Crossbows for Dangerous Game?
July 23, 2012
We knew the big Alaskan Peninsula brown bear was somewhere on the side of this alder-covered hill guarding its kill. Now, in the fall of 2011, after four years of waiting, a journey of thousands of miles, and a grueling trek through the rain-drenched Alaska wilderness, my quest to kill a big brownie with my crossbow was coming to a climax!
The rain had slacked off a bit but a crossing wind was blowing strongly. We carefully worked our way towards the bear. From less than 25 yards of him, we could see the whole big bruin lying broadside on top of the mound it had created to cover a dead moose.
My guide Ben leaned over to me and whispered through the howling wind.
"Wait," he said.
We needed to make sure this was the monster bear we had glassed from two miles away. The bear's position made it impossible to be sure. After all of our efforts, I didn't want to shoot a smaller bear.
Suddenly the bear's head went up and it jumped to its feet, making one quick circle before locking eyes with me. As the huge animal turned to face us, I raised my Excalibur Exomax crossbow, and just as I put the stock to my shoulder, Ben said, "It's a big one! Shoot!"
* * *
Hunting dangerous game with a crossbow is a bit like the first bottle of beer I snuck from my dad's stash when I was a kid. At the first sip I wasn't sure if I liked it, but after a while, it tasted pretty good and eventually I got to like it a lot.
Since I started hunting these kinds of critters — the ones that can hunt you back — dangerous game hunting has become a sort of an obsession of mine.
Being the owner of a crossbow manufacturing business has its benefits, and for me a big plus is the opportunity to travel to distant lands and hunt some exotic species with my crossbow.
A decade and a half ago I decided that I'd like to try something different. I'd been to Africa for plains game, but I wanted to try hunting something really tough and nasty with my crossbow.
When the opportunity came along to hunt Cape buffalo in South Africa, it seemed a perfect choice to test both my equipment and my hunting skills.
I spent my time before this hunt preparing by getting heavy arrows, practicing with them, and studying buffalo anatomy.
The hunt sounded easy, just sneak up on a bull buffalo and drift an arrow through his lungs. But after making dozens of failed stalks on that hunt, I can assure you that Cape buffalo are anything but stupid. They have excellent eyes, far better than whitetails, and getting within bow range of a cagey old bull is a tough proposition.
We finally decided that a less energetic approach was in order. We set up a blind downwind of a water hole that was being visited by a small herd on a daily basis. When the herd arrived, the cows drank first, virtually surrounding our flimsy makeshift blind.
I was "in the zone." My senses were crystal clear. Time had slowed down. I was breathless with excitement by the time a bull finally gave me an opportunity to shoot.
At 35 yards the 700-grain arrow slammed into the seam of the big bull's shoulder with a tremendous "whack" and slid forward to stop against the ribs on the far side.
We found the bull piled up a few hundred yards away, and I was already pretty much addicted to the amazing adrenaline rush that comes from hunting really tough and deadly game.
A few years later I still hadn't forgotten the excitement of that hunt when a new brainstorm started me down the same road again. After repeatedly hearing the fallacy about crossbows not having enough power to hunt really big game, I decided to put the question to rest once and for all. The story went that a crossbow arrow was smaller than an arrow from a compound bow, and therefore wouldn't penetrate well enough to effectively hunt anything larger than a deer. I figured that if I could kill a bull elephant with an off-the-shelf hunting crossbow, the myth would die, at least until something bigger than an elephant comes along! It was a perfect excuse to immerse myself into the thrill of dangerous game hunting again, and in a very big way.
The elephant hunt was arranged to occur along the pristine shores of Lake Kariba in southern Africa. Once again, I diligently studied the elephant's specialized anatomy and consulted with other bowhunters who had hunted them. I also spent hours building heavy arrows and practicing to guarantee penetration on these huge, thick-skinned animals.
In Africa, we approached and sorted through dozens of pachyderms every day, but none were in the class that I wanted.
Then, on Day 9, we found it. A big old bull fed along a bay. We stalked to within 20 yards downwind of the brute, and I launched a 900-grain arrow into his vitals. The arrow struck the bull just back of the shoulder and quartered towards its leg on the far side, hitting the stout leg bone so hard that it bent the broadhead!
