Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Bob Swinehart: Life on the Edge

A young boy in a little rural town in Pennsylvania fashioned a bow and arrow from a hickory branch and some binders twine, and embarked on a lifelong love of the longbow. After going to the movies with his sister and watching the legendary Howard Hill in a short film, a dream was fostered that eventually pulled him to the dark continent of Africa and an epic quest. He would go on to accomplish something the great Howard Hill himself could not, the first archer to take all of Africa's dangerous Big-Five (Elephant, Buffalo, Rhino, Lion, and Leopard) with the elegant longbow. Before departing for his first safari Howard wrote Bob a warning, “Be careful, every animal in Africa can kill you.  Good luck.  - Howard Hill” 

Robert N. Swinehart is probably one of the most overlooked and least known bowhunting legends to most younger hunters.  There is an anemic amount of information on the web, his books are long since out of print, and existing examples are sought out by collectors and above of the price range for most average folks. This scarcity of information, combined with a stigma surrounding his untimely and early demise, has placed a veil of fog around the man whose extraordinary bow hunting tenacity and success had him featured in "Ripley's Believe it or not". He was the first man to down a 3-ton black Rhino with his 90-pound Hill style longbow.  His reputation for taking risks in fulfilling his goals was not unfounded, and the resulting hunting stories are legendary, edge of the seat, entertainment that deserves to be retold. 

That Rhino was in fact the second black Rhino Bob had arrowed on a previous safari. The first such encounter ended in a hail of rifle fire. Despite a lethal hit, the beast charged and slid to a thundering stop in a cloud of dust a scant few yards from Bob’s feet.  He would have to travel back on another safari to collect the rhino without the interference of a rifle.  That second rhino was not without another helping of white knuckle terror.  His first stalk attempt on this hunt resulted in yet another charge.  The wary nearsighted animal detected the click of the cameras behind Bob as he moved into final shooting position.  The irritable battle wagon immediately swapped ends and charged. Bob scrambled to reach the sanctuary of a large tree 10 feed to his rear.  Only the twin blasts from the white hunter's large caliber rifle blowing dirt into the rhino’s face, distracted the brute enough to avoid disaster and convince the Rhino to give up any follow-on aggression. 

The second attempt on this safari continued to fray nerves.  Particularly tall foliage that year made spotting difficult, but the trackers were able to locate a large rhino in the cover of very tall grass interspersed with dense thorn bushes.  The cover was so impenetrable that the Rhino heard the team approach and charged!  Expecting the brush to part and immediately come eye to eye with instant death, the team was relieved when the thrashing and crashing sounds were moving away instead.  Now on alert, the trackers again caught up with the beast, only to have the exact same scenario play out again.  After, several more similar follow-on attempts, Bob was getting frustrated and I imagine quite fatigued from the stress.  

 Bob began to wonder if collecting a rhino without the aid of a gun was even possible.  He had not so much as a glimpse of the rhino before it would detect the group and break into deeper cover.  Bob was the fourth person in line and he decided if he was ever going to get a chance to shoot, he needed to be up front.  The white hunter protested vehemently, knowing that there would be no chance to protect him if the rhino decided to charge.  Eventually he relented and allowed him to go in first. The nervous bowhunter picked his way through the tall grass and thorn bushes until he finally spotted the exceptionally large horned rhino.  It was about to walk out of a narrow shooting lane and move into even thicker cover once more.  Instinctively and immediately, he swung up and loosed his shaft in one smooth motion.  At that exact instant the rhino turned to charge and the standard Howard Hill broadhead glanced off the its chin and harmlessly into his heavily boned front shoulder.  The weighty 1200 grain custom steel nocked microflight shaft repeatedly slapped the animal in the face as he ran toward Bob.  This distracted the enraged male enough that it slightly slowed and spun to horn at the shaft.  Bob immediately took this opportunity and had another arrow on the string. His quick follow up shot in those brief moments allowed a lethal hit to both lungs.  I personally have no idea how he stood his ground in that situation.  The rhino ran away and was found a short distance later as history was complete. "Believe it or not"!

