An Adventure Hunting in the Beautiful Hohe Tatra Mountains of North Eastern Slovakia
Dr. Harold C. Lyon, Jr.
The Hohe Tatra Mountains remind me of the Alps – “new” rugged snow capped peaks separating The Slovakian Republic from Poland. It is hard to believe I’m here.
This year – my third one as a Fulbright professor in Munich – was my first semi-retirement year – one of surviving on a lean budget with no money for a European hunt ("Jagd") as in the past ten years which brought me to my favorite European city to do research and teach. But my neurologist friend, Adolf Weindl introduced me to his Czech colleague, Roman Erben, whose wife, Tania, and her family live in this beautiful, remote corner of what used to be behind the “Iron Curtain” in Eastern Europe. When Roman offered me his apartment …free, I was very interested, as I love exploring the old Eastern European countries. But when he enriched the offer a quantum jump by telling me Tania’s cousin, Igor, is a hunter – one whose late father was a renown hunter in this region for Brown Bear, Red Stags, Roe Deer, wild boar …and even wolves, I was ready to go!
In 1952 our occupation of Germany was coming to an end and we began turning local governance back to the Germans. I was only 17 then and we lived in not yet recovered post WWII Germany with my father, a US Army officer, my mother, and brother. That was the first year that Americans were required to take the German hunting license examination – a grueling six hour written exam covering all the game animals in Germany, their mating and life cycles, habits, tracking, safety, hunting dogs, and most interesting to me, the rich “Old World” hunting traditions. For example, not unlike our native Americans, game is always honored in a variety of ways including giving the “Lezte Bitzen” when a sprig of evergreen is inserted in the animal´s mouth as a ceremonial last bite – a way of thanking the animal for its life. After months of study, I passed that exam (which now has a 60% failure rate) and now 50 years later, I present that old document with my teenage photo on it, pay a renewal fee and the German officials stamp it and “alles ist in Ordung!” I think we Americans have much to learn from the Germans about hunting. It is my intention with my German Jaeger friend, Peter Busch, to write a book about the “Old World Hunting traditions” and this sharing is only one of a series of experiences which, after my full retirement, will eventually appear in that book. In 2002, I didn’t need a German license, though I had it, but I did need my local license to hunt in Slovakia.
Saturday morning Igor arrives punctually at my Munich faculty apartment at 7 AM and we share a beautiful drive south east of Munich into an inspiring sunrise traveling very fast on the autobahn with a panorama of Alpine peaks to our south. We drive in Igor’s mini-van through southern Bavaria, into Austria, past beautiful Salzburg (one hour from Munich) to Vienna (3 hours) and into the Slovakian capitol of Bratislava (4 hours) where the autobahn becomes intermittent and two thirds of the route from there is on smaller roads leading us another 4 hours deep into Slovakia. The entire drive is about 9 hours from Munich (4 from Vienna) and we pass majestic old castles on the hill tops mingled with ugly decaying factories and huge cultivated fields which Igor explains are still “collective farms” from the Soviet occupation. We see many lack luster gray high rise economy apartments built by the Soviets to house the local populace workforce. Now we see also some evidence of new building and houses springing up in the villages. But transition from Communism to a capitalistic society takes generations rather then the promises of 10 years or so given to the people in so many newly free Eastern countries just after the wall fell. No one really counted on how effectively four decades of communism erodes peoples’ motivation and creativity.
Unemployment in Slovakia still hovers above 20%. The potential of new initiatives, like Igor’s, to start bringing tourists and their money into this culturally rich region, is a worthy and promising endeavor.
Igor is an incredibly intelligent, personable young man with a young wife and two little girls to support who has created a reasonably effective business of buying used cars in Munich and transporting them back to Slovakia to fix and then sell. He is a member of a Jagd Verein – a club of hunters who are responsible for managing over 7000 hectors of beautiful evergreen forest in this remote ski resort area of Slovakia.
In Germany hunting has become largely a rich man’s sport, except for the winter drive hunts (“Druck Jagd”). But you need connections and good fortune to be invited to one of these hunts. You also need incredible discernment to correctly choose and shoot the free animals (“Freigabe”) allowed in each hunt. At the beginning of the hunt, after all hunters and drivers are assembled in military formation, the leader will announce, for example, that today one may freely shoot wild boar (“Wildschwein”) IF they are male and 1-1/2 years or younger; Red Stags (“Hirsch”) IF they have 10 point or less which are imperfect (“Class II B or C”), or Roe Deer (“Reh”) if they are females or fawns …but this time of the year the Reh bucks have already shed their antlers!
And the game in a drive hunt is running full tilt, giving the hunter in his or her stand, only seconds to make an important decision about whether or not to shoot. Better NOT to shoot, than make the humiliating and costly mistake of shooting an older boar which could cost you upwards of $2500 in Germany, or a Reh buck without his antlers, which could cost $500, or even worse, a class 1A Red Stag which could set you back $5000 or more! These drive hunts in winter are like the fastest, but very real, video game! But the festivity and traditions are an experience not to miss.
After the hunt ends, all the animals are assembled on a huge bed of evergreen (“Strecke”) with the highest trophy value animals in the front to the right and the hunters assemble in formation behind the game. Each successful hunter is called up to receive a sprig of evergreen dipped in blood (“Brucke”) which he or she will proudly wear in the right side of the hat the rest of the day, signifying that a trophy animal has been shot with good sportsmanship. Then we all stand at attention while the Jaegers, with their hunting horns, play last call to the Hirsch, followed by last call to the Boar and then last call to the Reh on down to the lower trophy animals like the foxes and rabbits which may have been shot. After this, all assemble in a local restaurant for more festivities such as singing, more hunting horn playing and the King of the Hunt (“Jagd Koenig”) who has shot the highest point trophies telling all assembled the story of how he came about to shoot his, after which he is obliged to treat the entire assembly of hunters and drivers to a toast of schnapps. I have shared some wonderful experiences with my Jaeger hunting friend, Peter Busch, one of the most respected hunters I have ever met as well as one who cherishes and works to preserve these old traditions.
