On 31 Aug My hunting partner, John and I loaded up my Pickup and headed to Talkeetna where we were to fly out with Sheldon Air. My wife came along to drive my truck home because we would be flying back to Anchorage with a different Air service at the end of the float.
Crazy how the pilot was able to get our rather large disassembled cataraft and all our gear crammed into that Cessna 185. We were packed in there like sardines. We joked later that the plane was the bush equivalent of a USPS flatrate box (“If it fits, it ships”).
About 90 minutes or so later, we landed on a small gravel air strip 15 miles inside the mountains on the South Fork of the Kuskokwim River. After a couple hours of carrying gear to the river’s edge, assembling/inflating the raft and stowing gear, we were on our way.
Floating through the mountains we saw a cow moose and several Dall sheep, but no shooter rams. We floated until nearly dark and made camp on a gravel bar. No buffs yet, but we weren’t going to get to the projected target rich area till the next day.
I had previously asked the game biologist at McGrath that covered this area,where the bison would likely be in September? He said they usually concentrate between Egypt Mountain and the Dillinger River (this section is just outside the mountains). He emphasized they could be anywhere along our float, but usually hang towards the upper end during this time frame.
Now let me explain what miserable braided mess this river is. Not only does the braiding make the channels very shallow, but the water is extremely silty and opaque. This makes judging depth more difficult. The river is also a mine field of dead trees that are constantly washing down as banks erode. Makes braid choice as you’re floating very important lest you find yourself doing a lot of dragging.
Our second camp (and first in the target zone) was awash in buff tracks and patties. Unfortunately the sign was all old. They had been there in force, but were gone. We spent two rainy days hiking around the willow flats and foothills behind looking for Bison, but just found more old sign. We also saw wolf, bear and moose tracks.
The next day brought sunshine, so we got to dry out a bit and then loaded up and floated again. Now seeing a good willow flat and getting to it is two different things. As already mentioned, the river is very braided with multiple channels.If the flat you want to investigate doesn’t border a floatable channel, you’re not likely to get there (as there are usually smaller channels that are still too deep to traverse with hip waders inbetween).
We would float a bit and stop when we could get to a decent looking area. Same story again and again. Nothing but old bison sign. That evening we made camp again followed by another disappointing day. I was beginning to wonder if this was going to be just the most epic sightseeing float ever.
By the next day’s float, we were well west of the target area where the bison were“likely” to be. Coinciding with that was the old sign we were seeing was diminishing as well. Making camp that night I was feeling a bit discouraged.
In the morning I shouldered my Marlin 45-70 stoked with 424 grain hard cast bullets and we headed south behind camp through the alders and brush. Now we were seeing no sign at all. After wading a couple small creeks and crossing a narrow beaver dam we eventually came into a small grassy clearing. Beyond that was a brush line and then another narrow clearing. John was about 10 yards to my right when I got my first glimpse down that next clearing. I couldn’tbelieve my eyes. A BISON!
Jiminy Cricket that thing looked huge. The bull was 50 yards away and feeding towards me. I motioned to John what I was seeing and we both eased down to one knee. We were in the open with no immediate cover and only had the small brush line to hide us. Now all I needed was a broadside shot.
The Bison fed towards us and I took a 30 yard quartering shot (and pumped 3 more into him as he was departing). Another 3 shots at 105 yards and he was down for good. Autopsy showed lung and liver damage was extensive. The bull also had a hole in his heart. That was one tough hombre.
Needless to say, we were very fortunate that the bison died right next to the river and just around the bend down river from where our camp was. No long distance packing required.
Gutting/skinning/butcheringthis brute was quite a task. We finished that evening and was able to load himup and floated down a bit and set up camp. We were just far enough away yetclose enough to check on the gut pile for any bear or wolves that might pay avisit (none did).
That evening at dusk a small herd of about 25 bison (including a huge herd bull) came within about 100 yards from us across the channel. It’s as if they knew my tag was punched. They also came by to visit the next day. Weird.
The meat (in cloth game bags and heavy plastic bags) chilled overnight in the river. Then came out of the plastic and hung on a massive game pole we constructed with overhead cover to keep the sun off it. Temps remained coolenough and all the meat survived.
Our original plan was to pull out at the bush community of Nikolai (Pop100) and fly from there to Anchorage on Friday 12 Sep. I filled my tag early enough in the trip that I got on my rented Sat phone and got our flight moved up to the 10th with a possibility of leaving even earlier if the air service had an empty plane in our area after dropping off moose hunters.
After letting the meat hang for a day and a half, it was time to move. During our Sunday float we saw a couple more bison herds plus some singles and pairs. A couple hours before dark John spotted a black bear lounging on thebank a few hundred yards away. We pulled off and tied up the raft. We had tocross 3 braids and was able to get to a good shooting position 133 yards fromthe bear that appeared to be taking a nap in the waning sunlight. John put it to sleep for good with his .270 Weatherby mag.
We made our last camp a little down river and built a grizz-keep-away-firefor the night.
The last stretch to Nikolai was mostly devoid of the aggravating river braids and was generally one main deeper channel. A few miles from our pull-out point we spotted a young bull moose on the bank, but he lived to seeanother day.
Once at Nikolai, we were welcomed warmly by the people there. They were VERY kind and accommodating. I paid an older fella a modest fee to transport our gear and meat with his ATV and trailer. The Village council allowed us to hang the meat bags in their open-air fish house that had overhead cover. Very nice of them.
We also got to meet hunting guide John Runkle and his wife who are based there in Nikolai. They are great folks that also help us with moving gear. John guides for moose, March bison and I think he said bear as well. He also mentioned that he hadn’t been guiding for Sept bison, but would consider it if asked. John’s contact info is:
Nikolai, AK 99691
Alaska Air Transit was able to get us out Tue morning after dropping off moose hunters in McGrath. An awesome hunt overall.
The cost of Flying with Sheldon Air from Talkeetna to Rohn was $1,000 total. Alaska Air Transit charges $270 per person from Nikolai to Merrill Field in Anchorage plus.80 cents per pound for gear. However, people take precedence over cargo, so I bought 4 extra seats to ensure we had enough space on the plane for all our stuff.