Blind Man's Buff

By William F. Stocks

Blind Man's Buff
Mike, Dan and Jon French with downed bison. Note rifle with
scope mounting system for aimer. Photo by William F. Stocks

As bison hunters we are soul-brothers in a chain of ancestry winding back to the very roots of mankind’s rise as a hunter/gatherer hominid who would eventually dominate the predation of the planet. To hunters around the world, there have been given certain instinctive attributes of cognition, calculation and adaptation, which if developed skillfully, will produce a successful hunt. However, finding a primary common denominator among such diversity is not difficult, for there is one sense that most hunters must possess and apply in order to succeed: sight.

For our ancestors, long range sight was an imperative, not only for hunting but self defense. The further away they could see something, the better their chances were of making a kill, or avoiding being killed. I have nearsightedness and astigmatism myself, and cannot see clearly beyond a few feet without corrective lenses. Consequently, I would not have survived long on the plains of Africa or North America tens of thousands of years ago, probably falling prey to a saber-toothed cat, or perhaps even to others of my own species. Or would I?

Over millennia, mankind has developed ways of offsetting our weaknesses with technology. From the first flint-knapped stone tools, through agricultural growth, into global industrialization, we have held back the unforgiving principles of natural selection through technological innovation and have subsequently become increasingly dependent on one another to survive.

Archaeological evidence has been found in paleolithic graves which shows that ancient humans nurtured and cared for their ailing and injured, proving that compassion has always been an important part of “human being.”

So, we come to the gist of this article, which is: Nowadays, a bison hunter does not necessarily need to see, especially if he has a cooperative pair of external eyes and some innovative tools. I submit as an example Mr. Daniel French. Accidentally blinded as a child, Danny has never let his “condition,” as he calls it, hold him back from doing things a sighted person could do, including hunting.

His dad (Mike French) is a long time family friend who hunted with my dad and I in the 1970's, when we had an outfitting service. He is a master machinist and worked for decades in Michigan's automotive industries. Dan's older brother Jon served in Afghanistan, where he was severely wounded in the right arm and received the purple heart. You may have seen him on TV, as he has been featured in several Outdoor Channel complimentary hunts for servicemen with Jim Zumbo, Jim Shockey and others. It is not surprising that Jon and his dad came up with a firearms system with which Daniel could shoot big game. In this instance a free range bison at Twin Pine Ranch. (See my story “Wyoming Buffalo Safari” for details of our 2005 hunt there.)

The rig consists of a Remington Model 750 auto in .35 Whelen caliber, with a specially machined scope mount of 1” aluminum bar stock, engineered and tooled by Mike. The rounded rod fits in the standard scope rings on the rifle's receiver, extending backward over the buttstock where it is milled flat on top and fitted with a second set of mounts and rings to hold an LER scope. Daniel shoulders the weapon as would any hunter, with Jon standing behind him, but Jon's eyes are used to look over his shoulder through the scope. He then directs Dan with successive taps to the right or left shoulder for windage and elevation. When the target is acquired, Jon lets him know it's time to lower the boom. Dan had previously taken several animals at big game ranches using this special mount on another Remington model 742 in .308 Winchester, including a Dall sheep, wild hog and cow elk, but this hunt was the first with his .35 Whelen.

We met up in Wheatland, Wyoming on November 28, 2011, told some tall tales that night, and embarked on our “heifer hunt” at the ranch on the morning of the 29th. Larry and Peggy Gerke met us with their usual friendly smiles and I could not help but think how little they had changed in the past six years, when almost to the day we hunted with them in November 2005. It is pretty clear they both enjoy doing what they do and Larry, who is 70, says he has no plans to retire anytime soon. He runs about “five or six hundred head” of bison on 13,000 acres of some of the finest big game habitat the good Lord has ever created, so I have no difficulty in fully understanding why he wants to continue as long as possible.

Our guide for the day was Brad Peterson, a great guy who does his job quite well and, according to Daniel, gives an excellent “play by play” analysis as each hunt transpires. The morning shooters would be Jon's wife Margret and his friend Nick, a state patrolman from Minnesota. By the time Mike, Daniel and I arrived at their location north of the ranch on a high flat bench it was around noon and they already had Nick's bison dressed and loaded on the “buffalo truck.”

As we drove up to Larry's position, a shot rang out and Margret had just dispatched her heifer. Nick's shot was 265 yards with a Steyer 300 Winchester Magnum and Mo's was 78 yards with a custom Hart Remington Model 700 in 30-06, which had been presented to Jon as part of the “Wounded Warriors” program. Two buffalo with two shots, so far so good.

Larry had Daniel and I walk up the road, as the hunting party and herd were just over the hill from us. He and Mike later pulled the big winch truck up behind us at a vantage point overlooking the lay of the land. As we topped the hill, Brad motioned to wait there while he trotted down the road to our right, where his pickup truck was parked. The herd was off to our left about 200 yards and milling around near the downed bison. Brad came and got us and with Jon and Mo, we set out toward the far side of the herd. Nick wanted to take a look around the area and went on a local walkabout. Brad took Dan and Jon to several different shooting positions around the herd, where they would get all set up for the shot only to have the milling bison foil their plans, by walking between or behind the intended target. Their herd instincts were again at work as several bulls and cows tried unsuccessfully to stir Mo's downed heifer back to her feet. At this time, Larry came on the two-way radio and recommended to stop and get Mo's dressed out, so she and Nick could haul the two taken buffalo into the processing plant, while we finished up. Larry and Brad had Mo's bison field dressed and loaded on the truck beside Nick's in less than 15 minutes.

The herd was still meandering northwest along the bench with the wind at their backs, as we approached downwind and resumed the hunt. With patience and determination Daniel, Brad and Jon maneuvered and repositioned until finally a nice heifer stepped out in front of the herd to the left of us. Daniel fired off the shooting sticks in a kneeling position and the heifer buckled and staggered forward. The .35 Whelen boomed again and she reared slightly, tipping over stone dead. I was absolutely amazed! The shot was 106 yards and the shooter was blind!

At this point, the herd was becoming agitated and began moving off into the hills to our West, so Larry and Brad decided to let them go, dress out Dan's buff, and find a different herd from which to take our final heifer, which would be mine and the subject of another story.

As I said before, Daniel French has never let his “condition” limit or stop him. So, when Jon put Dan's hands on the buffalo, and said, “You shot it, now you have to gut it,” there was no hesitation on Dan's part. He immediately asked Larry if he would guide him through it. Using Larry's knife and expert verbal steering skills, he was able to “see” his way through the entire process, field dressing the buffalo just as deftly, if not better, than anyone in our party could have done. He did not nick the entrails or himself and I was again impressed by this young man's courage and adaptability. The 250 grain .358 caliber Hornady round-nose bullet had hit the buff hard through both lungs, a perfect shot in the ideal spot.

Dan is to me an example of what it takes to be human; learning, innovating, adapting and working his way through life. Making the best of every situation by accepting the challenge with bravery and resolve. Success and failure of the hunter/gatherer hominid was dependent on such attributes. If not, we would simply be extinct bones embedded in the fossil record along with dinosaurs and three-toed sloths. As I look at Mike French, suffering from ailments and “conditions” that would cripple most men and from which he neither shrinks nor complains, I understand why his boys are so tough and I know why we humans will ultimately survive.

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Copyright 2012 by William F. Stocks and/or All rights reserved.