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Bowhunting Africa's Killer Cats

Armed with only a bow and arrow, a hunter confronts Africa's most dangerous game.
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I could tell that Max Luden had been affected by the dog's death as much as I, though for different reasons. A mixed-breed with just enough Jack Russell in him to make him think he was bigger and meaner than he was, Speck had been part of Luden's shrinking kennel of lion dogs. Luden had started the season with 20 hounds. He was now down to three.



Minutes before, Speck had been at the head of the small pack, howling after a large male lion through the wait-a-bit thorn that rings South Africa's corner of the Kalahari Desert. The two bushmen that professional hunter "Colonel" John Mathewson had dispatched to find lion spoor that morning had done their jobs. Within a few hours the experienced trackers had cut the cat's trail wending through the dense underbrush. After inspecting the spoor pointed out by the head scout's ever-present walking stick, Mathewson agreed with Luden, who owned the ranch. The lion was a good one.



Mathewson explained the likely scenario to me and we set off. At that point, doubts began to set in. Hunting an African lion with a rifle is never completely safe; hunting one with a bow ups the danger exponentially. Yet this opportunity was the main reason I had made the long trek from my home in western Wisconsin to the fringes of southern Africa's great desert.



My first four or five bowhunting trips to Africa had involved the pursuit of plains game, mainly impala, kudu, smaller antelope and warthogs. That wasn't enough. The stories I had read of hunting Africa's big cats and the sight of their tracks in
the sand around water holes on previous hunts tugged at me. Having spent most of my life pursuing American game with a bow, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Howard Hill, Fred Bear and other famous archers whose tales of African adventures had first kindled my hunting ambitions.




Caught in a
Lion's Death Stare

The lion hunt unfolded in fits and starts. Once Speck and the other dogs followed the scent and jumped the lion, the beast left at an unhurried pace. The high-pitched bawling of the hounds told us when they were pushing it, and a mixture of howls, barks and roars told us when they were
in close quarters. We pursued the sounds through the bush for more than three hours. It was hot work. Once I came within 40 yards of the lion but had no clear shot through the swirling fog of brush, dust, dogs and cat. He moved on and we followed.



Finally, he turned to confront the pack in an open area about 20 yards across. Mathewson and the others stayed back, and I slinked ahead. I had a 10-yard shot while the lion was in profile snarling and slashing at his tormentors. I pulled back the string of the 70-pound-draw compound, focused on the big cat's chest, and released. I glimpsed a blur of color as the arrow's fletching disappeared low behind the lion's shoulder. It was a heart shot, but the cat still had life enough to whirl away from the dogs and turn toward me. He locked me in his stare, and I knew then he was coming. There was no guide with a gun standing behind me to finish him off, and for a fleeting second I considered whether I was going to jump to the left, right or straight up when the beast came after me.


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Suddenly, as I was still in the act of snatching another arrow from the quiver, Speck bounced in all stiff-legged and cocky and leapt at the lion. In a flash the lion swatted Speck down, pinned him with one massive paw and crushed the dog's head in his jaws. By the time the lion twisted and flung Speck's body 15 feet into the undergrowth, I had another arrow nocked. Being an instinctive shooter, I drew and released in one motion.



The lion bit at the place where the shaft entered his side next to the first shot but then seemed to resign himself to his fate. His panting became louder and coarser. He looked at me again passively and, paying no attention to the dogs that still circled him warily and spped at the air, sank down on his haunches. His forequarters followed, as though he were lying down to nap in the shade of the
acacias. Defiant, magnificent, the lion finally let his great head loll to the ground and died. From first shot to finish, all had transpired in less than a minute. Luden and Mathewson came up, studied the lion momentarily and then gave me a strange look, as if they hadn't quite made sense of things. Mathewson asked me if I was all right. "Yes," I said. But just barely.



I examined the lion then with the others and considered the little dog that saved me from a mauling or worse. Life is cheap in the parched land that fringes the Kalahari, but Speck went out with a brave heart and I hoped he'd had time enough to admire the manner of his own death. Mathewson gave me a 23-year-old bottle of good French wine when we parted. I opened it back home in Wisconsin and raised the first glass to Speck.




