FS Classics: Vic Dunaway, Trail of the Jaguar Pt. II

In honor of Vic Dunaway’s 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. Dunaway, the magazine’s Founding Editor, passed away May 17, 2012 (click here for the news item). Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more Florida Sportsman Classics: Vic Dunaway Remembered.

The following is the conclusion of a two-part series Vic wrote for the February and March 1999 print editions. Click here to read the first half. The original editor’s note accompanies the lead page thumbnail below. 

–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.

 

 

The sound came rolling from far out in the jungle night. Faint it was, but unmistakable—a short, coughing growl. Another. And now a series of raspy bellows, building in tempo and volume and finally fading away to leave the black silence pressing all the more deeply against our tiny treetop platform.

During the past four nights we had listened many times to slick imitations of that spine-tingling serenade. But this was the real thing—an answer, at last, to the repeated calls of our Colombian native guides.

Somewhere out in the blackness, the fabled el tigre— a jaguar—had heard the challenge and was answering.

The sweat that drenched my back suddenly turned cold with anticipation and, I now have to admit, at least a little fear. I fingered the 35mm camera with oversize flash that hung around my neck, wishing momentarily that I could swap it for the 12-gauge shotgun loaded with 00 buckshot that I had left in camp.

The knowledge that we were perched 15 feet above the ground did little to ease my apprehension, for I knew that the jaguar—although twice the size of most leopards—was capable of scaling that modest height in a tiny fraction of the time it had taken us to clamber up there ourselves.

Fifteen minutes of silence passed before I heard Simon, one of our guides, whisper, “Okay, Shellie.” Whereupon the other guide Shellie raised the gourd call to his mouth once more and coughed another challenge. All of us realized that this call was the critical one. Would the jaguar roar back a second time? Or had he merely tossed a haughty acknowledgement to the previous call, then prowled on into the forest and out of hearing?

We were prepared to hold our breath but the response came instantly and, though still distant, much closer and louder than before. El tigre was heading our way! My arm brushed against that of Simon, who in his hunting career had been party to the calling up of many jaguars, and I was surprised to feel him trembling as hard with excitement as I was. But I had no doubt that Simon would be ready when the time came for him to switch on his lantern and catch the surprised cat full in its beam, so that Jim Hoots and I could fire simultaneously with rifle and camera.

I only hoped Jim’s trigger finger was feeling steadier than my shutter finger.

The safari arrives by cayuco, a "stretch" dugout powered by the latest in outboards.

 

The whole routine had always worked marvelously in repeated rehearsals during the four days since we first arrived at the hunting camp far up the great Magdalena River in Colombia. But, of course, no jaguar had been at the end of the beam in those practices, and that, I suddenly realized, could make a considerable difference in one’s composure.

Shellie and the jaguar exchanged challenges at 15- or 20-minute intervals over the next two hours or so, as my hands grew clammier, and sweat continued to pour from under my hat. Jim was a seasoned hunter and I respected his marksmanship. Still, the critter making all that ruckus out there sounded as if he would need a great deal of killing.

Yes, killing. In those days—30 years ago— you could legally kill a jaguar in most areas of Central and South America and bring its hide back to America: that is, if you could first manage to get one of them in your sights. The jaguar may not be the most dangerous of the world’s big cats, but it certainly must be the most elusive. At least that’s what I had come to believe after spending a week chasing dogs through the jungle during one trip in 1964, and now, in 1967, spending most of another week sitting all night in tropical tree-tops, feeding mosquitoes fresh blood and listening—vainly until that final night—for an answer to the repeated roars of an expert caller.

Nolan Burrow of Fort Lauderdale, who operated Wilderness de Colombia Safaris out of Barranquilla, had made it clear to start with that we would have to be very lucky indeed to encounter a jaguar in five nights, but neither Jim nor I could get away for any longer.

“I can at least have some advance scouting done,” Nolan told us. “Who knows?”

