September 23, 2010
When the quarry is a crocodile, that first shot must count.
We'd been crawling for the best part of two hours, our destination a clump of brush at the base of a big mopane tree. The gravel was blistering hot in the midday sun, and it was sharp, too; our knees and elbows were raw, and my back hurt. Somehow we made it. The grassy peninsula lay just across a small inlet. A midsize crocodile, the sentinel, was less than 50 yards away. Miraculously, he was still asleep. The big boy, the one we wanted, lay at the end of the peninsula among several lesser crocs.
The crocodile was on the far side of that little peninsula, maybe 70 yards away. On most game animals this would be a very simple shot, but the croc's brain is a walnut-size target, and it must be hit precisely. The author cannot recall a more difficult shot.
PH Andrew Dawson slid a bit to the right, and I crawled up beside him, keeping low and kissing the ground. Slowly, slowly, I eased the old .375 into position, adjusting slightly to avoid a leafy branch just ahead of the muzzle.
The croc was lying at a slight quartering-away angle, his huge head almost in the water. I could clearly see the horns, at least with my eyes. Through the 1.75-5X Leupold, turned up all the way, it was a different story. The crosshairs completely covered the small area I must hit.
Sweat trickled down my nose, and not just from the heat. This was tricky. I shifted up, down, left, right and back to center. Yes, this was the hold. I slipped the safety and put my finger on the trigger, and as I did, the big croc slipped into the water, gone.
I've knocked around Africa more or less annually for about 30 years now. I've been fortunate, and there isn't an awful lot there that I haven't done. One glaring omission was that I'd never shot a crocodile.
Truthfully, I'd never much wanted to. After all, it's just a big, creepy lizard.
A few years ago, in Tanzania, my hunting partner, Art Wheaton, shot a big croc on the banks of the Little Ruaha. He made a brilliant shot, anchoring the croc perfectly from one side of the river to the other, and I idly wondered if I could have made that shot.
Last year, on a buffalo hunt, we were camped right on the banks of the Zambezi. Any time we were in camp at midday we could glass big crocs sunning on islands and across on the Zambian shore. I got interested, looking at each one with questions in mind: How could that croc be approached for a shot? If a shot became possible, how would I do it, and could I pull it off?
My buddy Tim Danklef, partner in our film enterprise, loves crocodile hunting, and he egged me on. "Boddington, you're a shooter as well as a hunter. A big croc is the hardest animal to stalk and offers one of the most difficult shots in the hunting world. You've got to try it."
In 2005 we returned to Andrew Dawson and Paul Smith's Chifuti Safaris camp on the Zambezi, primarily to hunt leopard but also with one of their scarce crocodile licenses in hand. We got the leopard--technically not a difficult shot but done under a great deal of pressure--and now we had some time to look for a big croc. By now I'd done some homework, and I had a better sense of what Tim had been raving about.
The first problem with crocodile hunting is getting close enough for a shot. Reptiles continue to grow throughout their lives, and they live a long time. A big bull croc is 13, 14, 15 feet long, occasionally more. He will be as much as 60 or 70 years old, and he's seen it all.
.375 H&H cartridge shown with one of the crocodile's major teeth. A crocodile like this is definitely a man-eater, given a chance, and probably has been one in his long career on the Zambezi.
Given a chance, he is definitely a man-eater, but he's first and foremost a survivor. In years gone by he has survived market hunting for his skin. In recent years, with sport-hunted quotas, he has probably been stalked or baited numerous times. He must crawl out onto the bank and sun to regulate his temperature, which is his vulnerability. But his keen senses are always on full alert, and at the slightest hint of danger he's in the water, where he knows he is safe.
He can be stalked, but only when luck establishes ideal conditions--a high bank or other cover overlooking his sunning spot or perhaps an adjacent island. The percentage of successful stalks is low due to his wariness, this compounded by the fact that you must get relatively close to ensure shot placement.
The alternative is baiting: staking a hippo or buffalo quarter near a good sunning spot, then building a blind in appropriate cover and waiting, sometimes for days.
