A fantastic few weeks of hunting recently had me out in the bush with renewed vigour in chasing ever elusive sambar and it all started off with some exploratory hunting ...
..looking for obvious rubs and marks and anything relevant to deer being evident in some sort of numbers in an area I hadn't been to for some time. During this period the highs of great hunting and numerous deer sightings were tempered with the low of the loss of a "big fella" at this time though more on him later. These particular few weeks started off with an early a.m start on a very cold Friday morning which had me arriving well before daybreak at my chosen hunting grounds.
With only the always welcome songs of a male Lyrebird and the multitude of other bush birdsong sounding for company I made my way from my ute to be greeted with the sight of a sea of dense white fog in the gully's stretching far below. Only the tops near and distant escaped the sea of white and as this sight looked absolutely magnificent the thought of a photo or two for the album entered my mind.
Suddenly, when after taking a few more steps this resulted in being honked from heavy cover only a hundred metres distant from my Toyota. "Ripper!" I thought silently, "this is a good start" as I ventured a little further along the ridge and bugger me here was another deer, a sambar hind walking along the top game trail in the head of a high gully right towards me at a range of sixty yards. A quick scurry down behind a covering bush had me frantically getting the old 35 mm Minolta out of my daypack and then by peering around the bush I saw the hind now followed by her 7 month old calf turn off the head of the gully game trail and cross a saddle not forty metres from me but through timber now too thick to get a decent photograph.
She obviously knew where she was going and with the temperature being quite cold I presumed she was heading for the sun just over the ridge. Ok then "this is a top day "I thought to myself as it's not too often that a hunter has close up takeable sambar deer in his sights and view's them unseen.
Sneaking a few hundred metres further along the high line had me looking down another high gully top and immediately spotting a deer below in a sunny glade which I could see was a hind, she had a spikey alongside, these deer were at approximately 140 metres distance from me and they were down a steep slope at quite an angle, maybe 60 degrees or so.
Sitting down quickly with the bino`s glued to my eyes and then seeing to my amazement a well spotted unantlered fallow deer which was seemingly very comfortably feeding with them and then the sunlit reflective flash of antlers a minute later signalled the arrival of a stag from underneath the surrounding cover, he was quickly appraised at around the 22 inch length with a nice shape and his arrival then caused the spikey to move off a little distance to presumably safer ground. As the Fallow deer didn't take much of my attention no identification was made except that on my first view it appeared to be too bulky to be a little fallow doe, though surprisingly for its bulk no antlers were evident. My focus was of course on the sambar.
After observing this group for 20 minutes slowly making their way up to the gully head and eventually then being hidden by the heavy cover I decided to leave them to themselves and headed off in another direction to a place in mind but not before watching another different hind cross the top of a steep hill on the dry side on her way to a sunny top, and as it was a cold morning with the bottoms very wet from the fog she had the right idea of course and being hopeful of a possibly bigger stag following behind her she was glassed for a while however that being fruitless my hunting continued. The fallow deer has never been sighted again.
A few hours later had me scanning another wide basin with pockets of heavy cover and some open spurs and then at 11.30 am and in bright sunlight while walking the top of a reasonably open ridge something caused me to look down the steep hill and immediately I spotted an antlered stag. He was feeding in a small grassy clearing side on to me and visible from the last rib forward. The stag was at a distance of about 180 yards on an opposite spur, I eased myself down and whipped up my Steiners and could see he was in the mid 20`s or better, maybe a 26 plus incher and on turning his head it was very evident that he had a nice wide antler shape.
Taking a few photos' at such a range will probably end up having a brown blob in the distance as the central point as my camera had only a 35-70 lens fitted, however it is all a memory prompt no matter how bad such photos may be and so a few were clicked off.
Then slowly descending the hill towards him from behind and then around the cover of a heavily foliaged tree top below me he was then viewed from a slightly closer distance. A not altogether difficult shot was presented and I'm sure that a few years ago he would have been rolled but subscribing to the "let them go let them grow" theory at least in this case as he was already getting up there as a sought after trophy size and hopefully would only get bigger and heavier a shot was declined.
Of course regretting the fact I had my Minolta 300 mm lens sitting at home in the safe didn't help ease the situation at all and then questions of why didn't this type of scenario happen to me over all those years of the sambar hunting learning curve?. I would have given anything in my early hunting days for such a chance. A mature antlered sambar stag feeding undisturbed in bright sunlight during his midday stretch is a real memory for any hunter I'm sure.
