South Africa: April 2017
By Dan Leahy
No hides, no tree stands, no waterholes, and no food sources… Open ground, cutting tracks and stalking in. I wanted a Cape buffalo, hunted spot and stalk with a bow, and I wanted to do it my way. My chances of success would be small, but for me, any other way would not have been the same challenge or reward.
I had hunted many places in Africa, but never big game. Although I had dangerous-game ambitions, I only had a plains-game budget, not enough to chase my dream of hunting “Black Death” with a bow and arrow. But after much sacrificing, saving, and overtime shifts at work, my wife and I could make this hunt a reality. Our destination – Limcroma Safaris in South Africa, owned by my great friend Hannes Els.
I chose a 12-day safari in April-May. There would still be ample grazing grass and lots of green bush. It is incredible that animals the size of a Cape buffalo can disappear in dense bush. When grazing and relaxed, they can often be heard a hundred or more yards away, beating through the bush, their huge bodies and hard bosses making quite a ruckus. Yet, they can vanish silently, especially when they think they are being pursued.
On arrival in camp, we did the usual – preparing and assembling gear, and shooting our bows to ensure nothing had been damaged en route. The late afternoon was spent scouting, brushing the roads, and making a plan for early morning. Hannes said that there were several groups of buffalo, ranging from one or two lone Dagga Boys that had been ousted from the herds, to several bachelor groups of bulls of various ages, and several small herds of bulls and cows. Finding fresh spoor would not be the problem… Finding the right spoor would be the first challenge.
At dawn we headed out to one of the waterholes to check for fresh tracks. Hannes, our tracker Bolla, and our accompanying PHs Otto Bousema and Drian Laas, said there were at least six bulls that had watered sometime early in the morning – our best bet for the first stalk.
With binos and his .416 Rigby, Hannes led the hunting party 30-50 yards ahead, far enough to move alone in silence, but not out of sight. I led the rest, followed by Otto on the second rifle, our PH/videographer Drian, and my wife Lisa close by his side. Bolla stayed at the bakkie to monitor the radio. All of us were in full camo with face masks, and me in full hood and face paint.
Hannes followed the tracks. After about an hour we were given the hand signal – stop and get low. Hannes dropped to one knee and peered through the tall grass and dense brush. Before anyone could make another move, we heard the disappointing sound of heavy hooves pounding away. We had slipped up on a single bull, bedded down, that must have come in from a different angle. However, this was not the group we had been tracking, and no other buffalo seemed to spook from the immediate area. We regrouped and continued on the original spoor. By late morning the wind was swirling in every direction, and the animals were likely to be bedded down. Hannes suggested we back out till the afternoon when conditions were better. So, it was back to the bakkie for some lunch.
All morning I was wondering how I was going to get to get a clear bow shot in this terrain. I was constantly looking for shooting lanes and angles, and not finding many. I had originally figured I would draw and shoot from my knees. Not a problem, as for years I was comfortable and practiced shooting like that. But the problem would be to find a lane under 40 yards clear enough for a shot because, from my knees, the grass was at or over my head in most places.
After a wonderful bush braai of kudu sausage sandwiches, then a short siesta, we were back in pursuit, refreshed and optimistic. The wind was lighter now, but steady. We stalked about half a mile from where we left the tracks, and found our group of six bulls bedded – four shooters and two really nice shooters. We crawled almost 40 yards, found good cover, and settled down near them. It was an unbelievable experience to hear their deep, baritone breathing only yards away. We would have to wait until they got back on their feet to graze.
It was an hour before the first bull got up. The others joined him, one by one. As Hannes and Otto maintained cover, glassing our best option, one of the older bulls started to graze and work the bush toward us. He raked his tremendous bosses, cracking the branches and shaking the bush violently. It was incredible to see and hear such a beast that close!
Unfortunately, he got too close… He made his way to 15 yards before he was aware of us. He snorted loudly, putting the rest of the group on high alert. Hannes and Otto scrambled to their feet, grabbing me and Lisa by our collars to drag us to a safer position behind them. Rifles forward, we hastily backed out. Thankfully, the herd chose to flee rather than charge. You could literally feel in your chest the pounding of the hooves hitting the ground as they thundered away. I had never felt so helpless as at that moment. What a first day!
Six days passed. Each day we would start out as before – look for fresh spoor and pursue accordingly. We had several encounters, getting as close as 20 yards, but each time something would just not be quite right for a shot, or the wind would swirl and the buffalo would bust us. Often I could see a nose, a boss, or a hindquarter, but not the vital open shoulder that I needed for a lethal shot. The animal’s vitals would either be obscured by tall grass, bush or both. On one encounter, the hunting party a few yards behind me could see the entire head and shoulder of a shooter bull at 22 yards. Yet, from my vantage only a few yards to one side, I could only see the rear half of the body. No shot once again…
On Day 7, we began the hunt without Hannes who had a prior commitment, but we were in good hands with Otto and Drian. Our group of six bulls had relocated to a different place, grazing lazily a hundred yards ahead – in an open area! Perhaps I could get a shot.
The herd gradually made their way towards us, relaxed, grazing, and best of all, upwind. Otto decided to find suitable cover just ahead and sit tight to see what happened. Within 10 minutes the herd was 50 yards and closing.
“Get ready and nock an arrow,” Otto whispered. Holy crap, I thought, this might just happen! “Crawl to that bush and get ready for a shot,” he added.
