Hunting sambar by stalking is a great test of a hunter’s preparedness to adapt to a wide range of circumstances, and I firmly believe that there is no such thing as wasted time in the bush. We just need to make a conscious effort to learn something from every trip.
There are so many little pieces of knowledge we can gather with every trip into the bush in pursuit of the wily sambar. Environmental conditions such as weather and terrain are key aspects to consider when planning a hunt. Knowledge of other factors like pressure from hunters and seasonal feed availability will also help to determine where and when a hunt has the best prospects for success.
The secret is to be able to recognise and retain this information, then put it all together to form a plan that will bring success on a regular basis depending on the situations we are presented with.
The key point I believe, particularly when starting out, is that we don’t need to have too many different hunting areas. Better to have two or three hunting spots and build up as much knowledge of the place as the deer have, rather than alternating between six or seven different locations and not really getting to know any of these areas very well. Once we get to know our regular hunting grounds and begin to understand why the deer are in particular places at certain times, then we can apply that knowledge to new country.
With all that in mind I’d like to share with you a trip to learn about a new area. Then secondly, show how good decision making that is based on experience gathered over time in ‘my own’ area provided a memorable and rewarding experience in just a single weekend.
In mid-June 2015 my GSP Bella and I had the pleasure of sharing a hunting trip with my two good mates Scott and James, in one of my favourite hunting areas in Victoria’s north-east.
James had the opportunity to head up a bit earlier than Scott and me, so he and his pointer were asleep when we finally arrived late on a very cold Friday night in winter. After waking them up with a bit of friendly banter and a couple of beers around the campfire, it wasn’t long before we were all off to bed and snoring away the freezing night.
Saturday morning, we were all up before dawn. After hot cuppas and some breakfast, we each headed off to our prearranged hunting areas. I had been lucky enough to take two sambar for the freezer on a trip a few weeks earlier so there was no pressure to take a deer this trip. Instead I decided that Bella and I would drive the nearby road up the mountains and pull into an old logging coup way above our usual hunting areas. From here we would hunt our way back to the camp.
This was something I had been wanting to do for some years as I had never been able to get up into some of this area and I felt it would be an opportunity that I might not get again for some time.
I calculated that it would take all day and maybe a little more, so I arranged with James and Scott to not expect me back before dark, and for one of them to drive me back to get my car.
After driving up the mountain to gain 600 metres in elevation, which equated to about 5 km by road, and then as far down the old track into the logging coup as I could get, I parked the car, geared up, and with Bella bouncing around excitedly in anticipation, we headed off into the bush.
You can never be sure what unexplored country will throw at you, so I was pretty excited to see what we would come up with. I had chosen this opportunity to do this hunt because the weather, although freezing, was clear and sunny so I felt that we would be giving ourselves the best chance at encountering deer while also being able to cover the distance safely as I was sure there was going to be some steep, thick sections to negotiate. I was to be proven correct many times before the day was finished.
It wasn’t long before we came across droppings and rubs but nothing fresh, and Bella was cruising about covering plenty of bush, which is a sure sign there were no deer in the close vicinity. It made sense that there were none here because, despite the sun shining on the face, a very cold breeze was blowing up out of a cold dark gully nearby. We made our way around the ridge to the north and things soon began to look more interesting.
As we began to descend, we had our first encounter with a sambar.
Steep thick country is difficult to hunt but a sunny face is a good place to find deer.
Bella began to wind-scent and after a short stalk we came across a hind that had bedded in a nice sunny spot at the base of a tree out of the wind. She knew we were there but had obviously not seen much hunting pressure as she seemed to have no great concern about our presence.
Leaving the hind be, we continued down the steep side and for the most part it was a case of pushing through thick undergrowth while trying not to slip or fall over unseen deadfall. Anytime we got pushed into shaded areas we found the frost was showing no sign of melting so I knew the only place to find deer would be where the tree canopy let the sun through. With that in mind I kept our descent directed down the northern face despite easier going on the more southerly side.
It was a whole different way of hunting to what we usually do; trying to make our way down the steep ridge safely with the only aim being to see what was in this system. Despite this, we still tried to keep the key rules of hunting sambar in mind: always trying to keep the wind in our face and staying in the sunshine.
The going was extremely slow as I pushed, climbed, crawled and sometimes fell through the thick understory. Bella was constantly having to stop to wait. She is an old hand now and knows very well that she and I need to be in visual contact for the partnership to work as it is no good her indicating deer if I can’t see her.
With the going so tough and not a single game trail or any deer sign, I knew it was time to change my plan.
