Category Archives: Hunting

Bringing Home the Bacon

As the wind screamed through the pines, I was thinking about how amazing it was to be out hunting with my man, and having the opportunity to possibly get a red stag in the roar. We had arrived at our accommodation in good time for an evening hunt, and cruised up to a nearby valley. My rifle hadn’t had an outing in far too long, but anticipation was high. On our way up the hill we spotted a mob of wild pigs which lifted our spirits significantly.
We found a position to glass from, and one of the guys spotted a hind in the distance. As Jimmy started to take a video, a stag came running from behind a tree and mated with her. It was so unexpected, and the commentary on the footage so frank that we were laughing about it for ages. Settled on top of a knob, we let out a few roars and glassed the nearby valley.
We were pretty relaxed and left the rifles in the grass as we moved about to check out different faces and guts. Suddenly, a stag ran across 30m downhill from us. He was obviously a bit spooked, and his ears moved rapidly. He was a 6-pointer, and we were trying to coax Jimmy into position for a photo when the stag leapt the fence. Our evening was off to a great start! As the evening progressed we saw a few meat animals; a couple of spikers that were nice and close and a hind with her yearling.
As the temperature dropped and the light left us, we headed back to the quad. We were feeling elated, and distant roars built our anticipation for tomorrow.2016 roar-hind+yearling

Day two had us up before the crack of dawn, with Jimmy menacing us with the camera for an early morning movie. After a good cooked breakfast and almost getting over the shock of forgetting coffee, we were away. The wind was still very strong, but a fairly sunny day emerged.
The day was spent being led on a wild goose-chase by stags that roared from amongst thick scrub and gorse, but remained unseen. Whenever we let out a moan in reply, the stag seemed to move off. We tracked him over ridge after ridge, spending the whole day sneaking down tracks and through pine trees. Whoever said that hunting on private land was easy hadn’t been here! I had not been on a decent walk like this in months and months, and as the day wore on I became pretty tired! Unfortunately my torn calf muscle twinged again too, and trying to walk with a shortened stride on one leg was exhausting. After the whole day back and forth across ridges, hearing him roar but never seeing him, following his movements through gullies and along faces, we decided to go to a nearby hut for a nap before re-checking the very shootable gully nearby.
The only animals we saw all day were a hind, yearling and spiker that we met on the track, photographing them before they melted into the trees.
The hut was run-down and grotty, and the mattress smelled like diesel. It was a shame, because with a new fireplace, a bloody good clean and a coat of paint it could have been brilliant. To make it worse, there was a mummified startling gaping beneath the bed. The three of us fell pretty soundly asleep after a feed of crackers and noodles. We were a bit dehydrated after the day in the wind and sun, and felt a bit better after a rest. As we approached the nearby basin, there was a stag moan from beneath us. We felt the anticipation come up again, as the stag we had chased the whole day was positioned just below us somewhere. However, it was not to be, as he soon moved off to our left. He let out a good roar from back down in the further gully, and suddenly a shot rang out. We were very alarmed. ‘Well that sounded bloody close!!’
‘That had to have been on this property, suppressed rifle!’ Shortly afterwards, a quadbike started up in the distance. We looked at each other, and decided to abandon our evening hunt and call the owner. He knew we were hunting and we doubted that he would be out doing the same with us around. Getting hold of him at home confirmed that we were most likely dealing with poachers. The worst thing was that we didn’t know where they were, but we suspected that they had been after the same stag we were trying to roar in.
We decided to try to find them and take photos for evidence, so took the quad down the track a bit before stopping to listen. I raised my binos to the hills.
‘There are three men sitting on that hill, I think!’
There they were, on the skyline of the neighbour’s hill paddock bordering the farm we were on. Three men, sitting evenly spaced. I had far more luck spotting people than deer on this trip!
As our quad approached the foot of the hill the men were on, we could see one man up walking towards the others. Upon seeing us, they all immediately got up and disappeared over the hill. A quadbike started up.
‘Well that’s sketchy as hell!’
The wind was blowing right towards us from them – so completely wrong for hunting the hillside they were sitting on. They had been sky-lined, and now they fled when we approached. Furthermore, there was the question of what they had shot, and why three men were sitting on a hill top instead of gutting an animal. Our only explanation was that they had a person on our block who remained unseen.

Day three finally saw an end to the howling wind, and a fine drizzle fell. It had rained heavily overnight, and the tracks were sticky. We saw some good pigs in the gully, and I was offered the opportunity to shoot one. I passed it up as we had been watching them too long and I wasn’t feeling it. Or rather, I was feeling pressure to shoot and because I had watched them for a while, the excitement couldn’t override my nerves.  They looked very small from 200m away, like little piglets, but they were actually about 50 pounds or so. I soon learned it is very hard to judge the size of a pig!
Two stags were spotted on the top of a ridge fairly early on, and we decided to try for them. One stag was extremely alert, and despite the distance, he seemed to be very aware of us. It took us a good hour or more to sneak along the tracks and get to the ridge he was on. The roars we let out went unanswered, by anyone. The deer on the ridge had moved off fairly quickly and we figured he was probably heading down the face. As we crept along the tracks we saw our first fallow, a beautiful doe, craning her neck over a rise in the track to get a better look at us. She spooked and bounded into the pines.
Getting onto the track on the stag’s ridge, Jacko and I crept very slowly and carefully. My boots had developed an extremely irritating creaking noise as the liner moved against the leather at the heel. The two of us were both hunting, and Jimmy had very generously offered to be the pack carrier / camera man. Jacko and I moved in fairly decent synchrony,
and I found him very natural to hunt alongside. If it was an exceptional stag, the shot was his, and if it was representative it was mine to shoot. We were both on half cock and being very careful. An animal suddenly spooked to our right. It didn’t bark, just galloped away. We were gutted, so we carried on to the point we had seen the stag at and sat down for a consolation biscuit. We could see in the dirt the marks left by his back feet as he had stood watching us, a kilometer or so away. I had taken about two bites of a SuperWine when i spotted something, and began raising my binos. Jimmy saw it at the same time.
‘Shit!!’
The stag was about 400-500m away, looking at us. He moved off through the pines, and I was still gathering my wits when Jimmy hissed at me to go catch up to Jacko. With the second Super Wine clenched between my teeth, I took off to catch up with the rapidly disappearing Jacko, who was intent on intercepting the stag. Long story short, we got the run-around again and we sat in the drizzle waiting for Jimmy to emerge.

