SCI Flashback Friday – C.J. McElroy Hunts Russia

Editors Note: Each Friday Hunt Forever will reprint an article from our 1985septoctSafariCoverhuntforever040314archives. This chronicle of Safari Club International Founder C.J. McElroy’s 1972 hunt in the former USSR was printed in the Sept/Oct 1985 issue of Safari Magazine.

The tur is an unusual animal that looks as if it might be a cross between an ibex and a wild sheep. There are two species, according to all that has been printed about this strange creature, and both occur in the Soviet Union.

I was not too interested in the Capra servtowi as I have always felt he looked much the same as an ibex without the great horns of that magnificent beast. The longest recorded in Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game is 40 inches for this tur and 58 inches for his cousin the Capra sibirica ibex.

So, when I decided to add a tur to my collection I chose the Capra caucasus cylindor conus, the tur that lives in the Caucasus Mountains just north of Iran and along the Caspean Sea. These mountains are not very high; the tallest peak rises to a height of 11,000 feet.

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Left to right: Jim Schmalz, Gene Rubeck and CJ McElroy

I arrived in Russia in August of 1972, a poor month to hunt north of the equator. The summer coats are always thin and the hair is very short. However, one does not tell the Russian when he will hunt; instead, they tell you where, what and how long.

The tur hunts were a package deal, which included a tour of Moscow. An interpreter who was with us most of the time (and whom I suspect reported all our actions to authorities) was supplied, as was transportation in and out of the hunting area.

The hunt originated in the old city of Baku, the largest city in the Azerbaijan Province, which was one of the original countries of old Persia. The great majority of its people still are of Turkish descent.

I found both this ancient port and the people very interesting and

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Crowds in Moscow

very different from the city of Moscow and its masses of sullen and uncooperative people. Baku’s people are vivacious, friendly and eager to please and to learn the ways of the western world. The have the typical dark eyes, black hair and olive complexion of the people of Persia or the middle East and are quick to learn and easy to get along with.

The only sour apple in our group was an older man who was in charge of the horses and men – and hunting in general. He was a typical hard-nosed Russian, uncooperative and arrogant with a great sense of his own importance. He wore a hero’s medal and I learned that he had been a sergeant in World War II. He never missed an opportunity to let us know who was running the show.

Our interpreter, Raphael, was just the opposite: He was pleasant, enthusiastic and very eager to learn American slang. His English was the staid, dry and very correct English learned from a book. He was constantly after Jim Schmalz or Gene Rubeck (the other two American hunters on this trip) or myself to teach him phrases of slang that were strictly American.

We left Baku late in the afternoon for a small village in the foothills of the Caucasus, where we spent the night before heading out to the hunting area the next morning. There were five of us in the small Jeep-like Russian truck, plus our gear and a few boxes of supplies. IT was very crowded and we Americans took turns sitting in the front seat beside the driver. This was the only comfortable place in the vehicle.

The narrow road was paved with rough asphalt for about the first 30 miles, then we left this paved road for a graveled road which wound around the hills following a small stream that came down from the mountains. Other than the two old bridges we passed over and one hand-operated small cable car between two high points, there was no other way to cross this stream in distance of about 50 miles.

Russian guide with McElroy's bonus bear
Russian guide with McElroy’s bonus bear

At noon we came to a wide stretch of gravel in the streambed and saw two tents near the narrow shallow stream of water that flowed down and out of the Caucasus.

We crossed the rough stretch of rocks and gravel and stopped beside the tents. I was glad to get out of that cramped truck and stretch my legs.

For the next two hours, horses and men dribbled into the camp from the villages nearby. Jim, Gene and I were busy setting up a target and sighting in our rifles. After a few rounds we were satisfied with the results and packed our rifles away. I was shooting my old .300 Weatherby and it had done well at 100 yards.

By now there were about ten horses in the camp and at least that many men had accompanied us from Baku. Our equipment was loaded into large, strong saddlebags hung over the backs of the horses. A Russian then would climb up and sit on the center of the bag.

I looked around for my 16mm camera, which had been packed in a leather case along with my 35mm, but couldn’t find it. I asked Raphael where it was and he pointed to a saddlebag on which a Russian was sitting. “In there,” he said.

“Get it out,” I ordered.

“It will be alright,” he assured me.

“Damn it, I said get it out. You don’t realize how delicate and expensive that camera is.”

They reluctantly unloaded the saddle bag while the others started for the mountains. Sure enough, my $2,500 Bolex was buried under a lot of gear at the bottom of the bag. The Russian who owned this horse turned somewhat sullen and wouldn’t hold the cameras in front of him. After a few minutes of frustration, I took the large box myself and we started out, with Raphael riding like a madman to catch up with the others.

Keeping that heavy box balanced on the horse turned out to be a very tough job. I was able to hang on to it only by walking the horse slowly. In a short time, the others had moved quite a long ways ahead of me and had disappeared around a bend in the river.

I plodded along, angry and miserable, struggling with the camera. Two hours later I rounded a bend and saw two tents at the edge of some trees. Men were moving about and some of the horses already were grazing behind the clump of trees. I had arrived at the camp.

That evening we learned what we would be eating for the next few days, or until we killed some camp meat – tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberry jam and bread. That was it. No meat was offered. We did have some cheese, but that was quickly eaten.

Late in the afternoon, just before sunset, we had a bit of excitement when one of the Russians saw a small herd of tur silhouetted against the sky on a rocky peak down the canyon. I checked them with my ten power Leitz binoculars and found them to be females with their young. Sundown brought a cold dampness to the mountains.

