Some 45 years ago I took up the sport of archery, and I’ve been bitten by the bug ever since. Early on, I dreamt of taking dangerous game with a bow and devoured the writings of famous successful archers like Art Young, Saxton Pope, Howard Hill, Bob Swinehart, Fred Bear, Ben Person and Bill Negly. Their writings fanned the flames of my desire.
However, it takes money to realize such dreams, and it was only later in life that I was able to salt away enough to scratch the itch that had plagued me for years. In a way, I am glad that I was forced to bide my time since, aside from money, one must also have both the right mental attitude and the skills to tackle life-threatening game with a bow. Now, with some fantastic experiences and hard-earned lessons behind me, as payback to the sport that has meant so much to me, I’d like to pass them along. Hopefully they will stimulate other bow hunters to take up the challenge.
While I love to hunt large predators and have taken leopard, lion, jaguar, mountain lion and bears with my bow, I consider the bovine species to be the biggest challenge for bow hunters – not because they are more cunning or more dangerous, but because of their size and bone structure. I’ve never shot a big bore rifle in my life, so I can only relate what I have read and heard from rifle hunters on bullet velocity, mass and construction. (My setup is a longbow that only casts a 900-grain arrow at 185 feet per second.) You can well imagine the additional concerns when dealing with an arrow that reaches a mere 200 feet per second. With the advent of compound bows, bow hunters have been able to increase arrow speed and resulting kinetic energy. However, even these have their limitations, and the real “hot” bows available today have a hard time shooting a heavy arrow (over 700 grains) much more than 260 feet per second.
The biggest asset in bow hunting is being able to get close to the game. By close, I mean less than 15 meters. At this range, the hunter can effectively concentrate on exact placement of the arrow, and no range finder or sights are required. The hunter can think about hitting the heart instead of a lung hit. Even with as little as 20 inches of penetration, an arrow placed in the “arm pit” will do a lethal job.
My journey for big bovines started with a hunt for musk ox inside the Arctic Circle. Although not in the danger category of Cape buffalo, musk ox presents its own real challenges for the bow hunter – not the least of which is shooting a bow at 20 – 30 degrees below zero F wearing arctic clothing. (I found it necessary to strip down to shoot and re-dress before frostbite sets in.) This hunt brought home my first lesson on arrow mass. I packed aluminum arrows with coffee grounds in order to get the maximum weight in my arrows. The result was a complete pass through, even after a direct hit on a far side rib bone. At least I had proven to myself that an arrow, shot by ME, could actually take a large bovine. It’s funny how life’s experiences can lead to that all-important “confidence” for whatever comes next.
My “proving grounds” was water buffalo in Argentina. While larger than the Cape buff, its “attitude” is not as serious. Although I was able to achieve a one-shot kill, I learned some sobering facts. After the bull was down, I decided to try some penetration tests with different equipment. When I hit a rib bone head on with a heavy 875-grain arrow shot from an 80 lb. longbow, I was not able to get enough penetration to pass through the bone! This is when I decided that hitting the heart was the key to taking a large boned animal with a bow. This means getting very close, hopefully less than 10 meters, and requires waiting for the buff to extend its foreleg enough to open a path to the heart.
So, with that information firmly placed between my ears, I sought a knowledgeable PH able to help me realize my dream of taking Cape buffalo with my longbow. Opportunity came unexpectedly when I took my lion after only five days on a 14-day safari. I called around seeking a PH to take a bow hunter for leopard and buffalo and was lucky to be introduced to Sandy McDonald of McDonald Pro-Hunting. Sandy loved cat hunting as much as I did, and he had a reputation as a leopard hunter. While he worked on leopard baits, he assigned PH Ernest Dyason as my buffalo mentor. I struck up an early friendship with Ernest and his tracker, William, who sadly passed away last year. Ernest was keen on shooting a bow and quickly caught on to the sport by experimenting with my spare. Some of the most fun we had in the field was a two-day “mock hunt” chasing white rhinos (and occasionally visa-versa) with rubber blunts to give me practice in slipping up close on dangerous game while teaching me their reaction to an arrow hit.
It was decided that the best opportunity for buffalo would be on a sugar cane plantation just across the Crocodile River not far from the town of Hectorsprut, RSA. The buffalo there cross the river on a regular run into the sugar cane fields. We spent two days just getting close to buffalo to photograph them. This taught me how to stalk in close. I was comforted to note that these buffalo will not “charge on sight” but rather run away at the first indication of a human. At least, that was my experience when approaching a herd of buffalo. I was later to learn that single “dagga bulls” were a bit less predictable. But that’s another story.
Wouldn’t you know that the day I decided to take a bow instead of a camera, the buffalo were harder to find and much less cooperative. Murphy’s Law always seems to apply when hunting.
After three days of blowing stalks and spooking every buffalo we found, we were dejectedly walking back to the Land Rover when we heard the thundering of hooves once more. However, this time the buffalo were coming towards us instead of heading away from us. Before I had time to process this new information, a small group of buffalo suddenly appeared in a clearing right in from of us. Ernest grabbed my arm and pointed out the biggest bull. “Take him!” In the rush of adrenaline, I got off a quick shot.
Did I remember all the lessons I learned about getting less than 15 meters and aiming for the heart only? Of course not! I shot with reflex action only, and the results showed my error. The actual yardage was more like 30 meters, and my heavy arrow dropped low, hitting the bull high in the front leg. But the bull was losing lots of blood, and I hoped William could follow the spore.
When am I ever going to learn that these trackers can follow an ant in a dust storm? The amazing three-hour race was on. Watching William sticking his hand into every pile of buffalo dung he found, assuring himself he was on the correct track, was something to see. We caught up to the herd and watched as they turned on the wounded bull, starting a huge fight with him in order to protect the herd from a potential predator attracted by blood.
To make a long story short, good professional maneuvering by Ernest and William placed me into position for a second shot. I had my act together now and placed the arrow where I should have the first time. After an obligatory waiting period (exactly 45 minutes), we did the logical thing: We sent William in to sort out the situation. I’m here to tell you that they don’t pay these guys enough money to do what they do. William found the bull lying down in the bush, facing his back trail. We couldn’t determine if he was dead or alive, and Ernest made the hard – and correct – decision to put a lead pellet up his nose. He didn’t twitch, so we assumed he was already dead. However, there is a lesson here for all bow hunters who go in the field for dangerous game: The PH’s decision is final and do not disagree with them – if not for your own safety, then for the other lives that might be endangered by a wounded and lost buffalo.
I recently hunted water buffalo again, this time in Australia’s Northern Territory and place this experience right up there with Cape buffalo; they are every bit as cantankerous and 25% bigger. This time, I finally stuck with my game plan, passing up several shots in order to get in less than 15 meters, waiting until the front leg was extended, and placing a 1050-grain wooden arrow directly in the buff’s heart. The results were as expected: The bull went down for the count within two minutes and only 60 meters away. There was nothing more pleasing to my ear than hearing the “death bawl” of that buff, knowing that it had finally all come together.