My First Hunt – by Kath O’Neil
We had already been hiking a couple of hours in the hot sun thru dense clusters of thorny shrubs and tall grass when Kudu, our guide, spotted a small heard of blue wildebeest. Gesturing to Deb Ferns (WOMA Founder and Board Member) and I to follow him, he whispered, “Wildebeest big animal. Need to use the big gun. Come”.
It was our second day hunting in the Bushveld at a private, three thousand hectare ranch in Limpopo Province. I was on my first hunt. The summer before, Deb invited me to join her as one of two novice lady hunters (myself and Tami Guerra), along with Danielle Sanville from Thompson Center and Babes with Bullets instructors Kay Miculek and Lanny Barnes, on a mentored cull hunt in South Africa. The trip was sponsored by Thompson/Center Arms and would be featured in an episode of Americana Outdoors with Wade Middleton. Though I had very little target or sport shooting experience at the time (a total of ONE day of shooting experience, and even less hunting experience), like a foodie who had to try everything on her first visit to Borough Market, I of course said yes. Having not grown up around guns or hunting, I had no idea of what I was getting myself into, but I had always been the adventurous sort and was game to try (almost) anything.
Any enthusiasm I had for hunting waned hours earlier after I had failed twice to take impalas we had carefully stalked. We encountered the first herd of impalas within minutes of being dropped off at the head of a game trail. I faced a ram head-on at about 200 yards, but was unable to control my “wobble” at that distance and the impala ran off before I could take a shot. We encountered a second herd about an hour later. Though I had a decent view of the broadside of a ewe between some shrubs at about 185 yards, I took a shot and missed.
At this point, I felt quite defeated. Though I never heard her say a discouraging word, I was concerned that Deb was equally frustrated with me and likely wondering why she had brought me along. Deb, Kay, and Lanny had all spent a lot of time on and off the range preparing me for this hunt, and I did not want to disappoint them. It did not help that the day before, Deb had taken three warthogs, and Tami and Kay had each taken an impala. I have always been highly competitive and was disappointed in myself for not having already put “points on the board”, so to speak. There was also the constant reminder that I was on a sponsored trip that would be televised – companies had invested a lot in this hunt and I was expected to perform. The pressure to have a successful hunt – mostly self-imposed – was acute.
After my second failed attempt to take an impala, Kudu announced that my beige shirt was “too bright” and that the impala could see me before I could take a shot. Given that I had emails from the outfitter saying we could wear beige in the bush, I found this rather irksome. Deb added that my cross-body camera bag was making too much noise when it brushed up against the shrubs and was in the way of my getting a good shot. Both determined that I should make changes to my getup before we could move forward.
For my part, I wanted the hunt to be over and was very close to losing it. I was frustrated, tired, and itchy. (Hypersensitive to heat, I was covered in hives despite mega doses of antihistamines and liberal use of topical steroids). I was also afraid of missing another shot. I could not be more miserable. But I was also only five days into a two-week trip with Deb et al, and I knew a display of my Irish-Filipino temper in the middle Bushveld would not go over well. Biting my tongue and with more than a little petulance, I ducked behind a bush and exchanged my beige top for Deb’s dark coloured t-shirt.
It was not long after that Deb announced that if Kudu could get us within 150 yards of the wildebeest (the distance I had practiced at), I would take the shot. If the distance was any greater, she would. I suspect Deb was aware of my frustration and loss of confidence, and knew that given the choice, I would not take another shot that day. By deciding for me under what conditions I would take a shot, Deb pushed me back on to the proverbial horse. I was resentful, but grudgingly recognized that she was right to insist. Like exercise and vegetables, taking another shot – even if I missed, again – would be good for me.
Truthfully, after the second miss, I was questioning whether or not it was God’s will that I hunt. I wondered, “WHY the hell did I ever think that hunting was a good idea?” “WHAT was I trying to prove?” “WHO was I trying to impress?” The first time I had ever seen any of the animals I was hunting was thru a riflescope and I found some of them to be quite beautiful. Why was I hunting them? I had no interest in collecting trophies. I agreed to this hunt because it was a cull hunt and a portion of the harvested animals would be donated to a village in need. Moreover, unlike with my other adventures, I could not share the experience broadly. Most of my family and friends were decidedly green and opposed to my views on conservation – they were unlikely to take interest in my hunt. So why was I putting myself thru this god-awful experience?
Even as I asked myself the question, I already knew the answer. Why do I do anything new? To see if I can! In both my personal and professional life, I was constantly pushing myself to see what else I could do. This habit had landed me in similar (miserable) situations before. The more important question was, “Could I get past my current angst and finish what I started?” God knows I really wanted to quit. But given that I was in the middle-of-nowhere-Limpopo with a herd of wildebeest in front of me and my fear of failure and Tiger Mom Deb (because at this point, she was reminding me of an Asian Tiger Mom) behind me, I really only had one choice: to keep going.
As we stalked the wildebeest, I found myself settling in the quiet of the Bushveld. The only sound was the crunch of our boots on the dry grass, birds chirping in the distance, and the occasional cry of a baby baboon. Being a city mouse, I was unaccustomed to the silence. I did not expect to spend so much time in my head. I started to pray. I prayed to know God’s will, to want to do God’s will, and to do God’s will, well. I prayed that if it was God’s will that I take an animal during this hunt, that he steady my wobble and make my aim true. And if it was God’s will that I not take an animal, I prayed that he make me able to accept my failure (because what else would you call it) with grace.
