In this article well-known hunter and outdoors writer Peter P. Ryan takes a fresh look at one of the greats of the modern era – his past, his take on anti-hunters, some surprising views on equipment and destinations, and ultimately his own future as a hunter.
Anyone with even a passing interest in hunting knows Craig Boddington. Thousands of magazine articles and twenty two books under his belt, plus a slew of television programs. Everybody has an article or two tucked away somewhere, perhaps on alpine game, or more likely his great passion – Africa. Those with a deeper insight know of his distinguished career in the U.S. Marine Corps, with active service in several war zones.
His fans know him as a firearms expert and ballistics savant whose trophies defy convention. But if you ask beyond that, you get blank looks – and that just doesn’t stack. A life spent in pursuit of the rare, the remote, the dangerous must have more to it than that. Just who is Craig Boddington?
The timing isn’t great. He’s fresh off the plane from Africa for a few days of precious downtime, then back again for safari number seventy-something. For all that his manner is old school – respectful and well-mannered. And suddenly I’m interviewing.
What can you recall of your first hunt? It was with my father and grandfather…I’m pretty sure I was 11, but for sure I was carrying a Winchester Model 12 20-gauge. We were “between bird dogs” that year, meaning the old dog had passed on and we hadn’t gotten a puppy—but Dad was a pretty good bird dog himself. He heard a covey of quail rustling, told me to get ready, and when the birds got up I managed to pick one bird (probably for the first time). It went down hard, but absent a dog it took a little while to find it. I will never forget that first Kansas bobwhite!
You’ve often written about hunting with family, could you give an example and touch on why it was special? Hunting is always special when shared with people you care about. In the field you get to spend time together without most of the distractions of our modern world. I introduced both my daughters to hunting with California wild hogs. That was great because it worked…and you really don’t know how a youngster is going to react. But perhaps the most special events were the first times I took both my daughters to Africa, Brittany in 2003 and Caroline in 2013.
Your writing switches happily from high-end equipment to old school gear to the tools of the everyday man. Where does that come from? Well, I’m pretty eclectic in my own tastes—and maybe a bit old-fashioned. Left to my own devices I’d probably be a “blue jeans and wool shirt” guy in North America, and good old greens or khakis in Africa. I suppose I am a bit of a snob when it comes to firearms. Of course I look good guns…but I recognize that many of my readers can’t afford them (usually I can’t, either), and I also recognize that today’s over-the-counter guns are really spectacular. They just plain work, and that’s my criteria for all gear: it has to do what it’s supposed to do.
Who are the writers – outdoor or otherwise – that shaped your style? Jack O’Connor was a family friend, actually a lifelong friend to my mother’s brother. I didn’t know him well, but he was always out there, and as a writer I still think he was the very best. As a boy I devoured all the great old stuff. J.A. Hunter, WDM Bell and Jim Corbett were among the best storytellers, and I think their work stands up very well today. I do read a lot of novels…it’s important to me to see how the guys who are really good put words together. I love most of Hemingway’s stuff, likewise Ruark. Totally outside of the outdoor genre, I am a big fan of John LeCarre and Nelson DeMille.
Much of your international hunting must by necessity include guides. Do you ever miss hunting alone? You’re right, that’s a major downside to international hunting. When practical I prefer that guides let me close the stalk alone, but that’s one of things I love about my little Kansas farm, and really about all whitetail hunting. You are almost always alone, and have to make all your own decisions.
I recall a top ten list of yours that included a buck taken on that property. He wasn’t a monster, but he clearly had meaning for you outside the absolutes of the tape measure. Kansas is where I’m from, but the property isn’t family property. We bought it about 8 years ago now, sort of a homecoming. That was something my Dad always wanted and never did, to have a little piece of ground. He would have hunted it a bit, but would mostly have used it to ride the horses he loved. But he never got around to it. So my little piece of Kansas dirt is for my Dad’s memory as much as for me, and that makes it a special place.