In later interviews, Bob would always say the African elephant was the most dangerous to hunt.  This 7-ton leviathan towering 12 feet high, with feet the size of Bob's two boots heel-to-toe, 5-foot long tusks, and a trunk that could reach 10 feet and crush a man with one blow, was the pinnacle of achievement with the bow and arrow.  His gear was specially modified for the task including 36-inch long solid fiberglass arrows with steel nock and long shanked custom points launched from a 100-pound longbow.  This combination would require him to be very close before gravity overtook the weighty missile.

Hunting in Mozambique, after an exhausting track, Bob was able to race from cover, close to within 15 yards of a bull, and launch an arrow into the chest of the elephant.  As it was departing, another shaft quickly impacted close to the initial.  Bob approached as it appeared the bull was about to keel over at any second, but instead the elephant turned and charged.  Sidestepping the angry locomotive, Bob hastily poured in another shaft grouped tightly in the kill zone just as the behemoth began to collapse (amazing accuracy under the circumstances).  Bob was able to scratch the elephant from his big-five list. He was not completely satisfied however, as he wished to prove that one well-placed arrow could do the job even on a creature with the enormity of the African elephant. He planned a return to Angola to try again with the mighty pachyderm. 

One early morning at a water hole his trackers were able to find the fresh sign of a large bull and begin a long and arduous track.  Eventually joining up with several smaller elephants, the party caught up to the herd only to have the wind shift and scatter them.  Tracking again, he became puzzled why his trackers were following a smaller set of prints.  In broken English, the lead tracker indicated that "this is the shortest way", and the bull would soon join up with this smaller animal with the wind in their favor.   The strategy worked, and soon the big black colored form of the hulking bull emerged at the tail end of the herd in perfect position for a stalk.   Closing the distance from 75 yards, Bob ran between cover until ultimately sprinting out into the open from the quartering away side of the bull.  At 22 yards the elephant saw him as he was drawing, but it was too late.  The lone shaft buried to the fletching.  Instead of charging, the gigantic beast lumbered off and away from him breaking brush and kicking up dust.  He had done it with a single arrow. 

His encounter with the first Cape Buffalo, nicknamed the "black death" for its propensity to trample and seek revenge on those who wish to invade its personal space, was likewise a hair-raising situation.  While traversing some broken territory in the land rover, the group managed to drive among a huge swirling black herd.  Scattering groups in all directions, Bob jumped out of the vehicle and attempted to sprint up to the edge of a large gathering as they passed.  His backup hunter could not keep up as Bob skidded to a stop and immediately drew and released a shaft just as the last stragglers in this particular pack passed inside of bow range.  Picking out an individual and compensating for a lead, the arrow streaked across the 35-yard distance and striking the buff in the jugular vein.  He watched the beast crumple and disappear into a roll, swallowed by the dust of the panicked herd.  Success, but now he and his hunter were about to be cut off from the refuge of their vehicle by a second group approaching fast from behind them.  Quick feet and thinking allowed the two to reach a tree as the black beasts flooded around, passing within feet on either side of the tree.  Luckily, no harm was inflicted as the last stragglers roared passed and Bob was another step closer toward his goal. He ended up killing several more buffalo on subsequent safaris.

Although not listed as one of Africa’s Big-Five, the hippopotamus is responsible for killing more people than any other mammal in Africa. It is 3rd in size behind the elephant and rhino.  Though not one of the official Big-Five, Bob was also planning to collect one of these beasts with the longbow.  It would do much to further promote the notion of the longbow’s lethality.  Hippo hunting is seriously dangerous business. They tend to charge without provocation.  Bob was walking atop a mat of floating papyrus reeds at the edge of 8 feet of water, when he spotted a line of bubbles streaking toward him.  Knowing it was a hippo that would soon emerge, he readied for a quick opportunity.  As soon as the head broke water the arrow was on the way and it struck home as the gigantic mouth turned for him.  Behind Bob another explosion of rifle fire rang out.  The white hunter fired a bullet into the brain of the animal stopping him cold at only 3 feet, certainly saving his life. Bob was never able to collect a hippo without aid of the rifle.

Only the Leopard and the lion remained unfilled on Bob’s list.  Coming into the bait in the last few seconds of visible light one evening, after of series of uneventful ambushes, the wary leopard emerged and climbed into the bait tree.  Bob was perched in an adjacent tree just 10 yards distant and slightly lower.  The only way he could even still see the cat in the fading light, was that it was backlit by the last vestiges of dusk.  His shot from the Ben Pearson recurve he was testing and promoting was good, and after a few tense moments of the cat wildly snarling for the source of the threat, it finally retreated.  Melting back into the forest leaving an eerie silence.  The wiry sleek cat weighed an estimated 175 pounds and was found nearby the following morning.

