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Self-Quarantining in an Arizona Bison Blind

It was on the 49th day of my 2020 self-quarantined quest that I was presented with a shot opportunity at a true Goliath of an old bull bison.  He arrived along with a herd of 25 to 30 animals, at a time — and under conditions — I least expected.  At high noon and during a steady rain.

Suddenly, it was sheer bedlam 10 to 12 yards out in front of my Double-Bull blind, where the four salt blocks were attracting far more tongues than could possibly reach them at any given moment.  Clearly the old bull was dominating one salt, but even though his back was nearly a foot higher than any other bull or cow in the bunch, his head stayed down for many minutes before I was finally able to get a clear view of both horns.  I didn’t want to attempt a shot at his massive rib cage, until I was certain neither horn was broken or deformed.

Once I knew for sure he was truly a bull that exceeded even my fondest dreams, another five minutes passed before a decent, broadside shot opened up between the bull and the other animals that were constantly in motion.  His vitals were only exposed for perhaps three seconds, but I was able to send my 800-grain arrow his way just in time, before the gap disappeared altogether.

To my absolute horror, however — under the pressure and excitement of the moment — as I quickly drew and released, I forgot I needed to cant my recurve a few inches to the left, in order to avoid any contact with the roof of my blind!  The smack was so loud the entire herd instantly panicked and in less than ten seconds every single animal had noisily disappeared back into the forest. 

I sat there stupefied!  My arrow-shaft had sailed weakly out the tent window and struck Goliath high in the back with the force of a whiffle-ball.  With 49 days “in the bank,” so to speak (plus five from the year before), I suddenly started shaking uncontrollably like an aspen leaf in a stiff breeze.  Never  had I felt so disgusted or so bitterly disappointed with myself.  I sat there in the blind in utter disbelief, unable to stop shivering for nearly 40 minutes. 

By the time I got my nerves and emotions back under control, the rain had turned to hail and the ground around me was almost solid white.  The new landscape certainly reflected my wintry mood and it was all I could do to resist a sudden compulsion to go into hibernation for the rest of the season. 

Taureans like me however, are known to be stubborn. We seldom give up.  Little did I know that 17 days later I would have one final opportunity to fill my tag with a genuine, trophy-quality animal.  Bison aficionados call them Pumpkinheads.                                   

To understand the full context and implications of the drama just recounted, I need to go back to the beginning of this incredible adventure. 

As was the case for countless Americans, the summer of 2020 was like none other in my life.  In the spring of 2019, I had been fortunate enough to obtain an Arizona Commissioners’ bison tag.   When the 365-day season opened that year on August 15, I was there on the Kaibab Plateau (at 9,000 feet) for the first five days, but a long-planned Alaska caribou hunt forced me to head North shortly after my season opened — without having ever laid eyes on a single bison of any sort.  I knew that in 2020 I would return to Arizona, prepared to give the hunt my maximum effort.

Thus, the following April, I contacted outfitter Russ Jacoby of Flagstaff, AZ, who had been recommended to me by an accomplished and well-known bowhunter named Bob Griego.

Bob’s referral turned out to be sterling — not only because Russ has that kind of reputation, but also because he is possibly the smartest, hardest-working outfitter I’ve ever been privileged to know and hunt with.

An initial phone conversation with Russ lasted nearly two hours.  I told him how important this bison hunt was going to be for me and that I was prepared to spend two months or more if necessary, to achieve my goal. While I quarantined myself far from the madding crowds and from the coronavirus running rampant throughout the country.  I asked him what he would charge me for his services, especially if it took me a number of weeks to fill my tag.  His answer nearly left me speechless.

“Dennis,” he said, “I am thrilled to find a hunter like you who has what it takes to stay the course until you finally have a crack at a true trophy animal.  There is a reason AZG&F advertises this hunt in their Regs as one of the toughest in the State — and definitely not for everyone.”

Russ continued:  “I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, and my records show that the average  amount of time a hunter must sit

— dawn till dark — in a blind, over salt, until he sees his first bison, is 14 days.  Frankly, most guys can’t hack it for more than a week and end up throwing in the towel, thus never filling their tag ”

Two weeks is more than I expected him to say, but my reply was simply that I felt up to the challenge and did not believe I would disappoint him.  So, then I returned to the question of his fees, and this is the part of his answer that shocked me.

