What is a “trophy” Cape Buffalo?

It seems that in recent years hunting has gone in a direction I don’t like. There is a vocal group with a perverse fascination with whitetail deer and some magical number of inches of horn. This group must also have an inordinate number of dollars-per-hunter in order to capture so much media and marketing attention. Even on the rare occasion when I’ve harvested mathematically impressive animal, it’s had nothing to do with a “trophy value” in my heart.

If ever an animal should challenge a hunter to question their thinking on what constitutes a “trophy” animal, Cape Buffalo should be that species!

Let’s consider first an animal that should score very well by Rowland Ward standards:

From http://africanwildlifedefenceforce.com/African_Buffalo.html

Like many of the top trophies in the book, this is a cow. My first problem with using “inches” to define what is a “trophy” is this: why should a healthy mature cow be removed from a heard just to satisfy some fabricated measurement system requirement? I don’t intend any disrespect to anyone who decided to anyone who has killed cows with wide horns, but I have to point out that raw inches is a bad way to evaluate a trophy.

Let’s consider another animal’s horns:


Unlike Rowland Ward, Safari Club International only considers bulls for the books. The bull above has a good number of inches and I would think would easily make the book. Here is the rub with this: Many animals grow bigger antlers or horns every year making a high number of inches desirable.  Cape Buffalo are born without horns, and they grow them outwards until they start fighting when they reach sexual maturity. It’s possible a bull might have its highest “score” the day before he hits sexual maturity. A handful of the bulls currently in the SCI top 20 were bulls that were not mature. In whitetail terms it would be like adding a spike to the P&Y book. It just shouldn’t happen.

From the same site, here is another picture to look at:


What a fantastic animal! Here is a mature bull with flattened out horns and a hard boss. This animal would probably score lower than the first two, but this is the type of animal ideal to hunt. His removal from the herd would not hurt the herd in any way, and he is possibly in that wise/wary but non-breeding/on-the-way-out end of the spectrum.

That website is quite interesting, as well as a few chapters in Africa’s Most Dangerous.

Finally let us consider the “scrum cap” bull:


A bull like this would score very low on the SCI scale, but just look at this old battle worn veteran! Everything about this bull is exactly what should constitute a trophy pursuit. Everything except the measurement and inches that would have him be a “trophy” officially.

Not many folks are interested in buffalo hunting, if you made it this far into the post my hat is off to you. I personally find it very interesting how the idea of “inches” that works so well for deer and elk, does so poorly for buffalo.

While a nice symmetrical set of horns looks nice, and it could put a hunter in the record books, a true trophy to me has nothing to do with what anyone else can see or measure. It’s all found within one’s self and what they see when they look out into the world.

A few thoughts about lions.

Right off the bat, I want to say that I have no interest in hunting big cats. I’ve never done it, and I assume I never will. What I am interested in is the conservation of habitat and animals, and the management techniques that protect both of them.

We had that whole Cecil debacle in July of 2015. Vocal and psychotic anti-hunters caused such a stir they actually accomplished their goal; a bunch of hunters decided not to hunt cats in Zimbabwe.  I’m sure many folks were very pleased with their results. And with their “victory” they created a new problem.

What happpens if a habitat can carry 300 lions and all the animals they need to kill, but you have 500 lions living there? If you don’t let trophy hunters pay to hunt them, you have to pay professional hunters to kill them. That’s right, for Zimbabwe they lost somewhere near ten million dollars of revenue and then they have to start paying people to go kill the same lions that were “saved” by the anti-hunters.

Just in case you think I’m too much of a pro-hunter to be objective, why not read up on the subject over on Nat Geo? There is plenty more information if you would like to conduct your own searches. I particularity enjoyed a piece from PETA suggesting that if we just stop hunting it will sort itself out. Look at all the countries in Africa that stopped hunting and they are the poorest of the lot with rampant poaching. Those are the countries leading the way towards extinction of species and destruction of habitat.

I very much look forward to seeing the management practices of South African land owners next summer and learning about how they establish their quotas when mixed herds live in a habitat with a certain potential to grow food.

The Dogma of “Quality” Deer Management

I must start by saying, I’m a huge fan of QDMA as an organization.

I believe QDMA is the backlash of failed State run game management. Even now, 30 years after the founding of QDMA the state of South Carolina allows hunting for archery and firearms from August 15th until January 1st. Bag limit is one buck per day, except on Sundays unless you are on private land. So if you hunt public land 6 days a week, and can get access to private land on Sundays, you could kill 107 bucks per year per hunter. That is over the counter. You can additionally apply for anterless tags or use generous landowner tags if you know someone.