The lion proved even more dangerous.  After many safaris under his belt, Bob had yet to have a crack at the lion king.  Finally, while the team was attempting to free their vehicle from the mud, a group of vultures was spotted circling several miles away.  The crew took a chance it could be a lion on a recent kill.  As they drew closer, tall grass obscured any vision of the area. Surrounded by high trees, perched carrion birds were up high waiting for something.  At about 35 yards, the grasses parted and Bob was confronted with a male lion facing him dead on.  Despite the poor choice of shooting position, and thinking this may be his only chance, Bob unleashed a quickly aimed arrow that struck the lion in the chest.  Reacting to the hit, the lion reared back, snarled, and broke for heavier cover about 50 yards distant.  Now pursuing the injured beast, Bob cautiously began to infiltrate the thicket where the feline entered moments earlier.  The cat again emerged at a distance it could easily cross in seconds.  Without hesitation, Bob rocketed a second arrow that struck at the base of the lion’s neck.  The whirling feline snarled as it bit at the shaft and melted back further into the tall grass.  Guided by sound alone, he loosed three more shafts blindly cutting into the tall grass.  Then all went silent.  After a while, he judiciously eased into the clump and found the king of the savanna…. dead.  The final three arrows resulting in a superficial head glance, a flank hit, and a miss.  The cat weighed 510 pounds and was 9 feet long.  Bob had severed the heart with the first arrow.  The big five was complete, and he managed to survive.

Upon returning home, one of Bob's North American harvests proved to be even more dangerous. One hunt in particular almost completed what the African game could not.  Bob had a propensity for climbing and shooting from trees.  In a practice not yet considered common place in that era, and before modern tree stands and safety equipment, Bob would often hunt from the trees and simply lay across the top of branches.  He would shoot with his string hand under the "balance beam" he was perched atop.  This habit was likely the spawn of the Howard Hill nickname of "Bobcat" Swinehart.

During a particular mule deer hunt, Bob was alerted by a local control officer about a rouge black bear that was killing cattle in the area.  The officer offered Bob the chance to hunt the bear with his bow, and he quickly took him up on the offer since he possessed the tag.  The dogs managed to track and tree the bear from a recent calf kill to a tall fir tree.  The bear was high up in the dense evergreen, and no matter where Bob positioned himself the only view of the bear was that of the head and neck through a very tiny opening.  He took careful aim at the neck and his arrow found its mark. The shaft somehow snaked around all vital arteries and spine and resulting in a non-lethal hit.  The bear climbed higher up into the tree out of view.  Without much hesitation, he decided to start climbing the 70-foot-tall tree to get another shot into the bear who was now perched near the very top.  Bob wove his way up to within 10 feet of the bear, and wedging his feet while leaning back against a branch, was able to draw and loose a good hit into the bears lungs.  A second insurance arrow was just as accurate, and the bear began to lose his grip on the branches.  Thinking the bear was all but dead, Bob began to descend.  Miraculously, the 600 pound blackie regained its strength, pulled himself up and began to pursue Bob down the trunk in a deadly race.  Gaining on the human pest somewhere around 50 feet up, Bobcat had just enough speed to slide over to a thin limb as the bear's back legs nearly dropped down onto his shoulders.  An even thinner branch gave him some stability at waste height, but the branch under his feat began to sag close to the breaking point.  Bob's bow and quiver hung uselessly by the bear's feet.  One swipe from the bear would mean certain death, and yet there he was an arm’s length from the bear as it stopped and looked him in the eye.  Bob's only option was to try to bluff the wounded beast and stand his ground.  If that didn’t work he would jump and hope his injuries would be non-lethal.  Bob began a steely eyed stare-down into those big black piercing eyes and both hunter and prey froze for what may have only been 5 seconds, but felt like 5 minutes.  Suddenly, the bear wavered and crashed down through the branches to his death.  Upon reaching the safety of the ground, Bob realized the entire seat of his pants were torn away.  He never did know if it was from the sharp branches, or if the bear was closer then he realized.  That bruin was large enough to be entered into the Pope and Young record book.

