March 12, 2013
All hunts are good, but some are better than others. Some are just more rewarding in overall experience and more satisfying in the memories they yield. It isn't just about the animals — it's also the country you see and the people you meet that make certain hunts especially memorable. Sometimes, too, hunting memories are measured in volumes of sweat. Some of these hunts aren't for everyone, and some should definitely not be left until the very last minute.
On the other hand, the good news is this: Hunting memories cannot be measured in dollars spent. Some of these hunts are a little pricey (which is why I'm driving a '99 truck with 240,000 miles on it!), but others are not. This is a list of some of the best international hunts you should plan before you die — or get too old to go on such an adventure.
Africa: Cape Buffalo
For me this is Africa's best, and if you shop wisely it's still a relative bargain. I'm often asked about my favorite game, and the answer lies somewhere between whitetail and buffalo. If the question is about my favorite African game, then the answer is easy — buffalo. There are lots of people who have no desire to hunt the great cats or elephant — and I understand that — but few hunters are resistant to the concept of hunting buffalo. They offer romance and a hint of danger.
Moreover, for me, the buffalo offers a chance to watch the great African trackers do their work. And then you get into the herds, you smell the cattle and you try to sort out the bull of your dreams. Nobody said it better than Robert Ruark when he wrote that the Cape buffalo 'looks at you like you owe him money."
There are plenty of buffalo in today's Africa, with opportunities in at least a dozen countries. Things can change quickly, but considering availability, affordability and opportunity for success, I think Mozambique and Zimbabwe are the two best bets.
Zimbabwe is more a traditional tracking hunt, while Mozambique offers a better opportunity to get into big herds and has a much greater selection of plains game. Either way, a buffalo safari costs considerably less than a guided moose hunt in Alaska or Yukon. If you've hunted buffalo, then you can properly say you have hunted Africa.
Central Asia: Marco Polo Argali
I'm thinking Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, and I'm thinking Marco Polo argali — one of the world's most beautiful and most desirable animals. The Marco Polo hunt is a great adventure in the world of mountain hunting, and you will probably see more wild sheep here than anywhere else.
Go in November when it's cold and miserable and you'll catch the rut, as well as a major migration from China. On a slow day you might see 200 sheep, while on a great day you might see 1,000. Although seeing them through good optics and closing in for a shot aren't exactly the same things.
The altitude is killer, most camps are a bit rough and food is just good enough not to kill you. But it's worth it to see those marvelous creatures, and most hunts are successful.
This is not an inexpensive hunt, but we're setting our sights high here. Costs are less than any Stone sheep hunt today. Tajikistan is costlier than Kyrgyzstan (and has more and bigger rams), but today's prices are considerably lower than when Afghanistan was open in the late 1970s.
Not everybody can crack this nut. As an alternative, consider a hunt in the same area for the magnificent mid-Asian ibex, longest-horned of all the world's wild goats. You'll climb the same mountains, stay in the same camps and see the sheep along with the ibex — all at a cost somewhat less than a lot of guided deer hunts.
Africa: Lord Derby's Eland
The giant eland — also known as the Lord Derby's eland — just may be Africa's most magnificent trophy. It also makes for one of Africa's greatest hunts, conducted in a truly wild Africa far from any tourist destinations. Northern Cameroon or northern C.A.R. are the two choices for this hunt, and both are good.
It's a tracking hunt in Equatorial heat, so there's nothing easy about it, but unlike some of Africa's other great prizes, it is not a specialized or single-minded pursuit. There is a lot of other game in the area: buffalo, roan, waterbuck, kob, a few lions and a whole lot more. It's a chance to see the real Africa — wild Africa — and most hunts today are successful.
The heat can be brutal, and you must expect to walk long distances. The good news is that the terrain is not difficult, and when you're walking on the tracks you're proceeding slowly. You can do it — if you want to badly enough.
New Zealand: Himalayan Tahr
New Zealand's southern island has to be one of the most beautiful places on Earth. It was not chosen randomly to be the set for Lord of the Rings. The red stag gets the glory and is always wonderful, but here's the truth: New Zealand's wild stags were started with poor stock and haven't gotten much better. The great stags you see photos of were developed by deer ranchers, which means all the good New Zealand stags are behind wire. This is not a problem, just a fact. Some of the 'estate ' hunting is very good.
But this is a bucket list, so if you want to experience the best New Zealand has to offer, consider the Himalayan tahr. The tahr is a big-bodied goat with short, thick horns and the most incredible flowing mane.
