The Proverbial: “There is nothing there”

I like to think that I am a pretty good spot and stalk hunter. I have spent the last 7 years hunting the west for Mule Deer and Elk and have done very well. Much of that hunting is spot and stalk hunting. I have been able to read the sign and react accordingly to make the right decision at the right time and harvest some exceptional game.

Most people who have been to Africa would agree that the trackers there are the best in the world.  They can pick out a specific animal in the midst of hundreds of tracks. They will follow it at a normal walking pace when I can’t even see a track. They are simply amazing.

Although most of us agree with that reality, few of us evaluate what really sets African trackers apart. I was in the midst of my African hunt. As a hunting consultant for Sediba Nkwe Hunting Safaris, I was pnly able to hunt two and a half days. I was there with a great friend and client who was on a lion hunt. After harvesting the lion, he had done well with a plains game harvest. Since he had shot everything that he wanted and then some, I now had a little time to hunt. I decided to put my emphasis on a Limpopo River free ranging bushbuck with the bow by spot and stalk. I was not sitting in a blind on this particular hunt.

I was in an area that has a lot of bushbuck and some exceptional rams. Because of the time of year it is very thick in the bush. I often couldn’t see more than 10 yards and everything has thorns on it. I was sticking with shorts due to the heat even though I got all cut up. I walked about 7 miles in the trips on the river. I saw many very good rams, but only catching a glimpse for a second as they jumped up out of their beds. I had one close call, but the angle was wrong. I actually caught one standing in its bedding area and at 40 yards had a shot. It was so thick that I hit a branch and just missed the large ram.

I also saw some huge waterbuck which I would also be happy to take. I had been hunting with a tracker and a professional hunter (PH). So many bushbucks have popped up at 10 yards or less, but we rarely saw them before they had seen us on the first two days of stalking. On the third trip we slowed down even more and spent a lot of time looking. I have to admit I was looking and not seeing anything more times than not. I saw them once they fly out of their beds, but rarely before.

As we were walking slowly, all of a sudden the tracker stopped in mid step. He looked across a stream and wouldn’t move. He just stayed locked on. The PH said that he saw a large bushbuck. I was right next to him and couldn’t see it. He said it was standing under the bush and you could see its tail move. Finally, after a couple minutes, which felt like an eternity, I saw the tail. Then we could see the head. I was amazed that he picked that up. I would have walked right by it. We waited a bit and then I got to where I thought I had a clear lane. I shot and hit a branch which sounded like a cannon going off and I missed the bushbuck clean.

That was the first shot I was able to get off in three evening hunts. I was actually pumped that under these circumstances that I even got a shot. Not pumped that I hit a branch, but pumped because we got close. It was just one of many instances where the tracker, whose name is John, was able to see something when I would have sworn there was nothing there. It has happened with John time and time again.

As this kept occurring, I decided that I would pay attention to what set these super trackers aside from me and from most others. I know that they were born into families of trackers. I know that they really don’t have a fallback plan or even potentially another option. I also know that they don’t make a ton of money, but that they simply love their job or in their cases, their lifestyle. Yet none of that was the bottom line. Was it there experience? Their massive hours afield? What was the difference between them and anyone else?

I am sure all the aforementioned factors come into play. To some degree they all add up to make a difference. But, overall, I observed several factors they possess that will simply make me a better hunter if I put them into action. The first one is be light on your feet. Now John and Rodney are little guys. I get that. But they still walk with light feet. Usually when I walk through the woods with anyone I recognize that they are louder than I am. In fact, most of think that about everyone else. In this case I barely hear these guys. They walk light on their feet. I even watch them step on sticks and somehow feel it and be light enough to not break them. I have been practicing walking light.

Be intentional with your every step. Stop mid step if necessary to avoid making noise of stepping on stick or a leaf. I watched as John and Rodney move slowly through the woods and every single step is an intentional step. Not every step is perfect, but they actually think about every step. I will be more intentional in this process.

