A Croc for Ross

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South Africa: 2016
A Croc for Ross

By Kim Stuart                                     

Family dynamics can be, among many other things, strange, complex, mysterious, challenging, funny and downright unbelievable. And our family is certainly no different from any other family… 

Last fall, on a cool, northern Californian evening, our home phone rang. I answered, and a man’s unfamiliar voice said, “Kim, I have been waiting over sixty years to make this call. My name is Ross Taylor and I am your half-brother.”

The sixty years fell away with our long overdue reunion – phone call, visits, and meeting 50 other relatives. We found we were kindred spirits, the most in common was our love of fishing and hunting!

I gave Ross a copy of my book, Dangerous Game Animals of Africa. One Man’s Quest. He was intrigued, and bombarded me with the in-depth questions of a true hunter.

I mentioned a trip I was planning to South Africa specifically for croc hunting. My hope was to take three crocs with three different weapons: a handgun, home-built muzzleloader, and conventional rifle. I wanted to complete The Magnificent Seven. Having taken the Big Six with three different weapons, this hunt would be the last, and possibly the most difficult challenge, and provide new material for the final chapters, and re-write of the book.

Ross listened to my plans and obviously had an idea of his own.

“I’d like to have a full mount of a croc. You know, put it down in the basement to scare the grand-kids. You think you could bring back a croc skin for me?” How could I say, “No” to a scheme like that?

At the 2014 Safari Club Convention in Las Vegas I stopped at the Mabula Pro Safaris booth, and the photos of huge crocs drew me in. After meeting the enthusiastic owner, Christo Gomes and his attractive wife Stella, I told them of my croc-hunting goal.

“No problem, we have lot and lots of crocs,” said Christo. I was hooked, and booked the trip for the end of August, 2016.

However, by the time of our safari two years later, drought had seriously taken its toll in South Africa. Near Bela-Bela in the Limpopo Province, Christo’s 18 000 acre property had suffered as well. A river that once ran through much of the valley and provided water to the many remote lakes, ponds and watering holes, had dried to a few marshy damp spots. Consequently, the habitat for the crocs and hippo was almost non-existent.

Shooting at a croc is not a big deal. Hitting it accurately in one of two places about the size of a golf ball, is. The importance of making the first shot good, is that if you miss and the wounded croc slips into the water, you have a very dangerous job fishing him out. That is, if you can even find him by dragging a grappling hook through the muddy water. It’s usually an all-day project. So the trick is not to miss!

Prior to the safari my aim was to become proficient with all three weapons. The handgun I would be using was a .35 Remington, shooting a Federal Premium 200-grain expanding bullet. The scoped bolt action held one in the chamber and three in the magazine. A synthetic stock and twelve-inch barrel completed the package. My rifle was a Tikka T3, in .300 WSM, using a hi-performance 180-grain expanding bullet. I had used this weapon on many hunts, in Africa and in the U.S., and with consistently good performance. After a few trips to the range, I could easily put three shots with either the handgun or rifle, into a 2-inch circle at 50 yards. The muzzleloader was a custom-made English sporting rifle hand-built by my hunting buddy of many years, Jim Gefroh. The .54 cal. rifle, with various different projectiles, had been successfully used for taking game from a diminutive steenbok to a Cape buffalo, each with a single shot.

As the hunt date drew closer, the problem of having black powder waiting for us in Africa became more of a concern. Our options were limited.  After 9/11, traveling with black powder was no longer a consideration. Shipping black powder was also out of the question. After a number of emails to Christo inquiring about the possibility of him finding black powder, he came up with a possible solution. He found something called Sannadex – “A rifle grain, special gunpowder.” I’d never heard of it, but some online checking indicated it might work, with the proper ignition caps!

After considerable research, Jim found a solution online. He located an adapter nipple that would screw into the breach of the muzzleloader and accommodate a number 12 shotgun primer. We emailed Christo again about finding us the primers. Without the combination of the correct powder and primers, we were still out of luck.

We decided to sight in the rifle when we got to Africa, as shooting with a different powder or primer from what we had practiced with was not a plan.

A few short months later, Jim and I were enjoying the hospitality of Mabula’s impressive facilities near Bela-Bela. Straddling the top of a rocky ridge with a commanding view of his fully fenced 18,000-acre domain, Christo and his wife Stella have created a safari nirvana.

The day before our six-day hunt was to begin, we were at Mabula’s well-equipped rifle range with PH Dewald Beeker who happened to be a fan of muzzleloaders. Our goal, using my rifle, was to sort out the new black powder and nipple adapter combination, and to make sure that we had consistency with the powder ignition and accuracy at a 50-yard target.

