Tips from this legendary 19th-century big-game hunter still apply today

F.C. Selous: Tips from this legendary big-game hunter still apply today

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Though written more than a century ago, one of Frederick Courteney Selous’ many accounts of big-game hunting, “Recent Hunting Trips in British North America,” delivers timeless insight and guidance to today’s hunters.

On the list of the world’s larger-than-life historical figures, F.C. Selous has undoubtedly secured his place near the top. A close friend of Teddy Roosevelt and inspiration for H. Rider Haggard’s fictional character Allan Quatermain, Selous packed an extraordinary range of experiences into his 64 years, becoming a famed big-game hunter, explorer, conservationist, and writer before meeting his untimely end on a Tanzanian battlefield during WWI.

Selous’ “Recent Hunting Trips in British North America” at first seems to be little more than a series of plainly written journal entries recording the man’s pursuit of moose and caribou in Canada. But a closer analysis reveals a number of ageless and invaluable lessons that can still inform today’s sportsman.

You’re tougher than you think.

It’s easy to convince oneself that venturing far into the wilderness, outside the range of a cell phone, days from even a backwater medical facility, is tantamount to voluntary suicide. But the fact is, so long as you’re not too arrogant or ill-prepared, you can survive far worse events and conditions than you might think.

At one point, Selous set out alongside his hunting compatriots into the Newfoundland wilderness armed with only a rifle, a canvas tarp, and a couple of days’ rations of tea, bacon, and biscuits. Then the rain came.

“We made no attempt to sleep, as the rain beat into the front of our shelter, and the old canvas tarpaulin leaked so much that it was impossible to lie down without exposing oneself to the drippings from many places. On the following day we were unable to move and had scarcely anything to eat—nothing, in fact, but a small ration of biscuit—as we thought it advisable to keep a little in reserve.”

What’d they do? They waited it out. Kept a fire going. Dried their gear and headed back when conditions cleared up. Now the idea of going hungry—even for a day—causes panic. Back then? They called it Tuesday.

In another instance, Selous noted the strength and endurance of one of his guides on a long portage.

“It took us three journeys to get everything across. On one of these, George Crawford excited my admiration by carrying a bag of flour (100 lbs.) on his back, and the heaviest of the canoes, weighing probably another eighty pounds, balanced on his head. With this load he walked the mile and a half of the portage without stopping to rest.”

Bear in mind this predates the 24/7 fitness center, meticulously curated workout plans, or balanced diets. Odds are Mr. Crawford was just rattlesnake tough, and much of that stems from one’s state of mind. The human body can withstand immense punishment and is capable of extraordinary feats—yours included.

Selous and his men didn’t have fancy dehydrated meals or ergonomic packs, GPS systems or Iridium phones, and they not only survived, they had successful hunts. You will too; you just need to get out there.

Crowded hunting spots have always sucked.

Yep, even back at the turn of the last century, even in remote areas, popular hunting spots became crowded at times, and apparently it was irritating then, too. “It is so very much more satisfactory to get into a country where no one else is hunting than to make one amongst a small army of sportsmen congregated in a restricted area,” said Selous. That sentiment is undoubtedly shared by anyone who’s ever found themselves 50 yards from a dozen other orange-clad hunters on public land.

We all screw up sometimes.

Even legendary big game hunters blow shots occasionally. We’re all human, after all, and we make bad decisions at least as often as good ones. Upon mortally wounding a caribou stag and losing it in the marshes of Newfoundland, Selous wrote, “Above all I felt intense chagrin and mortification at the thought that I had mortally wounded a fine animal, whose death would profit no one.”

We’ve all been there, or will be someday. The best thing you can do is strive not to make it a habit and do everything within your power to track and recover any wounded animal. It’s our responsibility as ethical hunters and stewards of our environment.

It’s OK to go home empty handed.

This might just be the most important piece of lasting wisdom Selous could impart on new hunters: It’s absolutely acceptable to pack up after a hunt with nothing to show for it. Although we may set out with hopes of reaching a bag limit or harvesting that dominant buck, the experience of hunting should always be its own reward. It’s not about the getting, it’s about the getting out. A successful harvest is satisfying, but memories are made every time you set foot in the field regardless of the game taken.

“As the chances of success seemed so small, and my absence from home had already been somewhat more prolonged than I had anticipated, I decided to rest satisfied with the experience I had gained on this, my first essay at caribou hunting, and to endeavour to turn it to account the following year.”

Hunting provides a unique opportunity to connect with nature.

So taken with the splendors of the natural world around him, even Selous’ typically pragmatic writing style gave way at times to almost poetic prose. For those with a similar appreciation for the outdoors and who have at some point found themselves standing before an especially stunning vista, his words bear an almost haunting poignancy: “The wild, primeval desolation of the country and the vast, voiceless solitudes—where the silence is never broken save by the cry of some wild creature—have an inexpressible charm of their own. You feel that you stand on a portion of the earth’s surface which has known no change for countless centuries, a land which may remain in its natural condition for centuries yet to come.”

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