September 23, 2010
You can't call back a bullet.
Sunset was approaching fast on the last evening of the hunt. Several kudu bulls had fed out into the thick hook thorn bushes, and one of them was a real dandy. No, he wasn't a 60-inch monster, but he had deep curls and perfect shape, and he would be one of the better kudu I've ever taken. And it was the last evening, which would put a perfect outdoor writer's finish to the story that was half-written in my head.
The author knew the rifle, Ruger's first Number One single-shot in 9.3x74R, was properly sighted in because just a day earlier it was used to take this gemsbok, a much more difficult shot.
The wind was just fine as my old friend Dirk de Bod and I started to slip in on him, but the dry thorn was extremely noisy. The lesser bulls paid no attention, but the big guy was nervous. His great horns floated above the thorn as he walked away, and I could see a hint of white stripes, but it was just too thick to shoot.
We stood motionless for a few minutes, then followed him. The game of cat and mouse went on for several minutes. The bull never ran and had no need to. He knew exactly where we were, and the thick hook thorn bushes were his armor.
Now he stood on the far side of a tall bush, just the tips of his horns visible. We were looking across a slight depression, and to the bull's left the brush was slightly lower. Dirk put up the sticks, whispering, "If he comes out to the left we'll have a shot."
I saw he was right and also saw that it probably wasn't going to get much better. I got the rifle ready, and the bull stepped out to the left. Only the top third of his body was visible above the thorn. High shots are always risky but especially so on animals with high, humped shoulders, such as kudu. I knew it wasn't perfect, but it was the best chance we were likely to get. This in itself is the worst reason in the world to take a shot, but there were positives as well.
The distance was fairly close--no more than 100 yards, and probably just 80 or 90. I was shooting Ruger's first Number One in 9.3x74R, with a tough 285-grain bullet. Lots of bullet, lots of gun, and I knew where the rifle was shooting. And it was a kudu. African game is legendary for being tough. Perhaps mythical is a better term because (just like everywhere else) some African animals are tough for their size and some are not. Wildebeest and zebra are very tough, as is the entire sable-roan-oryx tribe. Kudu are not tough.
In the split second before the bull stepped out and the rifle went off, did I properly evaluate all these things? Probably not, but I knew them all intuitively and the preponderance of evidence told me to take the shot, which I did. It is very hard to force yourself to shoot down into grass or brush, but I knew the portion of the kudu that was perfectly clear wasn't good enough. So I put the Trijicon's bright blade just slightly down into the thorn on his shoulder, almost reaching the halfway mark when the trigger broke.
With its low velocity, the old 9.3x74R has a mild report, and even at short distance it has a noticeably longer flight time than a fast magnum. In other words, we heard the bullet hit with a resounding thwack, and as that sound reached us the bull didn't just drop in his tracks, he was thrown to the ground by the impact.
When you mess up, one of the hardest parts is taking it with grace and avoiding making your campmates miserable. Neither daughter Brittany nor girlfriend Donna messed up, which didn't make it any easier for the author to keep smiling...
The kudu lay perfectly still, so Dirk and I dashed forward. This was a first mistake, albeit a natural one since the animal was out of sight behind the thorn. We made our second mistake when he got up. I had the single shot reloaded, and I was bringing up the rifle, fully aware that I absolutely had to get another one in him. Dirk was equally aware and, out of habit from long years as a professional hunter, put up the sticks'¦just in time to push my rifle barrel out of the way. By the time we unsnarled ourselves the kudu's rump had disappeared over the thorn.
We ran after him, but there were other kudu bulls running and it was getting dark very fast. The trackers, coming up fast behind us, had already found plenty of blood. We could have followed in the dark, and we even had a blood-trailing Jack Russell to help. But it was a kudu. Kudu don't go very far when hit, and there were lots of other kudu out there. It would drop to nearly freezing within an hour, so the meat would be fine. We called it a night, confident we would find him in the morning. I didn't feel good about leaving an animal in the bush, but I still felt OK about the shot and I wasn't unduly worried. I think I said something like, "After all, it's a kudu. Nobody ever loses a kudu."
In good morning light we found the trail easily, enough blood that the trackers could run on it, at least for a while. Unlike any kudu that I, Dirk or his great tracker, David, have ever seen, this kudu ran straight as a string for at least two miles, and when he stopped running the blood stopped almost immediately. We gave up the spoor about 10 a.m., then spent the rest of the day covering ground in ever-widening circles. No further trace of that kudu was ever seen.
What happened? Well, almost certainly I hit the bull too high, probably through the hump on top of the spine. This, of course, is a great risk on any spine shot. The bullet may hit dorsal projections on the spine or simply come close enough to temporarily knock out the animal.
If you allow him to get up and move off without shooting again, such a shot will almost always result in a lost animal, but unless infection sets in recovery is almost certain. The signs were clear; when any animal is pole-axed you should suspect a spinal hit, intentional or not, but the immediate reaction to a near-miss to the spine is exactly the same as a solid hit. So you must approach the animal quickly, but, more important, you must remain clear enough and ready enough to shoot again at the slightest movement.
I can still visualize the shot, and I'm quite certain I wasn't aiming that high on the kudu. I'm also certain the rifle wasn't at fault. So I either flubbed the shot completely--which is certainly possible--or, more likely, that little bit of brush that I dropped the hold into sent the bullet skipping a bit high. Either way, that wasn't the conclusion I had envisioned, and I probably shouldn't have taken that shot.
Life would be wonderful if all shot presentations were in the open at close range, but that isn't always the way things work. The author photographed these two wonderful bulls an hour before the debacle but says, "Of course I was looking for that extra inch or two of horn!"
Unfortunately, I did, and I have to live with it. I hope the kudu recovered, and I believe this was the case since another safari followed immediately in the same area and no gathering of vultures was ever seen. Of course, in Africa the rules are very clear: If a single drop of blood is found, that's your animal. It counts on your license, and you must pay the trophy fee. I did.
Are there lessons here? I'm sure there are, but let's make sure we don't learn the wrong ones. Obviously, no one should take a shot on game without reasonable certainty of good shot placement, and last-day desperation is no excuse for a chancy shot. Brush is always a problem, and we all know there are great risks any time there's brush in the way.
A big, heavy bullet is no better at "bucking brush" than a light, fast bullet, but having plenty of gun for the job at hand does sometimes help--but not if the bullet goes into a totally non-vital area. I wouldn't have taken that shot at all had I been carrying a 7x57 or .30-06. That said, it looked good and felt good--not perfect but good enough. The fact that it went awry isn't de facto proof that I shouldn't have tried it.
Realistically, it isn't a perfect world, although there are plenty of writing and video pundits who make it appear so. You do the best you can, but sometimes shots go wrong, and this can happen with easy shots as well as difficult ones. If it hasn't happened to you, stick around. It shouldn't happen often, but it's going to happen. I've missed hard shots and I've missed easy shots, and I will again.
Far worse than a pure miss, of course, is a wounded animal. Unfortunately, if you hunt long enough this, too, will happen to you. That kudu isn't my first lost animal, although it is the first in perhaps a dozen years. I hope it's my last, but, realistically, that's a tragedy that all hunters must deal with.
If you don't feel really bad about it, then you're in the wrong game. But you have to deal with it, get past it and go forward. And, hopefully, learn from your mistakes. I'm still trying to learn from mine.