We soon learned that the adapter worked, but was far from user-friendly, especially during reloading. The process was as follows:

  1. Unscrew the nipple from the breach.
  2. Disassemble the two-part nipple.
  3. Pry off the spent shotgun primer.
  4. Use a pipe cleaner to clean out the orifice in the nipple.
  5. Clean and lube the threads of both parts of the adapter.
  6. Install a new shotgun primer on the nipple.
  7. Reassemble the two parts of the nipple.
  8. Using a nipple wrench, install the complete assembly into the breach.
  9. Pour 150 grains of powder into the barrel.
  10. Seat the .50 cal sabot with a short starter, and finish the loading with a ramrod.

After a few practice shots Jim and I were able to reload the rifle in about four minutes. Or, about four times as long as a normal reload would take a seasoned muzzleloader shooter. It was superfluous to say that the muzzloading part of the hunt had to be a “One-shot kill” due to the ridiculously long loading time of the rifle. The potential dangerous results of missing any shot meant that all the shots, with all three weapons had to be one-shot kills.

Ross didn’t want a monster croc, a good thing because on our first day, after many hours of checking remote ponds and watering holes, we found very few crocs of any great size. Dewald knew the challenge at hand and suggested that the first croc should be taken using the most difficult weapon – the handgun. Although I felt confident in my shooting abilities with all three weapons, I also felt the self-imposed pressure of not missing with any of them.  Let’s be honest, no one wants to wound an animal, and no one wants to pay double for a trophy fee, and trophy crocs aren’t cheap!

Late in the afternoon of the first day, on our way back to the lodge, we passed a pond we had checked earlier that morning. Almost as an afterthought, Dewald casually glanced over his shoulder, did a double take and said, “There is croc on the bank, just a couple of feet out of the water, but he’s too small.”

“What’s too small?” I fired back. Dewald stopped the truck and took a closer look through his binoculars.

“I’d say about nine feet.” The perfect size for Ross’s basement, I thought.

We pulled the truck into some thick bush about 80 yards from the pond, checked the wind, and started a slow, quiet stalk. As we got closer to the water, cover became sparse and the elevation of the ground dropped, making it difficult to keep the croc in view.

With the necessity of a broadside shot at a maximum distance of 50 yards, an elevated shooting position, a solid spot for the shooting sticks, and another rest for my right arm, the scenario became complicated.  Constantly testing the wind and maneuvering closer a few feet at a time and into a position that gave us the advantage of a rest on a diagonal tree branch, I eased the handgun into position. The angle of the branch and its hard surface against that of the handgun was a bad match, one with no stability.

I motioned for Dewald to pass me a soft rifle sleeve. Using the sleeve as a pad and holding it around the tree branch and then grasping the handgun, gave a slightly softer contact point on the stock. I’ve tried to shoot a handgun from shooting sticks without a rest for my right elbow, and the results were not very pretty. With so much at risk and the thought of wounding a valuable animal, I opted to use the shooting sticks as a rest for my elbow, giving me a two-point rest rather than just the handgun balanced on the tree branch.

Sighting through the scope at the croc broadside at 47 yards with the makeshift shooting position did not create the solid sight picture I had hoped for. The croc was on the far side of the pond and lying close to the water’s edge, below the rim of the dam. My view of the golf ball-sized target where the body meets the head, was just a narrow band of no more than 6 to 8 inches.

A shot too low would hit the dirt at the top of the dam, and a shot too high would miss the spine and wound the croc. The shot had to be perfect, and as I looked through the scope, to be totally honest, I did not like the possibility of making the shot. I had to back off, take a deep breath and reassess the situation. So with some readjustments of the rifle sleeve, the shooting stick elbow rest and the ground around my feet, my comfort level improved to  where I was certain of the shot.

Upon impact, the croc’s head shot upward, its tail flailed violently, and within seconds the croc was still, anchored where he had been lying just a few feet from the water’s edge. My spine shot had been perfect!

All hunters know the ups and downs of a hunt. The excitement of making a difficult shot, and the depression from blowing an easy one. It’s part of the game. However, when everything comes together in a challenging situation, and the ultimate goal is achieved, the reward is monumental.

I couldn’t have been happier with the 9-foot croc for Ross’s basement, and I knew he would feel exactly the same way.

OK, one down and two to go.  On our second morning of the hunt and in a remote area of the huge property we found a pool with a small island and two decent-sized crocs. Dewald’s guess was that each would measure between 11 and 12 feet. There was also a bull hippo. Many visits to the pond that day and the next, hoping to find either croc in a position for a shot, were unsuccessful. Eventually we did see the larger of the two lying broadside, in perfect position and at a perfect distance for a shot. The croc was on the island, but the bull hippo had staked out his territory in the water between the shore and the island, directly between us and the croc.

