I’d been there a couple of times before. Greg Pennicott’s buffalo concession in Australia’s vast Northern Territories encompasses, literally, millions of acres, from eucalyptus forest to floodplain to coastline. Water buffaloes like the open floodplains with plenty of mud holes. That’s where Greg concentrates his hunting; you can see hundreds of buffaloes on any given day, and there will be some big ones.
By July, the tidal streams have usually stopped flowing. There are still soft spots to avoid—there isn’t much to winch off of out there—but normally we can cruise from camp back in the shady treeline for miles and miles, all the way to the beach. In 2017, the rains were especially heavy…and there was this one pesky river, way out on the floodplain, that Greg couldn’t get the Toyota safely across.
I was there with Danny Deshotels and his nephew and lifelong buddy Robert Deshotels. They’d bought Greg’s auction package at our convention, trophy water buffalo times two, and Greg wanted to get them the biggest buffaloes we could find. Although the floodplains look much the same to you and me, the older bulls must see it differently. They come and go, and through the season big bulls never before seen drift up out of the forest. But they seem to be somewhat habitual, often seen in the same areas and the same favorite mud holes at about the same time of day, at least for a few days.
The first day we made sort of an inventory run. The two biggest bulls we saw were just on the other side of that un-crossable river. We spotted them near the far bank just after midday, only a couple of miles from each other. One had apparently just left the river and trotted away as we approached. The other, some distance downstream, was wallowing contentedly in a little tributary, perfectly safe and unconcerned.
We traveled on, hoping a shallow spot might have dried up enough to allow a crossing. No chance! Mind you, there were plenty of buffaloes—and some big ones—on our side of that river. We kept looking, but Greg’s goal was to find bulls comfortably over the magic “100-inch” mark by our SCI system, and these two were the best we saw. With a whole bunch of luck, Greg figured we might find them along the river at sort of the same time of day. For sure, we could shoot across it, and then we’d have to figure out how to make the recovery.
Honestly, I thought it was madness! First off, we’d spooked the first buffalo, now identified as “Robert’s bull.” The other, “Danny’s bull,” had seemed very comfortable, but on that vast floodplain how likely, really, were we to see either bull again in the same general area? Second, although Robert and Danny were both shooting big rifles (Remington .458 and Blaser .470), what happens if we get a runner on the wrong side? Third, we could certainly swim the murky river—or wade it at low tide—but Australia’s salt-water crocodiles (“salties” in Aussie-speak) have a known penchant for unwary tourists. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut. After all, the whole concept required a whole bunch of luck. Maybe we’d be lucky enough to catch them on our side of the river!
It was midday and very hot when we approached the mud puddle where we’d seen Danny’s bull, a wide spot in a little tributary maybe 50 yards off the main river. Several buffaloes were gathered around—obviously, it was a favorite spot—and a nice bull was almost submerged in the deepest mud. Glassing from a quarter mile away, it took a little while to be certain, but this wasn’t Danny’s bull. And then, up over the low horizon, almost obscured by mirage, here came another, much bigger bull. Water buffaloes are extremely hard to judge. All you have to look at is the length and the curve, and a lot of length lies hidden in the curve. But as he strode purposefully toward “his” mud puddle, we were all certain this was Danny’s bull.
Upstream, the channel is banked with a narrow band of mangrove swamp. Good cover, but here—and for the rest of its journey to the coast—the river flows mostly through flat, open floodplain, almost invisible until you’re right on top of it. On our bank, fortunately, there were a few scraggly trees about 300 yards closer. Theorizing that they might offer enough cover—and a possible shot—Greg and Danny began a slow approach across dead-open ground. Halfway there an unseen bull came out of the channel, stared at them, and trotted off to the right. Their bull, full of bovine confidence, remained oblivious. While they stalked, he advanced to the mud puddle and vanished into its depression. Other buffaloes saw their approach and drifted away, but they were almost to the trees before the chosen bull reappeared. Then he started to walk away.
The hunters made the trees and I saw Danny take a rest on a handy fork. It’s impossible to have proper perspective on that flat ground, but it was looking like a longish shot for a double rifle! Then the bull stopped. Danny hit him once, then again; two or three more steps and he was down, just a hundred yards off the main river.
You gotta love it when a plan comes together—as unlikely as it seemed. We already knew we could cross the river. Just a couple hours earlier we’d waded across to recover Robert’s bull, well-shot and stone dead not 20 yards from the far bank. Robert and Danny hail from Louisiana, ’gator country…the salties didn’t scare them (although perhaps they should have!). The curves and bases were different, but the two bulls measured almost the same, 105 and 106…a pretty good day in the Outback!–Craig Boddington