Springbok: The Deer of South Africa

Posted by Jay McAninch on July 21, 2014 in
Springbok - jay and koos dewet (800x533) Professional Hunter Koos DeWet (right) helped Archery Trade Association president and CEO Jay McAninch bowhunt and track a South African springbok, McAninch's first big-game animal besides a white-tailed deer. Photo: Jay McAninch

We started my bowhunt by pursuing a common springbok, the South African “deer.” These animals come in various color phases, and are common in much of South Africa. Wildlife professionals here talk about the hundreds, if not thousands, of springboks that must be culled each year to keep them from devouring the habitat. That sounds a lot like the challenges we often face in the United States with white-tailed deer.

The common springbok has a tan back, legs and head, with white on its belly and lower sides. Between the tan and white areas, a wide, dark-brown strip runs from the lower front shoulder to the hip. Its jet-black horns are short, slightly curled, and ridged or ringed. Both sexes have horns, but the male’s horns are thicker and longer.

The other springboks are identical in every way except color, because they’re the same species. Copper springboks have copper or dusky brown below instead of white, and the dark brown strip isn’t as dark. The white springbok is all white and looks a bit like our mountain goat, except it has many white-brown color combinations. The black springbok is slate in color, with a black stripe on its sides.

Koos DeWet was the professional hunter (PH) for my hunt, and he carried an additional license for dangerous game. He is the only PH with that license besides Johnny Vivier, co-owner of Wintershoek and lead PH of our group at the Linksfontein Lodge. DeWet is a reserved, soft-spoken and knowledgeable man who has hunted all of southern Africa. Also joining me for this hunt was Michelle Zeug, the ATA’s director of archery and bowhunting programs. Scott Shultz, president of Robinson Outdoor Products, invited Zeug to join our group. Also joining us was Jason Hebert, a writer for Robinson Outdoor Products.

Winter hunts in South Africa start after sunrise because the animals are slow to move when it’s cold. Temperatures were in the high 30s and low 40s all week, which is cold to South Africans. Our hunt started shortly after 9 a.m. at a water hole, where the four of us watched from an elevated blind. We had nonstop action, with visits from several springboks, some impala, and a group of blue wildebeest, but nothing came into range because the wind blew from our blind toward the watering hole. When the wind ebbed and flowed the animals calmed down and came closer, but we didn’t get any shots.

We moved in midafternoon to a blind whose top half was below ground inside a thicket. Wind was a nonfactor in this blind, which had feed placed out front to draw animals within 20 to 30 yards. Not long after we settled in a copper springbok ram appeared and stayed a while. Later, after a small group of blue wildebeests moved through, a group of common springboks approached. Among them were two rams, which DeWet declared “shooters” after glassing them.

Shooting springbok is hard, not only because they’re small (about the size of a goat, 40 to 50 pounds), but more because they constantly move and stay in a group. They almost act like schooling fish, which makes it hard to follow one individual. When that individual gets into position, other animals always seem to be moving around it. When I drew on the biggest ram, another springbok walked between us. I remained at full draw for a couple of minutes before I had to let down. Not once during that time did I have a shot that wouldn’t risk my arrow passing through and hitting one or more springboks.

Finally the ram moved to the back of the group and presented a good shot at 20 yards. I pulled to full draw and was a bit unnerved when realizing my sight pins were not bright. Between the fading light and the added darkness of our blind, my sight pins couldn’t illuminate the way I liked. Still, I had a clear shot and could see my top pin well, so I released my arrow. Following the lighted nock, I saw my arrow hit the springbok at the perfect height but slightly farther back than I preferred.

After the ram burst into the bush, we waited about 15 minutes before leaving the blind. My arrow had blood on it but also smelled of rumen fluid. We learned later that although my arrow hit the liver and some lung, the springbok had been turned enough to be quartering toward me. My arrow exited the springbok midway between the chest and the hip, which was a killing shot, but it also hit the gut.

We easily followed the blood trail for about 30 to 50 yards in the thick brush, and found several large pools of dark blood, confirming a liver shot. The ram also stopped at least twice, each time leaving a big pool of blood. As with a gut-shot deer, the tracking job soon started slowing, but then we jumped the ram at about 5 yards. It grunted and ran deeper into the bush, so we decided to return in the morning. I felt confident we would retrieve the ram, but didn’t know what the jackals and caracals would do if they found it first.

The next morning DeWet, Vivier, Zeug, Herbert and I went to find my springbok. Vivier and DeWet led the way, rifles in hand, which was a bit unnerving. I wondered what they were expecting. We quickly found the trail but had to cast about a few times to stay on him. We found him in about 30 minutes. I was relieved, happy and proud of my first big-game animal other than a white-tailed deer

Overall, my first South African bowhunt was similar to bowhunting in the United States. I sat for hours; took what I thought was a good shot, but later learned was a mediocre shot; and I did some trailing and waiting before  finding my animal. But I had made lethal shot.

Still, the experience was different, as was seeing so many other species. I found it interesting to deal with the herd dynamics of springboks while trying to get a shot. I also found it fascinating to have a PH coaching me through a shot, and providing information as I got into position and took the shot.

The entire experience was interesting and different from any of my previous hunting trips. And make no mistake: It was really fun.

Now let’s see if we can find a kudu.