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Good Judgment

Dec 14, 2016

Boddington waterbuckWith horned and antlered animals, it’s pretty simple to determine “small, medium and large.” Animals such as bears and cats can be tricky but, as Jack O’Connor wrote, “the big ones always look big.” On unfamiliar turf, however, we often defer to our guides and professional hunters for trophy judgment, and we expect them to have a reasonable level of competence at this.

Some animals are trickier than others. All the spiral-horned antelopes are tough because so much depends on the curve and the curl; kudu are exceptionally difficult because there is so much curve and curl that precise judgment is tough. Donna and I were hunting with Mare van der Merwe when we saw two kudu bulls in a dry riverbed. One was unremarkable, but the other looked really good. It was Donna’s turn, so we got out of sight and planned a quick stalk.

Donna stalled for a few seconds. She had a good kudu so, not unreasonably, she didn’t want to shoot unless it was a significantly better bull. We’d only had a glance. The bull was not a 60-inch monster, but the first turn was wide, the second turn okay, tips good. In that glance we both figured “high 50s,” a great kudu…but were we willing to bet on it?

At that moment we were, so we proceeded. The encounter was too close for further scrutiny, so Mare set up the sticks and Donna took the shot. The bull dashed off, but we quickly found him down. He still looked good…but maybe not quite as good. Since Donna had set the criteria and put her faith in both of us, she had every right to ask. I don’t actually recall if either Mare or I actually had a measuring tape or not, but I know we both claimed we did not! So we took a lot of pictures of a beautiful kudu bull and headed back to the ranch headquarters. I guess great minds think alike because a short while later Mare and I met at the skinning shed, measuring tapes in hand. We had to know!

Amazingly, in that first quick glance we’d both been correct, and we’d both been wrong when we had this fine bull down and were second-guessing ourselves. The bull was 57 inches on each horn, well into the class Donna was hoping for and, to be honest, an inch bigger than any kudu I’ve ever taken.

Obviously, it doesn’t always work out quite that way. Judging animals is art, not science. With inexperience, a bit of “ground shrinkage” is normal. Even with a lot of experience it’s rare for field judgement to be spot-on, and “ground expansion” is rarer still. While it’s perfectly okay for we hunters to establish standards—so long as they’re reasonably attainable in the area we’re hunting—we have to understand we’re asking a lot for our guides and PHs to make precise judgments. With experience, many great guides tend to estimate conservatively, at least verbally; it’s much better to deliver a bonus inch rather than an inch of disappointment. Again, some animals are easier than others…but it also depends on distance, light and how long you have to study the animal. Sometimes, it also depends on whether an animal is alone or in a group. Horn size is often relative to body size, so an exceptionally small-bodied animal can fool you (bad) and an exceptionally large individual can fool you (good).

Needless to say, any guide or PH worth the title will always do the best job possible, but it bothers me when hunters—especially hunters new to a given species or area—establish very specific (and very high) criteria. To some extent this is actually handicapping the PH, as well as adding pressure. If you really care, it’s more sensible to say, “Let’s look for a really good one,” allowing your professional to interpret what that means based on availability in the area. It’s also okay to be perfectly happy with representative specimens, take ’em as they come. Some will be huge and some will be average and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way.

What is not okay, in my opinion, is to immediately pull out the measuring tape and let the inches decide whether you’re happy or not. At that point, it’s too late to call the shot back, so nothing is served. Mind you, there is a place for measuring. At the end of the hunt, you should take measurements of all your animals so that you know. In due time, those that appear to qualify can be officially measured and entered into our record-keeping system, and that’s a very good thing. On a day-to-day basis, however, it’s best to leave the measuring tape in camp. You’ll enjoy the hunt a lot more.

There are special situations where measurements have personal importance. Donna’s point was that she didn’t need another greater kudu, so if she took one she wanted it to be bigger. Fair enough. And with some animals there are “threshold measurements” that take on exaggerated meaning. For instance, everybody wants a “40-inch sable,” a major milestone of excellence. I tend to think this is a foolish trap to fall into if you’ve never taken a sable, likewise a buffalo with 40-inch spread, because such animals are unlikely in many areas. But if you’ve already got a sable or buffalo and you want bigger (or nothing), then setting high standards may make sense.

Over the years, I’ve taken several nice waterbuck bulls, but I’ve never quite broken the 30-inch mark, a Holy Grail number in the waterbuck world. In September 2016 I had a waterbuck on quota in the Zambezi Delta, an area that has a lot of waterbucks and produces monsters. Although it’s not usually my style to state a number, that time I did: We were looking for a bull that exceeded 30 inches.

The waterbuck has relatively straight horns that tend to curve back and then forward. Theoretically, they should be easy to judge but in reality are not. Much depends on the curve, which cannot be seen from front or rear. A very tall or very wide waterbuck may be impressive, but not actually as long as a waterbuck that has a lot of forward curve. Out on the floodplains before the Marromeu Reserve you can see dozens of waterbuck bulls, and we did. We almost took a magnificent old bull with tall, thick horns, but at the last minute, Mark Haldane decided the horns were a bit too straight. I agreed, but there was another awesome bull off in the distance.

Up close he was also tall and heavy but had more curve. This one “looked big,” so we shot him. I was quite certain he was the biggest waterbuck I’ve ever taken, but did he break the magic number? At the moment I’m not sure either of us really wanted to know. Despite my self-imposed “number,” he was big enough, so we admired him and photographed him and took him back to camp. I would have checked measurements at the end of the hunt and made notes, as I usually do, but it turns out Haldane couldn’t stand it. He slipped out to the skinning shed and checked as a good PH should, if only to confirm or deny his field judgment. Thirty-one inches on both horns, not only big enough but exactly what we were looking for.--Craig Boddington

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