The Macnab By Dirk Steynberg...

The Origins of the Macnab

To shoot a free-ranging buck, catch a game fish and bag a brace of game birds all in one day during legal shooting light, all taken ethically and in the spirit of the sport – this is the challenge of the Macnab hunt – the origins of which are interesting if somewhat vague.

The character, John Macnab, was the creation of writer John Buchan in 1925. In the eponymous book, three prominent Scottish landowners receive a challenging note telling them that one John Macnab intends to poach from their estates without being caught. If he is caught, he will donate money to a good cause. The reactions of the three landowners differ considerably. Sightings of the insolent sportsman provide conflicting evidence as to his identity, prompting speculation as to whether he is a gentleman or a tramp. It turns out that he is indeed a gentleman.

In the story, two hunters and a fisherman were involved – all three acted as John Macnab. This greatly confused the landlords. Two of them had to poach a deer each, and one had to catch a salmon (no mention was made of birds) all while the landowners had been pre-warned of their intentions. The landlords hired men to keep guard 24 hours a day and Macnab rated his chances of success at one in a hundred. The hunters planned their actions meticulously and made use of several helpers, mainly to distract the game guards. The first hunter was caught but escaped, while the second one managed successfully to achieve his goal. The fisherman also very cleverly caught his salmon.


Setting out to achieve a Macnab

Since 1925 the Macnab has evolved into what it is today. How this transformation took place, and at what point birds became included, is unclear to me, and despite some research I am none the wiser.

My son Fred and I had often wondered whether it was possible to achieve a Macnab in the area around the Rhodes. We finally decided to try to do it ourselves. To succeed, a hunter needs to be fit, able to shoot a rifle fast and far, be an experienced wing shooter, and be familiar with the art of fly-fishing. The problem in our area is the distance between fish, fur and feather. Although there are plenty of rivers, the wild trout angling season was closed for spawning and we would have to travel quite far to a dam to catch our trout – dams are open throughout the year. As a race against time – to achieve our goal at all costs – would not be in the true spirit of hunting, we promised ourselves that we would enjoy the day and not be driven to achieve a Macnab by shortcuts. Such a challenge must never tempt one to use unethical methods, or it would defeat the whole purpose of the exercise.

We would start with the most difficult part – the Vaal Rhebuck. Their population has increased considerably over the last five to ten years, mainly due to a reduction in the number of marauding dogs in the area, but these are extremely shy and wild buck – Lady Luck must be on your side. Shooting a brace of birds – Greywing partridge, in our case – would not be a problem, as they are abundant and we have a good hunting dog. If these two stages went according to plan, we would rush off to a beautiful dam about 30km away to catch a trout before dark.

It was early July and the temperature was -10°C. We dressed warmly and set out at 6.30am – it was still dark. There were four of us: Fred’s six year old son, Dirkie, and Bles, our handyman, were both just as enthusiastic as we were. It was Dirkie’s first real hunting expedition. Shortly after first light we saw some partridges and stopped to count them – only four. In the beginning of the season coveys number between eight and twenty birds, and hunters try to leave no fewer than six birds to a covey. A few minutes later we saw a covey of six; still too few to shoot. Birds found next to the road are normally under pressure from poachers, we wished them luck and left them. About 40 minutes from home we started getting too close to our Rhebuck habitat to risk shooting at partridges, so our eyes scanned the countryside for the day’s furred quarry. We were prepared for a very long walk…

A thrilling start to the day

Then we saw them. Four buck ran to our right, straight up along a small ridge towards the distant horizon. The Land Rover slammed to a halt and we both jumped out. Fred suggested I take the longer way and cover the left side of the ridge while he went straight up along the right side. When I saw them again I went down on my stomach and tried to get them in the scope. It was still quite dark as the sun was just rising behind the far side of the mountain. Just when I thought I had the scope on them I heard Fred whistle and a second later a shot from his favourite rifle, an 8x57 rang out. Then I saw just three buck clearing the horizon. Fred shouted to Bles for assistance and they eventually hove into view, carrying his buck.

We were back at the Land Rover by 7.45am – I shook so much that taking photographs was a major effort; it was still two degrees below freezing. Standing around the buck, we suddenly noticed how quiet it was. There were no signs of human life – the closest farmhouse was 40km away. It is a rare privilege to experience such pristine uninhabited countryside, to enjoy its silence and its solitude.

We proceeded higher into the mountains, our destination a ridge on the escarpment nearly 9000ft above sea level. At 8.30am we stopped to survey the countryside with binoculars. These buck are very wild and if alarmed will not stop running for a kilometer or more. We spotted a single buck about 800m away, looking straight towards us, with only his head and shoulders sticking out behind a ridge. We worked out a plan of action. I would walk the escarpment alone, towards the spot where the solitary buck had been seen. Fred would meet me in two hours if he’d heard no shots. We would then concentrate on his Macnab and call mine off. By walking on the edge of the escarpment, I would be able to check over the ridge every 100m or so, for any buck warming in the sun.

