I picked up the sickly-sweet smell of the band of billies after spooring the group across a 2,000 acre paddock of Buddha bush and turpentine Back’o’Bourke. As we closed in we heard the plaintive bleating of the kids. Then flashes of colour – black, white, brindled, speckled pelts - through the scrub.
We’d finally caught up them. And to our surprise, the distinctively-horned billy Mike Cleary had knick-named “Broomhorns” was among the band. “Take him with my rifle,” Mike said. I was the wildlife photographer on this leg so I handed him my Canon SLR with 400mm lens. A second later the Ruger M77 in .308 Winchester boomed. Down went 39-inches of horn. “Wow! He’s a nice billy,” Cleary remarked.
But as the band kicked up dust on the red soil plains, we both noticed an even wider-horned billy on a small black body disappearing into the scrub, away from the main band. “We should get that buck, Mike. He’s the one we keep passing up but he’s bigger than we think.”
We got my trophy sorted in the shade. As the narrowest of the three I’d taken on this trip, I just severed his head after measuring the horns – a terrific 121-1/2 Douglas points.
Off to find Mike’s next trophy, a tough pursuit as it happened.
We headed towards where the break-away billy had turned and 20 minutes later I picked up his spoor. It was easy to follow at first in the softer sandy patches, but I soon lost the tracks in the blowdown scrub and stony ground. I like to think I’m a fair tracker, having spent lots of time tailing whitetail deer on Stewart Island yonks ago. And a month after bull elephant and a lifetime on deer and big game hunts around the world in which spooring was necessary.
I figured the general direction in which the billy was going and moved ahead for some time, picking up the spoor eventually. It wasn’t difficult to follow at first. Then the animal changed direction, weaving slowly back towards the corner from where he’d come. I lost him, found his trailing crossing a small band of sheep, lost him, found him again. His blunter hoof prints contrasted well with the pointy ewe marks. His tracks were sharp edged and fresh; the sheep’s blurry from wind and a day older.
I was pretty much head down, behind up for ages when Mike grabbed my shoulder. “Up ahead!” I looked up and we were almost back in the south-east corner of the paddock.
Bunched up were a few nannies and kids and nearly a couple of old billies, including our target. After ten minutes of sneaking about for a clear shot, Mike nailed the animal with a single hit from his .308.
That beastie rattled like a chaff bag of tools. When you grabbed the pelt there was nothing there; it was all bones and parchment. “This is an old animal,’’ I said, checking the teeth. Most were missing and the remainder were flat along the gum line. He was starving and Mike had put him out of his misery.
The horns spread 42-1/2 inches, the best of eight from the trip. Later, a happy hunter said: “I’ve never seen that before. Col, you tracked that animal for 87 minutes. Unbelievable.” Just lots of practice.