Iím extremely lucky in that although I live in town, all my stalking locations at the moment are within 10-15 minutes of my front door, which allows me plenty of time out on the ground meeting with farmers and estate staff, discussing crop plantings and harvesting, plotting the deer movements that occur because of it, and just building up a picture of where the deer are. Iím also now free from the pressure of taking clients out or having to put X amount of carcases through the game dealer to make ends meet Ė in short really enjoying Ďmyí stalking. Because of this I can spend as much time, if not more, stalking with binoculars or camera and putting in the groundwork to give each Ďrealí outing the best chance of success.
One of my smaller farms is located in a prime position adjacent to two others that are for various reasons not shot over. Even the hunt donít come through this part of the valley following an unfortunate incident some time ago, when a stag ran through a wedding marquee pursued by the full pack of hounds while the reception was in full swing Ė you couldnít make this stuff up! This has resulted in several hind groups becoming hefted to the area all year round, and stags being drawn in prior to the rut.
So, a couple of weeks ago I started paying a bit of attention around a 20 or so acre totally undisturbed wood located on the side of a small combe, that I know had previously acted as a holding area for stags coming into the area. There seemed to be more general activity in the adjacent fields with extra erosion on the runs over the banks, hair on the wire and vegetation being trampled - but the ground has been too hard for any slots to show. Late evening and early morning outings initially revealed nothing, but as the moon was around full at the time and rising extremely late, which in my experience often gives a dawn and twilight no show, I wasnít unduly worried. As this farm had changed over from dairy to beef production a year or so ago, the main field running alongside the wood was being grown for itís second silage cut and no stock had been on it for at least a month - so that was where I focused my efforts once the grass had been cut, turned and carted off.
A couple of days of light drizzle soon had the sweet new shoots coming through which was almost immediately followed by a crop of very large fewmets in various places along the hedges and wood edge Ė they were back! As the lunar cycle edged towards the new moon a couple of rewarding consecutive evening sit-outs on a perimeter bank with the Swaro 8x56s paid off with late evening long distance sightings of a stag group comprising one monster with a head of 18 possibly 19/20 points, two slightly smaller, (but not a lot in body size), with what looked like 14-16 point heads, and two 10-12 pointer youngsters. They appeared to be in no hurry to move on from their lush new food source and tranquil daytime laying up, so I decided to keep an eye on them for a day or so while I discussed the way forward with the landowner.
We eventually decided to take one of the mid ranking boys if possible before they started to go into rutting mode. That way we would have a decent amount of good quality venison for our freezers, maybe a decent hat rack for the farmhouse wall, and it wouldnít put a dent into the local rutting activity. Decision made, I spent another evening out with the binos which revealed that they had been joined by two very good spikers still in velvet, and the big fellow maybe gone. If he had wandered off then it might indicate that they were starting to split up pre-rut, so next morning, (last Saturday), would be a good time to make a move.
A quick check on the interweb revealed that the weather overnight was forecast as light cloud clearing around dawn with the temperature above average and the wind a light south westerly Ė combined with the moon only four days away from new it looked almost perfect.
Although sunrise was at 6.31am I was in no great hurry to get on the ground until just before six because the warm overnight temperature will always produce a smattering of mist hanging above the valley at that location even if there is no cloud cover at dawn. I needed reasonable light to scan the fields before trying to stalk into the deer, so there was little point in getting there earlier and maybe creating an unintended disturbance.
So at 5.50am I slipped the shoulder lead onto Max my Bavarian pup, slipped a round into the chamber of the Steyr-Mannlicher .308, eased the safety into position and heeled him through the gate of the farmyard into the first field, stooping almost immediately to scan the hedges, banks and wood edge which were just visible.
With nothing showing we slowly made our way along the track to the next gate which led into the large field abutting the wood where most activity had been seen. Scanning right to left nothing was picked out until I hit a familiar dark shape standing out from the background of bleached yellow with a smattering of light green directly in front of me and about 20 metres out into the field from the wood, and at a distance of about 250 metres. No matter how many times Iíve done it, the first sighting of a deer when I have the intention of taking it always causes a jump in heart rate and the familiar adrenalin rush, even if it soon becomes subdued due to the necessity of thinking my way through all the practicalities of getting into the shot.
