Between biltong and trophies – Cutting it fine

Looking back now I still get the chills… this could have ended badly.

It was the end of 2017 and due to a quiet hunting season we hadn’t quite filled the freezers as expected. In a last-ditch effort to get the numbers up we were presented an opportunity to head off to Limpopo once again. Idling up the trail towards the lodge, nestled at the foot of the Waterberg mountains, expectations as well as heart-rate reached uncharted levels. Our vehicles didn’t seem to phase the mass of wildlife that greeted us: Kudu, Waterbuck, Giraffe, Impala and Wildebeest not even caring to lift their heads as we drove by. This is obviously one of the great benefits of a ranch that does not allow hunting from vehicles.

Right then! Undrop the jaw, resume regular breathing and get on with it. That was the quickest we had ever unpacked the vehicles, crammed lunch and set out into the veld. Ever.

So how we usually plan the seasonal meat harvest is to decide what needs to get shot, assign the what’s to the who’s and then after it all we poole the meat and evenly divide. It works well as each guy ends up with an equal share and also enjoys meat from different species.

Heading out to the north-western section of the ranch, the field guide and I were searching for a Blue Wildebeest or Kudu cow, whichever we found first. Thanks to the topography consisting of elevated areas as well as open plains the spotting part was a breeze. We quickly identified a few herds of Blue Wildebeest in an open plain and strategised our pursuit. The first hour or so we stayed within a treeline adjacent to the plain, mindful of wind direction and concealment, until finally we were close enough to start the final stalk. The herd closest to us had gradually been edging towards the centre of the plain where it merged with another herd. Wind direction was still favourable as we crept forward, hunched over to stay below the 1.5m high grasses. As we moved closer the grass seemed to get shorter and shorter and soon we were forced into what could only be described as an agonising squatting-duck-walk. The herd was moving away from us and in order to keep up the guide hinted that we turn up the pace. Great stuff. After another half hour or so and about as much thigh-burn as I could take we were forced to a complete halt. Incredibly, the abundant veld grass had become so sparse and short that we were forced to make a call; turn back and try something new or drop down to a leopard-crawl. At this point there was no way that ridiculous duck-walk was for free and we were only a few hundred metres short of effective range anyway, so we dropped down and started the crawl.

Like most hunters I have had some seriously difficult outings. I have spent days and days hoofing it without any success. It’s part of what makes this so great, it keeps us coming back again and again. This stalk was a different animal altogether though. After more than 4 hours of the leopard-crawl I was broken; sweating from every pore, panting heavily, covered in those small red ticks and forearms bleeding. Unbelievably the herd had been keeping its distance resulting in a state of frustration so unbearable I was begging for some duck-walk just to close the gap. Nevertheless we persisted and soon a stretch of Sekelbos and taller grass offered much needed concealment. A fallen tree provided the perfect benchrest as I started scanning the herd which was now well within range. I managed to bring the panting down to a reasonable level… and whilst trying to deal with my heart thudding in my chest I slowly cycled the bolt.

Shit.

A more than favourable amount of fine dust had made its way into the usually butter-smooth action resulting in a round that wouldn’t chamber. Eyes burning, muscles aching and hands shaking I tried a few more times to re-cycle the round without advertising our presence.

Got it!

I rested my cheek on the stock and looked through the scope only to find the bull I had picked out from the fringe of the herd had now rejoined it. Seriously? No clean shots available and the herd is once again trickling away over the blind crest. After a few short stints attempting to set up another shot, the fading sunlight became our final enemy for the day and we decided to call it. No use getting desperate on day one. This was, to say the least, a bitter pill to swallow.

Back at the lodge I had some time to reflect later that night. Amazing how a hot shower and a cold beer can change one’s perspective on a bad day. As we sat around the fire and shared our stories I had to concede that going 0-1 in such a beautiful place could hardly be considered defeat. The guys discussed our strategy for the next day and soon we were off to get some much needed rest.