Over the years I’d wasted way too much time in barren country because I’d read all the information that said that you must always go at a snail’s pace when hunting deer or they’ll disappear into the bush like ghosts. This can be true in some country, but what I had found is that sambar are mostly arrogant buggers that have read a fair bit of their own press. My experience in the thick country is that they will hold their ground when they hear movement in the bush and will not leave an area they know is safe, only to run into an area that may not be, just because a wombat, kangaroo or emu is moving through. As long as they don’t get a whiff of your scent, they will generally wait to make visual contact before moving off. With this in mind, I decided to push on hard to get below the thick crap, disregarding the noise I was making in the belief that if we did get on to deer, they would hold long enough for me to at least get a look.
After an hour’s hard slog, we finally made it into some better going and began to find deer pellets, rubs and beds. I slowed down, but it was still tough going and any deer would be getting plenty of warning that there were intruders in the area.
It wasn’t long though before my theory on sambar and noise was again proven correct by Bella. After tripping over a hidden branch in the thick undergrowth and catching a small tree just in time to prevent a fall, I looked ahead to see Bella on full point.
A young stag was looking curiously at me stumbling my way through the bush with that condescending look on its face that animals seem to have when they observe humans struggling in their environment. He must have heard me coming for the past 10 minutes but had decided to stay put until he confirmed what I was.
I told him to ‘piss off’ and continued the decent with Bella and the stag both looking at me as if I was nuts.
Bella really hates it when I don’t shoot a deer that she has gone to the trouble of searching out for me and I reckon the stag was thinking ‘that’s the biggest and ugliest wombat I’ve ever seen!’
Shortly after leaving the young stag I found some easier going and set my mind on hunting again instead of just pushing through the bush.
By now it was after midday and according to my GPS we were less than halfway down so I decided to munch a muesli bar on the move and not stop for a break.
The day was crystal clear with no wind except for gently rising thermals generated by the weak sun.
We kept moving down into the light breeze while staying in the sunshine as much as possible. With this area being the warmest by far there were lots of birds about, in particular lyrebirds and the racket they were making was spectacular. The variety of creatures they can imitate always amazes me and I love trying to figure out which call is the real thing and which is the lyrebird’s imitation.
I was travelling more cautiously now and Bella was searching the breeze with renewed interest.
After more slow progress Bella locked on point with her full attention straight below us.
There were two lyrebirds in that direction and I was tempted to tell her to leave them but she seemed determined that we should look down there.
Over the years I have learned to trust her judgement and so I grudgingly moved toward her and then down into the area she was indicating.
The lyrebirds were really going to town and I was about to tell Bella she was off her game when they suddenly went quiet. Right where Bella was pointing and 25 metres below us, a good-sized wattle started to shake and I could hear the distinctive sound of a sambar stag’s antlers striking wood.
I froze on the spot and strained to see through the trees in the hope of getting a look at the animal that was obviously having a serious disagreement with the wattle tree. Eventually I could make out a dark backline and then the neck, ears and finally antlers of a mature sambar stag.
I don’t know what the wattle had said to him but this stag was mightily upset with the offending tree and was really giving it what-for. As I watched the stag, I tried to video the entertaining spectacle but couldn’t get any clear vision of the deer through the thick bush.
I had guessed the stag’s antlers to be between 22 and 24 inches long, and while a good representative head, I was not going to shoot him as I already had bigger trophies and was way too far from camp to be taking him for meat.
With the decision not to shoot made, I decided to see if I could get closer and maybe get some better video or photos.
I made my way slowly down through the dogwood and wattle, moving only when the deer thrashed the tree to use the noise he was making to cover any sound I made. Bella was matching my slow pace and we slowly got closer and closer but still couldn’t get a good clean look. Eventually my scent must have made it to the stag as he suddenly stopped belting the tree and bolted away down the hill in a mad dash.
I was not too disappointed as it had been quite fun sneaking in on him and considered it a win to me and Bella.
We inspected the marks he had made on the tree and his running marks. I took a few photos and filed the information in my memory bank for future reference when trying to age deer sign.
It is always good to find deer sign — this antler rub on a white gum was made a few days ago.
From this point on the bush began to open. It was easier to move through and had some clear game trails. It also showed more sign of deer activity, so I made some reference points in my GPS for future hunts. We continued downward but also began to contour so that I could look further through the bush as it was now mid-afternoon, and deer would be on the move. As we made our way down, we saw another hind and two young deer making their way slowly down an adjacent face. After watching the trio feed their way along, we left them to it as time was marching on and we still had some distance to cover.
We eventually made it to the small creek that signalled we were nearing the bottom of the ridge but we were still a couple of kilometres from camp. The late afternoon was getting colder and the light was beginning to fade so we picked up the pace and moved on with much more purpose. As we finally reached the valley bottom and the river flats, we bumped another spikey stag and a hind (probably his mum) before I broke out my head torch. We let them walk too as I was getting fatigued and just wanted to get back to a warm fire and a hot meal.