I had left my beloved 8mm Spandau Mauser at home and was carrying a .270 bought in 1980 for culling. This rifle had disappointed me until I changed to Barnes-X bullets and discovered that the cartridge itself was fine – the bullets had been the problem. With a light wind blowing straight into my face, I slowly approached the edge of a steep valley – I could see more than a kilometer to the left and right. I spotted a solitary buck way down the slope directly below. I stepped back quickly and went down flat on my belly. Crawling forward, I slowly pushed the rifle over the edge until I had the buck in the scope. I could not believe what I saw – a mountain reedbuck ram. Although often seen elsewhere in the district we had never seen them in this vicinity before. Hardly believing my good fortune I quickly put the crosshairs behind the shoulders. The ram was very far and nearly straight down the hill. The crosshairs seemed thick over the buck when I squeezed the trigger. The ram dropped and rolled down the steep slope.

A tedious journey back to our vehicle

Our group joined me and after the congratulations I realized my plight: the ram was very far down. Bles and I carefully began the steep descent – one slip could find us reaching the ram much sooner than intended. Eventually we got there, albeit with slightly shaking legs. The ram was in good condition and the horns measured about six inches. Though I had allowed for the steep angle, the shot was high, entering between the shoulder blades and exiting low down through the opposite shoulder. Fred’s shot had been exactly the opposite, entering low down on the shoulder and exiting at the top of the back.

The long uphill climb commenced with me holding the back legs and Bles the front legs. Within a hundred meters, after a number of rest stops, we concluded that by the time we reached the top we would both be totally exhausted. We compromised: I would carry the rifle and he the buck. This worked much better and we reached the summit in good time. As the carcasses would lie in the Land Rover for the rest of the day, we gutted them and left the remains for the scavengers – Cape vulture, bearded vulture, crows and even jackal and caracal.

Moving on to our wing shooting event

Now it was time for the Greywing partridges. Our English pointer, Kate, could hardly wit to go into action. We worked our way back to where we had earlier heard some Greywing calling. Kate went off ahead of us, ranging beautifully, 100-200m to the left and then to the right. Before long she stopped dead, as if she’d run into an invisible fence. By now I was convinced that if we were to achieve a Macnab we would have to concentrate on getting Fred his; mine would be a bonus. So Fred went forward with his beautiful drieling (double 16 gauge with a 9.3x82R below) – a gift from his grandfather. When the Greywing erupted from the grass Fred fired two quick shots but to my amazement did not get his usual left-and-right. With one bird in the bag we followed Kate further up and along the ridge. Very soon we had all but forgotten the time constraints of the hunt and enjoyed an hour of the port of kings – something we seldom do, as we normally act as professional guides to clients, never carrying guns ourselves.

When the third bird came down, Dirkie could no longer contain his curiosity: “Daddy, what makes the birds fall? Is it the noise?” A boy’s shooting education cannot begin too soon, so Fred went down on his haunches and took a shotgun shell out of his belt. With is knife he opened it and explained how it works and what makes the bird fall.

We shot three birds each and then, realizing we still had a long way to go, returned to the Land Rover for a late breakfast. We drove off at about 12.00am and arrived at the 15ha dam an hour later, pleased at the sight of the surrounding pastures teeming with duck, geese and other waterfowl. As we stopped, two farm workers came running down with a 12-volt battery for the small boat tied to the jetty.

Gone fishing

There were two more potential obstacles to overcome. Firstly, fish do go off the bite, and, secondly, would I, as an old codger, be able to land a trout using all this new-fangled equipment. Luckily, we had all afternoon. Fred, who has caught many a five-pounder, and bigger, in this very dam, kindly made up my tackle and I rushed off to the dam wall. I had to catch just one fish – size was not important. Fred, however, had made his own rules and would settle for nothing less than a three-pounder to complete his Macnab.

With my first cast I managed to get the fly to land about 12 meters out. The fly was a black woolly bugger (I would have preferred a Mrs Simpson). As instructed by Fred I gave the fly time to sink properly before retrieving. The fish took the fly about four meters from the side, and immediately proceeded to take line at great speed. I shouted to Fred to do something and be quick about it. He came running with the net and was overjoyed when he saw the size of the fish. He no doubt thought that if I cold get a fish that size, imagine the one he would catch. We quickly took some photographs. I had achieved my goal, now it was over to Fred. I moved away along the dam wall to have some more fun, while he proceeded to complete his challenge.

Watching from a distance I noticed Fred hooking a couple of trout, but all were too small for his liking. Eventually he and Dirkie got into the boat and quietly motored over to one of his favourite spots on the other side. I caught three more small fish. After about an hour they returned – he had managed to get the fish he wanted. It was hooked from the boat and had fled into submerged vegetation where it kept fouling the line. He had taken about 15 minutes to bring it in. We took photos and packed up. It was about 2.30pm and we were in excellent spirits. We had had a magnificent day and things had gone better than we had hoped for. The weather was perfect, the game more than readily available and the privilege for father, son and grandson to hunt and enjoy the day together will forever stay in our memories.

A successful double Macnab

The other night in the bar one on my learned friends (an excellent fisherman and hunter) had much to say about Macnab hunting. He claimed that there are three different Macnab categories: gold, silver and bronze. The gold Macnab is awarded if one achieves the feat in one day, silver in two days and bronze in three days. When I asked what you get for achieving a Macnab, I was told that a certificate is 0presented as proof. Anybody could write such a certificate, I was assured, you could even do it yourself. Perhaps Magnum readers could be of assistance in supplying more information about this? I, for one, would be interested in hearing a more complete story of the origins of the Macnab hunt.