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It took two trips for me to finally accomplish my goal of successfully hunting a Peruvian mountain whitetail. The first year I went was in late August, and I had no idea what to expect. I had been warned to be careful when traveling, so I planned the trip with a friend, but at the last minute she was unable to go, so I ended up alone on what would prove to be one of my biggest adventures.
Cesar Garcia Verdeguer was waiting for me when I arrived at the airport. Verdeguer runs an operation called Wildlife Peru and he is the only licensed professional Peruvian hunter. He got his license while working as a guide in South Africa. We had spoken via email about logistics and what gear I needed to bring, but nothing could have prepared me for this journey.
Verdeguer said that we would be spending the night in Lima before setting out on the 10-hour drive to the hunting destination. The next morning we left around sunrise. When we reached the base of the Andes Mountains, Verdeguer asked, “Are you ready?” I could see the white line of a road zigzagging straight up the side of the mountain. This would be the most dangerous road I had ever been on, by far; in fact, this particular road only exists at certain times of the year because the rain washes it away annually. Imagine driving on a road sized for motorbikes, with hairpin turns and sheer drops – but riding in a hunting truck. Motion sickness is not a common ailment of mine, but this road got the better of me. The combination of impossible turns and rapidly climbing altitude forced me to beg for breaks when I would pathetically crawl out of the vehicle and sit on the ground just to breathe. The altitude here is breathtaking – literally!
We didn’t get into the village of Sangayaico, about 200 miles southeast of Lima, until late that night. The entire village runs on a generator and that went off shortly after we got settled. I could tell that I had been set up in someone’s family room and yet the only furniture was a table and two small wooden chairs. I had a cot and a zero-degree sleeping bag of my own, which that was plenty since all I wanted to do was sleep after the long drive.
In the morning I woke up to the smell of cooking, and realized that there was a small window – more like a hole in the wall – in my room that lead into a kitchen where women were noisily cooking and children playing. I left my room to find that the entire village was built from mud bricks. The locals stared at me as if I was from outer space. The kids enjoyed touching my pink fingernails and examined my red hair. Verdeguer informed me that I was the first European woman they had seen up close. The village had only purchased a television a couple years earlier, at the same time as the generator, so they were still very sheltered from the outside world.
The village was at an altitude of 14,000 feet and the air was thin and incredibly dry. The people in this area live much like the Incans did a thousand years ago; they grow their own food, trade amongst themselves and have very little interaction with the outside world. I had never felt this far removed from civilization. The people were friendly and very curious. They spoke a native language called Quechua that I had no hope of understanding, but they could also speak a bit of Spanish, so we communicated that way.
Their religion is a blend of pagan beliefs and Catholicism that the Spaniards brought over during the conquests. One of the beliefs that remained from before the conquests is that each mountain is a god and has a name. The locals pray to the mountains for what they need and to grant them good fortune or good weather for crops. Unfortunately for me, August is a sacred month for the mountains, and many of the men in village refused to help us hunt. Normally we would have a group of scouts from the village who would gather info on deer numbers and habits, but since this was a special month, they did not want to participate. In retrospect, this was a bad sign for the hunt, but at the time we just made due with the two guys who would hunt with us.
The mountain was steep and the rocks slid easily; I must have fallen on my bottom at least once a day over the course of a week. I used my hands to crawl and would grab rocks or handfuls of long grass to help along the way. It was beautiful to look out over the expanse of mountains. There were lush green areas with waterfalls, while others offered sand and cactus. On almost every hill were remnants of Incan agricultural terraces, some still in use and some so old you could barely see the lines that had been cut in the mountain.
We walked all day long, every day. There was no doubt that there were deer on the mountain – we periodically heard them – but getting close was an entirely different matter. This particular type of whitetail will actually crawl on its belly in order to stay out of sight. I remember one specific area where we knew there was a deer on the other side of the peak, so we attempted to make our way around a very steep valley. We were walking game trails and came to what I can only describe as a moss-covered balance beam with a waterfall running down one side and, underneath, a sheer drop on the other. The water pooled against the beam on the side closest to the mountain and it ran over in some spots. One by one the village scouts crossed the beam with one foot in front of the other, just like they were walking down a sidewalk. I have to admit I hesitated and even laughed. I asked Verdeguer if he was serious about this. He said, “It is the only way, and please be careful.” I considered crawling but ended up going across with both arms straight out for balance. I faltered a little and dipped my foot in the water, but I actually made it across only to find that the deer had disappeared.
Unfortunately, we could not close the deal that year. The hunt was incredible and pushed me to my physical limits, but as luck would have it, we just never quite got things to line up. The village guys said it was because the mountain didn’t want us hunting in August; I almost believed them. It took two years to get reorganized and get back to Peru.
September 2013 I was back in Peru. This time we were hunting outside of Cuzco, an area famously known for Machu Picchu, one of the modern seven wonders of the ancient world. The hunting area was different than my first time, not quite as high, and the town was more developed. There was running water, electricity and our base camp would be a single-story, hacienda-style hotel named Ausangate Lodge.
