FISHING FOR BUSHBUCK
Neck shots: dredging the depths
BBACK IN THE days when it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to keep a rifle well fed with ammunition, my wife and I owned as hop i npo rt Alfred, initially selling fishing tackle, later arms and ammo as well. One day a fellow walked into the shop and introduced himself as Doug. We had a long chat about fishing and, eventually, hunting. Doug owned a 2 000 hectare cattle farm on the left bank of the Kariega River, some 25km from Port Alfred. The farm was also prime bushbuck country. Doug didn’t hunt but, as he and his young family liked venison and biltong, he held one or two hunts a year to which he invited some of the “tie the dogs loose” gentlemen of the district. These disruptive affairs never sat well with him. When I told him I didn’t fancy them either, he asked if I would do the hunting and we’d share the venison. I readily accepted. Thus began a friendship lasting to this day.
Over the years I shot many bushbuck on Doug’s farm. In fact, most of the little I know about bushbuck I learned there.
In those days my only centre-fire rifle was a pre-owned Mannlicher-Schönauer .243 with iron sights. I bought it for R120 from Pollock’s Sports in East London. The rifle hadn’t started life as a .243. It had been re-barrelled and the rotary magazine slightly altered to take .243 cartridges. It was a handsome rifle. I never used a sling on it.
Now, the story...
IT WAS A Saturday afternoon in June and I was hunting on Doug’s farm. Around sunset I spotted a bushbuck ram feeding at the edge of a big expanse of thorn trees about 30 metres away. I slowly raised the Mannlicher and shot him. To this day I don’t know why, but instead of aiming for the heart/lung area as I always did, I went for a high neck shot. The ram jumped forward, stumbled, and then ran in the direction of the Kariega River. Before I could fire a second shot, he disappeared in the thorn trees. I knew he was hit.
A strip of thick bush separated the river from a cattle path running parallel to it. On the inland side of the path lay fairly open country until the dense bush started about 150m away. To cut a long and arduous story short, I followed the few blood spots to this path and along it for a short way before it became too dark to see. Calling myself all kinds of uncomplimentary names for wounding the buck, I headed for Doug’s house to borrow a torch.
On hearing my story, Doug said he’d come with me. He fetched a torch and his fox terrier and we used my truck to get as near as we could to the spot where I’d last found blood, then we walked. Arriving at the marker I’d left, the foxy put his nose to the ground and took off along the path. Doug indicated that we should just wait. After a minute or so the dog began barking furiously. We hurried in his direction.
We approached to find that he was on the other side of the strip of bush separating us from the river. The bush was too thick for us to get through. As we dithered about looking for an opening, we heard a splash and Doug said, “He’s jumped into the river.”
It took us a good five minutes or more to reach the end of the strip of bush and jog back along the river bank to where the dog, now silent, stood looking at the water. Doug played the torchlight over the water, but nothing stirred. What now?
IT WAS A day or two after new moon and the spring tide was pushing in strongly this far up the river, but we didn’t know how this would have influenced the ram. He’d obviously made for the far bank, but whether he’d reached it above or below a point opposite us was anybody’s guess. We decided to look upstream first. We hadn’t gone far when we saw the weak glow of an eye on the opposite bank. Doug switched off the torch to see if the eye wasn’t that of a genet or some other animal. When he switched it back on the eye was still there. The torch batteries weren’t strong enough to show any detail, but we surmised that, dead or alive, it must be the ram. Doug suggested we take his boat and go and fetch it. I said fine.
We returned to the house to fetch the oars, and I suggested that Doug phone the farmer across the river to explain the situation and ask permission to enter his land. Doug said the farm had recently been sold and there was no one staying in the house. We grabbed the oars and headed for the boat which Doug kept some distance downriver from the ram’s position. The dog went with us.
The boat was plenty heavy but we managed to wrestle it into the water and, with Doug holding my rifle and the dog standing in the prow like a ship’s figurehead, I rowed across to the opposite bank and made the boat fast. We intended to carry the ram to the boat rather than row against the tide.
But there was no ram to carry. On reaching the spot, we discovered that what we’d taken for an eye reflecting the torchlight was an empty beer can some litterbug had thrown into the river.
