I hunt primarily for meat to feed the dog and the family. I’m not one to chase ‘bone’ for the sake of it but like most hunters, if a good one jumps up, I’ll take it gladly. That is what happened on the first Melbourne Branch hunt in mid-May this year.
As always, branch hunts are an opportunity for newer and older members to come together and share the hunting experience. Most often it takes place in areas where the hunting is good and reasonably accessible plus there is ample camping area to cater for groups of up to 30 hunters. This hunt was scheduled for the Howitt High Plains basing ourselves at the cattle yards on Tamboritha Saddle.
This hunt was booked in with ‘the boss’ (my wife, Chelsea) and marked on the calendar. I’d mentioned in passing to my ‘old man’ that I had a hunt booked in and he said my youngest stepbrother would be back from Dubai around then and I should see if he wanted to come along. I did just that and Jono jumped at the chance. When not away on work Jono lives in Perth so getting the chance to go hunting let alone deer hunting is a rare event these days.
The weather was looking great for the weekend but as usual at such high elevation it would be cold overnight and in the early morning. Arriving at lunchtime Friday, we met the other members who were already there and proceeded to set up our camp. Upon completing that first task, we drove towards Bryces Gorge and picked out a small track to park the truck on and set out for a look around. Jono, having never hunted sambar before, was given a crash course in sambar behaviour and how to determine whether rubs, marks and dropping were fresh or not.
Within 100 metres of the truck it was apparent that there were deer living in the area and with any luck we should bump into one that afternoon. A good look around didn’t show up any deer but there was enough fresh sign — footprints, droppings and beds — to indicate this was a spot we should put more time into over the rest of the weekend.
Saturday morning was very cold — minus four degrees cold! In fact, cold enough to freeze the tap on my water tank and the diesel in my truck — we were stuck in camp and that threw the plans out considerably. It was 9.30 am before it had warmed up enough to get the truck going with a 30-minute drive to get to our chosen hunting spot.
Arriving, we proceeded to hunt the sunny faces where we thought the deer would be bedded. Twenty minutes into the hunt my assessment was proved correct when I jumped a hind, calf and one other deer from their beds. It was too thick for a shot, so I followed them up after contacting Jono on the radio to let him know there were deer in the area. I didn’t manage to catch up with them, so we made plans to grab some lunch back at camp and plan our afternoon hunt.
By 2.30 pm things were looking great for an afternoon hunt, so we headed off with Jono hunting towards the bedding and feeding areas I had found on the Friday while I headed higher into the more densely covered area. It wasn’t long before I found some reasonable marks and a very small trickle of water that I thought should lead me to a wallow. This assumption proved correct and I found a ripping fresh wallow replete with a magnificent preaching tree — it looked like a stag had been ‘going to town’ on this wallow jamming his antlers into the bank and flicking mud everywhere. This had me on alert and proceeding slowly in the hope of jumping a deer.
I continued in line with our original plans, finding sign everywhere, some very good rubs and marks, but I was unable to find a deer. As the light was starting to fade, along with the deer sign, I was getting frustrated and wondered what I should do. I had one timbered face left to have a look at before I’d have to start heading back to the truck — it was 5 pm and last shooting light would be around 5.45 pm. Moving across the face there was absolutely no deer sign and I was just about to chuck it in when I looked to my left and did a double take … a deer!
As is so typical with sambar, its head was behind a tree with the whole body exposed, motionless listening to me move across the face. This allowed me ample time to make the shot. I raise the rifle and put the crosshairs on the shoulder sending a 180 gr Norma Oryx from my .300 Magnum on its way. At the shot the deer took off with its head down and tail up, I knew the shot was very good — I didn’t know it was a stag at this stage, only spotting antlers as it took off. I watched as it disappeared behind low scrub and on following it up 40 metres found it piled up dead. My stag had a very good and even set of antlers.
Jumping on the radio, I called up Jono who was not far away and 10 minutes later we proceeded to regale the hunt, cape and butcher the stag ready for the carry out. We agree to walk out with the head and come back the next morning to carry out the meat as the light was quickly fading.
As is practice on Melbourne Branch hunts, when we get back to camp, we get an experienced member to check that firearms are unloaded and stored correctly. I thought I’d have some fun with Branch President Gino Lendaro. ‘How you go Stevie?’ ‘No good Gino, can you check the rifles for us?’ I proceed to wax lyrical about seeing sign and being in the right spot when I casually, but very deliberately, shone the headlamp across the tray of the truck where the stag’s head and cape were strategically placed. Of course, Gino being Gino, goes into hysterics and mentions his usual about doing something involving nudity when you shoot a mountable head. He proceeded to gather the rest of the members around for a look and a quick and unscientific measuring saw the stag’s antlers go 26.5 inches long by 30.5 wide with ten inch brows and eight inch inners. The day was capped off by ripping feed thanks to branch chef Mark Fitzmaurice, a few beverages and a good sleep.
Sunday saw us up to get the venison, pack up and get home via a detour to meet Cam Johnson from Wildthings Taxidermy at Perry Bridge who’ll mount the trophy head. It was a great weekend with the branch members, two days of magnificent hunting and a great trophy to cap it all off. The only thing that would’ve been better would be for Jono to get the stag … but alas, that’s sambar hunting.
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