The great Howard Hill regarded Swinehart as,” the best big game hunter I have had the pleasure of being with, on the trail and in the bush.”  Howard also said, “My only criticism of him was that he took too many risks. Somehow he survived Africa after a score of near burials." I would say Howard had a point, but what a story!

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Ten Seconds

Saturday was my only day to hunt this past weekend, so decided I would try for one of the two bigger bucks I have seen on my property this season.  One was a thick tall 6-point, and a slightly smaller 8 point.  I opted for the natural ground blind and I wanted to get in there well before it was light.  There was a moderate breeze and I did not hear anything in the area as I crested the hill.   I turned on my flashlight briefly to get back on the path when I heard something get up.  Turning, there was the 8-point just 15 yards away and standing in the beam of my LED light.  I took off the light and I heard it slowly walk away as I turned to walk into my blind.  Bummer. 

It was an uneventful morning after that, and the wind started shifting.  Around 8:30 AM I got tired of sitting there, besides the wind was now blowing directly into the little runway I have.

I thought my partner might be at out mountain property to help me install a few fence posts for the landowner.  It turns out he drank too much the night before and decided not to go, so I unfastened the gates and went in.  

I knew it was supposed to rain later that afternoon, so I decided the posts could wait and went back in the woods, headed for the thick laurel and rocky ridge in the back of the property.  It was a beautiful autumn day, bright and sunny with lots of yellow and gold leaves.  The breeze was still steady, so sneaking around was feeling effective.  After entering the laurel, I slowly made my way toward the ridge when to my left I see a doe standing there in the bright sun that wasn’t there before.  She was bedded not 20 yards from where I was and my scent finally roused her from her nap.  She was resting on the other side of downed oak, and we seemed to see each other at the same time.  Then, she flicked her tail and started to walk behind the root ball…  I readied as I thought she would pass the roots and offer a shot.  Moments later I saw her walking uphill and away instead.  I had a small window to shoot through above the root ball and decided to try about a 27 yard shot quartering hard away.   I pulled the shot and missed right by about 3 feet and spend about 12 minutes getting my grizzly head out of a small oak stump.  

When I started off again I immediately saw a gigantic fox squirrel about 10 feet away!  It wasn’t in a panic about me and bounded off behind a large chestnut oak trunk to feed.  This squirrel was like a rabbit with a puffy tail, very big.  I eased around the trunk and decided to just try for it with a broadhead arrow.  I released and it lit out in a panic.  I had to have hit it, and it seemed to drag its tail or hind quarters a bit behind it.  It was slowed down and I tried another blunt arrow on the run crossing about 15 yds and missed high by a mile.  I ran after it pulling another blunt, trying to get a bead on it as it ran down the fallen tree the deer was behind.  As it reached the root ball I launched a blunt that seemed to get real close.  He chuckled in agitation and slid down under the roots.  I never did find any blood or my broadhead arrow and verify a hit.  I was not happy to lose a $10 broadhead.

I carefully eased up over the rocky ridge as I almost always catch deer on the other side in the thick laurels and rocks. As I crested the ridge I saw two more fox squirrels chasing each other round a trunk and was tempted to switch to a blunt, but since I just blew it on the other squirrel I decided to just relax.  Then, I saw him.  Maybe 10-12 yards from me feeding behind a laurel bush.  It was a small 5 or 6-point.  I didn’t really want to shoot a smaller buck, but I have had a hard time shooting lately and this one was so close and had no idea I was there…bird in hand concept.  I turned slightly and waited for him to feed into the open broadside.  He was downhill about 8 feet and as I started to draw my top limb hit a 4-inch diameter tree to my right.  I leaned back so the bow would clear the tree and concentrated very hard on the spot.  As I released, I watched in horror as the arrows was down hear his legs on the left side.  I do not remember hitting the bow against the tree but it was possible it happened and I didn’t realize it with the excitement.  I watched the arrows seemed to hit near the leg/feet and seem to flip up and go with the buck as it blasted downhill.  Stopping about 50 yards away I had another arrow on the string, but realized it was a blunt as I decided whether to try the shot.  It continued away.  

I found the arrow, and the broadhead was broken off behind the point about 15 feet down the hill.  No blood or hair at the shot site.  The grizzly was snapped off at the tip maybe about ¼ missing.  No blood anywhere.  I decided I hit a rock under him and he tripped over my arrow as he ran.  I was a mess.  How the heck did I miss that gimmie shot.  Thoughts of giving up the bow for the season or switching left hand wedged into my brain again. 