I invited my two sons to join me in Germany south of Berlin for a memorable hunt last year for Red Stag, Fallow Deer and Boar, which will be the subject of another article. Most of all I wanted them to experience these old traditions.
But this hunt with Igor Kollega is one of the few undiscovered hunting bargains to be found in Europe. Igor charges $100 (mainly gasoline) to pick you up in Munich or Vienna in his up-to-date micro bus and drive you al the way to the hunting grounds, in the Hohe Tatra, near the resort town of Smokovec, about $30/night for a comfortable Pension with breakfast, or as we did on this trip, $20/night for his club’s rustic hunting cabin (“Jagd Hutte”) in the forest where, in winter, one must pack in food and hunting gear and cook on a wood stove.
The real undiscovered secret is that here in Slovakia the trophy costs are a fraction of what I have found in Germany, Europe, or even in the Western US or Canada. One can shoot a large male wild boar (“Keiler”) for about $200-$400, depending on size; a once in a life time “Class 1A Capital” 14+point Red Stag costs about $2500 or a very large and respectable, but imperfect, “Class IIB” 12-14 point Red Stag for as low as $600.
The tree stand (“Hochsitz”) I am in (when we were not stalking in the mountains) is only slightly less grand than those I have used in Germany, but compared to U.S. standards, it is pure luxury with a carpeted room perched securely on stilts which has 4 glass shooting windows affording a view in all directions.
On this trip from Munich I am a guest and we arrive on Saturday afternoon to a warm welcome in the ski resort town of Smokivice where Igor’s wife, Monika, and his children who have not seen him in three weeks, greet us. For this first night I am comfortably situated in my artist friend, Roman and his wife, Tania’s, comfortable apartment only a half block away from Igor, with a spectacular view of the Hohe Tatra Mountains and tastefully decorated with Roman’s inspirational art. Roman was awarded the European Kafka Prize for poetry and art in 2000. I love the Czech and Slovakian people who seem to possess an artistic and spiritual strength beyond so many other cultures.
The next morning (Sunday) I am invited to attend church with Igor – an inspirational experience in a beautiful 300-year-old wooden and log church almost in the shadows of the Hohe Tatra.
After church we head north. There is snow here in February and the bears are in hibernation, but they are plentiful here in the fall hunting season. Additionally, the Red Stag season is closed, but I look forward to hunting them anyway…with my Sony digital camcorder. What I am able to shoot is wild boar and wolves. What I want to shoot is, at least as challenging as shooting a 14 point Elk in Montana, or a 250 pound White Tail buck in New Hampshire, something one might, with lots of luck and skill, do once in a life time. I am after a 6-7 year old “Keiler” – a big tusked boar, a wily game trophy for which this area is known. These old boar have a keen sense of hearing, smell and intuition as least as good as a bear or a White Tail.
I have mixed feelings about shooting a wolf, which is considered a real trophy here. But Igor tells me there are many here and that they need to be harvested as they are capable, running in packs, of killing many other big game – especially in the deep snow where they are able to remain on top while their quarry sink in.
But I will wait for a shot at a big enough boar, hopefully, to have the entire head mounted which I can eventually ship back home to mount on my New Hampshire summer cottage, Lake Winnipesaukee wall, next to my Chamois mount, which is another story for later. I have always been an optimist!
Given the September 11 Terrorist disaster, for the first year of my annual pilgrimages to Germany, I have not brought my German-made 30-06 Mauser rifle with me. But this is not a problem, as Igor will furnish a weapon, eliminating the vast paperwork and bureaucracy of passing through borders with a weapon, a process, which has increased in complexity manyfold since September 11. This afternoon, after church we go to test fire Igor’s 30-06 – a good thing as it was over 40 clicks off zero! And now we are driving north toward the Polish border and our hunting grounds. Our plan is to buy food and pack in for 5 days of roughing it in the snow bound mountain-hunting cabin. One of my German hunting friends tells me that there is no hunting left in the world except in North America, Canada, or Alaska where one can survive in wilderness rather than shooting a specific animal in a “zoo-like” setting. I get his point, but he has never hunting here in Slovakia. No Americans have either. I am the first.
If you want to book this Old World hunting experience of a lifetime, you could fly into Munich or, better still, into Vienna. Either leave your wife there to enjoy that great city, or bring her with you. Igor will meet you and take you in his car 5 hours to the Hohe Tatra. Though, you can hunt wild boar or wolves in January –February, by far the most exciting hunting time in Slovakia is September when the Red Stags are bugling (“Barumpft Zeit”). A Capital 12-18 point Hirsch is just a bit smaller than our western Wapiti Elk, and if you shoot one here, the trophy fee is much less than in Germany, depending on the class and weight of the trophy -- about half of what one would pay in the more economically developed and discovered areas of Germany, Hungary, and Poland. By the way, in Europe, game shot, other than the trophy, heart, and liver, does not belong to the hunter. Most is sold by the Jaeger to restaurants and hotels, which brings in money for the expenses of the hunting club.
Trophy preparation fees here are significantly lower as well compared to U.S. costs. For example, a Red Stag antler and bleached European skull mount on a beautiful hand carved plaque, prepared by the guides in Igor’s club would be about $50! Mounting a boar’s entire head or a wolf pelt with head is about $200 plus shipping.
If you have interest in planning such a bargain European hunt, email me at the address at the end of this article or you can contact Igor directly, (if you speak German or Slovakian!) at these phone numbers shown there: ___________________
Perhaps your biggest barrier (not mine as I speak German) is the language one, since Igor speaks excellent German but little English. He is planning to have a translator available in the future as well as a series of cards in English which will make it clear to you, when hunting, the local rules of this wonderful game.
