SCI Flashback Friday – Hunting Waterbuck in Zimbabwe

flashbackfridayMayJune1985Cvrhuntforever041814Editors Note – Each Friday we select a story from the archives of Safari Magazine. This story of a waterbuck hunt in Zimbabwe originally appeared in the May/June 1985 issue.

The first time I saw a waterbuck it was a picture of one, poorly reproduced in one of those cheap pocket-sized handbooks. You know the kind, “The Complete Guide to Every Critter Living on the Planet Earth.” $1.95.

Well, as you might expect, I wasn’t too impressed by the photograph, or drawing, or whatever it was. It was hard to tell. So, I didn’t but the waterbuck on my shopping list. My shopping list (as I called it), was my list of game animals that I would prefer to collect during my first African safari.

The hunt wasn’t scheduled until June and here it was only October, and I’m trying to decipher some of those brochures I’d received from various safari-booking agents. Let’s see! What’s a gerunuk, kob, duiker and lechwe? Mental pictures did not appear as I read these and other names. Obviously I had to learn more about the plains game of Africa.

At this point, I only new I wanted a zebra, and a leopard during my ten-day hunt. I felt that selecting another four animals would be about right. As it turned out, and as many of you safari-experienced hunters know, what you wants and what you gets are two different things.

flashbackfridayMJ85waterbuckhuntforever041814Making that shopping list wasn’t as easy as one might think. Did you ever try to find a decent handbook for all the game animals of Africa? When I started searching, there were two obscure and out-of-print books that I managed to locate at the New Mexico State Library in the capital of Santa Fe. Bookstore catalogs were of little help.

In desperation I ended up purchasing, for $1.95, the monumental 118-page book on every living creature in and out of water that I told you about earlier.

Soon after, a couple of publishers, also aware of this void in the natural sciences, came out almost simultaneously with well-produced reference books. I bought ‘em both. Now, I was on my way!

My eventual list was completed on the basis of two factors; reasonable trophy fees and contrasting horn designs. When you’re married to an interior designer, you’ve got to consider these things. Because of its unique horn configuration, the kudu became part of flashbackfridaymj85kuduhuntforever041814the list, as did the sable, for the same reason. The impala completed my selection of horned animals.

These choices, combined with the earlier “for sure” selections of zebra and leopard gave a list of five. Rounding it out was the “beautiful” warthog. My designing wife and I figured a life sized mounted warthog atop our upright piano would bring a touch of class to our home.

So there it was: greater kudu, sable, impala, zebra, warthog and leopard. Not a waterbuck in the bunch. Besides, in most places, the trophy fees for a waterbuck were approaching $800, and for a couple of hundred more you could get something that everyone had heard of…like a leopard. Right? Wrong!

Now, I have to admit that when I was planning the safari, the thought of record book animals never entered my head. After hunting for 25 years with my best trophy to date and ordinary four point mule deer, I felt like those guys with tattoos reading “Born to Lose.”

I’m simply not a great hunter, but I have always loved hunting, and the November deer and elk hunt in Colorado became an annual event…nay a reawakening. Africa I felt would do the same thing.

It did. It made a Hunter (with a capital H) out of me. It did one more thing. Africa made a Trophy Hunter (capital T and H) out of me.

flashbackfridaywaterbuckmj85huntforever041814You might say I’d caught the bug. The waterbuck became that bug, although I didn’t know that when my wife Connie and I boarded the South African Airways 747 in Houston. My rifle and my wife will tell you that was one looong 18 ½ hour flight to Johannesburg!

“Would you like a nice waterbuck?” asked my professional hunter Larry Cumming, in his clipped British accent. It was our first morning at Cumming’s Woodland Safaris, just south of magnificent Victoria Falls in western Zimbabwe.

“It’s not on my ‘shopping list’” I answered diplomatically. (British accents tend to bring the diplomat out in me.) And besides, the waterbuck was just another African plains animal portrayed in a reference book that was sitting in my hip pocket.

Larry smiled. He probably knew the waterbuck bug would bite in time, so he bided his. And in time we would see waterbuck. Usually in groups of five or ten. They were getting to be, shall we say, “common.” But the sight of them was always thrilling…many with beautiful horns that arched toward the sky in lyre-like fashion.

Safari Club International lists five different types of waterbuck. The most common is, curiously enough, called the common waterbuck. Rather largish, they stand about 50 inches at the shoulder and weigh about 475 pounds. They’re easily distinguished from other animals by the distinctive white ring on their rump.

Their aroma is also distinctive by its unpleasantness. This smell, coming from an oily secretion, seems to taint the meat and generally makes it unsuitable for reasonable people to consume. The flashbackfridayrainbowmj85huntforever041814waterbuck prefers woodland areas near sources of reliable water. But, they’re not roamers. When it’s not “springtime in the Rockies “ or otherwise “love-makin’-time-in-bush,” the males tend to form their own groups away from the cows and calves. Either way, waterbuck are highly territorial, and can be found in the same area day after day.

