Wild boar fever
As the UK shooting season drew to a close, Marcus Janssen headed into the Polish midwinter to hunt wild boar under the light of the moon.
Through the large objective of my binoculars they were unmistakable – a sounder of 12 wild boar were foraging towards us along the edge of a snow-covered field. Despite the hour – a little before midnight – and the gloomy conditions, there was just enough moonlight permeating the thin cloud cover and veil of mist to make them out with the naked eye. But by my estimate, they were between 200 and 250 yards away – we would need to halve that distance at least.
Although the frozen, snow-covered ground was brittle underfoot, there was a light breeze in our faces and we hoped that the sound of a dozen snuffling, snorting wild boar would give us some cover. So it proved; half an hour later my guide Miroslaw Wojcik slowly raised his hand, signifying that we were in a good position. Gingerly, he placed the shooting sticks in front of me. With the pigs no more than 75 yards away, we could make out their grunts, snuffles and occasional squeals as they rooted through the frozen ground, gradually working their way towards us.
My instructions had been clear – mature sows were out of season, so unless I could see tusks, I should avoid shooting the larger specimens. Through my binoculars, I studied the third animal from the right – a huge beast, at least twice the size of all of the others – but through the mist, there was no way of telling if it was a sow or a boar.
Closer and closer they came as I strained my eyes hoping for the glint of ivory in the moonlight – how long before they noticed us or the wind changed? Suddenly, at no more than 50 yards, the nearest animal stopped in its tracks and raised its head, looking in our direction. Soon the others followed suit. They must have seen or scented us. But the wind was in our favour and, after what felt like minutes but was probably only seconds, our tense standoff came to an end as they lowered their heads and continued to feed. But time was running out – before long they would detect us and head for the hills as a previous sounder had done only hours before after a long stalk. I turned to Miroslaw who raised his shoulders slightly – he too couldn't see any ivory. It was a 50/50 call, but my host and guide had been unequivocal.
With that, I raised the rifle to my shoulder and found the nearest animal in the scope. But by this point, they were so close that I had to zoom the scope out to 4x in order to make out their full silhouettes. At no more than 35 yards, it would be an easy shot. But as I positioned the illuminated reticle of the Swarovski scope behind the shoulder of the nearest animal, I suddenly felt my pulse quicken and my breathing become erratic and difficult to control. I couldn't believe it.
‘Not now. Please, not now,' I thought to myself.
I can still remember it vividly, the first time I experienced what African hunters refer to as buck fever. I was 13 years old and had leopard-crawled to within 75 yards of an unsuspecting reedbuck. But just as I got into position to take the shot, I noticed that my palms were clammy and breathing was heavy. And, as I raised the .243 to my shoulder, I was startled to see the crosshairs twitching with every heartbeat. ‘What is going on?' I thought to myself as I tried in vain to calm down.
I had shot literally hundreds of doves, mousebirds, rabbits, hares, hyrax and other small quarry with my air rifle and .22 rimfire, but I had never experienced this before. Not thinking clearly, I panicked and yanked at the trigger, hoping for a miracle.
Thankfully, my shot flew high, a foot or so above the antelope's back, and it ran off into the sunset unscathed. Naturally, I was embarrassed to have missed at such close quarters, especially as my older brother was watching on from afar, but in reality I was lucky not to wound that reedbuck – a far worse outcome than a miss.
But here I was, more than 20 years later, experiencing the same symptoms for only the second time in my life. Having worked in the safari industry as a PH, I had seen several clients suffer from the dreaded affliction, particularly on dangerous game, but I had always assumed that it was like tick bite fever or chicken pox, and that once you'd had it, you became immune to it.
Whatever the cause, and irrespective of how close they were, I wasn't going to risk wounding a wild boar at night. I took three deep breaths, exhaling as slowly as I possibly could and, on the third exhalation, managed to hold the rifle steady enough to squeeze a shot off. As the rifle barked, I knew instantly, and with a huge sense of relief, that the shot had been a good one. The 8x57's 180gr Hornady GMX bullet perfectly bisected the heart and bottom of the lungs and the boar ran no more than 20 yards before keeling over.
In Poland, a successful wild boar hunt calls for a most thorough celebration, particularly if it is your first. Well, it was a little after 4am when we finally reached the bottom of the celebratory bottle of Polish vodka that Bob Kwisiuk, my genial host, had put aside for just such an occasion. It was a lot of fun, and I was moved by how genuinely pleased Miroslaw and Bob were for me. Despite the language barrier, Miroslaw roared with laughter at shooting pal Ken Queenborough's jokes. They had both worked really hard to get me my first boar, and they were delighted.
Although the usual practice in Poland is to shoot wild boar from high seats, I was glad when it was suggested that I try the more challenging method of stalking them at night. But like all challenges, success is anything but guaranteed. Indeed, the two previous nights had been less than fruitful.
On the first night, conditions were good – there was a dusting of fresh snow, a clear sky overhead and a full moon – so spotting them would be easy. Or so we thought. We hunted high and low in all the likely spots, we glassed the woodland rides and forest clearings, we looked in open fields, along the edges of maize blocks and in boggy ditches, but, despite seeing plenty of red and roe deer, it was as if the Polish countryside was devoid of all swine. By 3am, even Bob and Miroslaw, who between them have accounted for literally hundreds of boar from the local area, had to concede defeat and head home. They seemed genuinely perplexed.
The following morning we returned to the woods to look for a red stag and noticed that there was an apparent absence of wild boar tracks in the fresh snow. They just hadn't come out to feed for some reason. “Perhaps tonight will be better,” said Bob. But, unfortunately, by nightfall the snow was falling so heavily that visibility had been reduced to almost zero. Hunting would be futile.
But of course, a large part of hunting's appeal is its unpredictability. The challenges thrown up by Mother Nature only add to the sense of satisfaction when things go well. Indeed, we all know that the most rewarding of hunts are those that don't come easy. This one was no exception, and I am already planning a trip back to the Pia region for another dose of wild boar fever.