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Big Bullets Do Big Work – A B&C Audio Adventure



By Holland D. Butler
21st Big Game Awards Program| From Legendary Hunts

A green island in the middle of rock and sandstone, the Henry Mountains of Utah are as unique as the land surrounding them. Found halfway between the Canyonlands and Capitol Reef National Parks, the Henry’s Mount Ellen reaches almost 11,500 feet into the sky just north of Lake Powell.

Once the haunt of Butch Cassidy’s outlaw gang, the Henrys were rumored to hide an old Spanish gold mine. Today, the Henry Mountains are famous for one of the last free-roaming bison herds in America.

The bison were never native to this area, and by 1835 the last of the species were gone from what is now Utah. During the 1950s, Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources transplanted a small group of bison from Yellowstone into the Henry Mountains area. As a result of careful management and loving care, the population was estimated to be 400 animals by 1990.

At the age of 51, luck was with me in 1990. I drew one of Utah’s coveted once-in-a-lifetime bison permits for the Henry Mountains. Reared in a hunting family in Oregon, a love for the outdoors and respect for its creatures were lessons my brother and I were taught by our father. Since our move to Utah in 1975, I have been fortunate to draw both moose and desert sheep permits. Because I retired in 1985, I was able to concentrate completely on preparations for the bison hunt. The three weeks prior to the November 3 opening were spent scouting. This familiarized me with the country and its bison; it also served as a conditioning exercise.

Being a firearms enthusiast and a fan of pistols in particular, I naturally picked a handgun for the hunt, but only after extensive deliberation. A C. Sharps rifle in .50 caliber was my first pre-hunt choice. However, delivery would have taken 90-plus days. To stay with the traditional single-shot, falling-block action, a Ruger No.1 in .458 Winchester Magnum was selected as my “buffalo rifle.” For several years, I have hunted with a .45-70 single-shot pistol from M.O.A. Corporation. It is big, heavy, and very accurate, so I included this one as well. My real love, though, is a Ruger single-action Bisley, skillfully and beautifully converted to .475 Linebaugh by John Linebaugh, the Cody, Wyoming, gunsmith. This revolver is fitted with a special 5-1/2-inch barrel and matching five-shot cylinder. The cartridge is based on the .45-70 case, trimmed and loaded with a cast LBT bullet weighing 430 grains. The muzzle velocity is 1,300 fps.

Millions of bison were killed on the plains of the West with rifles less powerful than this revolver. Practicing three times weekly. I had a sore hand and a keen eye.

Skookum is my partner. A wonderful Keeshond, she is always ready to go and never complains about the cook.

On our first scouting trip to the Henrys, Skookum and I started low on Stevens Mesa. Our first sighting of bison was memorable. A cloud of dust in the distance turned into a small herd of the shaggy beasts. We soon discovered that by using cover and being careful, approaching a group was not too difficult. We drifted along parallel to the feeding animals, down wind and using junipers to break our silhouette. Watching these animals, with the sun low behind them and hazy dust diffusing the soft evening light, I imagined myself in the company of Sioux or Blackfoot hunters as they stalked their traditional prey.

After three weeks of pre-hunt practice, we had a pretty good handle on what it would take to be successful during the November hunt. Although these Henry Moun­tains bison are wild, they certainly are not as spooky as elk. They can be approached within pistol range if the hunter is careful, quiet, and deliberate.

There are two types of bulls. The magnificent, shiny-black 5- to 8-year-old bulls generally stay together in groups. The old loners, out by themselves, join other animals only occasionally or during the mating season. It is among the older, blonde-humped individuals that the largest animals are found, and of course these bulls are the most difficult to locate.

The week previous to the November 3 hunt, we were comfortably camped near McClellan and Willow Springs. Our scouting had identified four different herd groups, one of which had several nice bulls. On Thursday before the Saturday opener, Skookum and I discovered an absolutely perfect specimen — completely coal black very large, and impressive, shiny black horns. He was the one. The bull was feeding around a hidden water hole and the situation seemed perfect. We would simply return on Friday, follow the great animal until dark, and he would surely be ours opening morning. Oh, yeah. Sure. You bet. We never saw a hair on Friday.

Saturday morning and dawn found me and Skookum in a cool canyon with a water hole at its upper end. We had found it and a small bunch of large bison about a week earlier. After a long, hard hike, we surprised 11 nice animals bedded around a seep. For me, it was adrenalin time, because to exit from this very narrow cut they had to pass within 20 feet of my position. Following the bigger ones with the muzzle of the .475, I decided not to shoot. Later that evening, we crawled up into a bunch of about 20 head, but we were so close and it was so dark that all we could do was crawl back out and wait for the next morning.