There was a well earned reason for the backlash! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to pick on South Carolina. It is a state that I truly love to hunt. I was shocked to buy a Georgia hunting license and find that it allowed me to kill up to 10 deer, 1 bear, unlimited hogs, and turkeys. While I appreciate their marketing departments zeal in recruiting me as an out of state hunter, what is the herd effect of issuing licenses this way?

What do you do if you can’t change the state regulations, but you see a sick herd? Grassroots says you collect up your neighbors, compare notes, educate one another, and agree to fix your local herd. It’s a situation where “what is right” is more important than “what is legal.”

Two years ago I had the opportunity to spend a bunch of time with a biologist and a landowner going over a property and discussing habitat and management strategies. I found out later the biologist was the founder of QDMA, and the landowner was the first president of QDMA. Small world huh?

Here is the first thing I realized about these two, they are very dynamic people. They both look in the micro at any immediate area, and can instantly relate it to a macro level of herd management. They seemed very comfortable looking at 10 or 20 acres, then go straight into the macro issues facing a 3 county area.

The big thing I realized in the next few hours as a fly on the wall, these guys were not set on any “4 points on one side” sort of hard rule. In reality, 4 points on one side probably wouldn’t be a hard push on the property we were on. Instead they were really focused on the overall health of the land and the animals living there. It was a very dynamic discussion.

Dogma. Where I hunted today in Michigan was a non-QDMA tract ajoined to a few QDMA tracts. Several men are very stringent about their 8 point (Eastern count) minimum on any buck killed. I decided to target a button buck or a spike.

“Sacrillege!!!!” you say. I thought about it long and hard, I tried to think of it like a biologist. Here is what I realized:

  1. QDMA is working! There are many bucks 2.5 and 3.5 years old, and maybe even a few older. A few very good looking 8s, 10s, and even a 12 point or two. The mature bucks are in great shape but I don’t see any on camera nearing the end of their natural life. These are breeders that are spreading great genes! We need these bucks alive and rutting as many does as they can!
  2. This county was hit HARD with EHD for two years in a row. Herd die off was estimated at 50% each year. When herds are at 25% of their counts from just a couple years ago, it would be an injustice to kill a doe. They are EHD resistent and proven breeders. I saw one doe with two fawns, and one with triplets. Clearly I couldn’t shoot a fertile doe like that with the herd down the way it is.
  3. Yearling does will be critically important in recovering the herd over the next several years. These are completely off limits to my conscious.
  4. Dry does, you know, the big old horse heads. I would have gladly taken one of these, but it’s hard to know if they are past their mating years, or if they just lost this years young to a car or coyotes. Better to pass on these if not certain (and I’m rarely certain.)
  5. What does that leave? Immature bucks, or not hunting. Sure if a cow horn came by that would be a great cull, but I’ve never seen one in this county. Removing a spike would ensure it didn’t breed a doe, and it would yield a good amount of meat. I’d rather hunt and pass than to not hunt at all. I did have a button buck at 1 yard today, and had a slam dunk shot lined itself up I would have taken it. I’d say the chances of him making it through firearms season is very slim, and I would have liked that tender meat for my freezer. Alas, the shot was never right. I’ll just hold out for a spike or a cow horn in that county.

Clearly there is a difference between meat-harvesting and trophy-hunting, but for the meat hunter it’s important to consider all aspects of the current herd when deciding what animals to pursue. Likewise, I don’t think “4 points on one side” is the end-all answer for trophy hunters. If your land and habitat can lend itself to a much higher quality animal, why not go to a 4.5 year or 5.5 year minimum for trophies? There are a lot of 2.5 year old bucks killed in the name of quality deer management and it has little to do with their potential, their place in the reproductive lifecycle, or their true trophy quality.

If you hunt deer, I ask you to consider the big picture before considering what you will pursue when you go afield. If you are a non-hunter, consider every animal raised in a pen will be killed regardless. I’m very honored to be connected to these herds and to be very selective about what I harvest in each area I hunt.

Philosophy part 4: The Morality of Killing

After reading parts 1-3 I hope everyone (hunters, non-hunters, and anti-hunters) realize that I’ve given my pursuit quite a bit of consideration.

