I headed to a different waterhole today. Three warthogs came in along with 3 hartebeest bulls and 2 wildebeest. But most of them spooked and ran into the bush. The wind was swirling and occasionally blew from me to the waterhole. Forecast had called for swirling winds so this place was as good as any. I stayed there until 1:30 before the call came:
"Pat, do you copy?" Dries said over the radio.
I replied and he said the magic words.
"We're coming for you, the big tom hit at the river. We must go tonight" This was music to my ears.
The truck came by 30 minutes later and after a brief stop to regroup and change, we were driving to the ranch where we had been baiting. Dries, Ben and I arrived there around 4:30 PM and had a bite to eat at the truck. The plan was for Ben to stay behind at the Toyota while Dries and I hunted the entire night.
As one final confidence builder I placed a target in the tree and replaced my sharp broadheads with the practice broadheads. I released, and my shot was totally off - high left by 10". Dries and Ben looked at me and Dries asked what happened? Puzzled, I didn't know and tried again with the 2nd arrow. It buried into the target right next to the first arrow, high left. I then tried several more sets and all of them were consistently high left.
I had been practicing night shooting for the past week, and for months back home. I was well aware that my "day" sight configuration was totally different than the "night" config. This adjustment was a high-low adjustment only which I had already compensated for. But I just added a new variable - shooting upward - which we had not practiced at night back at the lodge but I had practiced a lot back home. Now I didn't quite know which variable had changed my shooting - daylight? or uphill?
A high left hit would put the arrow in the cat's shoulder. So if the uphill shot was messing me up, and I left the config as is, I had a good chance of wounding. If the daylight was messing me up, and I moved the sight in line with the upward angle, the shot would go low right - into the liver and/or guts. I was very frustrated with the situation. I had practiced an awful lot for this trip and didn't expect to have this decision the night of my first leopard hunt. In all honesty, I think nerves had a lot to do with this. I was second guessing myself at the last minute - which I used to do before I began shooting a traditional bow.
Dries and I agreed that moving the sight to err on the side of a liver hit was far better than a shoulder hit. At least the liver- or even a gut hit creates a good likelihood for recovery. Of course, the best scenario was that I would deliver the arrow cleanly through the vitals.
When we reached the blind the final preparations were performed. This included smoking the blind (with us in it) with burning cow dung, and settling in for what could be a long and uneventful night.
Dries gave me the final instructions: If the cat hit he would sit up first and get situated with the cameras, then turn on the dim-red light.
We both laid back and closed our eyes. He said it was OK to sleep, but there was no way I could sleep. Through the listening device I could hear every imaginable sound and was convinced that each was a leopard.
It had been dark for two hours when we both heard a loud "thump." Then the unmistakable sound of licking and tearing. Dries tapped me on the leg and whispered - he's here. My heart started pumping and adrenaline surged through my veins. Dries got everything ready then tapped me again and whispered - you can come up, get your bow.
Lifting my head for the first time and seeing that dimly illuminated leopard is one of those memories that will last my lifetime. The cat was magnificent. In actuality it didn't look real. I pulled up my Bowtech and let my nerves settle down.
Dries softly whispered; "let me know when you're ready and I'll turn the light on -full blast"
I waited a few moments then whispered back: "I'm ready"
The light intensity grew and I could see every spot on that Tom. I was awe-struck by this scene. It was incredible to be that close to a leopard - Africa's top predator. I can honestly say it was like a dream. The illuminated leopard was the only thing I could see amidst total darkness. I could barely see Dries and nothing on my bow.
I slowly came to full draw.
The sight picture was perfect. As I had done thousands of times in practice, I lined up the string to the right of the sight pin and started to gently release. The pin was not moving wildly as I had imagined hundreds of times before this hunt. I was super-focused and totally composed. I was in total control and feeling great about it.
The arrow was released and the leopard let out a deafening roar. He jumped off the branch and landed in the water in front of us. He ran to the blind. Then silence.
My first reaction was the shot was perfect - just behind the shoulder.
"Stay perfectly still" Dries said as we listened for any growling, or movement outside the blind. After a few minutes Dries stuck his head out the window to listen. There was nothing. A vitally hit leopard will typically roar and growl then die quickly. We heard none of that.
We played back the video several times but could not see the shot anywhere on his body. An hour later we called in Ben, along with the landowner, then exited the blind.
There was no arrow to be found. But the bloodtrail was very good. The leopard had landed in the water then ran up the bank a yard from our blind. Once past, he ran across a dry riverbed and up the opposite bank and into the dense brush which surrounded the river. We found sprayed blood along the rocks and, in my experience, it resembled a typical lung hit. Dries was less sure, but he agreed that the blood trail was positive. He then let his dog "Kenzo" loose down the trail.
Within five yards the dog slammed on the brakes and growled nervously. Dries called him back and suggested that we not go any further into that brush. I agreed. If this cat was still alive, it could be suicidal to continue down that trail - he had all the advantage. There was a chance that hyena's may damage the cat but safety was Dries priority and I never question the judgment of an experienced PH. We all headed back to the lodge and will come back at first light.