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The plan for the rest of the day was to check out the river flats. Nothing was roaring, but we figured some might be down there and we just couldn’t hear them.
The river flats were a maze of open clearings, scrub and pine trees, with the river winding in between it all. We stalked through the clearings for a fair while, hoping for something! I did find part of a skull with two character antlers attached, and Jacko found a couple of cast antlers which we kept.
Three young pigs were foraging under the pines and I had fun sneaking up on them, before the sheep ahead stampeded and spooked them. After concentrating for a long time, straining to listen, trying to stop my boots from creaking, and being interrupted mid-biscuit; it was time for a rest. We had almost given up, and had a plan to check out one last clearing before packing it in. Snacks were divided between us and we chatted about the stags giving us a run for our money. Jacko was to head off to grab the bike and Jimmy and I would edge around the top of the cliff, cross the river and check the last clearing. We were packing the bag up after Jacko left when there was a whistle. I grabbed my rifle and Jimmy followed with the camera. Jacko sheepishly informed us that it had been a “hurry up” whistle, as he hadn’t been aware that we were packing the bag. We returned to our gear and were stuffing the last of the jackets in the pack when a dark shape emerged
in my peripheral vision.
‘Deer! Fallow!’ I whispered rather too loudly, grabbing my rifle while trying to stay low. Two does and a yearling were heading down a very steep slope to the river. I put the rifle in the fork of a tree and took aim.
‘Come down here – use your bipod and lie down!’
Jacko was nowhere to be seen. I did as Jimmy instructed, found the shoulder of a melanistic doe broadside in my sights, and squeezed the trigger. As the rifle spoke, she leapt upwards and I knew it was a good hit. Jacko ran out from under the pines – he had seen the deer and didn’t know that we had too. He had been relieved to hear the rifle go off and the thwack! of a solid hit. There was a small blood trail about 15m up the hill leading to the doe. She was beautiful, nearly black with paler dapples. It’s always a bit sad to end a life, but nice to get something in the bag and blood the beautiful knife Jimmy had made for me at Christmas time. 2016 Roar-fallow hind
Heading back to the house on the bike, we passed the area we had stopped at the day before with the poachers. Jimmy pointed out some little piglets in the grass.
‘Catch them!’
So I jumped off the bike, lay my rifle on the ground, and ran after this little pig. He didn’t put up much of a fight at all, and squealed weakly as I easily caught him. Jacko got more of a run around with his larger piglet, and Jimmy and I both doubled over with laughter watching him out-manoeuvre it. Two young pigs retrieved, we exclaimed first at how cute they were, and then at the size of the lice crawling all over them. They were too young to be on their own, and mine especially seemed very weak. We surmised that the poachers may have killed their mother the night before, or even a few days ago, leaving these little guys (now named Doris and Boris) to die of starvation.2016 Roar-ruthie piglets
With the piglets installed in some temporary accommodation, we had a quick bite to eat and headed out again. The watchful eyes of a hind with her yearling were evaded, and the evening was spent glassing and cursing my groaning boots. As we travelled a pine-covered ridge we could hear pigs off to our left. They seemed to follow us upwards, and as we stopped near the top we could tell they weren’t far away.
‘They’re just little ones by the sounds!’
And then they emerged, a convoy of the cutest little piglets you could imagine, heading right for us. Jimmy filmed as Jacko and I stood still, with the little pigs just a few metres away. They made tiny little squeaks and grunts as they busily searched for food, oblivious to our presence. That is, until they got downhill a bit, raised their little noses into our scent on the wind, and bolted.
It made our day to have such a close encounter with the piglets, and as we drove to the hut many giggles were had about them were had.
“Porklets!”
“Bake-lets!”
“Pork scratchings!”
“Bacon Seeds!”
I opened the house to find our little visitors curled up in the lounge on Jacko’s clothes.
‘Uh, we have a problem!’
It turns out little piglets can squeeze through small gaps. The sound of galloping tiny hooves, slipping on the smooth wooden floor and a weary human stomping after them was apparently entertaining from the basement where Jacko was. Jimmy of course filmed me trying to catch them from under the bed and behind the tv. The video was watched multiple times later for its excellent comedic value.