Daylight was just breaking when we left the camp the next morning and started up the canyon. The Russians assured us that it was a three-hour walk to the shooting area. We really didn’t know what to expect as communication between us and the Russians was not too clear, although Raphael did his best. We did understand that it would be a drive as is used in many countries in the East and in some parts of Africa. In less than two hours we had arrived at the selected spot, doing the climb in two-thirds the time the Russians said it would take.

I will admit that I pushed myself, as I am sure Jim and Gene did, just to show those hard-nosed Russians that some Americans can walk and climb as well as they can.

We were spaced in the canyon about five hundred yards apart – first myself, then Jim, with Gene farther up the canyon.

I set up the 16mm camera on its tripod and connected the battery while the two Russians watched with great interest. Then I chambered a cartridge and put three more into the Weatherby’s magazine, and sat down to wait for some action. I had been on drives before and knew that somewhere behind us men were climbing up the tall mountain. After a while, when they had reached the top and started down toward us, the animals would rush off the slope and try to get across the canyon to reach the mountains opposite us.

The Caucasus Mountains seemed no different than a hundred or so of other mountain ranges I have hunted around the world. They are ideal for sheep, goat, ibex and other mountain game; grassy slopes furnish food and rocky peaks furnish safety for the animals. It was the beginning of fall and the grass was beginning to turn brown.

It was perfectly quiet in the canyon. The two men with me stayed close to the rock cover and now and then would peek around the rocks to look up the side of the mountain above us. The sun rose higher and warmed the canyon with its rays. Then, suddenly, the quietness was broken by the sound falling rocks and the clatter of pebbles rattling against each other as many small hooves hurried down the mountainside.

One of the Russians motioned excitedly for me to pick up my rifle. Instead, I grabbed my camera and swung it toward the sound. Both Russians exchanged looks of dismay and one made as if he was going to pick up my rifle. “Keep your hands off that rifle,” I ordered. He didn’t understand the words but I am sure the meaning was clear. He withdrew reluctantly.

The tur came with a rush and the canyon was suddenly filled with small groups of female lambs and young males. I photographed them for over a minute while both Russians were practically dancing with excitement saying the one word of English that they both knew: “Shoot! Shoot!”

But I had made the right decision. Not one big ram ran past us the first two or three minutes. Across the canyon and down where Jim and Gene were stationed, I saw a good herd of big rams and there were several shots from that direction.

The noise of hooves abated and the last of the females and young disappeared over the rise in front of us. Both Russians were eyeing me in an unfriendly manner now. They felt I had let them down. However, I had three days to hunt and was in no hurry. I was used to attempts to prod me into shooting quickly so men would not have to climb the mountains several times.

One Russian was muttering something to the other, when he suddenly pointed to the mountain behind us. I immediately swung my camera on two big rams creeping down the mountain making very little sound but heading to the other side.

“Shoot! Shoot!” Both Russians were yelling now as the film whirled through the camera and I got excellent footage of the two huge rams crossing the dry streambed.

Both Russians were about frantic now and I stopped the camera, picked up my rifle and shot the largest ram just before it disappeared over the top of the rise. The other ram didn’t hesitate. It crossed the ridge, leaving the larger ram lying on the crest with one of its heavy and curved horns silhouetted against the sky.

Both Russians were very jubilant now and they pushed away toward the fallen ram. They knew (as I did) that here was an exceptional ram in the gold medal class.

I followed them and admired the heavily broomed horns of the old warrior. Shouts from up the valley attracted the two Russians now and both left my ram and started toward the sounds. I learned later that a ram had been wounded and they were chasing it.

I followed the men back to where my camera stood on the tripod and laid my rifle beside it. Both Russians now motioned for me to accompany them but I didn’t want to leave either my camera or rifle and they evidently had orders not to leave me alone. They stood about 25 yards away motioning for me to come. I reluctantly picked up my camera and tripod and started to follow. I didn’t want to shoot another tur.

We had only gone about 50 yards and I looked back to where I had left my rifle and I heard a rock roll down from the mountain where the tur had been. I looked up at the sound and saw a large brown bear coming around the crest of the mountain in the loose rockslide.

I quickly set my camera down and raced back to my rifle while the Russians jabbered to each other. I grabbed up the .300, dropped down so I could get a rest on the top of a rock and centered the crosshairs on its shoulder.

I squeezed off and the bear let out a roar and started scrambling up the mountain, clawing at the loose rock. I ejected the shell and put in another and caught it again in the scope, but realized that it was finished. A moment later, it came tumbling head-over-heels down the cliff and dropped into the stream, to the delighted cries of the now happy Russians. I learned later that the local people received a percentage of the trophy fees paid on each animal taken by foreigners.

The balance of the hunt was anticlimactic as the hunting was all over. Jim Schmalz had taken two rams and Gene had shot one. Three of the rams scored in the gold medal class with Jim’s second ram missing by a few points.

The Russians knew absolutely nothing about skinning out an animal for a trophy mount and showed no interest in learning. I worked six hours skinning out and salting down the four tur and the grizzly bear. It was a long and tough job, but necessary if one wanted the skins for mounting.

However, it was a good and successful hunt and I had made two good friends in James Schmalz and Gene Rubeck.

I suppose the Russians are alright in their own way. I came to like Raphael very much, and when I bid him goodbye, he said: “Mr. Mac, I will never forget you for you learned me many bad words in English.”–C.J. McElroy

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