A Risky Game

Something usually dies on a bowhunt for one of Africa's big cats, and it's not always the cat. As Speck's demise reminded me, lion dogs seldom die of old age, and the king of beasts isn't the only cat capable of snuffing out their lives with a swat or a bite. Of course, dogs are not always used to distract feline quarry, but such hunts are seldom without tension or hazards.



Neither the first cheetah I killed with my bow, in 1984, nor my first leopard, in 1996, involved the use of dogs. Instead, I hunted from a blind and the cats were enticed within range with bait. In the case of the cheetah, the bait was a live goat, which was safer than the other participants in the hunt because it was in a cage.



The goat was staked out in a place where the professional hunter and I could watch it from about 300 yards away. If a cheetah showed up, I would stalk it. The strategy seemed too simple to work, but it did. At daylight the morning after we positioned the goat, we spotted a big male cheetah circling the cage, wondering how he could get to the prize. A slight breeze and the soft sand worked in my favor, and I reached my shooting position 25 minutes after first spotting the animal. Unfortunately, the sun had come up beyond the cat just as I was preparing to shoot. I stopped to consider whether I should wait until the sun moved higher so I could take better aim. The cheetah looked in my direction; I felt sure he had seen me behind the camel thorn tree where I stood some 25 yards away. Hungry and stubborn, however, he averted his eyes again to contemplate the problem of the caged goat. I stepped out, drew, sighted and shot. The big cat ran about 20 yards before dropping.



Twelve years later, while on safari in Zambia with my wife, Cindy, and sons Travis and Shawn, I took the leopard under similar circumstances. In this instance, however, the bait was a freshly killed impala that we had hung near a blind where a rifle hunter had killed a large leopard a week or so before our arrival. The blind originally was too far away from the bait tree for a bowshot, of course, so we moved it to within 35 yards.



A leopard found and fed on the impala carcass that night, and I was in the blind early the following afternoon. It wasn't until two days later that the leopard returned, however. My guide and I had already been sitting in the blind for four hours when chattering birds and scolding monkeys told us that something was coming our way.


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The limb from which the bait hung was about 15 feet high and 30 feet off to my right and more or less perpendicular to our blind. When I positioned myself in case I had to draw the bow quickly, I saw that the leopard had already leaped from the ground onto the limb and lain down. The guide pointed at his watch to remind me that hunting time was fading fast. Still I hesitated for several more minutes as the daylight waned. Eventually I decided to take the shot that I had. Just as I was about to release the string, the leopard stood up and presented the perfect shot. An hour later, I strode into our bush camp with the cat's body slung across my shoulders. Our trackers were chanting as they walked; the PH told me it was the leopard death song.


Following the Hounds

I bagged another cheetah and other leopards and lions on subsequent bowhunts while stationed in makeshift blinds, but the African bowhunts that have involved hounds and chases have been the most exciting for me. Hounds can run a bluff better than any creature; their bloodcurdling racket will drive even a lion many times their size to distraction. And the sounds of hunting dogs barking through the African bush as they rush after a great cat stir something primeval at the core of a hunter.



One hunt for leopards along the banks of Zimbabwe's Turgwe River stands out. The houndsman was Tristan Peacock, an energetic young man who had acquired a kennel of fearless Walker hounds. Unlike Luden, whose constant war against cattle-raiding lions had fostered a side business that catered to foreign hunters, Peacock probably would have chased the big cats just for the sport of it. The professional hunter for the Zimbabwe safari was Myles Frommer. Typical of the guides who work for Roger Whittall Safaris, Frommer was always upbeat and kept everyone enthusiastic about our prospects. I didn't need much encouragement.
In 2000, hunting with hounds for leopards was something new for Frommer and me and we were both keyed up. Better yet, I was allowed to bowhunt, which is something most safari operators don't permit when dangerous game is involved. They are right, of course. Bowhunting any of the big cats is risky.
They're incredibly quick and apply every ounce of their strength when they attack. To them, anything on two legs is like a mailman to a pit bull. If you blunder up to a treed or bayed leopard and try to kill it while it's looking at you, you're asking to get mauled. The strategy we devised involved having me slip up to within range of a treed leopard while it was preoccupied with the hounds and shoot it through the lungs or heart.