The morning of the fourth day was pristine, breath-takingly beautiful. We parked the quadbike on a hillside and admired the sunrise for a while, the orange glow emerging over black hills cloaked in mist. We were feeling very excited; it was the first heavy frost of Autumn and the wind had completely gone. Excited, that is, until we let out a couple of roars and heard nothing in return. We had figured it would have been the perfect morning for them to get going again, but we went unanswered. P1000519
Down-heartened, we moved to a new spot and tried again. Above the cacophony of sound from the magpies, there was something different.
‘It’s just a pig oinking, isn’t it?’
It turned out it was far more exciting – a fallow buck in the distance! We headed towards the river flats. It was a heavy frost in the valleys, fence posts glittering in the rising sun. I was very grateful for my balaclava. Every time I blinked I felt like I was thawing ice crystals on my eyelashes. By the time we reached the flats and slowed down, my toes felt like each one had a vice grip clamped on its toenail. We stopped above a river and my freezing feet were so painful I couldn’t stand still. I cursed my damp socks. As we listened, we could hear a shepherd’s whistle. We cursed the farmer who insisted on rounding up his stock on the boundary at such an early hour! We also heard a pulsating drone, which became the loud and charactaristic thud-thud-thud of a chopper. It cruised repeatedly nearby for an eternity before moving off, and we cursed that too.
It was quite some time before the fallow buck croaked again, and we moved off in search of him. As we were sneaking up a track, Jimmy motioned for us to stop. He spotted a yearling hind grazing the sunny face across the river from us, and we watched for quite a while, listening for the buck. A mob of hinds and their yearlings moved into the sunlight and we were all excited, thinking there must be a stag with them. As we watched, the mob moved off swiftly as a stag chased another hind off to the left. I quickly readied the rifle, aiming for the area where the hinds had fled from. It was expected that the stag would emerge pretty quickly and we could stop him so I could take a shot. We hadn’t heard the buck for a long time either, and spirits were pretty low. I looked at Jacko, who was on my right, and in my peripheral vision I caught a glimpse of something odd.
‘Is that a deer, like right there?!’
It was a spiker, 20m away, just watching us. We left him with the intention of getting the stag, but he never emerged, so we went to check out the clearings on the flat. No luck, but at least by then my feet were nicely numb and the rest of me was thawing out.
That was about the end of our trip, rounding up the piglets and dealing with their car-sickness on the way back left a lot to be desired, but we had plenty of laughs recalling some of the antics of the most enjoyable hunting trip we’d ever had. We didn’t come away with a stag, but we had some really unique experiences that were a lot more satisfying.

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New Season – New Adventures

With the arrival of the first of March came an instant drop in temperature, and an instant rise in excitement. Exactly a year ago today I was feeling very sorry for myself in a bright green cast from my wrist to my shoulder, and as a consequence I missed out on the roar.

There have been many changes in my life over the past few months, with the end of my relationship, the loss of my hunting buddy due to a misunderstanding, and the acquisition of a new partner in crime, this time one who is firmly embedded in the hunting world. My initial partner had been very supportive of my hunting hobbies, however pretty disinterested in participating, and our separate lives became part of our undoing. A week or so after the breakup, my number one hunting buddy announced some longstanding feelings that I had been oblivious to, wrote a bunch of soppy stuff on Facebook and then deleted me. The new man in my life is a very keen hunter and fisherman, and slotted into my life perfectly.  We have a lot to teach each other, and I can now look forward to trout fishing, duck shooting and of course, my first roar.

With a longstanding family tradition of duck shooting, the new man put the idea in my head of training up one of my dogs as a duck retriever. After all, I have a pitbull who is an awesome deer hound, why not have an unconventional duck dog too?

We started off with a freshly dead road-kill pheasant and a rope on her collar to teach her to bring it in when she got carried away. She retrieved it about 40 times before it fell apart, and although we didn’t have a 100% retrieve rate, she showed good enthusiasm and a gentle mouth. Her second attempt was in a swimming pool with a rubber training duck. She had the idea this time, and brought it back much more consistently. She was so good that she and I were invited to come to opening morning, which in this family is a huge honor. We’ve since been practicing at the river with a training duck, and she has performed very well indeed, and no rope is necessary on her collar now. She is an extremely strong swimmer and very enthusiastic; the only weird thing about this dog is that she is an Asian Ridgeback breed, so my “dingo” will look quite distinct amongst the labradors in the water on open day! Soon we will introduce the shotgun before throwing the duck, and she should almost be ready!

We’ve got two four day hunts planned for the roar, so needless to say I am staying away from any “wheeled recreation devices” this year! The aim is to get a nice red stag as a starting point, and possibly to move onto fallow or sika if successful there. There should be many more interesting stories to come – watch this space!

 

 

 

I Think we are Staying the Night, Mate.

There is no greater sinking feeling than realising you are completely lost. And it’s a pretty heavy sinking when you have broken your own rules and not told anyone where you actually are. Lesson #1. The reason this was skipped this time is because I was hunting on a farm, and I wasn’t actually supplied with an address, just a hand-drawn map of how to get there. I should have insisted on a road name at least.

Pitch black in a forest of gorse and scrub, we knew we had to go down and slightly left. I have a terrible sense of direction usually, so I trusted my companion to guide me. He had a far better knowledge of the area having worked on the property for four years. Following game trails through the impenetrable scrub and gorse, we just took the ones that lead downwards. Occasionally there was a glimpse of distant hills, and I was sure the one in front of us was where we should have been heading, but we were surrounded by them and I convinced myself otherwise. I knew that I had come up a ridge after crossing a boggy little creek, and I should have stuck to my guns on this. Instead I doubted myself and remember feeling a bit surprised at where I was being directed. I’m not blaming my companion though – in the past I have been surprised to have been directed in the complete opposite way to where I thought we should go – and they were right! This made it very easy to doubt myself. To complicate things, I had my rifle in one hand and a pack absolutely jammed full of meat, I estimate it weighed around 45kg. My mate was laden with meat too.  I also had the only head torch. I only recently started carrying two and this happened to be my emergency spare. Sometimes I slid on loose soil, and with nothing but gorse to pull myself up on it was very hard to regain footing. My quads felt like they would tear under the strain.