Now some would call that a wasted day, but to me it was an extremely enjoyable experience. I learned a lot about the area and the deer and had the pleasure of seeing the many and varied wonders of our Aussie bush. Back at camp I was able to enjoy discussing the day’s events with my mates and hear their stories over a couple of beers, which only added to the pleasure of the day. As the night rolled on the temperature plummeted under a clear sky so we climbed into our swags and I’m sure I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
Sunday morning arrived with freezing temperatures. Minus seven degrees, and there was no enthusiasm to get out of bed by man or dog.
Both Scott and James had to return home but I had an extra day up my sleeve so, knowing that the deer would be hating the cold in the bottom of the valley as much as me and Bella, I decided to take my time getting going as I was sure that they would all be up high on the sunny faces and I would need to wait for the thermals to develop before attempting to find Mr Big.
This is where having a good understanding of the area and the local conditions pays off. I was pretty sure I knew where the deer would have fed during the night: a finger of good feed that had a light tree canopy that would hold warmth in during the night and ward the frost off better than the open creek flats where the deer usually feed. This area was not too far from a long, east-west running ridge that had, according to the map in my GPS, one particularly tempting north-facing gully head.
Although I had not hunted that particular ridge before, I felt this would be a prime spot for a clued-up mature stag on such a cold but sunny winter’s day.
After seeing the other guys off, I drove a short distance to the back of the ridge and Bella and I began the business of slowly climbing the hill. With the gentle breeze being from the north we climbed the south side of the ridge so that we didn’t send our scent into the hunting area. This made the journey slow due to the thick bush on that side, but I felt it was necessary to give us the best chance at undisturbed deer where I expected them to be.
Once we got to the elevation I wanted (the top third of the ridge) we contoured our way around to the north side on full alert. Almost immediately we came across deer. I had travelled only 70 metres along the sunny face when, 50 metres ahead, I saw Bella was indicating towards a fallen tree where a young hind was standing her ground stomping her hoof. While she would have been a nice eater, she was not the target for this trip, so I whistled Bella to me, and the hind walked off stiff-legged.
Half an hour later we came across a spikey and an old hind that were not interested in hanging about.
The gully head I had in mind was not far off so I was glad they had vacated the scene without honking.
By this stage we were on the top of the ridge. I had decided to move to this height as the wind was now swinging about a bit and I was concerned that it might swing around too far from the east (the direction from which we were travelling) and give us away to any deer camped in the gully head. Also, by now it was 1 pm and I thought we might be in with a chance of meeting a stag that was moving about for his midday walk.
I had hardly finished this thought when I noticed Bella trying to pinpoint a scent on the changing breeze — she was thrusting her nose into the air, trying to catch more of the scent and decide where it was coming from.
With Bella 20 metres to my right struggling to pinpoint the deer on the fluky wind, it was time for me to really tune in to the game. Given that she was catching deer scent I watched what the leaves on the trees were doing to get an idea where the wind was coming from when she reacted to the scent. I saw her react a couple of times when the breeze appeared to blow directly along the ridge from the west, so I focused my attention that way while still checking on Bella.
We continued very slowly along the ridge, carefully picking our way through the hop bush and trees. Suddenly something caught my eye, that thing that makes the hunter’s heart race, something that is just different enough to make us look twice. Bingo!
There, 50 or 60 metres along the ridge to the west, looking around a large gum tree, was a magnificent sambar stag. Bella was a few metres to my right (north) side but she still hadn’t marked him as the breeze was mostly blowing across us from the north.
The stag seemed to be zeroed in on the dog and presented a clear front-on shot so I took aim and squeezed the trigger. I saw the dust cloud from the impact of the 285 grain Norma Oryx from my Sako Blackbear 9.3 x 62 right where I had aimed, a split second before the stag crashed off for a short 30 metre run before collapsing to the ground. I waited a few moments to be sure he was staying down and then Bella and I made our way across to him.
As we got to him it was obvious that he was a wonderful example of the beauty and size of a fully mature sambar stag: a big-bodied deer with symmetrical antlers lay before us and I was immediately overcome by the usual mixture of pride, remorse, joy and awe at the taking of one of these magnificent deer. I took some time to just experience the scene then sat down beside him and felt the warmth of his still body while Bella snuffled and sniffed the length and breadth of the deer.
Photos and video clips were taken before the serious work began. Time was getting on and I had to decide whether I was taking antlers and cape or meat.
A trophy-size stag but given limited time only meat and the trophy antlers could be taken.
While I would have liked to have had him mounted, in the end I took the back-straps, eye-fillets and boned out one back leg as I felt it was for me a more appropriate celebration of his life to utilise his body to sustain mine and my family.
I carried the meat and antlers the 2.5 kilometres back to the car in one go and by the time I got there I was well and truly buggered but very satisfied with the outcome and was quietly proud of how the plan had worked out perfectly.
You might remember that I had marked a spot on the map in my GPS where I thought a big stag might be. Well that stag was only 120 metres from where I had placed the pin on the map. By using experience and putting in the effort we ended up with a great result, great memories and more experience to be put to good use in the future.
Contributed by: Tony Cudmore