How to hunt bison in the backcountry

Photo: Mike Moore

Or; how we did our recent hunt, and what I might consider doing differently next time.

First, you have to get a tag.  I explained the particular appeal of the Absaroka-Beartooth tag in this post, and was beyond pleased that my thesis about this hunt was borne out on the ground.  We found a very large, obviously quite old, lone bull in the first likely (flat, grassy, abundant water) spot.  Presumably there were more further down towards the main meadows, but in look and setting he gave me no cause for second thoughts, and as I “snuck” perfunctorily to 60 yards the bison gave me neither a first nor second glance.  What will be of interest as this hunt matures is how long the bison remain so unmoved by humans.  We ran into another party hunting bison, and heard rumors of a third, which accounts for over half the five tags.  Access and terrain seem to suggest that this side of the unit will be the most popular.  How many more years of getting shot will their ancestral memory permit?  And how much harder will this hunt get when that happens?  Montana has given out 5 tags each for three years now.  Around 350 folks applied in 2016, over 500 in 2017, and 406 in 2018.  Many people, including switched on resident hunters, haven’t yet heard of this hunt.  When that emphatically changes, how much will the odds change with it?

Second, you need a good crew of folks.  In this I give myself a large amount of credit, for knowing the right people, and them a lot of credit too, for being as generous with their time, money, and sweat as everyone was.  Jack flew from Fairbanks, and his moose experience and very strong back proved invaluable.  Craig drove (!!) from Los Angeles, and though he had never packed out big game his willingness to suffer and ability to always be attentive and optimistic were essential.  Mike was the elder statesman, in age and experience with big game, as well as with four letter words.  Skinning a bison is not a simple thing, even if you’ve been through a bunch of smaller critters before, and I like to think that he and I tackled that daunting job as efficiently as was reasonable.   Tim, born and raised Montanan, had never been hunting before, which didn’t hold him back from hauling the kind of packs any seasoned hunter would find worthy of bragging rights.  And Norm appeared, magic, at just the right moment Monday, buoying spirits and rallying us all to grab the last bits of meat and get everything out in two total trips.

There is a certain sense to which the whole affair was an anticlimactic, anti-adventure, insofar as everything that could be planned for hewed to course, and absolutely no drama or shenanigans ensued.  I can’t overemphasize just how likely, in the course of a five+ hour night-time butchering session and two day, 700+ pound packing session, minor injuries which could quickly turn major should have been.  The worst thing we had were a few hand nicks from knives, sore shoulders, and in a few cases, trashed feet.  Even the drive in and out, rowdier than anyone anticipated and ripe for cut tires, saw no hazards beyond scrapped running boards.  This is entirely due to an excellent platoon of troops who were attentive and cohesive.

Third, you need to be efficient.  I pulled the trigger a few minutes after 6pm Saturday night.  We had all the meat off, deboned and hung, the hide crudely fleshed and salted and drug a ways away, and the kill site cleaned up and water bottles full by 2330.  Everyone was quite tired, and for my own part I had gotten dehydrated enough that it took most of the next day to get back on an even keel, but through the whole course everyone took and gave orders and did their best.  Jack and Tim gathered fire wood and hung rope while Mike and I skinned, with Craig around to hold legs and hide as needed (an essential job).  Jack then transitioned to boning quarters, Craig to fetching water, Tim to holding limbs and hide, and everyone got their turn to rest around the fire and keep an eye up and down valley for bears.  When the time came it took Jack, Mike, myself, and eventually Craig to move the hide away from the carcass, and we gave up short of our goal due to exhaustion.  None of us are tire-flipping meatheads, but none of us are particularly unfit either, suggesting that the wet hide was both awkward to move and well over 200 pounds.

Fourth, you need a lot of game bags, and a means to safeguard a lot of meat.  In the six miles between the kill and the trailhead there were exactly two places with trees large enough of limb to hold 100+ pound hangs.  One was conveniently on the edge of the meadow in which I shot the bison, the other was almost exactly halfway back to the trucks.  300 feet of cord was well short of what would have been ideal, and forced us into hangs which were too heavy.  They broke limbs, grooved limbs, and often required 3 people to heft into the air.  500 feet would have been more like it.  Also, the bigger game bags I made were too big, and ended up being too heavy.  The smaller ones (18×26″) were ideal, but the material was a bit on the light side.  Two bags ripped on limbs, one failing such that it had to be replaced.  12-14 smaller game bags would have been better.  An electric bear fence would have saved a lot of time and energy, and if/when I get to help out on this hunt in the future one would be highly recommended, and open up more possibilities for meat storage.  A crude estimate is that we had between 600 and 650 pounds of boned out meat to handle.

