Sambar Deer Stalking #104:

A lot can be learned about deer by observing their behaviour; I have been a sheep farmer for thirty years (longer now than I have worked at anything else – it looks odd on my census return: Occupation: Sheephusband!): They are quite like sheep. Particularly in their routines, the topography they prefer, their family behaviour, their caution and nervousness, their ability to choose a pleasant spot to be. They are also personally unsurprisingly docile and affectionate towards each other.

If you have ever tried to force sheep somewhere they decided not to go you would not doubt their intelligence. It has been established that sheep can identify over 1,000 plants from a single experience of them; apparently this equates to an IQ over 60. A human being with that level of intelligence would be considered below normal – but would have the vote! We would not be able to shoot, kill and eat such a person, however.

NB: This is a draft. I will be adding to it a little later on…but folks have been asking me when I was going to post (yet) another deerhunting ‘story’ – so here it is!

There have been a number of studies of sambar deer (eg employing tracking collars) which are quite instructive about the areas they chose to inhabit and the way they travel them. I recommend you pay some attention to them rather than opinion (eg that they migrate!)

Had you looked at such studies you would not doubt my opposition to trail cameras as unfair ‘hunting’ aids. Such studies also indicate their preferred food (mast ie fruit, nuts etc, not blackberries, for example). You can be paying attention to such things as you move through the bush: eg the prevalence of coprosma fruits (both sweet and prickly), lilly-pillys, etc: mast which is equally palatable to people, by the way! The early settler adopted such fruits as desserts and preserves. It is worthwhile knowing what can be eaten (by people too) in the bush and trying it out (even beetle larvae and the hearts of tree ferns, etc) as you never know when you may be lost and hungry!

Deer’s fondness for such foods leaves no surprise that orchardists view deer in much the same way as they view cockatoos and corellas. The main sign deer have feasted well on prickly coprosma may just be the absence of the fruits from suitable heighted branches as they run them through their mouths to suck off the succulent fruit. I have observed this many times. Blackberries are more of a desperation food for deer – as they are just so prickly. You will see them browsing the fresh shots in late winter/early spring when less alternative fodder is available. If it were their number one choice they would have eradicated blackberries from all those otherwise choked riverbanks and gullies!

Some folk ask whether they can be called – and indeed they can (odd times – I have). But you will need to study hard to learn what sound it is might make them come. By then you will likely have shot enough deer anyway! You will for a long while (if you ever hear it) and think something else made that sound. In such a situation likely two will come. You will also likely only hear such calls as may attract them if you are in quite a remote place, rarely if ever frequented by humans. Such calls as they do make are usually at the borders of two stags’ territories, though does and young make many small sounds each to each which you will have to be very close to hear. Because of my deafness, I no longer can. The voices of bats too, and many other sounds are lost to me. It is far better though than going blind as my wife has been doing.

You should never ignore smell. If you learn to smell out deer, you will see more deer than any other six hunters. A month ago I was walking up the Hauroko Burn (in Fiordland NZ) for the second day. Between the first and second walkwire after the halfway Hut there was an unusual smell. I felt that it was an animal, but not your typical red deer smell which becomes almost cloying towards the leatherwood tops. It was more of a goaty smell than a sambar smell. I stopped and gazed around for a couple of minutes, but as I had at least a six hour walk for the day (I am old) I headed off again when I could make nothing out. Having checked what moose smell like, I now know I was smelling a moose. There had been some sign, mostly old – but some quite fresh barking. I now realise I should have just prepared to make camp there and hunt until I had a photo of that moose. I had my hammock and tarp with me, my sat phone so I could tell my wife what I was doing, nearly a fortnight’s food…The country there is getting harder and harder for me – I really don’t know whether i will be back. perhaps if i have yet another back operation – and lose a couple more stone! The moose was there, not 200 yards from me (and up wind!) and I just walked away! I know Edith Piaf says, ‘Je Ne Regret Rien’, but I am not Edith: I do regret that!

Not unlike other herbivores one stag will often have several does (though he may tolerate a spiker or two with them). This means there are other spots where lone stags hang out or (quite often) where groups of stags hang out together, as with many of the deer family – moose for example. My old late friend, the ‘legendary’ Arthur Meyers shot three such stags out of one small gully (Poole‘s) in quick succession (I believe) in the Jordan catchment in 1962. I have personally seen a group of five stags living placidly together in a very small patch (about an acre) at the head of a gully in one of the many Stoney Creeks. The dominant stag is not always the biggest stag. Often another solitary stag is, one who was long ago beaten (perhaps because he tried too early) and has given up trying.

Having nothing else to do but grow, he might grow to an enormous size, as one Arthur’s mate George shot off my great hound Harpoon in Red Jacket in the 1990s. Harpoon and I had put this monster stag up from one of those small perched gullies high up (this one surprisingly on the South side of the Bald Hill) where deer love to shelter in wet weather (when you think they have all but disappeared from the terrain). I guess there is a spring there which keeps some fresh food alive; the vegetation is often thick (in this case all but impassable and choked with ‘wait-a-while’ or ‘lawyer’ vines). It is sheltered, warmer and drier than the surrounding bush – if you are ‘laying up’ anyway.