Chaos reigned as he turned and ran at us. We scrambled out of the elephant's way as it crested the hill within just yards of us! It had been a very dangerous encounter.
When it expired a short time later, I was relieved that we had successfully managed to harvest what I firmly believe is the most demanding and dangerous creature on this planet to take with archery equipment.
KING OF THE BEASTS
This dangerous game thing was beginning to become a habit by this point. The elephant would be tough to top, but after some consideration I decided that an African lion would be the logical next outlet for my obsession. With rhino hunting off-limits to archery equipment, a lion seemed like the next best opportunity, and let's face it, the teeth and claws thing appealed to me!
The best opportunity I could find to tackle this alpha predator was in the Luangwa valley in eastern Zambia. Lions don't require the massive penetration needed to take on buffalo or elephant. They are no tougher in construction than a big caribou. Choosing the right arrow was easy. I just used exactly the same setup that I use for whitetails.
I did discover that arrow placement had to be fairly far back as compared to our local game. Big cats carry their heart and lungs well behind their front legs.
My guide, or professional hunter, told me that it was perfectly safe sitting in the flimsy grass blind waiting for the king of beasts to visit a stinking hippo leg located 20 yards away. But I can tell you, the reality of having a quarter ton of fury at close range while you are only protected by a wall you can poke a finger through is pretty daunting!
It was almost dark when a big male lion swaggered into view beside the bait. His mane blew in the wind.
My heart was pounding as I prepared for the shot, but then the lion sensed that something was amiss and lay down quartering towards us. The light was fading fast but the lion stayed focused in our direction, giving us a very tough opportunity for a good killing shot with a crossbow.
I was very hesitant, but at my PH's urging I put the crosshairs tightly against the front leg and sent my crossbow's arrow towards him.
At the impact, the lion snarled loudly, then spun away and disappeared into the gloom. The excitement of the encounter had barely passed when we quietly left the blind and retreated towards the truck. This was a very dangerous time and tracking something as deadly as a potentially wounded lion at night was unthinkable.
I spent a restless night reliving the shot and worrying about the outcome, but the next morning in spite of my concerns we quickly found the lion dead only a short distance from the blind.
NORTH TO ALASKA
Once again I had flirted with disaster in my quest for adrenaline, but how long would it be before something went very wrong?
Back in Alaska, when Ben said to shoot, I knew that within seconds the bear would be gone, so I quickly put my crosshairs at the front of the brownie's chest, allowed a few inches for wind deflection, and squeezed the crossbow's trigger. As the bow recoiled, I watched through the scope, seeing my arrow's lighted nock for a split second as it disappeared into the dark brown hair on the bear's brisket.
At the impact, he stretched his head down to bite at the entrance wound, then without hesitation launched himself off of the mound straight towards us.
Time seemed to slow down. I watched Ben raise the rifle, waiting for the bear to top the rise at 10 yards, and even had time to wonder what the heck I was doing chasing the world's largest terrestrial predator with a pointed stick.
It seemed like a long time, but when we reviewed the video, it showed that it was only 3 seconds before the bear appeared again. Thankfully, instead of charging towards us, he charged back over his cache away from us. Either the arrow had started to take effect, or the bear had changed his mind. Whatever reason, we were all glad it had broken off the charge and headed for the hills!
Ben put a bullet into the departing bear to seal the deal. I had earlier told him that if he had any concerns regarding safety or shot placement, he should not hesitate to shoot. I suppose the sight of the brownie under these extreme circumstances triggered his instinctual response.
We found the bear a few yards from where we had watched it enter the alder thicket. I was shocked by the size of this monster, almost 10 feet from nose to tail and probably well over 1,000 pounds! He was a scarred veteran of many years on the Alaskan Peninsula.
It took the rest of the day to cape the huge brownie and carry the skin and skull, plus all our gear, down to a lava bed where a Cessna could drop in to pick it up.
I've had a few second thoughts about my crossbow quest for dangerous game after that morning in the Alaskan alders. Who in their right mind would put their life on the line with a stick and string to hunt game that can easily kill you? When you think about it, it's pretty stupid, but the attraction to adrenaline is a powerful one.
Right now I am not planning to delve into any new thrill-charged encounters with dangerous game. I think I'll be happy just hunting the deer and turkeys close to my Ontario home. Something a little more tranquil, you know?
Then again, sometimes I change my mind!