I certainly experienced that during my safari. You could just about count on certain areas to contain waterbuck. We were rarely disappointed.

By the third morning of the hunt I was hooked. I would go after waterbuck! It was 6:30 in the morning, and 39 degrees as we headed off in our four-wheel drive vehicle.

About 500 yards after leaving camp, we spotted a jackal running off toward the purple sunrise. “it’s an omen, I just know it,” I said to myself. Driving along, just a minute later, Julius, one of the trackers whispered to Larry.

“Waterbuck,” Cumming interpreted intensely. I grabbed my Remington .30-06 from the rack behind me and slid out the left side of the Toyota Land Cruiser.

There were three of them, and one was rather large of horn. They were about 100 yards away in Texas-styled scrub, looking at us intently. We eased their way. They eased away. We eased some more, so did they.

There were so many trees and scrub in the way, it was tough to spot flashbackfridaylandcruiserMJ85huntforever041814them…even when they were only 100 or 150 yards away. Those smart fellows kept it that way, playing a little game of cat and mouse with us. Or buck and bwana, if you will. This went on for about half a mile, until the three waterbuck finally tired of the game and pulled into third gear and headed for the next county…or whatever those governmental jurisdictions are called in Zimbabwe.

Later in the morning, after trying unsuccessfully to get close to some good impala rams, we spotted another group of waterbuck. This time about a dozen. But none of them were worth going after. At least that’s what Larry told me. My eyes, at 50, are not what they used to be, and besides, I’m no expert on judging the horns of a waterbuck. From what I was able to see, they sure looked good to me. But I took my guides word for it.

That afternoon, we tried a different approach. Instead of driving, we hiked. Connie – the official photographer of the 1984 Catsis Africa Expedition- was with us.

Julius took the Toyota and drove to a dammed-up lake where we were to meet him later. Larry Cumming had built the dam and one other like it on his 30,000 acre property, and has plans for a third. Thus, the assurance of water even during Africa’s dry season – May to October – is part of good game management, resulting in good hunting for years to come.

Because waterbuck are especially fond of water, I guess that’s why they call them waterbuck. Probably for the same reason other animals are called reedbucks and bushbucks, I suppose. Waterbucks have been known to virtually submerge themselves in rivers to protect themselves from attack. For some reason (perhaps because of their smell), the crocodile doesn’t attack them.

In any event, there were more waterbucks than any other game animal in the area we were hunting. During our hike to the lake we spotted about two-dozen waterbuck, in two separate groups of about a dozen each. They would spot us at about the same time we would see them and off they would skedaddle before I was able to raise my rifle.

The hike concluded at sunset with no further sightings, and it was time to wrap up our hunt for the day. This safari hunting was really getting into my blood. I hated to see the day end. As if to underscore flashbackfridamj85warthoghuntforever041814my feelings, Zambian television that night showed Michael Jackson’s famous music video, “Thriller.” It was the first time I’d seen it, but I felt Michael didn’t have anything on me. His “thrill” took place in the fiction of a crowded city movie set…mine in the reality of the broad reaches of northwest Zimbabwe.

The next few days saw few waterbuck sightings. But we were still busy tracking and finally locating a greater kudu I had fatally wounded. That’s when I gained great respect for the tracking abilities of Julius and Somill. They seemed almost casual about it, but were able to see the tiniest leaf with a spot of blood on it, or a snapped twig, indicating where the kudu had gone.

I had shot the kudu in the morning and we had trailed the animal for a couple of hours and maybe two miles before stopping for lunch. “We’ll find ‘em this afternoon,” Cumming assured me. I wasn’t so positive. However, not ten minutes after we resumed the trail following lunch and a nap we came upon the dead kudu.

The next day, Sunday, was clearly being observed as the Sabbath – a day of rest – by all of Africa’s creatures, or so it seemed. Although they were nowhere to be seen, we were still busy. By this time Cumming and Company had established eight leopard baits scattered about the back 40. It more than two hours to check them all. Not a one of the baits had been taken.

Here it was the fifth day of the ten-day hunt and no sign of a leopard. My shopping list needed an adjustment.

It got adjusted a short time later when we came upon a tiny grysbok standing not 20 feet from the side of the road. This time, I grabbed flashbackfridaymj85grysbokhuntforever041814my 35mm camera and telephoto lens and snapped 3 pictures of the grysbok as it stood ever so patiently looking at us.

“May I shoot it?” I asked. “Sure, go ahead, but hurry. I’m surprised he’s stayed around so long.” A few moments later the grysbok was in the back of the truck, representing the first change in my list. I became more pleased with this tiny trophy when I learned that grysbok are very shy and skittish and are one tough hombre to collect. This little animal with two-inch horns is largely nocturnal and not usually inclined to stand still for you in the middle of the day.

