, mountain goats and bighorn sheep.

It was dark by the time I reached the little town of Custer. I was relieved to be free of the confines of my truck after the long trip.  As if the snow against the Wyoming fences hadn’t been enough to prove the weatherman correct, the bitter cold that greeted me as I climbed from the truck cab drove the fact home.  All I wanted now was a warm bed.  In the morning, my wife and I would meet Chad, our guide from the park.

A herd of bison cows, calves and young bulls grazes through a secluded valley.
A herd of cows, calves and young bulls grazes through a secluded valley.

All trophy bison hunters in Custer State Park have the opportunity to hunt with Chad Kremer, who is the park’s herd manager.  Part of Chad’s job is to ensure that the park meets its management goals by allowing trophy hunters to take only bulls that are at least 10 years old. This offers the hunter an excellent chance at an exceptional trophy.  A better man to hunt bison with I cannot imagine.  Chad’s knowledge and experience with the big animals proved to be invaluable.  We talked of other hunters’ successes and what our prospects were, then agreed to meet the next morning.

“Dress warm,” Chad advised.  “They say more snow is on the way.”

Mature bison bulls will often stay in small groups such as this.
Mature bulls will often stay in small groups such as this.

By morning, seven inches were on the ground and the wind was blowing in force.  Glassing was nearly impossible because our eyes watered constantly.  Still, we tried as best we could and soon located a large herd of bison up a distant draw.  Closer inspection showed it to be a group of cows and young bulls.  I wouldn’t have guessed the bulls to be young because they had the classic look, with beautifully curved horns and pointed tips so often seen in movies or photos.

“Those are only four- or five-year-old bulls,” Chad explained.  “The really old ones will have horns more rounded than that and their mass will be obvious when you see it.”

The hunt was jut a few hours old when I realized that the challenge of bison hunting in Custer State Park is not necessarily in finding bison.  It seemed that the animals were on every other hillside. Had I been allowed to hunt on my own, I most likely would have ended my hunt within the first hour or two. I’d have taken one of those five-year-olds, having mistaken it for a mature animal. Fortunately, Chad’s knowledge and experience kept me from making such a mistake.  But I was finding it difficult to believe that we could look at so many different herds without finding the big bulls we wanted.

“That’s an old bull.”  It was nearly noon when Chad uttered the words I had been so anxious to hear.  The adrenaline rush of imminent success began to course through me.

“How big?” I asked.

“Oh, maybe 117 or 118,” Chad replied as he watched the bull through his binocular.

Bison bulls
The old bison bull seemed not to care that the hunters were drawing nearer.

The herd rose as we approached and a few of the animals moved off several yards.  But the bull we were watching stayed there, as if he couldn’t care less about the two puny humans drawing closer to him.

Chad studied the bull for another minute or two, and then declared, “Nope.  We can do better. I know there are bulls somewhere around here that are larger than this guy.”

Several hours later, as the shadows grew long and we had found no other mature bulls, I no longer shared Chad’s confidence. We had time to check one more place before darkness fell. Back in the truck, we bounced our way up a rough, snow-covered road to the back of a remote hillside.  Chad had just climbed back into the truck after moving some branches from our path when he noticed a dark patch through the trees.  Making our way closer, we soon saw four bull bison bedded on the hillside. Three were young bulls. The head of the fourth was concealed behind some brush. When the bull finally moved his head enough to allow a view of his horns, his size was obvious, just as Chad had said a truly mature bull would be. The horns held good mass and were completely rounded at the tips.

“He might go 120,” Chad said.  “Let’s leave them bedded here and come back in the morning.”

Chad understood my reluctance to leave with such a good bull at hand.  But he assured me the bison wouldn’t move far from this spot by morning.  He also reminded me that we didn’t have much time before it was completely dark and the temperature plunged. Neither of us wanted to deal with a downed bison in that situation.

Bison bull feeding
The author could not take a shot at the bull until he fed away from his companions.

The following morning broke clear and bitterly cold.  I’m sure there are some who wouldn’t call 24 below zero bitterly cold, but it was a new experience for a desert rat like me, and one I would hardly call enjoyable. Ice-covered roads made the drive to meet Chad precarious. But I was happy for the lack of wind and I felt that success was sure to come.  I have had the same feeling when taking animals on previous hunts, and I was sure this would be my day.

Before making our way back to the bulls we had left the night before, Chad wanted to check a different area for a 12-year-old bull he had seen throughout the season.  That bull, Chad explained, had massive horns that would score well into the record book. I’ve never been obsessed with record book scores, but the thought of having a chance at such an animal was exciting, and I glassed the hillside with determination.  Had we been looking for elk, we would have picked the right spot because they covered the distant slope.  But the bison weren’t with them and we moved on.

“What have we here?” Chad asked as we rounded a bend half an hour later and saw four bison in the distance. “Those can’t be the same bulls from last night. They’ve traveled too far.”

It took just a few moments behind binoculars to tell that this was a different group. This one contained two mature bulls.

“That’s him!  That’s the 12-year-old,” Chad exclaimed.  “I knew they had to be around here yesterday. Look at how big he is!”

The bull was indeed massive.  His horns were worn and chipped, and would exceed any record book minimum with plenty to spare.  But he was the ugliest bison I had ever seen.  All those chips and wear were not at all what I had in mind for “my” bison.  I think Chad was a bit surprised when I said it wasn’t the bull I wanted even if it would score well.  Instead, we turned our attention to his 11-year-old companion.  Now, that was the bull I had come to South Dakota for. Other than the ugly bull, he held better mass than any we had found but still had the classic pointed tips I sought.

“I’d like to try for him,” I told Chad.  The animals began to meander away. But they didn’t seem overly concerned about our presence, which allowed me plenty of time to get comfortable for a shot.

Giving me a last-minute pointer, Chad said, “Remember to hit him behind the ear so that he’s anchored.”

The author’s bull fell to one shot from his .300 Rem. Ultra Mag.
The author’s bull fell to one shot from his .300 Rem. Ultra Mag.

With all that shaggy hair, finding the ear and the correct spot behind it isn’t as easy as it might sound. The ear blends well into the rest of the head.  But as I settled in behind the scope, I soon saw a flicker of movement that betrayed the correct location.  My crosshairs were steady on the spot for just a moment before another of the bulls blocked my line of sight.  For the next five minutes, it seemed as if the two animals were grazing in tandem because “my” bull stayed hidden behind his companion with each step they took toward the cover of trees.

When my bull finally cleared his companion, my sights rested on where I believed the ear to be. The .300 Remington Ultra Mag. boomed as I touched the trigger and the bull collapsed.  I watched the downed animal for several moments to make certain he didn’t rise, then accepted Chad’s congratulations. The other three bison showed no concern for what had just happened and continued to graze.  It wasn’t until Chad produced his bullwhip and cracked the air with it several times that they finally moved on.

It took the efforts of four men to roll my trophy into position for photos.  He would weigh in at 1,850 pounds, and I can say for certain that moving that much weight even a small distance is no simple task.  I knew his 120 6/8 horns were smaller than those of his companion.  But he was all that I had wanted from Custer State Park. And at least I wouldn’t have to look at an ugly bull for the rest of my life.–Brian Payne

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One thought on “Bison Below Zero”

  1. I have guided and killed 84 trophy buffalo and many more younger meat animals in years past. Your bull is a very nice addition to your life force. No hunter who has not stood in awe of his downed buffalo can ever understand how special of a privilege it is to hunt these great creatures, no less just being able to share the same ground with them. Frank–

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