The October Whitetail rut in North America is prime hunting time and many a bowhunter concentrate all the time and effort on these few weeks in order to bag an elusive and giant whitetail buck, as any American hunter can tell you chances on a mature buck are few and far in between but that the rut allows the brief opportunity to get a glimpse at a shy and elusive trophy that stays hidden throughout the majority of the year, forsaking all caution due to the hormonal drive to find a female in season during the short mating season.
Just as the Whitetail of North America has its defined rut period so does our own Impala, the only reason we do not make much of it is that as opposed to hunters across the Atlantic, we are spoiled with choice and opportunities. It is common knowledge that the average bowhunter in North America quite often goes through their short hunting season without spotting a shootable buck, let alone drawing on one. We on the other hand will sometimes have more shooting opportunities at game within range in a single season than a North American hunter will in his entire hunting career. Therefore we do not go through as much trouble to ensure we get a shot at a trophy as there will be chances aplenty. We rarely take the time to plan and strategize in order to take one of South Africa’s humble Impala because we often choose to hunt from a hide and are bound to cross paths with a suitable ram that must come to the waterhole to quench its thirst. It is however a whole different cup of tea when you stalk these wily antelope on foot, they are seldom alone and are naturally skittish of predators but when using the Impalas rut period you can turn the tables in your favour.
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.
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.
From March each year the early morning chill and the light brown leafs on the trees announce the oncoming winter. This is also when you will start to hear the unmistakable roar and grunts of the Impala as he guards his band of ewes from others during the rut. This can be prime time to bag a trophy as they often drop their guard and concentrate more on fending off other rams or visa versa, than feeding and keeping an eye out for danger. With a few basic tactics you will be rewarded with a number of shooting opportunities on foot. The first thing you will need to do though is select the suitable area in which a good ram is holding and one that will have enough cover for you to take in cover while awaiting a shot.
After selecting the area you are planning to hunt you need to get to know the lay of the land and prevalent wind direction as these two aspects will be the two most important determining factors in whether you get a shot or not. I like to set up on a pinch point on the edge of thick cover between where a herd ram is keeping with his females and where a few bachelor rams are cruising. These “conflict zones” are where the most action will be and you will be most likely able to sneak in and arrow a ram. You might not get a shot at a ram on your first outing but you will gain an incredible amount of knowledge as to how and where they move with each outing, which in turn allows you to adjust your strategy to ensure a kill.
The one aspect that helps a great deal is that once you are in the right area you need not move as the rams will be constantly moving in and out of the area as they chase each other. Only when two rams are busy fighting is it sometimes necessary for you to sneak closer for a shot. If the area you are planning to hunt has little vegetation on ground level for you to use as cover you can rely on a treestand. This is often the way I like to target a specific area of interest as it gives you a bird’s eye view of the action and allows you a few moments longer to prepare for a shooting opportunity as you can spot an oncoming ram and guess the route it is going to take.
I have found that a pop up blind does not work as well as the new addition to the scenery often pushes the herd out of the particular area. It is much better to build a simple ground blind out of natural material or use a treestand than to use a portable pop up.
Although it might sound like a guarantee at a trophy Impala it is rarely so. Although being preoccupied and not as cautious as usual, the ram’s route is not fixed and you often get winded by a ram that passes downwind of you on the way to rough up another. This is another area where a treestand can be of great help as you can swing around and often get a shot is before the ram hits your scent, something you can’t always do on the ground at eye level.
One thing that American hunters have perfected is the host of accessories that can be used to their advantage to lure a rutting buck in their direction. Various scent’s, grunt calls and decoys help them in “pulling” a big buck. We do not have that luxury. As far as hunting accessories go that help ensure that a specific animal or specie come our way we have a long way to go but that does not mean we shouldn’t try experiment with a few things to see what can and will word on African game under African conditions.
The first thing I’ve come to really depend on is HECS STEALTHSCREEN garments. My first inclination was, ‘no way’. But when I really started looking into it I found the science backs the product. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to actually hunt while wearing HECS I am a convert. I never go afield these days whether stalking of hunting from a hide or treestand without HECS.
Next on the list is the decoy. The idea of using a decoy on African game came to me when noticing at which lengths a male antelope will go to protect his piece of real estate; I noticed that they will cover incredible distances to run off another ram or bull when spotting a trespasser in the area. So in true American style I decided to get an Impala ram to come to me as opposed to me going after it.
I set up a treestand in a suitable tree on the edge of some open ground I knew a herd of Impala grazed each morning, after clearing a few shooting blinds I left for home. The next morning I found my way back to the base of the tree by torch, slung over my right shoulder was my bow, clenched under the other was a full mount of an Impala ram. I clipped my Elite bow to the pull up rope dangling from my treestand and set up the mounted Impala about 30 yards downwind and between me and the open area I was anticipating the Impala would come from, I quickly scampered up to my treestand, got settled in and sat back patiently waiting for the sun to creep over the distant horizon.
About two hours later I was just starting to soak up the first warming rays of sunshine when I spotted something out in the open to my right, it was the first of the Impala females walking in single file onto the short burnt grass. If all went well the ram should be bringing up the rear. At first it seemed that the females took no notice of the new ram behind me, occasionally one would glance in my direction, this all changed as soon as the ram arrived. He stopped right on the edge of the open and locked eyes with the intruder, after a staring match he started to make his presence known by circling his females and grunting and growling loudly.
When this failed to scare off the “intruder” he stepped it up a notch and came toward the decoy. I hardly had time to unclip my bow and nock an arrow before the dominant ram pulled up 32 yards away. He was staring at the motionless opponent and this was just the gap I needed to send an arrow through his vitals. He was taken totally by surprise and took off in a semi circle only to stop and stare back at the decoy, oblivious of the bow shot, I could clearly see the Muzzy’s entrance wound halfway up and right on the shoulder in the bright early morning light and a moment later he suddenly stumbled and went down. It was one of the fastest kills I have ever seen. The rest of the herd simply went on feeding, one or two looked in the direction of the downed male but apart from that the world was at peace, I was ecstatic that it had worked so well!
It proves that one should always be open to new ideas, trying new and different tactics can only serve to make you a more knowledgeable hunter, some don’t work, but those who do make up for the rest. I realized that it isn’t always possible or affordable to lug around a huge life sized mount of the specie you are hunting, so the next step for me is to make a few life sized painted cut outs of the most common species to use as decoys and cover when stalking. For those hunting North American Pronghorn Antelope you can either make your own decoy or buy one from Montana Decoy. Don’t be afraid to chop and change your hunting strategy, you might just be richly rewarded for your effort.
Engee Potgieter is the Bowhunting Co-Editor for the African Outfitter Magazine and is a full time professional bow hunter and outdoor writer, a passionate outdoorsman and avid fly fisherman who calls the eastern coast of South Africa home.