By Tim Blackwell
The shadows lengthened as I crawled up through the mallee knob, extended the legs on my bipod and laid alongside my rifle in the dry remnant grass. Plucking the binoculars from my harness, I surveyed the small mob of fallow deer feeding across the adjacent hillside. A yearling spiker fed furthest from cover, unaware of my position; probably still an estimated 250 metres away, but well within the practiced range of my 7mm Remington Magnum.
It was the week before Easter, the rut was in full swing and I was predominantly here trophy hunting. However, with a high number of deer present, including a large male population, the instruction from the landowner was to reduce numbers. So naturally, meat became my goal in the situation that was before me. Slipping my daypack under the butt of the rifle, I had a very steady rest and settled my crosshair on the young spiker’s chest. Upon the shot the mob scattered, my target made it the few steps to the thick mallee but he was found only a few metres in. A prime young animal and perfect table fare. With his spotted hide cleanly removed and rolled in my pack along with his backstraps, the back end was hoisted across my shoulders and I headed for camp by torchlight, the sound of croaking fallow bucks reverberating around me. A promising start!
Well before first light the next morning, I left camp with fellow hunter Jake, and wished each other luck for the day as we headed off in our respective directions. A good few kilometres later, I was in a similar area that I hunted last night when I heard the first croaks and grunts of rutting activity. Closing in, I waited amid an overhanging tree for the light to intensify. Now able to pinpoint the sound of the bucks, I had to circle around another kilometre to put myself well downwind of my prey.
Slipping across a small open plain just as the sun rose; I managed to remain undetected by the preoccupied deer, and used a line of scrubby trees to slowly sneak in on the commotion. Sitting down behind a knee-high horizontal log, I focussed my binos and sat back to watch the show. At least 30 deer were rutting like crazy in a sandy basin centred around three large trees. There were four bucks present, all croaking hard and trying to steal a few girls off the dominant older buck holding down prime position at the centre of the stand. And surprisingly, the does were almost more vocal than the bucks, with their constant ‘mewing’ to each other as they milled about. I had heard does vocalise many times before, but never this volume and intensity.
For an hour I watched and enjoyed this spectacle, putting in place more little pieces to the puzzle of deer behaviour, and getting a good chance to size up each buck in the process. None were particularly what I was looking for, and I was initially tempted to move on. But, with herd management in mind and remembering the property’s overabundance of male deer, I took a closer look at the master stag. He was certainly mature, solid through the body with heavy coronets, holding most of the females and fighting off any of the more promising younger bucks that tried to steal one away. With short antlers overall and little palmation to speak of, he was not really what we needed breeding; so my mind was made up for me.
The log I sat behind was the perfect height so I levelled the Tikka over the top and wound the Swarovski up to 8 power, finding the old buck. He wasn’t moving far from the middle of the stand but was constantly on the prowl, and a bigger issue was the number of does milling around in front and behind him. I had to wait some time for a safe shot opportunity, but when it finally arose I made no mistakes and put him down in his tracks as his harem headed for the scrub.
Satisfied, I sat back for a few moments before heading over to inspect my buck. Definitely mature at 6-7 years old by my estimation, and certainly poor genetically; a good one to remove from the herd. I set to work with the knife, breaking up the carcass and taking the useable portion. He had a decent cape as well, so I took that as a spare for someone down the track rather than let it go to waste. By the time I’d completed this job the morning sun was high in the sky and warming rapidly, as I strapped the head onto my pack and hoisted it for the march south. The wind was still in my favour, so I went slowly and hunted my way back toward camp.
A few paddocks further on, it was 10:30am when I heard the distant croaks from another buck. I kept wandering in his direction and he gave a few croaks every 5 or 10 minutes which unsurprisingly led me to a large patch of thick mallee scrub; our South Australian fallow bucks just love the stuff. Dropping my heavy pack under a tree some 50 metres from the scrub’s edge, I took a seat in the shade and trained my ears in the direction of the buck, trying to pinpoint his movements. Surely if I waited here long enough, I figured, he’d do the rounds of his scrapes and I’d get a look at his headgear.
Half an hour later, I still hadn’t laid eyes on the buck and he was still croaking regularly in the middle of the mallee. There was only one thing for it – I had to go in after him. I wound my scope back to its minimum setting for close quarters work, and tiptoed my way into the thick stuff. Only taking a few silent steps when he croaked, I edged ever closer to his position. Soon I was on hands and knees to see under the thick scrub canopy, this then progressed to crawling on my stomach. I was getting close now!
I could see a young satellite buck and a couple of does trotting back and forth. And then, through the timber, I caught glimpses of a beautiful chocolate coat. Could it be him? As if to answer my question, he threw his head back and croaked again. It was indeed a mature chocolate colour phase fallow buck, more accurately termed melanistic; a rarity in these parts and something I’d never taken. I was instantly a little more interested in this buck, but I still had to check out his headgear.
He moved out of sight to my right to round up a doe, so I seized the opportunity to crawl around one more bush into a small clear lane through the scrub. With my rifle resting on its bipod and the safety on, it was back to my binos, straining to visually separate antler from timber. He moved back to his original position and right into my shooting lane, croaking as he went. I could see he had a good right palm and some serious character on his left. He had all his ‘rights’ and had reasonable length. He was no world beater but he was mature, and that beautiful coat had me sold. As he turned and quartered away from me at a mere 15 metres, his left front leg took a step forward, opening up his vitals, and I slipped a bullet straight into his heart for an instantaneous kill. I lay there close by as silence fell once again, hands now shaking. What a hunt!
It was some time before I gathered myself and headed over to claim my trophy; amazed at how everything had come together this morning, but also conscious of the hard work that now lay ahead. I ran my hand across that beautiful dark coat and thanked him for a challenging hunt. It seems my chocolate had come a little early this Easter!