World Record Kafue Lechwe?
by Strang Middleton
The alarm went off at 4 a.m., long after the first cup of coffee. We were up, packed and ready to go. It was a six-hour road trip from Lusaka into Blue Lagoon on awful roads, but we were so amped for our hunt that though only we got into our camping spot about mid-day, we still had time to check our bows and then get an evening hunt in.
The Kafue River splits into two blocks, the last natural remaining habitat of the Kafue lechwe – the north bank (Blue Lagoon) and the south bank (Lochinvar). The hunting areas border the Lochinvar and Blue Lagoon national parks where there are great numbers of lechwe, zebra, oribi and even buffalo. The birdlife in these natural wetlands is world-famous. But both these areas are under huge pressure from population encroachment and, therefore, poaching. However, I have been fortunate to have hunted both blocks in their prime.
Our main target was the Kafue lechwe. I was looking for a better than 31” specimen, and my friend Ras was after any “good bull”- it was his first time out here. The drive was bumpy and windy and slow, but it seemed to go by very quickly, what with all the talk about bows, arrows, ranges, broadheads, cammo, camp plans, and how on earth we would get close enough with a bow!
The Kafue lechwe Kobus leche kafuensis, is indigenous to Zambia and is the only place where you can get them, and the Kafue habitat is probably where the biggest of the lechwes are found, with males weighing in over 100kg. They live off the nutritious grasses associated with low and often flooded areas. It is not uncommon to find lechwes up to their necks feeding, and they will readily swim from A to B. They like to get their feet dry, so will normally forage in the water from early evening for a few hours into dark, and then from early hours into the mid-morning where they will then move back to higher and dry ground.
Ras and I reached my “favorite tree” at about 1 p.m. This was after our stop at the government scout entrance gate where all our documents and licenses were checked before we were issued the green light and given an accompanying national parks scout. My tree was a single Acacia albida which would throw enough shade to cover our tent and camp table and chairs! My tracker Ovi, and Fred the scout had a similar tree for their tent.
It was December, hot and muggy – we were fully expecting to get very wet as the rains were around. Not today it seemed. The kit was offloaded, and as Ovi prepared camp we got the “boys’ toys” out and set up. The camp was simple, and our three-day trip did not require the kitchen sink to come along. It was definitely a boys’ trip – basic food, beer, dry bed, and a tin tub to have a good bath in every evening! Our water was from a well dug 50 yards from camp, with the water level being less than two yards from the surface.
We were both using compound bows and were confidently shooting our arrows out to 80 yards with lethal consistency. Months of practise makes this very possible with today’s modern bows. I like to shoot GrizzlyStik arrows with Silver Flame Broadheads. This gives me awesome down-range energy and, with the heavy forward of center arrows and two-bladed broadhead, great momentum and penetration.
With bows set, range finders and binos strapped on, arrows tipped and checked with new broadheads and quivers fitted, it was time for a sandwich before we hit the plains hoping to catch some rutting action.
December is a tough time to hunt because you could get totally rained out. I had never hunted this late and really wanted to catch the rut if we were lucky. We had fine salt to rub and wrap and roll the capes before storing them in plastic barrels out of the rain if need be. The meat would all be taken off the bone and put into our freezer. Lechwe is one of my favorite meats to eat. Anything left over would be salted for the game scout and his family at the end of the trip.
The rut for the Kafue happens December/January, and bulls of five years or older are in their prime. Females will carry a calf seven to eight months before giving birth in August/September. We were coming into full moon, and this is known for extraordinary lechwe activity. Could we be lucky to witness a real strong bit of rutting? Lechwe generally are not aggressive rutters, but if you catch it right like we did – WOW!
As we hit the open plains it was very clear to me this was going to be an awesome hunt. The grass was cropped to stubble and the water was miles away in the distance. It is so flat there that you can literally travel at 60 km per hour and not have to hold the steering, so off we went in a south-east direction with open plains for as far as the eye could see. It was stunning.
Not long, and the scout tapped and pointed out the first “mirage” of lechwe in the distance. We headed over to them and saw it was a large herd of some 500 animals, but very few bulls. It was a nursing herd and the males in there were either old, OK-ish, or young – not what we were after. Onward we headed. Always bear in mind that this type of hunting takes you far from camp and there are no landmarks. Be sure to have a GPS unless you want to sleep on a truly mosquito-infested flood plain!
The plan to hunt a Kafue lechwe in 360 degrees of open nothingness is simple – get it right! As I mentioned, they will stay on high ground and then move to the water’s edge or swamp in the afternoons to feed. Over the year there have been huge worn travel routes, and along these you will find the odd anthill or mound with cover on it, or a patch of crocodile reeds. This is where you have to set yourself up. A cammo net is always useful. When the herd moves towards feeding grounds, you need to be there in the right place and ready to take a shot.
When using a rifle it is a lot easier. All you need is a good pair of binoculars, sturdy shooting sticks, and a rifle that will reach out there 300 yards or so. Also, a decent guide to tell you which animal to safely shoot.
