I wrote this story up for our Australian Deer Association magazine and thought I'd share it with you blokes as I really enjoy reading about what you guys get up to.
The story was titled "In The Eye Of The Beholder"
For me deer hunting is predominantly about my need to get off the grid for a few days in order to reconnect myself with the natural world that has always been at the centre of my life. Itís also about the challenge of getting inside the guard of these magnificent animals that are so much better equipped for the bush than me and, if all goes to plan, filling the freezer with some wonderful fresh meat.
However each year for the last 4 or 5, Iíve taken a week of leave in the middle of winter and gone bush with the specific aim of taking a Sambar stag. These trips have seen me and a mate foot slogging our way through the bush or riding our pushbikes kilometres behind locked gates. Weíve travelled through weather ranging from sunshine to snow, to set up backpack camps well back from the nearest track. Our hunting grounds are State Forests so our gundogs can accompany us and it is always a great hunting experience regardless of whether an animal is harvested or not.
Over time there have been some nice animals taken and much has been learned but that big stag of 30inches plus has always eluded me.
That was until July 2014.
Like most people who work and have a family, for me, getting a week of free time to go hunting is a tricky process. Anything more than a weekend needs to be planned at least a couple of months in advance. So it was that in May, after submitting a multitude of leave requests and doing many and varied household chores to gain the requisite number of ever elusive ďBrownie PointsĒ, I managed to get approval from the minister for fun and finance for my annual stag hunt. I randomly selected a week in late July and hoped that I got lucky with the weather. My mate locked the dates into his calendar also and the countdown began.
Finally the magic date came round and I reckoned I was well prepared. I had spent the intervening months going over my trail cam pics and photos of past hunts as well as all my GPS marks that I had downloaded onto Google Earth. I had relived every hunt I had ever been on in the planned area which I have been hunting for the last 8 years. I reckoned that in regard to sambar hunting in this area, my knowledge of the deer and this particular patch was second only to a hound crew I know that also hunt the area when the gates are open. Unfortunately a last minute change of plans for my big mate meant that I found myself leaving the ute for the trek in behind the gates by pushbike with only Bella my GSP as company for the next few days.
The preceding weeks had seen some atrocious weather but as I began peddling, the sun was shining, the breeze was light and this weather was forecast to continue for the next few days at least. I had definitely been given a lucky break and I was in high spirits as I hit the first downhill stretch.
The enthusiasm quickly diminished though as I soon came to the first long uphill section.
Because the gates are locked up through the winter months there is no-one clearing or maintaining the tracks. A couple of months of winter winds, rain and snow sees many trees down. The track is rough with plenty of trenches and piles of leaves, sticks and gravel from the rain. This, along with the pretty much constant ascent soon took the shine off the day. I found myself walking beside the bike and wheeling it most of the 15kís with Bella looking at me with that ďcímon ya fat buggerĒ look. She loves these trips and seems to know exactly where we are heading and just canít wait to get there. Me sweating and puffing along slowly beside the bike is definitely not what she wants to see.
2 hours later we enter the area I plan to spend the next 5 days. We had reached the snow line and there was plenty about but it was patchy and obviously a couple of days old being mostly frozen solid. A couple of kís before we get to the camp site we make a short trip into the bush to swap the card on a trail cam I have on a wallow. This camera has been in this patch for 5 years off and on and has given me plenty of insight into the local animal population.
We made our way into the camera, changed the card and checked that the batteries still had plenty of life left in them. Bella poked around but there didnít appear to be any fresh sign which made sense as the previous week had been a shocker with freezing temperatures, gale force winds and rain throughout Victoria.
Itís about 4pm when we got back to the pushbike but instead of continuing on to camp Bella is starting to wind-scent and sheís determined to go for a look into a nearby patch of real thick stuff. Iíve learnt my lesson and always trust her nose nowadays so I followed her lead. We slowly made our way into the scrub and sure enough she locked up on a young spikey stag. He was barely visible in the thick crap and definitely not what we were there for so I got a nice pic of Bella on point and left him to it. There wasnít much daylight left and I wanted to get to the campsite to get set up before dark.
I rolled into the campsite just on dark with Bella looking like she could have gone the same distance again but I was happy to finally be there.
I have a stash in at this spot which saves taking a lot of stuff in the backpack. This provides me with some luxuries like a gas BBQ, some canned food and a bottle of Rum along with a couple of bottles of cola. Thereís also a bottle of Stones Green Ginger wine (medicinal purposes only) as well as Bellaís dog food and a few other items too heavy to be taking on a pushbike. It doesnít take long to get the camp set up and a fire going. I feed Bella and she settles down with a full tummy next to the fire. I cook up a feed for myself and once thatís down Iím into the fart-sack too. The cold night and exertion of the trip is enough to send me straight to sleep.
