Tag Archives: Hunting

From Pound to Pond

Opening weekend started with a boom – literally – and at the same time my dog let out a blood-curdling shriek and raced to the water. The problem was that I was holding her leash, and the crash of my face hitting the tin maimai floor earned questioning glances from the shooters.  A morning devoid of rain or wind left the hunters – Paul,  Jimmy,  Jacko and Isaac – disappointed,  but it was beautiful.  The river in front of us was flat,  and the silhouettes of the birds are black against the early sunrise. It was a pleasure and a privilege to join Jimmy and his family for opening day, and I was excited to see what it was all about.  P1000653

Teeva had been adopted from the pound a year before, and had proven a talented dog in dryland sledding,  as well as a keen retriever.  Before today she had retrieved a rabbit,  a rock pigeon and a pukeko, as well as several lessons with a dummy duck in the river and swimming pool.  Impressive for an Asian Ridgeback, and impressive enough to be invited along to a normally very exclusive event,  organised by my partner’s dad. It never would have occurred to me to even try this dog as a retriever until Jimmy saw the potential in her and suggested it. To be honest I would have expected her to just savagely eat small animals, but she has really surprised us with a gentle mouth and powerful swimming ability. One thing that was rather amusing is that she would try to retrieve ME when I was swimming in the river with her over the summer, gently taking my hand and towing me to shore.

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Powerful swimming is needed for the main river current

The first bird to hit the water was a black swan and Teeva bolted towards it with no hesitation, bringing it to the shore and earning a fair bit of praise. However she also guarded it jealously from the other dog Pip, a chocolate lab, which meant she had to be put on a leash for a bit. Pip was very clued-on, and often beat Teeva to the birds. To our amusement, Teeva developed a short-cut through the front of the maimai to try to circumvent this injustice. It also provided her with a handy peep hole to whine at potential birds through, providing irritation of the rest of the maimai occupants.   Throughout the morning, with every set of shots fired she strained to be released,  whining and lunging. Later in the morning she was released for a few retrieves and did wonderfully, even in the strong current.

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She didn’t show any possessiveness when Pip had a duck, but if Teeva retrieved it and Pip came too close there was a fair bit of snarling etc. Hopefully in future events she will settle down.

The middle of the day was quiet and we relaxed, entertaining ourselves by snoozing, trout fishing, and drawing eyebrows on the dog.  She was the only one constantly on high alert, watching the sky and water intently and whining at the sound of mallards or distant shots. Several times she ran to the water in response to shotguns at a nearby maimai. I was fairly envious of Paul’s nice quiet dog, who took the opportunity to rest in the sun. Mine was still shaking with excitement and maintaining vigilance several hours later!  At one stage a flock of pigeons flew in and the shooters brought two down.  With Pip tied up,  Teeva was taken down-wind of the stricken bird.  She found its scent easily and retrieved it,  still alive,  from beneath the driftwood. Paul commended her efforts.

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Watching through the front of the maimai

With nothing happening for a couple of hours,  I took the kayak upstream to take a look at the river scenery and have a bit of a stretch. Beneath the brown water trails of bubbles rose, betraying the fish swimming below me.  I was not shooting,  but happily committed the day to training and working my dog.  The sound of shotguns from our maimai made me paddle back,  and i hoped my dog was behaving without me there. Coming close to the maimai I was greeted by an enthusiastic dog who ignored the calls from the guys as she bounded through the mud to the kayak.  It transpired that Paul had gone for a walk with Pip so Teeva had been able to do a very good retrieve a good 30m into the main flow of the river to retrieve a paradise duck. They sounded impressed and I was sad to have missed it.

As evening rolled in,  anticipation grew high once more. We were very spoiled to have such a nice maimai to sit in – and even more lucky to have found a wooden table that had washed down the river. It was the perfect housing for the mini-barbecue and we enjoyed some venison butties and sausages.  Because of Teeva’s possessiveness over her retrieves and the predicted chaos of the evening shoot,  we discussed sitting her out for the evening, but i decided to give her a chance. I was glad I did. Flocks of swans came in almost suddenly,  and shots pounded the air. Skilled aiming and strategic shooting cleanly killed the birds as they passed, and I released Teeva as they plunged into the water. The two dogs were retrieving full-time until dark and I had to work pretty hard to keep up with them! Teeva worked her hardest, retrieving again and again, a total of 11 swans and 5 parries for the day which was a phenomenal effort for a first time duck dingo! Even better, I am starting to decide that duck shooting looks pretty fun, and am tempted to have a go one day… watch this space!