The next herd of lechwe was much better-looking. It was probably 700 strong and spread over a wide area. As we got closer I stopped and climbed on top of my truck to glass. There were a lot of good bulls. And I quickly noticed the several breeding leks (areas) that had good mature bulls. And…wait for it…they were chasing and fighting and snorting everywhere! It was on! The lechwe have a really strange and characteristic run – head down, haunches in the air with the nose extended… unique to watch. Ras and I just sat and enjoyed the flow of the natural order.
It was mid-afternoon, time to start setting up if we were to get lucky. As we skirted the herd, between them and the swamp, we studied the terrain and trails, searching for the perfect spot. In the distance were some water pans with a fair bit of reed cover around them. Near to one of these were two bulls going at each other hammer and tongs! It was an unusual, aggressive battle. Both bulls looked very big. Because it was Ras up for his first flats lechwe, I had him get his stuff together. I skirted the herd and drove in toward the pools so he could use the reeds as cover to move in on the fighting bulls. I quickly went past, and he dropped out into the weeds as I drove on. We parked some 500 yards away and got the optics out to watch the show. At this stage the bulls were still locked and going at it!
We watched as Ras got to the selected patch of weeds about 75 yards away. The bulls were still hammering each other. He stood up and crossed the gap to the next patch of reeds which was only 35 yards from the bulls. They did not even look up! Now I was seeing what a rut-time hunt could be like – so exciting! Ras’s arrow went right through the lechwe, and only then did the bull break, with his pursuer hot on his tail! Ras literally had to chase off the other victor.
The moon was up and almost full. Ras had a 34” first-time lechwe hunted in the most awesome way. That was a big one, and taken with a bow. Could I really be this lucky tomorrow?
The campfire mood was jubilant, and the lechwe tenderloins were awesome. A few beers and a couple whiskeys later we hit the sack to be ready for the next day. Ras was snoring pretty quickly, but visions of great-horned, fighting studs kept me lingering at the edge of darkness for quite a while.
We were up at sparrows again with coffee, the cooler full of drinks, water, and lunch for the day. I was on a mission for a big boy.
The whole morning was spent finding the right herd with a decent setup. I found a herd with a few good bulls and one of about 35” coming back from the water. So I set myself up on a trail in a pretty awesome spot and the wait began. The lechwes came on pretty quickly, but unfortunately the wind was not being my friend, and the lead animals had the herd turned and splashing away at 200 yards, leaving me with that sunken feeling of failure after so much euphoria.
It was getting late and it was time to find a bit of shade under a lone tree, have some lunch, replenish the liquid levels, then the traditional nap.
The afternoon was spent trying to find a good bull. We saw plenty, but all the setups just would not work. It was a long way to camp and it was time to make our way back for a couple cold ones and a lechwe braai.
Our last day we were up early. The morning was tough with no chances. Fears of failure were creeping into my mind. It was close to lunch and we had a potjie with pap cooking at camp. As we trundled back I noticed a small herd of lechwe in the distance – they were a long way from water and way up the floodplain. This was where the animals get hammered by the city weekend warriors. I decide to look at some 30 lechwe out of interest. When I put my binos on them, one head stood out quite a bit. His horns were heavy and the spread tight. Not a great-looking bull – until he turned his head!
Right where we stopped there were two large trails about 100 yards apart, and not far was a nice clump of weed between them. Perfect. Now I needed some luck.
I suggested that Ras and the guys head right round with the truck and park the other side of the lechwe. They would see the car and instantly move toward the water. The weekend warriors had trained them well. The guys went about 3000 yards round them and came to a stop about 800 yards the other side of the herd which was already moving in my direction. I was tucked away nicely in the reeds with a chance to shoot to either trail to my left or right.
I hoped they would come right because the wind was better. They came left. There were three females in front followed by big boy – who now looked HUGE! Lots of control breathing was taking place in those weeds! As the females got past they obviously got a whiff. Noses up, they paused. Big boy stopped, quartering toward at 80 yards – no shot for me. The girls started to trot off and big boy came on at a brisk walk, meanwhile diverting off the trail, putting him at 67 yards. I had to try.
I drew my bow , settled my breathing , locked my 70-yard pin just under the lechwe’s elbow and started thinking of how much to lead him. Then he paused to look at the gap between him and his lead ladies. Well, before the P in pause was done, my arrow was launched. He ducked the arrow and started to turn away. It clipped the shoulder blade and continued through to hit the spine, which poleaxed the magnificent bull. I ran up, fumbling another arrow onto the string. He was as good as done, but I shot him once more, in the heart, to end it quicker. This magnificent and really old bull deserved an honorable death.
The feelings were elation, quivering emotion from the adrenaline, and then a sombering humbleness that could draw a tear. This warrior had survived so many years out here, avoided hundreds of rifle hunters and PHs with clients, and now here he was. And with my bow! Wow, wow, wow.
The guys arrived, and we just had to measure him. I’m not an inches guy, but perhaps he deserved it. My bull measured 37” green score, and I have still to measure him officially, though enough friends have convinced me that a bull that could be a new #1 – after decades of hunting and with a bow – just had to be entered and recognized.
After all, he was THE King of the Plains.