Hunt them in May or June, when the hair is really good, and you'll have a trophy second to none. Prices are more reasonable than for stags — especially the big stags — and to me the experience is far superior. There are really two options.
If the mountains are starting to get a bit steep you can be dropped off at altitude by helicopter and hunt laterally. It's still a mountain hunt, and still a great experience in awesome country. Or, if you've still got some legs, forget the helicopter and do a 'walk-up ' tahr hunt. You don't have to start clear at the bottom. Many areas have tracks that will get you partway up, but you'll love your tahr even better if you climb for him.
On any New Zealand hunt there are other options: red deer, fallow deer or chamois. I, however, think the bull tahr is far and away the greatest trophy in the South Pacific.
Kamchatka: Coastal Brown Bear
The argument continues as to which is larger, the polar bear or the coastal brown bear. The former is rangier, while the latter is probably heavier. In today's political climate, we'll leave the polar bear out of this discussion. We'll also leave out the grizzly, which is smaller and has a more scattered population that makes success less frequent.
If you want one big bear on your bucket list — and you should — make it a salmon-fed giant. The two options are coastal Alaska and coastal Siberia, primarily the Kamchatka Peninsula. To a North American hunter, Alaska has the tradition and the legend. There is also great bear hunting from southeast Alaska to the Alaskan Peninsula, as well as on Kodiak and the 'ABC ' islands.
But if I was making my bucket list and I wanted just one big bear, I'd go to Kamchatka. At their very best the Alaskan bears get a bit bigger, but average size in Kamchatka is larger, overall success is considerably higher and the costs are quite a bit lower. I was there way back in 1992, when the area first opened. It was truly great. Since then the hunting program has continued to develop and mature, and if anything there are more bears now than there were back then. And of course I can now say with some panache, 'I hunted in Siberia. '
Nepal: Himalayan Blue Sheep
Nepal offers a post-graduate mountain hunt, and it is not for everyone. Altitudes can be extreme, and from the jumping-off point at 10,000 feet you will walk at least two days — mostly uphill — before you enter the game reserve and get into hunting country.
The animals are not dramatic. The Himalayan blue sheep is a smallish wild sheep, nothing like an argali or a bighorn, and the Himalayan tahr can be hunted with less pain in New Zealand.
That said, Nepal was the best mountain hunt I've ever done. The scenery of the high Himalayas was incredible and the people were amazing. We had two dozen sherpas carrying our supplies and a shockingly comfortable camp with plentiful, quality food. All I had to do was put one foot in front of another and my new friends — carrying 100-pound loads — were prepared to wait patiently for me if necessary.
Nepal holds one of the world's greatest hunting adventures and the cost is about the same as the average Dall sheep hunt today. This really is a hunt to consider for your bucket list.
Argentina: Red Stag
The sound of a bugling elk is one of the most beautiful in nature, but the deeper, more guttural roar of a rutting red stag evokes an even more visceral response. It's a sound you need to hear before you hang up the rifle. After hearing the stag and stalking in, you want to see the heavy antlers with that distinctive crown of points at the end of each beam.
I suppose it doesn't really matter if you do this hunt in native Europe or New Zealand, but if I were to pick one really great red stag hunt in the world, I would suggest Argentina.
Unlike New Zealand, when red deer were introduced into Argentina a century ago the bloodlines were very good. So while Argentina and Europe also have awesome stags artificially bred behind wire, Argentina probably has the very best free-range stag hunting in the entire world. The hunts are very reasonable, absent the 'medal surcharges ' common elsewhere.
Much of the hunting is conducted by horseback, whether in the foothills of the Andes near Bariloche or in the rolling hills of La Pampa Province. Argentinean beef is second to none and they serve it liberally. This is not a hunt for vegans.
British Columbia & Yukon: Stone Sheep
In 1973 my dad and I hunted the Cassiars of northern British Columbia. Forty years later this is still the most beautiful part of the world I've ever seen. I haven't seen it all and never will, but I would extend this envelope from central B.C. to somewhere north of Whitehorse, Yukon. The mountains are fairly gentle, with timbered valleys, and this is one of the last bastions of the old-fashioned packstring hunt.
In this type of country it doesn't really matter what you hunt — it's all about the experience. That said, I believe the Stone sheep to be the most beautiful wild sheep in the world. I wish I could hunt him just one more time. If you can, you should. Unfortunately, we all know what has happened to prices for Stone sheep hunts. So don't worry about that, just get up there. Hunt Rocky Mountain goat, moose, mountain caribou or even grizzly if you want. Just enjoy this beautiful country — hunted exactly the same way it has been for ages.