There's big game and then there's really big game.
Area hunters Bart Harmer, Steve Vandeputte, John Thelen and Mike Thelen recently hunted the biggest game animal in North America. The hunt took place where none of the four ever expected to hunt -- the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Severe drought last summer led to a shortage of prairie grass, meaning trouble for the reservation's buffalo. Fearing there were too many animals for the available grasses, the Indians issued 100 permits to take buffalo on the 5,000-square mile reservation. The last time that happened was in 1985.
"We decided to give it a shot," said Harmer, whose big game pursuits to that point had been limited to deer. "Going onto an Indian reservation with an Indian guide sounded kind of cool."
Permits cost $700 for an immature bull or cow and $1,500 for a trophy bull. The group originally had planned to take two trophies and two immature animals, but when they saw the size of the trophy buffalo they traded their two immature permits for another trophy permit. "We did a little trading right out there on the prairie," Harmer said.
The group spent the night of Dec. 15 in a motel in Kadoka, S.D. At sunrise the next morning they drove to the reservation and met their guide, who said he was a direct descendant of Sitting Bull. Then it was out on the prairie in search of buffalo.
They drove through rolling hills, gullies, woods. When they found the herd they got out of the vehicle and walked two miles to a small rise on the prairie where they could see the unsuspecting herd grazing below.
The herd was about 300 yards away -- not a chip shot by any means.But the .300 Winchester Magnum and .30-06 caliber rifles the foursome toted could get the job done. The guide told them to aim behind the shoulder or behind the ear. Two shots dropped two buffaloes in their tracks, but one shot was off the mark and the animal bolted from the herd. This is typical of buffalo, the guide said. A wounded animals separates itself from the rest of the herd.
"It was scary at times," Harmer said of the search for the wounded buffalo. "Once I came over the top of a hill and was staring it right in the face. Buffalo will charge. Our guide's truck was all beat up from charging buffalo."
But this animal was finished off without incident and the cleaning process began. The guide told John Thelen that the animal he shot was the biggest buffalo he had ever seen. Dressed, it weighed 1,700 pounds. On the hoof it was estimated to weigh more than 2,000 pounds.
"I couldn't believe how big it was," Harmer said. "I tried to lift the head to take a picture and I couldn't."
Two of the animals were loaded onto a Bobcat trailer and the other was placed in a pickup bed for the ride home. The meat cost 85 cents per pound to process, but even when added to the cost of the permits that still was cheaper than buying buffalo meat in the store, Harmer said. Best of all, the crew has 2,200 pound of prime buffalo meat, considered by many to be the tastiest and healthiest meat of all.
Recalling the buffalo hunt, Harms said, "It was a little strange, not that much like hunting. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance and we had a lot of fun going out there."
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