Bucking the Wind for a Big Island Billy
By Gary Lewis
South Point, Hawaii, is the southernmost tip of the United States and one of the windiest places in the world. Black lava and green meadows run down to the sea. Spanish goats live on steep cliffs and feed in rolling grasslands.
700 yards away, black and brown goats dotted the green hills. With our binoculars, we categorized and classified. Nannies and kids. Young males. And there, an old billy with long spiraled horns.
The wind howled off of Mauna Loa and carried our scent out to sea. A steady wind was our friend on the stalk, but would change the impact of the bullet at long range.
I thumbed four cartridges into the magazine and closed the bolt. Our guide, Pat Fisher, led us along a grassy path between lava flows.
There is a class of long guns commonly referred to by mountain hunters as 'the sheep rifle.' These rifles are preferred to carry on hunts for sheep or goats, where the hills are steep, you carry camp on your back and shots are likely to be long.
A sheep rifle should be graceful, weigh not much more than seven pounds, and at the ready, should balance a bit heavy in the butt. As to size, it should shoot something between 25-caliber and 30-caliber. Classic sheep rifle loadings include the .257 Roberts, .25-06, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington and any of the various 7mms.
The archetype of the genre was a rifle built for Jack O'Connor, a gun currently on display in the Jack O'Connor Center in Lewiston, Idaho. A few years ago, Bradford O'Connor allowed me the honor to shoot the Sheep Rifle No. 2, a Winchester Model 70 that must be among the best known rifles in the world.
For my hunt in Hawaii, I borrowed a NoslerCustom Model 48, a bolt-action chambered in 7mm-08 and fitted with a Leupold scope. The first thing I noticed was how light the gun felt in my hands. Its balance reminded me of the O'Connor rifle.
The Model 48 features a push-feed bolt with a 3-position safety and a Timney trigger. Designed with accuracy in mind, the action features a one-piece bottom metal and trigger guard. The barrel and action are finished in a dark gray Cerakote while the interior metal surfaces are coated with MicroSlick for corrosion and wear-resistance.
It is one thing to examine a rifle, to heft it, work the action and try the trigger. It is quite another to take it to the range.
I set a target at 25 yards and one at 100 yards then laid out the sandbags. After five rounds, the rifle was zeroed at 100 yards, even in the 15-mph crosswind. Two more shots gave me a three-shot group. According to the data, the 140-grain Nosler AccuBond would drop 3.5 inches at 200 yards and drop 12.8 inches at 300. I stood and fired offhand at the 300-yard 10-inch plate, which rang with a gratifying gong.
Supremely confident, I packed the rifle in an approved airline shipping case and headed for the Big Island.
We hunted Polynesian boar in a stand of macadamia nut trees then stalked sheep in a koa forest. That hunt ended with a long stalk and a ram in the salt. The goat hunt would prove the real test.
We saw goats right away, feeding in the tall grass with not a tree or a bush to hide behind as we began the stalk.
Bent over, we walked together to look like just another group of goats. In a fold in the landscape, we walked upright again and began our turn to the right to close the gap.
That's when we spotted animals on our left. These were out about 200 yards, working toward us, away from the cliff. We dropped into the grass on our bellies. A young billy looked our way then went back to feeding, while a nanny stood on alert. We held our breath and watched the way the tops of the grass bent with the wind.
"There could be a bigger billy. Let's just watch and see," Pat whispered.
The nanny turned and looked behind her and that's when we saw the tops of his horns. "Let's get a better look," Pat said. He dropped onto his hands and knees and I followed in a three-point crawl, the rifle in my right hand. Just under the crest of the hill, we stopped. The big black billy was down in the valley.
We could see his horns and sometimes enough of his head that his beard was visible in silhouette. He fed toward us, stopped to peer over the grass, head-on. Then he turned back the way he had come.
From time to time, we could see his horns, the line of his back.
Minutes passed. The billy walked into the open. He tipped his head back and I tipped the safety forward, settled behind the scope and eased the slack out of the trigger. The report rang out over the ocean in the gale off the volcano. Hunting in Hawaii is like no other activity on earth.