  • I have very good reasons for wanting to get high quality meat unavailable from our industrial meat growing and slaughtering operations.
  • Likewise, I have seen that an arrow can produce a far more peaceful death than a bullet.
  • Finally, I am very selective about what species I even endeavor to pursue based on ecological and ethical reasons.

In this post I want to talk about the act of killing itself. I have killed countless mosquitoes. I have on a few occasions accidentally run over squirrels.  I bought a nice leather jacket once. Years ago I purchased a good amount of meat at the grocery store or local butcher’s shop. All of those things boil down to killing. What’s worse, it’s the type of killing that almost nobody really thinks about.

When I go hunting I make a very conscious choice to go way out of my way to try to kill an animal. I think it’s good that the direct effect of being “successful” is front and center in one’s mind as they lace up their hunting boots. When I kill a specific animal I’d say my feelings are split between gratitude for all nutritional benefit I will receive, and remorse that a wild animal died so I could get it. I’ve never seen anyone shed a tear buying a steak wrapped in cellophane, but maybe they should.

I’ve studied the teachings of the Buddha, and I can clearly understand the philosophy behind not killing anything including insects. I think it’s admirable that some people can live with this level of consciousness. The main takeaway I have from these studies is the idea of “wholly good.” It could be looked at this way: If I kill a pig and eat it, it is not wholly good. It was clearly bad for the pig, and even though I received nutritional benefit, I had to kill the animal so that was not entirely good for me either.

This is wonderful when you are sitting on a pillow and considering the way that people get their food in first world counties today. Where it starts to get tricky is when you are looking at a male black bear and considering it might kill a dozen cubs per year. It doesn’t seem to me that letting that bruiser walk is really doing a favor to their herd or the ecosystem. Killing that bear is actually beneficial for everyone but that individual bear.

As a hunter out in nature, you are faced with many questions about what you should kill and what you should let pass. One example from a couple months ago; I had a coyote right in front of me in Wyoming on the opening day of pronghorn season. Ranchers (especially sheep ranchers) would consider it a great kindness for a hunter to kill all of them that they could. Moreover getting it and it’s smell away from the animals it was spooking (the ones I wanted to hunt) would have helped me too. Alas, I never even considered shooting him. I took a few comical pictures of him dancing around a waterhole with a doe pronghorn and I’ll cherish that memory forever.

I just got back from a week long hog hunt, and when I say hog I really mean to say feral pig. A very destructive animal planted in the new world to be a source of protein for the people who would inhabit this land in the future. In essence, a “put and take fishery” except for pigs. One day I had an immature sow, maybe 75 pounds within 5 yards of me. Why would I do harm to an animal that hasn’t even begun to participate in the cycle of life? A pig twice that size would yield much more meat meaning that I could kill half as much and still eat just the same. A few days before I had a male boar just coming into his prime walk in very close to me. He was asserting himself as a alpha boar by marking out his territory, but he lacked any nicks in his ears, or deep scars on his sides common with older boars. He has all the structure to support the heavy shields that will develop with time, and the heavy layer of fat that will come as well. He’s just still a little trim, I’m guessing around 250 pounds. He walked straight into my shooting lane at 10 yards and stood broadside. My bow was ready, and I could have easily taken a shot. So why didn’t I? Because he is just coming into his prime. He might have mated a few sows already, but the gene pool hasn’t been significantly diversified since the passing of the old alpha boar that has been running that swamp since 2009. If he lives a few years more it will be great for the herd.

When a hunter has a weapon in their hand they have a great deal to consider before they ever get to the point of trying to find a shot. To me this is a process of trying to rule out a shot instead of trying to find a way to justify it. If I can disqualify an entire animal for some ecological or “health of the herd” reason, that makes things much easier. Last spring I had a big group of mature hogs come marauding into my stand one evening. There were 13 hogs in total, and since no animal was off-limits for either of the reasons above I quickly settled down to the two I would take a shot on if presented. The oldest, biggest sow would produce the highest yield of meat. She was also wise and held back in the bushes for a long time after her offspring came browsing in. The other was the smallest male, about 150 pounds. It would be a great size to eat, and given the number of larger boars present I knew he had little chance of being part of the gene pool for the foreseeable future. Neither of those two hogs presented a clean shot opportunity, and so I let them all continue on their way.

I hope this helps folks who do not hunt to understand what many of us hunters go through before we ever decide to try to take an animal while afield. For many of us it’s much more involved than what the hunting television shows would have you believe. For a little deeper look into some of the emotions I experience while afield, I would invite you to read another hunting story I wrote a while back.