Harpoon put him up mid-morning. Within I guess less than an hour the stag had commenced a ‘walking bail’ where he would neither run nor stand. This is a tactic oft employed by large stags and is enough to shake most hounds, but not Harpoon. He stuck with him thus for many hours, until he cruised past George at the head of a side gully of the Ross Creek about 3:00 in the afternoon. George managed to get only one shot off into him with his trusty .308, as the stag immediately bolted over the ridge, George (and Harpoon) in hot pursuit. The single shot was enough (it was a heart shot) but as is quite normal the stag still ran for maybe half a kilometre on pure adrenaline until he collapsed on the side of a gully, where George found him, limping up to him with a twisted ankle.

He had perforce to spend a very cold night with him, huddled over a miserly fire with a couple of muesli bars for company. The radio communication there is always very bad, and we could not find him though we combed the bush until about 1:00am. Our search was made more difficult by an immigrant whom Arthur had brought along who was tasked to merely ‘keep the home fires burning’. This chap was of an excitable Italian disposition and had brought along a ready supply of ‘grappa’. Every time we would let off a shot in an attempt to zero in on George’s answering shot, ‘Giovani’ becoming increasingly inebriated would let off a shot of his own (unbeknown to us) which completely threw off our efforts to locate poor George.

He was much easier to find the next morning when we ‘rescued him around 8:00am, having driven into Woods Point to beg a loan of the gate key from the local policeman, who kindly offered to come along and assist. As I previously mentioned George was huddled against a giant log over a small smoky fire. He quickly assured us he needed a swig of rum before a drink of water. Everyone carried spirits in their hunting kit in those days. I was looking around for the stag. It took me a while to realise that the ‘log’ was the stag. He was so large he could not be rolled over (downhill) by one person. The head would not fit in the back of a Nissan Patrol, so had to be strapped to the bonnet where it over-reached both mudguards. There are monsters out there still!

At the top of this post you will see a snap of my first deer, taken off Alan Green’s hounds near Brunton’s Bridge in, I guess 1983-4. In the background you can see Alan’s lovely wife Carol and his faithful old hound Harry, father of my ‘Harpoon’. How young we were! 35mm photos are so eclipsed by the new digital photography though, aren’t they? There were often nearly as many women on our team as men. It would be good to see more women hunters today.

I had been hunting deer for nearly two years before I took this one, so you can see why I think many potential hunters are too impatient today. We enjoyed many splendid days in the bush (ethically) trying to bag a deer. Usually we came back with lots of stories (and scratches) but not many deer. It was a great adventure however, and I deeply cherish the memories of those wonderful friendly hunts!

PS: Carol & Alan are now the proprietors of 61 Tramway Rd, Morwell. They sell all your hunting, fishing and camping needs. Also there really is no-one who is more knowledgeable as them – especially regarding hunting.

This doe came out of ‘The Flourbag’. I was waiting for her just off the B2 track, and had been for some time – with no sound of hounds or men. The old 27 meg CB radios we used in those days (often only one channel) were little better than two tin cans tied with a length of string! Mine was a 1 watt Tandy special. I still have it somewhere. She had been bedded near the willows in the Flourbag. She had gone up and down that stream a few times, then up the river getting further and further ahead of the hounds all the time. She had then crossed the Flourbag and come across into the Thomson where I waited with no sound of an accompanying hound to warn me.

Having heard nothing for hours (and it being  a warm afternoon), I confess I had sat down on a log and was having a smoke – and reading a book actually, thinking the hunt was lost to me and had gone far upriver. I must have heard the slightest sound as she crept past me, as when I looked up, there she was. This was the only day in my long deer hunting career when I had forgotten my gun! Fortunately Alan had an old ‘sporterised’ .303 exactly like mine which he was able to lend me.

As you can see, a .303 will make a deer quite satisfactorily dead if you hit it squarely in the chest. This is the main thing. I have mentioned before that I only ever use iron sights. It takes a bit more practice to hit a running target with them, but once you are adept it is easier, as you never lose sight of your target. It is also fairer on the deer. Also, if you drop the gun or fall over with it as you are bound to do sometime, nothing will move those iron sights on an SMLE or a Mauser – which is mostly what everyone had once. I still have mine. Every so often they get a ‘run’ with some novice I am training.

I was watching Attenborough’s Planet Earth 2 ‘Grasslands’ just last night and noticed that the armed rangers in India’s National Parks still use them – and that would be in case of a charging elephant or a tiger, perhaps. They used to be touted as the quickest bolt action rifle in the world. In WW1, our soldiers were supposed to be able to shoot a German or a Turk every second (or quicker) and at 500 metres plus+. It would be good if our young were still trained to that level of skill with firearms – as the world is no freer of dangers today than it was in 1914 – and never will be! Col Townsend Whelen (after whom the rifle round and tent are named) used to train US soldiers to shoot their .30-06 bolt action rifles. He could reliably put a round a second (or better) into a target the size of a man’s chest at 200 yards every time. If you can do that, you need no artificial aids to take sambar deer.

