As bowhunters, I believe that we all have dreamt about crawling through open sage country toward a herd of one of America’s most unique animals, the Plains Bison. After years of diligently playing the application game, I was fortunate enough to draw a wild bison tag in my home state of Arizona. This tag has always been one of the most coveted in the state since it is a once in a lifetime tag opportunity. What makes this hunt that much more special is that it is one of the few herds of wild, free-ranging bison recognized as a fair-chase hunt by the Pope & Young Club.
Prior to my hunt I contacted past hunters, searched internet information, and read old articles. What I found was that this hunt was going to be extremely difficult and not at all like I had envisioned it would be. Arizona bison live in one of the more remote places in the state and in recent years had abandoned their traditional grounds (the House Rock Wildlife Area) and had relocated to higher grounds near the boundary of the Grand Canyon National Park. This move took them from nice open sage and juniper country at 5600 feet to extremely dense pine and aspen country at close to 9000 feet in elevation which would necessitate a completely different hunting strategy. I had originally planned to spend my time setting up on a ridge top with my binoculars and tripod, find the bison, and then plan a stalk which wasn’t practical in this higher elevation, thick brush setting. Instead, I learned that I would need to still hunt and patiently lie in wait in a tree stand or ground blind set over travel routes, water sources, or mineral deposits.
When the season started on the first of January, I searched the lower country for several days trying to confirm the idea that they really had abandoned their old grounds. Indeed they had. There was no bison sign down low whatsoever, so, the high country it would be. The problem facing me was that the upper plateau was still packed with many feet of snow making access absolutely impossible without the use of a snowmobile. Being born and raised in Phoenix, I have never even set eyes on a snowmobile; much less have access to one. My only choice would be to wait a few months till the snow levels dropped and the buffalo moved into huntable areas.
By late April we had a warm spell and with the snow melting I was quick to get into the high country for my first week of hunting. With a pregnant wife at home and several major events (mother’s day, anniversary, and my wife’s birthday) in May, I planned to take off several, five to seven day trips, until the season ended in mid-June which I thought would make my bride happy and allow myself a little rest if needed.
My first week of hunting was largely a scouting trip. Although I had my 70# Morrison recurve in hand at all times, I was mainly just trying to figure out how and where I was going to be hunting. Although I knew the general 30 square miles that I wanted to hunt, I put a lot of hard miles under foot that week narrowing my search for fresh sign or the bison themselves. While still hunting on April 30th, I did stalk into one herd of 15 cows and calves. I was quick to pass on the cows so early in my hunt, as my tag was for “any buffalo”, and hey, everybody dreams of killing that big nasty bull right! My optimism was sky high after having seen my first herd of bison and locating fresh sign. I set a few stands in the area and sat the remaining few days. No bison came into my set-up during the day, but tracks showed that I did have some nighttime visitors. I thought I was sure to trick an unsuspecting buffalo the following week.
I made the lonely drive back to bison country after being home for three days. The first morning back on the chase, I parked my truck a couple of miles from my stand. It was a beautiful 27 degree morning and I figured that I would still-hunt my way in to the stand. I eased into my setup and heard a low grunt and immediately got down to my knees. There was a herd on the waterhole where my stand was set, getting their morning drink. The wind was right and I eased in to get a closer look. This was a nice herd of 13 cows and calves. I was able to get right in the middle of them without being detected. At one point I had a cow and yearling walk past me inside of 10 yards. Still, it was so early in the hunt that I really did not want it to be over, so I once again elected not to shoot any of these bison. Later that afternoon, I had an old cow and a week old calf come in. It was such a neat experience being able to watch these two interact with each other just 15 yards from me. The rest of my week was fruitlessly filled with 13 hour days on stand, and when I tired of sitting, all day hikes. It was easy to keep my optimism up with the action that I saw early this week. I dutifully headed home to see my wife for a few days to celebrate Mother’s Day as I was in Africa last year for Mother’s Day and I was not going to make that mistake two years in a row!
I made the 5 ½ hour drive from my home in Phoenix to my hunting area once again, and would be hunting for the next five days. On this trip everything seemed to go wrong. The area that I had been hunting was showing no fresh bison sign at all which prompted me to move several miles to a new location. After setting new stands I once again started feeling confident in what I was doing. That confidence was quickly shattered by bad winds, truck problems, flat tires, and other hunters sitting on my stand, and a general “woe is me” attitude. I did have one good morning on stand when I had a large heard of cows, calves and two young bulls come into my position. I decided to try to take a shot at one of these young bulls if the opportunity presented itself, but that opportunity never came. Though they were inside of 20 yards from my ground blind, there was always another bison in the way so no shots were possible.
I don’t often get discouraged while hunting, I am an optimistic person by nature and I carry that optimism into the field with me but at this point I felt burned out. To date, I had hunted 20 days, averaged 5 hours of sleep a night, put well over 100 miles under foot, and sat close to 170 hours on stand. I was wiped out. It sounds backwards, but for the first time ever I needed a break from my hunt. I decided to head home for a week off.
I returned on May 25th and felt ready to bust my butt once again. I hunted hard for the next three days but saw no bison. On May 28th I was into my blind early and ready for a long sit. I had been reading Tom Sawyer all morning when I heard crashing echoing through the woods. I quickly got to my knees, nocked an arrow, and got ready for whatever may be coming into my setup. After a couple of minutes I saw the first cow emerge from the treeline. What an awesome sight! Ten cows and calves total fed my way. Right then, I decided that I had held off long enough and that I was going to try to take a shot at one of these cows. This was my 24th hunting day and I was ready to make it happen. The entire herd came inside of 20 yards and I picked out the largest cow that did not have a calf. I started to draw five or six times on her but something always prevented me from getting a shot. Finally, after all other buffalo were clear, she threw her right leg forward offering me a slightly quartering shot, and my arrow was on its way. My Eclipse Werewolf tipped shaft cleared the 18 yards quickly and found its mark exactly where I was looking. My arrow had entered on the crease and exited a few inches on the offside shoulder. It was bedded within one minute and died inside of 2 minutes.
A rush of emotions flooded my head. There was something special about the sense of accomplishment at that moment. As I approached her, I knew that I had worked as hard as I possibly could to reach this end result. I couldn’t help but reflect on how blessed I am as I began the nearly overwhelming chore of butchering and packing a bison by myself. To be in such a beautiful place hunting one of Americas most iconic animals left me grinning from ear to ear, a great end to a great hunt.
Author - Austin Parks is a fourth generation Arizonian who has spent most of his life hunting not only Arizona, but many locations around the world with his stickbow. When not stalking his prey or sitting in a tree, Austin spends his time with his understanding wife and two beautiful kids.