The next morning we were already in the veld as the sun crept over the rocky outcrops. With a regained confidence in the K98 action I had cleaned and oiled the night before my sights were set on redemption. Last night’s strategy determined that I would cover the hilly area on the south-eastern section of the ranch. My trusty guide mentioned that he had seen wildebeest grazing in one of the valleys before and we should head up the left side of the slope. After less than 45 minutes gaining elevation on a small game trail we came across a gap in the trees framing a perfect view of a herd of Blue wildebeest. They were just standing there, like it was nothing. How could a single hunting trip produce such polar opposite sessions? Not keen to waste any time and risk duplicating our results from the day before we started off to a suitable firing position. The descent offered both reduced angle and distance and before I knew it we were on top of the herd. As I set up the shooting sticks we conveniently brought along I remember the 90m gap feeling like a mere stone’s throw in comparison to what we were offered the day before. Crosshairs locked onto a bull I easily identified as standing taller than his peers I sent a 180 grains of bonded lead straight into the engine room. It did a half turn and bolted away from the herd only to drop about 50m from where he stood moments earlier. Almost as quickly my guide bolted down the hill yelling “Daai’s die fkkon mooi bele !!!” – Roughly translated to “That is a rather beautiful bull”. I called it in and headed down to join him, still perplexed at how effortless it all seemed today.

Walking up to the young bull I noticed the hindquarters seemed a bit on the skinny side. Earlier talks with the PH led us to understand the severity of the incredible 2 year drought, the lowest rainfall year ever recorded in South Africa. Herds were competing for limited grazing and with little to no rain forecast concerns were at a high. This was certainly evident as I moved around to the front of the bull, the neck and shoulders also seemed to be less bulky than the norm. As I knelt down, admiring the decent set of horns, I was reminded of a work colleague who had taken a 53“ Kudu bull that year of which the carcass only weighed 125kgs, just more than half of what is to be expected. Hopefully the summer would bring the much needed rains…

After talking with the guide for a while we heard the cruiser in the background as the PH headed up to our location. Exiting the cab it was bearhugs and high 5’s all over the place as he remembered our campfire story from the night before. We all stood around the bull in quiet admiration before the PH turned back to the vehicle, to grab the winch cable I assumed. When he returned measuring tape in-hand I felt my enthusiasm shatter on the rocks below my feet. Had I just dropped a trophy during a meat harvest? If so, the rookie error would result in a one way ticket down the proverbial shitstreet. A thousand thoughts rushed through my head including an incredible regret for each time I cringed at stories of hunters who stepped in it. Guys who victoriously walked up to their prize only to see a previously unnoticed tag in the ear. Or even mistaking a regular species for an exotic one. Before I could figure out what to sell in order to pay the excess I heard “ses mil kort” in the background. The PH had finished measuring and miraculously informed me that the bull was “6mm short of Rowland Ward”. The blood returning to my face was accompanied by an uncomfortable, yet unavoidable smirk.   

The horns measured in at 28 ¼”. Rowland Ward minimum for Blue Wildebeest is 28 ½”. https://www.justplainhunting.com/neckshot/trophy-measurements/

The carcass eventually weighed in at 88kg, easily 50kg less than the norm for this specie. If my math is correct this expedition could have cost 4x per kg what a well weighted non-trophy would have cost.

To ensure I avoid a future episode which might end badly I made a small checklist of lessons confirmed during this trip:

  1. Don’t get desperate…
    • Taking low-percentage shots is irresponsible and unethical.
    • Rather go home empty handed than go home empty handed and it cost you
  2. If you are hunting to stock the freezer, judge by neck and shoulder thickness…
  3. Eyes open – be aware of horn-size, animal gender, tags etc
  4. Spend time in the off season studying wildlife and reading/watching hunting based material. Familiarising yourself with different species and techniques will lead to a more positive outcome.

What’s on the scorecard is all that matters and thankfully this time I walked away – dignity intact.

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