Keeping roughly left, we found the little creek. Nearby was a fence, and my companion said: “See! Here’s the fence you crossed!” I had no recollection of crossing a fence at that point, also not unusual for me with my terrible memory. We began to follow it upward thinking we would break out onto farm land. Looking back, I realise he thought we were following the one around the edge of the scrub block. It was hard going, with gorse in our way and big holes in the ground. I had to keep stopping to shine light back for my mate, as I was very scared he would roll an ankle. We walked for around 15 minutes, and I stopped and asked: “why are we going up?” I had a strong feeling that we needed to be going downhill to get to the stream I had crossed in the bottom of the valley. He looked around. I realised there was a hill to our right that shouldn’t have been there, and started to feel dread. It seemed to dawn on him at the same time too, and he looked around frantically, trying to get his bearings, and said “I don’t remember coming this far.” I suggested we take a minute to rest, put our heavy loads down and think for a while. My voice didn’t betray the fear inside of me. We were thirsty, and finished the last of our water. The problem was that in the dark we couldn’t see any of our landmarks, such as the pine forest.

I regretted not marking the position of the vehicle on the GPS. I knew there was a road fairly nearby beyond the ridge that it was parked behind. When I said the name of the road he said “oh no that’s in the wrong direction, up behind us!”  and that had me really confused. In fact, it was actually the right road and he had been following his nose to the farm the past four years, never having read the sign! The worst thing is that when he looked at the map on the GPS he misread the unpaved roads as being fences, and the elevation readings as distances, so I stopped showing him the screen in order to get some clear thoughts. I saw the stream marked on the map with a hill behind it, and the road beyond that. I was convinced that was where we needed to go but he was suggesting we continue uphill in the opposite direction to farmland. I still doubted myself. The plan was made to offload, mark the position of the meat on the GPS and try first downhill, then up. We could come back for the meat the next day but we didn’t want to end up exhausted and potentially injured.

Taking only my emergency supplies and puffer jacket from the pack, we re-crossed the fence and tried to follow the creek down. In the dark it was impossible to see very far ahead, and we slipped over constantly, hitting dead end after dead end. I was so sure that this was where we needed to go, but we just couldn’t get there. My companion lacked fitness. As an older smoker he struggled, and needed frequent stops. He was also rushing, not waiting for me to shine light back, and it made me nervous as he didn’t have a head torch. Abandoning the downhill attempt, we tried following the fence upward. I could see he was beginning to panic, and as the slope turned vertical he insisted on scrambling up it without a headtorch. Adding a broken ankle to the mix, or worse, would have been a disaster.

“I think we are staying the night, mate.”

He stared at me a while, then hung his head in resignation. We were surrounded on both sides by what looked like impenetrable scrub that would have been exhausting to push through. We were tired, and thirsty. We couldn’t go up or down, and we couldn’t see any clear landmarks to be 100% sure of where we were. Dreams of a spa and a glass of wine slipped away as we took stock of the situation. It was a warm night. I had plenty of warm clothes,  an emergency blanket and a couple of muesli bars. We weren’t in any immediate danger. My flatmate would be worried when I didn’t show up, and had a fair idea of where I was, but there was no cell phone reception. Looking at pictures taken earlier in the day from our lookout we worked out where we were likely to be, but we were still stuck.

We settled on a dry dirt slope beneath a tree for what seemed to be the longest night in all eternity. He seemed to only have two layers of clothing, and I was worried that he was trying to be staunch. The foil blanket was actually pretty good, and make quite a difference despite making me feel like a rotisserie chicken and being very noisy. My ankles were very cold (wet) and I wrapped an item of clothing around them for comfort. By the wee hours of the morning I was wearing all of my spare clothes, and we spooned awkwardly under the foil blanket as the drizzly rain fell.

As soon as there was adequate daylight (5:15am) our location was confirmed and a nice grassy slope was visible just off to our left. We had been so close and if my primary headtorch had been working then perhaps we could have seen this and got out, although I had no regrets about the decision to stay put. After a bit of a slog through the valley and uphill, we felt incredibly relieved to see the vehicle!

Things I learned:

