Buffalo Woman

Buffalo Woman

Discipline and dedication produce a remarkable bowhunting accomplishment

Less than two days after her arrival on Australia's remote Melville Island, Karen Campbell found herself in a standoff sufficient to test any bowhunter's mettle. Parrots nattered high in the tropical canopy overhead. Green ants nibbled on her skin while rivulets of sweat ran down her forehead and into her eyes.

Karen Campbell and her husband Jay with Karen's bull, the first Asiatic buffalo taken by a woman with a bow.

She held her ground without moving despite these distractions, her attention riveted upon the buffalo as intently as the bull's remained upon her. Guide Brad Kane later estimated that the bull's horns exceeded the magical 100-inch benchmark, and nothing but five yards of open ground separated hunter from hunted -- a distinction that seemed increasingly arbitrary as the minutes dragged by.

Karen had been forewarned. With head guide Bill Baker hospitalized back in Queensland, the customary arrival briefing two nights before had fallen to Brad, veteran Aussie bowhunter Dan Smith, and me to deliver. After a great week of hunting, during which Michigan bowhunters Denny Sturgis and Dick Engle had each put two good bulls on the ground, we all felt confident that Karen, her husband, Jay, and Montanan Richard King could repeat that performance, even though we knew of no other woman who had taken an Aussie water buffalo with a bow.

As we talked around the fire that first night, Brad oriented the three new arrivals to the camp's basic operations. Dan offered advice about the hazards of the bush. All three of us reviewed buffalo anatomy and discussed shot placement, based on personal experience with dozens of bulls. Almost as an afterthought, I described the Buffalo Stare, a phenomenon I knew the eager newcomers would experience soon.

I knew whereof I spoke. On the first evening of our initial exploratory trip to Melville four years earlier, Bill, Dan, Brad, and I had watched an ornery old bull stomp up the hill toward us and study us interminably from pointblank range while Dan waited for a broadside shot that, to our eventual relief, never came. Two days later, I'd watched Bill stare down a bull from six yards for 35 minutes -- by my watch -- until the massive animal turned and became the island's first bow-killed buffalo. Those early experiences left profound impressions, and I didn't want our new hunters to be as unnerved as we'd been.

'Buffalo may look oblivious,' I explained, 'but they have keen senses. With a steady wind, it's relatively easy to get within 30 yards, but closing to the 15 you'll want for a perfect shot is another matter. If the wind falters, the stalk is over. But buffalo have keen hearing and excellent peripheral vision. If they hear a dry leaf crunch or catch movement, their first reaction will likely be to turn and stare, commonly for up to half an hour. That doesn't mean they're going to charge. Hold your ground, remain completely still, and wait them out. You still may get a shot.'

Thus, Karen stood there, on the second morning of the hunt, holding her ground, remaining perfectly still, and waiting'¦

Karen's epic adventure had begun one year earlier with a shock -- her husband's diagnosis of cancer. Although his outlook was excellent, and remains so, he still faced weeks of grueling surgery and recovery, and he sought my advice early as both a physician and friend. In the former capacity, I had little to add. In the latter, I suggested that he set an ambitious goal to sustain him during the trying times ahead.

'How about an Australian buffalo hunt?' he asked.

'I'll take care of everything,' I assured him.

'But I won't go unless I can take Karen.' I explained that because of the logistics of operating in one of the world's most remote areas, Bill Baker has never offered nonhunting observer rates at his Melville Island camp.

'I wasn't thinking of having her come as an observer,' Jay said.This announcement caught me off-guard. Karen had never shot a bow prior to her marriage to Jay two years earlier. I'd hunted pigs with her in Florida and she was certainly off to a great start as a bowhunter, but'¦

Buffalo? That would mean adding 20 pounds to her draw weight in addition to developing the mental outlook necessary to face dangerous, one-ton animals.

'I can do this,' she replied when I expressed my reservations. 'And I want to do it for Jay.'

