Tough Hunts - Dftq Part 2 - (Mantra Of Die First Then Quit)

My first Marco Polo argali, a fine old ram. I got serious altitude sickness early in the hunt and worked my way through it, but I was never “right” on this hunt.


(Continued from DFTQ Part 1) The Marco Polo sheep is one of the world’s great game animals, hunted on the “roof of the world” in the Pamirs of Central Asia. As a mere gunwriter this was a hunt I never expected to be able to do, and in fact no full-time gunwriter had preceded me. Except: In the early 1970s, when Afghanistan’s Waukon Corridor was open, one of our most respected gunwriters went. He was older and a lifelong smoker; he got altitude sickness and had to be evacuated to lower elevation. Few know about this and he never wrote about it…but I know about it.

In Tajikistan in 1998, on a dream hunt of a lifetime, in my late 40s and (thanks to the Marines) in great physical condition, I got altitude sickness. I know now that this is random; unlike heat illness it is not cumulative, and may strike once and never again. This is why veteran mountaineers die from it: It is random. I was nauseated and had diarrhea. I was going into cerebral edema…I couldn’t sleep, but walking along a trail I couldn’t stay awake, and found myself nodding off and wandering toward the abyss. Correctly they diagnosed me and, equally correctly, they wanted to take me down to lower elevation. This was what should have happened, but I wasn’t exactly in my right mind—and I wasn’t ready to quit. I started popping Diamox, a standard prescription for altitude sickness. I had it, but hadn’t taken it because, after all, I was a Marine and young enough and strong enough that I didn’t need that…stuff. I also loaded my rifle and backed into a corner. Like I said, I wasn’t thinking exactly straight. The Diamox was a miracle for me. After about 18 hours of pure misery I came out of it, as good as it was going to get, and a couple days later I shot a nice old ram.

Relatively few people do the Marco Polo hunt more than once. I went back in ’03 not because my ram wasn’t big enough (it was), but because I felt so bad on that hunt that I remember relatively little about it. I missed the experience. Of course, the second time I absolutely had to get a better ram…

November is the right time in Tajikistan. It can be brutally cold—in ’98 I frostbit my feet while pinned down by a band of rams—but the rut is on and a lot of rams have wandered in from China. On a good November day you will see 500 sheep, and on a great day you might see 1000. Seeing and shooting are not the same, and you won’t see a great ram every day, or even every couple of days. But you will see sheep.

Although the tips are broomed, this massive old Marco Polo has thick bases and a very deep curl, definitely one of the big ones. The stalk took all day, mostly crawling in snow camo.

On that second Marco Polo hunt we saw a lot of sheep, and we stalked several very big rams that gave us the slip. We weren’t to the last day, but we were running short on time when, glassing from a saddle, we saw two rams work their way up a ridge to bedding spots. One was okay; the other was very big. They bedded on a high ridge with no cover for many hundreds of yards; our only option, from two miles away, was to crawl to them until their own ridge covered us, then ascend.

In white camouflage, we started crawling at eight in the morning. Finally in the shade of the rams’ ridge, we stood up at three o’clock. Stiff and sore, we struggled up the steep ridge to a false crest…finding the rams still bedded on the next slope, 600 yards above us, no more cover available. By now the sun was low and it was really cold. Through sign language my Russian guide suggested that when the sun went behind the mountain the sheep would get up and start down to feed. So we hunkered behind some rocks, shivering. An hour later, as if on cue, the two rams got up and sauntered down toward us. I got the shot at 350 yards, and we got the big ram.


Despite the legend, I don’t think bongo hunting is all that physically challenging. You’re walking in shade, and when tracking you are never walking fast. It is hot and humid and you’re going to sweat a lot, but I think hunting the African forest requires more mental toughness. This is because game densities are low, and visibility is limited to a few yards and sometimes feet. Occasionally there are monkeys and chimpanzees overhead, and now and again you might glimpse a gorilla—but you can go days in the forest without seeing an animal.

This excellent bongo came at the mid-point of my second 21-day bongo hunt, the first chance I’d had. Bongo hunt isn’t always extremely physical, but hunting the African forest is always a solid mental challenge.

On my first bongo hunt I got all the consolation prizes—yellowback duiker, giant forest hog, buffalo—but we followed fresh bongo tracks probably 15 of the 21 days, and I never saw even a spot of red hide. A year later I tried again with my buddy Joe Bishop, another 21-day hunt. It was a month later, early June, and we had good rains. The forest animals were moving well and the forest floor was quiet, ideal conditions. This time we had one pygmy dog…but not all bongos stop for dogs. We followed fresh tracks every day for 10 days. I saw bushes move as a bull walked away from us, and in a small clearing we got charged by a bongo cow. Nothing was working, but this time, with such ideal conditions, I believed it was a matter of time.

It happened on the 11th day. First tracking, then the dog got the scent. Frantic barking, a quick scramble, and through green leaves a spot of red that, somehow, I knew was the bongo’s shoulder. After the bongo we kept hunting for dwarf buffalo and forest sitatunga, but had no further success. Hunting separately, Joe shot nothing at all. In fairness, he had a bongo and was looking for a big one, so he passed a very nice “high 20s” bull early in the hunt, and a broken-horned old bull at the end. But between us, 42 days in the forest and exactly one shot fired. That’s tough!