It seemed like a good idea, but the leopard is always the wild card in such encounters. The first morning after we arrived in camp, the hounds were released on the track of a big male and female leopard and several minutes later they treed one of the pair. My preference was to take a male leopard, but the treed cat turned out to be one very annoyed female. As we stood nearby discussing how to extricate the dogs without killing the leopard with bow or backup rifle, she spotted us and decided it was time to leave the tree.



Spoiling for a fight they could not win, the hounds went crazy. When the female jumped from a branch over their heads, she landed in some waist-high grass. Momentarily confused, the dogs milled around.bout to release the string, the leopard stood up and presented the perfect shot. An hour later, I strode into our bush camp with the cat's body slung across my shoulders. Our trackers were chanting as they walked; the PH told me it was the leopard death song.


Following the Hounds

I bagged another cheetah and other leopards and lions on subsequent bowhunts while stationed in makeshift blinds, but the African bowhunts that have involved hounds and chases have been the most exciting for me. Hounds can run a bluff better than any creature; their bloodcurdling racket will drive even a lion many times their size to distraction. And the sounds of hunting dogs barking through the African bush as they rush after a great cat stir something primeval at the core of a hunter.



One hunt for leopards along the banks of Zimbabwe's Turgwe River stands out. The houndsman was Tristan Peacock, an energetic young man who had acquired a kennel of fearless Walker hounds. Unlike Luden, whose constant war against cattle-raiding lions had fostered a side business that catered to foreign hunters, Peacock probably would have chased the big cats just for the sport of it. The professional hunter for the Zimbabwe safari was Myles Frommer. Typical of the guides who work for Roger Whittall Safaris, Frommer was always upbeat and kept everyone enthusiastic about our prospects. I didn't need much encouragement.
In 2000, hunting with hounds for leopards was something new for Frommer and me and we were both keyed up. Better yet, I was allowed to bowhunt, which is something most safari operators don't permit when dangerous game is involved. They are right, of course. Bowhunting any of the big cats is risky.
They're incredibly quick and apply every ounce of their strength when they attack. To them, anything on two legs is like a mailman to a pit bull. If you blunder up to a treed or bayed leopard and try to kill it while it's looking at you, you're asking to get mauled. The strategy we devised involved having me slip up to within range of a treed leopard while it was preoccupied with the hounds and shoot it through the lungs or heart.



It seemed like a good idea, but the leopard is always the wild card in such encounters. The first morning after we arrived in camp, the hounds were released on the track of a big male and female leopard and several minutes later they treed one of the pair. My preference was to take a male leopard, but the treed cat turned out to be one very annoyed female. As we stood nearby discussing how to extricate the dogs without killing the leopard with bow or backup rifle, she spotted us and decided it was time to leave the tree.



Spoiling for a fight they could not win, the hounds went crazy. When the female jumped from a branch over their heads, she landed in some waist-high grass. Momentarily confused, the dogs milled around.

Comments (4)

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from buck--man wrote 4 years 43 weeks ago

Wow! You're out of your mind! In my book, bows and large predators don't mix well.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Big O wrote 5 years 12 weeks ago

Great story, That will make the short & curlys more so huh?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from buckslayer33 wrote 5 years 20 weeks ago

you crazy guys a lion with a bow! great story

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Karen985 wrote 5 years 24 weeks ago

Loved the story. Sooo.... You killed a pussy cat! Did you eat it? I bet it would have gone GREAT with that bottle of wine.

-3 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment (200 characters or less)

from buckslayer33 wrote 5 years 20 weeks ago

you crazy guys a lion with a bow! great story

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Big O wrote 5 years 12 weeks ago

Great story, That will make the short & curlys more so huh?

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from buck--man wrote 4 years 43 weeks ago

Wow! You're out of your mind! In my book, bows and large predators don't mix well.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Karen985 wrote 5 years 24 weeks ago

Loved the story. Sooo.... You killed a pussy cat! Did you eat it? I bet it would have gone GREAT with that bottle of wine.

-3 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment (200 characters or less)

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