Our airline route led from Miami to Barranquilla and then to the bustling frontier city of El Banco, which, as its name implied, was situated on the bank of the broad Magdalena. Nolan’s assistant, a rangy middle-aged Texan named (what else?) Slim shepherded us on a two-hour ride by outboard boat up the river to Nolan’s base camp.

The camp was a real surprise. I had been on several extended hunts in Latin America, where solid shelter—if any—consisted of crude native huts. Not only did Nolan have a screen bunkhouse with real beds and mattresses, but an indoor bathroom yet! An adjacent building housed the kitchen and dining table.

Behind the camp, low bush interspersed by small homesteads rose steadily toward a ridge of low, jungle-clad mountains but, fortunately, we would not have to hike in the uphill direction. Across the river the land was flat and the jungle broken by stretches of high, open grassland. That’s where we took our chances for the first three nights, hiking about three miles from the river to the platform that Simon and Shellie had built earlier. On the way we passed several homesites with their clearings and thatched huts, but we left the last one at least a mile behind before reaching our stand.

Not that it would seem to matter a great deal. We saw abundant, but old, sign that indicated el tigre roamed at his pleasure over all those areas—wilderness or peopled alike—feeling perfectly at home near man yet seldom seen by him. Owners of livestock kept Nolan and his hunting guides well supplied with reports of cattle and horses slain by marauding jaguars, but he had long since learned to ignore all but the most convincing.

“To hear some of these guys tell it,” he said, “you could stock Texas and Florida both with the cattle killed by jaguars along this river in one month. But most of the kills actually end up in a market in El Banco or one of the villages along the river.”

The guides had built our platform where a point of jungle jutted into an hourglass-shaped grassy field. Across the field, about 75 yards away and at the other side of the narrow part of the hourglass, was another big patch of jungle. In the fast-fading light, I could have taken the setting for the prairie-and-hammock terrain of Central Florida.

Packing a good 260 pounds on his round, 5-9 frame, Jim had no little trouble clawing his way up the tree. Once there, the four of us fit on the rather small platform about like sardines in a can. Jim scooched himself around to face the open area, and then went through a short session of aiming his Mannlicher rifle where Simon pointed the beam of his lantern.

By this time the night was solid black, and I was astonished at the absence of noise. Although jungle pressed at our backs, there was scarcely a sound of frog or bird or insect—only the frustrated buzz of mosquitoes circling about in hopes of finding a chink in our armor of repellent. The silence continued to deepen as an hour passed by. Then I heard Simon whisper an order to Shellie to start calling. Nolan had told us that both men were fine callers, but that Shellie was the undisputed master. Who judged such things? I wondered sleepily if they had local jaguar-calling contests at El Banco or somewhere, like our duck- and turkey-calling competitions in the States.

When game wasn't on the menu, catfish, opposite, filled the void.

 

I sat eager and alert, listening as Shellie picked up the hollow gourd call and held it to his lips. He drew a deep breath and grunted explosively from the bottom of his lungs into the reverberator. A coughing roar bounced out of the gourd and rolled across the narrow field into the jungle.

But not before it bounced right through the ears of the sleeping Jim, who, unbeknownst to the rest of us, had dozed off during the waiting period. Now he was battered suddenly and rudely awakened by the coughing roar of a jaguar right in his ear!

Whatever the world record for the sitting high jump might have been, Jim shattered it to pieces at that instant. He almost did the same to our precarious platform when his huge bulk splatted back down a moment later. That the structure held together under such a blow proved that our guides were as good at improvisational carpentry as at jaguar calling.

