November 13, 2015 is a date I’ll always remember. It was the day I landed in Paris on my way to the Chartreuse Massif to hunt chamois before going to the south of France for mouflon. It was also the day an ISIS inspired massacre in Paris left 130 people dead. This incomprehensible tragedy initially cast a pall over my anticipation of once again being in the French countryside. Fortunately, the French people were soon able to change how I felt.
At Charles De Gaulle airport, I made a short connecting flight to Lyon where I met the Hunting Consortium and Club Faune’s representative, Alex Houlette. Alex is very versatile when it comes to hunting. Besides guiding in the Alps and Pyrenees, he spends six months each year in Benin and Cameroon for Club Faune.
As we approached the massif, I was awed by its majesty and beauty. Although only about 7,000 feet high, its steep slopes and sheer limestone cliffs made it look much more difficult than it turned out to be.
Early the next morning, we caught up with our local guide, Anthony Ovini, and the government game keeper, Pascal Durieux. Anthony is a bit of a celebrity in the French hunting world as he is frequently featured on the French outdoor TV channel, SEASONS. We were after Chartreuse chamois, and SCI only recognizes Chartreuse chamois from the Chartreuse Massif.
I was wearing my lucky chamois hat, which was worn on my first chamois hunt in Switzerland 18 years earlier. This would most likely be my last chamois hunt so the soon-to-be-retired hat would come full circle.
We drove close to the top of the mountain and parked at a small game department cabin just as the sun started to show itself. The rest of the way on foot was relatively easy for a mountain hunt. Pascal had spent the previous couple of days in the area and had a specific mountain meadow in mind, and that’s where we headed.
By eight o’clock we were there, but there was a major problem – thick fog. Visibility was limited to about 40 yards and to make matters worse, it started to rain. The wind picked up, and the fog would come and go. Anthony spotted a lone male chamois heading our way and told me to get ready, but it never showed.
Pascal and Anthony soon split from us and went to check other areas, but it wasn’t necessary. Right after they left, Alex saw a chamois facing our way in the mist and tall grass at about 90 yards. I got ready, but before I could squeeze the trigger, it disappeared in the brush.
Soon Anthony came back having seen nothing, and Alex started to pour coffee while I kept looking in the direction the chamois had gone. My vigilance paid dividends as the same chamois reversed directions and once again stepped out of the brush. He was moving at a fast pace and when he briefly stopped, I put him down. This was one of the few times that I spotted game before my guide did. Alex and Anthony never saw it coming as they were engaged in coffee and conversation. The French are very sociable.
It was over at 9:30 on a Saturday and soon we were back at the cabin for vin rouge and wild boar paté. Although it was a little early to imbibe, it seemed appropriate.
My next destination was the Canigou Massif in the south of France by the Mediterranean Sea near the border with Spain. I was after Corsican mouflon, but our hunt couldn’t start until Wednesday in that the province of Pyrénées Orientales restricted hunting days to Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. I don’t know why, but it was no burden to wait until Wednesday in this beautiful area of France.
Alex told me that so far two other clients had struck out on Corsican mouflon. I was surprised in that I had always found mouflon hunting to be somewhat easy. My opinion soon changed.
Our base camp was a B&B in the village of Sahorre where on Tuesday we met our local guide, Cedric Planas, who is also president of the local hunting organization.
The Corsican mouflon is much smaller than the other sub-species of mouflon I have seen. A mature male will weigh 40 to 50 kilos while the females will be smaller still. The horns of the Corsican have a feature I have never seen on any other sheep. While in Sahorre I visited two local homes that had Corsican European mounts that clearly showed the two horns joined to each other at the base.
Wednesday morning we drove to the top and started our hike across the massif. Nothing was seen high up, but just before noon Alex and Cedric saw a lone mouflon over a kilometer below us near some stone ruins in Camp Baral canyon, an area that seemed more suited to goats than sheep.
Alex and I left Cedric to keep an eye on the eight- to nine-year-old ram while we descended. I don’t how Alex did it with all the thick brush, huge rocks and numerous crevasses, but 45 minutes later he had us 360 yards from the mouflon who was on the opposite side of the canyon. The ram was facing us straight on, and I got a good rest as I waited for it to turn broadside, but when it, did it immediately went behind some brush and laid down.
I waited for it to get up and step out into the open, figuring that when it did, it would pause, and I would take my shot. Wrong again. After five minutes, it stood up and quickly disappeared into brush.
Alex called Cedric to come and do a one-man drive. Meanwhile, the ram joined four females. With Cedric’s urging, they tore out of the cover, but all five went the wrong way and that was the last we saw of them.
The climb down the rest of the way was torture, the temperature had probably risen over 20° from the morning low, and most of the time we were busting brush due to the lack of game trails. By the time we made it down, I was soaking wet with sweat, and my knees, which never give me trouble, ached like I was twenty years older. It was a very tough descent.
Friday night Alex and I were invited to Georges Perisse’s home for dinner along with a French chamois hunter, Alain Galy, and his friend, acclaimed nature photographer Gérard Cezera. Georges’ wife prepared a delicious wildlife meal and Georges served three different bottles of wine, each one progressively better. Naturally, the conversation revolved around hunting. Even Georges’ dog, Saly, a Fauve de Brétagne and retired wild boar hunter, seemed to listen in.
We were back to hunting on Saturday, but this time we reversed our approach. I was surprised that ascending Camp Baral was much easier than going down. The temperature was cooler than Wednesday, and as the day went on it got colder. Just as with the chamois hunt, we started out in rain and fog that would come and go. Unlike the chamois hunt, the rain eventually turned to sleet, which in turn became snow with fairly strong wind gusts. For our troubles, the only thing we saw was a four-year-old ram chasing after a ewe. The rut was on.
Sunday, our last day of hunting, arrived with temperatures in the teens as we once again climbed the canyon, only this time in three to four inches of snow. This isn’t supposed to happen in the south of France in mid-November. With these conditions, I had already decided I would have to schedule a return visit when Cedric spotted a lone ram 390 yards away on the other side of the canyon.
The mouflon evidently had been lying down and stood up when he saw us. I quickly got a solid rest and waited for him to turn broadside, which he did – behind some brush. The outline of the ram was fairly distinct and remembering Wednesday’s fiasco, I decided to take the shot. The ram went down like he was pole-axed.
The three of us exchanged high fives after making sure the animal was anchored. It was very difficult to reach it and, 45 minutes later, Cedric did the last 100 yards on his own. Then things got really interesting – the ram was gone!
None of us had seen the ram get up and leave, so it must have happened when we were brush busting our way over. There was hair and blood where he stood when shot, and his trail led downhill.
Tracking in the snow was easy but the snow gave out, the ram crossed a small pasture of a goat farm and we lost the track. Knowing that Europeans frequently use dogs to track wounded game, I asked Alex to have Cedric get a dog man. I only had four hours left on the hunt when Jean-Michel Calvé showed up with his dog Jeepy.
Jeepy is a 1 1/2 year Rouge de Bavière. At first, the dog seemed confused and I thought it was due to being still very young and inexperienced, but then I realized there was goat scent everywhere. After about 20 minutes Jeepy, to my surprise, was on the trail and we found the dead ram where it had tried to cross a very small canal.
Despite the tragedy in Paris, the people of France exhibited to me the joie de vivre the French are noted for. Back at the skinning shed, Georges Perisse showed up to congratulate me by cracking open a bottle of very good cognac. Alex was driving and had to show restraint but Cedric and I didn’t. The gracious hospitalité of the Frères De Chasse is something I will always remember.
Vive la France!–Ed Yates