https://youtu.be/9mv83ZdaYoQ (hit the back button after you've watched the intro video)
Our first morning out we were chomping at the bit to get into the action. After a very early stalk on foot that began at the lodge, we walked a mile or so then encountered “the bush,” a dense, thick canopy of green. Let’s say our instructions were, "I’ll meet you on the other side and find your own way." For me, this meant multiple times on hands and knees carrying a rifle and getting as low as I could.
After breakfast we started driving around in the “bucky.” The bucky is a 4-door quad cab pickup outfitted with a bench seat in the bed as well as a padded shooting rest. On the driver's side of the truck was a ladder to assist in mounting and dismounting. Denver drove, Andy and Cannon (the camera crew) rode inside the truck with their camera gear, and Ruth and I rode on the padded bench seat in the truck bed with 3 trackers standing behind us, about a foot taller in height than us for better visibility. A large cooler of drinks (aka “cool box”) was located under our seat and at our feet were the 2 pups Tjupie “CHOOPIE,” 10 month old long-haired jack russell and Timmy, a 5 month old beagle).
We were instantly amazed as we drove at the shear numbers and different species of game, often seeing 5-6 different herds of animals spread out as far as we could see. Another very important element that we experienced was the eyesight levels of Denver and the trackers, often identifying not just animal species but sex and potential quality of the potential trophy animals.
We would often stop and glass, identify and move on to the next group with the explanation being that the animal was too small or needed another year or two to mature. The determining factor was sometimes length of the horns, color of the hair between the eyes or the last curl of the horns or if the tips were pointing the right way. This was usually from hundreds of yards away and sometimes when either we or the herd was on the move. This is of particular importance as Ruth and I were rookies and ALL these animals looked huge and ideal for mounting to us! This aspect of moving on quickly showed us the professional integrity possessed by Denver. Together we came up with a quote, “not today.”
Another key element of this first day was learning each other. For example, if Denver decided that an animal was trophy grade, that meant 7-8 bodies trying to move with stealth into the habitat that belonged to the animals that they had hundreds of years experience navigating. Order of travel was important. Initially, Ruth was right behind Denver, but when we would close up to create a plan, I was 3rd and could not hear at all. The tracker carrying the Bog Pod was immediately behind me for quick deployment followed by the video crew then the last tracker. It took several failed stalks to find our rhythm. Once, as we stalked after a herd of Black Wildebeest, we were busted by a patrol of 12 Ostrich as they ran to spread the alarm. This was common that first day, Springbuck were notorious for spotting us first and taking flight, creating alarm in the other species.
In the afternoon, we came across a trophy grade black wildebeest bull in a heard of about 12-15 animals. This herd had cows and calves, (which also have horns) and 2 bulls that were huge. The largest bulls were bedded down as we stood 400 yards out behind some cove. Unfortunately, we were carrying the 375JDJ and 309JDJ rifles, both with a max range of about 250-300 yards, and had been sighted in for a zero of 100 yards. To add to the drama, a 30 mph steady wind gusting to 40 mph quartering to us from about 45 degrees of angle, thus including wind drift into any shooting scenario. Full of confidence, Denver decided that he and I alone would crawl on hands and knees over the mostly flat terrain trying to cover our approach with the only bushy vegetation we could find--30 yards right then 60 yards ahead to cover then another 60 yards ahead to a basically 36” round/high bush all under the watchful eye of one cow that was staring straight at us. The following were our mistakes:
- I left my phone with Ruth, taking away my bullet drop app where I could have consulted even off-line to determine wind drift. This was a critical error and prove important in later stalks.
- When we set up the Bog Pod we set it up for a standing shot (full height), thus giving away our position and causing panic in the herd. I should have attempted the set up from a sitting position which would have been more stable in the wind as the wind blew against my body. Again, very important for later.
- I was undergunned from a distance standpoint, closing to 280 yards left no margin for herd moving a little further out, also important for later stalks. Denver coached me on shot placement basically dividing the height of the animal by thirds with the best shot location being on that bottom third line, on or just behind the shoulder. He also told me he would do a U-turn when he stood.
- My last mistake was indecision. When both large bulls stood, the “lesser” bull stood in front of the desired bull distracting me. I considered taking him, but that wasn't Denver's instructions.
Bottom line--I missed the shot, just under the body and in front of the right front leg. Wind drift and rushing the shot were the culprits. I was devastated internally. All the team there, on camera, feeling some pressure to produce, all the effort, the travel, the expense, and I missed. I carried that with me into the next morning all the while trying to smile and be positive. I used to have a saying when I worked in the trade, “A plan was a must, but your success isn't always based on that plan but on adjustments to that plan." Not repeating those 4 mistakes above would be pivotal to the overall success of the trip!