Hunting here is an aerobic workout…several times per day! I follow, one foot exactly in Vojteck’s so as to minimize “crunch” noise in the frozen snow. Every ten steps or so, Vojteck sinks in to his knees. I try to avoid stepping in those holes. There is an art to walking on top of the snow, and when you succeed, you save considerable energy. Instead of rolling my feet from heal to toe, I watch as Vojtech steps lightly and flat-footed to maximize the area supporting his feet. And try to keep both feet on the ground at the same time to distribute your weight. No wonder the wolf is king and top of the food chain here. The wolves run on top while the Hirsch, Reh, boar and red deer sink in, slowing and draining their energy. The only animal the wolf does not prey on here is the brown bear, but in winter they are hibernating, so the world reigns. Vojtech shows me the 14 point antlers of a giant Red Stag the wolves have killed. And last August, Vojtech’s friend was leaped upon and badly mauled by a big brown bear while hunting. He had no round of ammunition in his rifle while the bear struggled with him. He jammed the rifle barrel into the 700-pound creature’s mouth, which somehow frightened the bear enough for him to escape and run for his life. The man spent the next hour, bloody and in fear, searching for his 10-year-old son who was also hunting in the area. He spent 3 weeks in a hospital recovering. This happened only a short distance from the cabin we are in. More recently a bear tore off a local man’s arm and the same year attacked and killed an elderly women.
Vojtech stalks through the forest with considerably more speed than I still hunt. He acts like a man who is hunting…but also is being hunted. Hearing the wolves somewhere out there on the mountain, howling at the moon, brings out an atavistic survival instinct. When I get up to visit the outhouse at night and hear something in the woods, I am on full alert!
Our first day of hunting is Sunday evening. We drive to the small, rustic village of Velka Lesna where Vojtech lives. Upon entering his home, it reminds me of those Easter eggs where all inside is so much grander than the shell. After meeting his wife, Jarmila, and his three young daughters, he takes me to his trophy room. I am amazed at the largest Red stag antlers I have ever seen! (5 feet across between main branch tines). And though only 12 points, the main branches are bigger round than my arms! He tells me it is small compared to many living in his forest. I would settle for this trophy anytime. He later explains that to get enough money to complete his house, he has, sadly, sold many of his best trophies to guests, who pay dearly for such racks
This is an incredibly poor, but happy culture. It is a joy to observe such happy children playing with one another and very affectionate parents taking time to play with and teach their children which they patiently do.
A huge mounted Eagle with an 8 foot wingspan hovers over the room, beautifully mounted by Vojtech’s friend, Daniel, who we later meet. This past October, Vojtech was on snowshoes in the snow. He came upon two large male Eagles, which had killed an adult Reh, buck (which weighs about 60 pounds!) One of the Eagles buzzed Vojtech as he approached their kill. Suddenly the other swooped down and attacked him, sinking its talons into his thigh, knocking him down and beating him with its huge wings. He grabbed the Eagle by the neck with both hands, not daring to let go for fear of being struck in the face by the bird’s beak. For 15 minutes he choked the big bird while it held onto his leg and beat him with its wings, until he finally choked it to death. He tells me it is not unusual for an Eagle to attack a person here. A woman from the village was attacked while walking in the forest and the Eagle kept its talons in her head until her screams were heard by a woodsman who beat it off her bloody head.
The first evening, we move our gear into the rustic hunting lodge, which contains a bunkroom with a huge stove-oven with curved dome constructed by Vojtech. We feed the already glowing coals with stacked wood from outside – fruits of Vojtech’s labors. We quickly dress into hunting gear and head up the steep hill with Vojtech leading Igor and me…. like a mountain goat. And up, up and up we continue through deep snow, trying in vain to walk on top. I am breathing hard and I am one, who at age 66 normally takes a little too much pride in trying to out-hike my sons.
As I walk, I wonder why I always try to prove myself physically? I have been competing physically all my life, it seems. Time to relax and accept that these two men, who are half my age, are in much better physical shape than I. Why do I still take pride in dragging my son’s and friends’ deer out of the north woods? Am I trying to complete some old karma? At West Point one of my few claims to fame was being first man in my class in physical education, by setting new records for the obstacle course, maxing the physical combat proficiency test, and earning my “A” in track. Time to give it up!
Not since Army Ranger school in 1958 have I experienced this…stepping in footsteps before me in the dark. But after a mile of upward climbing in the dark, it reminds me of being on patrol in the mountains. They hunt at night in moonlight here…. and unlike most Americans, they have the optics for it: huge light gathering binoculars and riflescopes, which can easily distinguish a young from an old boar.
We arrive, soaked with sweat, to a huge tree stand with ladder leading to a large room surrounded on four sides with openable windows, only one of which we open to my consternation. “How will we shoot a boar approaching from the other three directions?” I ask. “We will open the window very quietly,” Igor explains in German. “We don’t want the animals to hear your coughing.” I have a terrible cough and am taking everything I can, “chain-sucking” Ricolas.
We sit in the cozy tree stand until 10 PM, me wondering how I will ever distinguish my large boar from a not-so-big one in the dark…even with Igor´s great light gathering scope.
Down we trek for 45 minutes to our now cozy cabin …and Igor prepares a light supper of homemade würst, home smoked ham, cheese, bread, all washed down by good Slovakian beer and after dinner shots of Jaegermeister --"to help you sleep well," says Igor -- toasting the hunt and our new friendship. I need no help to sleep and climb into my bunk listening to the crackling fire and thinking of a big 500 pound boar with huge tusks.
The alarm begins the day at 5 AM and we dress and eat a quick breakfast of leftovers from last night and climb to the Susuki 4X4, which Igor bought for $100 in Munich and will sell Friday for $400 to a fellow hunter. I have ridden with wild drivers before and have somewhat unsavory reputation as a driver in my own family. But Igor is wild! He seems to be always accelerating -- even on ice and through the narrow village streets where children and the elderly scatter like flies to give him room. He looks over at me with a grin, as I grip the support bar on the dash with all my strength. "I could go faster," he says, "if only the horn worked!" Reminds me of the Stephen Wright joke about the mechanic who says, "I couldn’t fix your brakes…so I made the horn louder." In spite of his speed on the small logging trails and villages, he is actually a good driver on the bigger roads and autobahn.
