Bowhunting Africa’s Whitetail

Sponsored by: Alpine Archery, Muzzy Broadheads, Limbsaver,
Winner’s Choice & HECS.

By: Engee Potgieter

Arguably one of the most commonly hunted species in South Africa; the Southern Impala is often the first antelope young hunters cut their teeth on. Although a common sight throughout most of Southern Africa the Impala remains one of the most attractive antelope and is often underrated as a hunting species.

Impala (Subfamily Aepycerotinae) are very popular amongst bow hunters for the simple reason that their sheer numbers on most all hunting properties coupled with their general affordability make them a favourite of meat and trophy hunter alike, often amiably referred to as Africa’s Whitetail the Southern Impala also makes up the staple of most bow hunters yearly quota as they are regular visitors at waterholes where bow hunters wait in ambush.

Impala are one of Africa’s prettiest antelope.

The Southern Impala (Aepyceros melampus melampus) is one of three distinct sub species recognized by Safari Club International, the other two being the Black Face or Angolan Impala (Aepyceros melampus petersi) found in the Northern most regions of Namibia and Angola and the much larger Eastern Impala (Aepyceros melampus rendilis) most commonly found in Tanzania. I have hunted Impala for as long as I can remember and have taken my fair share with bow and arrow, and although they are regarded as common by some the humble Impala has a very special place in my heart. I enjoy hunting them and learn more about this unique antelope each time I head to the field. It might seem like a mere formality to shoot one with your bow from the comfort of a hide but few animals are as difficult to get close to as a herd of Impala, what makes stalking close to such a herd especially difficult is that there is often just one or two big mature rams and if you wish to put an arrow through their vitals you need to get past all the vigilant eyes and ears of the countless females and sub adult rams.

Impala are by their very nature incredibly spooky antelope and getting close enough for a bow shot in general bushveld conditions is far from routine, I also personally regard them as great table fare and the majority of the venison in my freezer is usually taken up by Impala; so I therefore often get the opportunity to hunt them.

The last Impala I had taken was the perfect example of just how difficult a simple hunt for this seemingly mundane antelope can get. It was already fairly late in the season so I made the decision to pass up any opportunities I might get at the mature females as they most likely were already carrying well developed young but to rather set my sights on the mature ram I had come to know on the property I frequently hunted on, I had often seen him together with a large herd of females.

Getting close enough to that specific ram without having all the dozens of other eyes spot me, was going to be tricky to say the least, but I figured that my best chance at success would be to wait in ambush along a trail that I had often seen them on that leads to a open plain where this specific herd tended to graze in the late afternoon and early evening. I just needed to pick my ambush spot carefully because if I wanted a clean shot at the ram I needed to have the majority of females walk right past me without sensing anything out of place so that I could take the shot at the ram bringing up the rear, which he usually does. This meant that I would have to make good use of the sparse cover and rely heavily on my 3D camouflage clothing to help me blend into the surrounds.

The following day I got to the property much later than I had planned, and by the time I had made my way to where I was planning to set up an ambush I noticed that the Impala had beaten me there, fearing that they would spot me as I sneaked to my planned hiding place ahead of them, I decided not to use my ambushing tactic, so being ever the optimist I thought that I might just get a shot at the ram if I attempted a quick and careful stalk on the herd. Looking back now I should have known better than to attempt a rushed stalk at an ever alert herd of almost 40 Impala, but as they often say, hindsight is always 20-20. I chalked the failed stalk up to experience and turned back toward my vehicle just as the last of the alarm calls died off in the distance. I however vowed not to make the same mistake twice and made sure to get to the farm on time the following day, and so I did.

Good friend and fellow bowhunter Frank Steinnagel of Germany with handsome Impala ram.

Taking the late afternoon sun and prevalent wind direction into consideration, I soon found what looked like the ideal patch of fairly dense brush just to the left of the main trail the herd used to move to and from the grazing grounds. I quickly went to work by adding a few branches I broke off nearby matching brush and added these to the open patches in my makeshift blind to ensure that I would be remain unseen until I was ready to take my shot, this whole operation only took about twenty minutes and I got settled in with more than enough time to spare.

Quite some time later when the sun was almost touching the distant horizon I briefly caught sight of what seemed to be the first glimpses of Impala filtering through the bush toward me. If the evening breeze stayed constant as I knew it would I would soon have the ram walking past me at a comfortable 18yards.

The leading animals were two year old rams that came along the trail toward me as though being led on a string but as soon as the first mature female cleared a thick stand of Sickle bush trees she froze and stared directly at me. I had not batted an eyelid let alone move but she knew that all was not right. She stood rigid for what seemed like an eternity before taking another few tentative steps toward me, only to stop and stare again. I dared not breathe as the two young rams that had been ahead of her were now almost directly next to me, still totally unaware of the female’s apprehension.

She on the other hand could just not relax and although she had been quiet so far. The rest of the herd behind her had sensed that something was up and also started to stare in my general direction. Proving once again just how cagey Impala can be, the remainder of the group altered their course and decided to move past the strangely “dense” bush on the downwind side.

When they hit my scent trail a minute or so later the leading female stopped as though walking into a brick wall before all hell broke loose with seemingly every animal trying to snort and blow louder than the next, yet again I had to admit defeat and head back home empty handed. For a simple hunt intended to fill my freezer this was turning into a pretty darn difficult hunt. I chose to let the whole area cool off for a few days before attempting to get a shot at the ram again.

Author with Impala.