The ‘crew’ that day: Alan & Carol Green, Ray and Val Quinney.

I shot from my seated position so as not to further alarm her – she was going quite quickly enough. As sambar often do she just hunched down with the shot and kept steaming along, so that (if you were someone else) you might think you had missed her, but I had grown up busting bunnies on the run with a .22 in Western NSW, so I knew she was hit in the boiler room and would soon be down. Even so I first walked right by her even though she was leaving a quite impressive blood trail. Sambar blend in  impressively well to their surroundings: I can’t imagine how those unsporting types who haul off and shoot at deer at 1,000 metres ever manage to find them again. Judging by the heads I have picked up in the bush over the years, they often don’t!

It was celebrations all round. Our tradition was that it was the successful hunter’s ‘shout’ – in the Erica pub of course! Hunting ethically you don’t take anywhere near many deer as unethical folks are doing these days with their GPS collars and computer assisted ‘culling’ systems. We even caped this doe out and took the cape to the taxidermist – as I wanted my ‘first deer’ mounted. I cared not a jot whether it was a stag or a hind. Unfortunately the taxidermist ‘lost’ the cape, so it was not to be. I have never had much interest in other trophies since so I have not bothered. I used to give away heads if someone else wanted them until my kids once asked why I never brought a stag’s head home, though I brought the meat they grew tall on, so naturally I said I would bring the next one I shot home and have it mounted – which I did.

Our kids were quite chuffed by my first deer – and just as happy to eat it!

Curiously enough it was also a deer I put up one weekday in the Flourbag though I had not been there in years. At this time I had taken to hunting mostly weekdays, often by myself or maybe (as on this occasion) with maybe one friend – to help with the carry out! Not a particularly fine specimen of a stag, though perhaps a descendant of my first deer. Nonetheless it is ‘on the wall’ somewhere in our house. I have many better antlers now which I could swap on it, but it would not be the same. It would not be the stag I shot off ‘Harpoon’ that day off that track, long ago…

And here he is!

Some Other Hunting Related Posts (there are many more):







Hiking Gear:












To be continued…

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  1. I couldn’t agree with you more about long distance shooting and that.s just what it is it completely takes the hunt out of hunting!. I’ve got a red dot and I think they’re a bit iffy,{batteries go flat, turn switch wrong way, a bit fiddly} but handy at times??… maybe?, I’ll give it a few more try’s. Don’t hang that BLR up just yet, just fit a ivory or like foresight on it I’m sure that will do the trick. Planning to do the Mac and Gatta next year no time at the moment, and yes we have to protect our game species or those do gooders will lock us out of every forest and owning a firearm will be a thing of the past!!.

    If god didn’t want us to eat animals…..Why did he make them so tasty???

    • I will try a different foresight as you suggest. I have the same opinion about electronic devices. You need to canoe the rivers when the water is there. This rainfall event is creating probably the only opportunity this summer. Try a day trip on the Macalister: Basin Flat to Cheynes Bridge at least, or an overnight trip Black Snake to Waterford. on the Wonnangatta. River Height recommendations on my posts.

  2. Hi Steve, I really enjoy reading your posts,you have inspired me to get back out in the bush, I’ve tackled the Tanjil river by kayak started hammock camping again and a bit of deer hunting or bushwalking with my .308 at the tender age of 55 deaf as a post and a body where the only thing that works properly are my eyelashes!!. Your writing is very informative even to an old hand like myself and is an absolute must for the not so experienced, However could you please refrain from calling hunters that use scopes unethical?, identifying your target and safe background are paramount and along with age and failing eyesight they’re the means in which keep hunters hunting!!. I myself use them and have passed on animals that would have been shot using open sights,so I hope you see my point plus there are too many outside influences trying to stop our pastime, we need to be united not divided.
    Cheers Big Trev. P.S buy the way I also an open sighted single shot cause…. who needs more than one shot??. LOL

    • Thank you Trevor. I plan to come down from Costins Rd to the Rowleys Bridge soon – and to canoe the Latrobe from Noojee to Willow grove. There will also be plenty of water again in the Wonnangatta after this rain band passes. I do see what you mean as even with glasses I sometimes have trouble getting a good bead on a deer particularly in low-light conditions near dusk (and I confess I muffed a shot only a week ago!) Maybe I will have to move over to just a camera. However, recently I ran into this chap who was over the moon he had shot a stag at 440 metres. I just can’t call that hunting, and I want to strongly discourage it. I think that the animal should have a fair chance and I don’t think long-distance scope work gives it. It is a different matter if a person is a culler. Perhaps a red-dot scope with no magnification would be a suitable alternative to iron sights of one kind or another? I know there are a lot of deer right now so that such niceties may not seem so important, but when folk begin to think of game as pests – as so many of what I consider unethical hunters seems to do, it won’t be long before there are once again very many fewer deer to hunt. It was not so very long ago that there were very few deer hunting opportunities in this state. Just now the situation is very good, but careful management is needed to keep it so. This may even involve some large-scale culling though. However if people practically eliminate game in a fairly short period there will no longer be any genuine reason for people to own firearms. PS: One shot seems a bit extreme, but I guess it makes you take that much more care.