The Stories Behind A World Hunter’s Famous Pursuits
By Craig Boddington
Originally published in the January/February 2024 issue of SAFARI Magazine.
Part of the charm of hunting is the sheer randomness. Despite all the planning and preparation, you don’t know what’s going to happen.
Encounters with animals take many forms. I’m not good at sitting still. For me, all hunting from stands or blinds is easily characterized as hours of boredom interrupted by a few moments of intense excitement. The waiting is painful, but the payoff is often worth it.
Despite elaborate plans and intended methodology, any hunt can end successfully in a chance encounter. First day or last, you can run across the animal you’re looking for.
Tracking is wonderful, and a huge anticipation start to finish. Also, there is much uncertainty. You have no idea where the animal will go or if you will ever catch up to it.
The track pre-qualifies the animal as big enough to be worth following, but cannot reveal the size of horns, antlers or tusks. You have to get close enough to see the animal at the end of the track.
For me, a stalk is the most exciting of all. Up close, you can still wave it off if the animal isn’t what you have in mind. The difference with a stalk, however, is that you’ve seen the animal, considered it worthy of a closer look.
Start to finish, a stalk is conducted anticipating a shot. The strategy includes not only getting a closer and the final look, but it culminates within range and in an acceptable shooting position. Here are six of my favorite stalking memories.
GIANT IBEX IN TURKEY
My first bezoar goat, also called a Persian ibex, didn’t come easy. The Taurus Mountains were steeper than expected, and back in the ’90s, Turkey didn’t have as many ibexes as today. Joe Bishop and I were hunting with Kaan Karakaya, all of us younger and tougher back then. The mountains didn’t seem a big deal, but finding good animals was difficult.
Mine came on the third day, glassed at huge distance across a brutal canyon system. Getting to it took most of the day, but the shot was simple and the recovery was uneventful. For the times, it was a very good ibex from Turkey. I was thrilled with it and still am. Great mountain hunter Ed Yates was in camp with us, took a nice ibex the same day.
Until then, Joe and I had been hunting separately, Joe with Kaan. Joe still needed an ibex, and there was nothing else on my menu, so I went along with them.
We didn’t see many ibexes, except one big one that gave us the slip. By mid-morning of the last day, hope was ebbing fast. Then Kaan pulled a rabbit out of his hat and glassed a monster at an impossible distance.
He was up on a ridge far across a big valley. We were flying out late that evening, and there was no way we had time to go after him. Except, on that last day only, we’d been glassing from a vehicle, and a road took us to the toe of the big billy’s ridge. Within an hour we were climbing, and in another hour, we were at the top.
We took a break near the crest, then Joe and Kaan crept the last few yards. No ibex in sight. Terrain always looks different up-close.
The ridgetop was narrow and fairly level, just enough undulating humps that we could only see a couple hundred yards ahead. We knew it was there somewhere, so we moved slowly along the ridge. Two, three, then four peaks. Still no ibex. There was not much ridge left ahead of us.
I’m thinking he must have dropped off one side or the other, so glassing from the edges would have been our next move. One more bump to uncover…and there he was, bedded on a little flat near the end of the ridge, 150 yards away.
I froze while Joe took a quick rest with his Sako 7mm Remington Magnum and made his usual perfect shot. It was over 53 inches, it was the biggest ibex known to be taken in Turkey and was beaten only by a couple of older heads from Iran.
PLENTY PRESSURE ON THAT SHOT
A few years later, in February 2003, I was looking at a ram near the Sea of Cortez. Even with the spotting scope at 60 power, he was a tiny, indistinct blob. A weird feeling that I shouldn’t be there was almost overpowering.
Buyer’s remorse. I’d gotten back from the Persian Gulf just a few days earlier. Surely there was something more sensible I could do with a year of combat pay? In February, Sonora’s sheep season was winding down fast.
Blinking, I fiddled with the focus dial. Still tiny, the heavy horns came clear for an instant. In that moment, all doubt went away. I’d taken my first North American ram 30 years earlier.
If we could get on him, this would be my fourth and last. My friend and outfitter Kirk Kelso stowed his spotting scope and tripod in his pack. It was time to get down to business.
The ram was on a bench just below the crest of a steep ridge. Late morning now, we guessed he would bed there. We came in underneath him, low enough to be out of sight.
In the valley floor there was an odd rock pile, almost a third the height of the ridge. Circling, we climbed up the back side and set up near the top with some brush for cover.
From this angle, the lip of the bench was obscured by ocotillo and a lone palo verde. Kirk found the ram almost instantly.
I couldn’t see him, so he directed me to look in the palo verde. Nothing. Then, through the pale green screen, a golden halo, the ram’s left horn, shining in the sun.
The body was over the edge, just that tantalizing horn showing. I put my pack on a rock shelf, set the rifle over it, did some adjusting, scrunched into a cramped, uncomfortable and dead-steady position. The palo verde was 334 yards, steeply uphill. Sooner or later, the ram would get up.
