We pulled up to our chosen catchment just after lunch on August the 5th 2009. The weather was reasonably mild compared to the same time the previous year with not a scerrick of snow to be seen. The clouds did a poor job to fight off the rain and an hour into the walk it began hosing down. It had rained the previous four days and the forecast was for more rain and wind. The upside was that the bush was pretty quiet going and any sign we came onto was generally fresh. But the downside was footing four days worth of gear into the catchment in the pouring rain.
Zane's dog "Digga", a 20 month old german shorthaired pointer (GSP), accompanied us for the trip. It was a first on many accounts for Digga; being his first time in the area and his first time camping away. What was quite clear from the get-go though, was this certainly wasn't Digga's first time searching out and indicating deer. Zane had trained him up on fallow and sambar at their farm in Country Victoria.
Digga's first encounter for the trip was just after it started raining, as we were contouring our way just down from the top of a leading a spur, Digga caught wind and led us straight onto three deer (two hinds and a yearling) which were bedded up in a thicket below. The deer soon spooked and crashed off down into the valley below. I did wonder whether we'd catch up with one of them later - but no stags seemed to be held up with that group.
We continued on; our aim was to reach a prominent kink in the leading spur where we could bed down for the night and hunt the headwaters of several small tributaries that fed into the main valley below. By late afternoon the rain started to really pelt down and the temperature dropped. As we drew nearer the proposed campsite, tree scrapes became evident and the odd stag print (3 or 4 days old) saddled from one side of the gully system to the other. As the light started to fade, the wind eased slightly, the cloud dropped and engulfed us, and the rain continued. Once we reached our destination, we found a flattish spot to camp, threw down a ground sheet and quickly pitched the fly. With 20mins to spare, Zane headed down one spur with Digga, while I snuck down another. Our campsite was at a fork in the leading spur, offering two completely different routes to the main valley below.
My spur had patches of fresh prints and the odd scraped cherry tree - but nothing to write home about. Most of the sign led down into the sheltered side of the ridge which I planned to hunt the following morning. Zane's dog constantly winded into the next gully over but with only limited light left, Zane too, opted to hunt it first thing the following morning. We retreated back to camp, dived into our swags, ate a quick brew and fell asleep to the pitter patter of rain.
The next morning was a repeat of the previous day: low clouds, rain, and wind - perfect sambar stalking conditions!! I stalked down into the gully right from camp while Zane headed into the left gully. After an hour of (badly) attempting to sneak through thickets dogwood, I shot a tasty bit of camp meat. After carting the best cuts back up to camp, I decided to pack up and move further down into the main valley below.
The intention was that Zane would join me later that evening once I'd set up a camp and radioed him my coordinates. However, about an hour into my descent, Zane called up via the 2-way with some bad news. Digga had hyperextended his front leg after jamming it in some rocks sidling down into a creek. Digga yelped and carried on like a real sook, resorting to only three legs and cocking his injured leg. Zane made the decision to hang back just incase he aggravated it following me into the gully - and so I was left with out any cooking gear whatsoever.
I reached the valley floor with an hour of light to spare, dropped my stuff and quickly arranged my bivvy before setting off for a quick scout around in some of the bush flats, clearings, and adjacent slips. There was fresh sign all over the place - and all within a few minutes of camp - but no really good stag prints. I kept thinking over and over to myself that with the amount of hinds and yearlings kicking about the valley floor, there'd have to a big fella hanging about somewhere close. As I was muttering away I caught movement from something across the river, followed by a "crack". I paused and waited when suddenly a honk echoed across the gully from a young hind bunked up in some thick fern. She eventually cut up off of the valley floor and dissapeared out of sight. I snuck another 700 or 800 meters down river, crossing it several times in the process, before reaching a large fern clearing with banks of grass and thick timber up the side walls. Man oh man it screamed deer. Just the sort of place one would expect to see animals feeding on last light. I gave the clearing a brief once over through the glass and then scanned the perimeter for shapes, colours, movement etc.
I took a couple more steps forward through some noisey crown fern when suddenly another honk sounded off, only this time it was to my right! Before I had any time to pull the rifle up two sambar hinds and a stag of moderate size crashed along the edge of the clearing on the inside of the bush. They had been hard up against the perimeter of the clearing, but just hadn't quite fed out from the forest cover. Another 10 or 15 minutes and maybe things would have been different.
A few minutes later and darkness was upon me. I turned back for camp under headlamp and slowly made my way back up the valley. The bush was wet and the river was cold to cross - the thought of a miserable wet camp without appropriate cooking gear and pre-dried foods was depressing. Upon returning to camp, I gave Zane a call-up on the 2-way and let him know my whereabouts and what my intentions were for the following day. After a meal of cold, soaked freeze-dried lamb and rice, I hit the hay. I slept quite well despite the constant drizzle and the one intruder, a wombat, which literally came crashing past my head at some ridiculous hour in the early morning. It gave me a hell of a fright but I eventually fell back to sleep.
