A lion of a man.
"I have never felt that a hunter is morally qualified to hunt a noble animal if he has not prepared himself to overcome reasonably foreseeable problems."--William Negley
When Bill Negley died in his native Texas last year at the age of 92, the bowhunting world lost one of its giant figures after a career made all the more remarkable by his own lack of interest in promoting it.
I first met Bill over a decade ago through one of the coincidences that permeate the world of outdoor sports. Bill, his son Dick, and two Texas friends were visiting my hometown in Montana that October on a pheasant hunt. Although not a bowhunter himself, Dick was familiar with my writing about wing shooting and called out of the blue to ask if I would like to get together, talk bird hunting, and meet his father. Coincidentally, I had just read Archer in Africa, Bill's splendid book about his African bowhunting safaris, so, of course, I jumped at the chance. We wound up having dinner at our house, a meeting that birthed a series of lasting friendships.
Bill was in his 80's then and hadn't bowhunted in years, although he was still a great wingshot. Over the course of several days in the field chasing the local roosters, I enjoyed abundant opportunity to question him about his remarkable experiences in Africa, a topic of immediate interest to me since I had just begun to make what would become a long series of hunting trips to the Dark Continent. Steadfastly unassuming about his own skills and accomplishments, Bill nonetheless provided a fascinating commentary about bowhunting in Africa at a time when a bowhunting safari was as unprecedented as a trip to a space station.
Readers interested in this fascinating chapter of bowhunting history should turn first to Archer in Africa. In addition to his other accomplishments, Negley was a dear, entertaining, and painfully honest writer who was never reluctant to expose himself to criticism for a poor shot or judgment error in the field. Furthermore, he had the resources to produce a professional quality film record of most of his hunts. Titled Moments of Truth, this video contains some of the most exciting hunting footage ever recorded.
After a successful early career of hunting big game with a firearm (during which he designed several successful wildcat cartridges), Negley decided at age 40 that he had exhausted the rifle's challenges and took up archery. Of course, this was in an era that lacked all of today's instructional resources, and Negley acknowledged that he struggled at first.
Then, during a cocktail hour discussion after a big game fishing tournament in the Bahamas, a friend bet him $10,000 that he couldn't kill an elephant with a bow. Negley accepted the bet immediately and, in 1957, set off for the Belgian Congo--the only African nation that would permit him to hunt elephants with bow and arrow. At the time, his lifetime archery bag consisted of one javelina and two small whitetails. Nonetheless, armed with a 102-pound recurve made especially for him by Fred Bear, Negley felt ready to tackle the largest big game animal in the world.
Controversy persists about who was the first to kill an elephant with bow and arrow. When Negley left for Africa, the great Howard Hill had already done it for his movie Tembo, but some observers claimed that Hill's elephant had been deliberately wounded with a rifle to facilitate the filming. With nothing new to bring to that argument, I'll stay out of it and refer interested readers to the first chapter of Archer in Africa, in which Negley makes his case. If critics who claim that Hill's elephant kill was compromised for the sake of his filmmaking needs are correct, the two bull elephants Negley killed on his first safari were indeed the first to be taken cleanly by a modern archer.
After winning his bet--and donating the proceeds to the Witte Museum in San Antonio--Negley stopped bowhunting entirely until 1966 when, once again, an element of competition lured him back into the field. Hill's protege, Bob Swinehart, had publicly announced his intention to become the first archer to take the complete African Big Five--elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, and Cape buffalo. Never one to back away from a challenge, Negley decided to try for this accomplishment himself. Before he set off for Angola, Negley, after much soul searching, decided to add a new wrinkle to the game. Convinced that one couldn't truly bowhunt dangerous game with a professional hunter standing beside him, rifle at the ready, Negley resolved to take his Big Five with no rifle backup--perhaps as startling a commitment as any in the history of safari hunting.
On his 1966 safari to Angola, Negley succeeded in killing a black rhino, buffalo, leopard, and lion during a 40-day hunt. The leopard hunt was anticlimactic-Negley shot a small cat from a vehicle--but he makes no bones about that in his book. His candor helps make Archer in Africa such enjoyable reading, for Negley never sounds as if he is embellishing events or inflating his own skills. He constantly acknowledges the superiority of Swinehart and Hill as archers and bowhunters. And, who but an honest man with a sense of humor could publicly admit to completely missing an elephant at 10 yards?
By the time Negley returned from Angola, Swinehart had just laid claim to being the first archer to take the Big Five, and Negley graciously acknowledged his precedence. Years later, he encountered evidence that Swinehart's elephant had been wounded previously with a rifle, much like Hill's. Swinehart was dead by this time, so there was no opportunity for the two to discuss the issue. Again, I have no direct evidence to bring to bear on the discussion and can only refer interested parties to Negley's book, which contains a compelling argument suggesting that he was the first to take a clean Big Five. Despite these controversies, no one disputes that Negley was the first to take the Big Five by bow and arrow without rifle backup, a feat that will almost certainly never be duplicated, for reasons of law and liability if nothing else.
DURING THE NEXT TWO DECADES, Negley made multiple return trips to Africa, exploring such remote locations as Sudan, Gabon, and the Central African Republic. His adventures culminated with a safari to the Selous in 1984. Although in his 60's by then, Negley was still shooting 100-pound bows. By the time he finished his last safari, he had killed five elephants, two rhinos, two buffalo, one lion, one leopard, and a hippo with his recurve. Since he'd had so much experience with African big game, I asked him one night which of the Big Five was his favorite to hunt.
"Elephant!" he responded without hesitation. "Every one is different; each bull has a personality of his own that you'll get to know during the course of the hunt."
Since no one loves heroes more than bowhunters do, I was always surprised by how few contemporary bowhunters knew about Negley and his pioneering accomplishments. When I was speaking at the Lone Star Bowhunters' annual banquet in San Antonio one year, the club announced several lifetime achievement awards, one of which went to Bill. Puzzled looks greeted the announcement. Most of those present had never heard of him, and I was the only one there who knew how to reach him to inform him of the award. How could a man so far ahead of his time have flown so low under the radar?
It wasn't always that way. Back in 1957, when Negley killed his first elephant, hunting was still a politically acceptable subject for the general media, and his early firsts received extensive coverage from mainstream publications like Sports Illustrated, Esquire, and many major newspapers and wire services. How times have changed! Later on, Negley simply declined to pursue bowhunting's fame and fortune route. But for his excellent book and the filmed record of his hunts, most of us never would have known anything about his story.
I suspect that he was simply too busy to worry about being famous. The product of a long line of Texans (his great-grandfather, Edward Burleson, was the vice president of the Texas Republic), Bill was an attorney who played an important role in Standard Oil's operations in Venezuela before embarking upon a number of successful business ventures back in Texas. An accomplished angler, he captained U.S. teams in international fishing tournaments and held several world records for big game fish taken on fly rods. He helped draft legislation protecting inshore Gulf Coast game fish from commercial over-harvest and water-quality degradation. In 2000, he was Texas Conservationist of the Year.
For years now, I've enjoyed calling my Bowhunter column Adventuresome Bowman, but I know Rill well who really deserves that title. They broke the mold when they made Bill Negley, and the world will be a smaller place without him.