Viva In France!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Viva in France!

October 21-30, 2008

Lost and befuddled in the French countryside piloting a rented Land Rover Freelander was not how I had planned to start my hunt. My phone and translation dictionary were in the Audi Q7 that rocketed ahead and left me to fend for myself. On a roundabout I lost track of my friend Dr. Vincent LaCoste while dodging aggressive Renaults and Peugeots. Boy, I really wish I knew where we were headed. Perhaps a small detail we should have discussed at some point. The map is little use without an idea where to go. I turn around and wait to be found. Hopefully this is not indicative of the adventure that awaits me.

Fortunately things get back on track.

The French countryside in late October is full of the signs of fall: cool temperatures, crops being taken in from the fields, leaves turning red and yellow. Rain, fog and mist blanket the landscape, spiny chestnuts drop noisily to the forest floor, and dogs bark relentlessly as they pursue wild boars. And then there is the reason that I have returned: the massive Mouflon rams crashing their heads together in a effort to show dominance over the onlooking females. The still air is broken by the cracks like great hammer blows echoing off the canyon walls all around me as these creatures fight. I sit in ambush on a beautiful afternoon in the Massif Central Pyrenees in a hunting preserve near the ancient town of Douch. My good friend Dr. Vincent LaCoste has invited me to return to hunt with him and his friends in an area that he pioneered for bowhunting Mouflon. The conservation approach here is much different than in North America. Tags are issued 1/3 for adult males, 1/3 for adult females, and 1/3 for baby sheep. The idea is to keep the population stable in the relatively small range of habitat. Vincent has leased the entire area exclusively for three of us to bowhunt.

I see a ruined village on the edge of a stream at the bottom of the valley. Once, a couple hundred years back the area was vibrant and inhabited by around 100 poor souls who struggled to tend their cattle, grow some crops, build kilometers of stone walls and eke out a modest living. The remains of an old mill, the waterwheel mostly rotted away, provides a nostalgic example of renewable power, while in the distance I can make out 30 ultra-modern Danish Vestes wind turbines and the cooling towers of a nuclear power station. I sit patiently waiting for a rutting sheep to make a crossing of the ridge where I lie in wait contemplating the mix of old and new. I can make out dozens of animals on the surrounding mountains through my Swarovski binoculars, but as of yet they have not come my way. Many rams are in full rut chasing ewes along the steep rocky side hills. In the chestnut forests that fill the ravines and valley floor near the small river many more are concealed from view. The prospects are good, at least with regard to seeing our quarry at a distance. Now perhaps we could just get a bit closer.

Several hours later we decide to move off the scenic ridge top and try to stalk a group hiding below us in a dense copse of trees. The ground is covered with dry brittle twigs and crackling leaves that make silent movement impossible. Never the less, due probably to preoccupation with the rut, we come across a noisy group of sheep headed in our direction. I quietly take a position with my PSE X-Force bow at the ready. A Beeman Matrix 300 arrow tipped with an Ironhead 100 broad-head by Rocky Mountain is ready. The sheep jostle toward us as the rams chase ewes and babies struggle to stay out of the way. BAAAAAAAH, BAAAAAAAAAH! They cry constantly getting closer. Finally, we can actually see them. The wind is right, we are under cover, the animals are distracted, and I am getting terrible cramps in my legs from the awkward position I am forced to kneel in to avoid being spotted by the keen-eyed animals. BAAAAAAAAAH, BAAAAAAH! They rush toward us! BAAAAAAH, BAAAAAH, they rush away. Two rams turn to crash explosively into each other. I can see them clearly and they are unaware of our presence, but there is way too much brush in the way. BAAAAH, BAAAH! They run in the opposite direction. Damn, have we been spotted? Off the group heads down the ravine, but wait a moment. They are coming back! At 100 meters, the whole group pauses while I try to ignore the pain of my screaming legs. All the sheep disappear for a moment and I shift my position to get more comfortable. Then they are coming again! The whole process is nerve wracking, but a few minutes later at 45 meters I am at full draw as a huge ram leading the flock makes the mistake of stepping out into my shooting lane. He senses something is wrong as he sees my slight movement, but turns to face me, curious about what he has witnessed, instead of saving his life by bolting to safety. My arrow strikes the lustful ram directly in the sternum and tears through the entire length of his body. Sheep scatter and crash away as the hapless Mouflon does a somersault down the rocky draw and lands 50 meters from the spot where he was stricken.

