......after what felt like an AGE of waiting, the time finally came to head to Manchester airport to meet up with John from YDS for our trip out to Finland in pursuit of Moose and Whitetail deer.
I arrived at the airport and met 'other John' ("Woodmaster") who was flying out with us, and we acquainted ourselves over a sociable beer and fish & chips, before flying out.....the flight was uneventful - apart from a rather bumpy landing which caused John to grip his armrests so hard I think his fingerprints will still be embedded..... . Upon arrival at Helsinki, we met up with the incoming Gatwick contingent (Richard, Ken & Andy), and we piled into the minibus as the snow started to fall. The lodge we were staying in was around 130km from the airport, so a reasonable haul - and a bit of a white knuckle ride! Christian - John's friend & local 'man on the ground' - was the wheels man, and suffice to say (a) he had great confidence in his winter tyres, and (b) he had the ame Finnish driving ability as his rally-driving countrymen.....
We arrived at the lodge at around 4.00am local time, so it was heads down and get some sleep in anticipation of the range session scheduled for Friday....
First job on Friday morning was to head to the local town's supermarket to buy food and drink for the next few days; a swift lunch was followed by a trip to the range belonging to the local hunting club who were hosting us, to check zero and try our hand at the running moose target. The requirement was for eveyone to fire 3 shots freehand @ 75m at a static target, then a further 3 shots @ 75m at the running moose target (3 passes, one shot per pass).
The target ran on rails and looked quite reasonable when we all walked right up to it to gauge the killzone - but I think that we were all surprised by just how fast it clattered along, especially those of us - myself included - who had never shot at a moving target before with a rifle.....
I volunteered to go first, and I don't mind admitting that the nerves were kicking in a little: shooting in front of strangers is never easy, not helped by increasing snowfall, dropping temperatures, and hoping that rounds and/or bolt wouldn't freeze. My 3 static shots were all good, although one was slighlty off-kilter; I'm putting that down to my concentration breaking after I short-stroked my bolt and didn't chamber a round . Click..... My first sequence of moving shots resulted in 2 in, 1 out, which I was pleased with, so I stepped out to let the others take their turn. Andy's 9.3x74 was pretty good at clearing all the snow off the hut roof each time he fired!!
Everyone shot well, but the offer was extended for another stab at the moving moose, so I had another crack - it felt a lot more relaxed 2nd time around, helped by appreciating how long you had as a 'window', a batter sense of lead, etc, and I got all 3 'in', with a much improved score. Job's a good 'un!
The plan was for 3 of us to sit out that evening, and Richard, Ken and Andy had the pleasure of sitting out in what must have felt like -20, as the wind was blowing and adding significant wind chill to the alreday low temperatures; unfortunately nobody connected that night, but it really felt like we were hunting in Finland!
The plan for Saturday was to focus on Whitetail deer (bucks only), as the club undertake 'species-specific' drives due to different dogs being used for Moose and whitetails; it was forbidden to shoot one on a drive for the other as that would confuse the dogs and compromise their training. We had a safety brief, and adrenaline was running high.......
We piled into the minibus, and were driven to the forest, disembarking at 100-200yd intervals along the track. I was dropped off at the top of a banking overlooking a clearing, with a light stand of trees to my left, a ridge c. 150yds in front of me, and then the forest edge starting approx 250yds away. I opend up my stool, pulled up my collar, pulled down my hat, and loaded my rifle, wondering just how cold it would feel. After around 45 minutes of scanning the ground in front of me (and trying to keep the heavy snowfall off my scope and out of my bolt/trigger area), I caught sight of a small movement out of the corner of my left eye, and promptly did a sitcom double-take when I clocked that it was a deer!!!. I spotted antlers, and at that stage it was quite literally "It's got antlers! Buck!" as it had been drilled into us that under no circumstances were females to be shot. The buck was drifting along a narrow ride at the bottom of the slope about 65yds in front of me, heading left to right, and quite unconcerned - unlike me. As he stepped behind a tree, I flipped my scope caps, brought the rifle round to my front, and readied my thumb on the safety. I was confident enough for a moving shot after the previous day's range experience, but even better, the buck stopped broadside on, so the rifle came up, thumb forward, and as the crosshairs came to his chest just behind his leg, I squeezed......"BANG!". The shot felt good, sounded good, but he took off up towards the ridge as I rapidly cycled another round in, hoping that nothing had frozen up. I was raising the rifle to put another shot in as he neared the ridge to my front, when he staggered, spun, and then keeled over. Unfortunately I couldn't see him, but was sure he was down.
I kept the rifle at the ready (Sako Forester in .308 with Norma 180g SP's if anyone is interested!) for a good 5-10 minutes, then texted John & Christian to say "Buck down". Christian rang to check what had happened, I told him that I was sure he was down, and was told to sit tight and wait for the drive to end and a dog man to arrive. I relaxed and sat back to appreciate my surroundings, when 20 mins later, a SECOND whitetail buck drifted down the slop towards me, and would have made for a very straightforward 70yd shot! He as heading towards my right, and so I just watched him and kept my fingers crossed that he would appear in fron of Ken who was off to my right. After a few minutes, I heard a shot, followed by a 2nd, and then shortly after a 3rd. Had he got it??
20 minutes elapsed, and a dog chap appeared to advise that Ken had indeed been successful, and that we needed to try and find my deer. As we dropped down into the clearing, there were flecks of blood, so my buck was definitely hit, and we found him exactly where I had seen him drop - it was a relief to locate him, as the falling snow had covered him a lot, and it wasn't until we were literally on top of him that he was visible. My friend with the dog turned to me and said "THAT is a once-in-a-lifetime buck!" and vigorously shook my hand. It was a belter!!
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We dragged him out up to the track, and Ken had indeed been succesful in getting the 2nd buck; result!
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That afternoon we has another drive which turned out to be blank, and the plan for the evening was that the 'other' 3 of us would sit out; I offered to let one of the previous night's guns take my turn as I'd had a shovelful of good luck already that day, so Richard said that he'd like to try his hand again.
We left Richard, John and Robbo in the hands of the hunting club to be placed out, and we retired to the lodge to fire up the log burner!
After about 90 mins, Christian's phone rang; Richard had connected with a buck follower - number 3 for the day!
The following morning was Moose......we went to a different area of forest, having been briefed that were after Kups, and settled in for a long cold wait. The moose dogs bark when the beast is stationary, so the aim was keep yer lug 'oles pinned back!! The first time I heard the dog bark, I nearly shot out of my skin, and when it barked again - a little closer this time - my nerves were jangling! Unfortunately nobody saw a moose, despite them being in the forest somewhere - confirmed by the vocalising of the dog - but it was still a helluva experience.
Lunch was Finnish sausages cooked on sticks over an open fire in the hunting club's teepee, with a hopeful moose dog hoping for a spare banger or two:
Sunday afternoon was our final drive, with the aim of whitetail, fox and raccoon-dog; nobody connected, but it was a glorious afternoon: crisp, clear with azure skies in attendance.
Monday was 'coming home' day. The journey home was less than straightforward thanks to temperatures of -25'C when we got up; I won't bore you with the details, let's just say that a headlong sprint through Helsinki airport in my hunting boots was enough to get a bit of a sweat on!!!!
I had an absolutely great time. The experience was incredible, and I must thank John R for organising the hunt, Christian for driving, translating and wandering aorund in his green long johns, and also John, Richard, Ken & Andy for being fantastic company for the duration of the trip.
Note to self: start saving up for the next overseas trip........