  • Stay calm. Rushing around aimlessly may feel useful but it wastes energy and risks injury. There is time. Take a rest.
  • Pay attention to distant landmarks in the daylight to have something to aim for to get a general sense of direction.
  • Following game trails is good if you need a clear path but they can lead you anywhere. It is very easy to go off the side of a ridge down a spur and feel like you are following the ridgeline.
  • You can get lost in farmland scrub. Get an address, tell someone exactly where you are heading, who you are with and when to raise the alarm.
  • Carry a PLB, even on farmland. If we had had to deal with an injury as well then we would have been in trouble
  • Always carry extra clothes and a foil blanket. They were at least a great comfort and possibly could have been a lifesaver. The spare down jacket that was compressed into a little package made a great pillow for half the night, and added a lot of warmth when the cold came up from the ground. I also had a thick soft shell jacket that was water resistant and windproof. The foil blanket was the star of the day, as it kept us from getting wet and conserved a lot of warmth. Always take one.
  • Take a spare headtorch. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just adequate. I was very relieved to have it after finding my primary had turned itself on during the day and eaten the batteries. My spare is a tiny LED on an adjustable headstrap. It is perfect to slip into an emergency kit and only cost me $20.
  • I wish I had marked the location of the vehicle on the GPS and taken a compass direction. It would have saved us going too far left and up the wrong gully.
  • My merino beanie and neoprene gloves made a big difference to my warmth, and the hood on my down jacket. You lose a lot of heat from your head so try to keep it covered. A little merino beanie takes up no room and will stay warm even when wet. I wished that I hadn’t left my balaclava in my pack with the meat, as it might have kept some of the mossies off my face and kept my nose warm.
  • Always take extra food. You can survive a long time without it but it lifts the spirits and lets you think a bit more clearly. I wish I had taken my tiny little cooker, an enamel mug and a small gas cylinder. A cup of tea or soup would have been very nice and taken very little effort had I been equipped.
  • Sleeping on the ground is hard, and cold. If you can put a bunch of fern leaves or something underneath you it will help stop the rising dampness from chilling you. We didn’t have the option as gorse probably wouldn’t have been a suitable material… but I longed for cushioning under the sides of my thighs, as the compressed muscles cramped violently.
  • Know the signs of hypothermia and if you are getting cold, get on top of it early. Don’t try to be staunch and say you are ok when you aren’t. Don’t discount the benefit of sharing body warmth. Even if snuggling together or platonic spooning is the most awkward thing ever, it is better than getting chilled and you never have to mention it again!
  • I want to say trust your gut, but that depends. I’ve been wrong a few times and it has shaken my confidence. Maybe I am more skilled now with added experience? Practice in controlled situations to get an idea of what your gut is telling you and use your judgement on that one!

All in all, it made for quite an adventure. No one was harmed and it was good to dust off the survival skills. More care is taken when I’m heading into the bush, but it was good to have a reminder that my routine should extend to all hunting.

The Land of Giants

I was fortunate enough to be allowed access to a farm to have a look for Sambar, and it was too good an opportunity to miss. It turned out there were a considerable number of goats on the farm also, so the afternoon was spent stalking them. I saw around 70 in total, and managed to get very close to some. I didn’t shoot any though, as I still had plenty of meat in the freezer for the dogs, and I was enjoying the sun and the exotic-sounding cries of distant peacocks.

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It didn’t look so bad from this side of the hill

Towards the evening I got on a quad bike with the farmhand and we took a ride to the back of the farm. The country was spectacular, perfect sambar territory. Pine trees in the distance, scrub-covered gullies and a thick fortress of cover across the hills. Hiding the bike, we followed the ridge downwards a little until a good lookout spot was found. At around 8pm I spotted the first one, surprisingly it had almost a red deer appearance as it grazed away from me into a gut. I decided to move away from my companion and see if a shot would be possible. It wasn’t long before I retreated however, judging the distance to be around 300m. Far too long for my little .243 on such a big target! As the decision was made that I would go into the scrub and have a go at bush stalking, more animals appeared. Five sambar crossed the top clearing in a group, moving into the gorse.

The first time I had ever tried hunting sambar was literally the day before, so I had almost nil experience. But I figured they were deer and I am fairly decent at stalking, so with the deer hidden in the scrub I left my companion and quickly covered the slip face below us. Crossing a stream and a rickety barbed wire fence, I entered the gorse forest. From the hill top it had looked pretty open, but up close and personal was a different story. I donned my neoprene gloves in the naive hope that they would help, put my thick jacket on and a balaclava, and hit the gorse painfully face first.

Once a game trail was located it was a bit easier. It was quite incredible to appreciate the size of the animals that were making them; they were big! I took a few wrong turns, hitting dead ends and getting frustrated. Within the thick cover of the gorse there was not a breath of wind, and the heat inside my jacket was stifling. Most of the sign I was seeing was old, and the trail difficult. I wouldn’t wish crawling on hands and knees over dead gorse fragments on many people, but it had to be done. It wasn’t long before I caught the familiar scent of deer and the trail suddenly opened up. Fresh sign appeared. I crept slowly, scattering flocks of twittering quail. I was scared that they would give me away, aware too of the sound of gun metal on gorse, and the scrape of my jacket as I eased past some thick stuff.

Suddenly I found myself in a clearing, and there was a flurry of hooves in the bush to my left. Multiple animals ran in different directions, unseen. I froze, and movement caught my attention. A hind grazed 10m from me on my right, oblivious to her fleeing companions. I could only see her ears and brief glimpses of her head, and as I squatted to get a look through the scope my ankle made a tiny pop noise. That was all it took. She suddenly lifted her head in alarm, wheeling around and honking. I cursed to myself, yet felt pretty exhilarated. I had never seen a sambar before today!  PIC_20151114_202910

