This past May was tough. I had what I’d call a partial success in Mexico’s Yucatan jungle and a hunt in northern Alberta for wood bison where we never saw one. Even worse, it was the second try; we never saw one the previous year, either!
We want our hunts to be successful and fortunately, “success” is an open-ended term. We’ve all had great hunts that didn’t result in game being taken. Good camps, good company and awesome country make up for a lot.
The first step toward success is always research–check references, find the right area, the right outfitter and the right time of year for the game we seek. But some animals are more difficult than others. If you are completely into failure avoidance, don’t hunt difficult animals!
For example, comparatively sheep are often relatively easy while goats are often more difficult. My luck goes up and down on that scale. The three turs of the Caucasus Mountains are all difficult, not especially costly (as mountain hunts go), but difficult, hunted in some of the steepest country I’ve ever seen. Most successful is the Dagestan tur in Azerbaijan hunted by local guides who’ve been hunting those mountains for 40 years. Less success is assured on the Kuban and mid-Caucasian turs, but I can’t tell you which is more difficult because I was lucky–three hunts, three turs. Most people run into trouble with either the Kuban or mid-Caucasian tur, sometimes requiring multiple hunts for either one.
Big bears are often difficult. Any bear hunt can go north or south, but because of less dense populations, interior grizzly hunts are usually less successful than hunts for coastal brown bears. I always wanted a really big Arctic grizzly. It took three tries, but I finally got the kind of bear I’d been looking for.
Some animals are so difficult that success is almost totally random. Go on enough hunts in Canada and Alaska and sooner or later most hunters eventually get a wolf. It never happened for me, but I still wanted to take a wolf so I started looking for a winter hunt. I ran into northern Alberta outfitter Trent Packham at an SCI fundraiser and he seemed to know what he was doing.
In January 2013, we hunted hard for a week, but when it should have been below zero we caught a weird Chinook with daytime temperatures above freezing. Trent had plenty of baits and sitting over them was pleasant enough. There were lots of tracks, but for the wolves, it was hot and all the movement was at night. I decided to try again.
In January 2014, we had baits in the same places and it was 50 degrees colder. I was sitting in a popup blind on a bluff overlooking a frozen river with a frozen moose carcass on the ice below me. Dawn came slowly, revealing tracks up and down the river. There was no early action, so I was just settling in for a long, cold day when three wolves strolled down the river toward the bait. Sitting in a body suit, I wasn’t cold, but I was frozen in shock for a few seconds. Then I snapped out of it. The first wolf was a big, black male. I dropped him as he approached the bait, and then reflexes took over and somehow I got the other two as they retreated up the river.
On tough stuff like that there are no guarantees. You have to understand that and if you want the animal badly enough, you have to keep trying always making sure you’re in a good place at a good time. You have to hunt hard and, preferably, smart throughout the time you have available. Keep in mind that in hunting, things can happen quickly and the last hour of the last day is as good as the first hour of the first day.
I have total respect for hunters who pass until the last day looking for a monster, but if you pass “good” waiting for “spectacular” your odds drop! Although the last day is as good as the first, I genuinely hate the pressure of getting down to the wire. So, for me, the ideal timing for success is somewhere in the middle of a hunt. But we can’t control those things. Chances come when they come, and sometimes not at all.
A good outfitter can control the logistics (more or less) and has the responsibility to get you into a good area for the game you seek, but cannot control the vagaries of weather and game movement and also cannot control our own performance. If we get a reasonable opportunity at the animal we seek, then the outfitter and/or guide has done the job. We can pass, looking for something bigger or we can miss, wound or be too slow to take the chance. In all four instances, lack of success is now purely on us!
Even with the best effort all around failure can happen, and some of the time it’s going to happen. All you can do is take it, preferably with a smile or, as my Basic School platoon commander, Captain Ken Roberts used to say when things got tough, “Do it with class, gentlemen” (and ladies).
