My hunting buddy Mike Jines and I had just finished another whitetail season in South Texas. Neither of us took anything outstanding although I had a lot of fun, as usual, shooting feral hogs. The freezer was full of pork sausage and we were sitting in lawn chairs enjoying a few cold beers and cheap cigars at our camp near Freer.
“Mike”, I said, “for all the money we spend on this lease plus stands, feeders and camp gear, we could carve out a couple weeks in our work schedule and take exotic hunting trips each year for not much more. Let’s face it; we’re not making it down here to hunt but about three times a season. We’ll get more real hunting time in on guided hunts.” Mike sat silent for a few seconds, turned to look at me and said, “I want to go to Africa.”
The following months were filled with emails and phone calls back and forth – what country, what game and what outfitter. We found that planning the trip and preparing for our adventure (the anticipation) was great fun. It gave us something we could really look forward to as we slugged away at our respective jobs. At the end of the day, South Africa was our choice and plains game the quarry. Then the emails started up again as we developed our list of specific animals we would hunt.
At the top of my list was hyena. I had done a little research and learned the spotted hyena is the second largest carnivore in Africa- second only to the lion. It is a fearsome hunter taking down game as large as zebra and known to drive lions from their kill. “Since I can’t afford to hunt leopard,” I thought “I’ll hunt the other spotted predator, the hyena”. Mike, of course, accused me of hunting “trash game” but I stuck to my guns. For me, the hyena would be my “poor man’s leopard”.
September found us in the northern province of South Africa, just south of Zimbabwe and west of Mozambique. Each day we found and harvested incredible game. On our second day, Mike and I both took beautiful kudus in the same afternoon even though hunting separately. Mine measured 57 inches and Mike’s 55. At that point we began our friendly competition.
The following days found us successfully hunting impala, blesbok, gemsbok, eland, warthog, reedbuck, waterbuck, zebra and blue wildebeest. Sometimes Mike bested me and sometimes it was the other way around.
All the while, I would ask my PH, Hennie, “When are we going to concentrate on my hyena?”
Hennie would always reply, “Soon Russell, soon. We are setting out bait and waiting until we have some hits.”
What I was to learn later, after our hunt was over, is that my paperwork had been lost and the first that my outfitter and PH had heard of my wanting to bag a hyena was upon my arrival in camp. Hyenas are generally hard to find outside the protected parks.
In fact, our booking agent tried to talk me out of putting the hyena on my list because of the low percentage of success in hyena hunts. As our outfitter later related, “I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard Russell say he wanted a hyena more than any other thing on his list!
I immediately started calling all of the landowners and outfitters in the area to find someone with hyenas on their concessions. It really became a bit of a joke among the outfitters”, he chuckled,” since those types of calls are usually made to locate traditional, hard to find trophies. Nobody goes all out to find a hyena. But, we did.”
In the evenings around the campfire, Mike, with a smirk on his face, would give me grief. Jokingly he would comment “That hyena is going to be awfully ugly and nasty. And, he’ll stink to the high heavens. Who’s going to skin him?” Hennie, God bless him, immediately came to my defense and answered in his husky voice “I will skin the hyena”.
Later in the week, Hennie approached me after our morning hunt. “Russell, are you ready to hunt the hyena?” My answer, of course, was “You bet!” “Well” Hennie continued, we’ll first need some bait. Let’s go get us a warthog.”
After driving for a short while, we spotted a medium-sized warthog in a field at about 75 yards. I placed the crosshairs of my .375 H&H behind the pig’s ear and sent a 300 grain nosler partition his way. He collapsed at the shot.
“Russell!” Hennie shouted, “That’s how I want you to shoot the hyena.”
We collected the animal, placed it in the back of the Land Cruiser and began our four hour journey to an area adjacent to Kruger National Park. Our outfitter had found a landowner with a hyena causing mayhem on his property.
“He is as big as an elephant!” the landowner exclaimed, with an Afrikaans accent, as he held his hand level with the hood of his pickup. “He is this tall”.
“Good” Hennie answered, “That’s what we are looking for”. The landowner then showed us where the hyena had been seen entering the property. He also showed us some of the damage the hyena had caused including a heavy, metal fuel container completely crushed by the most powerful jaws of any land creature.
We explored the area and selected a site to hang our bait and build a blind – a bare knoll surrounded by thick bush with a dead tree projecting from its summit.
I eviscerated the hog and attached the entrails to the rear bumper of the Land cruiser. We then dragged them from our bait site to the edge of the property and back laying a scent trail. A large roll of burlap was used to form our blind as we wrapped it around the acacias and the warthog carcass was hung in the dead tree about three feet above the ground. We covered our chairs with blankets to muffle sound and we waited.
As darkness enveloped us, a harvest moon began to rise behind the bait. Our hope was that I would be able to make the shot without the use of a spotlight. I had a Leupold LPS scope mounted on my model 70 just for this moment. The optics maker boasted 98% light transmission. For back up, we had a spotlight with a red lens. “Russell,” Hennie whispered, “If we have to use the light, you will only have three seconds to make the shot. You’ll need to get in position and signal me to flip the switch.”
Three hours after nightfall, Hennie held his finger to his lips signaling to be absolutely silent. He then gestured behind us indicating something was approaching and raised his binoculars. A few minutes passed when Hennie pointed toward the bait. I raised my rifle but couldn’t see anything. Again and again I tried to see whatever it was Hennie was pointing at, to no avail. Finally he pointed to the spot light and I got into position.
I signaled my readiness to Hennie and the red glow illuminated the area in front of our blind. All I could see were two small “lights” quickly moving behind a bush and shining through the branches. I quickly and instinctively centered my crosshairs on one of the lights and the .375 thundered. I immediately turned to Hennie and said, “Hennie, I’m sorry. All I could see were his eyes and so I shot at them. I no doubt missed him.”
“Russell” Hennie answered, “Stay here”. Hennie then gathered his rifle and light and carefully walked toward the spot where we last saw the hyena. “Woohoo!” he shouted. “woohoo!” “You mean I got him?” I hollered.
“Yes” Hennie bellowed, “You shot him right through the eye!” I hurried over to find an enormous hyena stone dead without a mark on him other than one missing eyeball. It had been a lucky shot and I was on cloud nine. We snapped a few photos, and then loaded my prize on the back of the Land Cruiser. It was pretty chilly out but I chose to ride in the open back of the truck with my trophy as we made our way back to camp.
We pulled in around 3:00 am and I hurried to Mike’s cot and woke him” Mike, you’ve got to see this thing. He’s enormous, with thick hair and beautiful spots!” (We later weighed my hyena on the scale at camp. He weighed 198.6 pounds- truly a huge hyena!)Mike, semi-comatose, struggled to his feet and followed me to the truck. In all the years we have hunted together, he had never seen me so excited.
The next evening, as Mike and I sat around the campfire half way around the world drinking Castle Lagers and smoking cheap cigars, Mike stared into the fire and said, “You know, I might just have to shoot one of those poor man’s leopards myself.”
On our return trip to Africa, he did just that.