As I slowly crawled, I kept peeking over my right shoulder to get an update. I could not see the bulls from my position. Otto had my rangefinder and hand-signaled: One shooter bull out front, 40 yards from me. From my forward position, I put the bull at 35, and set my single-pin Truglo Rangerover sight for 35 yards. One last peek over to Otto… Another signal: He’s coming – go ahead and draw!
I could just make out tips of his horns over the top of the crossberry bush. I reminded myself to remain calm and focused… Control my breathing. Pick a spot and release…
I smoothly drew the bow and leaned out from behind the bush. The massive shoulder of the bull came into full view. No tall grass and no bush this time… All black and LOTS of it! I swept the pin up the front leg, settled it on the sweet spot mid-body, and touched off the arrow. The arrow hit the bull with a resounding thwack! He thundered away with the yellow and white trademark fletching of the Grizzlystik arrow embedded in his shoulder, but there was still a lot of arrow sticking out. It should have buried to the fletching at the very least. It also looked a bit high… Much higher than where I put the pin.
I glanced back at the rest of the group for reassurance. I got none…
“Look high to you?” I asked Otto. “Maybe a bit.”
“I’m not thrilled with the penetration either,” I added. “What did you range him at?” “Twenty-two yards from me where you shot him.” “What do you mean 22 yards? What the hell happened to 40 yards? I set my pin to 35… From where I was, if you got him at 22, he must have been more like 17.” “A different bull came out that was even closer,” he said. “I thought you saw it.”
“No, man, I didn’t.”
If he was inside 20, it was definitely going to hit high. There is a solid 10-12” drop differential from 17 to 35 yards with these heavy arrows. I should have recognized that he was much closer than 35 and made the mental adjustment. I got tunnel vision in picking the spot and focusing on that. All I could think about was hitting my spot. I didn’t realize there was another bull 15-20 yards closer.
Drian had the shot on video. It definitely hit some shoulder bone, but maybe I got the top of one lung if the arrow pierced the bone. There were a few spots of blood on the ground where the bull stood. So we headed back to the road to meet up with Bolla and make a plan for the tracking job ahead. It was a nervous walk back to the bakkie.
Otto called Hannes about the situation, and he sent Franz to the rescue. Franz is one of the best Cape buffalo trackers in Africa. Not just RSA… all of Africa. He is the African equivalent of Winston Wolf from the movie Pulp Fiction. Franz earned the local nickname “Buffalo Assassin” and with good reason. After watching this guy work, I could see why.
When Franz arrived, the track was about 90 minutes old. We pointed at the spot, and Franz was off. Within minutes he told Otto that the bull was dragging his right front hoof. Ten minutes into the track, Franz stopped and walked around in a 10-yard radius, using his shooting sticks to part grass or push branches away. He whispered to Otto that our bull was no longer with the herd. There had been a scuffle. Likely, the other bulls had smelled the blood, sensed the weakness of the wounded bull, and forced him from the group. We were now on a single track.
We also had Otto’s hunting dog Impy, an impressive tracker if there is any blood. He would bark an alarm when the bull was found, and help to keep it distracted until we could close in. Twenty minutes later we heard Impy’s frenzied bark from a thorn thicket a hundred yards ahead. We raced up as I nocked another arrow. In a blur, I drew my bow, guessed the range at 40 yards, and shot. The second arrow buried itself it deep into the crease of the wounded bull’s shoulder. It looked good, but we waited before taking up the track again.
We were now tracking a severely wounded Cape buffalo. This was no joke. Our pace slowed. Every team member warily scanned the bush, peering into thickets, looking for a patch of black before moving on. With safety off and rifle bolts locked down, we cautiously continued. We had only gone another hundred yards when Franz dropped to a crouch, and pointed out the bull bedded in a heavy thorn thicket 50 yards ahead. The buffalo’s head was down, but Otto said he was still breathing, and we were confident that the second arrow would soon prove to be lethal. However, the bull was deep in a spot that was too dense for a third arrow shot.
I asked Drian for his .375 H&H to finish the job. I did not want to push the bull any farther or make him linger any longer than necessary. It was also a decision of safety for the entire team. He could expire in the next few minutes or could charge. These animals are at their most dangerous when wounded. Over the years, too many “dead” buffalo have injured or killed many hunters, trackers and PHs who failed to give a mortally wounded animal due respect. It was the right call…
The .375 soft point hit him squarely on the shoulder. “Keep shooting!” shouted Otto and Drian. I slammed two more solids into the body, and the impressive animal was down for good. As we approached my buffalo, I was overwhelmed with different emotions – elation, relief, accomplishment, and some regret for putting this incredible creature through more than it should have endured had my initial shot been better. I had never before experienced such an emotional roller coaster of highs and lows on the same hunt. We all took a brief moment of silent respect, before celebrating with handshakes and hugs for a truly team effort.
I cannot say enough about the skill and professionalism of the team that made this hunt possible. Hannes Els and his staff are altogether the most wonderful individuals that I have ever hunted with. My heartfelt thanks goes out to all of them.
Born and raised in southeast Florida, Dan Leahy grew up hunting and fishing in the Everglades, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean. After running sport-fishing charters locally, he later became a firefighter/paramedic, now in his 18th year of service. For the last nine years he has been the US-based representative of Limcroma Safaris in marketing and safari consultation. He and his wife enjoy an outdoor lifestyle of fishing and hunting all over the globe.