With no real cover between us and the animal the best I could do was to get through the gate and crawl alongside the temporary paddock that was set up for the horses on the left of the field from me. At least the grass and weeds under the single strand of wire were still standing having been missed by the swipe of the framers cutter, and I could get into a shooting position alongside. The familiar half-broken catch was silently opened and the gate swung on its well greased hinges just enough to allow us through, then just as quietly closed. With the dark western sky and a hedgerow behind me I wasnít too bothered about being spotted provided I moved slowly and at a crouch, (and the dog didnít decide to wrap his lead around me!).
Twenty metres or so later I was tucked in alongside the rough pasture with Max sitting quietly beside me. Everything was looking good; the field sloping slightly down towards my target and levelling out behind giving me a good backstop; the deer was feeding and unconcerned but was facing into the wood with itís steep drop down to the stream; and I was sitting comfortably with a knee under me and the sticks spread and dug in at just the right height. Immediate concerns were the possibility of the horses about mid way down the paddock coming up to investigate us and/or the deer ambling into the wood before shooting light.
Luckily over the next five minutes as the pre-dawn came on neither happened, and I could at last identify the animal through the binos as one of those that I wanted to take, and also observe another two come into view some way further down the field.
With everything looking good I raised the rifle fore-end up onto the cushion of my fist gripping the crossed sticks, settled myself, steadied my breathing and let the crosshair settle halfway up the body and just behind the foreleg. The safety slid off with a positive touch and I set the rear trigger, crosshair holding and a rearward touch on the front trigger sent a Nosler 150 BT down the field to find its intended target.
Regaining the sight picture after recoil revealed the deer standing in the same position and I held onto its image while cycling the action and slipping the safety on. It started to slowly turn head on towards me and then continued around in a small semi-circle away from the wood, obviously unsteady on its legs, before collapsing with no further movement facing directly away from me. Swapping the Ďscope for binos I continued to observe the downed animal for a minute or two, making sure that the others that had been standing in the field had retreated back into the wood, before standing and starting the walk down to it.
With Max at heel I kept well clear of the headgear and carried out a reflex test with the ends of the sticks before releasing him so that he could Ďragí the carcase for effect while I unlooaded and made safe. With his hunting instinct semi-satisfied and after a cursory inspection of the animal, we walked up to the lone oak at the centre of the field to sit and watch the sun spill over the eastern ridge of the valley and ponder awhile on my actions. Then it was back up to the farmhouse to be met by enquiries about my early morning Ďalarmí and the joy of a well brewed cuppa. While the tractor with the front loader bucket was being fetched two of us walked back down to carry out a field gralloch before recovery back to the yard.
I later found out from GPS that the distance the shot was taken over was 215 metres +/- 3 metres. The point of impact was just about where Iíd aimed, (rifle zeroed at 160 metres), and the bullet had crossed just above the heart and taken the major arteries with it, plus shredding one lung. Entry damage was minimal and although there was an exit, it was only marginally larger than entry, so I suspect that it was only a fragment of the expanded round that made it's way out. I have to say that this deer had the most body cavity fat that Iíve ever seen in any red before. There was a thickness of at least 3 inches around the fist sized kidneys and my knife handle became almost too slippery to use safely.
I donít yet know how much the carcase weighs but even with head and feet off it was impossible for two of us to lift into the back of the van Ė we had to push the tray into the tractor bucket, lift it to the correct level and then slide/drag it into the van. Itís winched up in my garage roof but the complete neck is still laying in the tray Ė a big animal in the peak of condition.
I donít normally go in for ĎFat Bloke, Rifle & Dead Animalí pics, but my excuse for this one is that Iíve lost some weight, (and some hair!), the dogís in it instead of a firearm and thatís a rather nice 14 pointer Ė 39Ē across and brow tines @ 14Ē long.
Shot was taken from just this side off the hedgeline upper right of the pic.
Plus points are that although it wasnít a particularly challenging stalk, some time consuming, (but always enjoyable), preparation paid off in the end and we got the animal we wanted. The other big plus is that most of the fields are having clover broadcast into them over the next week, so they should be a big attraction for hinds this winter. Now I just need to get on and build that tower!