Florida Sportsman Classics: Vic Dunaway Remembered

Vic Dunaway, the magazine’s Founding Editor, passed away May 17, 2012 (click here for the news item). In honor of his many contributions to the magazine, and for the benefit of new readers, we are reprinting some of his articles on the Florida Sportsman Web sites. Florida Sportsman Classics: Vic Dunaway Remembered. 

The following is the first in a two-part series Vic wrote for the February and March 1999 print editions. The original editor’s note accompanies the image below. We’ll bring you the conclusion of the series next week.

–Jeff Weakley, Editor

More than 30 years ago, Senior Editor Vic Dunaway—a would-be tiger hunter frustrated in his youthful daydreams by reasons both geographic and economic—decided to substitute a more practical-sounding goal, the jaguar, largest cat in the Western Hemisphere and third largest in the world behind the tiger and lion. His choice was obvious: jaguars ranged much closer to home, they could be targeted on a short trip rather than a month-long (at least) safari or shikar, and yet they could be hunted—whether found or not—in a jungle setting that promised to retain much of the romance of tiger hunting. His search for a jaguar took Dunaway on two short trips to different areas of Colombia in the 1960s, and those trips are the subjects of this article and one to follow next month.

The jaguar is now protected throughout its vast range that covers virtually all of tropical America—in most cases by local laws as well as by an international prohibition on trade in the skins of spotted cats. Thus, the days of jaguar hunting—like tiger hunting—have long since slipped into sporting history.

By the way, even if you did set out to hunt a jaguar today, you probably would not choose to do it in Colombia.

 


At first it had been only the voice of Rusty, the swaybacked, sad-faced hound, that had sent out intermit­tent announcements on the progress of the chase. Rusty alone among the mixed pack of eager but scrawny and un-talented farm dogs seemed capable of sniffing out the trail as it twisted through thick jun­gle. At times we had to wait several minutes for a new report from him, but invariably it came—in sort of an embar­rassed bellow, as if Rusty sud­denly remembered that he was our only source of information.

Our hunting party was a large one, but the only member with whom I currently maintained contact was Emeterio, a stocky ranch hand who had drawn duty as my trailbuster and gunbearer. He plowed ahead of me through the tangle at what passes for a steady pace in that kind of going. Thanks to the frequent pauses he made in order to listen for Rusty’s sporadic yowls, I was able to keep up with him—a fact for which I was most grateful. Even though I was toting a 12-gauge pump shotgun loaded with heavy buckshot, I didn’t want to get too far away from my rifle, which was draped around Emeterio’s broad shoulders.

Finally, in support of Rusty’s baritone solo, we heard a wild, mixed chorus of soprano barking that could only mean the quarry was in sight of the dogs, perhaps ready to come to bay.

Without a word, Emeterio dashed forward and in seconds was swallowed up, along with my .284, by thick bush. With no hope left of sticking to his footsteps, I simply began shouldering my way as best I could in the direction of the ruckus. By normal linear measurement, the action was not far off, but every foot of progress in that jungle was worth nine on open ground. I ran (sort of) for perhaps 10 minutes—vaulting rotten deadfalls and plunging prayerfully through thickets of reed; ducking under the more obvious vines and branches; hopping and stumbling to break free of the ones that grabbed my feet; twisting and clawing to escape those that sneaked up to clutch at my shirt and hands.

Guide Modesto Guevara with his .30/40 and Rusty, the swaybacked hound.

I became vaguely aware that the packs’ tone had changed once again—more frantic now, an explosive jumble of growls and yelps. And in the middle of the canine din, an undoglike trumpeting squeal that sounded as if it might have come from the soundtrack of an old Tarzan movie.

At that time, I had never heard any of the coughs, growls, snarls and roars that make up the vocabulary of an angry jaguar, but I knew instinctively, and with momentary disappointment, that this weird noise was definitely not among them.

I had never heard a tapir bawl either; that’s what it had to be. The tapir is the largest of Latin American game animals and not an easy one to collect. But for a hunter whose heart is set on encountering that great spotted cat, the jaguar, a tapir makes a poor substitute indeed.