We circled the herd of wildebeest for four hours, pushing them in tighter with each pass. We were careful to stay behind the wind to keep the animals from detecting our scent. When we were within 100 yards of the wildebeest, Kudu gestured to Deb to stay behind to minimize the chance of drawing their attention. She racked the bolt of her “big gun” – a Thompson/Center 30-06 – and exchanged rifles with me. I had never fired a 30-06 and the rifle felt heavy in my hands. I had practiced with and had been carrying a Thompson/Center 6.5 Creedmoor.
Kudu and I inched closer to the animals. They were hidden in the tree line and we were separated by a grassy expanse. When we were within 85 yards, he placed my sticks and I positioned the rife as I had practiced.
“Can you see them?” he whispered.
“No, I’m too high,” I replied.
Kudu lowered the sticks and gestured for me to get lower. I dropped to my knees and positioned the rifle against my cheek like Kay had taught me. I looked thru the scope and searched for the animals.
“Do you see them?” he asked again.
“Yes…behind the trees,” I replied.
“Just wait, they’ll move.”
I remember it being oddly quiet. There was a slight breeze. My heart was racing and I was shaking. My wobble was all over the place. If the animals ever came into view and I fired, I would certainly miss – again.
“I can’t get a good shot…” I whispered.
“Just wait,” he said again.
“No, I’m shaking!”
Kudu then pointed to the stock of the rifle and patted his shoulder.
“I have it in my shoulder!” I replied, thinking that he was showing me how to hold the rifle.
He patted his shoulder again, but still, I did not understand. Later, I would learn that the guides would often have hunters place the stock of their rifles against their shoulder for extra-stability.
“Hold me!” I ordered. This time, it was Kudu’s turn to look confused. I patted my hips and repeated, “Hold me.” It occurred to me, later, that the poor guy had probably never been asked to hold a hunter’s hips before, but in the moment, it was all I could think to do to steady my wobble.
I watched the wildebeest graze behind the trees and waited for them to move. Again, I prayed, “God, help me.”
One of the bulls moved into view, but was partially obstructed by a shrub.
“Shoot that one,” whispered Kudu.
“No, I don’t have a good shot”, I replied. Though the animal was mostly broadside to me, I wasn’t confident I could get a shot in the heart/lung area. I had seen the effects of a gut shot the day before and the last thing I wanted to do was maim an animal – especially one that could maim me with its’ horns!
“Just wait”, Kudu whispered, again.
My heart was racing and I was breathing hard. I tried to calm myself. We waited what seemed like an eternity before a second bull moved from behind the bush. I had a clear view of the bull and good shot position. I took a deep breath and as I exhaled, I worked my wobble up his leg, closed my eyes and pulled the trigger.
Yes, I closed my eyes as I fired the rifle. I opened them just in time to see my beast – because he was mine, now – drop to the ground. Beside me, Kudu patted my shoulder and exclaimed “Good shot!” When I turned to look at him, he gave me a high five.
I stood and turned towards Deb to return her rifle. As I started to walk towards her, Kudu, called out, “Hurry, come! You need to shoot it, again!”
To my dismay, though I had hit his heart/lung area and he dropped, my beast was trying to stand. Deb racked the bolt of my 6.5 Creedmoor, handed it back to me, and said “You need to kill it – it’s suffering.”
In a daze, I ran towards Kudu and my beast. When I reached them, Kudu yelled, “Shoot it! Shoot it!”
I raised my rifle intending to shoot my beast in the head, but when I looked in the scope – everything was black. “I can’t see anything!” I yelled. In my panic, I forgot to adjust my depth of field. Thankfully, understanding my confusion, Deb reached over and adjusted my scope for me. Everything came into focus and without hesitation, I pulled the trigger – this time with my eyes open – and shot my beast in the head. He was done – and so was I.
Was I excited that I had taken a blue wildebeest? Sure. But mostly, I was shocked. I was shocked that I had actually shot an animal. Until that moment, I did not know if I had it in me to take a life. I had been taught how to safely handle and operate a rifle. However, no one could have prepared me for how I would feel the first time I pulled a trigger on an animal. I didn’t know what to expect. I was surprised at how calm I felt. Whatever angst and inner turmoil I had experienced earlier in the day had been replaced with stillness and peace. My senses were firing on all cylinders and I felt very much “in the moment”. I knew this feeling. I had felt it before when I had done something that required me to do more than I thought I was capable of doing, or at times, even wanted to do. It was the feeling of having fought a good fight with myself – with my inner beast, really – and won.
I also felt extremely relieved. I had done my part to provide food for some hungry people. I had also put enough “points on the board” to satisfy the expectations of the sponsors, not disappoint my mentors, and avoid humiliating myself on national television. And though I knew I might have to go out again so that Americana Outdoors would have footage of me hunting in the can, I no longer dreaded going back into the bush and returning empty-handed. I was a hunter. So with tears welling in my eyes and gratitude in my heart, I gave thanks. Having harvested a respectable 271 kilogram blue wildebeest bull with 28 inch horns, I had done what I had set out to do: I had spotted, stalked, and shot my beast and it was enough.
My first hunt was made possible thru the generosity of sponsors: Thompson/Center Arms, 5.11 Tactical, Patriot Cases, Vortex Optics, Hornady Ammunition, Trijicon, and Global Rescue.