CHAMOIS: THE SMALLEST GOAT
Don’t underestimate this one!
I’ve written before that all mountain hunting is somewhat similar, a matter of climbing, glassing, and figuring out how to get close enough for a shot. The difficulty always depends on local game density; the characteristics of a given mountain range; and of course, your luck. I’ve also written that most of the world’s wild goats are more difficult quarry than most of the world’s wild sheep. Goats are often found higher than sheep, and even more frequently in country that’s rougher, steeper, and more dangerous than any self-respecting sheep would call home.
The first chamois I ever took was this Alpine chamois, taken at the top of the Austrian Alps in 1988. This is a good male in full rut, with thick, well-hooked horns and a cape that’s nearly black.
This applies to all goats, including the smallest of the world’s wild goats, the petite little chamois of Europe and western Asia. European wildlife has been managed intensively for centuries, and most European hunts are essentially a harvest, conducted in the company of an experienced gamekeeper. Typically, the proper animal to take is designated based on tight management criteria, with permits often specifying age group as well as sex. This applies to chamois and ibex as well as the antlered game, and while relatively little European hunting is “canned,” so to speak, most hunts are successful.
In the planning stages it can thus be all too easy to underestimate a European hunt. They aren’t all easy, and they aren’t all successful…and the little chamois may be, consistently, Europe’s most challenging game animal. This was brought home to me in spades just last week when my wife, Donna, and I got our butts kicked, literally and figuratively, on a chamois hunt in the French Pyrenees! We were in a national reserve, and on public land most European permits have a shelf life. Our permit was good for three days, which is a common number, but many such permits good for just two or occasionally one hunting day.
Chamois generally rut in late October and November, so this is considered the best time to hunt them. That’s also the time when rain, snow, and fog begin to cause problems. You simply must have visibility in order to hunt any mountain game.
This means you’re banking on the weather. Any hunt can get rained out, and on mountain hunts you can get snowed out or fogged. My first attempt for Gredos ibex in Spain was fogged out completely. The system isn’t unfair; if you can’t hunt you generally don’t pay—but there usually isn’t any rain check. On this chamois hunt we had rain, snow, and fog, but we were able to hunt. Oh, boy, did we hunt. We sweated our way up to the tallest ridges, collecting an impressive collection of world-class blisters on steep, rain-sodden slopes—and bruises and scrapes from slipping on icy rocks. We saw lots of chamois, too—but we never closed the deal. We got one chance only, at midmorning on the second day. It was a 260-yard poke that was very “do-able”—but never a sure thing on these nervous little animals usually taken with radical uphill-downhill shots. At the time I wasn’t worried; missing a chamois isn’t all that unusual and certainly no great shame. There were plenty of animals and I figured there would be more chances. Nope, that was it!
It was a very good lesson in humility and the principles of Murphy’s Law. I wish they were altogether my lessons (which, like every other hunter, I need to relearn periodically). In this case the permit was Donna’s, so the lessons (and the worst of the blisters and bruises) were mostly hers. We did it that way because I took a Pyrenean chamois a few years ago, and we figured this was her turn.
The westernmost chamois of the Pyrenees and Spain’s Cantabrian Mountains are the smallest, and also have coats with more gold and yellow. I took this Pyrenean chamois in Spain in 2005. It was a tough hunt, but I missed two shots.
When I got mine, we hunted on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. It was high, steep, and very cold. Even so, it should have been an easy hunt. I complicated things when I missed a straight downhill shot in easy range at midmorning (oops!), and then missed another long poke at midday. The afternoon turned into a bit of an ordeal, but I took a very nice male shortly before dark. So it wasn’t easy, with much of the difficulty self-inflicted, but it was still a one-day hunt. I figured my hunt for that particular chamois was fairly typical, or at least that’s the way I saw it at the time. Now I’m not so sure which of us had the more typical hunt!
Depending on which authority you adhere to, there are eight or nine varieties of chamois from northwestern Spain to Russia’s Caucasus, plus Alpine chamois introduced to New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The genus is Rupicapra, aptly translated as “rock goat,” with both males and females growing very similar horns (like our Rocky Mountain goat, to which the chamois are distantly related).
Mature males of the eastern races of chamois tend to be dark in the body with very pale face masks. Females are usually lighter in color, but horns are very, very similar. This is a Balkan chamois from Macedonia, one of the larger varieties. Even the largest of chamois weigh well under 100 pounds, making them relatively easy to pack off a mountain.
The westernmost varieties are R. pyrenaica, the Pyrenean chamois just discussed and the Cantabrian chamois of the mountains of northwestern Spain. These two are the smallest of the chamois—the Cantabrian the smallest of all—with more yellow-gold pelage on neck and chest. The rest of the chamois are species R. rupicapra, with mature males tending to be very black in the body with pale yellow or white face masks. The subspecies are identified as being localized in specific mountain ranges—Alpine, Carpathian, Balkan, Anatolian (in Turkey) and Caucasian. They are virtually indistinguishable, except they do get slightly bigger in both body and horn as you move from west to east. My experience suggests that the smallest, the Cantabrian, won’t weigh much more than 40 pounds, while the Carpathian, Balkan, and Anatolian (which I have hunted; I haven’t hunted Caucasian chamois) could weigh twice as much).
None are easy. After all, they’re mountain goats! They love steep, rough stuff. They seem to move around quite a bit more than ibex and our own mountain goats, which makes spotting and stalking difficult: You spot them from afar, of course, but all too often you make a terrible climb only to find they’ve moved! When it rains or snows, which it does frequently in all chamois mountains, they tend to drop down into the timber, where it’s almost impossible to hunt them.
Donna and Craig Boddington in the French Pyrenees. European mountains are frequented by hikers and usually have good trails on the lower slopes, but once you get up high all chamois hunting is pure goat hunting in high, rough stuff.
Still, over the years, like so much European hunting, all of my chamois hunts have been (eventually) successful. Not necessarily easy. In Romania, for the Carpathian chamois; in Macedonia, for the Balkan chamois; in eastern Turkey for the Anatolian chamois, I fought deep snows and whiteout conditions in serious mountains—but I eventually won. So this recent hunt in the French Pyrenees is, honestly, the first time I ever got beat on a chamois hunt. I wouldn’t have wished it on Donna, but the experience gave me new respect for the classy little rock-goat of the Old World. Uncertainty is, after all, part and parcel to the hunting experience, so maybe it was a good lesson—and perhaps it explains, in part, why European hunters have such reverence for their little chamois!