Still, in the middle of such a bedlam of excitement as all of us—dogs, man and tapir—were now experiencing, the letdown was fleeting. Besides, this was only our fourth day of a planned seven in the remote and game-rich Macarena region of southern Colombia. There certainly would be more chases to come—hopefully with a jaguar at the end of one of them—but for now, a tapir close at hand was worth any number of Lord-knows-where jaguars.

So I kept plunging ahead and the thick bush gave way at last to a muddy pond. I struggled past the last intervening branches and waded into it far enough to give me elbow room. Water lapped at my knees and my boots were mired ankle-deep in the silty bottom.

About 50 yards away the tapir was standing in water that covered its entire mammoth body, leaving just a thick neck with a sharp ridge of bristly hair protruding above the surface. Firmly planted, the tapir had all the best of it over its tormentors, which were dog-paddling warily around the great head—too close to allow a shot.

As one dog attempted to sneak in for a quartering nip on the neck, the tapir twisted its head, lifted its elongated, trunk-like nose to expose a massive set of blunt teeth, and struck the dog with an upward flip that sent him skipping across the surface like a fuzzy rock. In that moment I saw a clear radius around the head wide enough to accommodate a charge of buckshot. I fired, but the heavy beast did not flinch. Instead, he squealed in rage and lurched frenziedly toward the nearest dog, which yelped in surprise and began hustling away as fast as its churning paws could carry it.

I heard the boom of another shot and saw the splat of a bullet several feet beyond the tapir. Another shot sailed high and it dawned on me that Emeterio was firing with my rifle.

"No spots, but fine eating," Dunaway said of the tapir that nearly killed him.

The dogs were still doing their yelpingest best to steer clear of the tapir’s angry, slashing teeth, so I took advantage of the clear field to unload another shotgun blast. The tapir only shook his head more vigorously than ever, sending up an arc of foaming water.

“Tome el rifle!”

In tacit admission that his marksmanship left much to be desired, Emeterio was urging me to swap the shotgun for the rifle. Only now did I notice that he was also in the water 20 or 30 feet to my right, and was plodding toward me, rifle outstretched. Straining to meet him halfway, I engaged in a tug-of-war against the suction of the calf-deep mud, which reluctantly surrendered one of my feet at a time, with several seconds of heavy tugging between each staggering step. I had progressed only a couple of yards when Emeterio shouted a warning.

I glanced over my left shoulder to see the tapir dashing directly toward me amid a shower of muddy water. Fortunately, the depth slowed him at first, but already he had reached the shallows. Only his legs remained underwater and they kept churning in my direction.

Whether it was sheer momentum or simply better-designed feet that allowed the big tapir to continue his surge while I remained immobilized by mud, I could not pause to ponder.

I stretched. Emeterio stretched. I felt the thin, hard muzzle of the .284 Winchester and drew it gratefully to me as Emeterio simultaneously relieved me of the shotgun. Then I twisted my body to face the “charge”—not out of bravery but simply because I could not retreat, being unable by now to wiggle a toe.

Tapirs, of course, are not dangerous game, but it was a dangerous game that this one seemed to be playing. He outweighed me by several hundred pounds and, although he probably didn’t even notice that I was standing in the middle of his chosen route out of the lake, he kept rumbling directly at me and closing fast, all the while gnashing his heavy molars and trumpeting at the top of his mighty voice.

Feeling for the rifle’s safety and finding it already off (I didn’t start sweating about that until afterward), I hoisted the rifle and peered through the peep sight. At 20 feet or less, the tapir’s eyes looked as big as plates but the narrow, bristle-topped head did not offer much of a target. Regardless, I had little choice but to try. I held my breath and started to squeeze the trigger.

At that instant, miraculously, the huge body collapsed and began to sink slowly in a milky swirl. The buckshot had done their work after all and the tapir died without testing my own accuracy with the rifle. While I gaped, Emeterio sprang into action at once, shoving the shotgun at me and diving into the water. All alone, he was able to drag the huge carcass to the pond’s edge. There, three other natives—who had arrived unnoticed during the melee—pitched in to help. Grunting and heaving, they hauled me ashore first, and then inched the tapir halfway up the soupy bank.