The drive to the hunting area near Ccatca, a small village similar to the one on my first trip, took only 45 minutes. We parked, got organized and then walked into the uninhabited sides of the mountain.
On the first day one of the scouts spotted a deer. The sun had just dropped behind the mountain and although we could see each other, we could barely see the deer that was feeding on the hill below us. This was a tough judgment call for Verdeguer. He knew the deer was a buck, but he could not judge the rack or the age in this light. In Peru the deer must have two points on each side to be considered legal. While Verdeguer was pretty sure this deer was legal, it would have been impossible to know for sure. My inside voice kept saying, “This could be your only chance!” Eventually, I decided not to shoot. After all, it was the first day and we had five more to go.
The first time I hunted in Peru I borrowed a gun from Verdeguer, but this year CZ-USA set me up with a model 550 in a .270 caliber, which is a great little gun and plenty of thump for the size of deer found in Peru. They are substantially smaller than the North American whitetail. Leupold was kind enough to loan me one of their 12-power VX-6 scopes, as well. It was a perfect combination! I felt much more prepared this trip, and since I had been hunting all year long with quite a bit of physical activity, I was optimistic. But even with all that preparation I was still shocked at how hard this hunt was. We were filming the hunt for a TV show with a cameraman who had filmed hunts all over the world and even he was struggling. We did a lot of walking uphill and downhill, then uphill again. It was nice to go downhill, but I was always thinking of the truck parked back up on top, so with every step down I knew I’d have to go just as far back up. It was tough and we didn’t see many deer. By day three my spirits were pretty low. We had nothing for the camera, no glimpses of deer since that first day, and I was starting to think that the hunt was going to end the way the last one had.
Verdeguer decided to change our approach. He wanted to camp in the village so that we wouldn’t have to drive in the morning. Our camp would be in the old community building – basically one big room for four guys and me to share. Verdeguer had planned ahead: he brought an apartment just for me. It was a one-man tent, just big enough to fit my sleeping bag. I set up at the end of the room where the village kept their store of potatoes, and besides the little worms that kept finding their way from the potatoes to my tent, I was very comfortable. I started to think there might be hope after all, but over the next two days of hunting out of that camp we never got another chance at a deer.
By the end, I was feeling very discouraged and, frankly, a bit irritated as we packed up and headed back to the hotel. Verdeguer said he knew of a spot just on the outskirts of town where deer came in to feed at sunset, so we planned to stop there on the way back and at least film some of Peru’s elusive mountain whitetail. Otherwise, I would return home completely empty-handed. As my luck would have it, the deer decided not to show up that evening. I only had one day left, and to make matters worse I had twisted my knee and was struggling to put weight on it.
The next morning we drove to the very top of a mountain and Verdeguer said that the plan for the day was to make it to the bottom of the mountain, but this time we would move slowly. The truck would be driven down to the bottom to pick us up later. Verdeguer could see that I was struggling, but I knew this was my last shot, so I had to suck it up.
About a third of the way down the hill we stopped to glass and our local guide Ruben got very excited. One of the scouts who was across the valley was waving to signal that he had seen a deer. We made a frantic scurry towards the scout when all of a sudden a deer appeared on our side of the mountain. It was a buck! A nice legal buck, and it was 200 meters up the mountain. We moved to an outcrop, set up and Verdeguer told me to wait until the deer stopped walking. I was sitting cross-legged with my elbows braced on my knees and I followed the deer with my crosshairs as it slowly walked across an empty corn field. Just as the deer hit the edge of the field it stopped – two more steps and the shoulder would have disappeared into the high grass. I took my shot. The deer rolled down the hill and landed only about 100 meters from us! I looked at Verdeguer and he looked at me. Both of us had tears in our eyes. The stress of the last day and the pressure of coming up empty-handed the year before had both of us wound pretty tight. We were so happy, relieved and excited that we could barely speak.
When we got to the deer we saw for the first time that he was a nontypical eight-pointer. This is very special for the area and a very nice buck.
The scout on the hill who had waved to us had been looking at a totally different deer. Our buck must have been bedded down or hiding nearby. It was a wonderful way to end a difficult and challenging hunt.
I would like to go back and hunt the coastal whitetail deer of Peru someday. It is supposed to be a much easier and a more leisurely hunt, but I am so glad I took the hard road first. I consider this hunt to be one of the greatest accomplishments in my career. It’s one hunt that only a select few have ever attempted, and even fewer have succeeded at.
Peru is definitely not for the faint at heart, but the people are warm and friendly, and I never felt unsafe on either of my trips, except maybe on that mountain balance beam. As Verdeguer likes to say, “When you are ready for a challenge and serious adventures, come see me.” It may seem like a lot of work for a little deer, but the culture and the adventure will make it well worth the trip, I can honestly tell you that this little deer holds a huge spot in my heart! ASJ