It all started on Christmas Eve when Maria decided to read The Dickinson Press newspaper from cover to cover. We have a family tradition that we get together for Christmas at one of the houses. This year we were at Doug and Lu's house in Dickinson, North Dakota. Doug is my younger brother. Why we were in sub zero weather instead of balmy Houston is a story for another time. Suffice it to say that fourteen of us were gathered in Dickinson.
Anyway, Maria was reading the paper, including the classifieds. And there,
-- in the back of the paper,
-- on page 12 of the paper,
-- in little print in the paper,
was the ad that started it all. It read:
Maria opined that it would be neat to have a buffalo head and I sealed my fate by saying that, as a Cherokee Indian, I also wanted a buffalo, but only if I shot it. I am not, by nature or avocation, a hunter of big game. Or even small game when you come right down to it. But it seemed fitting and proper that an American Indian, if he were going to shoot a mammal, should lay claim to the largest land mammal in North America. And one that held a place of honor in the lore of many Indian tribes.
My brother immediately took up the quest and called Mr. Candee, who was not in. But Doug left a message. And we all promptly forgot about the moment of madness.
Except that I was having an internal argument over whether I really wanted a buffalo mounted on a wall. Even one I shot. But the argument was short lived because I figured the cost would be too high anyway. Plus, we were set to fly back to Houston the day after Christmas at 2 pm.
Nothing more was said until Christmas morning when, in the midst of opening presents and dodging snowballs made of wrapping paper, the phone rang. It was Mr. Candee. Returning Doug's call. But we didn't know that at the time, because Doug didn't tell us who had called until the morning festivities were over and everyone was relaxing in the afterglow of too many gifts.
Anyway, in late morning, Doug relayed that Mr. Candee had called and said that a buffalo hunt was possible that very day, assuming the skinner could make it. Doug had gotten the name of a taxidermist Mr. Candee recommended and price quotes on the hunt and skinning. The price for the hunt was more than fair, so that objection evaporated. And Doug called the taxidermist and that price was also within reason.
The skinner was even available Christmas Day. But I wasn't. I wanted a look at the bull Mr. Candee had selected before I committed to the hunt. So we called Mr. Candee back and said we were interested and Mr. Candee agreed to meet us at his ranch Christmas afternoon. Since our Christmas dinner wasn't scheduled until 4 pm, that seemed doable.
Ten of us decided to troop out to the bison ranch for a look. Three were in a pickup and seven of us were in Lu's brand new Toyota mini van. It was so new it still had the paper plates.
When we got to the ranch Mr. Candee was working on a bison calf. He pointed to a group of bison about 75 yards away and said "mine" was the third one from the left of a sheet of plywood leaning against the fence. Right. Like I could pick out one buffalo from another. Mr. Candee added that the ear tag on my bison was orange, with the number 100 on it. Unfortunately, I had failed to bring along binoculars, so that was not helpful. Mr. Candee said it would be safe to drive the van into the corral to get a closer look at the bison. He said he would be over after finishing up with the calf.
Doug began driving into the corral area. There were lots of sturdy metal fences, and it was hard for me to figure out whether the bison could get to the van or not at any particular location. After I opened (and closed) a couple of gates I decided I could no longer be sure the mini van was not at risk, so I decided to approach the bison on foot. Doug joined me. The rest of the group stayed with the heater.
Unfortunately, even on foot we were having no luck. Any time we approached some bison, they would take off running. They didn't act the least bit tame, nor did they appear to like people walking up to them. At first I had kept my eyes on the nearest fence rail while constantly calculating how many seconds it would take me to clear the fence. But I soon came to realize that I would never get close enough to the bison to worry about one charging me. They ran away too fast and too far.
Finally, Mr. Candee showed up. Somehow, he knew how to get close enough to the animals that I could actually see my bison. He had a magnificent head and horns. His winter pelt was full and shiny. I felt comfortable that I could pick him out from the others. Which was good since Mr. Candee pointed out other bulls that were way out of my price range. One particular bull was such a good sire that Mr. Candee said he wouldn't take $75,000 for him. I didn't want to pay that anyway, so I was relieved when Mr. Candee said the plan was to isolate my bull that evening, and let him out (alone) into the general pasture in the morning a half hour or so before I arrived for the hunt.
Did I mention that it was cold out there. All through the corral were frozen pyramids of bison poop. Frozen solid. Except for the ones that were still steaming. Not only did this make for hazardous walking, it was not too easy on the van tires. Remember the van. The brand new van? With the paper plates.
With Lu in it.
As you may have guessed, disaster struck. While we were pulling out of the coral, Mr. Candee pointed out that a tire was getting low. By the time we cleared the last gate the tire was off the rim. I thought Doug's life was surely forfeit. Maybe mine too. I didn't think Lu was quite ready to see how the jack worked on her new car. But the tire was changed in record speed and Lu took it with more equanimity than I expected. And we made it back for Christmas dinner only a little late.
While last minute dinner arrangements were being made, I tried to figure out "how" to shoot a buffalo. The first problem was what I was going to shoot the buffalo with. Not journeying to North Dakota to shoot a buffalo, I had neglected to bring my buffalo rifle. Actually, I had forgotten to buy a buffalo rifle. But no matter. Doug had a Remington Model 700 bolt action rifle that fired a 30.06, 180 grain round. The rifle had a 4X Redfield widefield scope. Only problem was that Doug hadn't fired the rifle in around five years, and wasn't sure it was still sighted in. But not to worry. All we had to do was get up an hour earlier than previously planned, go out in the country and sight in the rifle. Piece of cake.
