Over the years my friends and I have been deer hunting we have managed to solve all the problems of the deer hunting world while sitting around the camp fire.
Problem is, that’s where our theories and resolutions have sometimes stayed, in the ashes of the campfires. Old men (I’m one of them) are well known to be grumpy. Thus, the saying: ‘Grumpy old men’. Our little hunting crew averages four when we are hunting over hounds and three of us are over 67 years of age with one in his seventies. Add that up, that has potential to be a lot of grumpiness.
As a child (that’s a long time ago) I was taught there were three forbidden topics at the dinner table or amongst family and friends. They were religion, sex and politics. Surely these rules should not apply around the campfire? You may find this hard to believe but I have wavered from the rules my grandfather believed in and all three subjects are occasionally discussed. Take politics for instance, how on earth could we avoid talking about it. It matters little if there is a mixed camp of different political alliances for the common view is, politics in general is stuffed. Even so the campfire tends to be a lively place when politics gets a mention. Here then is the advantage of being a grumpy of man: harsh statements roll forth using appropriate language that is generally accompanied by head nodding and much agreement with more appropriate language and comments from the other grumpy old men.
If you thought politics is a boring subject then you have never shared a deer hunting camp when the etiquette of avoiding politics has been breached. (I made a typing error, the error before I corrected it was: ‘politics gas instead of politics has’. It may have been a subconscious act and on the matter of political discussion, perhaps gas is a more appropriate word. Back to the theme.) Now was it ‘grumpy old deer hunters’ or ‘politics’? It is both with a mixture of a warm smokey fire, beer, bourbon and red wine on a frosty night. The politics is not always about Canberra, it is often about deer and deer hunting, how it was and how it is.
So how was it 45 or more years ago? Was it as good or was it better? I suppose that depends on one’s point of view and one thing is for certain — with a few grumpy old men in camp there is certainly a point of view to be expressed in no uncertain terms. There were less deer around than today but there were also less deer hunters. The down side to more deer hunters is the increased competition for available hunting areas. The upside is that most grumpy old deer hunters are pensioners or self-funded retirees and thus hunt during the week and have hunting areas to themselves. There are some advantages in being an old deer hunter.
When we were young there was more country to hunt because it was before the days of the large national parks in Victoria but most of what was to become park held very few deer. The number of deer within national parks in Victoria has certainly increased. Now that was a big change. Anybody interested in game management will find some interesting questions as to why there was a rapid increase in deer numbers within the new parks and other areas closed to hunting. Grumpy old blokes have an answer; because there was no hunting or hunter access was severely restricted. Oversimplified? Possibly but the true answer is even simpler, the harvest rate in some areas was too low. Grumpy old blokes have a ball with that one around the campfire.
In Victoria there were few regulations regarding deer hunting until the game regulations were introduced in 1975. Today we are regulated with seasons, bag limits, specified calibres and where we can hunt. It is debatable, and grumpy old men do debate the effectiveness of the regulations. Some hunters conduct their hunting accordingly while others do what they want without fear of being caught. In that respect it is just the same and probably worse simply because the ratio of enforcement personnel per hunter has decreased. The positive aspect is the figures based on convictions will probably show an improvement in hunter behaviour relative to the increase in numbers of deer hunters since 1975. That last statement is a bit like politics. OK it’s a bit of spin and is like being in Canberra where spin doctors will try and make you feel lucky because you stood on a dog turd. Grumpy old buggers around the campfire talk about regulation and enforcement or lack thereof.
There is another side to the history of game regulations in Victoria. In the early days there was a lot of work and effort to improve game habitat and increase the population of game with areas being specifically set aside for game production and game hunting. Somehow, we became confused and increasingly game regulations were seen as game management. They were not one and the same, game regulations are hunter management, not game management. The emphasis became hunter regulation with all eyes on hunter control with a failure to monitor the changing trends in deer populations. Science, research and objectives are the basis of good management. Politics is the tool and key to achieving a workable game management plan with positive outcomes for the game and the community. Fools cannot see a win, win, win situation where the deer, the hunter and the community win, just ask the grumpy old men around the fire they will tell you about fools and idiots.