To improve my odds, I hedge my bets a bit when I can. I love multi-species or “combination” hunts. Maybe you won’t get your primary animal, but maybe you’ll be equally happy with the consolation prizes. Africa is especially good for that, and sometimes it takes years to appreciate what really happens. Back in 1996 I went on my first bongo hunt–21 days of tough sledding in southeastern C.A.R. I never got a bongo, but along with some other animals I got a big giant forest hog. Lack of a bongo was really disappointing at the time, but there would be other bongo hunts. Twenty years later that’s the only giant forest hog I’ve ever had a chance at!
The other school of thought, which certainly isn’t wrong, is that on difficult stuff you may be more successful by concentrating on the primary animals. Elephant hunting is surely that way, and to some degree so is cat hunting. But in the old days when lion hunting wasn’t the costly and specialized pursuit that it has become, there is some chance that I messed up on opportunities by getting sidetracked on other game. On the other hand, safaris that might have produced a lion or leopard—and might not have—yielded some great stories and memories of hunting buffalo and a wide variety of interesting antelope.
It’s also good to keep expectations reasonable. Almost any African area has a longer game list than most other places on Earth, and even in a great place with plenty of time, that entire list is unlikely to be filled. Just recently in Liberia, Mike Adams and I spent a full 14 days rather than the standard 10-day duiker safari. We were hoping with the extra days that we might have a reasonable chance for buffalo and maybe red river hog (and just maybe yellowback and Jentink duiker and golden cat), all of which occur in the area.
By any account we were marvelously successful, taking zebra, Ogilby, Maxwell and bay duiker and water chevrotain. But, realistically, we were pretty much done by day ten, and never had reasonable odds for any of the other game. So we turned a tough, hot and generally uncomfortable but highly successful hunt into one that was all of that, and also longer than necessary.
Elsewhere, such lavish combination hunts are a bit more difficult and sometimes impossible. Argentina, New Zealand and most areas in Europe offer quite a combination of possibilities. Australia usually does not. The variety is there, but Australia is a continent not a country, and many of her game species are widely separated. Asia tends to be more specialized, but there are usually ibex near sheep areas, perhaps gazelles in the valleys, and, as in North America, a wolf is always a possibility. Mind you, I’m not suggesting that a gazelle or Asian wolf would be a fair consolation prize for a failed sheep hunt, but it’s always good to study up on the game that’s present and keep options open.
When China was open, a group of four of us did a blue sheep hunt. We saw the Great Wall and did touristy stuff in Beijing, but reaching the sheep country on the edge of Tibet was a mission. Once we finally got up there on the high ridges, the sheep were as thick as cockroaches—for all the travel there was simply no way the hunt could last more than a couple of days. Tibetan gazelles weren’t as numerous, but there were plenty in the valleys and they gave us a couple more days of good hunting.
With our system of specific seasons and licenses, North America is probably the most specialized hunting destination of all, often with very limited opportunity for combination hunts. Today, most Canadian or Alaskan hunts are very likely to be for one specific animal, but up there, whether in fall or spring, a wolf tag is usually an option. Buy the tag! Knowing what I know now, if I had a bear, moose or caribou in my crosshairs and a wolf walked into my scope, I’d shoot the wolf!
I mentioned my recent hunt in Yucatan. I was there specifically for a red brocket, which could be the single most difficult animal in the Americas. All brocket deer are tough, but in that part of the forest, the ratio is at least five gray-brown brockets for every red. Outfitter Alfredo Lamadrid had done his homework and I was sitting only on places where red brockets had been seen or caught on trail cameras, but I knew going in it was a needle in a haystack hunt. I never saw one, and wasn’t terribly surprised, but there’s lots of game in the Yucatan forest and some interesting oddballs. We saw lots of agoutis. I’d taken one on a previous hunt, but Alfredo had done a bit more homework and I took a paca, another large rodent on license in that area. So I left perfectly happy…and I’ll try for red brocket again.
Across North America, we’re more likely to go on specific single-species hunts. When I was a kid, elk and mule deer combos were common, but even this is fairly unusual today and the reality is that great elk country usually isn’t good mule deer country (and vice versa). Even the better northern areas usually aren’t great for more than a couple of the potential species. And even if they are, the best times or seasons often don’t overlap. While weather can impact almost any hunt, all mountain hunts are subject to interference from weather. With our system of relatively short seasons, North America is probably the most weather-sensitive continent of all.–Craig Boddington