I felt eyes on me and moved my own upward. There, in the scrub, was a spiker watching me from around 30m. Even as a youngster his size was impressive, and he gazed at me in puzzlement. I considered reaching for my camera, but as I slowly lowered myself into a sitting position he started to wander off. Thinking quickly, the safety was off, and I made a tiny noise to distract him. He froze. I lined up on his neck, and squeezed the trigger and immediately the thud of a good hit came back to me. I quickly reloaded and watched the bushes move. The shot obviously knocked him off his feet, and then he moved a short distance up hill and didn’t go any further. I didn’t yet unload, but put the safety on. I had been told repeatedly about how sambar are hard to kill, and a .243 is a bit light for this species. I was nervous. There was no blood on the ground but I could see his footfalls imprinted in the grass. As I approached the vine-covered patch where the deer was, I could hear movement within. My heart was hammering; twigs were snapping, and I couldn’t see him. I felt apprehensive, wondering if an injured animal was going to stampede over me at any moment. I crept around the top of the bush where I could see inside the thicket. Movement caught my eye. I raised the rifle to get a better view, and then realised that I had been so focussed on the movement that I completely missed the dead sambar in front of me!PIC_20151114_202257I unloaded the rifle with shaking hands and a big smile. I had bagged my first sambar! DSC_0002

Back in the saddle…. and straight into the nettles

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The Ruahine range on a good day is a wonderful place to be

My mate and I had been planning a trip for an eternity, but combined we seem to be the busiest two people on the planet. As a consequence a lot of time had gone by with no action. However plans were made to hit the Ruahines for a weekend, and they finally eventuated.

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Someone’s been sleeping here

Climbing the first ridge was rough.  This was my first proper hunt since my accident and my body was so out of condition that my legs were complaining and my heart pounding in my ears. Early on I blundered into a tree nettle which quickly  alerted me to its presence.  My companion did short, fast bursts up the hill, meaning that by the time I caught up he had already rested! It was more comfortable when we stalked more slowly through promising areas, although I felt about as stealthy as a steam train teetering on the shale and loose rock in the bush. There was a ton of sign, some of it fresh, but no cover or feed in sight. We wondered if deer frequented this area as they moved between feeding areas. Sometimes the smell of them was so strong, the heart rate would go up and it seemed it would be a matter of seconds before the crash of a spooked animal. But not today.

Going bush is such a great way to see what a person is really made of.  You can see the best of a person – the super-fit, smiling as they spring easily from rocks or glide down a slippery slope, leaving you on your arse with twigs in your hair – and you can see the worst of a person – swearing at the supplejack  when the blood sugar drops too low (me), bedraggled and sore after a rough night in a tent (me), or too bone-tired to smile (me again).  The one thing that made me really laugh out loud was when I was following my mate down the hill and he slipped, somehow making a hole in a ponga tree trunk. It then shot a continuous stream of orange liquid spurting horizontally and wetting his head, face and neck.  It was the first time I had seen a ponga piss on someone and I regret not taking a photo or video.

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It looks sunny but you can’t see the freezing wind in the photo!

After a mammoth trek upriver, a grueling up -hill slog where I pulled a number of unhappy faces at the amount of supplejack, camp was sorted and we climbed up another ridge to check out sunny faces and grassy guts from the tops.
As the day wore on the temperature dropped steadily. There was a very strong sou’wester which managed to push us around a bit, and was quite discouraging for hunting in. We decided to fill in the early afternoon with napping in the grass, but with the biting cold getting through 5 layers (including a puffer jacket)  time moved very slowly. Lying back-to-back was the only way to reclaim some warmth, before we retreated and found a spot where the sun actually reached our skin. Thawing out frozen hands whilst having a “Jeremy Kyle” session, I learned a whole lot of new things about my hunting companion.  The slips were empty that evening and fair enough, if I were a deer I wouldn’t be hanging about in that kind of wind either. Back to camp with me leading the way, high fives when I managed to find our tent. I have a terrible sense of direction and kept looking to my mate for guidance. He just looked away each time and so it was a fair achievement for me that we didn’t end up falling off a cliff.
The appreciation for your gear is reinforced at camp – your cooker which will still provide a hot meal or drink in howling wind, and the shelter of your tent. Even basic food tastes amazing when you have climbed steep slippery hills, crossed slips and bush-bashed with a rifle in-hand for hours.  One Christmas Jase and I walked 10 hours and I swear that even my bones were exhausted. A foil pack of hot tortellini and half a bottle of port was to this day still the best thing I’ve ever eaten.  I think that is the beauty of the outdoors. When you get home you really appreciate everything, especially a hot shower.  It is good to get back to basics.

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Being afraid of heights doesn’t help at a time like this!

The night was rough with frequent awakenings. Temperature regulation was difficult at both extremes, and all the while the wind hissed through the trees. The ground was surprisingly hard beneath my inflatable mat (upgrade needed I think) and I experienced painful cramps in my legs several times during the night. As a result we slept in rather longer than we had anticipated, but after a coffee we once again felt alive. The climb to the tops wasn’t nearly as bad on day two; the sun was warmer and the wind was less. Still the slips were empty of deer (they were probably bedded down by then) so we explored the surrounding bush.
A few promising wallows were discovered, as well as some stag sign, a deer bed, and the smaller prints of a yearling. This time when I lead us back to camp there was far less uncertainty, and my companion said he had trouble keeping up. I only needed guidance once as I was tempted by a spur after losing the main ridge, so I was very pleased with myself when we made it back to the tent. Too tired for high fives though.

The trek out down the river was beautiful, and made me
feel very grateful to have the opportunity to explore such amazing country. The river banks were lined with tall grasses and Buddleia on the flats, and overhanging gorgy cliff faces bearing the jungle-like kiekie in others. The water was clear and lazy pools looked promising for trout. Still, it was good to reach the car, strip off sticky hunting gear and finally sit down! I realised too that carrying the rifle around had managed to straighten out my busted elbow, and it was the first time since February that it had felt normal.  We didn’t manage to get a deer this trip, but part of the thrill of proper hunting is that your quarry is never guaranteed. I gained a lot, including valuable experience, much respect for my companion, some decent exercise and a number of bruises. A trip into the bush is never wasted.