That was good enough for me, and when I ran the scenario past Bill Baker, it was good enough for him, too.

In order to appreciate my confidence, it helps to know a bit about Karen. A woman of multiple talents, she writes complex computer programs for the healthcare field and is an accomplished musician of professional caliber. Her tall, lithe frame reflects the decades of martial-arts experience that led to an advanced black-belt degree and competitive success at the national level. She was right, of course. She could do this.

The more I thought about the matter, the sillier my initial skepticism seemed, and the more excited Bill, Brad, and I became about being part of a historic bowhunting achievement.

By the time Jay had recovered from successful cancer surgery, I'd finalized the arrangements for a buffalo hunt the following July, and Karen was bringing black-belt determination to her end of the mission.

She'd been field shooting and hunting pigs with a 50-pound longbow when all this began and knew what it would take to progress to a draw weight capable of shooting a heavy arrow through thick buffalo hide and ribs. Karen made the jump to 56 pounds look easy, and a few months later, she was handling 65 pounds with aplomb.

Meanwhile, Jay had plenty to contribute. My own approach to archery tackle is remarkably simpleminded -- if an arrow flies well from my bow, I sharpen the broadhead and go hunting. Jay, on the other hand, is a perfectionist. While recovering from surgery, he experimented with dozens of combinations of shafts and heads and bought several potential buffalo bows for both Karen and himself, including progressively heavier models from Black Widow, Hummingbird, and O.L. Adcock. All this kept him busy, which was perfect, because keeping his mind focused on a positive future had been the goal all along.

When I next saw the Campbells in Florida, three months before D-Day, Karen was comfortably shooting an Adcock longbow pulling 70 pounds at her draw length. No doubt her excellent underlying physical condition had helped her increase poundage so rapidly. And

she'd been right from the beginning -- she could do it. All she needed was a buffalo.

Brad Kane turned out to be just the man to find her one. While Karen was engaged in her 45-minute Buffalo Stare with that first monster, Dan Smith and I were helping Jay set up a stalk on another ripper of a bull a dozen miles away. All of Jay's compulsive attention to detail must have worked, for when the time came for the shot, Jay sent a perfect arrow through the bull's chest, dropping him dead less than 100 yards away, a terrific accomplishment.

But I could tell Jay's thoughts were with Karen. By the time the spell finally broke and Karen's first bull tore off without offering her a shot, she felt understandably unnerved by the long, close-range encounter. In fact, she was ready to take a break. But sportsmanship prevailed in the form of Rich King, her hunting companion that day, who told her that he'd really rather watch her kill a bull than kill one himself. So he graciously offered her the next stalk.

Another Buffalo Stare ensued, but this time the bull presented a brief shooting opportunity at its conclusion and Karen made the most of it, driving the STOS broadhead and 1,000-grain shaft deep into the animal's vitals. The huge bull stumbled into the brush and lay down, something wounded buffalo seldom do unless mortally stricken.

With darkness falling, the trio of hunters, confident of a fatal hit, elected to leave the final recovery until daylight rather than risk bumping the animal prematurely or provoking a charge. Karen didn't sleep well that night, but her concern proved unfounded. Returning at first light the following day, we found the bull dead, right where he'd last been seen.

Was this really the first buffalo killed with a bow by a woman? That's a hard thesis to prove, but I've spoken with a lot of experienced Aussie bowhunters, and none knew of any other women who had taken an Australian buffalo with a bow -- let alone with a longbow.

Celebrations of such firsts have their place, as do discussions of all the technical details necessary to pull them off. But as we celebrated the one year anniversary of Jay's successful cancer surgery that night, it occurred to me that the whole hunt was about people more than bulls or bows, from Karen's determination to Jay's courage to Rich's terrific display of selflessness. Those qualities can't be measured and recorded in books. Nobody makes books big enough to hold them.

Author's Notes: For information on bowhunting in Australia, feel free to contact me at donthomas@lewistown.net.

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