By John Bruce
‘Ken Slee here John. I need a story on how to hunt fallow deer for the magazine’. Now a request from our esteemed magazine editor, stalwart of the ADA and deer hunting in this country, cannot be ignored! Truth be known, I wondered why he hadn't asked someone with some expertise in this subject, and there are many. But the challenge has been laid, and so herein is a story about trial and error, success and failure, frustration and rewards.
My father acquired permission to hunt a 12,000 acre alpine forestry property in Tasmania in 1982, and formed a group of 10 keen hunters to manage the wildlife for its overseas owner. Predominately rocks and trees, there was a small deer herd, maybe only 50, subsisting on a few small marsh areas, competing with a horde of wallabies for a bite. Resident does could field dress as small as 22 kilograms, but after the annual deer season began, a few nervous bucks would arrive from neighbouring lower altitude sheep farms, so our strategy was to intercept one on the way.
After 22 years, the group had taken five mature trophy quality bucks over 200DS, earned by hard graft. But the hunting was a great challenge, the property was free, and all our kids learnt invaluable hunting skills.
After a visit to Georgia in the United States in 1998 I had built a climbing tree stand, and many hours of planning locations, finding that ‘perfect’ tree, pruning shooting lanes and just ‘hanging out’ resulted in a trophy buck - five years later.
Just after daylight on opening day, a clattering noise signalled the rapid approach of a deer, over the tier heading towards the safety of the tea-tree in the creek. Picking him up with the binoculars, he was a definite shooter, and I quickly aimed the .308 down the next available lane.
Unbelievably he skidded to a stop at 130 yards, with his shoulder marked by the crosshairs.
Later in 2008, the property was broken up and sold, but fortuitously we gained access to a new property, a complete contrast – 5,000 acres of fertile, irrigated pastures, grain crops and several hundred deer, which demand hours of population management. Now we harvest numerous deer between February and November, with freezers loaded with juicy, tender venison, take mature quality bucks every year or so, and it is great!
But that trophy from the mountain run country continues to be the most special fallow deer mount in my office! The trophy of a lifetime.
So how should a hunter approach the fallow deer challenge. First of all, there are a few other considerations that need attention. Why, what, where, when and who all precede how.
‘Why do we hunt?’ is a question that has engaged many hunters (and non-hunters), but has a variety of answers for every individual. The friendly folks at PETA say we are preventing natural selection, and that starvation and disease will control deer populations. This simplistic view ignores the changes in the habitat which provides vastly more nutrition from agriculture than nature ever did, so starvation may not cut it, and waiting for disease to do the job may be a faint hope and just a little bit immoral.
The motivation to hunt is born from natural cultural tradition, from thousands of years of necessity to survive. Akin to eating, breeding and even breathing, hunting for nutrition has occupied a large part of daily human life.
What we hunt varies with need, preferences and time of year, but the quest to hunt for prime venison or a mature trophy is driven from that cultural heritage.
Answering the question ‘Where to hunt?’ can mean the difference between enjoying a long hunting career or watching endless football games on Fox Sports. Those new to hunting can find a rocky road ahead, with much fallow deer habitat being private land. Perseverance is a necessary quality in finding your own patch of jungle. Experienced hunters also have a responsibility here to the next generation. Our agricultural properties need hunters. While ADA membership offers opportunities to network and provides the insurance most landowners require, the thrill of mentoring a new hunter to his first success is well worth the effort. The road begins here for the future of deer hunting, and of the ADA.
‘When?’ Taking or making the time to get into the bush is maybe a bigger challenge than the hunting itself. No time spent in getting to know an area is wasted, and persistence is probably a greater quality in a hunter than stealth. Those who live close to their hunting area are blessed, those of us who don't, need a comfortable car and an understanding wife. Keep a diary of sightings, and a GPS can log hot areas and make it easier to approach in any wind conditions.
‘Who indeed?’ There are people that you meet through hunting that change your life. Tasmanian deer hunting was transformed by now Quality Deer Management Association CEO Brian Murphy in just four years of educating hunters here in the science of deer management, and demonstrating the asset to agricultural land owners that a proficient hunting group can become. QDMA founder and renowned author (Firepot Stories is essential reading!) the legendary Joe Hamilton, always takes how I think about hunting to a different zone - a calm and satisfying place where ethical hunting increases the rewards. ADA members owe much to Arthur Bentley BEM and Peter Stuart, our deer sages and visionaries, whose connections with Joe Hamilton led Brian Murphy to Australia, from which all hunters have been the beneficiaries. To meet any of the long list of ADA stalwarts can be inspirational and enriching. Take the opportunity whenever possible.
Which gets us to the crux of the matter. Deliberating on how to hunt has seen a mountain of firewood reduced to ashes over many decades. There are devotees of stalking, taking the challenge of tracking deer over hill and dale, stealthily entering that deer-reeking gully head with every sense overloaded. Then we have the stand hunters, scouting the prime bedding areas over many months, pondering the likely route to nutritious browse or pasture, and setting up a variety of devices around and against that perfect tree. The next faction are the croak and rattle fraternity, entering the fringe of a mature buck's territory to provoke hostility. Adrenalin junkies reside here! Including the olfactory wizardry of a dog's nostrils can level the playing field when deer stalking. Driving a gully with a group of athletic mates, or hearing a beagle in full voice during a hot pursuit all reap satisfying rewards.
All of these strategies rely on some basic ground rules. Top of the list must be managing scent and wind. Not unlike those coloured smoke bombs seen at A-League games, our scent streams into the distance born on the slightest wind current, searching out any deer, nearby or distant, itching to shout ‘hunter!’. Scent sneaks back east under the tree canopy when the wind blows from the west, in the early morning it rises with the sun, late in the day it descends back again, and in between it works tirelessly for the local deer for free. Get a handle on the vagaries of air currents and you will become an oracle in hunting. Meanwhile the rest of us need to be constantly aware of the breeze, and aspire to its support.
Many successful hunters keep their distance from favourite areas, choosing to rely on quality optics to scout for deer, removing the chance of leaving tell-tale scent to alarm deer in their nocturnal travels. The addition of human scent to a deer area seems to rapidly reduce their activity window into the darkness.
Brian Murphy contributed to an extensive deer vision project while at the University of Georgia, which redefined hunting apparel, and proved the value of Blaze Orange while hunting. Safety in the bush is vital to the future of hunting in Australia. Camouflage clothing is a definite asset, but keeping body motion to a minimum, habitually pausing in shady spots, glassing through cover, looking for a horizontal backline, hunting away from the sun if possible, expecting the unexpected, and making sure of your target are all in the rulebook.
So, is there a conclusion? How should we hunt fallow deer in Australia? I tender the following for discussion:
· Manage your scent, keep the deer speculating about your presence and location.
· Buy the best optics you can afford, and glass constantly.
· Spend as many hours in your hunting area as life allows.
· Study your quarry, their strengths and weaknesses, and identify the opportunities.
· Become a deer manager as well as a hunter.
· Enjoy success, but recognise the lessons of failure.
After 45 years of hunting in many forested areas, wet and dry, hot and cold, I have learnt that:
· Successful hunting is not a contest, it is a personal accomplishment.
· Douglas score is not the only measure of trophy quality.
· Respect for our deer populations is what they deserve, before and after the shot.
· Take a young person hunting, the rewards are many.