The heavy breathing was suddenly understandable when the big Kudu bull ghosted out. I knew my hunting partner Lee had been hoping for a bull like this ever since we landed in Namibia. But the noise was coming from behind us where our PH Derick Petzer sat. After the hunt was over and the photos taken, I asked Derick if it was him I heard on the verge of hyperventilating. He smiled and said big kudu always have that effect on him.
What makes a professional hunter?
To most Americans, a professional hunter brings to mind someone like Michael Waddell, a guy who hunts for living. But in Africa, a professional hunter, or PH, is what we would call a guide stateside. Well, perhaps that’s too simple of an explanation. Most guides in American don’t have to go through the schooling and training a licensed PH does.
For Derick to gain his license he had to attend a 10-day school and pass a written test. Of the 13 folks in his class, three failed. A potential PH must have a large base knowledge of game, game laws, hunting methods and client relations. Chances of passing are slim if one isn’t already a good hunter.
Of course there are guide schools in the U.S., and many states require a guiding license. But neither holds a candle to the intense training of a PH.
Training aside, the biggest differences between professional hunters and American guides lie in the details. Much like a store clerk who goes out of his way for a customer, he builds respect and loyalty from the customer, someone who is likely to return time after time.
The difference in the actions
One area where some U.S. guides could take a lesson from the PH mindset is client or hunter relations. I’ve watched hunters get bent out of shape over missing game. At times they take it out on the PH, but I’ve never seen a PH lose his composure.
“To be a successful PH you have to be able to read your client,” said Derick. “Knowing when you can keep encouraging him, laugh with him or push him physically makes all the difference in the world.” During our hunt, I noticed firsthand the skills a PH like Derick has when dealing with his clients. From setting up great photos to making sure our trophies were taken care of properly, he always sought to make things better.
Your responsibilities as a client
When you first meet your PH, it helps both you and him if you explain what your abilities are and how you would like the hunt to work. For instance, if you have a bum knee and can’t hike mountains tell him up front so he can plan around that. If you prefer to work in a midday nap, tell him that, too. It makes it a lot easier on everyone if you determine your expectations before entering the field.
Also, try doing things the African way. You might find that immersing yourself in the culture and their methods of hunting is just as much fun as taking an animal. But don’t think the hunt is not important to these guys.
Some guides I’ve had lost their enthusiasm after a miss or one animal is down. They just seem to coast for the rest of the trip, perhaps feeling the pressure lessen once they’ve located game for their client. An African PH will go just as strong from the first until the last second of your hunt with a great attitude and high level of professionalism.
But even the best PHs in the world aren’t right 100 percent of the time. One evening Derick and I worked a ridgeline, hoping of finding a herd of wildebeest that frequented the area. Just as we topped the ridge our tracker spotted them. A lone bull stood off to the side of the others, under a shade tree. A quick zap with my rangefinder told me he was in range. After getting the OK from Derick that he was the type of bull we wanted, I settled on the sticks to make the shot. There was a limb at the top of the vitals, but I thought I could easily slip a bullet under it. He quickly told me to “aim for the limb. There was no way I would hit it at that distance.”
I’m not sure what he was really saying about my shooting, but I drilled the limb and cleanly missed the bull. The wildebeest became my nemesis on that trip; I never got another shot. But stories like that are among the reasons why Africa can get in your system. The hunt is important but the experience is what brings you back.