I noticed that as the guys walk they never look down. They feel their way through the bush and are always looking up. I have literally watched John stop his foot on a branch and not break it without ever looking down. He just feels it and almost senses it. I am not sure that I can ever get to this degree of expertise, but I am sure I can do better than I currently do.

Their heads are constantly on a swivel. They scan and see every movement. Sometimes stuff far out in front is missed, but anything close is spotted. At one point we were looking under the bushes in the heat of the day and John picked out a tail moving. I looked for a long time before I was able to see it. They are always scanning for little movements and I, too, will do so.

I can’t say slow down nearly enough. The pace we stalked at was almost standing still. They are capable of walking at a great pace and still seeing sign, but with such a tough animal it was key to go slow. I mean really slow. Painstakingly slow; then even slower. I must slow down in my stalking for sure and will work on this area of my hunting.

I also need to listen. They stop often just to hear. They don’t miss much with their ears and listen for twigs snapping or other animals giving away the location of the hunted species.

The last area that I must learn is to use my sense of smell. They would stop and say “I smell Waterbuck” and in 50 yards sure enough there were Waterbuck. “ I smell monkeys” and there would be monkeys. The keen sense of smell is something I need to develop to improve my hunting. In fact, they use all their senses, minus taste, to be as good as they possibly can be.

We got to the second last day of the hunt and have had failed stalk after failed stalk on both Waterbuck and Bushbuck. We saw them, but they bust out and there was no shot opportunity. I only had one shot in my outings and I hit a branch. Time was becoming sensitive and I was actually beginning to wonder if we could connect by stalking. I knew we could sit on water or sit in a blind, but I wanted harvest a trophy by stalking.

On my last opportunity, we hunted the entire morning and the same old story held true: kicking up animals just out of range or seeing them after they see us and are on alert. We went in for lunch and I was really wondering what the potential for a harvest would be. We came back out in the afternoon and just sat and listened for a few hours. It was hot and it had not worked trying to catch them in their beds in this thick bush. We had one hour of light left and knew they would be traveling out of their beds. As we crested a hill, there was a ewe and very good ram about 70 yards out in front of us on the river bank and below us. John and Danie, the PH, said that both animals did not know we were there.

I had to close the distance, but up until this point the Bushbuck’s keen sense of smell and hearing had beaten us. The wind was right, so now it would just be sound. I closed down to 48 yards and had a bush in the way between the animals and me. The ewe started barking and the ram barked also. The ewe started moving away and the ram just stood and looked. I drew back my bow with my Trufire release on my Ripcord Rest. I settled in my 50 yard pin on the hard quartered mature buck, but that bush was blocking me. I knew it was going to blow out any moment so I found about a six inch hole in the bush and shot. I was worried about the trajectory making it through, but it did. My Muddy HT-1 arrow with my T-1 Trufire fixed blade made serious contact and the Norway vanes gave me great flight.

We waited about 15 minutes because I couldn’t see exactly where I hit the animal. We went down and found a bit of lung blood and then some other good blood. We tracked it about 40 yards and it was getting dark. Danie and John said we had to pull out until morning because a wounded Bushbuck will charge you in the bush and stab you with its horns. I was glad to wait it out for safety purposes but conflicted because I knew the animal was down.

In the morning I was no longer so glad about waiting. I know it was the right choice for our personal safety. We got there and went to the last blood spot. We had good blood and followed it about 50 yards. We found where my Bushbuck had died. It was only 90 yards from where I shot it and it was only 20 yards from where I last looked before we ran out of light. The problem was that it died only 90 yards from the Limpopo River. A large crocodile, with back feet larger than my hands, came up out of the river and dragged my Bushbuck right into the river. There was a very clear drag track with blood all the way to the water.

I had accomplished shooting my Bushbuck by spot and stalk. I had made a shot that was lethal in just 90 yards. I found where it died, but found nothing there because in the wild of Africa nothing is safe. I certainly did not intend to provide a free meal for a hungry, large croc. I enjoyed the hunt. I am saddened about the outcome, but in the end it is all part of bowhunting Africa.

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