Q&A with Hans Vermaak, professional hunter

DALLAS — African safari hunting is in Hans Vermaak's blood. You could say he was born into it — and you'd be right.

A native South African raised on his family's 166-year-old ranch, Vermaaksraal, Vermaak is the son of Coenraad Vermaak, the founder and namesake of Coenraad Vermaak Safaris, the longest-running safari outfitter in South Africa, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2010.

In addition to his formal education and experience in managing game ranches, his fluency in Zulu and time spent working in hunting and fishing camps in Alaska, Vermaak has been a highly successful and respected professional hunter for 16 years.

He serves on the boards and executive boards of numerous wildlife and professional hunter associations while still guiding hunters on hunts of a lifetime and functioning as CVS's managing director. In his many years of experience in the bush, Vermaak has seen thousands of hunters on their first safari and knows what it takes to take advantage of the array of sporting opportunities available in Africa's many game fields.

While attending the DSC Convention this week in Dallas, Vermaak took time to share some tips for would-be safari hunters to help ensure safe and successful hunts.

ESPN Outdoors:
For how long has your operation been guiding safari hunters? How long have you been a guide?

Vermaak: Coenraad Vermaak Safaris celebrates its 40th birthday in 2010; I have been guiding for 16 years.

ESPN Outdoors: In that time, approximately what percentage of safari hunters from the United States have you seen come to Africa ill-prepared for their hunt?

Vermaak: I am not sure of the percentages, however, most are fairly well-prepared as this is not a cheap vacation. But having said this, there have been a good number of hunters that have been very poorly prepared!

It's sad when you have a family group, and the dad has made little to no effort to prepare the children at all, especially in the shooting department! This often results in the children not really enjoying the safari to its fullest because of missed shots and sadly wounded animals.

The fact is that the child arrives all pumped up, excited and ready to rumble! At the end of the safari, they have no confidence in their hunting or shooting skills; they have suddenly been placed under tons of pressure and they begin to wonder if hunting is actually something they enjoy! This is not what we as hunters want!

More children need to become hunters and enjoy hunting. We are a minority; parents should promote hunting with their children and ensure that they are properly prepared before the safari kicks off. I understand that time is always a problem in the crazy world we live in, but if parents start preparing their children — and themselves — for a hunt well in advance and not one time at the last minute, the safari will probably turn out better all round.

ESPN Outdoors: When safari hunters from the United States arrive in your camp and head into the bush in search of game, what is the most common mistake that you see them make?

Vermaak: The vast majority of hunters are fairly experienced, however a common problem is big, cumbersome, noisy boots.

Often, when we are stalking game, the PH (professional hunter) and trackers are bent over to stay hidden behind vegetation. Then you look back and the hunter is walking straight up, not following suit and game often takes off.
Another point to remember is that when the PH erects the shooting sticks, get the rifle onto the sticks and locate the animal through the scope ASAP. Don't rest the rifle on the sticks and glass it through your binoculars because at this point there is seldom time to look around. It's time to take the shot!

ESPN Outdoors: Since hunting in Africa can present potentially dangerous situations for hunter, professional hunter and trackers if hunters are not properly prepared, in what ways do you communicate these concerns to clients if you perceive them to fall into this category?

Vermaak: The most dangerous situation of all is a hunter that does not take firearm safety seriously. A poorly controlled firearm is the most frightening thing in the African bush! We always have a team talk about firearm safety, and then we will discuss the hazards of the various species that we are after and the potential situations that may develop.

When hunting dangerous game it's critical to wait for the right shot on the quarry, not take a marginal shot that could lead to a life-threatening situation. On all game the first shot is the one that counts. The PH and hunter should also have a detailed discussion about shot placement, especially on dangerous game, and the tricky one here is an elephant.

The Perfect Shot video and book is a must have! If a dangerous animal is wounded, and the PH asks you stay back, listen to him or be prepared to face the music. Often, too many guns on a dangerous follow up can be more devastating than the wounded animal.

ESPN Outdoors: What tips would you give American safari hunters on things they must have, must know and must be prepared (physically and mentally) to do in order to make their hunt safe and successful?

Vermaak: Practice, practice, practice your shooting! From a bench first; then off three-legged shooting sticks, then from a prone position, sitting, etc.

Be 100 percent familiar with your firearm; know the ballistics and trajectory. Don't use a firearm that you are scared of or not comfortable with. Be prepared for long shots as well: 200 to 300 yards are very doable shots if the hunter is fully proficient.

However the hunter must never take a shot he or she is not comfortable with, even if the PH suggests taking the shot. Often hunters think that hunting in Africa is like shooting in a zoo. Many have the impression that they will see game wherever they go and that the game will stand around and wait to be shot.

Films on Discovery Channel create this impression of Africa for the true novice even though these films are stunning and I, too, watch them all the time. In many areas there is no shooting permitted from a vehicle, hence walking and stalking is the order of the day after game has been spotted from the hunting car.