Sunday broke windy and cold, and we soon discovered other hunters were sharing that part of the mountain. After hearing shots, we departed.

Back at camp we packed enough food for a couple of days and a tarp in the Land Cruiser and started for Bull Creek Pass and Table Mountain. As we climbed higher, the snow got deeper. Deer were browsing the abundant plants, standing in belly-high grasses. This contrasted sharply with the lower elevations, where heavy grazing had left little feed.

It was soon apparent that the road was almost closed by drifted snow, and no one had driven the pass lately. I was surprised, because in almost a month I had never seen anyone on foot.

Near the top on the east face, we found a single set of large hoof prints. They meandered down the road, sometimes off into the brush, then across to another tidbit. Half a mile farther, the tracks stopped at a bed, right in the middle of the road. Well, big bulls are loners, and up there on Bull Creek Pass I was alone too, except for the wind and my dog.

I parked the Cruiser at a wide spot, buckled on the .475, shouldered a small pack, and went up the trail. We were in pine and aspen patches, with the south ridges bare. Thick low brush grew in the gullies. It was fairly steep, and the tracks we had followed down turned to go up again. There were some snow patches in the shade so tracking the bull was not really difficult if I went slowly, watching carefully. By 3:00 p.m., we were in about 3 inches of snow, and from the tracks it appeared the bison had some place to go. I wondered if he had sighted us as we were driving down, because he was sure headed for the top.

The revolver came up. Too late. I was dead still as he fed directly toward the upraised muzzle.

It was 5:00 p.m., the sun was below the ridge in front of us, and the wind was really beginning to rise as the temperature rapidly fell. We broke out of the quaking aspens along the lower edge of a large hill, and there he was. All I could see was the top of a woolly hump. With only one small pine between the bull and us, Skookum and I started one-stepping it, hunched over and moving slowly toward the single patch of cover. The bison was feeding directly away from us. The range was about 150 yards. When we closed the distance to 100 yards, I realized I had nothing to judge this bull by, no points to count, nothing with which to compare him. So I added up what I knew: solitary bull, big tracks, horns curved, shaggy head and blonde hump equaled old bull. This was it.

Behind me, Skookum lay down in the snow while I pulled the .475 Linebaugh and tried to shrink into the sagebrush. I had only gone about 10 yards when the bull turned to his right, feeding directly broadside. The revolver came up. Too late. I was dead still as he fed directly toward the upraised muzzle. At about 60 yards, I knew it was time to do it. The plan was to slip a 430-grain bullet between shoulder and ribs, on a line with the heart. Careful. Careful. Sight picture, trigger, BOOM! I was watching the target so intently that I actually saw the hair part and dust rise from the exact spot the front sight had occupied. There was absolutely no reaction.

Second later, the bull wheeled around and started away at full speed. At 75 yards he turned slightly. I shot again. He never broke stride. The bull was going downhill, perhaps 100 yards away and nearing a grove of old pines and aspens, when he turned broadside. I was chanting, “Front sight, front sight.” At the shot, the old bull pitched full-length and slid 20 feet on his left side.

I was running then, pushing out cases, and groping for ammunition. By the time I covered half the distance, he was back on his feet, but badly hurt.

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I had just accomplished the goal of the hunt and was feeling elation and pride, but I also felt sadness, sympathy, and admiration for that truly grand animal. A quick shot and it was finished for the old bison.

It was far from finished for this old hunter. What an animal! He was simply huge. It was almost dark, my feet were soaking wet, the temperature was in the 20s, and a hard, cold wind was blowing. Skokie and I ran about three miles down to the Land Cruiser. By dark, we had returned to the bison. I luckily found a dead pine stump and coffee and dinner were soon heating. By lantern and firelight, the cleaning and skinning chores started.

At midnight, the temperature was down to 10 degrees and one weary old man was done. Almost.

The first slug from the Linebaugh had penetrated between the shoulder and ribs as intended. When the first rib was hit, the big lead bullet didn’t cut through. It was deflected slightly and caught the second rib edgewise, cutting it completely. Then, the bullet punched through half of a third rib and angled up and across, exiting after busting another rib on the far side.

The second, raking shot was too far forward, I guess my concentration was focused on the shoulder, because that’s exactly where it hit. The angle was so acute that the bullet cut a six-inch furrow in the hide before entering behind the right ear. It was later found by taxidermist Sam Raby, just under the nose-pad skin.

My third shot broke the right femur, cut straight through a rib, ripped arteries from the heart and lungs, broke another rib, penetrated the shoulder bones, and disappeared into the woods. Big bullets do big work.

The bull’s final score is 126-6/8 points. It presently ranks first among bison taken in Utah. It was also the first with a pistol.


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