We drive up an old logging road in the snow, park the car and our next ascent begins. About a mile from the car, a herd of Red Deer – a nice stag with 5 hinds -- crosses the trail ahead of us, scampering up the steep mountain. We look back and the car is an "ant" far below us. Every trip out with these guys is an aerobic adventure! We make a big circle and head back to the car, seeing fresh boar and deer tracks and droppings every where. The next day, we learn from a friend of Vojtech´s that he saw a large group of 6 large "Keilers" just where we saw the Red deer! We were a day early.
We return home to Vojtech´s village for coffee and homemade goodies, followed by a few slugs of homemade schnapps. You will have to get used to "schlupping" down schnapps every time you meet someone, go into a new home, or eat with people. This is an institution here! There is a secret to surviving, however, which the natives well know. It is to chug it down in one gulp. Otherwise, the 40-60% alcohol will enter the mucous membranes of your tongue and mouth, if you politely sip it, and you will feel its effects. But if you down it immediately into your stomach, it will be diluted with food, drink and stomach acids and you will survive.
After lunch, Vojtech wants me to meet his taxidermist-angler friend, Daniel. We drive through small picturesque villages, going back 100 years in time. An old man driving his horse and cart down the road, sits on top of a wagon filled with cow manure. We pass beautiful mountains, fast running trout streams, to another small village. Inside these humble dwellings everything is clean and neat and very well appointed with homemade carved wooden doors, beamed ceilings, and much evidence of care and pride. Daniel’s is a virtual zoo of stuffed local animals and fish. Lynx, boar, bear, Red Stags, Reh and huge trout and "Hoochen" -- a salmon family fish from the local waters which can be 3-4 feet long, weighing up to 70 pounds. From the kitchen his young wife (with new 2-week-old baby) is cooking fresh caught brown trout and Hoochen filets for our lunch. What a delicious feast! These people might be called "poor" financially, but they are rich in family values and lifestyle. Their children are held affectionately and loved. They all ask about my family. They want to take me fishing for these huge Hoochen if I can come back in fall. I see videos of Daniel catching these monsters in the nearby river.
I first ran into this mystery fish in Austria, when I created a lovely tradition of traveling an hour south of Munich to Gmund, a beautiful lake town not far from Salzburg to the Traun River where I stayed in a forest hotel where Hemingway stayed and fished. My first time there, 7 years ago, I was privileged to be guided fly fishing for rainbow, brown trout and Grayling by the 85-year old guide who also guided Hemmingway -- a wise and gentle man who could cast a fly even better than my brother, Bob. While fishing beneath a waterfall, I saw a huge shape materialize from the depths of the pool and deliberately inhale my muddler minnow. I set the hook and was fast to a huge fish, which eventually I landed, released and learned from my guide that I had caught a Hoochen. This fish inhabits the larger rivers of Europe, such as the Danube, but in search of food, it often migrates up into tributaries and smaller streams. My Hoochen was just under 3 feet in length, a monster for such a small stream, though not nearly as large as these I am seeing in Slovakia. When we left the stream that evening we joined other anglers in a special restaurant which caters to fly fishermen only, who don’t eat until later, when the last hatch is over, and my guide announced to the assembled friends that on my first Austrian angling venture, I had caught a Hoochen, a piece of information which was met with considerable discussion and mixed feelings by those who had been angling without success for one for some time. They berated us for releasing him, as they were certain he would devour all the trout in this small stream. The next morning the great chef at our forest hotel prepared gourmet style, a large grayling I had caught and saved as my birthday fish. It was delicious!
Later I am brought to Vojtech´s brother’s home in the village, who is a woodworker, creating in his workshop windows and doors from local lumber -- quality wooden fixtures I would love to have in my home. Again and again, more schnapps and toasts, food, and sincere eagerness to meet their first American guest hunter. Sometimes in a low income region one will encounter enthusiasm to befriend an outsider, who the people, understandably view as possibly offering the opportunity for financial exploitation. The genuiness and sincerity among these Slovakian people from these villages is qualitatively different. They are truly interested in learning what an American is like and proudly want to share the richness of their culture with no strings attached. I like these people!
This evening we will hunt with Igor´s friend, Peter in his Ravier in another village nestled up against the mountains. We arrive a bit late that afternoon and are immediately off to the mountain. I am given for this hunt an old beautifully ingraved 16 gauge double with external hammerlocks. They tell me that where I will be, on a boar escape route, the shooting will be fast and up close. Peter’s son has a hunting dog on a leash and will drive the creek beds toward the three of us. I am positioned in a creek bed with a well used game trail 30 meters ahead of me and am told to wait very still and to keep alert for boar or foxes using this escape route. I am ready! Two Reh and a fox appear, making their get-away. But I am waiting for a large Keiler and do not shoot.
The short drive ends and we are sent with Peter’s son to skirt the edge of the mountain where the meadow meets the forest in hopes of stalking up on a boar. We see one Reh and then Peter and Vojtech meet us 2 miles from where we began, taking us back to Peter’s home to see his incredible trophies, drink beer and more schnapps, cheese, wurst, and hearty fellowship. After this respite, in the afternoon we head out again…with me wondering how I will climb…or shoot straight after all this! And my doubts are almost confirmed as we begin our evening mountain ascent. Up, up, and up we climb again…And it lasts at least a mile in the darkness of the late afternoon forest. I try to stay in Peter’s footsteps, Ranger style, to reduce the crunch noise. Peter sits Igor and I down by a wooden feeder station ("Futterplatz") to watch a snow covered meadow in the fast fading light and he continues on, telling us he will phone us on his cell phone, if he finds boar ahead on the mountain trail. Twenty minutes later, the cell phone in Igor´s pocket vibrates and Peter tells us to head up the train quietly. "There are boar in a meadow!"