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Teeva’s retrieves for the two days, an incredible effort.

 

 

 

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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

Disappointing my Mate and Myself

Goats are great animals – smart, quirky, and lots of character. However they are also quite a pest in certain areas, and are great to get started on.

My mate and I arrived at the paddock as directed by the farmer, to be greeted by a small group of nannies. At the top of the hill was a big black billy with large horns overlooking the mob and as I was feeling really unenthusiastic about shooting nannies, I thought I would go for him. Now I hadn’t fired my rifle since Christmas and at the best of times I have some trigger anxiety. It’s stupid, I have put around 200 rounds through the rifle now and yet it remains. Everytime I fire it I think “oh, that wasn’t bad at all!” and after the first shot I am away. I found myself looking through the scope at this big billy, but unable to shoot as the fact that my mate was about to fire made me feel tense. Poor Jase, he has taught me a lot, however there have been a couple of failures alongside him and now I associate him with an unreasonable amount of pressure. So I told him to shoot first. He let off the first round, taking a nanny. Once that was out of the way – knowing I wouldn’t jump if he fired again – I lined up only to see the big billy disappearing fast. The mature billy was obviously street-wise, leaving the nannies wondering what was happening. My mate took out a few of them, leaving me feeling very disappointed with myself.

It seemed the rest of the mob had been down the hill further, grazing in the bush. Soon there was bleating and a little brown goat (half-grown) looked at me and then made a run for it. I followed him a wee way but I couldn’t get him to turn around for a shot, so he lived another day. He was a pretty small target and running!

Returning to the hill, four more billies had arrived. Jase was nowhere to be seen so I decided not to shoot until I knew his whereabouts. The mob saw the dead goats and seemed to think they were just resting, so they settled down around 20m away from their fallen comrades and started to chew their cuds. Jase popped his head up and pointed at them with some exasperated body language, not understanding why I was sitting there watching them! With him located I went to find a nice rest for my bipod to take a shot. Well, stuck on the side of a steep hill proved challenging. I tried a sitting shot but it was too awkward. I could feel Jase’s eyes boring into me as I sprawled and slithered, taking an eternity and looking very silly. The goats could well see me and didn’t seem at all bothered – sitting down 50m away quite contented. Finally finding a decent steady rest I lined up on a beautiful-coloured billy. He was a mixture of browns and black, fairly young, with a long shaggy coat. He was completely oblivious as he chewed his cud. I think if an animal has to die, this is a good way to go. No travel on a truck, no stress, just suddenly dead. And he was, as the bullet passed perfectly through his engine room. Jase took out another from the mob at the same time, and the other two made it to safety.

We gutted all the goats and left them to cool as we headed off down the ridge.  As we left another mob of four emerged from grazing in a gut. We decided to come back for them later. Following a steep spur downwards, squeezing between manuka trees, a mob of around 8 animals was spotted in the distance. Unfortunately they were a bit spooky and started to flee before we were ready. Quite unusual for goats to be so jumpy.

Over the course of the day we came back to the vicinity of the house. There were some very tempting billies on a hillside next to the road, but I was nervous that being so close to the house my shots would startle the occupants. I could see the farmer’s wife hanging washing in her car port 50m to my left, and chickened out. Jase shook his head when I came back – disappointed again.

