Varmints in the Veld
The word Varmint is uniquely American, but the USA is not the only country in the world where vermin are hunted for sport.
The term “rook rifle” is uniquely English, and refers to a small caliber rifle that was commonly used to hunt rooks (crows) and other small game in England, before possession of a rifle became a legal nightmare in that country. Most were single shot rifles, and calibers such as the 297/230 Morris, the 297/250 Rook, the 255 Rook, the 200 Rook and 360 No. 5 Rook were the varmint cartridges of the day. By today’s standards, these rifles are quaint but they make up for their lack of horsepower with exquisite fit and finish.
The author has hunted in Australia, where rabbits are prolific and commonly hunted at night, while crows are plentiful and provide sport during daylight hours. Among larger quarry, the feral hog, kangaroo, wallaby, and feral goat are all treated as varmints although the kangaroo and wallaby have been protected in some areas.
And we know of excellent varmint hunting to be had in Argentina. That is a subject unto itself and will be covered in a future article.
This article is about a country best known for its wonderfully diverse big game hunting, a land of endless vistas, colorful birds, and a huge variety of antelopes, cats, and pachyderms: South Africa. What most hunters do not realize, in their quest for spiral-horned and other trophies, is that there is some excellent varmint hunting in the land of the “Plains Game Safari”.
Recently, while hunting birds in a the broad plain that lies between the Soutpansberg and the Spitzkoppe in what used to be the Transvaal Province, I had the opportunity to sample some of the more unusual varmint species available. But first, it behooves me to let the reader in on another big secret, namely the quality of bird hunting in South Africa. Due to the diverse habitats one finds there, from high mountain grassland to lowveld bushveld, there are a variety of game birds available to the visiting hunter. Between the diminutive migratory quail (these birds migrate between Southern Africa and Europe, crossing the Mediterranean Sea in the process) to the huge Spurwing Goose, there are doves of various species, several wild pigeons including the fast-flying Rock Pigeon, a host of duck species, the most common being the Yellowbill, geese, a series of Francolin (aka Spurfowl) which is the partridge of Africa, and last but not least the ubiquitous and gregarious Guinea Fowl. If ever there were a game bird that could also be considered a varmint, it would be the Guinea. Found in flocks of a few dozen to several hundred birds, these birds are voracious consumers of crops. They are very wary birds with long necks that prefer to run than fly. But they offer excellent sport when surrounded by a ring of guns, when driven to a line of guns, or when walked up in thick brush where they are less apt to run. They, along with the speedy high-flying Swainson’s Francolin, were our source of sport for a few glorious days on this trip. There are not too many spectacles quite as exciting as a wave of several hundred guinea fowl flying straight and fast toward a line of guns waiting just inside the brush near a large cropland.
The presence of interesting varmint species in this same area presents a terrible dilemma to the avid hunter. Birds or varmints? The answer to this dilemma, fortunately, is both. Birds by day and varmints by night. For many of the varmints in this article are almost exclusively night creatures.
Knowing that I would be doing a little night work on this trip, I packed a 10” TC Contender in 45 LC (again not your normal varmint gun, but the varmints in Africa include 150 lb baboons strong enough to tear you limb from limb). Taking advantage of the different firearms laws in South Africa, I fitted a carbine stock to my gun, once I got off the plane of course. At the business end of my ammo I loaded 230 gr Hornady XTP jacketed hollow points, designed to expand quickly at very modest velocity. Fitted with a dated but tough and compact 2.5x Weaver steel tube scope, this combo would put critters down with authority, out to about 100 yards.
The area we were hunting was farmed for potatoes, using pivot irrigation to raise crops almost year round. Contrary to what one might imagine, the farming practice is not intensive at all. Large areas of virgin brush are left intact, and the few crop circles that one finds are mostly fallow due to the need to rest the fields for 3 to 4 years between crops. So here one has water, potatoes (and pumpkins), and plenty of thorny brush for cover. This combination provides ideal habitat not only for birds, but also for their predators and other varmints such as warthogs, bushpig, and giant porcupines.
The latter proved to be the most common quarry. Porcupine love potatoes. Almost every crop circle yielded two or three of the ungainly rodents, as big as a dog and equipped with really nasty 12” quills that make our American species look like amateurs. And farmers hate porcupines, so it’s a natural target. As we drove up to each field, the porcupines would race toward the cover of the brush like hovercraft, their legs invisible under their bristling armour. We in turn would race around the field in an attempt to cut them off, turning them back into the open potato lands. When we felt we had enough time to get off a shot or two, we would stop the vehicle, jump out, and take our shots. At first, it was tempting to shoot for center of mass. This is futile as the body and vitals are in the lower third of the profile, the rest being quills. Once I learned to hold low, the quill dogs started to pile up in the back of the vehicle (their fatty back skin is a delicacy and the meat is eaten by the locals … even the quills are used for ornaments). Reloading a Contender is a little slow, so I learned to grab a few extra rounds for each “engagement” usually allowing two or three shots to be taken at a group of marauders. But with the big 45 slug, I was anchoring them if I put the bullet into the beast anywhere forward of the midline.
It was also very common to sight small antelope in the same fields. Duiker and Steenbok are very common, but are not legal to shoot at night. As well, we saw Bushbuck, Kudu, Eland and Impala. We also saw a Brown Hyena, a very rare sighting of this protected species.