In the near darkness, we can only see when we are out of the woods in the clear snow covered meadows. Ten minutes down the trail, Peter meets us and we follow him, one quiet small step at a time. A few hundred meters ahead, as we round a bend in the trail, we begin crawling on hands and knees in the snow 50 meters more to a log pile. Peter directs me with my inadequate binoculars toward two dark shapes on the edge of the snow covered meadow 100 meters to our left. Two boar! He holds up left hand, our pre-arranged signal that the left one is largest. "Shot!" he whispers.
I take off the safety, set the trigger and put my scope cross hairs on the dark shape’s center of mass. He looks large to me…but in the darkness, I am uncertain if it is the boar I seek. I am read to shot…but look again at Peter. Peter puts his hand on my rifle, just as the two boar sense us and run off into the forest. "Zu klein…" he says. "To small. 3-4 years old…." This seems like another test to see if I will settle for a lessor trophy, not as a trick, but in my host’s eagerness to not have me go home empty-handed. They know I want a trophy boar…and after the test to see if I will settle for a smaller one, he finally makes the decision for me not to shoot, knowing that I am not experienced enough in this darkness to make the decision myself. But for the bright snow, no accurate shot would be possible, as the moon is not yet risen. We trek back 1.5 miles in the darkness. Ranger training again. When we get back, after another round of schnapps and more snacks at Peter’s, we drive back to the village, climb back up to our camp, exhausted and ready for sleep.
Early in the morning, we do another 2-mile stalk in the mountains -- once again, a more than adequate aerobic workout for this 66-year-old! Everywhere there is an abundance of sign -- huge red deer tracks, droppings, and boar tracks which have widely separated dew claws at the back of the track, some of which are even larger than the biggest red stag tracks. And there are many torn up areas where boar have rooted in the snow for food. We climb steep buffs in very thick cover where there is always sign. But no sightings except for 3 red deer which we jump ahead of us. We head back to the village and Vojtech´s for a hot lunch and shower. His wife fixes a wonderful soup and chicken fricassee with rice and lots of hot tea. I’m still taking cough drops by the dozen. Each time I finish one, the cough begins again, worried that I will cough at the exact wrong moment when my trophy appears.
That afternoon we head deeply into the mountain again. On our way up, Vojtech is excited. He stops and shows me a fresh red hind leg bone surrounded by huge wolf tracks, bigger than any large dog tracks I have ever seen. Later we find more bones -- evidence that the wolf is king here. We finally reach a high "hochsitz" overlooking large fields where the boar have torn up the grass under the snow, seeking food. Huge tracks are everywhere…. We wait two hours after darkness. I see a small shape 100 meters away moving along the wood line. Vojtech glasses it and whispers, "Lynx. Shoot!" Just as I raise my rifle, it scampers into the woods. The slightest noise -- even from high up in a stand is enough to spook these highly tuned and alert animals.
PART II: DAY 4
We subsist here, not in luxury of accommodations…but with a good shelter, a working stove, and food. Every day we split wood and stack it beside Vojtech’s huge handmade stove, our only source of heat during cold nights. We gather buckets of water from the spring. And we eat our cold breakfasts and suppers in candlelight. And the fellowship and sharing – even with men I have only known for a few days – in this primitive place is bonding.
Vojtech and I are up at 5 AM, eating a bite of cheese and sausage, and climbing again to a “hochsitz” half way up the mountain. Vojtech explains that he’d like to put out winter food (“Futter”) for the game, a common practice in Europe, but it is both too inaccessible up here in the mountain and too costly for him or his hunting club which has few paying guests. Also such feeding sites become easy ambush sites for hungry wolves here.
I learn from Igor that the unemployment rate here in these northern Slovakian villages is about 50% in winter! In summer there is more work and the wives and children who are old enough also find work as forest workers, cutting and gathering wood for the lumber company. The average annual income for a family in this village is $3,000/year! And, yet, these are very happy people. They love and care for their children, families, and neighbors and no one goes hungry. Every home has its own chickens for eggs and meat, a goat or two for cheese, maybe they share with a neighbor a cow for milk, and a pig for meat. They grow their own vegetables and gather wild mushrooms and other eatables from the forest in spring and summer. And in this hunter’s household, there is always wild game to dine upon and share with family and friends.
After an hour in our “hochsitz” Vojtech tells me we will stalk in the mountain for boar. We begin our descent up a 60-degree slope, practically on hands and knees, pulling ourselves up by small trees and branches. Today’s aerobic workout begins … and goes on, and on, and on with hardly a break to catch my breath! I have not tested my heart and lungs to this degree since dragging a deer several miles from a mountain in New Hampshire last fall… and that was only a mile. We climb and climb and when I think I can no longer climb, Vojtech is off again. Thank God for my good though old climbing legs… but I wonder about my heart being pushed so much farther than it has in the past three decades. But it comes through for me. Suddenly we jump three Red Deer hinds that scamper up the mountain ahead of us like large goats.
Finally we reach a summit, with me wondering if a boar will be my reward. But Vojtech looks at me with pride, as if to say, “Your reward is that we just climbed 1000 meters higher in the last two hours!” Another reason this reminds me of Ranger training 44 years ago: just when I think I will have a well-deserved break, or that we have completed our climb for the day, we are off again. Up, up, up! At Ranger School, after a 20 mile all night patrol, we return to base camp and clean our weapons, sit down and exhausted without sleep to a double ration breakfast, and we are interrupted in the midst of eating, before sleep, with the word that the enemy situation has changed and that we are to prepare to receive operations orders for combat patrols immediately. Is this another test? Or am I only making it one? Igor tells me about the 56-year-old German hunter guest – his only German guest – who stopped a third of the way up this mountain and could go no farther. Vojtech feared he’d die of a heart attack on the mountain and carried him piggyback down to the jeep and took him to a local nurse. That was the end of his hunting. The Germans are used to comfortable luxury hunts. Dr. Gregor Laakmann, one of my German hunting buddies, says, “There is no more real hunting in Germany. It is like a zoo where one tells you which animal to shoot and how much it will cost. The only real hunting left is in the North American or Canadian wilderness where man goes against game in a survival setting.” He is right about Germany, but he has never hunted here in Slovakia.