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An Accidental Orphan

There are certain times of the year when this can happen, Spring if you are hunting goats and Summer if you are after deer. In the case of the latter, it is generally accepted that you don’t take hinds in the Summer unless it is a cull situation, although I’d still have issues with this. 1080 poison drops are often in the Summer too, so countless fawns must starve to death. Deer tend to hide their young and visit them twice a day – so if a hind has a fawn you may not know until you find she has an udder with milk in it. If you do find the baby you have two options – kill it or take it with you and find someone to raise it.

A couple of weeks ago we shot a few goats. The farmer is lambing and there is little grass this year after flooding ravaged the region. Once we had cleaned up the dead ones, my brother stumbled upon a young kid in the grass. We hadn’t seen any little kids at foot, although one of the dead ones was clearly nursing. The kid was a doe, about four days old.

You can tell the age of a kid approximately by the umbilical cord – if it is nice and dry then it is at least four days old. If you can’t catch it then it is older than this! The four-day mark is pretty critical in deciding if it is worth taking the kid out or not. Goats produce colostrum for around four days, and this is very important for the survival of the kid, passing on vital antibodies to diseases they are susceptible to. If you are intent on keeping a kid despite its wet umbilical cord, then try to get some colostrum replacer or good cow colostrum for the first few days.wpid-wp-1440962839672.jpeg

Our kid is thriving on full cream cow’s milk four times a day. Next week she will get bigger feeds, less often. She is contained in a dog kennel and run with access to lawn and hay.

Goats are full of character, bucking and cavorting as they perform caprine parkour on the lounge furniture. It is possible to respect pest animals that have to be culled, it isn’t their fault they are thriving where they are. When she is a bit bigger she can go to a nice home – if I can bear to part with her that is!

The Home Tanning Salon

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A selection of tools for the job. Pocket knife, forceps, plastering tool, pliers, and fleshing knife.
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You have your animal, but do you want to waste the skin?
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The beautiful red spotty coat of a summer sika makes a lovely rug – unfortunately the dog ate the tail off it as it was tanning.

You’ve killed your deer and you are about to start cutting it up, but would it be a shame to waste that skin?

A well-tanned hide looks great draped on furniture or as a floor mat, and although it is a lot of work, it is certainly worth it. I certainly do not claim to be an expert in this regard – but I will share some of my mistakes here so that you don’t make them! I’ll also share a few things that I have found make things a lot easier and more successful.    
  
 The first part to obtaining your hide is of course skinning the deer (or other animal). This sounds simple enough, but remember that you would like a nice symmetrical skin with minimal punctures from careless knife strokes. I’m not going to go into a skinning technique here as there are plenty of YouTube videos that do a better job of explaining. They do say that a really badly skinned hide (with lots of muscle attached) is easier to clean though – and it is true that you can grab it and pull it off in big pieces. If you hang the animal by the head end for skinning you get a much cleaner skin than if you skin downwards from the hindlegs.

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Oopsie! Using a sharp knife (against my better judgement) has cut a bit deep and exposed the hair follicles
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Brown tail glands in a deer’s tail, and the holes I made trying to remove some of them!
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The plastering tool at work

Fleshing the skin is the worst part. I say this because it takes ages and a lot of muscle power. The muscle that you find commonly stuck to the skin actually controls the hairs in the live animal. I have found a wonderful tool that makes it nice and easy to get it off the skin – called a putty knife, and it is pictured above. The reason I like it so much is it gets underneath the tissue and very rarely punctures the skin, unlike a sharp knife. Any punctures you will have to stitch up, which is difficult when using standard sewing needles and trying to penetrate rubbery skin. The most difficult part is the tail, as deer have dark brown-coloured glands that are very hard to get off. In your attempts to shave them thinner you will unexpectedly cut through the skin just enough to draw the hair through. Tails can be hard to skin. My mate has a technique of twisting the skin around it and then whipping it off, leaving the flesh on the carcass. I cannot seem to manage this and always lose the tip of the tail. You’ll lose the tip of the tail but simply trying to just pull the skin off it too. I recently discovered that by carefully slitting up the hairless underside of the skin, and then carefully pulling it off, I had much better success. Skins look much nicer with tails attached!

I highly recommend wearing waterproof leggings for the job of fleshing, then you can kneel on the skin and just hose yourself off afterwards.Keep a bucket next to you to put all the little scraps into. Don’t be tempted to use a sharp knife for cleaning the skin. I know you will be, and you will puncture it a few times before remembering my words! I keep one handy for trimming stubborn bits off. Using rat-toothed forceps or pliers, I lift pieces and carefully slice them off.

The skin will need salting. If you are staying in the bush, it is recommended that you bring in a couple of kg of salt. This way you can massage the salt into it, making sure to unroll carefully every part of the edges. There is nothing worse than missing a little bit that was folded over and smelling it a few days later. The purpose of the salt is to draw the moisture from the skin (below 15%), and prevent bacterial growth that would cause hair slippage. There is a bit of debate about whether you salt before or after fleshing the skin – my advice is that if there is any delay or you are working in summer heat then salt first. The disadvantage of trying to flesh a skin that has had salt added is that it is very abrasive and will remove the skin from your knuckles as you work, and everytime you cut yourself it hurts like hell.  Your tools will not appreciate the salt either, so be sure to wash with warm soapy water and then oil them afterwards.

