It’s bitterly cold, and the hunter folds his arms firmly against his torso to ward off the chill and keep his fingers warm. Low-hanging fog hugs the ground as the first glow of daylight filters through the scrub and works its way across the pasture country where the fallow deer love to feed. The hunter has chosen his position well and done the legwork early, and he now lays in wait, binoculars at the ready. Then, across the flat reverberates a sound that the hunter has been waiting all year to hear; the throaty croak of a fallow buck as he sounds his challenge. While Australia indeed has some amazing deer hunting opportunities available, to me this is up there with the very best of them.
Of the six wild deer species we have in Australia, fallow are by far the most widespread, and for this reason they are often where the newcomer starts out in their deer hunting journey. Since their initial release in the 1830’s; fallow populations are now well established in Tasmania, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, and there are even small populations in Western Australia, offering great opportunities for dedicated hunters. Some areas have even initiated management programs to keep growing numbers in check and ease the burden on landowners and the environment alike.
The correct terminology for fallow deer is Bucks, Does and Fawns. Mature males weigh around 90 kilograms while a doe will average less than half that. Coat colours vary markedly; the most common being rusty reddish-brown, with white spots blending to a white underbelly and legs. A black stripe runs along the back and extends into the tail. Menil fallow are lighter brown also with prominent white spots, but lacking the black dorsal stripe. Other colour variations include melanistic (black), and white; which are often just very pale menil deer. Regardless of colour, fallow are a very attractive animal which in this author’s opinion are only outdone in the beauty stakes by chital.
While all the other deer species in Australia feature round-beamed antlers, fallow antlers flatten out into ‘palms’ in the top half of the main beam, more like a moose. The antlers feature brow and trez tines off the front of the main beam, while points growing along the rear edge of each palm are termed spellers; the lowest of which is called the guard tine. Antlers are cast and regrown every year, and while a certain buck will retain identifying characteristics, no two sets of antlers are ever the same.
By far the most productive and exciting time to hunt trophy fallow is during the annual mating period, known amongst hunters as ‘the rut’. During this period mature bucks are busy courting does, and they become more active, vocal and carefree. The rut only lasts for two to three weeks or so and usually peaks in early to mid-April, depending on the area and seasonal conditions.
A rough calendar for the fallow deer hunter would read as follows: April – main mating period (rut); July/August – bucks separate from does to form bachelor mobs; October/November – bucks cast antlers; December – most fawns born, bucks growing new antlers in ‘soft’ velvet; February – antler growth complete (hard velvet) and rubbing begins prior to the next rutting period. Bear in mind this is a guide only as actual times will vary from herd to herd and year to year.
Before and during the rut, fallow bucks will challenge each other to establish a ‘pecking order’ of superiority; which determines which bucks occupy the best country with access to the most does. Bucks then identify their home range with a series of rubs and scrapes. Scrapes are made in sandy areas using the feet and antlers, and the buck then marks them by urination and excretions from his pre-orbital glands. This pungent mixture is then transferred over the buck’s body and antlers which is in turn transferred to as much of his home range as possible by rubbing trees and foliage. In this way, other deer are able to readily identify the home range of individual bucks, and does are attracted to the buck’s territory. Bucks will vigorously defend their scrapes and does from other males, becoming aggressive, grunting loudly and often engaging in fighting – sometimes to the death.
All of this ceremony is, of course, nature’s way of ensuring that immature animals have to fight their way to ascendancy while only the fittest and strongest reproduce; a fine example of Charles Darwin’s theory of ‘natural selection’ at work.
Patience is a virtue when hunting fallow deer, and often it is more rewarding to spend the bulk of time looking rather than moving. Successful hunters put in time before the season begins, searching for sign to determine what animals are in the area. Be prepared to put in the time and effort; I usually like to be in position before the sun rises in the morning and it is common to spend several hours perched in one location giving the binoculars a workout. A buck’s ‘croak’ during the rut will often betray his location, which the hunter can take advantage of. It is difficult to describe in words what their grunt sounds like, but I have heard it described as a cross between a pig grunting and a chainsaw starting up – which is not that far from the truth!
When a potential target is located, be it a trophy or a meat animal; take the time to consider your approach without rushing. If the deer is unalarmed and feeding it will not take flight unless spooked, and many a beginner’s hunt is ruined right at the end by rushing in. Consider the lay of the land, trees and foliage; and be sure to keep yourself downwind of the deer at all times. Use whatever cover is available to your advantage and avoid ‘skylining’ yourself at all costs. Take your time approaching to within sure shooting distance and don’t hesitate to crawl if need be.
At the peak of the rut when bucks are vigorously defending their patch, ‘antler rattling’ is a technique sometimes used by experienced hunters and when conditions are right bucks can actually be lured in. A pair of cast antlers are clashed together by the hunter in order to simulate two bucks fighting. The aim is to convince any buck in the area that he is hearing other bucks fighting and rush in to see who has encroached on his patch. Another technique which can sometimes lure bucks in much the same manner is to vigorously shake a small sapling to simulate an intruder rubbing, but these methods all have their limitations.
Fallow buck trophies are scored using the Douglas scoring system and anything exceeding 200 points is considered a trophy, with anything over 225 being exceptional. Every year a couple of monsters are taken which exceed 240 points; these are true once-in-a-lifetime trophies which are a sight to behold.
A good fallow trophy is one which features all of the scoring tines (brow, trez and guard), with antlers at least 25 inches long by roughly the same spread. Big heads sometimes reach 30 inches long by 30 inches wide. Heads are also scored on length and width of palms, and the overall number of points; so long even palms free from clefts or splits with plenty of spellers off the rear also contribute to a top trophy. All of this, however, is merely clinical as to most hunters the value of the trophy is directly proportional to the effort put into the hunt.
For the meat hunter whose trophy is a fridge full of prime venison, fallow make great eating. Their meat is tender, lean and flavoursome if a little effort goes into correct handling and dressing. It is important to realise that for good trophy quality in a herd sound management principles must be adhered to. This includes taking an even number of males and females, culling any inferior quality animals or animals with malformed antlers, and leaving young bucks to reach their potential and spread their good genes.
Practical cartridge choices for hunting fallow deer start with the .243 Winchester and other 6mm cartridges, loaded with strong 90 or 100 grain bullets. While these cartridges will do the job under ideal circumstances, a better choice is a medium-size centrefire firing bullets of 100 to 180 grains at good velocities. In this category fall such excellent choices as the .257 Roberts, .25’06 Remington, .260 Remington, 6.5x55 Swedish, .270 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, .308 Winchester and .30’06 Springfield. Larger cartridges like the various .300 Magnums are where fallow cartridges realistically top out; although they are effective once ranges stretch out.
Premium, controlled-expansion bullets are not really necessary for these moderately-framed deer and a conventional soft-point will expand readily while still giving ample penetration.
Fallow deer like semi-open country with a mix of scrub and open pasture, and long shots can be called for; so a good quality mid-range variable scope such as a 3-9 or 4-12 is ideal. Good quality binoculars are absolutely essential, as these small deer blend in amazingly well and are often missed by the naked eye. I prefer a 10x42, but anything from 8x30 to 10x50 would do the job. Camouflage clothing including gloves and face veil is a serious advantage against these keen-eyed deer which can spot movement from many hundreds of metres away. But, as always, this is secondary to the fundamentals of movement and scent.
Fallow deer are a great species to hunt, offering challenging but accessible hunting throughout much of Australia’s populated areas. Whether after a trophy for the wall or meat for the table, these beautiful little deer are a worthy quarry. One thing is for sure; once you experience the croak of the fallow buck you will be hooked!