Dewald was all for taking the shot. But…

One of us would have to swim or wade to the island, past the hippo, secure a rope to the croc to pull it across, then make it back past the hippo. Dewald had guts, but he also had a wife and new baby daughter, so I nixed the plan. We would try again tomorrow.

Day 3 was a bust. The crocs were slow in leaving the water and when they did, they were very wary. The few we saw slid off the bank into the water never to reappear again.

Day 4, we were all getting nervous about our chances at two more crocs that were proving to be a greater challenge than we expected. About mid-day, and again after many hours checking the remote ponds throughout the vast property, Dewald spotted a loan croc resting just feet from the water.

The set-up was great – sufficient cover up to about 40 yards from the croc, a good angle to shoot from, wind slightly blowing to us and, most importantly, a solid rest for the muzzleloader. Knowing that with this croc there would never be the option of reloading and making a back-up shot, my first and only shot had to be accurate within a couple of inches.

Black smoke belched from the barrel of my muzzleloader obscuring our view of the croc, but as the smoke dissipated we saw the croc quiver for less than a minute, then become still. The 50-caliber sabot found its mark directly on the spine, anchoring him just inches from where we had initially spotted him. Our luck had held, and my English Sporting Rifle had performed flawlessly again, even with the strange powder and unusual nipple assembly. Croc number two, measuring about 11 feet, was in the box, and we still had two days of hunting left.

We saved what we thought would be the easiest of the weapons, the rifle, for our last croc.  Good planning. Well, in theory. On Day 5 we went back to the dam that had the two crocs and the hippo. After a stealthy approach from our usual direction, we spotted one of the crocs. Unfortunately, he was in an impossible position for a shot. We watched patiently for over an hour, hoping he would move, but he seemed to be planted firmly in one spot, almost instinctively knowing his safety zone.

Moving was not an option, as changing our location in either direction would put us upwind, so we waited. Eventually, we decided to take a break, and moved away a few hundred yards. As the hours passed, our tracker would occasionally sneak to check the croc’s position. He would always come back to the vehicle, head down and walking slowly. Then just as we were close to calling it a day he came rushing back, hands in the air, thumbs up.

The opportunity for crocs was diminishing, along with our hunting days, so our approach for what we hoped to be our last croc was even more careful than usual.

This croc, a twelve-footer, by far the largest of the three, had moved slightly. He was lying at a slight angle facing away, near the water, about five yards off, on a bank with a slight downward slope. Still an awkward shot, and with only one more day left, it was not a high probability one. Having to calculate two different angles, plus place a single shot on the spine, would normally be a scenario to walk away from. However, we had been lucky and we didn’t want to leave chance to the last day… so I decided to try the shot.

I had a great rest, the croc was still, so there was no hurry. Other than the fact my mouth felt like dry oatmeal, I knew my rifle well and the shot should be a no-brainer. As the trigger released, the croc rose up from head to tail, and with a shudder, froze, and slowly slid upside down into the shallow water. He was a very dead croc, but we watched him for at least half an hour before driving the truck near the pond. Working within inches of the jaws of the croc, our tracker wrapped a stout rope around the croc’s neck and hooked it to the winch of the truck. Slowly we brought the big flattie up the bank to where we could take some photos.

Before taking the pictures, I asked Dewald to pour water from the cooler onto the croc so I could clean the mud off it. The old boy cleaned up pretty well and looked good for the pictures taken with all of us crouched near his head. I got up to find somewhere to put my rifle and have both hands free to help load him in the truck. Passing within a yard of the croc’s head, the vibrations of my feet must have triggered an instinctive reaction. He made a head-high, twisting, aggressive lunge for me, and came within a foot of locking his massive jaws on my leg.

I threw myself backward, rolled, and came up laughing, more from the surprise than fear. Jim and Dewald couldn’t believe what a supposedly very dead croc was capable of, but it all made sense. He was in the sun, washed off with cool, clean water, and had had a massage from head to mid body. Walking so close to him after his spa treatment obviously stimulated a reaction, and he did what crocs do – they attack!

A quick 200-grain round shattered a perfectly good croc skull, but prevented any chance of another surprise.

Our curiosity about the croc’s revival prompted an autopsy. What we found was a round that didn’t hold together. We estimated only two-thirds of the bullet weight remained. It was lodged next to the spine, and had not penetrated deeply. Problem solved. After taking the shot near the spine, the croc was in shock. Everything we did after that was a slow process of reviving him, which we did very well!

Fifteen months after the croc hunt, Ross has his full croc mount proudly displayed on a large, custom-built table, and is the focal point of a room surrounded with other precious personal memorabilia. Monarch Taxidermy in Montana did a museum-quality job, with a lifelike mount. The croc is in attack pose, mouth agape, and up on its front legs, and the realistic color brings back vivid memories of the actual hunt.