“I will provide you with three meals a day, your own private, spacious wall tent with generator-produced electric power, a microwave oven, a propane heater, chairs, table, cot, sleeping bag — and hot showers, whenever you need one.  In addition — daily transportation to within walking-distance of your blind and return pickup at dark.  When you finally arrow your bull, my services include removing the carcass from the kill-site back to base camp, skinning and quartering the animal, freezing the meat, and then finally delivering both meat and trophy to the butcher and taxidermist of your choice.”

“And how much is all that going to cost me?” I queried, not sure I really wanted to hear the answer.

“Your contract will state that your fee is zero dollars.”

I was dumbfounded!  “How can that be?” I finally managed to ask.

Russ responded, “When we part company at the end of your hunt, Dennis, I just ask that you pay me whatever you feel the total experience was worth to you.” 

Once again, I was nearly at a loss for words, but I knew right then that I was about to embark on one of the greatest adventures of my life and that the opportunity to bond with a man of such quality was beyond price.

Had my wife not fallen and broken her hip on Friday, the 13th of March, while we were attending the biennial gathering of the Professional Bowhunters Society, I would have headed for Arizona around May 1.  By late May, however, Karen was sufficiently healed and mobile that she urged me to leave her behind and head for the Kaibab Plateau to continue my quest.

I arrived at Russ’ camp the eve of May 24 and resumed my hunt in earnest the next day.  Since I knew I might be there for quite some time, I told Russ that I didn’t think I could handle 15 hours a day in a blind—from dark to dark.  I said I thought I could manage 12 hours a day over the longer haul, but that I was going to need to give up either the first three hours of daylight, or the last three. We agreed that, to start with, I would give up the first three.

At this point I should explain that, over the past dozen years, virtually all of the House Rock bison herd has migrated up onto the plateau and into the northern half of the Grand Canyon National Park.  Naturally, they cannot be hunted there.  Because the herd has grown to over 1,200 animals by Park Service estimates, both AZG&F and the Service encourage hunting for them from blinds, over salt — situated in very close proximity to the northern Park boundary.  

The various salt locations are stretched out over about 25 miles on an East/West axis, more or less parallel to the northern Park boundary.  The 50-60 salt locations are maintained (and have been for many years) by one Russ Jacoby — for the benefit of all hunters lucky enough to draw an Arizona bison tag.

The bison are hunted virtually year-round and they are very  afraid of being found outside the Park, since they get shot at all the time.   

If they so much as hear a truck engine from half-a-mile away, while outside the Park, they are back across that boundary in a matter of seconds. 

This explains why spot and stalk is virtually impossible there and why virtually all the bison killed now are taken from blinds.  It also explains why most of their visits to the salts are nocturnal.  

Occasionally however, they do give in to their craving for salt, make a mistake and sneak across the boundary during daylight hours — especially when it is very hot, or when there is little-to-no moon.  Those are the only things which provide the patient hunter the occasional opportunity to kill one.

During my 66-day quarantine in the summer of 2020 (with one 11-day break in the middle), I passed up several lesser, trophy bulls — always holding out for one of top quality.  On returning from those 11 days off, I started giving up the final three hours of daylight, rather than the first three.  My hope was that my shift in strategy might produce a change of luck.

Although this article was launched by the graphic portrayal of my encounter with goliath on say 49 of my 2020 hunt, I actually had a total of three chances to harvest a true trophy bull. 

Opportunity number three involved the bull I finally killed, just three days before my tag would have expired on August 14.

However, opportunity number one must really be described also, because it taught me an invaluable lesson.

It occurred on Day 46 — during only my second sit at a brand-new salt location called QS. Russ’s son Jacob, walked in with me in the pre-dawn darkness, carrying a new upright chair to replace the one that was creaking more and more loudly whenever I moved on it.  As soon as he left, I started settling into my blind, but — carelessly — I began unpacking my rucksack before hauling my bow inside the tent and zipping it shut.

Huge Mistake!  It was the only time in a month-and-a-half that I had done that!  Thirty seconds later, I looked out the window of my blind and spotted, in the still-dim light, the dark silhouette of an enormous beast, not even 15 yards away, quietly striding toward the closest salt block. 