Philosophy part 2: Why I Bowhunt

In Part 1 I talked about why I feel driven to eat wild game instead of commercial meat. Today I’m going to describe my path from rifle hunting to bowhunting, and hunting with a longbow specifically. This was a very conscious decision based on my personal ethics.

I grew up just down the road from Paul Schafer, but I never met him. Most of the hunters I grew up around felt that bowhunting was an immoral way to pursue big game, so I didn’t have a chance to socialize with any bowhunters to learn what it was really about. I really wonder what turns my life might have taken had I met Paul when I was a young teenager.

During the years of hunting with rifles I cleanly and swiftly killed several animals. Actually recounting them now, all of them were killed with a single bullet and recovered within 100 yards. While my personal successes were text book, I was on several hunts that didn’t turn out nearly as well. I saw other hunters miss shots for various reasons. I saw hunters get bad hits requiring long tracking journeys, a few included lost animals. I saw three occasions where wounded animals were kicked out of beds and additional shots were required to bring them down.

Twenty years later I realized that I could no longer support modern “farming” systems. I knew I would have to return to hunting for my own meat or become a vegetarian. I found myself at a moral crossroads. One option was that I could go back to hunting with a rifle with that big BANG noise and the animals getting hit with a projectile so hard it can damage a great deal of precious meat. Another option seemed intriguing to me, converting to bowhunting. As for becoming a vegetarian, I was determined to avoid that if at all possible.

Bowhunting wasn’t an easy choice for me given my well ingrained prejudices against it. I invested a lot of time researching how bowhunters go about the pursuit, and even more time dissecting hunting stories from the point of the shot to the recovery of the animal. Most of what I read provided very little helpful information. I watched several videos posted online, and most of that was initially useless as well.

As time went on and I read more and more about bowhunting, I realized two things started to become clearer. First, is that the guys shooting old wooden arrows with 2 blade heads seemed to get more consistent “pass through” shots leading to a faster death. Second, the guys shooting longbows and recurves sometimes shot animals and they didn’t seem to know they were hit. The more research I did on quiet “traditional” bows and heavy arrows with super sharp two blade heads, the more confident I became that this was the most ethical way to kill an animal. I purchased a longbow and began learning the skills needed to bowhunt ethically.

With my longbow I have shot through animals that didn’t know they were hit. More commonly, I see animals look at where the arrow hits the ground than towards me and the sound of my bowstring. My game recovery distance has averaged HALF of what my rifle shot animals ran with that big dose of adrenaline after the gunshot.

With my personal experiences over the past several years, I am now confident I made a great decision to become a bowhunter.  I believe that my bow and arrow are more humane than any slaughter house practices, or the bullet from a gun. This is why I am a bowhunter.

Bringing out the best in one another

Nick, Steve, and Thom
Nick, Steve, and Thom on a hog hunt.

I recently read a post from Nick Viau that got me thinking quite a bit. If you haven’t read AMBITION AGED 34 YEARS I’d suggest you take a minute and go read that before you continue.

I read that the day it was published, and I decided to sit on it and think a while. I read it again this morning and I really like what I read.

I try to be a “up for anything” hunter, so long as my vacation days and bank account can support it. When Steve said he was ready to do a hunt he’s dreamed of for decades, I knew my answer was yes regardless of what or where we were going. Looking back, it’s probably not an accident he asked me the question. That was my chance to bring out something in Steve.

We had a wonderful hunt that was incredibly successful in every measure. Upon return Steve penned a wonderful story that I’m sure will grace a magazine or be a chapter in a book someday in the future. He asked Nick to give it a first proof read. After that, and doing some reflecting, Nick wrote the article I linked up top here. Steve’s story drove Nick’s philosophical inward discovery.

When I finished Nick’s post I had one thing that had gotten under my skin: “If Steve is a hunter who writes, and Nick is a writer who hunts, am I that guy who says he’s a writer but never writes anything???”

With that as inspiration, I launch this website. Nick, thanks for the encouragement you didn’t know you were giving me!

The Problem with Momentum

I’ve learned a lot about momentum over my years of building and testing arrows. When you have great momentum in an arrow, you get great results.

The problem I have had lately is that the idea of publishing my hunting journals and stories spread across many different websites, magazines, and a pile of notepads had no momentum. For several months I’ve been looking at this blank website with a terrible case of writers block.

With this simple post I am going to take an action and pray the momentum follows. Many great stories will be coming soon.