Vincent jumps up and shakes my hand vigorously. I wipe the sweat off my brow, smearing the camouflage paint on my face and thank him for the opportunity to enlist his expertise to place me in the right spot at the right time. His years of hunting this area and studying the mouflon have paid off for me. We approach the huge ram and I examine his rough coat with black, brown and white markings. Stroking the long curls, I admire the massive horns and wonder how these animals can so violently butt into each other and survive? Romeo the Ram has had quite an unlucky turn of events. After a photo session, we hurry to skin and quarter the big sheep; it is only 2PM and the area is allowed 30 animals to be taken for the season by bow. The season is almost at a close and only 11 have been shot. We have work to do. I have three more days to go and I can have more tags thanks to Forest Agent Jean-Pierre.

Day two starts with a wet, slippery rock 20 minutes down the trail that catches me unaware and Crash! Sprang! Swish! I am bruised and sore. My PSE is a tangled mess of garbage! The string had been cut on a rock and the bow self destructed! Embarrassed by my lack of agility in front of these serious Frenchmen I am trying hard to impress with my hunting ability and physical prowess, I hastily hike back to the Land Rover and race back to Douch for my reliable Mathews Black Max 2. The day got better for me as I took another young ram with a 45 meter shot from a ridge-top after an hour long stalk.

For the next two days torrential rain buffets us. It is terrible weather for sitting. But great weather for sheep to move, just not by me, I guess. We view them at a comfortable distance through the mist and fog.

The last day is beautiful. Slight wind, sunny, clear sky, warm: a great day to be outside. Vincent picks a great ambush location, but I guess it is not my lucky day. Lots of excuses are used up. Dozens of ewes and baby rams pass near through the day. I had an inquisitive ewe studying me from 8 feet while at full draw. I miss!!!!! Next, at 20 yards I have an easy ¾ back shot at a nice ewe and a phantom branch deflects my arrow. I did not see any such branch, but there was no question something was there as my arrow flew 90 degrees off the path I had intended! And finally, I have a 10 meter shot that only has a chance to work if the young mouflon steps into the exact right location between the branches I had arrayed about me for concealment. After a lot of Bah, Bah, Bah, within 20 feet of me, playmates behind, in front of, and to each side, I got a shot. The arrow thuds into the young female, and she runs off with a dozen of her flock mates. We see her stop to urinate and feel that I must have missed, but from 10 meters? Wait! There is some blood. It is hands and knees tracking for an hour before we lose the trail 200 meters down the mountain. No good luck for me today. The scenery is great, the mountains not too steep and the overall results awesome! Unfortunately, Vincent’s other friends had a rough time. Philip did not have an opportunity to shoot but saw many animals at close range, and although Gerard was successful with a yearling, he had hoped for a big ram. We toasted cheese to celebrate the hunt at the ancient stone inn, and ended up setting off the blaring fire alarm klaxon. Some environmentalist hikers joined us that evening, strumming their guitar and singing songs I could not understand. I am very lucky that I kept all my gear locked in my room, as Philip and Gerard had their bows sabotaged sometime during the night.

In the morning, Vincent and I load his big Audi Q7 and head down the switchback winding road on a great sunny day . Luckily for me, the Land Rover I’d driven up the mountain had experienced an electrical casualty and was towed by the rental company, leaving me to be a simple passenger content to watch the beautiful countryside slip by. Vineyards, mountains, forests and castles filled my view as Vincent and I discuss the successful hunt and our upcoming plans. Gerard and Philip are headed south to the Pyrenees near Andorra to hunt Pyrennean Chamois, known locally as an Isard, where I was lucky to shoot the world archery record with Vincent last fall. The Doctor and I are headed north to hunt Alpine Chamois in Vincent’s backyard in the town of Clerval between Dijon and Switzerland. I was extremely lucky to have Monsiuer LaCoste call in a number of favors in order to get me a tag to hunt this exclusive goat. The tags are jealously hoarded by French hunters. Foreigners simply do not get this opportunity. Bowhunting is allowed in France, but the tradition is not widespread having been made legal only ten years prior. A select few hunters have taken Alpine chamois with bow, and in the other countries that have Alpine Chamois, bowhunting is not allowed. I feel that this will be a great opportunity to score another very rare trophy.

We arrive at Vincent’s castle estate eight hours later where I am stunned to see his awesome trophy collection including 19 chamois, 37 roe deer bucks, 25 pigs, dozens of trophies from North Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Australia, Russia, and 18 of the North American species. I am very jealous. We sit down to a mouflon steak dinner with his beautiful wife Marie and her wonderful children Emma, eleven, and Zoe, eight. After sampling several local cheeses, I head off to bed planning for an early morning. At 530AM I am up and dressed for the five minute ride downtown. To my surprise we stop, disembark next to some train tracks and head into the shadowy woods behind the village pharmacy. There is a field cleared from the woods hanging onto the mountainside that has been purchased and maintained by the local hunting club. We set up an ambush at the edge of the food plot clearing and as the sky grows light, we hear thrashing and romping in the bushes and a group of Chamois rushes out of the darkness and into the grass to eat. Could it possibly be this easy? Well, maybe? But, no. At 65 meters, four animals cavort and chase each other. There is a decent female, two babies and a two year old. I could make the shot, but I am looking for better. One youngster stays and plays jumping and hopping in front of us for nearly an hour. Vincent assures me that there is a large group known to frequent this area and they should come out eventually.