I now was three animals into my budgeted six-critter hunt. Two of the three represented my original list. Monday would see it become two out of four. Funny how we think we know what we want, but are usually as happy or happier when the opportunity for change is presented to us.

Monday dawned like all the others: a clear blue sky with not a cloud in sight. But unlike other mornings, we don’t hop right into the Toyota and go cruising. Instead, it was an after-breakfast Harry Truman-like constitutional into the woods in search of waterbuck. The walk lasted one hour and ten minutes, and we didn’t see a bloody thing. Not even a go-away bird.

By 7:45, we left camp in the Land Cruiser, searching for game and checking our still untouched leopard baits. At the third bait, we saw a large gathering of baboons scrambling up a small, rocky hill from a watering hole. Larry’s instructions were clear: get another one or two for more leopard bait. Out of 60 – 80 animated baboons I tried to find one that would stand still long enough for me to draw a bead.

One did, and my 180-grain Power Point did its job. Larry said he may have just the spot to hang this new bait. It was a small rocky riverbed that still had some water in it. Larry said his plan was to create a third dam here next year. This, coupled with the other two dams will ensure an adequate water supply for western Zimbabwe’s finest creatures.

We walked the area while Larry, Julius and Somill looked for leopard sign. There was none, so we prepared to begin the half-mile hike back to the truck when Larry suddenly grabbed my arm. “Waterbuck. There. A big one.”

I was excited as my eyes tried to follow his finger to a large tree about 75 yards away on the side of the rock-strewn hill that overlooked the river. “Three of ‘em. Shoot at the one on the right.”

I spotted the trio, but I was so busy getting my eye and scope lined up that I wasn’t looking at horns. I took Cumming’s word and aimed at the one on the right. As had been the case throughout this safari, every one of my shots had been from a standing position. There never was a tree or sturdy bush nearby to act as a rest. “Another dang-blasted standing shot,” I told myself as I tried not to wiggle.

I fired and the bullet struck its right front shoulder – a little low, but it broke its leg. The waterbuck was down, then quickly up, hobbling over the top of the hill before I got a chance for a second shot.

“We’ll get ‘em,” Cumming said. That’s the second time he said that, and I was starting to believe him. Somill and Julius got on the trail flashbackfridaycapebuffaloand followed it for about half a mile. There was only a little blood. Had I only winged him? We stopped and looked. Nothing. Suddenly 50 yards ahead of us the wounded waterbuck jumped up from where he’d apparently been resting and took off again.

Larry was about 10 yards ahead of me and in the best position for a shot, so he fired his iron sighted .375 and hit the fleeing bull just below the top of his back.

Even with the added weight of two lead slugs in its body, the waterbuck was able to top another rise and limp down the other side with us right behind. At the top of the hill, we saw nothing until the waterbuck exploded from the bush in a final burst of energy to get away. I fired again and it was down for good.

What a monster, we agreed, as the four of us approached cautiously. I was thinking about the size of the animal and Cumming was admiring the horns. After all, what do I know about waterbuck horns? “He looks like a sure record book animal,” Larry assured me. There he was again, assuring me. So far, he hadn’t been wrong, and he was correct this time as well.

An hour later, after depositing the animal with Brighton, our skinner, Larry produced a steel tape measure. Each horn was an identical 30 ½ inches. That should easily place it within the top 30 in Safari Club International’s Record Book of Trophy Animals. Perhaps as high as 23rd!

Me? Holder of a record book game animal? I’da never believed it. I let it sink in. I watched Brighton all during the lunch break while he skinned the waterbuck with skilled and nimble hands.

Then a thought came to me. “Hey Larry, can we measure that sable? Could that have made the book?” It did! At 41 inches, it would rank around 100 in the Fourth Edition of the SCI Record Book.

Now I was thinking book. My safari was turning into more than I could have bargained for. During the remaining four days, I would get two more animals. One of them was an outstanding impala with identical 21 ¾ inch horns. That could place it as high as 63rd. Since I never measured any circumferences, I’ll have to wait until my trophies arrive back home and are officially scored.

But as it turned out, I never got my leopard. Instead, a Cape buffalo will take its place on my trophy room wall. So, out of a shopping list of six, I succeeded with three. The hoped for zebra, leopard and warthog were replaced with my waterbuck, buffalo and grysbok.

That waterbuck will be a proud memory that will live with me always. My wife says she’ll remember it as the time I returned to camp and greeted her with a “dung eating grin on my face.”

I’ll remember it whenever I look at that trophy on my wall.

Trophy? That’s the only kind of hunting for me now. You know? I wonder what that grysbok will measure out at? After all, it only takes as little as 1 ¼ inches to make the record book!–John R. Catsis

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