We searched up and down without finding anything of consequence. The dog showed no interest in proceedings. With the torch batteries now worse than useless, we gave up and returned to Doug’s house empty handed. I told Doug I’d be back next day to continue the search. He said he wouldn’t be at home and I must carry on.
I returned with my own boat on the back of my bakkie. Named Rocket, it was far easier to row than Doug’s craft. I searched the far bank first, and the adjacent bush – nothing. Returning to Doug’s side, I searched the bank and the bush – again nothing. Had the ram perhaps drowned? If so, I had no idea how long it would take for the carcass to float to the surface.
By that afternoon I was too clapped to continue. I had enough mud on me to start my own river; the thorns in my flesh would require surgery, and I walked with a stoop from looking at the ground all the time. Defeat stared me in the face.
BUT I DON’T give up easily. The only place I hadn’t looked was in the river itself. But how would I do this? Diving was out. The cogs in my brain turned and eventually I came up with a plan: I would make a dredge of some sort and dredge the bottom. The river was too long to dredge all of it, but I could dredge a few hundred metres upstream and downstream from where the ram had jumped in. Even to my fertile mind it seemed like a very long shot, but it was all I could think of. I’d phone Doug that evening and tell him I would be back next day for a last chance look.
On the way home I stopped at my shop for a box of big treble hooks. Using these and a length of galvanised pipe and some heavy fishing line, I concocted a passable dredge to drag along the riverbed by means of a rope attached to
Rocket, confident that the trebles would snag anything they contacted. I’d take a fishing rod with me to avoid having to answer embarrassing questions asked by fishermen I might bump into.
Before falling asleep that night I pondered the potential consequences of a misplaced shot – not just for the hunter but for the animal. I knew that most wild animals die far more terrible deaths than being wounded by a hunter’s bullet. I had once come across the rotting carcase of a kudu bull wedged upside down between the sides of a narrow donga into which he had accidently fallen and subsequently starved to death. Buffalo are mauled to death by lions. Maybe adrenalin saw to it that initially the animal didn’t feel the panic and pain of such experiences, but I doubted that adrenalin would last right up to the animal’s death. But who knows? All I knew was that l – as a human being – must do everything I could either to kill the ram or know for certain that it was beyond me to do so.
Having arranged for my wife to look after the shop that Monday, I was on the river good and early. As I was preparing to launch Rocket, a retired chap from Kenton-on-sea (the village at the mouth of the Kariega) who occasionally visited my shop, went past in his boat. He was going fishing upriver – far enough, I hoped, to where he couldn’t see me. We waved a greeting to each other.
With the dredge in the water and my rifle and fishing rod in the boat, I began rowing from bank to bank. I started where the wounded ram had entered the water and then, moving a little downstream between each crossing, I made my way downriver for about 200 metres, which was as far as I intended going. Finding nothing, I returned to my starting point to continue my search upriver.
It was about lunchtime when I reached my halfway mark. I went ashore for a break from rowing and to eat the sandwiches my wife had made for me the night before. To say I felt as though I was clutching at straws is putting it mildly. I would need more than fisherman’s luck to find the ram by this hit or miss method. I would dredge another hundred metres upriver and then throw in the towel. The tide was now running out.
With the dredge in the water and my rifle and fishing rod in the boat, I began rowing from bank to bank
AS I SAT listlessly eating a sandwich I heard an outboard coming down the river. I swopped the sandwich for my fishing rod and began fiddling with it. It was the chap who had passed me earlier that morning. He stopped opposite me and asked if I had caught anything. No, not a thing I replied. We then chatted about the fishing for a while. As he was about to restart his outboard to leave, he said, “Oh, there’s a dead buck lying on the bank up there,” and pointed with his chin towards the next bend upriver. I made some mundane remark, though in my heart my knees were shaking, and he went on his way downriver. He was no sooner out of sight when I relaunched Rocket, yanked the dredge aboard and rowed the 200m or so to the bend in record time.
I found the ram lying on the river-grass where the falling tide had left him. The bullet had hit him in the throat; it was probably damage to the trachea that caused him to drown. I loaded him into Rocket and headed for my truck, only this time I relaxed and let the tide take me downriver.