Last year I felt drawn to return to Croatia. The country has so much to offer and the people are so warm – I simply love to travel there. This time I wanted something special, so I decided on a mouflon hunt on the Croatian Adriatic, around the Kvarner Gulf.
From Novi Vinodolski, my girlfriend Tanja and I drive inland, where we soon reach our destination. The small village of Ledenice – little more than a few houses – is located near Breze, where the Winnetou movies where filmed. We meet our Croatian hunting guides Neven, Miroslav, and Valentin, who will take turns accompanying us for the next few days, and Neven invites us to his home for dinner. Still tired from the trip, we won’t stay up too long, because the next day will start at 5 a.m.
It is still pitch dark outside when we are picked up and stow our luggage in a pickup truck. The hunting area stretches from Novi Vinodolski along the coastal road leading south from the sea up to the high plateaus of the Dinaric Alps. The mountains on the Croatian Adriatic are a typical karst range. On the weathered limestone, in addition to extensive forests of beech and pine trees, there is a lot of barren, exposed rock that has been eroded over time and is crisscrossed by countless gullies and gorges. Deep, elongated valleys extend from the plateau to the coast – an ideal habitat for mouflon, which is one of the main game species here, along with red deer, roe deer, wild boar, and brown bears.
Our first destination this early morning is a parking lot on the coastal road at the southern border of the hunting area. We want to orient ourselves first and perhaps begin looking for game. It is already dawn, but everything is still gray in gray. In front of us lies one of those deep valleys that stretch across the coastline from the plateau down to the sea. Shrubs and trees cover the rocky landscape, so it’s not easy for me to spot game. But thanks to modern technology, which has long since arrived here, we can spot game further up the slope, at about 500 m, with the Leica Calonox View. Now that we know where the game is, we can locate it with our binoculars as well. Three does and one stag are moving up the hill, towards the next valley. Now we also spot game on the left side of the valley ahead. This time it is mouflon. I count 10, 20… no, close to 30 animals. They move briskly up the slope, again and again hidden by bushes and shrubs.
Valentin grabs his backpack from the pickup and straps it to his back. The hunt seems to be starting, and we hurry to join him. From the coastal road, game trails lead along the valleys deep into the interior. They are easy to see, and the gradient is moderate. We choose one of these. After just a few meters, dense vegetation engulfs us. Valentin tells us to be very quiet. Mouflon not only have excellent eyesight, they also hear very well. Cautiously we move on, at regular intervals Valentin stops and listens, then quietly starts moving again. Our little troop makes very slow progress. When we stop again to listen, I hear it. Further ahead, stones clatter against each other! Mouflon, which unfortunately jump off. We must have startled them. But just as the mouflon can hear us, we can also hear them. We’ve been on the road for an hour when Valentin points to a salt lick and a large watering hole further back. Here, too, we can hear the telltale clacking of the stones when game moves over them, but we can’t see any. The high bushes obscure the surrounding slopes. But there is a lot of game on the move here. We can hear it, and there are plently of tracks around the waterhole, too.
We stalk further into the valley, notice a large cave on our left, and Valentin only says one word: “bear”. We glance over a bit nervously, then go on. Bear hunting is very popular here in this area, especially among the Croats, and is carried out with great passion, as evidenced by the numerous hunting stories we heard last night.
Noon approaches and we’re slowly getting hungry. We had set out without breakfast, and now our stomachs growl. As if in response, Valentin stops abruptly, observes the area in front of him and starts back towards the coastal road. Now we make faster progress, it’s downhill, and we don’t have to walk so carefully. Shortly before reaching the coastal road, we discover mouflon again, on the left slope. A suitable mouflon ram is there, and the herd has not yet noticed us. We hurry to get closer. However, what looked easy from the stalking path now turns out to be a real challenge, because the karstic rock is razor sharp and loose in places. A wrong step, combined with a fall, would certainly be very painful and serious. So we have to be extremely careful to get into a suitable shooting position. The opportunity passes. The herd moves further up the slope and thus out of our sight. We take it in stride…
We see a lot of game the following days, too, but shoot none. Our Croatian hunting guides are slowly getting nervous. Already two days of hunting and still no mouflon ram! This has never happened before. But that’s hunting, and hunting luck can never be forced. The morning of our last hunting day has also passed, and we haven’t brought down any game. Either the game was too far away, or the ram was too close to the herd, or we were too slow. On our last evening, we want to double our chances, and so we split up. Neven and I head up onto the plateau, Tanja and Valentin go down into the valley. When Neven and I are standing at the place where we could watch the bears the day before, we discover mouflon on the other side of the valley. A big mouflon ram is there, and we briefly discuss the situation. We could manage to get there in time, but then we would have to hurry up quite a bit. So we quickly pack up all our things, and a race against time begins – once the sun has set behind the mountains, it gets dark quickly. We arrive in half an hour. Although completely out of breath, but still in time before the sun goes down. Neven stalks ahead to locate the herd while I take a deep breath. My pulse gradually calms down and I look around. Neven is lying down, about 30 meters in front of me, at the edge of the plateau, observing the area below. On this side of the valley, the slope is much steeper, and while the situation looked manageable from a distance, I now realize where I am.
Neven beckons, gesturing for me to stay low, so I crawl over to him on all fours. No easy task with my backpack (as a base), binoculars and rifle. Thank God the rocks aren’t quite so sharp-edged here. I manage to get next to Neven. Carefully, I peek over the edge – and immediately pull back. From the edge of the plateau, it’s a 100-meter vertical descent. Far below, on a flatter scree field, there are mouflon. Neven whispers “Shoot!”, grabs my gun and backpack and places it on the edge of the abyss.
My heart is in my throat, and not from hunting fever. I am, quite simply, afraid. Afraid of slipping and falling into the depths. I peek down again, but now I can’t spot the game at all. I’d have to get much closer to the edge to see it. “No way,” I think to myself and decline the shot. It’s not for me.
I had my chance, and not just today. On the other days, too. I didn’t take it, for various reasons: sometimes I wasn’t ready or the game was too far away, sometimes there was no backstop, sometimes I was too hesitant. That’s why I did not shoot. I certainly can’t fault the hunting ground or the hunting guides – they gave everything. It just didn’t work out.
We keep our heads up and enjoy the final evening. Shortly before we say goodbye and go to bed, Miroslav asks me when our flight leaves tomorrow. “Sometime in the afternoon,” I answer. Miroslav grins:
“Well, then we can try again tomorrow morning …”
This time, we try a completely different place: a large, rocky peninsula that reaches far into the sea. We park the car at the edge of the coastal road and continue on foot. When we arrive down at the shore, we discover mouflon moving along the slope towards the sea. Again and again the herd briefly appears between the bushes and shrubs, only to disappear into them again. The area here is so rocky and stony that it is virtually impossible to approach the game. We still have one chance: We have to wait for the exact moment when the mouflon herd crosses the crest. And so we turn back and take an old path that leads to a stony beach at the end of the headland. After a few hundred meters we get ready. On our left, a first ram appears, briefly surveys the scene and disappears again. Two more rams appear one moment, and are gone the next. It’s as if we’re cursed, but we hope that the game will cross the stony path that lies ahead of us. That’s the only possibility to get a clear shot. I get ready, no longer even glancing to the left where the game is moving along, but looking squarely straight ahead. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, there he is, peering in our direction. I only see him head-on, but I pull the trigger anyway. I won’t get another chance. The ram leaps and goes down, just 10 meters off the path. That’s what I call good hunting at the last possible minute!