The most destructive of all the denizens of the African night is the Bushpig. This ferocious and fast-breeding pig, which is a true wild pig, can get quite large. Their short cutting tusks are extremely sharp, and these pigs will often attack dogs and even hunters when wounded, slashing at one’s legs. They are also wary, but we were lucky enough, on the second evening foray, to engage a group of them in one of the fields. A longish (estimated 80 yards) shot tagged a young boar on the shoulder. Amazingly, my partner was able to observe the bullet streaking toward the animal in the beam of the spotlight, and called the hit good. Sure enough, after a short circular run, the pig lagged behind the others who by this time were making a bee line for the brush. He then stopped, allowing me to put in a finisher, which was probably unnecessary. Dragging him to the truck proved to be a job for two full-grown men, even though he was a half-grown pig. Bushpig meat is a real delicacy, superior by far to the much more common Warthog (which is strictly a daylight critter).
Where there is meat there are predators. We spotted an African Wild Cat, a tawny cat about the size of a Bobcat, and missed a moving shot. Cats don’t typically sit for a light, and this one kept low in the grass and brush presenting a difficult shot. We lost him in the grass before we could shoot again. I already have one of these in my trophy room so I did not feel too bad about missing the opportunity. In any case, my real quest was for the striking Caracal, also known as Lynx or Rooikat (red cat). These cats are very elusive. In the mornings, one will often see plentiful fresh Caracal tracks in the roads, but it’s highly unusual to actually spot one, even at night. Having had a successful evening, we had just turned for home when my companion decided to take one last look at a fallow field alongside the road out. Suddenly he braked and shone the light into the grass alongside the dirt track. The red head and tufted ears of a Caracal peeked unmistakably from behind a clump of knee-high grasses. I instantly jumped out, stood on the running board to get a better angle, and sighting over the roof made the shot. The shot connected and the cat jumped. Considering the short distance, we began a congratulatory dance which ended whn my guide shone his light a little distance from the vehicle and sighted a second cat. I was unable to get a clear sight picture so did not take a second shot. After spending a minute or so attempting to get a sighting of this cat, we returned to the clump of grass where cat no. 1 was lying. The only problem was no cat, no blood.
After casting around for a while, we found blood in the area where the second cat had been sighted. It then dawned on us that cat no. 2 was cat no. 1 making a getaway while we were high-fiving and not paying attention! We were able to follow the blood trail for about 50 yards using a flashlight, marking it with toilet paper. But it soon petered out in the high grass leaving us stumped. As it was 2 am by now, my host suggested that we turn in and return in the morning.
At first light, having slept fitfully for about 3 hours, we returned to the scene but not before loaning a Fox Terrier from another professional hunter. I was in low spirits having little faith that we would find the cat. However, this plucky little dog immediately picked up the trail, staying true to our trail of toilet paper and then forging busily into the middle of the field. At one point, he appeared to lose the trail for he made a wide circle, backtracked a distance, and then resumed his purposeful sleuth work. About half way across the 600 yard field, he suddenly changed gear and tore off in the direction of the adjoining brush with the two of us in hot pursuit. I called to my guide to watch for the cat but neither of us could see anything moving ahead of the dog. We soon lost the dog who was outdistancing us rapidly. He disappeared over a little earthen berm into the brush. The thought crossed my mind that we had now lost not only our cat, but also the borrowed dog.
Already out of breath, we made it to the edge of the field where the dog was last sighted. We heard his excited yipping not too far from us, and soon came upon a scene that I will never forget. The dog was running furiously around a large tree. In the limbs of the tree, silhouetted against the red dawn sky, stood our red cat, very much alive and staring down and hissing like he was really really mad. I approached as quickly as I could without attracting attention, but could not get a good shot due a large limb obscuring the cat’s shoulder. With my gun at my shoulder, I sidestepped to get a clear shot. The cat then saw me and turned to look at me with his penetrating eyes. Fearing that he was about to jump, I took a quick shot which dislodged the cat and that just raised the ante, for the terrier jumped on the cat and the two were soon enveloped in a cloud of dust, from which emanated the most amazing cacophony of growls, screams, yelps, and hissing. While I was trying to photograph this scene, my guide foolishly tried to separate the two. Somehow, he managed to do so without getting scratched up, leaving the cat now lying in the grass but still alive. Using his Hornet, we administered a coupe de grace and he then grabbed the cat around the neck and held it until it expired!
Needless to say, I was exhilarated, and could not believe how quickly our luck had turned. Here lay the cat I had coveted, taken in one of the most interesting and thrilling episodes in my hunting career. There stood the dog, still agitated as well, even though bloody with some of the blood being his own. And here were the two of us, grinning like fools and out of breath, with all of this having transpired before breakfast!
This being the day of our departure, our hunt ended on this high note. But I made a promise to myself to return to this sporting Mecca in the future, anxious to share the experience with one or two of my regular hunting buddies who I knew would enjoy the hunting as much as I did.
Russ Gould is the owner and operator of Varmint Hunter HQ (vh2q.com), an online marketplace dedicated to varmint rifles and accessories. He also offers big game safaris, wingshooting, and varmint hunting trips to Africa and Argentina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org