By that time, the rest of the party had arrived. Up to nine men at a time hauled on the heavy burden, dragging it to a small clearing and, finally, roping it into a semi-upright position for skinning.

There was much marveling by the native hunters at the size of the tapir. Yes, they said, they had seen them this big before, but never any bigger. Weight estimates ranged as high as 1,000 pounds but, being a fisherman, I immediately chopped off a couple of hundred. With his hams still on the ground as if sitting, the animal’s upright length measured seven feet. In the coming few days, others in the party would bag two more—neither of which looked much more than half the size of this one.

Jaguar or not, it was a satisfying end to a thrilling chase, and even more so that evening when we dined upon pan-fried slices of tender tapir liver instead of the leather-like local wild “turkeys” that we had been roasting over an open fire for our supper the previous couple of nights.

Vic Dunaway, in 1964, with crested guans harvested in Colombia.

My trip had been arranged in the winter (dry season) of 1964 by Clifford Mark, an orchid collector and dealer from North Miami Beach, whose wanderings in search of his favorite flora had somehow led him to this remote region of Colombia, not far from the Brazilian border. A hunter as well, he had eventually organized a rough-it hunt that wore the name of “Safaris Macarena,” but held little in common with the comfortable safaris of African movies and books.

However, Clifford did not misrepresent his bare-bones operation, except for its presumptuous label.

“There’s nothing fancy about it,” he had understated back in Miami. “This is the kind of trip that will appeal only to the real outdoor lover who likes his hunting and camping at their simplest and, I think, their best. We’ll sleep in hammocks under thatched shelters, or sometimes in the open. You’ll get plenty to eat and it will be prepared for you, but it will be open-fire cooking and native fare.”

By “native fare,” I was to find that he meant green plantains, which grew everywhere along the river that served as our main travel artery, along with boiled catfish caught on setlines from the same river and whatever game we might manage to shoot. The only food we packed in with us was coffee, salt and sugar. Today—35 years and one bypass operation later—I can see that it was a diet I should have stuck with.

John Gour, a dentist from North Miami, was the only other “sport” on the trip. Our route from Miami took us by airliner to Bogota and then across the Andes to Villavicencia in the center of Colombia. From there, we continued by air-but not by liner—to the village of Los Micos at the foot of the Macarena mountain range. Air service to Los Micos and other remote towns was provided by Colombian Air Force DC-3s, devoid of such luxuries as seats. Many of the passengers were four-footed and would not have cared for seats anyway.

At the social center of Los Micos—consisting of a kerosene refrigerator full of half-cool beer—we met our chief guide, Modesto Guevara, a short, bronze man built entirely of steel. This was the Colombian frontier and Modesto made a perfect frontiersman by my Hollywood standards. His piercing dark eyes were deep-set in a thicket of black brows that hovered over a luxurious black beard. He carried a lever-action Winchester carbine, and around his waist was strapped a dogleg revolver. Both arms handled the .38/40 cartridge—itself a carry-over from the American frontier.

Always by Modesto’s side—except, of course, when he was bugling after assorted species of jungle wildlife—sat “Rusty,” the trusty swayback hound. I put his name in quotation marks because I was never sure exactly what it was. When Modesto said it, it came out something like “Grrrooosky.”

The first thing I asked Modesto, of course, was how often he and Rusty ran down a tigre. “Siempre,” he answered—always.

Which obviously meant that if I failed to bag a jaguar, it would be a humiliating first failure for poor old Rusty and his picturesque pardner!

As a matter of fact, Modesto advised us, he would have been heading out to bag el tigre even if we had not arrived. It seemed that a jaguar had been raiding a small farm upriver and so far had gleaned five pigs and two dogs in only a few weeks.

We set forth that same afternoon in an ancient dugout canoe powered by a 35-horse Evinrude of recent vintage. Since dry season was in full swing, we strung our hammocks that evening on a rocky bluff of the river.

Next morning we stopped at the victimized farm to enlist a couple of men and more dogs, then set forth for the jungle-clad slopes and ravines of the Macarena foothills. It had been more than a week since the jaguar had purloined any livestock, and without fresh sign we could do little more than hike and hope. There was endless territory in which el tigre could hide, and hide he did. We plodded for miles, clawing our way up and down thick hillsides and wading gratefully along occasional small streams. We found old tracks and old claw marks and even an old kill—a few scraps of hide and bone.