Well, there were a couple of other problems. One was that I had only shot a scoped rifle once, and that time was just at a target. Doug showed me how to move my head back and forth until I had a proper sight picture through the scope. So I was pretty confident I could put the cross-hairs where I wanted them to go. The question was, where was that?
Doug was saying to shoot the buffalo just behind the front shoulder. Mr. Candee had said to shoot it in the shoulder. I worried that even those instructions covered a lot of hide on a buffalo. I got on the web to see if there was anything on "How to Shoot a Buffalo." Unfortunately, we got called for dinner (twice) before I could find such an article. But I had pulled up some pictures of deer and when I pointed to where I thought the shot should go Doug confirmed I had the right idea. (I had also verified my theory by looking at a book on horses that David, my brother-in-law, had gotten for Christmas. It showed where the heart and lung were located on a horse. In the absence of other evidence I decided bison anatomy was similar.) Dinner, by the way, was great.
The alarm went off early on Tuesday morning. The first thing I did was to turn on the weather channel and check the temperature. It was a temperate minus one degree Fahrenheit. No wind though. That made it the warmest day since we had arrived in Dickinson. A good sign.
Mr. Candee had invited us to have breakfast with him in Dickinson. We met him at a restaurant and had a great breakfast. We were joined by the skinner, Don Schmidt, and Mr. Candee's son, Keith. Keith's wife and son (Cody) were there too. We talked about things like how we were going to get the buffalo into the back of a pickup truck to take it to the butcher shop. Remember, bison bull can weight 2000 lbs. Not exactly a weight one man, or even a group of men, can handle. Fortunately, Mr. Candee had a Bobcat that everyone agreed could lift the bison into the pickup. And Mr. Schmidt decided a come along would do to get the beast into the butcher shop.
That only left sighting in the rifle. We all went our separate ways from the restaurant except that Mr. Candee lead Doug and me to a spot on his ranch where we could sight in the rifle. Doug set up a target about 50 yards away and we used a blanket on top of the pickup as a bench rest. Doug took a shot and the three of us trooped down to the target to see how he did. Inches from dead center. The rifle was still sighted in.
Now it was my turn. I sighted in on the bull's eye, let out half of my breath and squeezed the trigger. I never even heard the shot. We headed for the target for the moment of truth. I was hoping I had hit the darn thing. I knew shooting at paper from a bench rest was going to be a sight easier than shooting the actual buffalo.
When we got to the target I was relieved to see that my bullet had hit less than an inch from Doug's. Doug's was closer, but I was satisfied. Time to hunt. Doug and I arrived at Mr. Candee's ranch about 8:30 am. We were told my buffalo had been let out earlier that morning and that he had taken off and disappeared over a hill. They didn't know where he was. We all piled into Mr. Candee's pickup and headed out in search of the buffalo.
We located him next to a corner of a fenced area. He was bucking and showing off for a herd of bison cows. Probably thought it was his lucky day. Still, when we pulled up he gave me just enough time to get out of the truck and he took off at a run. I went around the truck and watched him disappear down a draw and behind a rock outcropping. When last I saw him he was at least half a mile away.
I stood there trying to figure out how I was going to get down the draw and how much farther away the buffalo would run when he saw me again. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. It was the buffalo peeking around the rock. Still down in the draw. But moving. And moving back toward me. I stayed still and he continued coming back in my direction. That didn't make sense.
But then I figured out what was happening. He wasn't coming back to me. He was coming back to the ladies. The buffalo cows had been across the fence from where we first saw him, and they were still there. Drawing him like a lodestone.
I slowly lowered my cheek to the rifle stock and lined up the scope. I hadn't squinted yet and I could still see the buffalo coming toward me. I zeroed in on the scope and the buffalo appeared in the field of view.
All that stuff about shooting in the shoulder became somewhat meaningless. The side of the buffalo filled the scope, and it was hard to see exactly where the shoulder was in all that hair. Still, I swung the rifle in time with the buffalo's movement and lined up the shot as best I could.
The first shot staggered the buffalo, but he didn't drop. He took about three steps and halted. He legs were all splayed out and he seemed to have trouble standing. But he wouldn't fall. At the time it seemed to me like I gave him thirty seconds to drop before I fired my second shot (which put him down instantly). The video tape Doug made showed it was only about seven seconds between the first and second shots. Seemed like forever to me. We went over to make sure the buffalo was dead and then headed back to get the skinner.
We had arranged for Don Schmidt, the skinner, to be standing by, because during a North Dakota winter you have to skin the buffalo almost immediately, or it will freeze solid.
Because buffalo are so heavy, we had to use a Bobcat to lift it into a pickup for its journey to the butcher shop. And a come along to move it from the pickup into the butcher shop.
I shot the buffalo through the heart. I have the slug, and the heart. I didn't shoot it through the liver, but I have that too. I was willing to eat a chunk of raw liver, but cooler heads convinced me that general hygiene dictated against that tradition. My mother and dad were gracious enough to agree to take the (frozen) liver and heart to their home in Midland until I picked it up and got it back to Houston. Anyone for buffalo pate? A few days after the hunt Doug and Lu picked up the head and hide and drove to Montana to drop them off at the shop of Steve Jenkins, the taxidermist I have chosen. I am also having a purse made out of select parts. And a walking stick. Unfortunately, it takes up to a year to have the taxidermy work, so it will be a while before I have a picture of the head. I know you all will be holding your breath. Stay tuned. To view pictures of my hunt, click here.
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