At 4:30 am the alarm on my phone goes off and itís a battle to climb out of the sleeping bag. The clear sky overnight has dropped the temperature to well below freezing but I havenít come all this way to lie in bed so itís out and into a good breakfast. While the billy is boiling I go through my pack checking that everything (head torch, PLB, knives, GPS etc) is good to go. I double check that I have plenty of poo tickets and snacks, I plan to be gone all day and I donít want to run out of either.
As the light of early dawn is just beginning to break through, Bella and I head off across the swampy marsh near camp. With the daylight slowly increasing, a heavy frost comes down and itís quite difficult to move through the snow drifts as they are frozen solid and slippery. Open areas without snow are layered in frost and any puddles are also frozen solid. No self-respecting deer are going to be freezing their private parts off in this. This is where all the time spent gathering my knowledge of the area starts to pay off. Iíve got a fair idea where they will have gone to beat the frost until the sun gets up. We quickly cross the swamp and head into the bush to a large blackberry choked gully bottom that has a thick tree canopy to keep out the frost. This is the best place to be for the next hour or so as this lush little patch is holding in what little warmth there is and the tree canopy is keeping out the frost.
Poking along nice and slow and with a gentle southerly drifting into our face, the sounds of the bush waking up are reminding me just why I do this. The beauty of the deep greens and browns of the wet bush, the sounds of the wild creatures welcoming the day and the smell of the crisp, clean, high country air, fulfils me in a way nothing else does. It recharges and reinvigorates me and no matter what happens over the next few days this feeling alone has made the trip worthwhile.
Doing the Sambar shuffle of walk a few steps, stop then scan ahead and to the side, we go deeper into the gully. Bella is working the gentle Southerly in her usual efficient manner and my expectation of contact with deer is soon realised as she picks up some scent on the breeze. After a bit of careful zig-zagging left and right to process the info on the wind she locks up on point. I use my binos to see what sheís discovered and find a hind and calf about 80m away in the blackberries. I tried to get some video but the old girl is not having a bar of that and after giving me a couple of honks she moves off. Its then I see she has a young stag of 20-22 inches following her and although he hasnít pegged us he knows enough to do what the old girl says and he walks stiff legged away. Both deer could have been taken but they arenít what we are here for so we bid them good day and move on.
The sun is getting up a bit now and Iíve got a particular spot in mind that I want to get to by about 10:00. Itís the only N/E face in this area and has some good feeding areas below it so I reckon the deer will be headed up there to bed and warm up. Itís about a k away so we begin to make our way around with a bit more purpose but still go nice and steady in the hope of cutting across the path of any deer that may be making their way through.
As we work our way around to the target area things are looking good. The wind is holding nice and constant from the south which keeps it in our face and the sun is beginning to thaw things out. It will be a strong temptation to any creature that has spent the cold night down in the feeding grounds.
We have also come across quite a bit of fresh sign including some rub trees, big hoof prints and stag droppings the size of hand grenades. We walk a recently used game trail thatís busy with the prints of some small deer going the direction I favour. I reckon itís worth following them at this stage as they could have a big fella shadowing them.
After a half hour or so I decide to move higher than this game trail as I believe that any big fellas will be above the smaller deer having left the feeding ground earlier. We move up diagonally and begin to enter the warmest area where the sun is playing directly onto the face. The bush is quite thick but there are open patches of sunshine and most of the snow has melted from the surrounding area although there is still windrows of it in the permanently shady spots. This is the place I aimed to be and it is about the time I wanted to be here so I am expecting to make contact at any moment.
Bella is about 15m ahead of me and she is showing all the signs that, like me, she is expecting to find a deer any second. The tension is building when I feel the wind suddenly switch and come from behind me. I mutter an expletive thinking thatís screwed things but it is only a brief gust and thankfully it returns to the gentle southerly blowing downhill into my face. I move on but have only gone about another 10m when Bella just locks up solid as the breeze comes down from above her. I know that there must be a deer just above her but I canít see a thing so I take a couple of careful steps up the hill when suddenly this massive body appears.
The stag is huge and his size is magnified by the surprise of his sudden appearance. He has taken a couple of steps my way and is standing with his right side quartering towards me, his bum lower than his shoulder only 12-15m away. Thereís a fair bit of shadow and some bush between us but I can see his left antler silhouetted and some ripper brows. Heís a thumper and I have a clear shot at his neck/shoulder. The Sako Blackbear seems to magically appear at my shoulder and the reticle of the Vortex scope instantly acquires the target. Without any conscious thought the trigger is squeezed and a 285grn Norma Oryx in 9.3x62 hits home. The stag collapses forward, cleanly hit through the spine. Bella moves in for a bit of a look but the stag still has consciousness from the shoulder up so I call her back and deliver a finisher to end the animals fear.
We approach the stag slowly taking in what has unfolded. The adrenaline has kicked in now and I feel that familiar feeling of elation at the success combined with remorse for the life taken.