For me, waiting is the worst, and that’s when buck fever seeps in. This seemed the longest wait of my life. I stayed on the rifle as long as I could, then neck strain made it impossible.
Stretch, try to relax, think about anything else, then back on the scope. No idea how long it was before Kirk said softly, “He’s getting up.”
The ram materialized into the palo verde, took a step forward and stood on the lip, quartering to me. The rifle was a .300 H&H, its 150-grain Sierra loaded fast and super-accurate, the Leupold 4.5-14X turned up all the way.
A bit of drop at that distance, compensated by the uphill angle. At the shot the ram spun right, made 10 yards across the bench and went down. Somehow, I’d kept the jitters at bay through the shot, but now my hands shook uncontrollably.
WHICH WAY DID HE GO?
We’d been into goats most of the week. First day we had two big billies bedded just out of range, no cover, no movement until we ran out of light. We never saw either again. We got in close to several nannies, got the drop on a young billy, but decided to pass.
I was in central B.C.’s Chilcotin, hunting Rocky Mountain goat with Mike Hawkridge while Conrad Evarts was filming. Now we were short on time, and there was our billy, far across a valley, working his way up a rocky slope on the left side of a big ridge. We lost sight long before we rode to the base of the ridge. We tied our horses and started up.
The farther we went, the rockier and steeper the climb. We made the last couple hundred yards on all fours. A rolling rock came down on my left hand, smashing my watch face.
Thankfully, there was no other damage to me or the others. We glassed from there but saw no goat. He had to be close. We figured he had topped the ridge and dropped over. The actual crest was a knife edge, cliffy on the far side, a bad place.
Perplexed, I looked back down the slope and saw the goat. Now several hundred yards to our left and well below us, he was just vanishing into a deep cut far down the ridge.
By now we were beat, but it seemed to me all we needed to do was go down the ridge past that cut, then work our way down the far side. The goat had covered a lot of ground. Surely, he’d hang up somewhere in there. Hawkridge agreed. We sucked it up for one more push.
It was not as easy as it looked. Above and around that cut were treacherous glaciers, last year’s rotten snow. I have 20 years on Conrad, 30 on Mike Hawkridge. Truth is, I was about finished. Progress was slow, painful and dangerous. At least the horses were mostly downhill.
Surprisingly, it worked like a charm. We were about halfway down the cut, covering ground slowly, when Mike spotted our goat. He was on the far side, above a snow field. Not 200 yards. All I needed to do was take a rest over a boulder and wait for him to stop.
I was shooting a Kimber in .270 WSM. The bullet hit hard. The billy made two or three steps after the shot, then nosed into the dirty snow and slid down. We rode to camp in pitch blackness — the horses knew the way — and woke up to several inches of fresh snow.
STILL IN THE HERD?
Nobody passes a mature Lord Derby eland. Knowing what was in the herd — or hoping we knew — that’s what we’d been doing all day.
I was hunting with Guav Johnson in the Mayo Oldiri block in northern Cameroon. Late the previous afternoon, we’d tracked a big herd, only to have the wind change just as we were closing.
The trackers led us to the right, and we scrambled up a rocky outcropping. A huge, open burn stretched in front of us. In the center, about a half-mile away, a big herd of eland stood and laughed at us. The herd held five mature bulls, all shootable. One was a giant, standing out above the rest in both body and horn.
After they filed off into terminalia forest, we followed until the light started to go. We took the tracks again at first light. Through a long and increasingly hot day, we bumped them several times. I could have shot all the other bulls in the herd. About noon, we got a quick glimpse of the big boy. He was in a mass of tan bodies, and there was no chance for a shot.
That time, we’d well and truly spooked them. Three blistering hours and several miles later the tracks led us into another recently burned clearing. The miracle began after a couple hundred yards.
The herd had held up on the far side. Almost lost in mirage, we could see eland milling around stands of unburned trees. Guav Johnson, a great PH, studied the situation. Wind good, but little cover, lots of scorching-hot ground to cover.
I put my rifle crossways over my lap and we started butt-scooting. Maybe a foot at a time, hundreds of yards to go. We had no idea if the big bull was still in the herd. If he wasn’t there, I’d like to think I’d have held off, but, like I said, nobody passes a mature giant eland.
Knuckles and palms burning, we took our time, and eventually pitched up about 250 yards out. Cows here, cows there, and more eland on a low rise just beyond the clearing. No bulls.
Then the big bull stepped from behind a little patch of cover. Slowly, Guav spread the sticks low so I could sit behind them. The big eland walked toward a group of cows and then stood broadside. I held the .375 Ruger just over the midpoint of the shoulder and fired. The bull swapped ends, ran back behind the trees, out of sight.
