We all know how it works, you get the exciting news that you’ve drawn a once-in-a-lifetime hunt and start planning. The planning and preparation for a hunt is the key to success and the most time-consuming aspect. That moment when you nock an arrow or aim a rifle is just the culmination of many long hours, days, and months of preparation, and, of course, the beginning of many frantic hours of field dressing when you are successful. Here is the truth. The planning can sometimes go awry!
When the Utah draw came out, I was successful for a free-range bison. This would be my second bison hunt in three seasons. Excited doesn’t begin to describe my emotions.
Then the planning started. My hunting partner, John, and I decided to do this one on our own. While we love hunting with outfitters, and in reality, we are still “young” hunters with only 10 years of experience, we are always looking for the hunts we can do ourselves from start to finish. We realized we would need some minimal support field processing. John made a call to Huntin’ Fool and got a group lined up for that with Allout Outfitters and JT Robbins. His main camp is for elk in Colorado, so he would be about an hour away and would be able to bring in his pack horses and another guide to help process once we called him. Huntin’ Fool’s Hunt Advisors were supportive, understanding of budget and other concerns, and very helpful. They recommended a good guy, a family man, a passionate outdoorsman, and a hard worker.
The first step was how to do some pre-season scouting. Should we hire someone to do that? Make a couple of trips to Utah in a hurry amid everything else we had already planned? Neither option worked, so I started using my computer the way I normally do for trips, mapping out every detail I could find. This worked great by using onXmaps. I used it to plan where I might see bison and might make camp.
In a two-month period I added quite a few areas as potential herd locations based on a lot of reading, checking with other hunters, and talking with the Utah Fish and Game bison biologist. The general consensus was that the western area near the Colorado border of the hunt zone was best for the year. Three areas looked most promising – Moon Ridge, Winter Ridge, and Seep Ridge, including Rock Springs Mesa.
In the meantime, John injured his ankle, completely rupturing his Achilles tendon. This injury required surgery, extensive recovery, and major changes to our plans. There was some concern that I would need to go solo on the hunt and would need additional help even if John was able to travel. We arranged for JT to add support for camp set up and two days of scouting/hunting with me. JT’s main elk camp would require him after the two days, so we might need to do more hunting on our own. JT would still bring in pack horses and help with field dressing if we ended up shooting while he was not there.
John, fortunately, was able to make the trip but was not able to be on the ground with me much of the time. JT, a great guy, had a tent set up for us on site very near to where I had marked a possible campsite. After getting settled into the tent, we spent the first half day scouting and found that my pre-scouting with onXmaps was quite good. I had marked several places where JT said that during the last bison season two weeks prior there were bison. If we were hunting on our own as we planned, I would have been in the right place.
The next day, we did a lot of glassing and scouting from a mountain knob. JT and I made several stalks without seeing anything. This was opening day of the hunt and a weekend with a lot of locals, so we deliberately decided to avoid the very busy area of Rock Springs Mesa. We heard three shots and saw three bison down. That night, it rained, making the tent less comfortable but not unbearable.
We actually followed our plan for the next day! Since there were still a lot of campers and trucks around Rock Springs Mesa, we were going to avoid that area. First, we checked out “JT Guzzler” that few people knew about and saw new bison tracks. We decided to spend the morning doing road spot and stalk followed by an afternoon of watching the guzzler. After walking the fields adjacent to the guzzler, we spent the late afternoon watching for any activity at the guzzler.
That evening, JT had to go to his elk camp, so we were left with guide Laramie. We planned to hunt around the northern part of the unit in the morning and then since both John and I had some work to do and JT had gone to elk camp, we would head to Mack, Colorado for a short time before coming back to do the evening hunt. Laramie was a super passionate hunter.
Rock Springs Mesa had cleared out of people, but the bison hadn’t returned yet. It had been a very hectic area for the last three days, so they may have needed a bit more time to calm down. On a road spot and stalk around the valleys, we saw no bison but a lot of sign. We went into Mack to stay overnight at JT’s because it was too late to go and come back for the evening hunt.
Our plan for the next day was to drive back up to the tent camp and do some road spot and stalk along the way. We planned to get into the camp, change, and go check to see if JT Guzzler had any new prints. However, the big herd was back out on Rock Springs Mesa and we got the chance to see them. Change of plans. We went to camp just to change clothes for a bit more stalking, not planning to shoot as there would be no help for the post-shot process.
Before even going to the guzzler to check for prints, we were back at the mesa looking at the big herd. We had been meeting up with and talking with an elk hunter during the past few days, and they were camped near us. We asked if they wanted to join us to be spotters while we moved in a little closer. It’s a good thing they said yes because it would have been difficult to find the herd once we moved off the higher Moon Ridge Road down onto the mesa roads. We moved to within one ridge of the herd where at first I couldn’t see anything but some wild horses. JT said, “That’s a really good bull. I’d hate to see anyone else get him.” I couldn’t see him yet, but the hunt was on!
We stalked the herd for about a mile and were able to get under 200 yards. My target bull was apart from the rest of the herd by 30 yards or so with nothing behind. He was sitting, but a herd of wild horses was running by and he decided to stand. He looked very good to me. At that point, I took the shot. John had hobbled out to the field in a plastic boot with a crutch to be on hand to see me shoot. The first shot was low and hit a small ridge between us and him. The big tatanka ignored the warning, so fate was on my side. He didn’t move at all. My second shot hit him, and he started turning around slowly, listing to one side. Once he got back into a quartering position, I took a third shot for insurance and he went down right where he stood up. No chasing this one!
After taking photos at sunset, it was 8 p.m. and the work began. The plan was to have at least two additional people from the Allout team, but it was just JT, John, and me. John was a trooper since he was still in the walking cast stage, and honestly, I was mostly the “pull this, push there, and carry this” part of the team.
We worked nonstop until 3 a.m. when we drove exhausted but happy to JT’s home where we collapsed for a few hours before loading up the meat to get to our preferred processor, Brian Snyder Meat Processing in Sigurd, Utah. They processed John’s Utah elk last year, and we really liked their work.
In the end, very few of our original or even day-by-day plans were followed. However, the final result is what you always dream of – a beautiful animal, a merciful shot, a full freezer, and a memory that will not fade.