column By: Terry Wieland | March, 18
It seems like every time I meet someone new, when they find out what I do for a living, their first question is, “What’s your favorite kind of hunting?” Occasionally, for variety, it’s “What’s your favorite place?” Since this has been going on for a couple of decades now, there has been lots of time to think about it.
A deer stand, in the cold gray of a Kansas dawn, with nothing moving including the squirrels, is an excellent place to spend some time doing this. Guaranteed, the answer will not be, “A Kansas deer stand in December.” In that case, my answer might be, “Tracking Cape buffalo.” On the other hand, six hours into a waterless day of tracking buffalo through dry-as-dust mopane, my answer might well be, “Deer hunting in Kansas.” It’s kind of a situational question, like ethics.
It seems a lot of people in this writing business get asked the same question. Jim Carmichel, the long-time shooting editor of Outdoor Life, used to say that it was wherever he happened to be hunting at the time. This was to avoid giving the truthful answer which was, in his case, elephants. I understand his reticence, especially with people who get all their information from the Internet or the nature channels. Since the 1970s and the first serious inroads of ivory poaching, stating that you like hunting elephants is akin to confessing to murder. It’s the quickest and surest way to be regarded by all and sundry as a monster.
Jack O’Connor’s all-time favorite was desert bighorns, although when it came to Africa, his answer was lions. At one point he wrote that he wanted his epitaph to be “He hunted the lion.” With Robert Ruark it was leopards, while with others (myself, probably, included) it would be Cape buffalo.
It’s funny how an animal can affect you, and I believe it’s true of everyone who is a serious big-game hunter. By that I also mean a serious hunter who loves hunting for its own sake, and would be out doing it even if the only game to be had was some form of inedible varmint. Generally speaking, the kind of big-game hunter who is primarily a collector of trophy heads will not really have a favorite because in my experience, at least, many of these guys are not really all that fond of hunting. If they could charter a plane to set them down on a ridge in the Yukon, shoot a Dall sheep bigger than the Chadwick ram, load it up and be back in the Big City by happy hour, they would think that was the best hunt imaginable.
In Canada, years ago I knew a hunter who, having hunted grizzlies in British Columbia, never wanted to hunt anything else, anywhere. He kept going back, year after year, and when I met him he had killed more than 40 of the big bears. If ever there was an argument for putting a lifetime limit on tags for any one person, this guy was it. When he started talking about grizzlies, his eyes lit up like Rudolf Hess.
A hunter’s attitude toward a game animal is partly dictated by his personal experiences with them. A really close call with a dangerous beast can work either way. I have had two close calls, one with an Alaskan brown bear, the other with a Cape buffalo. In the case of the bear, if I never hunt them again that will be fine with me. I like the country, I like the hunting itself, but I have no desire to kill another one. The Cape buffalo – which was a vastly more perilous encounter – turned me into a hunter of Cape buffalo for life, both in fact and in my imagination. If I could have just one more trip, one more shot, one more animal, it would be Cape buffalo in the mountains of the Great Rift Valley.
I know a couple of guys who have had dangerous encounters with lions. One hates them as a result, and goes after them every chance he gets; the other, who was almost killed, never hunted them again, and in fact gave up professional hunting altogether and ended his career guiding photo safaris.
For my part, I’ve been scared half to death by both lions and elephants. I do not have, and never had, any desire to shoot a lion, whereas a terrifying encounter with a bull elephant in Botswana in 1996 turned me from being ambivalent about hunting elephants to being all in favor. A couple of years later I was almost plucked from the back of a safari car by an enraged elephant matriarch that, along with her gang, was chasing us with malicious intent. I came home from that episode and immediately commissioned a serious elephant rifle. It has not yet been put to use, but it’s there if the opportunity arises.
Even from a vantage point of more than 20 years, I am still convinced that old cow had murderous intent, but I can’t help feeling that the younger elephants in the herd were going along for the ride, just having a ball chasing us, screaming, and generally causing havoc. I swear that one young bull, out to the side, looked at me and grinned, Ain’t this great? Well, no, but I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
An easier question to answer is, “What was your greatest hunting experience?” There are three, and I’m never able to rank them. The above-mentioned Cape buffalo and bear encounters are two; the third is backpacking for Dall sheep in the Chugach Mountains in Alaska. Overall, taking into consideration every aspect, that wild ram ranks as my most treasured memory. The other two situations, memorable though they were, depended on split-second reactions to situations only partly of my making. Time was compressed and floated by almost in slow motion. The critical parts were over in a matter of seconds, although it seemed like hours.
The Dall sheep, however, was the outcome of six months of training, eight days of toil, 16 hours of hardship, setbacks, exhaustion, thirst, disappointment, and the need to overcome all of that and get it done. And then there was the long descent with the ram on our backs.
Without question, I would go and hunt Dall sheep again in a heartbeat, but I know I could never equal what I accomplished that day on a nameless mountain in the Chugach. For that reason alone, I am happy to sip some coffee, commune with my Dall ram on the wall and leave its descendants for others to hunt. If they’re really, really lucky, someone may come back with the memory of an experience like mine.