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Using pliers to pull underlying muscle off the skin
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salt has been applied and already the moisture is evident

Your skin is cleaned and salted (in whichever order) and now you need to let the moisture drain from it for a bit. It is phenomenal how much moisture will come out of the skin, it will literally drip or pool salt-laden water where ever you put it. I have tried tacking it to a sheet of plywood with panel pins and leaving it sloping for a week to dry out. I have discovered that the panel pins go rusty, and the salt will soak up water from the air making the skin perpetually wet. Not only that, but later on you will tack the skin up again after tanning, and make many more little holes in it. This time I put an inch of salt (fine grained, non-iodised) on the larger skins, rubbed salt into the smaller skins, then put them flesh side down on top of the big skins, and although websites don’t recommend this, it actually worked well for the short duration (a week) I had them salting.  Air flow is critical to assist with drying.  You may also be thinking: “Why don’t I just dry it in the sun then?” Do not be tempted to do this. With my first skin I made this mistake, and ended up throwing it away later. It was irreparably rock hard, and no amount of oiling or working it was ever going to help. It eventually cracked along all the little ridges (there because I didn’t tack it out after tanning to make it nice and flat). You should scrape off the wet salt and add replace it.

You have one or two weeks to think about things once your skins are salted. You can also freeze them to buy some time, but remove the salt from them first or it will stop parts of them freezing and they will rot. If you must freeze a skin, make sure the hair side isn’t stuck to the flesh side, or when you try to separate them (especially if slightly frozen still) it will be like waxing – you will lose a lot of hair.

When the skins are a bit drier (still pliable) use the fleshing knife to remove the membrane. This is less labour intensive than remove the muscle, but still takes a bit of work!  I put a piece of 4 by 4 under the skin, and worked on this to save the skin on my knuckles and it worked well.

There are a few choices on which tanning method to use, and I will describe the ones I have tried below:

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This fallow skin makes a good rug. It was tanned using the alum / soda / salt paste method.

Alum sulfate / salt / washing soda: 

This is a very popular method, although it brings about mixed success. There are many recipes available by googling. Alum (Aluminium) sulfate is available as “hydrangea blue” at garden centres or the Warehouse. Be careful when handling it or the solution, make sure you wear gloves and wash off splashes. It is a good idea to wear safety glasses too. Washing soda is also called sodium carbonate and I purchased it from a bulk store. With some skins it removes the hair, so if you are worried about this then use a paste (make less of the solution and add lots of flour) and apply it to the underside only. This is only suitable for thin skins, takes longer (has to have time to penetrate) and needs to be scraped off and reapplied a few times. Submerging the skins in a barrel or container of the solution means you can do a few at a time. Be aware that the skins can be very stiff when using alum sulfate. Even skins that have been meticulously cleaned and prepped can end up papery in the end. I tried using saddlery oil on some goat skins that ended up like this, but I couldn’t resolve the issue. I’m open to advice in this area! I sanded them afterwards too, however they were already very thin and I exposed the hair follicles in areas.

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This comes in two containers, one is for tanning, the other for moisturising the skins after tanning. It is a bit concerning that there is no safety information on these bottles, (for example,”wear gloves when using”) and no information telling me how to dispose of the solution once the skins are tanned. It cost me $158 including postage for 2.5L of each, enough to do 30kg of skins, and it was ordered online. The salted and fleshed skins were weighed, then washed in water and dish soap, before being trimmed a little to make them more symmetrical. If you are trimming a skin, do it from the flesh side. I used the weight of the skins to calculate the amount of solution to make up. It was a dark green in colour, and I used a large plastic barrel to contain it. The skins were added and the process takes around 3-5 days, stirring the solution each day.

The skins will be heavy when you lift them out – wear eye protection because there is a tendency for it to flick solution at you. I got pretty excited on day 5 when the skins had developed a firmness and a pale blue colouring, and lifted them out. It was sad to see that despite daily agitating, on 3/4 skins there were some patches that were still clearly white and untanned, where the skins had folded. Next time I will lift them out on day 2 or 3 and give them a bit of a straighten-out on a pallet before putting them back in.

One skin looked completely tanned (a lambskin) so it was taken out of the solution and put through several changes of water, before going into the washing machine for a rinse and spin. It was still pretty wet so it was hung overnight on an indoor washing line, before being tacked to a plywood backing. I find a staple gun the easiest way to do this.

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The difference a good brush can make
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The end result of tanning with the Leder kit – supple gray suede-like leather

The second bottle in the Leder kit is the “Leather Lube” which is applied liberally (according to the weight) to the damp skin. There is no indication on the package as to how long this should be left, however after a few days it became evident that the skin was drying nicely. Once completely dry, I used a garden trowel to vigorously scrape the skin while it was still tacked out (called breaking the skin), and the result was a lovely pliable suede-like backing, coloured pale gray. Don’t let people tell you that this tanning kit will “turn the wool blue” as this is rubbish. With the lamb skin I purchased a large dog slicker brush from the warehouse (fine wire bristles) and combed out the wool.  All in all I am very happy with the Leder kit, despite its lack of instructions, and would use it again

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The finished product – a nice skin for the floor.

.Please also see the more recent addition to this article – some shortcuts in skin preparation!