I may as well sneak back out of here and work on the fence.  Two misses….how many more will I get today?  The wind was dying down and it was hard to move quietly anyway.  I’ll set up the posts and try to make it back to my private area for evening prime time.  

As I got close to the field edge I saw a grey squirrel feeding on some black walnuts in tall grass.  It was close so I decided to try a broadhead shot again.  Arrow went high and I short drew so bad I hit my face with my glove hand solidly.  Really angry now at myself, the squirrel ran toward me and across downhill on a log.  I had a quick blunt on the string, and as it ran I tried to only hone in on the eye….short drew again but nailed him on the run just under the eye at about 10 yards.  Hmmm….  

I skinned the young squirrel and watched at the field edge but no deer came by.  Worked on the fence posts for about an hour and ran out of sackcrete after the 3rd post.  Did enough and was now hot and sweaty in my wool.  Time to head home, drop the squirrel in the fridge, and get out back again.  I felt I needed a close shot….not very confident.

It was drizzling lightly at about 5:45 PM as I eased back up the hill.  The rain was here.  I thought about the ground blind again, but didn’t want to get all muddy in there when it started pouring, the wind was stiffer now anyway still blowing through the chute, so I quietly climbed the ladder stand instead.   

The rain tapered off again, and maybe about 20 minutes later I hear a deer approaching the trail…. It is that 8-point.  He was approaching from my right side and I was sitting down.  He was wired and very cautious.  He didn’t seem to care about me this morning in the flashlight, but now was visibly edgy.  

I sat there calm and he took his sweet time scanning the woods, sniffing the weeds I brushed against on the way in, and slowly he was directly under my stand sniffing the rungs of my ladder.  I didn’t move and was quite comfy sitting.  I could see him in the peripheral look up every now and then, and expected him to get out of there at any second, but he continued.  

Once he entered the left side about 5 yards I got in position to shoot as he looked away.  Still he was facing dead away…not a great angle from the tree.  I waited and he eventually walked out farther, but still facing dead away.  Finally, at about 15 yards he quartered slightly uphill and I gave myself the green light before he got too far for comfort.  I focused hard on a spot and envisioned where the arrow would pass to get the goodies, even with the leg on the other side.  I told myself not to hesitate and pause, stiffened the bow arm solidly and kept drawing…. All I remember is the arrow appear right where I was looking.  I could not believe it as he bolted like a scalded cat about 30 yards out before slowing down.  I saw a good half arrow of penetration, but knew I got at least one lung.  I saw him turn slightly downhill at my property line and stumble…looked like his knees gave out, or did he just trip crossing that deadfall branch?  I dared not move an inch for a few minutes, but never saw him leave.  I eventually got brave enough to scan with my binos…. Nothing.  After about 20 minutes the rain started again.  I texted Mike who was hunting about 30 minutes away and he said it was pouring there…better get on the trail.  

Just then I head another deer approaching.  It is the bigger 6-point.  Instead of coming down the trail he circles around high, uphill of my mock scrape along the property edge and around past where I had my other treestand.  He moved by and downhill circling back towards the area my buck went.  I hear him grunt several times and he wanders off.  

Now I am in a hurry.  It is raining and getting dark. I Stood up and scanned that area with my binos again from the standing poition….no sign of deer. Did he sneak out somehow?   I find no blood or hair at the hit…no trail.  I go directly to where I last saw him and there he is.  He never moved.  He crumpled there within 10 seconds after the shot.  Amazing!

My arrow went in past the last rib, centered the middle of the heart and cut the offside leg bone.  I found the grizzly head broken off in the pericardial sack when I dressed it.  

When we skinned it, it had a deep puncture in the rump that was clotted under the skin.  Hole went almost to the bone.  So here is the theory:    Before I saw him he just got his butt kicked in a fight with that 6 point.  That is why he was so jumpy and wired.  He was looking to avoid that other buck.  The puncture was an antler tine in the butt.  The 6 came by later looking for him, and walked up on the dead buck and grunted a few times at it before losing interest and walking away. 

It only took about 5-7 seconds for the deer to get shaky and stumble….it was dead in 10 seconds.