Sad to report, that incident represented the peak of excitement for the three long nights we spent in that particular blind. Simon, however, kept us from dying of boredom by relating whispered tales of jaguar hunts past, which I translated into English whispers and passed along to Jim. Some of the stories came out of Simon’s own experiences. Others were hand-me-downs, among them the following:

A couple of local farmers happened to find out that a tigre had been lately spotted in an area they both knew well. A jaguar skin being a most valuable commodity (far more of the animals have been killed for their hides than have ever fallen to hunters’ bullets), they decided to pool their assets and go after it. By chance, their assets merged neatly: One owned an old single-barrel shotgun while the other was proud possessor of a lone shell.

Under the game plan they worked out, the shell supplier was to do the calling; the gun owner the shooting. They traveled by boat to the promised land and cut loose with the first call even before disembarking. It was answered instantly— and close.

The caller led the way as both hunters leaped ashore and dashed along a game trail. At the edge of a small clearing, the caller stopped and whispered to his partner that there was no time to get stationed in a tree. EI tigre was so near that he might spot them and escape. They would operate right there, on the ground. With that, he turned, put the gourd to his mouth, and called.

Something shoved him in the rear end. Without taking the gourd from his mouth, or turning, he whispered, “Quit horsing around! You’ll mess things up!”

He called again and once more the prompt response was a shove in the behind. Angrily, he extended his right hand behind him and pushed back. What he felt was not fabric or skin but fur and a cold nose.

Even before he spun around, he knew what he would see. El tigre was staring at him curiously. The shooting partner was nowhere to be seen, having spotted the cat first and fled without a sound.

Having no other weapon, the near-petrified hunter banged the jaguar on the noggin with his gourd. Fortunately, the bold move succeeded and the two adversaries raced away in opposite directions. As for the short-lived hunting partnership, it was abruptly dissolved.

After three nights, Nolan decided to change venues. Early in the afternoon, following our post-hunt nap, he packed everything and everybody into a dugout canoe that looked two blocks long.

The remarkable vessel held Jim, me, Nolan, Slim, the cook, Simon and Shellie, an additional guide with a six-pack of scrawny dogs, and the operator of the 30-horse outboard motor. In between all that humanity and dogdom was fitted an elaborate camping outfit that included two tents, food and cooking supplies, guns, ammo, personal gear and a cooler packed with beer and a few ice cubes out of the camp’s kerosene refrigerator.

Our one-boat safari traveled three hours farther up the Magdalena, then an additional hour up a tributary stream to an area where, according to what Nolan considered credible reports, a jaguar had been roaming for more than a month.

We had two nights left, and on the first one it rained. Rather, it deluged. Worse, the off-season storm came suddenly, and only after we had just completed our longest hike of the entire trip—a good five miles. With rain pouring over us as if from a waterfall, we sat forlornly on our platform just long enough to catch our breath and then started back in the blinding downpour.

Fortunately, most of the route lay over a well-used trail, so that we did not have to pick our way through bush. Unfortunately, that trail had now been converted by the rain into a river of mud. What’s more, we were dismayed to notice something that had escaped us on the long but fairly easy hike in: the terrain was not flat but undulating. On the uphill stretches we took three steps and slid back two. The downhill portions were easier—we mostly slid all the way—occasionally on our feet.

The return trek took most of the night. Nobody had any fun, of course, but the going was toughest for Jim, who had considerably more to carry than the rest of us. I’m sure Simon and Shellie heard more gringo cusswords from Jim’s lips that night than they ever dreamed existed, and even the Texas-bred Slim—who had gone with us because he had built the platform and had to guide us to it—probably had his vocabulary of obscenities greatly expanded while helping push Jim over the muddy trail.

At one point, as Jim rested on a log, panting and questioning his own sanity in having come on such a trip, Slim attempted to make him feel a little better by saying, “At least you’ll be back to civilization in a couple of days. I have to stay here and do this for a living.”

Unmoved, Jim said, simply, “Well couldn’t you get a job shoveling manure or something?”