Forty-five years ago, due partly to the low density of sambar, becoming a successful hunter was like serving an apprenticeship, there was no quick and easy road. Harvest rates per hunter per trip have changed and are certainly higher today than 45 years ago and in general it takes less time to start to shoot deer. Information is readily available and there are several avenues to learn how to become a deer hunter like the Australian Deer Association hunter education courses. Deer hunters are better equipped with vehicles and technology and there are more deer, thus making it easier to succeed. The subject of success brings forth: ‘Back in my day it was a lot harder!’ Rightly or wrongly, the question of improved hunter harvest rate draws a common response from old hunters; ‘It’s too easy, too many deer and the fools can’t recognize what they’ve got and how good it is’.
There is nothing like the statement ‘back in my day’, to bring out the best in grumpy old men. I chose the word ‘best’ by no accident. Because old men in their day, were fit young hunters, when they could run up a hill that now has them on their knees panting for breath. Back in their day when a rifle weighed nothing in their hand and the icy cold river up to their thermometer was naught to be feared, just a minor obstacle to be crossed with relative ease. When a stag’s back leg and a rifle over the shoulder and a dog on a lead in thick bush was nothing. When a GPS didn’t exist and was not needed and a torch was held in our mouth while cutting up a deer because no one had invented the efficient head torch. When seasonally closed tracks never existed and hounds legally ran in the Wonnangatta. When the 4 x 4 broke down we walked for help or we got ourselves out of trouble, or into it.
Talking about the old days around a fire, the grumpiness fades and the eyes of old men are alive with the joy of reminiscing. Old hunters reminisce about great hunts, of old friends and hounds, some gone, but all still alive in the stories. How we laugh and how we forget about being grumpy old men. For what is there to be grumpy about? Sitting by the warmth of a fire we realize that in the morning we will go hunting. It matters little if the hills seem steeper and we can no longer run 400 metres to head the deer without risk of a heart attack or throwing up.
And when we hunt, we may be cold and wet and if someone misses a deer they should have shot easily, we don’t care. But if the hunters’ history of missing crosses the line he will be given a gift that will spark laughter in the camp. We have birthday cakes by the side of the road with tea and coffee and wonder what someone will think if they came across old blokes shabbily dressed with hound and gun singing happy birthday in party hats. We find reasons to laugh and even rib our hunting mate who backed into a great big Landcruiser or a chainsaw he didn’t see. It is never overly serious for there is more to be had from laughter; it is part of the joy of hunting. We step forward to pat another bloke on his back, shake his hand and praise his success. We share each other’s glory and are genuinely pleased for them for their success is ours as well. This then is when there is not a grumpy old man in sight.
We old hunters have a common bond, we just love to hunt and sometimes we have to deal with the realization we can no longer demolish a mountain in six strides or carry out a deer with barely a sweat raised. We keep that to ourselves but we all know it is not like the old days. At times it is hard to readjust to the changes like locked gates where there weren’t any. Watching the dethroning of sambar from the pedestal of valued game animal to carry the label threatening species was hard to accept. With that came the short step to pest and the associated loss of respect. Even grumpy old men can see that change is constant and that things will again change for hunting and sambar.
It is heartening to see the increased scientific interest in our magnificent sambar as Mike Harrison called them. We may see sambar revalued as a managed resource as opposed to pest. We can only hope. No, it is more than hope, it is politics. Yes, politics is boring but political influence is the only way to maintain our hunting. Like it or not, it is politicians who decide if we can legally hunt and whether sambar will lose the label ‘pest’. It was political influence that won and has maintained sambar stalking in the Victorian Alpine National Park.
A lot has happened in the past 45 years, so is it better today than yesterday, or, is it just different? It will always be different. But for grumpy old men that is not the answer. ‘It has never been this good for us, who would have thought that old deer hunters would still be hunting and complaining about the state of affairs 50 years after they picked up a rifle in quest of sambar?’ One thing has stayed constant over time. We (grumpy old farts) still go hunting and we still love to hunt. Correction: We love sambar hunting even more than when we could demolish mountains and lunge through freezing streams with ease. Even if times have changed, it is still the greatest show on earth. Recently we were away hunting and another grumpy old deer hunter Don Rhodes said to me, ‘How good is this?’ How good? Bloody awesome! For some old hunters, it just gets better all the time.
By Peter Burke