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July 27, 2013

MATT WILLIAMS: African safari brings archer face-to-face with 13 foot Nile crocodile

Athens — A.J. Downs and his hunting guide, Robert Mareen, waited patiently as the big Nile crocodile inched its way towards the bait site just outside their makeshift ground blind along the banks of the Limpopo River. The Conroe archer had already looked at an 11 footer inside 15 yards, and he could tell this one was significantly larger.

Armed with a compound bow, Downs gathered his wits and prepared to draw on a reptile whose reign as the apex predator on the African continent is very much deserved. “Nothing will mess with a croc except another croc,” said Downs. “They are definitely at the top of the food chain over there. What I was feeling was pure adrenaline.”

Downs' excitement won't come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his history. He is an adrenaline junkie known to chase big, bad critters to get his fix. Downs lives to bow hunt and frequently visits the sport's wild side.

Downs has been on five African safaris over the last seven years and has arrowed about 20 different animals, including two that are categorized among the Big Five of African dangerous game — the cape buffalo and lion.

Many consider hunting Nile crocodiles to be a dangerous game in itself. Especially with a bow, because it requires getting within watermelon seed spitting distance of a known man eater that kills and eats hundreds of people across its home range each year.

The Nile crocodile is the second largest reptile on the planet. The only one that grows larger is the saltwater crocodile. An opportunistic predator, the Nile feeds heavily on fish, birds and small mammals, but is capable of bringing down anything from a unsuspecting warthog to a full grown buffalo or zebra that wanders too close to the water's edge.

Downs said the croc's cranky disposition had a lot to do with his decision to put one on his hit list during his recent trip to the bush.

“It's something different,” he said. “I was intrigued by the challenge of getting them to come bait and shooting one with a bow. Everybody hasn't done it, not everybody tries it and not all the outfitters will even do it.”

Things typically get bloody when a crocodile attacks. First it latches onto to its prey with its powerful  jaws and drags it underwater to drown. Sometimes it will perform a series of bone breaking death rolls before gradually dismembering and swallowing it's victim piece by piece. Such a brawl creates sounds of a feeding frenzy that will attract other crocs from a considerable distance.

Downs' hunting guides had simulated such a feeding frenzy just minutes earlier by dumping buckets of blood and guts into the water then thrashing the surface. They left the hind quarter of a fresh zebra kill staked on the bank. The meat was situated just a few feet from the water's edge, about 10-12 yards from Downs' hunting blind.

“The idea is to get their head and front end out of the water to expose their vitals,” Downs said. “The first shot has to be a good one, preferably in the lungs.”

Downs got his opportunity on the fourth day following several spoiled attempts during the three days prior. At one point on Day 2 he had an 11-foot male within easy bow range but was unable to get a clear shot because of a smaller female that stayed close to his side.

Downs had two bows in the blind. One was rigged with an ABS Big Game Retriever bowfishing set-up matched with 400-pound test Spectra line, a heavy-duty fiberglass bowfishing arrow and a plastic float. The other compound was rigged for follow up shots using broadheads.

“The bowfishing set-up is pretty loud, so it would have been pretty risky to take the shot (at the 11 footer),” Downs said. “I would have had to shoot over to the top of the female to hit the male, so it was possible that she might get hit or get wrapped up in the line and break it.”

The croc that showed up at Downs' bait site on the fourth day of the hunt was much bigger than any he had seen thus far, but killing it didn't come easy. The guides had spotted the beast a few days earlier as it sunned on a small island on the opposite side of a dam from the first site. They estimated the croc to be about 13 feet, so they gathered up some grass thatch and built a second blind.

Downs said the crocodile was sunning on the island when he and his guide arrived, but didn't stay put for long. The croc spotted the men, slid off into the water and disappeared briefly.

“He surfaced about 7-8 minutes after we got in the blind and he was facing towards us, about 75 yards out,” Downs said. “About 10 minutes later he came easing around a sand bar. He came straight to the bait and started feeding.”

Then something weird happened. Just as Downs settled his sight pin for the shot, the croc whirled and dove back into the water.

“I'm not sure if he saw the tip of the arrow come through the window or what, but for whatever reason he spooked and left there,” he said. “At that point we thought it was over. Then, about five minutes later, his head popped up again. He came right back to the bait, pulled himself out of the water and started feeding again, 12 yards from us.”

Downs drilled the croc this time with a perfect lung shot behind its shoulder. With the arrow buried in its side and float buoy in tow 25 feet behind, the croc raced towards the main river. It stopped about 50 yards out and surfaced briefly before submerging.

“At that point it turned into a waiting game,” Downs said.

Minutes gradually turned into hours as a South African game of cat and mouse between man and man-eater played out along the brushy banks of the Limpopo. Downs said they followed the croc for about 1,000 yards before he was able to finish the job with a broadhead through its lungs.  

The hunter said the entire deal took about five hours start to finish. At times the men had to run parallel with the banks of the river to keep up with the croc. Other times they had to use a tiny, six-foot pirogue so they could access the float and work the crocodile to the surface for another shot.

“It was a pretty serious deal,” Downs said. “A lot could have gone wrong out there. If you are pulling one up or get one pinned in the shallows and it decides to come at you there's not much you can do. My professional hunter had a pistol, but I don't think that would have done us much good.”

Downs' croc measured 13-feet, 1-inch long. They were unable to get an official weight on the critter, but the pictures clearly indicate it hadn't missed many meals.

“He had been eating pretty good,” Downs said. “When we gutted him we found the skull of a young male impala in his belly with the horns still attached. We also found warthog hooves, zebra hooves and donkey hooves inside. The croc is the ultimate predator and taking one with a bow is about as wild as you can get. You are talking about a reptile that is 25-45 years old that doesn't have any predators. Of all my experiences in South Africa, this one ranks pretty high.”

Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, mattwilliams@netdot.com.

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