Often species such as buffalo, elephant, eland, kudu, vaal rhebok, mountain reedbuck and many others do require a good deal of walking, and hunters should prepare for this. Africa is also not entirely flat; there are many hunting areas that require altitude walking. A good level of fitness always helps on a safari.

Clients should do more research about the country they are hunting in, and the species they will be pursuing. It's disappointing when your hunter takes an animal and then walks up to it and asks the PH what it is.

ESPN Outdoors: When packing for any hunt — be it for one in a foreign country or someplace local — most hunters tend to over pack to be prepared for numerous unknown situations. What advice do you have for safari hunters for selecting and packing gear for both short and extended safaris?

Vermaak: Most safari outfitters will have a detailed packing list in their brochure or on their web site suited to the conditions that hunters can expect in their outfitters' concessions. And almost all camps have a daily laundry service. Always pack a rain coat; always pack warm clothing; always pack a head lamp, two flashlights, two sets of hunting shoes, good binoculars; a good, sharp knife, Leatherman multi-tool, portable gun cleaning equipment and clothing that do not rip or make a noise when walking through the bush.

I also suggest that clients bring a backpack that can house some of their essential gear for the day out like cameras, sun block, hat, gloves, chewing gum, sunglasses, water bottle, etc. A good, quality camera with a good variable zoom is a must have. Take lots of pictures of the scenery, the safari staff, the wildlife, sunrises, sunsets, the camp, camp life in general! Many hunters think the camera is there just to take pictures of dead animals – but there is much more to a safari than just trophies.

Keep a journal: instead of writing into a note book every day, use a Dictaphone (small tape recorder) which you can talk into as you lie in bed at night or as you take care of morning business, if you follow! Then have it nicely typed up on your return and filed away! One of DSC's legends, John Estes, taught me this ... invaluable!

ESPN Outdoors: As is the case with all guided hunts, the relationship between the hunter and guide is very important — and it's a relationship that goes both ways. What should hunters understand about their professional hunters, trackers and other outfitter staff that will help them to build strong relationships with the group and make their safari more enjoyable?

Vermaak: This is one of the best aspects of being a guide. The bond that is formed on a safari is unlike any other friendship. It's one that always stands the test of time and carries on without having to be in touch often.

Hunters must trust their PH, even if he does make an error on a safari, like when the kudu is 52 inches — not 55 as he had initially called it — because the PH will always do his best for his client in the time that is available. Hunters must also not have unrealistic expectations, provided they haven't been told by the PH to expect a 60-inch kudu!

PHs are passionate about their work; they are crazy about the African bush, they admire the animals they hunt, and they love and respect Africa and its wildlife. They enjoy sharing Africa with their clients and they are proud of Africa.

Hunters should interact with the trackers and safari staff that they come into contact with despite any language barriers. Crack jokes, make fun of the PH, laugh and have a good time with them. The trackers and other camp staff respect the hunter, so respect them too!

Most importantly have fun on a safari! Each member of the safari team, including the ladies or men that clean your tent, are important to the success of your safari, and they are proud of what their contribution is to your experience

ESPN Outdoors: In your years as a professional hunter, undoubtedly you've witnessed some humorous instances that arose from hunters being ill-prepared for their hunt of a lifetime. Describe your most memorable and the outcome.

Vermaak: I was hunting with a wonderful fellow, who I really enjoyed being with, but he could not shoot to save his life! He had done zero practicing before the safari and he was new to the hunting scene.

We spotted a herd of hartebeest and stalked them. We had a strong wind blowing head-on into us, which allowed us to get within 70 yards of the herd using good cover. I selected a good old bull off to the left side of the herd to avoid the wrong animal being shot. The bull was about 20 yards to the left of the next animal.

The hunter was on the shooting sticks and on the right animal; I told him to take his time and aim for the middle of the shoulder. Kaaabooom! The herd never moved; they never even lifted their heads and kept feeding! I saw no dust — no sign of the bullet at all! I was puzzled!

I told him to reload; take his time and squeeze! Kaaabooom! Same result, but this time one old cow lifted her head, totally puzzled, just as I was. Then she dropped her head and continued feeding! At this stage, my hunter lost his nerve and literally "opened up" on the herd, finishing the last 3 rounds in his magazine despite my loud and panicked protests! It sounded like a quick burst from a semi-automatic gun battle!

With this, most of the herd looked around — totally confused — and ambled off. The shots had missed by miles, thankfully! At this stage my hunter was a mess. He tried to reload, and I suggested we take a break and check the rifle on a target, which we did, and it was dead on!

The poor fellow was distraught, so we started from scratch on the range, and then dry fired at game that stood around long enough to practice on — all the time focusing on squeezing the trigger. In the end, he regained his confidence and he had a successful hunt making some jolly good shots! At some stage we all go through a bad shooting patch, so one just needs to focus on the basics and go from there!

Happy hunting!