Why the Waterbuck and not the Kudu?
By Jerry Bullock

Trophies.  They mean different things to hunters.  Some chase record-book Number Ones.  Some want absolutely one of everything.  Some only want a few.  Some don’t save a trophy mount or enter their trophy in a record book, but nail the antlers or horns up on the barn.  Some frame photos for the wall or album, or just throw the photos into a drawer.  Some say, “You can’t eat the horns” and save nothing, not even a photo.

Many non-hunters don’t understand “trophy”. Often it is said that a trophy hunter just cuts off the head and leaves the meat to rot.  But facts are rejected by ignorant fools – they don’t suit their agenda.  Mostly, they believe the drivel from the anti-hunting organizations that trophies are sought for some macho purpose.  I remember one starlet who spouted how trophies are intended to overcome sexual limitations of the hunter.  However, she had the biggest set of fake implanted breasts known to this world, so I always wondered who really had the inadequacies in that little exchange!

A trophy can trigger memories of special people, past and present; include scenes of great country or other animals that crossed through the hunt; the pain and sweat you thought might kill you but didn’t; the skill in the shot; the unique beauty of that one animal, or extreme weather events endured.  When you look at the trophy, whether a mount, or photo, or old weathered antlers or horns tacked up on the barn, all of the memories come streaming back.  And you feel, “If I can just keep that trophy with me, I won’t ever lose the memory”.  As time passes, that trophy becomes haunting, while thoughts of the one you didn’t save can bring pangs of regret for the loss.

Wally was an old man when I was in my late teens.  A fine machinist who could make, in his basement shop, anything you wanted in metal to a couple of thousandths of an inch. He had a set of beautiful whitetail antlers nailed over his shop door.  They were back in the shadows, not obvious if you weren’t looking closely.  I asked him about that buck.  He told me a wonderful story of out-smarting the old, wise, elusive mountain monarch and his eyes shone like fire in the telling.

Wally died a few years later.  I was at his house, and his cold and distant wife and his wastrel, drug-addled grandkids were all slurping up the “stuff” they were about to sell for easy cash.  The antlers were still there and I asked her if I could have them.  She waved, indicating they were of no value, that I could take them.

They were not of no value to Wally.  They are not of no value to me.  I wanted to keep that old man’s memory and trophy for him as long as I last.  So those antlers are on a plaque with an explanatory inscription, in my trophy room, and in some ways are now one of the most beloved trophies I have.  Wally’s trophy is my memory of his story and how he felt about that day and that buck.

I often go quietly, alone, into the room where the mounts are displayed. I sit in silence and marvel, as if for the first time, at the beauty and the story of each experience.  I marvel at the fact I was able to go on trips given my very humble economic beginnings.  These mounts are for me and my memories.  I did not have these mounts done just for others to see.  Others might see them, but they can’t see them as I do.  I find they are best seen alone, in silence.

Only trophies collected by fair chase and legal methods are the valuable ones. Collection otherwise is just killing, an execution.  It is not hunting.  Fair chase is a hunt because it includes a reasonable chance that you won’t be successful.  The animal has the space and the option to evade you using all of his senses and a natural expanse of cover and terrain to use to do it.  If it is a sure thing, it isn’t hunting or a trophy. 

I hunted Namibia in 2010 and collected several trophies.  My most sought-after was a kudu.  They always fascinated me, Hemingway not withstanding.  They are colored much like an old mule deer buck from my Idaho Mountains, all gray and elusive, willing to freeze at close range and allow you to walk by, then take a step and disappear into the fog of the brush, or flee at breakneck speed while you are still a thousand yards away.  I shot a 52-inch kudu bull then, and I was very settled that that one kudu would be all I ever needed.  Leaving for a return hunt in 2012, I thought about the average impala and springbok I had taken in 2010 and decided I would try to improve on them with a bigger specimen if one presented an opportunity.  But the kudu?  No need for another one, no matter how big.

I had also shot a very average waterbuck in 2010 and thought I was also OK with that.  I had somehow failed to realize what a handsomely rugged creature waterbuck are.  I had seen the photo of Robert Ruark’s first waterbuck taken on his first safari, and I remember how wonderful it looked. I later re-thought the impala and springbok question and decided I didn’t really need bigger ones.  Again, why shoot something for a couple more inches of horn.  How much does the extra horn really amount to?

I was accompanying a lifelong hunting friend on his first safari in 2012. Like nothing else, watching a friend seeing Africa for the first time awakens all the first-time wonder of your own first time. John and I had hunted together since the late 50’s when we were in high school and shared many hunting adventures, in Montana and Idaho. Now we were going to share Africa.  We were hunting in Namibia with the PH I had hunted with in 2010, Hagen Eggert of Omatjete Safaris.  If you are contemplating a first plains game safari, Hagen is the man to see.

John wanted five or six species.  I was looking for a big black wildebeest.  I also wanted a pair of zebra stallions to be mounted together on one pedestal in fighting pose. I had found a taxidermist, Dean Schulte of High Uintahs Taxidermy in a little town, Coalville, Utah, who is a magician in getting African game “right”. (If you attended the SCI Convention in Las Vegas in 2014 you may have seen it at his booth. He entered those two fighting stallions in the USA Western Regional Taxidermy Contest in the Master’s Division and won first place.)

I only carried a gun five days of the ten-day hunt 2012.  We were out on the second or third day, and I had my rifle along for the zebra possibility. Suddenly, my PH was veering the hunting car off into the brush and making hissing noises.  I knew he had seen something very good.  Joseph, our tracker, was cooing and leaping over the side with the shooting sticks.  Then I saw the big waterbuck bull about 350 yards away on a little knoll, walking toward us.  John had no plans for a waterbuck so I knew it wasn’t for him that we were stopping.  In what seemed like an out-of-body experience, I too was leaving the truck in a crouch, speedily following the other two creeping human predators.  I remember I thought, “I guess I am going to shoot this waterbuck!”