We finished the trip by returning to the paddock we started in. The goats we had intended to get emerged suddenly from right next to us, as we had managed to walk nearly right on them. They took off and at the same time I spotted some animals grazing in the dip in the paddock ahead. Not knowing how many there were, Jase said he was going to be the back-up shooter. I crept closer, saw the number of animals grazing and told him that there was no way he was only going to be a back-up! I lined up on a pretty looking billy, pale brown with a handsome back mane. He was on his knees grazing so I figured he might be lame. My shot was followed very closely by Jase’s and two animals were felled. The mob hadn’t realised what was happening – but in a real downturn of luck, the sheep sharing the paddock ran to the mob. With all the animals intermingled we couldn’t shoot, and the rest escaped. That was pretty disappointing but better than explaining to a farmer how we managed to orphan a set of twin lambs…

We took the back legs off the animals we had as dog tucker for the farmers, as well as a few of the skins for tanning. A good little walk to ease back into things, and a few less mouths taking the precious little pasture! DSC_0005

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!

“Was that pilot cute or have I been in the bush too long?”

It turns out I was in the bush too long, according to my female companion.  Perhaps it was just that we were so grateful to see the chopper, after dicey weather conditions threatened our timely  return home.

The arrival home is always greatly anticipated, but always quite a come-down after a trip. Don’t get me wrong – I love seeing my dearly beloved more than anything, and being in the bush is when I truly appreciate and miss him the most. It’s more that I will have gear to unpack, clothes to wash, a rifle to clean,  and a barrage of emails, texts and messages that stream defiantly in as soon as the internet allows them.  And there was the moment last time when I flung open the front door,  dropped my pack and called out: ” Hi baaaaayyyy…………………be. ” Only to see the carpet strewn with the remains of the dog’s bed, which had been savagely unstuffed down the hallway. This time I found it more overwhelming than other times, and I don’t know why. And this time I was actually quite desperate to get some perfume on, rip out straggling eyebrow hairs, paint my nails and deal to the crop of zits that I can still achieve in the face of dermal neglect, despite being over the 30 mark.

The trip this time was almost fruitless, despite being a productive expedition a mere seven weeks ago. Previously I took two spikers from the area, after seeing nine animals and leaving the hinds to rear their fawns. In the time from then until now, hunters have taken 17 animals from the area, leaving a wasteland of old deer sign and boot prints. Some parties took four or five animals between them, if the notes in the book are correct.  I guess all those hinds I left have been shot.

On the first day things looked promising, as we saw some hinds out with their fawns and watched them for around 20 minutes.DSCF2011 Our luck ended there as the weather declined and every nook and cranny we explored showed recent evidence of human exploration. The meat safe at the back of the hut bore a smelly pool of green-tinged congealed blood that the previous occupants had failed to clean up. I say the trip was almost fruitless, as there were some successes. A few good photos were taken, and I had the privilege of showing a beginner hunter some deer sign, the hinds and fawn, and the art of stalking quietly which she did very well.

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We had cabin fever due to the abyssmal weather that we encountered – I am not sure if that is typical of the Ruahines in Summer – but we sure were grateful when we heard the chopper coming. There are only so many days that one can venture out in gale force winds and see no animals (not too surprising, I would have been sheltering too if I was a deer) before feeling defeated. When the weather is consistently bad you just have to get out sometimes to stave off the boredom,  and for that chance that you will actually see something against the odds. On one such walk, we were delighted to see a pair of falcons at very close proximity. At first I thought we were about to be attacked as they flew in fast, with rapid wing beats, and headed straight for us. Passing two or three metres over our heads they cackled excitedly “kek kek kek kek kek!!!” before swirling over the valley together. Another wonderful thing we saw were some slightly weathered hoof prints – a hind and her miniature fawn, whose toes measured just over an inch. I hope they made it to safety. DSCF2046

Other ways to stave off boredom came about as nasty weather dragged on. A hunt through the magazine box in the hut revealed few publications harbouring a crossword. One magazine kept us entertained for a considerable amount of time with a full-page edition with some challenging clues. I mused about the kinds of magazines that people bring into huts. There were the standard hunting mags, but additionally there was NZ Gardener, That’s Life, North and South, and The Investor. The latter served as an effective draft-stopper when folded correctly.