We come back down to the village for our mid-day meal – our only hot one – in Vojtech’s comfortable home where his wife, Jarmila, prepares wonderful food – a great homemade soup every day followed by pork and potatoes or Horescha, a well known Slovakian dish of special dumplings with chopped smoked bacon on top. And we down it always with excellent Slovakian beer followed by tea sweetened with home gathered honey and sweet cakes.
In that afternoon climb, we jump a herd of six Red Stags led by a huge 14-point twelve-year-old “Capital” Hirsch. This time of the year, the males herd up together as do the females with the smaller spike stags.
I am beginning to see why Igor told me that winter is not the best time to hunt here. In winter the crusty snow makes it difficult to move quietly. The stag and “Roe deer season is closed. Bear are hibernating and one can only shoot wild boar or wolves – and these two wily animals are the most difficult of all to hunt – especially in the snow and cold, cruel winter. Having wolves as predators keeps all the other game on high alert status. One can also shoot lynxes or foxes but who comes all the way to Slovakia to shoot a fox? And having made it very clear, to the disappointment of my new guide friends who want to see me shoot something, that I will pass up everything in my quest to shoot a large wild boar, my quest – and theirs – is even more difficult. Though I’ve had the cross hairs on one, he was not the trophy animal I seek.
This afternoon my luck will change when we hunt with Peter, several villages away in the same area where we saw the earlier boar. Peter insists we chug schnapps before we leave for the hunt, drinking to America and Slovakia. How is that affecting my aerobic conditioning? As we begin a 70% slope, I am wondering if Peter is also testing Vojtech in some kind of competition! No breaks for these two … or me as I lag 10 meters behind. Finally a mile up from our starting point, they stop and I am thinking, “Great! A chance to catch my breath.” Suddenly, they both whirl around up ahead of me, “Keiler!” I see a flash of shaggy black-gray to their left and with freight train speed and abandon, the biggest wild boar I have ever seen is charging down hill only 10 meters to my left! I un-sling the rifle, groping for the unfamiliar safety, try to get him in my scope, but in seconds my opportunity has passed and he is running fast below me to the right and now out of my field of sight. Peter and Vojtech scamper off to the right shouting for me to follow, but I am too far behind them to see the giant “Keiler” stop for a few seconds 60 meters below and I miss that second chance of a life time, having already missed the first a few seconds before. They are perplexed and frustrated. No diplomatic niceties from these honest men.
“Why didn’t you shoot? One only sees such a huge boar like that once in a life time!” Vojtech insists he could have shot twice – a real commentary on this awkward American who now feels his Country’s reputation is at stake. Useless for me to try to explain that I could not find him in this unfamiliar scope. I think, “I might have shot him from the hip, only aiming the rifle in his direction he was so big and so close.” But I know better. And my words only sound hollow when I say, “Better not to shoot, then to shoot badly.” I am wondering if this is really true – especially on a fast running boar in a situation like this, or in one of the German drive hunts when the game is running full tilt, and one must make a quick decision about whether the animal is an allowable one or not. I have shot most of my 50 or so deer when not running. I almost always wait for the animal to stop, or walk, or whistle or do a turkey call to spook them into halting and looking toward me while I hopefully have a moment to get off a well aimed killing shot. But I have friends who bag game on the run. These are mostly my buddies like Mario or Phil, who are always on the move, covering 4-5 miles of north woods mountains in a day. When a deer jumps, they are hopeful of getting off a fast but lucky fatal shot. And I have regretted not shooting a fast running Keiler before when hunting in a drive hunt in Germany with my friend, Peter Busch. Should one jump into the fray and take the chance shot? Teddy Roosevelt would have.
My only criticism of my new Slovakian friends’ hunting technique is that they do not stop to listen and look often or long enough for my tastes… or my aerobic level of condition! They tell me that this boar is well over 200 kilos or 500 pounds and had huge “Gold Medallion” sized tusks. We surprised him in his afternoon bed on the mountain side, catching him off guard…but only for a few vulnerable seconds. He was the trophy of a lifetime, not only I, but also every hunter, including them, has dreamed about. I have missed the chance of a lifetime. But they console me – only slightly – by helping me rationalize that it is just too difficult to hunt in winter and that if I come back in summer or fall, that they give me 100% chance of bagging a big Keiler, though maybe not one as large as this one. I should come in the last two weeks of September for the Red Stag rutting season and, after I shoot a nice stag, which they “guarantee….” I will get my boar then. I assure them that I want to return and will, if I can afford it. I cannot shoot the “Capital” stag they say is awaiting me here in the fall, because as a poor "academician," I cannot afford the $2500 trophy fee such a 12-14 year old gold, silver, or bronze medal stag costs here…even if it is only a quarter of what one must pay in Germany. A large Keiler will cost me about $250 – again a fraction of what it would cost in Germany. They also suggest that I return in November or early December for one of the 5-6 drive hunts they have then, where a trophy Keiler will cost nothing, though a large stag will still fetch a fee.
As we continue on up leaving only a bit of my disappointment over the big boar behind, I am thinking mixed thoughts. “The reputation of this ‘great American white hunter’ is fast dwindling….” Why is it that both my brother, Robert, and I have grown up thinking we are always being tested? Our father, a successful, charming Army Colonel, was not competitive or a demanding taskmaster. I always felt my “determination that would not be denied” came internally instead of from external pressure. I think of Robert, whose writings have often appeared in outdoor publications, and I recall him writing vulnerably about his fears of shooting “Class 4 rapids” on the DeChutes River in Oregon, while guiding Steelhead fly fishing trips. We are molded into the complex creatures we have become by a combination of rich experiences and some mysterious genes. Robert writes well, in his own unique style, more about the vulnerable feelings and fears within his outdoor men, than about the fish they catch or the game they shoot. And my books also have that vulnerable thread, but in a quite different manner from his. We come from the same mold…but different things took from different experiences and environments.