Hagen just knew I would want it after the smaller bull two years before.  He never asked.  He never looked at me.  He never checked to see if I was following.  He just knew.

It was a beautiful bull, dark and big and rugged. Massive horns about 30 inches tall with almost 11-inch bases.  It turned and walked away over a little knoll.  We closed the distance and Joseph peeked out and jammed the sticks into the ground.  I was up on the sticks quickly.  The waterbuck was now standing about 150 yards away, presenting a full frontal shot.

I like that shot as a second choice to broadside, at least on thin-skinned game, and have taken several animals including oryx and blue wildebeest and a couple of elk with it.  With a steady rest and no excess distance or wind, this has always proven to be a one-shot kill, and most animals pile up right where they are standing.  Just put the bullet low, into the chest, right through the crease where the shoulder folds around into the brisket.

I was shooting a 180-grain Swift Scirocco bullet out of my .30-06 with handloads cranked up to about 2900 fps.  That waterbuck bull dropped straight down, rolled on his side and one ear flicked.  That was it!  I swear the dead waterbuck’s hooves were directly above the last hoof prints he was ever to make.  The bullet had expanded to .75 caliber and retained 92% of its weight.  I had seen a bull elk fall to that bullet in one of my .300 Win Mag. handloads about six months before.  It was a shoulder shot and the bull fell where he was standing like a piece of plywood blown over in a high wind.  Same as the waterbuck – never took a step.  Those bullets hit like a truck.  Swift Sciroccos will be my bullet of choice for “softs” in the future for sure.

It’s weird. I see a waterbuck and immediately set off to shoot it when I never planned to shoot another waterbuck.  Why?  It was a unique experience and I still can’t explain what happened, but it will become part of the memories of that trophy.  I never thought of changing my mind.  It seemed as if some force outside my conscious control triggered that stalk.  I guess I coveted that big bull and I was helpless to stop the progress. That had never happened to me before.  When I decide I will pass up game, I have always done so.  I have passed up dozens of good animals.  That waterbuck sure tripped some wire in me.

Yet… About four days later, after glassing from a rocky promontory, we returned to the truck and Hagen began making air-sucking sounds, a sign he just saw something really big.  I followed his eyes and there, less than 200 yards away, standing broadside, was a magnificent kudu bull.

“Over 55 inches,” he whispered.

I did not doubt it.  The bull looked down his nose at us. He stood there for at least 10 seconds.  I had a rest and my rifle was in my hands but I never shouldered the rifle.  I never considered shooting him.  It never even crossed my mind. I just got some HD video film…

My experience with the first kudu would only be marred by shooting another one.  Shoot that bigger one and the experience with the first one is diluted and minimized somehow.  I knew how I felt when I shot that first kudu and I always want to feel that feeling again, each time I look at his mount.  Now I still can.  But that big one – he sure was nice!

Look at his photo in this article and you decide how big he is.  I would guess 56-57 inches, maybe more.  The bases are heavy, the curls magnificent and wide and deep.  The tips point outward, not a characteristic seen in most kudu. Because the curls are close together and not separated by long vertical horn sections, he does lose some length.  He is one handsome kudu and much nicer than my first one.  And yet I never considered shooting him, although I could have done so easily. But I am OK with letting him walk. Why kill him for 4 or 5 inches more horn?  Besides, I do have a trophy of him, in a photo, forever.

So why the difference between the waterbuck and the kudu?  I can’t say.  I didn’t think through the waterbuck decision.  I just had to do it.  I guess I was willing to forego the unique and singular memory of the place that first waterbuck held for me, destroy part of it in a way, and take the better one.  I guess waterbuck don’t hold the same place in me as kudu.

Again, there is no explanation.  We hunters do have our foibles.  Maybe others reading this have these mixed relationships as well?

Ruark said it best:

“…if you properly respect what you are after, and shoot it cleanly and on the animal’s terrain, if you imprison in your mind all the wonder of the day from sky to smell to breeze to flowers – then you have not merely killed an animal. You have lent immortality to a beast you have killed because you loved him and wanted him forever so that you could recapture the day…”

Ruark had his critics but no one can deny he had the soul of a hunter.  And I know that there is no better way to save a day than with all the trophies of that day. All of them. I so wish I could have shaken Ruark’s hand and thanked him for reading my mind.  I knew it when I first read his words.  I was only ten years old, but I knew.

One does not come across too many people who can do that – read your mind and express in words what you did not really know you were thinking.  You, Mr. Ruark, and Aldo Leopold and Terry Wieland and Ted Trueblood, and Shane Mahoney and, oh yes, José Ortega y Gasset are among the ones who do that for me.

PS:  I collected the zebra stallions and the big black wildebeest too in 2012.  Their trophies are with me as is that big waterbuck.
Jerry has carried a gun, fishing rod, or traps some part of most days since he was eight years old until leaving for college.  Fishing is his recreation, hunting his religion – or at least the source of many religious experiences. He has hunted about 64 of his 72 years in the US, Canada, or Africa, and is a life member of SCI, NRA, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Boone and Crockett Club.

The prone kudu: My first and one and only kudu (from 2010.)

The big standing kudu: The big bull I passed on in 2012.

The big, prone waterbuck bull: The waterbuck I couldn’t pass up.

Zebras: Fighting stallions.

Black Wildebeest: The good black wildebeest.

Trophy Room shot: First kudu in his trophy room home.