The next day dawned with low cloud and heavy rain. I packed everything away under a tarp to prevent it becoming soaked, and headed directly up valley into uncovered terrain. Despite the heavy, noisey rain, I hoped for quiet stalking conditions and good things ahead. I still couldn't get over the abundance of fresh sign in the valley floor and only after fifteen minutes from camp, I bumped into a spiker. What happened was, I was following a worn game trail through head-heigh fern when I came onto a fresh set of stag prints. The stag prints veered left off the game trail into some thick fern which was impossible to walk through without making noise and becoming saturated, and so I opted to follow the game trail for a few meters before it was cut off by huge fallen gum tree. The only way past was over it and so I got to it, hoping that once on top I would have a good overview of what lay ahead. Given the branches were quite slippery, I slung the rifle across my back to free up both hands. Just as I broke out onto the main trunk of the tree I was violently honked at from about 6 or 8 meters away - it was the spiker! I got such a fright that I slipped backward off the trunk and into the tangle of broken branches. I was lucky not to break my rifle stock! As I regathered myself I could hear the spiker crashing through the scrub and then splashing and dislodging river stones as he thundered across the river. He made such a hell of a racket that even the drone of the river and sound of rain failed to dampen his noisey departure.
I continued along the game trail until it came to a river crossing. Intent on sticking to it I followed it across to where I came onto more fresh sign - possible two or three animals. (This was less than 500 meters from where I'd encountered the spiker - all less than 1.5km from camp). I eased back on the pace and crept along until I heard a faint crack 20 odd meters in front. I waited for a few minutes until low and behold, a hind revealed itself completely unawares. I watched and waited for another few minutes, until I picked out another hind and a yearling in the fern. No stag was present with this group either! I eventually had to push past these three and unfortunately spooked them up into the side walls of the river. Over the next hour and half I bumped into another few hinds and yearlings in very similar terrain and was honked at twice by unidentified sambar.
I eventually came to a main fork in the river and decided to cut up onto the South facing slopes of the valley. In the few times that I've hunted sambar, I've rarely come across them on north facing slopes, so that was my reasoning. I climbed high out of the river and then sidled at the 800 - 900 m contour. There was some sign at that level but not as much as down lower. After a couple of hours of sidling I decided to climb to the top of a main spur (1100m) and see if there was much difference in activity.
That particular ridge had a few rubbings which were of note. And at one small saddle between three gully heads there were rubs all over the place. In hind sight I should have spent more time in that area, but I got side-tract with some stag prints that led down into the head of a side stream. I followed them print for print for about 40 minutes until I came too bloody close to (and spooked) two hinds and something else which I never got a chance to evaluate. The hind and yearling cut across the face in front of me, while the other animal cut back behind me, dissapearing without a trace. It was probably the stag I was hot on the trail of!
Starting to get frustrated I made a bee-line for the creek floor to get away from the mess I'd made. This time I was intent on slowing it right down to a half shuffle every 30 or 40 seconds whenever I came onto fresh sign. And sure enough, an hour into the stalk I was able to get myself in on another hind and yearling. I watched them move through the opposite face for about 20 minutes before they were out of sight. As soon as they were out of sight I quietly snuck along my side of the creek in hope that I'd loop in front of them and cut them off when I crossed the creek onto their side. I was still hoping that a stag might be close by as it was 'apparently' rutting season. After crossing the creek I angled towards a small clearing which was where I thought the pair were heading and I caught movement of antlers above the fern. Without mucking around I shot the stag in behind the ribs and he collapsed on the spot.
I whipped off his backsteaks and one hind quarter, and took them back to camp.
The following morning I packed up camp and headed back up towards where Zane and I had camped the first night. After nearly five hours of slugging my gear uphill I arrived at the (empty) campsite below, only to find a note saying Zane had climbed further up the ridge and camped nearer the truck. It said, P.S. I'll check the 2-way every half hour.
Some minutes later I got hold of Zane on the 2-way and he described where he'd set up camp. I burnt the last of the rubbish and re-tightened pack straps etc before commencing another hour or so of climbing. I reached camp as the sun was setting - which turned out to be a fitting finish to a long day.
We scampered together plenty of dry wood, got a roaring fire going, and cooked some sambar steaks for tea. We sat there chatting for a few hours until there was nothing but embers remaining.
From campsite to the vehicle was another couple of hours of plodding along. Unfortunately we didn't come onto any more fresh deer sign until about 5 minutes from the vehicle. We were back on the road to Melbourne by lunch time and I was on a plane to Perth later that evening.