The hunting challenge is thus interesting. Unlike most hunts, however, the challenge isn't over when the animal is in range. Realistically, most game animals offer a large target area. If the shot presentation is acceptable, the range is reasonable and the shooting position is fairly steady, there isn't much magic in placing a bullet from a scoped rifle in the heart/lung area. It's different with a crocodile because a fatal shot isn't nearly good enough.
Like all reptiles, crocodiles have slow nervous systems. A heart/lung shot will kill a crocodile as surely as anything else, but it won't instantly stop them. Almost invariably, crocodiles are shot within a few feet of their water sanctuary. One flick of the tail, and he's in the water. In still water, like a lagoon or backwater, there is some chance for recovery, but in a river with any current at all it's over when he reaches the water. The crocodile simply must be anchored on the spot. Unlike most game, there is no blood trail and almost no chance for follow-up; failure to anchor the croc is a very expensive splash.
Most experienced crocodile hunters figure there are just two suitable shots, the brain shot and the spine shot. At the rear of the skull the crocodile has two small bony projections, or "horns," offering a pretty good reference mark. The small brain lies between and just slightly forward of the horns. Or, on a pure broadside shot, you can shoot for the base of the spine just a few inches behind, and on line with, the back corner of the mouth. Both shots are very tricky and, in my experience, the most precise shot placement that is required in the entire worldwide hunting spectrum.
Now, that's a croc! This was an exceptionally large crocodile, more than 15 feet from nose to tail. A river monster like this might be 70 years old and has seen it all. The author, Andrew Dawson and crew pose with the largest croc they've ever seen. To enlarge this image, please click HERE
Art Wheaton used the spine shot on that big croc in Tanzania and executed it perfectly. Just possibly this shot offers a bit more margin for error since you have some latitude left and right (not much up and down). The walnut-size brain is definitely the smaller target, but I think it might be an easier shot because those weird little horns offer a more precise aiming point. Also, if the crocodile is angled one way or another, you can still visualize where the brain lies: underneath, between and slightly in front of the projections.
The skull is relatively fragile; you don't need a big gun or a particularly hard bullet to reach that brain, but you'd better get it right. I used my .375 not for its power, but because the only other rifle I had available was a single-shot .30-06. Yes, it's a one-shot game, and that first shot better be right, but even with perfect shot placement there will be a lot of movement from the big reptiles. It's important to back up that first shot, so I chose the repeating rifle. Of what I had available, that was the correct choice, but if I had it to do over again I would want a very accurate rifle between 7mm and .30 caliber, and I'd want a minimum of a 3-9X scope.
Our hearts sank when the croc went into the water, but none of the several other crocodiles went with him. He swam around the point and lay there in the water, just his horns showing. After a time, we concluded it was natural movement for some crocodilian reason and just maybe he would come back. We studied it for a bit, and Andrew thought he might beach on the far side of the peninsula, where we couldn't see him. We crawled back, cut our way through a thicket and inched a few dozen yards up the island. It took another hot, miserable hour, and at no time was the croc we wanted in a shootable position.
Our target was the base of another tree, maybe 70 yards from the point. Just as we neared our goal the big fellow came out of the water on the far side, exactly as Andrew had predicted. Low crawling and butt crawling, we made it to the base of the tree. The crocodile was lying broadside, most of his body hidden by long grass. The head was clear, with other crocodiles on either side.
No rest was available, so I inched my way up the side of the tree, leaning into it with a tight sling. The head was almost broadside, quartering just slightly away, the horns plain, but again the crosshairs covered up everything I needed to hit. Seventy yards, the rifle maybe an inch high at that distance, its normal group size spreading across everything I needed to hit. I wasn't shaking, but I was sweating heavily. I had no margin for error whatsoever. At the angle, I had to center the crosshairs on and just under the horns, and I'd better not fluff this one.
I did the same up, down, left, right movement that I'd done before, finally centering the crosshairs on a spot I couldn't see. The rifle was steady; the angle looked right. I took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. At the shot the crocodile lifted into the air, half-rolling. At the same time there was a covey rise of crocodiles, seen and unseen, leaping over him, going past him, a mad panic of big green lizards.
Backup shots were fired when the right target was clear, but there was no need. The 270-grain Hornady, loaded very fast, had completely destroyed his brainpan. I'm really glad there are so few shots in hunting that require placement that precise; I don't think I could take the pressure.