On watching him feed for another ten minutes and then by sneaking down and across to 50/60 metres above him although then being screened by thick cover caused a doe roo to spring me from where she lay in her bed and as I was only after a better photo or two I decided to leave this stag alone also.
When I got back to my original observation point I failed to sight him again but none the less was rather jubilant after such a great morning. Walking out back to the truck a "didn't fit" type of shape caught my attention and then after numerous closer inspections with the bino`s the shape turned into a young hind on the dark side of the gully just quietly sitting but with the usual ever alert ear and head turning movements of such a wary species. She was in the shade in possibly the coldest part of the basin ignoring the bright sunlight on the opposite side and being about 200 metres away from me in dark shade no attempt at taking a photograph was considered.
Making my way above to my ute with the thoughts of "Hey what a great day" especially after having two sambar stags in my sights and observing a few other deer as well for the memory bank.
Heading out of the bush for the trip back home and phoning long time mate George R. on returning there I told him of the deer that were sighted and that I would be out in the field the next day also. George had only just purchased a professional model High Definition Video outfit with all the trimmings at considerable cost with the eventual view to film wild deer so he announced straight off, "I'm coming too" so with a laugh at his self invitation I said "ok mate".
He arrived from Werribee that evening excited to hear the news of the deer that had been sighted and the possibility of getting some of the deer on tape. The next morning after raining all night which didn't leave us with the best feeling as the bush would be very wet and not conducive to good videoing dawn saw us heading for the 22 inch stags gully and then in poor light having a hind honk us and with her big calf in tow run across a spur in front of us at sixty yards in the still breaking dawn light. Most likely they were the previously seen pair.A further five minutes walking had George alerting me when he spotted just below us the young 22 inch stag walking the game trail in the head of the gully.
Videoing this stag as he made his way across the gully top with his head down and sniffing the track in front of him he was wet and dark from his wallowing and he headed into the thick cover of the gully head. He was at a closest distance of 70 metres below us during this time. We then sneaked back out of sight and then down around to a saddle below us to attempt some more videoing and the stag was then given a loud call. An unseen hind quickly answered with a loud honk and then to our surprise the stag actually came out of the heavy cover and in full view crossed a clear opening and slowly strode, almost strutting in that sambar stiff leg manner with tail erect to a patch of thick cover even closer to, though above us.
He watched proceedings with a head high although laid back attitude standing side on from behind the foliage with his antlers, face, backline and tail only visible to us.
Another call or two had the hind then come out of the heavy cover into the open and then repeatedly looking up at him and signalling him with tail lifting actions and him responding in kind with his own tail movements. Some of which included fully erect, straight out and straight out but with the last few inches curved down.
The hind then called her calf out and she walked warily across the hill with the calf walking just above her towards the source of the call. It was a great learning curve for me to observe the almost telepathic way of communication between this group of deer and it all had suggestions of the stag actually sending her to source as a forward scout the origin of the calls that I was making. The tail especially at a half mast and bent attitude and the various other attitudes showed us how much it played in communication amongst sambar deer.
We videoed and observed the group for 20 minutes or so and as the hind was now only sixty metres from us on a slightly higher level but across a shallow dip, we sneaked off the saddle unobserved as we didn't want her to find out that the noise was man made and thus make her too wary to respond to any calls in future visits. As the young stag will hopefully get bigger over the next few years and be a possible video star or wall hanger we were very happy with our morning's observation.
Off to where I had previously seen the bigger stag, the same day had us videoing a spikey rubbing a tree limb below us in a heavily treed area and he had a hind in attendance. A couple of calls then had the hind in a real tizz, she appeared to not know what to do, bolting into the thick cover then sneaking back into the rub tree area, the spikey seemed less concerned however and both deer were seen repeatedly below us although mostly obscured by the cover. And then right on dark two more hinds appeared but at some distance on opposite sides of the basin and with now poor light we headed for home to review the video taken.
Another evening hunt after work had me tired and even more so without seeing a deer at all until only a few hundred metres from my ute the fat calf previously sighted trotted up and across my path sky lining itself in the late evening light for the imaginary shot that I then took with rifle up and cross hairs on its shoulder.
