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A Dream of Bison

December 2023
Story by Jerry Herrod
State: Alaska
Species: Bison

During the November 2021 Alaska Draw Hunt Application period, I blasted a shotgun pattern of lottery tag applications into the Alaska Department of Fish and Game system along with what us local Alaskans call their annual “donation” to Fish and Game with a grimace and a stroke of the keyboard as I typed my credit card into the lottery payment. I had seldom applied for bison, but I decided on a whim that I would apply for the Farewell area and put just one application into the hunt. That application became an afterthought as I lusted after other hunts, like the Chugach Mountains Dall sheep.

The day of the results, I began scrolling through the list and the first result for me was “DI352 – Yes.” I didn’t quite believe it was the bison tag for Farewell. It would be for the spring 2023 season. A whole year of lamenting over the tag commenced. It was the only tag I drew, and at that point, I was elated beyond care of any of the Dall sheep tags I had applied for. I would soon become obsessed with bison.

A friend of mine, Justin Dubay, reached out and said he would like to help me on the hunt. I was more than excited to have his help since he was very familiar with the area and had been on bison hunts there in the past through his guide business, Kokanee Guide Service. The planning commenced. We got our logistics dialed in, and I had secured my vacation time for the hunt. We were all set to hunt the last 10 days of the March season.

The day came in March for us to leave. I drove to Justin’s place near the airport we were to depart from. Gear was packed, and all was set to go. Then, on departure day, we got the dreaded news from our bush pilot that is the Achilles heel of all hunt logistics in Alaska, weather hold. Afternoon rolled around, and our pilot said we had to bag it until tomorrow.

The next morning, we got more of the same from our pilot. Weather was still down. Cameras showed more low clouds, and we couldn’t fly. Delay day two. I left and came back again the following morning. Pilot called again. Delayed again. I was starting to feel some discomfort now. Two days burned due to weather on a 10-day hunt, and the last day of the hunt was also aligned with the last day of the bison season for my tag. Those weather days cut deep, but that’s the nature of flying in small bush planes.

Day three came up. Delayed. Weather. I was getting anxiety now. This tag was less than a 1% chance of draw, basically a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity. I could feel a bit of a sweat on my forehead. On top of the delays, once we did get to the field, we had to wait until the following day to hunt big game per state rules.

Day four. Pilot called and said the weather was up. We had a window. We threw all our gear into the truck and blasted off to the small airfield. We met our pilot, Kevin Asher of Asher Air Service. I was ready to finally get into the field. It was a beautiful day to fly. Over an hour of flying in the fast and nimble Cessna 185 Skywagon and we arrived at our intermediate location and dropped in to meet Rob. We spotted a lone bull bison less than a mile away as we circled the airstrip. I had a feeling within myself that this was going to work out, but I didn’t dare speak it. We dumped our gear and began the shuttling in Rob’s classic Alaska bush taxi, the Super Cub.

As I crawled into the Super Cub on my turn to fly, the excitement was really starting to grip me. As we flew the river, I looked out and spotted scattered groups of three to six bison here and there. It was enough for me at that moment just to see real wild bison roaming free.

Once camp was set, we crawled into our sleeping bags next to the wood stove of the Arctic Oven tent that Justin had brought along. As I dozed off, the stove slowly lost stoke and the sharp cold air burned my nose, causing me to wake. I stoked up the stove, and the heat felt like a hot sun on my face. It was soothing, and I was quickly asleep, dreaming of giant, hairy bison running wild.

Morning came, and we set forth. Climbing to hilltops for glassing views was no small feat as years prior a large forest fire had scorched the landscape and left so much felled timber, but also leaving behind an ecosystem ideal for grazing wildlife like Plains bison. We hiked for several miles, searching every opening, clearing, muskeg, or field we could find with nothing but piles of bison chips and windblown tracks. The bison had seemingly melted away into the landscape.

We rounded a blind bend and found a series of frozen ponds along with a creek bed that flowed into a large, open windblown flat. There, I spotted a bison. I saw one, two, three, and then seven. All cows. This tag was specifically for a bull bison. I edged closer toward the treeline at the edge of the open and saw a bison that was obscured along the far treeline. It was substantially larger than the seven cows and had a pronounced large, shaggy head. Without a doubt, it was a bull bison. I had decided I was going to harvest the first adult bison I came across, and we put the stalk on.

I climbed up the ridgeline some 100 feet in elevation above the bison, and Justin followed as spotter. One of the cows took notice of us but stayed bedded and watched us while we slogged up the ridge. Justin held back and glassed while I set up for the shot. I settled in at 98 yards and dropped the hammer. The sound of the bullet impact on the bull bison was like a sledgehammer hitting an oak tree. He soaked it up and stood there like nothing had happened.

I was shooting a .308 Winchester with Federal 175 grain trophy bonded bullets at 2850 fps right into the heart and lung area without even a flinch. Two more rounds fired, and the bull soaked it up again. Now, the rest of the bison had wandered off single file into the trees, but the bull remained. He slowly laid down and that was it.

I had killed a real wild bison. I was overwhelmed with excitement. We dropped off the ridgeline and navigated around the creek and open water leads up to the bison. It was surreal. I ran my hand along the side of it, through the hair that was both slightly coarse and soft at the same time. I had never been that close to a bison before. As we admired the bull before we got into the work of butchering, Justin commented that it looked like a really nice-sized bull, much bigger than a lot of what he had seen from the area. Not only did I kill a wild bison, but it was also a true old, mature representative of the area.

The weather was unbelievably bright, and by this point in the day, I had gone nearly snow blind. I squinted my way through setting up for photographs and the skinning and butchering afterwards. We worked until sunset, rolled the hide, stacked the quarters and trim meat in game bags, and returned to our camp several miles away.

I hardly slept at all. I had visions of a pack of wolves devouring the quarters and tearing the hide apart. We set out the next morning and found nothing had disturbed our cache. Justin had messaged Rob on the InReach of our success, and he decided to drop in and help out since he was bored sitting around camp with his sled dog, Charlie.

Rob buzzed in with the Cub, and shuttling meat began. On the final trip, I packed into the Super Cub with Rob, gear behind me, meat in the belly pod of the Cub, and a bison head in my lap. Back at the airstrip, we dumped our gear, loaded into Rob’s camp, and feasted on bison tenderloins and fresh Alaskan-brewed beer.

Our pilot who dropped us off wasn’t able to pick us and the bison up in one load in the Cessna 185, so arrangements were made for a different pilot and plane. One of the great bush flying legends, Willie Fulton, came to get us in his De Havilland Beaver. With a headwind, we were up in short order flying into the sunset back to Anchorage. A lifetime hunt had been accomplished in just a matter of a few days, and memories were burned into the archives of my mind.