But a bright sun the next morning—really the next noon—dried out both our clothes and Jim’s spirits. We had one night left, and Simon was enthusiastic. He had talked to several locals and felt he had a solid clue as to the whereabouts of our elusive prey. He borrowed a smaller canoe, transferred the outboard motor to it, and in early afternoon proceeded upriver with Shellie to build a new platform. Wonder of wonders, our last stand required no hike at all to reach. Less than a mile upriver from camp, the river broke out of the surrounding jungle and began winding through a vast marsh of high reeds, dotted here and there with tree islands of various size. Perhaps a couple of miles into this marsh, jungle reappeared on the right bank, while the sea of reeds continued on the left. Simon eventually steered off the main channel into a small bayou and cut off the motor. With some effort, the two guides pushed the canoe through a thicket of marshplants with blazing red blossoms and grounded it on soft sod.

The platform-bearing tree was only a couple of hundred yards away through low, swampy brush. Shellie and Simon had hacked a path to it with their machetes, and also cleared a circle around the trunk about 15 feet in diameter.

And there, in the proverbial eleventh hour, our verbal challenge was, at last, accepted by a real jaguar. Comparing the answer with the imitation, I could not help but concede that Shellie was indeed a master caller.

The evening fire roasted guans over goals while drying wet laundry above.

 

During the intermittent exchange of feline dares that followed during the next two hours, the jaguar seemed ever more willing and anxious, closing the distance with each response until finally his roars boomed through our eardrums in a volume that nearly equaled that of the calls that Shellie was sending out beside us.

Then, abruptly, the answers ceased. For two more hours we sat almost without breathing on the cramped platform while Shellie called every 15 minutes or so. Nothing.

Finally, the jungle silence was broken— but not by the jaguar. From far downstream arose the eerie cry of a large bird that natives call the screamer. Screamers do not cry at night unless alarmed, Simon whispered, and the only thing that alarms them, other than men, is a prowling jaguar. Obviously, el tigre had skirted our stand at a safe distance. Something had cautioned him against coming too close.

Simon muttered under his breath but refused to admit defeat. He ordered us into the canoe, and then he and Shellie pulled the boat back to the river. We drifted downstream with the current, Simon paddling to keep us straight and everyone silent and listening.

After drifting for perhaps a half-mile through the marsh, Simon shoved the dugout’s bow into the reeds. Picking up the gourd himself, he uncorked a furious chorus of rasps and roars, much different from the restrained rhythms that had by now grown so familiar to us.

The response was not just instantaneous; it was terrifying.

Obviously close and exceedingly out of sorts, the jaguar responded with a verbal barrage that exceeded even Simon’s in volume, variety and ferocity. His magnificent, chilling baritone swept like a cold wind across the high grass and into every pore of my body, raising goosebumps atop goosebumps.

As we clung to the reeds to hold against the strong current, we could see the protruding treetops of a small islet outlined against the pale sky not 100 yards away. There the enraged cat certainly was stationed. I could picture him in my mind— a massive, black-spotted monarch of the jungle, so furious at Simon’s insulting calls that he had lost control of his temper.

But not his caution.

Jaguars are very much at home in water. Our expectation was that he would come through the tall grass, slip into the river and swim for the other side, looking for his rival. We hoped that he would emerge close enough for Jim and I to get in our shots with rifle and camera.

He never appeared. I suppose his great survival instincts welled up in time to save him from his emotions. Simon told us later that he was certainly a very old cat who was afraid to confront a younger and stronger challenger, and so had done his best to bluff the invader into retreating. Failing that, so he thought, he had been the one forced to make a humiliating withdrawal.

I could not feel disappointed. A shot, hit or miss, would have lasted a split second. We had spent four hours and more in close contact with the king of the western jungles, and the sounds I heard that black night were more breathtaking, more awe-inspiring, more terrible and at the same time more beautiful, than any phenomenon I have ever heard—or seen—in nature.

There was to be no trophy rug on Jim’s floor, nor any spectacular photo in my album. But neither of us ever had a more successful hunt. FS

Florida Sportsman Classics