Guav was far more confident than I. The shot had felt good, but I didn’t dare to believe it until we rounded the trees and saw him lying still, a giant of a giant eland.
A GIANT HERD
How many buffalo are there when a herd stretches for two miles, several animals deep?
When Mark Haldane and I crawled into them, it appeared a normal swamp herd of a couple hundred, feeding on the far side of an open short-grass savanna. We had no idea the majority were spread throughout long saw grass just behind.
Haldane heads up Zambeze Delta Safaris in coastal Mozambique’s Coutada 11, and we’ve crawled into a lot of buffalo herds. This was the largest group I’ve ever seen.
In his nearly 40 years there, as large as Mark has seen. Our mission was to get in there and find one big bull. With absolutely no cover, the trick would be to get close enough to sort them out.
It’s unlikely you’ll see all the bulls in large herds. You just keep sorting until you find one you like. Or you don’t. Or the wind changes, and they thunder away.
When we started crawling, we could see no bulls at all, just a densely packed black mass. It was September in the Southern Hemisphere and was not hot. In fact, it was a nice day to crawl. But it was so open our chances weren’t good. We had to try anyway.
I hadn’t yet gotten sissified enough to include gloves and kneepads in my swamp buffalo gear. This was the last time I omitted those essential pieces of gear.
Mark led the way and I followed, hands and knees, rifle muzzle offset to the right. We kept low and moved slow. The only cover was the occasional extra-long tuft of grass.
A few cows drifted toward us out of the press. Amazingly, we got within 60 yards, but saw no bulls. Inevitably, the closest cow spooked and bolted back into the herd.
We hunkered down and laid down flat. The wind was perfect, so anything could happen now. The main group started to move, then buffalo boiled out of the sawgrass behind. They formed into a semicircle around us, buffalo on three sides at 100 yards. But no good bulls.
Finally, off to the right, a wide, heavy-horned bull came into view. He was mature, had big bosses that were completely hard. The buffalo were all calm now. We thought we could get a bit closer.
We low-crawled 30 yards, spiky grass stabbing into hands and legs. We set up, and as soon as the bull was clear, I shot him on the shoulder with the Blaser .375, then again. He ran with the herd a short distance and went down.
That’s when the main herd came out of the saw grass. They filled the horizon, then marched stately off to the east. There were at least 2,000. It was an amazing spectacle.
DOWN THROUGH THE CLOUDS
The legend of mountain hunting is that long-shooting is necessary. Honest, I haven’t found that to be the case. In part, this is because I am not a long-range shooter on game. It doesn’t mean I don’t know how to, only that I prefer to get as close as possible. Especially on difficult animals like sheep and goats. You may get just one chance, and you will work hard for it.
I’ve needed to reach out a few times, but my shots on wild sheep and goats are rarely past 300 yards, almost never twice that. For a mountain hunt, I set and check my data to at least 600 yards, knowing that I’m extremely unlikely to shoot at a game animal at that distance.
But on the third day of a 2018 hunt in the Central Brooks Range, I found myself watching three Dall rams feeding in a bowl across from me, almost exactly 600 yards away.
Two were legal, the best not huge but a no-brainer-shooter. This was my second backpack sheep hunt in the Brooks, this time with Jordan Wallace of Mountain Monarchs of Alaska.
The previous time I’d been weathered out completely, never saw the tops, never had a chance. It was early in this hunt, but I was tempted. I had my Jarrett .300 Winchester Magnum, shooting 200-grain ELD-X, with a Leupold CDS turret set for that load and verified. The wind was whipping around that bowl, so there was no way I could read how it was blowing over there or in between. Tempting, but I never gave it serious thought.
After a couple days of rain, fog and zero visibility, one morning, it was clear at our level. Several hundred feet above us, the mountain tops were covered with fluffy clouds.
Those same three rams were on a ridge above us, about 1,000 yards away. After a while, they moved off the skyline, then reappeared on the next ridge, a long hogback that led up the mountain into the clouds.
The obvious approach was up a main drainage, circle the mountain, and come at them from above, down that hogback. It was a long way to go, but it wouldn’t be dark until midnight.
The fog was so thick on top, we had to stop several times to get our bearings. We found the hogback and could see the rams, far down around a rocky pinnacle. The ridge was gentler and more open than it had appeared from below. Three times we got stuck with no cover. Fortunately, clouds were still moving in and out. All three times, we waited until fog gave us cover, then made a move.
The ridge benched out above that pinnacle. When last seen the rams were just below it. Anything could still happen, but we almost had them.
We cruised to the base of the pinnacle, where I caught my breath, chambered a round, then crept along the right side. I got the shot at 120 yards. In my book, that beats a 600-yard poke any day.
Features Editor Col. Craig Boddington is an author, hunter and longtime SCI member. He is past president of the Los Angeles Chapter, a decorated Marine and C.J. McElroy Award winner.