A second visit from Rod B. all the way from Phillip Island had us out for a hunt one evening. And then during walking a long spur we were sprung by three deer and subsequently honked at. Rod saw this group of deer and suggested that there "were some antlers amongst them" They bolted at speed down the spur and then split as their marks showed after being followed for 500 metres or so with Rod planting himself in a likely location to intercept a possible circling movement. Rod had been good enough to help me recover a small stag on his previous visit.
The calf from this group was good enough for me to stand for a fully open view stalk for a photo opportunity at 80 metres until tail raised it trotted further down the spur and then a very watchful hind was seen standing on the opposite face at 200 metres. After taking a few photos of her with my 300 mm lens attached but not without difficulty in holding the heavy lens steady she was left alone. Another hind and calf pair was also seen by Rod as they were walking an open dry spur but unfortunately at a long distance.
Daybreak the next morning had us on another site and looking at what we thought were two Hereford cows with a possible two deer behind them on an open flat below us. After much conjecture and solid scanning through the bino`s and with the light changing for the better the two cows were made out to be deer. There were actually five deer on the flat, which were identified to be to be hinds and spikeys, possibly a very small stag. Then a young stag with undetermined antlers appeared and followed the group into the creek and they were then swallowed up by the foliage as they climbed to their bedding areas.
We hunted away from their basin so as not to disturb them and concentrated our efforts in a long nearby gully in the hope of finding more evidence of the resident stag that had rubbed along the spurs. Eventually splitting up and then rejoining Rod soon had a session of "what dja see mate" .Rod then recounted how he watched two hinds sunning on a dry spur for half an hour but no male deer were sighted at all. My offering was finding the location of a wallow that was left unapproached and viewed though the bino`s at 60 metres it appeared to have not been used for several days however.
Another few days gone and with George having other hunting commitments the following week had me walking alone in the pre dawn light to an area above some wallow's far below to where I thought there may be a chance of spotting a deer or two as we had previously discussed the feeling that "there must be a big fella" there somewhere also. During the previous last couple of hunts we had found a fair amount of evidence of such an animal. Then suddenly an unseen deer honked while I was passing a thick under storied copse of trees which I later identified by her running marks when walking out to my truck to be a mature hind. Then slowly sneaking along the ridgeline towards my intended destination silently cursing the hinds warning honk I was amazed after that noise to sight below me the backline of what was a mature stag with his head down. "Bugger where is George with the video camera?" I thought straight off as this scene was as good as it gets.
Snatching mouthfuls of feed he slowly walked the top game trail away from me. Slowly raising the old rifle and then looking hard to identify him was fairly tough as it was right after daybreak and with his head being down I wasn't convinced that he was a "good one" as the light and his dark body shape tended to obscure his near antler and I couldn't see much of the other antler either except a quick flash of his offside tips. He slowly made his way across the gully head away from me and never lifted his head once simply snatching feed as he went giving me concern about taking him size wise on the limited view available when I saw the long outer top on his near side convincing me then that it was too long to belong to a small antlered stag and as he was now a further forty metres away and still walking I sent a bullet from above and behind his left shoulder.
The projectile exited through his offside shoulder into the hill side and the stag dropped instantly dead but to my alarm started to slide downhill for sixty metres until a tree arrested his slide. The very loud roar of the rifle seemed to echo on and on for miles, reverberating down the valley in the cold still air and I thought then that every bloody cockatoo from there to Tassie had been woken it seemed with their raucous screams all around me.
Approaching cautiously from the downwind side and watching him for a few minutes making sure he didn't have a kick left to cause him to slide further I walked down and tied some hay band from my pack to a hind leg and the tree. My mind went to a previous occasion where a stag that was taken one evening cart wheeled a further 100 odd metres down a very steep hillside resulting in a much tougher retrieval. Not this time was the thought. After getting the camera out and then in still poor light after a few minutes of hunting reflection I could see then that he was a better trophy than first thought. Then doing a visual appraisal of his dark stained antlers which resulted in taking a few photos of which I'm hoping will develop correctly as the camera light metre suggested a very slow shutter speed and then of course the work of caping, butchering and carrying out began. The stag was a very solid animal and showing to be in "good nick" with the discovery of remnants of lacy caul fat over his paunch which reflected the great feed available in the area.