He was totally silent.  I tried —ever so slowly — to retrieve my bow, but I suspect the moving, vertical strip of light at the open rear of the blind gave me away.  Or else it was some slight noise which he overheard at such close range.  Anyway, I never got a second look at him.  By the time I had hauled myself back up onto my chair, he had vanished into thin air as quietly as he’d arrived.  As one can imagine, I was more than a bit upset with myself and figured I had undoubtedly squandered my chances for the rest of the day.

Then an hour later, lo and behold there he was again!  Straight across, coming directly at me out of the trees, with the salt block in between us.  I guess I really hadn’t spooked him much after all.  

He was extremely wary of the blind, however, and kept staring at it.  I doubt he spent more than 40 to 45 seconds upping his salt intake, with most of that time used trying to evaluate the degree of danger he might be facing from the blind in front of him. 

Unfortunately, he never did offer me a good shot-angle.  When he suddenly departed, he wheeled, showed me his rump and disappeared into the woods as quickly and quietly as he had arrived.  I had naively been holding out for a stationary, broadside shot.

With the remainder of the day to ponder things, I eventually concluded I should have been ready to draw and release my arrow the moment he started to turn.  As the saying goes, hindsight is always perfect. 

Happily, I had managed to snap several photos with my iPad during the short time he was there.  In looking at those pictures, I feel confident the bull would have scored 120 inches or more.  

Although my “bull of destiny” was nothing like Goliath, or ghost one for that matter, he quietly appeared from nowhere just before

5 p.m., at Salt number six, on Day 66.  I was about to pack up for the hike out, but I was still doing some last-minute reading in the Book of Psalms. Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “Dennis, look up!”

Glancing quickly out the front of the blind, I was stunned to see a genuine Pumpkinhead only 15 yards away and headed for the salts directly below me.  He was all alone. 

Unfortunately, by the time he started to chow down, the old bull had ended up facing directly at me.  For a quarter of an hour, he gorged himself — never moving.  I knew I simply had no shot in that situation. 

This time, I knew when he finally turned to go, I would have, at most, a second or two to get the shot off while his vitals were briefly exposed.

When that moment arrived, my arrow had been nocked (with fingers on the string) for quite some time.  The heavy broadhead was sticking out the window of the blind and as I quickly drew and released I don’t recall ever reaching the anchor point under my cheekbone. 

I probably did, but I certainly didn’t hold for even a fraction of a second.  With God’s guiding hand, the heavy fir arrow busted through a rib, transfixed both lungs, and completely severed

the pulmonary artery while passing in between the two lungs. Consequently, the bull suffered instant, massive, internal bleeding and died within seconds — traveling only 18 yards from his salt block.  

To say that I was thrilled and overcome with emotion, doesn’t begin to convey the reality of what I felt in those moments following the shot.  The Lord had answered my prayers. 

Of the 71 total days I had spent in a bison blind (2019 and 2020), there were only seven when any bison at all dared to visit any of the seven different blind locations I hunted from.  On fewer than ten percent of the days I hunted did I even see a bison, but that was better than the odds Russ had described during our initial phone conversation.

Jacob estimated the weight of my bull at around 1,800 pounds and his age at 9 or 10 years.  Russ concurred.  The animal produced 605 pounds of cut and wrapped meat — nearly all of which I gave to Hayden and Dallen Lambson, the two Idaho artists who had donated, gratis, their artwork to my book, BAREBOW!, when it first came out in 2008. 

The harvest of this bison now puts me within one single-species upgrade of the first-ever, Barebow, all Pope-&-Young Super Slam.  To date, as far as I know, only five archers have recorded all 29 species in the P & Y Records, but no one has ever done it without using a compound bow that had yardage sight-pins attached.  Such will be a first and I hope to get there first.  Or, just getting there at all would be truly wonderful — and another miracle.

Being now in my ninth decade of life, I realize I’m in a serious race with Father Time.  This coming August/September — with God’s blessing — I hope to take a trophy-quality Alaska Barren Ground Caribou to complete my quest.  It will be my eighth hunt for that species.

Was this bison-upgrade harvest accomplished with Providential assistance?  You’d better believe it, and I’ll accept that kind of help every time it’s offered! Yes, I believe in miracles.–Dennis Dunn

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