High Plains Slam

The high plains of our beautiful country truly have become a second home to me–a home where, like in the song, I have been blessed to have taken not only buffalo, but deer and antelope too! As we know,High-Plains-slam-sunset-on-the-plainsthe proper terms are bison, mule deer, and pronghorn, but since the song resonates so well with so many folks, I’ll stick with buffalo and antelope, as used by Brewster Higley in his famous song.

My quest for American plains game began on a brisk December morning in Southern California. Four of us met at the Hawthorne Airport where we boarded a twin engine Cesna and set off for Pierre, South Dakota. The weather forecast for Pierre called for continued cold with snow flurries–the kind of conditions that held promise for buffalo with prime fur.

We had booked a hunt at the Triple U Standing Butte Ranch, made famous as the location for the 1990 Kevin Costner film “Dances With Wolves.” The ranch is known for its outstanding bulls, and we were not disappointed.

Bison on the Triple U Standing Butte Ranch. One of the herds Tom Nichols was glassing prior to taking his bison.
Bison on the Triple U Standing Butte Ranch. One of the herds Tom Nichols was glassing prior to taking his bison.

Our party was equipped with a variety of firearms ranging from a .378 Weatherby for one hunter to a classic lever-action for me. To me, a traditional American buffalo hunt called for a traditional American rifle in a traditional American caliber. The choice was easy, a Marlin Model 1895 in .45-70 equipped with a peep sight. I am a handloader by choice and, after several trips to the range, settled on the Speer 400-grain flat-nosed bullet over IMR 3031 powder.

After a good night’s sleep we were up at dawn and soon in the field. With a little scouting, we located a couple of herds, both of which contained some truly outstanding trophy bulls. These bulls were quite skittish and presented more of a challenge than we had anticipated. As the morning wore on, we blew a couple of promising stalks.

I was first up and, after patient glassing with my 10X40 Zeiss binoculars, was able to select a particular bull with evenly matched horns and heavy bases. I took my time and moved in slowly to within range of my .45-70.

Tom’s record bison along with the Marlin Model 1895, 45-70 he used to take it.
Tom’s record bison along with the Marlin Model 1895, 45-70 he used to take it.

I decided on a brain shot for a clean one-shot kill. I shouldered my Marlin, lining up the Lyman receiver sight on a spot just under the bull’s right horn. Recoil with the light carbine promised to be substantial, but I put that aside and concentrated on breath and trigger control. In an instant, the great bull was down and the rest of the herd scattered.

That mighty symbol of the American Great Plains was now mine. A fine trophy, along with a 42 square-foot rug and prime steaks made for a fantastic hunt.

There was still work to be done if I was to achieve my goal, so it was off to Wyoming for pronghorn antelope. First stop, Sheridan, where I made my base camp. My permit was for a unit south of town, about half way to Gillette. With long shots the order of the day, I called upon my Model 70 Winchester in 7mm Remington Magnum. It’s my pet rifle and I relied on the 140-grain Nosler Partition bullet and IMR 4831 powder for this hunt. I had spent quite a bit of time working up just the right handload at home in Southern California and was fully confident that when the time came I would be ready.

We used a Jeep to get into good hunting territory and then I relied on my 10X40s for the extensive glassing this type of hunt calls for. After spending a good portion of the day and covering a lot of prairie, my guide spotted the big boy we had been looking for. He had very heavy bases with a nice curve and prominent prongs.

Tom Nichols with his trophy Wyoming pronghorn.
Tom Nichols with his trophy Wyoming pronghorn.

We held fast until he looked away then duck walked down a coulee. We had to be especially careful as these graceful animals can sprint as fast as 60 miles per hour, making it the fastest land mammal in North America. That coupled with eyesight six times as powerful as humans makes it a match for even the most skilled hunter.

We ran out of cover at about 200 yards. It was time to put into practice the shooting skills learned over years of experience. I took a sitting position, bracing my elbows on my knees. I was just able to see over the sagebrush and fix him in my 2.5-8x Leupold scope. The trigger broke crisply and I saw him jump straight up and begin to run. It was a double lung shot and he was down quickly. My Winchester proved to be accurate and reliable and the Nosler bullet highly effective. On the way back to camp that evening we were rewarded with one of those fiery Wyoming sunsets that we had come to enjoy. The next morning, I began my trek back to California with another beautiful addition to my trophy room wall.

One more specimen and my personal slam would be complete. Plans were made, bags packed, and it was back to Wyoming with a mule deer tag in my pocket. I felt right at home in rolling sagebrush country. The choice of an appropriate rifle was easy for me – that same Model 70 was once again my companion, this time with a 160-grain Nosler Partition bullet up front. I wanted the extra penetration and energy this heavier bullet would give on the bigger bodied mule deer.

Tom Nichols with his trophy Wyoming mule deer.
Tom Nichols with his trophy Wyoming mule deer.

As day four of the five-day season came to a close, my guide and I hadn’t seen anything better than a couple of fork-horned bucks. I got up at sunrise on day five and was pretty concerned that I might not get any buck at all, much less the good 4×4 I had hoped for.

Later that morning, a local landowner told my outfitter of an area that he knew held a superior buck. We had just begun working the particular drainage where the ol’ boy was said to hang out with his harem when my guide whispered, “there is your buck!” He was high and wide–all I had ever hoped for. Sometimes a hunter will turn down a good buck early on the first day hoping for better, but this one was a keeper whether on the first day or the last. I was determined to take him. That buck was standing broadside at a bit over 200 yards and I knew better than to waste time talking about it. It was time for action.

Using my guide’s Stetson for a rest on a nearby boulder, I lined up my crosshairs just behind the shoulder, about a third of the way up. That was about right as my Winchester was sighted in 1 ½-inches high at 100 yards. Once again, out of instinct, I relaxed and gently squeezed the trigger. I lost sight of the deer with the recoil, but knew things were good when I heard my guide’s shout and felt a slap on my back. There is nothing like the feeling you get when walking up to your prize, especially on the last day of the hunt. My family loves wild game for the table, and those back strap steaks made for a great BBQ–it doesn’t get much better than that.

Sometime later, I sat in my trophy room recalling with satisfaction the adventures I had in taking my own personal High Plains Slam–all three of which made the SCI Record Book.–Tom Nichols

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