“Always remember your balaclava.” The mantra I repeat in my head, usually when I have forgotten it and my face is freezing while I’m on a hillside somewhere. Today was no different; face buried in the collar of my jacket to avoid the playful pokes of my nose-drips in the freezing wind.
Two men, a woman and a pitbull arrived after a sweaty climb at our look-out spot at 5:15am, perfect timing to get first light. Eli the dog was catching some interesting scents from the block over the fence and was feeling energetic but well-behaved. We were hoping to get Isaac a crack at a deer to add to his tally of one so far, and initially it seemed promising as the sun came up and lit up the faces on the hillsides we were watching. By 6am a tide of freezing fog flowed over our hill top and hid animals from view, as well as chilling the sweat on our bodies. It wasn’t fun, but I had to strip down despite being very cold, to replace the damp merino layers with Underarmour. We were all feeling very cold despite our best efforts at hunkering down out of the wind and dressing appropriately. I sacrificed one of my layers for the dog, who was feeling it too and shivering.
We spotted a few large-bodied animals on a far face, but only for a brief amount of time, before they picked spots to bed down out of sight. Patient glassing for a couple of hours afterwards yielded no further results so a discussion was held about possible actions. The idea was put forward about heading out, and I suggested stalking in on the animals that we knew were likely to be contained in a relatively small area of bush. The guys suggested that I go, and take the dog. There is no way that three people can realistically hope to get that close to an animal, and it was a great opportunity to work Eli.
Armed with my rifle, a radio, a day pack with the essentials and the trusty brown hound, we set off sidling around the hillside. From the distance it seemed fine – just simply walk around the side of the hill, come down a spur towards a big tree and look over to my left. The reality was of course a bit different: walk for 20 mins with difficulty through wet vegetation, trip over hidden branches and uneven ground, and lose visibility because the trees are a lot bigger when you’re in them instead of having a bird’s eye view. The radio suddenly bleated at me, and the guys told me they had spotted an animal bedded down at the base of a tree where I was heading. Some helpful directions had me dropping down onto a track 20m below me too, and made the going a lot easier for the remainder of the walk.
The deer-pitbull was doing his job beautifully, using his nose, covering the ground, but only going a few metres from me. He usually behaves perfectly – but I still keep a shock collar on him for insurance. My reasoning is that IF he did decide to chase something (as is his instinct, being a terrier), and I had no collar on him, then I would have a very hard job of retraining him. It’s best to let him think it is not an option. The collar was never used on this trip as is normal.
I finally reached the spur I was heading for – time to be very quiet. Thankfully I had ditched my creaking Hunter’s Element boots and upgraded to some Lowas – both comfortable and silent! Sneaking carefully and slowly, parting branches and slipping through the gaps silently, I spotted the deer -70m from me, beneath a tree, happily chewing his cud in the sun. The wind was terrible, on my back with occasional random sideways blasts. I had been pessimistic that he would even be there still! Raising my scope I immediately saw he was a velvet stag with the beginnings of some very wide pedicles and I thought “I shouldn’t shoot this.” I have a velvet head on my mantelpiece and the beam width is nowhere near what I was seeing on this guy. I assessed the shot. He had his back to me so I mainly had rump and head, with a small triangle of neck exposed. Risky. And I had been very naughty and failed to put in the work at the range… Putting my pack on a tree stump as a rest didn’t help too much – a small movement to either side and I would hit his hip or jaw and it would be a disaster. I knew the guys would be able to see me and would be wondering what I was doing so I called on the radio to explain. I had two options: make a noise and get him to stand up and take a shot hopefully broadside, or sneak further downhill and get more parallel with him.
Despite feeling that shooting this stag at the very early stages of some very promising-looking antler growth went against my standards, I decided to sneak downhill a bit none-the-less, and see what kind of a shot I could consider. The problem was that the wind was swirling everywhere, and strongly too. At any moment he would smell me and it would be all over. The other problem was that to get down hill I had to cross a clearing – in full view of a deer less than 70m away. This I managed, moving very slowly and carefully, and a perfectly timed distraction meant I crossed the gap while he focused on something straight ahead of him. Eli perfectly obeyed hand signals telling him to sit, and stay, and then to come, but not run. He could smell the deer had been in the area and was indicating well. Unfortunately, I stepped from behind a shrub to see the stag get up quickly and trot into the trees. He was surprisingly large! I had got a bit closer than I should have at 30m or so, and he caught my wind. To be honest I was surprised he stayed as long as he did, and I was still stoked with the encounter. I radioed in to share the news, which had also been caught on camera. As I was speaking I saw him again – he’d sneaked back down the hill and was peeking at me from beneath the trees.
My only regret about this hunt was not having a camera with me. It was a good feeling not to shoot this stag, and we will hopefully get an opportunity to see him in full velvet later in the Summer, and hopefully catch up with him in the roar. The guys were pleased too, something to aim for and some great footage caught from their bird’s-eye-view almost a kilometer away!