As I get closer to the stag I begin to get a true idea of his size. He is a massive deer and obviously in full rut as his face, neck and shoulders are like that of a Hereford bull. My eyes are drawn to his antlers and it is with surprise I discover that his right main beam has malformed. Heís lying on his left side with his right antler pointing skyward. The Brow tine is perfectly formed but the main beam looks like another brow. His left antler is perfect and I can already tell that the main is more than 30inches long. I have done it! Iíve taken an over 30incher and although heís not perfectly formed neither am I and to have survived long enough to grow this big he needed to be smart. He would have avoided hunters and hounds for many years and the scars on his face and body testify that he has fought hard to get to this point in time. With his size and the combination of his heavy perfect antler and the deadly double spears of his malformed Right side, I reckon he was probably king of this area, at least while he was in hard antler.
I spend some quiet time with him letting Bella have her reward of sniffing and licking the deer from end to end with particular focus on the pre-orbitals and other scent glands. I then take the time to present him for some photos and video. This is a special moment as itís the first physical contact I have with him and I get a true appreciation for what has happened as I feel the warmth of his body and the weight of his majestic head.
With him set up to best show his size and character I take some photos and video so that I can re-live and share the hunt for years to come. Bella is very excited and can barely contain herself so she starts plucking at his fur and nipping at his flank. I let her go as she is just releasing her pent-up excitement. This is a natural reaction by a hunting dog to the build-up of tension during the hunt, there is no malice or disrespect involved, just pure joy on behalf of the dog.
I set to the task of caping the stag which took more than an hour. Moving his huge body on my own while on the side of a hill is not the most straightforward of things but eventually the job is complete. Itís obvious that the head and cape will be impossible to carry with the small daypack I am using so I take the back-straps and go back the 2ks to camp to get my 45L backpack. Back to the deer and I stuff the cape into a calico bag then put it into the backpack. I then strap the head to the outside of the pack. For anyone who hasnít carried a cape and complete head from a 30inch sambar I can assure you that the weight is substantial but having it in a good pack made the second trip back to camp bearable.
Back at camp Bella and I had a feed and rested our weary muscles. I was still buzzing with the excitement of what I had achieved and couldnít relax so I began the task of finishing the caping by removing the skin from the skull. This was a big mistake. The job started well and the skin came off relatively easily for a start. I had gotten past the tricky eyes and pre-orbitals and was working my way down the nose when disaster struck.
It was getting late and I had begun to rush so that I would finish before dark. I had contrived a way to hang the cape and head so that the skull was pulling away from the skin as I worked the scalpel blade of my Moroka30 X3 trophy knife between the skin and bone. It was working well but I didnít take into account how thin the scarred-up skin across his nose was. Suddenly the blade slipped a bit and I cut the skin. The weight of the hanging head ripped the skin in a long tear that went right through to the lips and the head fell to the ground with the front of the face cape ruined. I just stood there in shock. The cape was wrecked. In disappointment I sat down and finished the job but I was quite deflated as I had really wanted to pay due respect to this deer.
That night after a feed Bella and I sat quietly by the fire and I polished off a fair bit of Rum n cola. Thereís something very special about the bond between a man and his dog sitting together by a fire kilometres into the bush after a successful hunt. This night was made even more special as it was the culmination of many years of hunting here together. I had only started hunting this area not long before I got Bella. Much of our training and learning about each other was done here. This was the place where we harvested the first deer that she had genuinely indicated (actually it was the second deer she indicated, I screwed up the first the evening before). The taking of that deer signalled the beginning of what so far has been a pretty successful hunting partnership.
I went back the next morning and retrieved one of the back legs for extra meat as a way of compensating for the loss of the cape to pay respect to the stag. The next couple of days were spent exploring some spots I havenít spent much time in. We saw a few more deer and learned a lot for future hunts. We packed up a day early as there was a front coming. I left a bit of extra gear behind so that I could carry the antlers and meat and we made the journey out. Fortunately the trip is mainly downhill as I was loaded pretty heavily. By the time I got back to the car both Bella and I were pretty knackered. We loaded everything into the vehicle and made the 5 hour trip home. I donít think I can remember a thing about that drive as I was re-living every moment of the last few days.
The stagís Good antler measured 31.5 inches and the beam measured 7.5 inches. The brow tines were 18 and 16 inches each with 10inch coronets. The dodgy main is also 16 inches long. There was obvious damage to the outside of the right coronet which might have something to do with why he was dodgy on that side. I have a sneaking suspicion that I may be responsible for the damage but thatís a story for another campfire.
While some have said what a bugger it is about his malformed right antler I donít see it that way. He is a wild animal and a product of his environment. Heís no dumber for having a crook antler. In fact, if my suspicions are correct, heís learned some pretty hard lessons so was probably smarter than most. I hunted him fair and square and itís the hunt that is the most important thing to me. Like beauty, a trophy is in the eye of the beholder. This old fella is definitely a trophy to me.
Here's some Video footage