Across the train tracks to the east, we can make out some other chamois in the alpine meadows sampling a bit of succulent, green grass on the cold and rainy morning. The rut is on here as well. A large, jet-black male patrols his stretch of forest looking for interested females, but then disappears from view. We decide to change the plan and head over to that area right away! It is also part of the hunt club land, so we may be in luck. Immediately after parking the fire engine red Peugeot in the back of a church lot, we can see and hear signs of the animals we are after in the nearby field. We stalk, but apparently too loudly, and the wind is wrong. It begins to rain harder and get very windy. This is good, it will mask our sound and scent. We quietly withdraw hoping the goats will forget about us and try to get around behind them in a better position. Once a huge male trots right by as we are in ambush under a tree in the pouring rain. There is no time to shoot as he rushes by 80 meters away in the oak and chestnut wooded Alpine mountainside. We have a few more close encounters, but today is not the day. At dark we head back to the estate and relax in the Doctor’s hot tub, massaging muscles that are stiff from hours of sitting motionless in the cold and wet weather, oblivious now to the rain still coming down on us. Over night it gets very cold, which is great for us. It will intensify the rut, making the normally very keen chamois dumber than a box of rocks. We realize that Gerard and Philip have had to flee the Pyrenees as nearly three meters of snow has fallen there, effectively ending the season due to lack of access. The Mouflon area we were in two days ago received a scant meter overnight, so I was lucky to get my hunt in, because the snow ended hunting there as well. This morning I have a good feeling. We head back to the first place behind the drugstore and wait for an hour without positive results. Then, we decide to try the cliffs where we had seen the reckless male the day before. As we quietly stalk along a trail in the sleet, I glance behind me and see a large female following 100 meters back! As I turn to get ready for her, she leaves the trail and is followed by several more goats. What luck! Chamois ahead, chamois behind, chamois to the side. Chamois all over! We spot some ahead and creep toward these babies, hoping they have a large mother watching them. And once again behind us is a black-bodied male coming up the path. He does not see us due to his preoccupation with the rut, but turns off the trail attracted to the smell of a distant female before we can take a shot. We have to get into a good position and not be distracted with all the other encounters. We may be seeing lots of animals, but are not prepared to do anything about it. We set up an ambush along a cliff where we are able to observe a well traveled area. Vincent watches one way and I face the other. It is sleeting and raining hard. We are soaking wet in and out, with our breath fogging the air. It is a beautiful day in the French wilderness, just at the edge of town.

After an hour Vincent rummages in his pack and hands me a piece of locally produced cheese, while he cracks open a tin of sumptuous pork Pate. If the goats could not smell us before, they certainly can now as the strong scent of cheese and pureed meat wafts through the air all around us. As soon as we are distracted by our delicious lunch, I can hardly believe my eyes: a huge black ram is jogging right for us. I nudge Vincent who dumps his can with a clang and turns to see what I am so excited about. I drop my bow as the ram turns into the dense brush 80 meters away motioning for the rifle, since this goat looked so huge and did not seem apt to stand still long enough for a bow shot. Vincent is initially confused about my intention, but quickly recognizes the situation. I get into position and the ram does a speedy semi circle through the thick brush 100 meters in front of us. I wait for exactly the right moment and-BANG! The 7mmx64 Mauser recoils into my shoulder and the huge ram disappears from view in the 1.5-6x Schmidt and Bender Scope. I am sure I got him, but Vincent does not think so. We check the area and find no trace. 30 minutes later, dejected I sit down to finish my cheese. Vincent starts again into his Pate and almost on cue the foolish ram returns having already forgotten about us. The Mauser barks again, this time destroying any hope of this fellow passing on his legacy. Although I chose to resort to an evil fire-stick, instead of an honorable twig and string, I am jumping up and down. This ram is huge! His horns are thick and long. He must weigh 60 kilograms. He stinks terribly from the musk and urine of the rut, and we decide that the meat would be better off in the hands of the hunting club members than stinking up Vincent’s kitchen. Besides, it is the biggest ram Vincent has seen in this area, and the club members will not be happy that a terrible US hunter stole this massive trophy from it’s rightful French owners. Oh well, too bad for them. I will return home with three superb French trophies, well worth the discomfort I was forced to endure. Thanks to a lot of luck and Vincent’s experience and connections, I have done it again. Viva in France!