Vojtech and I sit now in darkness, overlooking a snow covered mountain meadow –the same one where we found the smaller boar two nights earlier. Peter has gone on a mile or so farther to our west and will drive his way back to us through the forest hoping to drive a boar to us. They often hunt at night in Europe – even without moonlight when the white snow enables one to shoot at center mass of a boar. But their optics are superior to ours – designed to gather light through large diameter lens scopes and heavy binoculars, which we daytime only hunters would not want to carry. Two red deer pass us silently – on alert from the west. Peter must be heading our way. But it all seems anticlimactic compared to the huge boar I have already successfully snapshot 100 times in the past hour … in my mind’s eye.
The trip back down the steep mountain in the darkness, on ice covered game trails, is memorable. Peter is also part “Gamsbuck”. The descent is very steep. And we are in almost total darkness, half-skiing, half falling down narrow ice trails with 30 foot drop offs to either side. Somehow we make it in one piece. We drive to the pub at the nearby ski resort and we warm ourselves with hot mulled wine, drinking toasts to the huge boar… who Peter insists is always somewhere on that mountain, all alone. He believes him to be 7-9 years old, a real survivor who has inspired tales here for some years. I was lucky to see him within shooting range.
That night in the cabin, after a cold supper of wurst, cheese, bread and beer, while we are discussing the boar, we hear a terrifying bellowing noise outside the cabin! It is the “Barumpf”—the bugling of a Hirsch. We open the door and there are three grinning friends of Vojtech who have climbed the snowy mountain to share a bottle of schnapps they have packed in. One is the angler, Peter, who has the huge Hoochen mounts where we feasted on Brown Trout, two days earlier. They insist on my giving a wild turkey calling demonstration, which takes little encouragement on my part. They tell me the story of how every spring, Vojtech demonstrates to the villagers how he can catch trout in the stream with his bare hands! It is true. He wades in slowly and comes up behind the trout in their lies and has even caught two at the same time, one in each hand. The man is part otter! I can hardly believe how a man can catch a fish as fast as a trout with his hands. These men and I share a wonderful comradeship. They may be poor in money terms, but they are rich in more important ways. I fall asleep in my bunk after chugging too many schnapps and dream of the giant boar … of shooting from the hip and rolling him over on the mountainside.
We are up before light again without breakfast and up the mountain to the tree stand watching the day dawn. Fresh tracks are every where but nothing comes to us. I am now wondering if I might shoot a wolf, seeing the remains of three big Red Deer, brought down and consumed by wolves, who separate a weaker animal from the herd and then run it down in the snow to make the kill. This gives me a somewhat different perspective than I had from reading Harley Mowat’s “Cry of the Wolf”—tales of living with wolves, while studying the theory that they really survive on a diet of 80-90% mice, rather than on deer, elk, moose or caribou, as their reputation holds. I had been impressed by these wolf studies and by the nobleness of this wildest beast, but when I tell Vojtech that I read that wolves live largely on mice, he laughs. “Would you live on mice, when you could eat deer?” In the last few days here, I have seen, first hand, evidence of wolves’ ability to bring down strong animals 5-6 times their size. They have to be both more intelligent and fierce to accomplish this. What will happen to our vulnerable New Hampshire White Tail Deer, and other wild life, when this most efficient year round predator joins the other one – man – in hunting deer? Wolves are now being gradually re-introduced back into New England from Canada.
We return to Vojtech’s home in the village for coffee and goodies, and then are off again for our next climb, to the opposite side of the valley of the little village of Velka Lesna. He tells me that the Red Deer and boar like to bed down and feed on the sunny side of the mountain. We jump several more herds of Red Deer – have seen over 20 so far –and two of the small Roe Deer, who are fast. As we climb, the entire mountainside is torn up with boar rootings and we see two frozen mud bathing sites where the boars wallow. We descend about noon and enjoy a wonderful lunch made by Jarmila of a great wild mushroom soup, pig’s knuckles, and the best home made, sweet, potato salad I have ever tasted, all washed down by Slovakian beer. That evening after a short nap, we climb again, jumping red deer on our way, and sit two hours on stumps over looking a snow covered meadow filled with a growth of young fir trees. As darkness approaches, we hear them moving off to our right through the thick firtrees – a heard of boar, I am told, passing through to night feeding grounds. As hard as I try, I cannot “think” a large Keiler out of the forest and into the snow-covered meadow and my cross hairs. We return to the hut in darkness, get a fire going, and light the candles. Vojtech’s hunting club member, Peter Smlen, who is a close hunting companion, will hike in tonight and spend the night with us. Vojtech has already taken me to his home in the village to show me Peter’s giant Red Stag “Gold Medal” Red Stag trophy, the grandest, heaviest one I have ever seen. Peter and his wife and five children live down the road in the same village. Peter has a reputation of having shot – on the run – 15 large Keiler – a man from whom I can learn! Also he will provide for us tonight, I am told, an important part of a Slovakian hunt which I have not yet experienced – the folk songs and ballads of the Jaeger. We have about given up hope when at 9:30 PM a knock at the door signals Peter’s arrival. His car has broken down in the snow, but like most of his rural country mates, he has repaired it …this time with a piece of wire, and has hiked from below with his accordion on his back.
