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Every hunter dreams of those once-in-a-lifetime hunting experiences. We spend the long winter days planning the next fall’s hunting trips and every once in a while, we get to plan that hunting trip we know will only come once in our life. My once-in-a-lifetime hunting experience happened during this last winter.

I have been applying for my draws faithfully every year and every year looking forward to when my priority is high enough to snatch a moose tag for my hunting zone. What I didn’t expect was to be drawn for the Hay-Zama bison hunt.

I remember clearly when I found out about the hunt. My wife and I were on a camping trip in Jasper last summer and my dad texted me to check my draws on AlbertaRELM. Not expecting anything exciting, I opened AlbertaRELM and to my utter shock, I saw that I had been drawn for the Hay-Zama Bison hunt. Knowing how lucky I was, I immediately started making calls to gloat to my family members and friends that have applied for the draw for many more years than I have! I didn’t know how lucky I was to be drawn on my third try.

We didn’t get into the nitty gritty of planning for the trip until later in the fall. After I had my whitetail in the freezer, my dad and I sat down and started to plan. We planned on going up to the Hay lakes area in early December, and man did we prepare! We brought two snowmobiles, two sleighs, generators, tarps... you name it; we had it! Hearing horror stories about six-hour gutting sessions in freezing conditions we wanted to be extra prepared.

We headed up early on a Friday in cold conditions hoping the weather would improve, but as we headed further north, the thermostat just kept going down. By the time we reached Zama City, the truck thermostat read minus 38 Celsius and it felt about as cold as I could ever imagine. Even in the cold, the landscape of the boreal forest up there is amazing. In some ways, I guess I was surprised to see so many trees. When we think of bison, we tend to think of the open plains. This first trip was spent driving around in the truck trying to work up the courage to actually brave the freezing temperatures and when we finally did get out there, our snowmobiles would only start with a great deal of encouragement.

We spent three days driving around without seeing much for fresh sign. Though maybe that’s a good thing, who wants to gut a bison in minus 38 Celsius! After the weekend was spent, we headed home and started planning our next trip.

Late in January, we found ourselves on the road again, the weather looked better but I still was unsure about our chances at this point. This time, instead of spending all my time preparing our equipment, I had spent more time on the phone and Internet researching bison, where the herds go and how they act.

We spent the drive up strategizing and planning where we wanted to go and by the time we had arrived, we had our game plan laid out.

That first day back was a really neat day; we got the snowmobiles unloaded and ended up finding a cutline that looked promising. The snow hung off the trees and it was one of those times that you couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty of the Canadian boreal forest. We ended up in a clearing and saw for the first time tracks that looked like they could be relatively fresh.

The next morning, we were joined by one of the father’s friends and my brother that wanted to come along for the ride. We headed out to the same place we had seen the tracks the previous day. Once we found the tracks, we set off again hoping we were following the herd in the right direction. Eventually, because of sheer luck I suppose and maybe just a little bit of navigational skill (that’s hunting for you, right), we stumbled into a clearing where we saw very fresh sign including scat and tracks. We could see that a herd had headed into the bush and man did that herd create a mess in the willows; it’s good to have an easy path to follow!

At this point, we had another strategy conference and decided to ditch the snowmobiles and follow the tracks on foot. My heart rate had already skyrocketed so I had to be held back from running into the bush like an inexperienced and over excited hunter. We started off and after a couple of issues figuring where the herd had gone, my dad and I walked to the edge of a lake and happened to see in the distance some large dark shapes. We had found them!

Slowly we crept along the lakeshore until finally we knew we must have been getting close. I peeked out from behind some willows and about 100 yards right in front of us, we saw the herd. There was about 50 of them, some laying down, others feeding. I got set up and comfortable and starting scanning the herd for that big bull. However, it was a lot more difficult to tell the difference between a cow and bull in the deep snow than I thought it would be. After watching the herd for 10 minutes or so, a nice looking bison took up the perfect broadside stance. I pulled the trigger.

Daniel Aarsen with his once-in-a-lifetime Hay-Zama bison.”
Almost as soon as the shot went off, the rest of the herd stood up and made a big line facing us. I couldn’t pick out the one that I had shot because the rest of the herd had made a ring around it so I put my gun up and waited. For a couple of minutes the herd stayed where they were, and then they started to move off. It was amazing to see a herd of 50 bison gather up and run into the willows, they sure made a lot of noise.

Once the herd had run off, I could finally see the one I had shot again. It was standing alone and had tried to run off but you could tell that it was hurt. Soon after the herd had left, the bison tried to move and fell over.

We approached slowly, still shaking from excitement. Even though I had been watching them for a while, I am still surprised how large these animals are. They are a truly spectacular species. Upon examination, we found out it was a younger cow, which was probably a good thing seeing how far away from the trucks we had traveled.

As most hunters know, now is when the real work starts. We spent about three hours gutting, removing the hide, and getting everything packed away into the snowmobile sleighs. By the time we were loaded up on the trucks, the day was gone and the sun was setting!

All in all, as a younger hunter, I feel very lucky to have been able to hunt and take home an Alberta wild bison! I may never be lucky enough to hunt on the plains of Africa or the Arctic tundra, but I am proud and feel so privileged to have hunted the mighty bison in my home province, an animal so closely associated with our history. ■

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