The dogs hit several trails—none made by el tigre—but the men always managed to head them off and hold them down until Modesto arrived to direct a regrouping.

The next two days being virtual carbon copies of the first, we changed venues, heading back downriver, past the town and on to a ranch where the owner not only held out high hopes of a jaguar, but even lent us horses to ride across the five miles of llanos—grassy flatlands—that lay between the ranch house and the distant patch of jungle where at least one jaguar certainly had to be headquartered, even though there had been a long recess since the last theft of cattle.

Modesto, as could be expected, rode like a western hero, his carbine cocked jauntily on the saddle. Others in the party—our own crew, some ranch hands and even Clifford—also took to the saddle well. I was the lone tenderfoot. Well, not tender foot, really. The best part of the trip was dismounting.

That was the day we chased the big tapir, while my blood boiled and visions of ever larger and more beautifully spotted jaguars danced in my head every time Rusty cut loose with one of his intermittent yowls. At least we bagged a tapir. No spots, maybe, but fine eating.

The remainder of the trip was much the same. The dogs chased something or other every day, but maybe they knew better than to take out after a jaguar.

Disappointment was slim, however, for we spent more than a week of delightful outdoor living, mosquito-free and in a near-perfect climate. Between chases with the hounds we had at least a little time to hunt a great variety of native game. In the end, our party’s bag included three tapirs, two deer, a 100-pound capybara—the world’s largest rodent—and many guans and currasows, the local “turkeys.”

None of the meat went to waste. Our large party took care of much of it, and there were plenty of locals to handle the rest. When one of the big tapirs was butchered, there always seemed to be a transient canoe or two at hand to taxi any surplus meat back to the village.

Finally, Clifford and Modesto staged a council of war and came up with a plan to preserve Modesto’s “siempre” prediction. We would travel far upriver, past the town once more, past the farm of our earlier efforts, past a set of rapids that could now be traversed because of the dry season, and probe into a wilderness area where there were only a few scattered homesteads, and those many miles apart. There would be no local jaguar advisories to guide us, but our best chances seemed to lie in that direction—and, failing that, there would be other game aplenty.

At the village, we took on more salt and coffee and enjoyed another send-off session at the beer parlor. Modesto gathered up Rusty and a couple of chase dogs, and arranged to borrow another dog that was said to have a good nose. This turned out to be a little bitch with a litter of week-old puppies. No problem. The children came along in a snug box and Mama stayed with them—in canoe or in camp-providing for their needs and snarling viciously at man or dog that came too close. At hunt time, however, she kissed the brood goodbye and gladly took recess from maternal chores.

She was a good one, all right, as was Rusty. But neither was very discriminating. We hunted two days upriver and on the first, romped through two noisy chases of a tapir and a deer.

That last night we came as close to a jaguar as we were destined to get—knowingly anyway. Just at dusk, his deep coughing roar echoed across the river, tingling my scalp and renewing my enthusiasm.

Once during the night, the dogs raised a great ruckus. I leaped out of the hammock and grabbed my shotgun and flashlight. Clifford did the same, but our probing beams disclosed nothing amiss. Anyway, I thought, it could not be the jaguar, for he was across the river. Being short on jaguar lore at the time, I knew nothing of the big cat’s swimming ability and indifference to water.

At dawn, the jaguar’s fresh paw prints were found in profusion along the sandy riverbank next to camp, not more than 100 feet from our hammocks. He had come from the river, looked us over and then gone back into it, and where he emerged again we never discovered, for the dogs could find nothing that interested them for a mile in either direction, on either shore. All they could do was send my hopes briefly blazing for the last time when they chased and bayed a troop of howler monkeys.

But, anyway, when the jaguar strolled into our camp that last night, it changed my whole approach to jaguar hunting. Flying home, I decided that the next time I set forth after a jaguar, I would not chase after him helter-skelter behind a motley pack of dogs.

I would sit and let the jaguar come to me. FS

Log on to Florida Sportsman Hunting next week for the conclusion of the story.