When I returned a week later I chose to move my hide further off the main trail in hopes of not drawing immediate attention to it and hopefully have the Impala herd now walk by without suspecting anything. However the only other suitable clump of brush was quite some distance off the trail and forced me to brush in my hiding place at just over forty yards away from where the Impala would be moving by.

This added even more difficulty to the hunt as the longer distance would now make the shot so much more complex, not because of the accuracy of the bow but rather because there would now be much more brush between myself and the ram and as is the case with bullets even the smallest twig has the potential to throw the arrow off target. It was however of no use to worry about it now as only time would tell if my plan will work. So after I had finished building the small blind I decided to play it safe and postponed the hunt for yet another day.

The following day I almost cut things too close as I had just sat down in my blind when I saw the first sign of the Impala herd in the distance, I quickly nocked an arrow and kept my rangefinder close at hand as I would have to make very sure of my shooting gap and exact distance to ensure a quick clean shot. As the Impala came into view just past the last line of brush, some 50yards away, it immediately became apparent that my plan was going to work as not a single animal even glanced in my direction.

I patiently sat and watched as the whole herd slowly came walking past when suddenly the dominant ram came into view, I tensed up sensing that my first real chance at shooting this ram was about to fall into my lap. He was slowly walking along the string of animals, often pausing to sniff at passing females or to nibble on some grass, therefore it was just a matter of waiting until he paused in a clear gap and I could finally send an arrow through his chest. He kindly obliged and stopped slightly quartering away at exactly 44.5yards according to the compact rangefinder in my hand.

There were much fewer animals around as the majority of the herd had already passed by, so I slowly got to my knees while drawing and anchoring in one fluid movement. I settled the tiny sight pin just below his centre line and about four inches behind his near shoulder and let the arrow loose. The arrow impacted a mere fraction of a second later with its distinct “whack”.

All of a sudden the quiet was broken with the sharp alarm calls of scattering Impalas looking for the hidden danger, I meanwhile sat back and glanced at my watch for I knew that the shot was true and gave the ram some time to expire.

When I took up the blood trail about twenty minutes later my initial beliefs were confirmed, that the shot was indeed perfect as the arrow was covered in bright red blood and there was an ample amount of bright frothy lung blood along the route the ram had taken. I found him 67paces from where he had stood when the received the shot. He was a good looking, stocky ram well past his prime.

I was pleased that I was eventually able to outsmart the cunning old ram and his companions and in doing so got some tasty venison to take home. One often learns new things every time you head afield and this time was no different as it proved that although a hunt may at the outset seem mundane and the animal be a very common one, that it is even these hunts that can test your mettle as a hunter.

Frank Berbuir, also of Germany with trophy ram taken in Namibia.

But unfortunately not all hunts are challenging endeavors that require you to think outside the box and carefully strategise in order to outwit your prey, and one particular Impala hunt comes to mind where I hardly “worked” for my trophy but rather where everything just seemed to fall into place.

I had traveled to the Limpopo province to hunt a Mouflon Sheep and had a couple of days left at the end of my hunt so I decided to try and take one of the exceptional trophy Impala I had seen throughout the course of the week. The particular property was about 2000hectares in size and specifically catered to bowhunters with many different hides, treestands and platforms situated at different locations. Some blinds were situated at waterholes while other at specific feeding areas.

What I found interesting is that the owner had also chosen to place a couple of treestands along major routes leading to and from bedding and feeding areas, something that you would more likely regard a tactic that North American hunters would employ when hunting Whitetail and something you very seldom see here in South Africa. I chose to hunt out of one of the last mentioned stands as I had previous experience as to how effective this method can be. Most animals, and especially large specimens are by nature very skittish and alert around waterholes but are otherwise much more relaxed out in the veldt and often totally unaware of the camouflaged hunter sitting some 15feet above them.

I chose to try one particular treestand that was located in a fairly isolated and densely vegetated area of the property as I had noticed that the bachelor herds often containing the biggest Impala favoured holding to areas with better cover. To get there I simply walked from camp as it was not that far. By sneaking into the area rather than having been dropped off I would hopefully not draw any attention to myself.

All worked well and I was at the spot before I could even work up a good sweat in the early morning sun, I silently clipped the pull up rope to my bow and ascended the tree. Once safely in my seat I leaned over the side and started to bring my bow up, the bow was hardly off the ground when movement to my right caught my attention. About 80yards away were a group of seven Impala rams walking silently in single file directly in my direction, best of all they all looked like trophy class rams!

I pulled the bow up as quickly and as carefully as I dared and had just managed to nock an arrow and clip on my release when the leading ram walked through a shooting lane. I simply guessed the distance and cautiously drew my bow, waiting for the second ram to come through the same gap, it duly did a moment later and I sent an arrow through its chest with an audible crack. The hard hit ram broke to his left and took off running but the rest of the group merely reacted as though mildly startled before leisurely bounding away.

From the time I had gotten to the tree until I had shot the ram through the chest could not have been more than three or four minutes. I sat there stunned for a moment before I clipped the bow back onto the rope and lowered it back down. Only when I found the bloodied arrow a while later was I sure that I had not been dreaming.

Author with trophy Impala taken after only four minutes.

I couldn’t say if the ram I had taken was for sure the biggest one of the group but all I do know is that he had looked plenty big enough when he walked into my line of sight. The ram I found at the end of the blood trail was indeed a handsome one with quite unique high and wide ivory stained horns, I was on cloud nine what with the incredible line of events that had just played off I could not possibly not be happy! So it proves that although the Impala may be classified as an ordinary trophy it can be incredibly exciting to hunt these antelope and that each and every hunt promises to be different than the next.