For me the giant eland is Africa’s most majestic animal, colorful and imposing…and also offers one of Africa’s best and most challenging hunts. I have found the giant eland hunting, whether in northern Cameroon or northern C.A.R., to be far more physically difficult than bongo hunting in the forest. Although not so humid, it’s a lot hotter. The big difference, however, is the scattered terminalia forest is thick enough to restrict visibility…but open enough so that there is very little shade. So you’re tracking in full Equatorial sun, and the only limit on how far you might walk is hours of daylight. If you’re lucky you pick up fresh tracks early in the morning, but eland walk long distances while feeding and to and from water. So even if you find tracks right at dawn you know you may not close with them until the blazing midday. There are almost no roads in their country, so there are no shortcuts…and, whatever the outcome, it will be a long, long way back to the truck.

I’ve hunted giant eland four times, so I have some experience with this hunt. My first try was a short-notice cancellation in April, very late in the season when the heat is at its worst, and the midday breezes are their most fickle as weather builds toward the rainy season. We tracked eland almost every day, but never got a shot. The second time I got a fine old bull at the midpoint of the hunt. We picked up the tracks of two bulls just at dawn, about six a.m. I got the shot five hours later, quartering away in thick stuff. Later I learned that I had the correct line, but the bullet failed to penetrate. Right then we knew we had trouble. It was sundown when we finally got the bull…and the middle of the night, long out of water, before we got back to the vehicle.

The end of a very long day in C.A.R.—the midpoint of my second hunt for Lord Derby’s giant eland. I think this animal consistently offers one of Africa’s most physically demanding hunts.

Cameroon’s weird hunting laws allow just two major or “Class A” animals on a license, so the third time I hunted eland, roan, and buffalo until I took a roan…and then hunted eland and buffalo until I got a buffalo, and then I was done with the big stuff. In the process we got into several eland herds but couldn’t pick out a good bull, which is also normal.

The fourth time, again in Cameroon with Mayo Oldiri, was one of those lucky deals. If it was my only experience with giant eland I wouldn’t have the respect for this animal that I do. On the second day, late in the afternoon, we were closing on a herd when the wind shifted and they stampeded. My trackers knew there was a big, open, burn just ahead, so we ran laterally to a big hill and were able to glass them as they crossed the burned ground. It was a big herd, maybe 70, and there were at least four mature bulls. Three were normal and one was a giant, towering above the rest.

This was an unusual situation and a rare luxury: We knew there was a truly exceptional bull in the group, and since I already had a giant eland there was no pressure and I could afford to be picky. We might well have tracked that herd for the next ten days, trying to isolate that bull for a shot. Instead, on that day we left them at dark and picked up the tracks at dawn. They had long since settled down and hadn’t gone far. We were on them in a couple of hours, and thus began one of the longest, hottest days I’ve ever spent afield. Through the course of it we bumped them a dozen times.

Several times I could have taken any of the lesser bulls and, mind you, nobody passes a mature giant eland bull. But we kept getting glimpses of the big bull and we believed he was still in the herd. So we stayed with them for ten hours and finally got a shot in the late afternoon. It was an extremely long and very tough day…but this was a deal where I can’t really call that one a tough hunt because, after all, it was just the third day of a two-week hunt when we got what I consider my very best African animal.


We crazy mountain hunters consider the Caucasus range holds three different tur: The eastern or Dagestan tur on the east side; the Kuban or western tur on the west; and the mid-Caucasian tur in the middle. Horns vary considerably between east and west, so this is a fairly valid distinction. Universal is that, although the Caucasus range isn’t especially high as Asian mountains go it is the steepest country I have ever been in. Dagestan tur hunting, mostly in Azerbaijan, is well-organized and extremely successful. Most people get this tur the first time around, and I did.

The other two are hunted in southern Russia. Camps are rougher, outfitting is not as organized, and these animals are much thinner on the ground than the Dagestan tur to the east. Most people fail at least once on either the Kuban tur or the mid-Caucasian tur, and I have friends who are good mountain hunters who have tried multiple times for either or both. I am not always lucky, but my tur hunting was charmed: Three hunts, three tur! All were very tough, literally cliff-hangers along the way.

All tur hunting is serious stuff because the Caucasus Mountains, although only medium in elevation, are extremely steep. This is the Dagestan tur from Azerbaijan.

This is the Kuban tur from the west side of the Caucasus Mountains. East to west, the Caucasus is the steepest range I’ve ever seen.

My Dagestan and Kuban tur are very, very good. On the mid-Caucasian tur hunt, even though I have plenty of experience I succumbed to the “shoot, shoot, shoot” business common in Asia. This tur is not in the same class as the other two, my fault because I should have known better. But although all the turs are usually “DFTQ hunts,” mine were tough, but never desperate. Whether I’ll try to get a better mid-Caucasian tur someday remains to be seen…but on this one I will most likely quit while I’m ahead!

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