Fifth, you need a lot of knife blades.  Seeing a bison on the ground is impressive, and getting into the butchering only reinforces this.  The hide on the back of the shoulder and through the whole neck is over an inch thick, and everything from the tissue around the eyes to the silver skin and tendons are proportionally tougher.  We had three scapel-blade knives, and went through something on the order of 16 blades.  We also had a few premium fixed blade knives, which dulled very fast.  Had we relied solely on those someone would have been on almost full time sharpening duty.

My intention was to use a light hatchet to skullcap the horns, like one would on an elk, and this did not work.  The horns are attached with a lot of very thick bone, and it took about 45 minutes of chopping, while most of the team hung meat, to separate both horns separately.  The whole skull, even without the hide, would have been very heavy.  As mentioned the hide itself exceeded all expectations when it came to weight.  I brought in 12 pounds of salt, and spread that after getting the biggest patches of flesh and fat off.  We moved it as far as we could and spread it up on a log, fur up, to promote air circulation.  Both nights were in the low 40s or colder, which kept the meat and hide in good condition.  The hide got a good dose of rain the second night, which added a bit of weight.  Triaging and everyone being tired had me cut the head and back half off, and take out the 1/3 covering the shoulders and a bit on either side.  This piece was easily 80 pounds wet.

img_6578Monday night meat sort, minus the 1/6 already headed to Norm’s house.

Sixth, and most importantly, you need some time and space to appreciate it all.  It seems the exception that hunting trips allow much space for appreciation, with conditions often requiring you dive straight into butchering and then packing.  With a 2000 pound animal this is even more the case, and my level of exhaustion was such that even today, almost six days after pulling the trigger, I’ve only just begun to have the experience catch up with the rest of me.  Surprisingly fancy burgers at the Miner’s Saloon in Cooke City helped a bit, at least giving us all a chance to sit unmoving and try to put a few words down before we all parted ways.  I’m not sure many people, including all of us, have the perspective needed to appreciate what we did over those three days.  Getting it might take a few more years.

15 responses to “How to hunt bison in the backcountry”

  1. Dave-I fully agree you did a great job assembling a crew! Guys really gelled and the work ethic was as good as I’ve ever seen.

    Big tip of the hat!


  2. collinswannabesite Avatar

    So jealous…sounds like one hell of an incredible experience…would have been awesome to help out. But, also just as happy for you all. So glad you had a great time together. Congrats on pullin goff such a great life experience.

  3. Hi Dave, I’m not a hunter, can you explain what the salting does? thanks and congrats :)

    1. Pulls water out of the skin. Which in turn prevents rot.

  4. I still can’t help but sit back and marvel about how efficiently this whole thing went off. No doubt so much of it due to good preparation on your part as well as an excellent crew. And a healthy dose of luck never hurts. There were so many opportunities for things to get sideways that simply never materialized- the bison could’ve gone down in one of the ditches in the meadow or we could’ve been forced off by a bear. That rainstorm could’ve easily come while we were in the middle of butchering or we could’ve had to pack twice as far. It was an amazing weekend that I’ll remember forever; I’m grateful to have played a part out there with all of you.

  5. I’m still having trouble properly processing it and putting it into perspective as well. The setting, the animal, the history and the group all aligned for an experience that I’m likely undervaluing at the moment. It was beyond special and I’m grateful to have been a part of it.

  6. Incredible. Thank you Dave for allowing us to be a part of this. Great job planning including the logistics involved with this out of the box experience. All your prep in the weeks prior made for a thrilling and rewarding experience for me. I am honored to have shared the experience with such a quality group of individuals. I would go anywhere with You, Mike, Craig, Jack and Norm.

    “I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate.”

    It was a blessing to be able to live it after all this time of watching it. Thanks again.


  7. Bravo, dudes. Cant imagine how impressive that thing was.

  8. Wow what an accomplishment. What rifle did you end up using?

    1. Kimber. 168 grain ttsx

  9. […] meter static line?), and for taming awkward loads generally.  I used one last fall to roll up a bison hide for transport, and chained three together the other week to get our new-to-us (1950s Corona, […]

  10. […] instance may well have been the bison last fall, a trip whose innocuous profundity looms ever larger with each passing month.  […]

  11. […] I relish, mainly because it is the opposite of so much of wild hunting in the 21st century.  Bison, for instance, is in the hunting all to do with the rarity of the tag, and the potential rarity in […]

  12. […] of interest this time of year makes it a good to flesh out the myths.  Between deer, elk, and that one bison tag three years ago I’ve killed (and crucially, packed out) at least two big game animals in each […]

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