We open and down more schnapps, I demonstrate Turkey calls, and then the most memorable (other than the huge boar) part of this Slovakian hunting trip magically unfolds for us in the glow of candlelight. Peter is an incredibly talented musician and folk singer, singing with great passion and joy. These songs are a special part of their hunting camaraderie – with sad songs, like for me tonight, about the hunter who missed his trophy and with joyful songs about each of the animals who share these forests and courage with those who are honored to hunt them. The evening is magical, emotional, and one I will never forget. Peter makes more music with his single accordion, strong melodious voice, then a band of ten. And to my delight, Vojtech joins him in melodious harmony, knowing all the words from past hunting experiences. Igor and I join in too, after many schnapps, surprising myself at my ability to sing in another unknown language. But this singing comes more from the heart than the head. We sing through the night until all our candles have burned out…and we keep on singing in total darkness until the wee hours and no schnapps remains. I learned that night that Peter had just found that his job at the railroad had ended that day. Here he was, father of 5 and wife with no support…yet such a giving spirit! We shared a brotherhood, which knows no boundaries – a band of hunters who love our game and one another. I want my sons to experience this incredible bonding and I vow to come back to Slovakia for a fall hunt with them and other friends. Never in America or Germany have I ever experienced such an incredible feeling of brotherhood! This undiscovered part of the former East is a jewel yet to be discovered – one rich in tradition and rare hunting and angling opportunities.
The hunting club of Igor and Vojtech has an interesting incentive plan for candidacy for full membership. They earn points for such contributions as building a hochsitz, planting food for the game, and bringing in guests to help provide much needed revenue. Full members may hunt and keep their trophies and meat, if they wish, with no fees. But as always throughout Europe, the “excess game plan” comes before trophy shooting for the members. This means they must harvest a certain number each season of the weaker animals, before shooting trophies, to keep the population at optimal level.
If you want such a bargain hunt, I recommend you not go in late December through April, when I first went, when the hunting is so limited and difficult during cruel winters, unless you crave aerobic adventure more than great hunting. But if you can schedule a week or so from mid September until early October (when the Red Stags are bugling) or from mid October until early December (when the mountain drive hunts take place), you will have a wonderful experience! And it will cost you far less than most European or U.S. western guided hunts. My week in February cost less than $500 (I had no plane costs since I was already in Munich). I paid for 5 days of renting the Hunting cabin at $15/night, 5 days of guiding at $25/day, and $100 for gas for Igor to take me to and from Munich (less from Vienna), and an additional $200 for food, drink and gifts for the families. Of course you must add to that your plane fare to Vienna (or Munich) which in September one can get from Austrian or other airlines for about $500. I didn’t get my trophy, but you can feel confident if you go during prime time that you will. And a very large boar will cost you a trophy fee (which goes to the hunting club) of about $250, plus preparation costs, if you want a full head mount. If you want just the tusks handsomely mounted on a plague, your guide will do it at very low cost. If you want a medal class Red Stag, be prepared to pay from $2500 for the largest you might imagine, to $500 for a heavy, but less than perfect trophy. If you are lucky enough to see a wolf and shoot one, you will pay about $250 trophy fee plus costs for tanning and preserving the pelt and head as a wall mount. You may also shoot a brown bear, but it will cost more than a large Red Stag.
Bringing your own rifle, though a real advantage, if you can do it, is now very complex – especially since September 11, 2001. I would recommend you use Igor’s excellent 30-06, after sighting it in, as I did. But keep the trigger “on set” as you stalk, and practice swinging it more than I did, taking the safety on and off, so as not to miss the opportunity I did! Though it is always more difficult using a rifle you are not familiar with, than using your own, it is probably the best option, at least for awhile. The three friends have other weapons available as well.
Your biggest barrier will be the language one unless you speak German, as do I. Igor is excellent at German and is fast learning English. He is a warm, thoughtful, and very considerate host who will translate and provide all you need. He is also developing a series of cards in English to help communicate about essentials with English speaking guests. He has a Dominican monk friend, Thomas Janciar, who speaks excellent English, who is studying for the priesthood who is also a hunter, who might be able to accompany you.
There are also many other recreational opportunities for the adventurer including fabulous trout or exotic Hoochen fishing in the streams and rivers which these guides know well. There is a scenic rafting trip on the nearby Danajic River followed by folk music and a ram roast on a spit from May 1st to end of October. (The boats and rafts are handmade by Vojtech’s brother, a talented wood-maker in the village.)
A word about safety: though you may hear rumors about the Mafia or traveling in the Eastern European countries, with Igor and his friends, you will have no need for worry. The dangers – like in any developing country – are in the big cities, or if traveling by train, for example, from Prague to Slovakia. Though I would take care for my valuables in any country, and I would be reluctant to travel as tourist in the Ukraine, I have no security worries in Slovakia with good people like Igor Kollega and his hunting friends.
Just where in the world is this area? Check out the map. The area is in the mountainous resort area of Northern and Eastern Slovakia near the Polish border, known as the Hohe Tatra Mountains. The largest towns are the resort towns of Smokovec, about 12 kms from Poprad (which also has a small non-commercial airport.) This is 300 kms from the Slovakian capitol of Bratislava, just across the border from Vienna, Austria. The small village where you will stay and hunt is Velka Lesna in the northernmost part of the Spis region. You will not find it on your map!
You may contact me by email (Halclyon@yahoo.com) or by phone (603-520-1214 from May-October to learn more about this rare and as yet, undiscovered, opportunity. I love talking about it! Or if you speak German or Slovakian, you can contact Igor directly and make your arrangements with him. He will take care of all details including picking you and your party up either in Vienna or Munich and taking you to the hunting site, and being there for you to make sure all needs are met. Igor spends part time in Munich where he can be reached on his cell phone at: 011-49-0171/9425829. When he is home in Slovakia he can be reached on another cell phone: 001-421/905607311. You can also call Igor´s monk friend, Thomas Janciar, who speaks good English to make arrangements on his cell phone: 0117421 110907 595052.
Do yourself a favor you will never forget. Go hunting with Igor and his comrades in Northern Slovakia for the experience of a lifetime!
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