There’s a price to being a successful public figure. How do you handle it? Not particularly well! My skin is thicker than it used to be, and I fully recognize you can’t please all the people all the time. I do make mistakes. With luck the editors catch them, but nobody is perfect, so when I am wrong I have no issues with being taken to task. However, especially with social media it appears to me that there a lot of folks out there with way too much time on their hands, and there are “haters” out there. I used to try to defend myself in the chat rooms and such, but there’s really no point. Does it bother me? Sure…but I have learned that if you wrestle with pigs the pigs love it, and you’re going to get dirty. So I don’t engage in much of that back-and-forth any more. There is really nothing to be gained.
The objectives might be completely different, but do you see any parallel between the discipline, strategy and camaraderie of military life, and life in the field? Absolutely. Zel Miller wrote a little book entitled Everything I Need To Know I Learned From The Marines. Highly recommended. But I was double lucky, because I could have written a very similar little book about my Scoutmaster, Jess Elder. The secrets to success, whether in life, work, or hunting are simple: discipline, work ethic, and learning how to get along with people. Many successful people come to these things naturally, while others take some hard knocks before the lights come on. I was lucky: I had a tough Scoutmaster followed by the Marines.
What does Craig Boddington dream of in his quiet moments? “I had a farm in Africa…” NO! I have no desire to spend the rainy season in Africa (that’s when the snakes come out!) I have no desire to spend a winter in Alaska (hate the cold). I am getting a little tired of travelling, and one thing I would very much like to do is spend a full year on my Kansas farm. That is in the realm of the possible, and one of these days I might get it done.
Threats against hunters have grown increasingly strident, especially on social media where keyboard courage plays a role. How do you see this playing out? Your phrase “keyboard courage” is new to me but absolutely perfect. Some people really do believe they can say anything, make any threats they desire, from the anonymity of their keyboard. I catch flak and the occasional death threat, but nothing like women in the outdoor world receive. I don’t get it and I don’t understand it, but it’s consistent. My daughters get more hate mail than I do, and then you have public phenomena like what happened to Melissa Bachman and Kendall Jones. I hope the Supreme Court does the right thing, because this has to stop. People need to be accountable for their actions, their words, and for the electrons they cause to flow.
In a sane world there are some species that would be opened tomorrow, but may never be. Saltwater crocs in northern Australia spring to mind. What’s your take on ‘lockdown’ wildlife management? Your “salty” is a great example, but in the U.S. our ban on importation of Canadian polar bears is another. The international body, CITES, is actually quite reasonable. Their position, and clearly the correct position, is that wildlife management must be based on science, not on emotion or politics. If the countries of origin would simply follow CITES guidelines we would have quite a different hunting world. But, realistically, this is going to take some time and may never happen.
There is a theory that much anti-hunting sentiment comes from the growing distance between heavily urbanised society and the natural world, and that anti-hunting groups work by exploiting that gap. Is science, however good, going to deal with this? It isn’t as bad as it may seem, at least not in the United States. Our National Shooting Sports Foundation’s (NSSF) latest independent survey (2013) suggests that 79% of Americans approve of legal hunting, the highest approval rating since such surveys have been done. The problem is that hunting is an emotional issue. We hunters are passionate…but committed anti-hunters are at least as passionate and perhaps more outspoken. We need more education on the role hunting plays in wildlife management! We cannot sway the serious anti-hunters, but it’s the non-hunting majority that will determine our future.
Has any destination surprised you with unexpectedly good hunting? Several countries in Eastern Europe have really impressed me. Macedonia is awesome, Croatia is a real treat. Estonia and the other Baltic states are amazing. In Asia, well, you may travel vast distances to get to game country, but there really is a lot of game. Pakistan is fantastic. In Africa the biggest surprise I’ve ever gotten was Burkina Faso (called Upper Volta when I was in school). Donna and I hunted there in March 2014, and although that’s a hot month in that part of Africa the game was really plentiful.