A secondary hunting sport was developed in the evening of our final night, as a mouse entered the hut, climbed my rifle in the gun rack, and proceeded to nibble on food on the bench. The last straw was reached when the visitor gained access to the table and used this to vault into my hair as I lay in bed. This set off a bit of a chase, in which the dog was sent under the beds to flush out the vermin. He obliged with vigour, sniffing enthusiastically but completely failing to see the rodent.  Useless as a mouser, he was, however, an effective firewood vehicle when equipped with a back pack.

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After all card games, crosswords, word puzzles and attempts at amusing stories were exhausted, the compulsive cleaning kicked in. The hut was given a bit of a scrub up with some warm water and dish soap for just over an hour. The result was clear to see for us, however newcomers will fail to appreciate it without the benefit of comparison.

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The heli ride home was rather too eventful for my liking. Strong winds made for a bumpy journey, and our pilot flew high possibly to counteract this. He was a bit of a smart arse too, leading me to believe the microphone wasn’t functioning and mocking me with faux sympathetic pouts when I thought I couldn’t contribute to the conversation. I learned later that what I said was apparently heard by everyone except me. Oh well. There was nothing more welcome today than  safe delivery to solid ground by our non-cute pilot.

The pitbull that points

In April of 2014 I got myself a dog – a 7 month old pitbull mix that was rescued from a shelter that had shut down. I didn’t intend for him to be a hunting dog, but I was heading out and I thought I should bring him along.

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It was the afternoon on a private block, and Eli the dog caught some exciting scents from the hut. We headed out along the ridge, spotting some fallow grazing on a clearing a over 500m away. My friend’s son was bowhunting in that area and we wondered if he had seen the deer. My mate ducked over the ridge to take a look, leaving Eli and myself to examine the trees on the other side. After only a few minutes, a dark shape moved beneath a whiteywood. I hadn’t yet shot a deer, but this one was about to be my first. I had time before the animal moved so that I could take a good shot, so I tied Eli to my leg. Taking a rest on a very convenient horizontal branch, I aimed as the spiker moved into view, and took a shot between the shoulder blades. As I rechecked the view through the scope, I saw a leg flash past as the animal rolled down the hill and into the cover of trees. Looking next to me, I saw that the rope attached to the dog was slack and lying at my side. I thought I lost him with the shot until I realised he had switched sides and was keenly sniffing the wind.

First fallowMy mate soon showed up and I said that I thought I had just shot my first deer. A moment of doubt – but I had seen it tumble. We let Eli lead the way. There was a valley to cross, through bush with a steep-sided creek at the bottom. It was quite a challenge to navigate. Eli lead us to a point where we could see the deer, and then we let him go to it. That was the point when we discovered that he has a horrible high-pitched yodel when he gets excited…..

He was a real nuisance on the carry, yodelling and shrieking with excitement, as well as chomping his jaws, but we got there unscathed.

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My first red deer, taken from the Ruahines

Two weeks later we went into the Ruahines and he proved very useful. The weirdest thing was that he was able to point! Another peculiar trait he exhibited was putting his hackles up when the unmistakable smell of a rutting stag wafted past us, followed by a low rumble. He tracked well, and leading us to areas with fresh sign and negotiating obstacles well. We came across a mob of deer in an open part of the bush, and a young hind was taken. This was my first red deer and much more of an achievement than taking the fallow.

The one problem we have encountered is that once he knew what we were there for, he decided to try to get a deer for himself. A young animal was spotted on the bush edge just on dark, and he took off after it. He was never going to catch it, just follow the scent around and around in the bush, but it was the one time he would not come back. After that I had to take him on a string in the bush which was a complete pain in the arse.

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Faithful companion making sure he is not forgotten!

Recently I got a remote controlled shock collar to curb this habit, and it seems we have made progress. I’ve only had to shock him once when he took off after a hare, thank goodness it wasn’t a deer.

Training a hunting dog is not something I actually know how to do. The point of this story is to say that you don’t have to get yourself a Visla or a pointer, because sometimes a rescued mutt with poor conformation will be perfect for the job. He has been on many hunts now and has tamed down the yodelling. I wouldn’t say that he does all the work, but he is helpful, as well as being a great little buddy.

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Making use of the doggy backpack. It was too noisy to be used on the hunt