“Ron, what is your favorite hunt? What do you like to hunt most?”
Readers and viewers often ask me that. It’s a legitimate question for which I’ve never had a definitive answer. This strikes some as odd, considering I’ve had plenty of chances to sample hunts for everything from musk ox in the Arctic to water buffalo in Australia. You’d think by now I’d have a favorite hunt.
Back in the 1990s my favorite hunt was searching for rams in towering, rolling, craggy, snow-dusted wilderness mountains. There I found long, wild, pristine rivers braiding like silver through a phalanx of dark spruce. Diurnal hawk owls perched atop them like Christmas angels. I drank pure, slurp-it-right-from-the-ground spring water, so cold I had to rest between swallows. Snow squalls swept down from the peaks in curtains. We hunkered under ledges beside Arctic bluebells quivering in the wind, eating wine-purple blueberries dripping icy beads.
In the Alaska Range we saw an odd hedge of dead branches atop a far, high ridge. When we rode closer, the hedge rose and ran off. It was a band of sleeping caribou bulls. On that same hunt a blonde she-bear stood from the rusty tundra like an exclamation point, stopping us in our tracks. Three cubs popped up around her like marmots. She woofed and ran them up a distant tundra ridge.
Incidents like that are what make some hunts more special than others, but that doesn’t mean I want to do them all the time.
At another time in life I couldn’t get enough of September elk forests. A cold front would sweep in and blow summer right into Texas, leaving the pine cloistered peaks wreathed in fog. Elk whistled in the basins, calling us down. The confident swagger of a bull coming to a cow call can make your heart forget to beat. Elk hunting, then, was my favorite.
But that takes nothing away from a bull moose hunt. Rut bulls come grunting, rocking palms like opened car doors, clear warning to get out while the getting is good. Stand firm with nothing between yourself and 1,000-pounds of testosterone-charged moose and you’ll know you’re alive.
Then there’s the caribou, king of the tundra. Chasing caribou is like chasing your dreams of what an undiscovered, undefiled happy hunting ground should be. It’s green when you land, but day by day you watch it color yellow to russet fading to brown. And here come the bulls, blood red antlers freshly stripped atop snow white necks and dark gray bodies. You watch them come for miles across country so vast you swear you can see it curve on the horizon. No fences, no roads, no high line wires. A favorite hunt for sure.
But I don’t need pure wilderness to feel a special thrill, a special connection to the land and the animals I hunt. I’ve found myself at heaven’s door while quietly padding the damp edge of a cattail slough on the old family farm in October, the sky a perfect blue, the nearby corn field a warm yellow, Indian Summer holding its breath. I knew roosters would be sneaking from the thick cattails at that hour, running toward the corn for their afternoon feed. And I knew if I came upon them suddenly they might panic and fly instead of skulk. And that’s what they did, one, two, three in quick succession. Three smooth swings, three clean shots from the light little 20 gauge and three long tails were sticking from the bird bag, exclamation points to my favorite hunt. At that moment.
But then I’m jogging over the Kansas prairie, racing to intercept a bull-bodied whitetail buck migrating from upland feed field to brushy creek bottom where he’ll disappear as he has for the past ten years. I pick my spot, ready the rifle and hope I trust my hunch as much as I think I do. And after four long minutes he walks out from the draw, carrying more than 170 inches of hard bone antlers right toward me. Then and many other times I absolutely knew a Kansas whitetail hunt was my favorite — until I stalked kudu in Namibia.
Oh, don’t kid yourself. Africa might not be your home country, but it’s every hunter’s heritage. Once you start still-hunting the thorn brush and glassing the vleis, once you see the gray striped ghosts flicker through the dappled light, see their spiraled black horns towering, you are hooked. And once you’ve awakened to the crackle of a freshly lighted campfire, to the cooing of doves and the cackle of francolin, you realize you’re where you belong. You come to love the bark of baboons, the sailboat glide of giraffe running above the thickets, zebra impossibly materializing from beds right there on that open hillside. You can’t believe there’s any place left in the universe where you can sneak past dozens of antelope of six different species en route to that one 30-inch waterbuck. But you do it and you know nothing can ever compare to hunting like this.
Except somehow, somewhere, something does. Belly crawling through sweet sage after Wyoming pronghorns. Calling Missouri turkeys from the oaks. Glassing desert mountain Coues deer in Sonora. Climbing British Columbia’s cliffs for mountain goats. Talking a wary flight of Dakota mallards into a string of decoys. Pass shooting wave after wave of Argentine doves. Stepping past a setter into the shock of a dozen flushing Arizona harlequin quail. Wading a Mozambique marsh to emerge under the hook horned glare of a Cape buffalo.
Then one day you’re back in the little oak woods near home, the old 22 rimfire across your lap, the October sun rising over your shoulder, and fox squirrels barking, chattering, coming closer. You bark back and start breathing faster. You see the branches bouncing, catch the flash of red, and you’re shaking as you bring the rifle up. Shaking? This is crazy. This isn’t a buffalo or full curl Dall ram. It isn’t a 60-inch kudu, royal elk, or even a strutting turkey. It’s just a squirrel. But at that moment, in that place, it’s your favorite hunt.
That’s why any hunt at any time can be my favorite hunt. It’s not what I’m hunting so much as where I’m hunting. And it’s not where I’m hunting so much as that I’m hunting. As Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce said: “When the last deer disappears into the morning mist, when the last elk vanishes from the hills, when the last buffalo falls on the plains, I will hunt mice. For I am a hunter and I must have my freedom.”
The author has been reviving his spirit with the freedom of the hunt for more than 50 years.