Of the hunting countries, which do you see as the rising stars of tomorrow? Mozambique has truly regained its position as a “core” safari country…it may never be what it was in 1970, but in the context of modern Africa, it’s awfully good. Namibia and South Africa are of course incredible, together accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the entire continent’s hunting safaris…and hugely improved since I first hunted these countries in the late 1970s. Argentina is a fantastic hunting destination, likewise New Zealand. It’s a big world, and there are lots of great places.
What’s your ‘one that got away’? Well, I missed a really big mule deer in 1972, and I missed a really big elk (Arizona draw tag, ouch!) in about 1997. I hit and lost a very good Alaskan brown bear in 1995. Obviously I’ve missed other shots over the years—I’m not one of these guys who shoots better with his word processor than his rifle, but also not worse. I’ve always been totally honest about my screwups, and we all have them. But, fortunately, there aren’t a lot of shots or animals that I agonize over. There have been a few missed opportunities. I was too young to hunt tiger, so absent a time machine I can’t regret that, but in my career there have been several short windows to hunt in Iran. I almost went the year the Shah fell, wish I had, and in the last three years I’ve bought and eaten two plane tickets because I couldn’t get a visa. I’m done, I won’t consider a third try, but I regret not hunting in Iran.
What new equipment are you looking forward to working with? New stuff is always interesting. I’ve been in Rigby’s new showroom, and I’m taking a “new/old” .416 to Mozambique in September. But, honestly, we have all the new cartridges we need and quite a few to spare. One of the down sides to my business is that I have some great rifles (not necessarily fancy, just mine) that I almost never get to use. So something I always look forward to isn’t testing a new whiz-bang, but using one of my old favourites!
Any long term goals you’re still working on? Always! I have never considered myself a “sheep hunter,” but if things go well I’ll take my 20th variety of wild sheep this year, along with my 30th variety of wild goat. Those are major milestones (that is especially a lot of goats), so that’s a big deal and milestones I never expected to approach. I am not a “trophy hunter” to the exclusion of all else—the hunt matters more than the size of the animal—but I keep looking for a really big whitetail!
Is there anything about the hunting world at the moment that doesn’t work for you? If one is driven to tramp the far horizons, once there one may as well take good, mature trophies. But I abhor checklist hunting and hunting for the tape measure. Do the best you can and leave the tape measure in camp!
Do you have a plan for your hunting career over the next ten or twenty years? At this moment I’m sixty-one, and I can still climb and shoot. I’d like to get some more mountain hunting done while I can but, regrettably, there are a lot of great hunts that have simply become unaffordable. But there are quite a few places I haven’t yet seen…and some great places I’d like to see again. One part of me would very much like to slow down…but there’s another part that isn’t quite done. Over the next few years we’ll see which side wins.”
It’s as good a place as any to finish the interview. It has taken some unexpected turns, but in a good way. Colonel Boddington’s expertise on calibres and skill at arms have taken a back seat to Craig, the boy from Kansas, and the man he grew up to become – writer, officer, father, grandfather, conservationist, ambassador. How did he raise himself up from relative obscurity to create a class all of his own? Cleaning up my notes I wonder if the question has been answered. I stack the papers on a table, pause and notice a quote on the desk diary. It’s from T.E. Lawrence.
“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”
The answer has been sitting there all along, in plain sight. And by the time you read these words the boy from Kansas will, however improbably, be back in Africa again.
About the author…
Pete Ryan hunts, fishes and parties hard on New Zealand’s South Island. His writing has appeared in Gray’s Sporting Journal, Sporting Classics and other fine magazines around the world. His bestseller Wild South – Hunting and Fly Fishing the Southern Hemisphere is available in print and Kindle editions as well as all e-book formats. An epic journey with rod, rifle, gun and dog across Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America. See the trailer and more at www.faraway.co or the official Facebook page