I’ll probably never stop taking in stray kittens even though I tell myself I will, and know that all the love and care you lavish on them is only preparation for the day they meet their ultimate roadside, still…
Over the years I have taken dozens and dozens of aspiring youngsters deer-hunting, and practically every day I receive a message seeking advice, or asking me to recommend a spot or to take someone somewhere. Mostly I don’t, (‘No company is better than bad company’ – as I’ve said before) but sometimes I weaken. So, I have been up the bush for a week with a young fellow keen to learn a thing or two about hunting deer.
My thanks to another ‘apprentice’ who sent me this beautiful photo – just about the best sambar photo I have ever seen:
I frequently get messages like this, for example, ‘I’ve gotten into going after sambar. I found tons of fresh deer tracks, droppings and beds. Followed tracks for hours, searched east facing slopes in mornings and near creeks in the arvo but couldn’t find any deer. I was just wondering if you could give me a tip or two about what you look for once you know a deer is in the area/you’ve found fresh sign? Also what do you think I should look for in terms of environment deer would be in?’
I own that I used to be a better teacher (before I gave it up – is it really nearly thirty years ago?). I no longer have/had so much patience or good humour I guess – and now I have become over-fond of my own company. Mine and a Jack Russell or two (or my wife, Della) at most I guess, and maybe one or two of the truly great story-tellers on the e-reader on my phone: Dickens or Conrad perhaps?
So, I let someone tag along with me, then forget to talk. Having been alone most of the last thirty years it’s no surprise my eyes are used to taking in every clue, my ears every sound (well, nowadays they have to be much louder ones), and my nose drinks in every odour of the bush. Decades ago I developed the ability to track and locate a deer (stags particularly) just by smell, though I usually only do so out of curiosity. I am in an instant transfixed when I catch the pungent scent of stag upwind as has happened so many, many times. I can seldom resist the urge to drift up that scent to where he lurks. You should always follow your nose.
So many tips I could have been passing on, but I found myself just silently sliding along through the bush with the young fellow tagging, failing to point out a thousand things he should know. Oh well, I hope he enjoyed the week anyway.
At the outset I just forgot to point out all the browse for example, something that I have long since just taken in ‘on automatic’ so to speak. You know the sort of ‘invisible’ things perhaps. No, not the blackberry browse. Sambar really only browse that when they are relatively short of feed. They have many more favourite things. They suck the fruit from coprosma for example, so it is their absence which stands out. You can see all the fruit missing from just their height.
They love fruit just like most of us, and they adore lush pasture plants such as clover as much as any jumbuk ever birthed. Coprosma branches they run through their mouths, rolling the ruby pea-sized fruits to the back of their tongue as they go. If you are following closely you will sometimes see how the foliage and the prickles even are still damp with their saliva, and how they have dribbled a trail of spilled berries out – like Hansel and Gretel. If you collect a small handful yourself sometime you will soon appreciate why they do so. There are not so many delicious treats in the Victorian bush! ‘Prickly’ are good. ‘Sweet’ even better. Coprosma I mean.
But, first things first. I honestly don’t know how to re-train someone to walk quietly. So many folks have spent good money at their local shyster outfitter and have a tonne of expensive gear and a huge hole in their bank balance. (Why I wrote this post recently: http://www.theultralighthiker.com/ultralight-hiking-on-a-budget/). The trouble with that tonne of gear is it makes you a clod-hopper even if you had learned to walk quietly.
You know, starting with those $500 ‘must-have’ ‘bulletproof’ 1 kg ea waterproof (unbelievably – how does anyone come to believe they are going to maintain dry feet deer hunting?) hunting boots for example – which almost certainly will not grip on wet rock, twigs or bark. It’s probably just about impossible to walk quietly in such boots. Please, try not to buy them. If you have a light pair of (non-waterproof) sneakers already, try them out first.
There are almost certainly better ones for the purpose than the ones you already own – but maybe not. At least you are used to them, and know they will not rub! Or fall apart or perhaps tip you on the back of your neck in a twinkling. Probably you also know that they will not weigh like lead when they are a bit wet. I know they will not protect your feet as well, but you should not be hurrying anyway, and you should be paying attention to where you put your feet in the first place.
I suppose you have all seen John Clease’s ‘Silly Walks’ skit from the Monty Python show. Nothing will prepare you better for the knowledge that there really are lots of ways to walk. I am an elderly man now, but unlike other old men I do not totter, shuffle or walk on my heels. You have to some significant spend time at squats, lunges, balancing etc if you are to preserve the strength and flexibility of your legs. Most do not, and it is incredibly apparent.
Do, before it is too late! A couple of hours at day at very least. The saying ‘bend your knee to no man’ is a falsehood. You should keep your knees bent. indeed never straighten your legs at all. That is what leads to all the problems with knees, hips, back. The infernal jarring of bone on bone because of such a silly habit. Maintain the spring in your step with a knee like a bow!
You should resist the temptation to ‘kick back’ and ‘take things easy’. Whether that leads to an earlier grave is moot, but it will certainly soon limit how interesting and varied your life is. If you want to stay home and bore yourself silly watching TV, go for it! I forsook asking my contemporaries to come hunting or go for long walks, canoe trips etc with me twenty years ago, when they could no longer do so anyway.
(I have to apologise to him for leading this young fellow on several days’ walk of 25 km or more each with loaded packs through the trackless bush. I was just not thinking it would tire anyone!) Myself, I would rather my ancient bones glinted in the dappled sunlight under some tree fern in a distant gully than that I died blubbering and drooling back home in bed.
If you have soft light shoes and not too much weight on your back you really should not find it too hard to learn to walk quietly. Well, silently. The main two secrets are: eschew those macho giant strides. Mince. I know short steps might make you feel effeminate. Get over it. Surely you know already what your gender choice is, and do not care a hoot what others might think.
You could also (if you choose) let go that affected baritone voice that has given you a hoarse throat the last thirty years. If anyone thinks you are not ‘manly’ because you are a natural tenor (or higher), that is their problem. Your voice might even become less a monotone if you follow this advice.And you might sing somewhat prettily around the campfire at day’s end – if that is your wont!
So, shorter steps lads. Second, and give up that stiff-legged ‘habit’ of walking on your heels. It is why you have sore knees, hips and back anyway – if you are old enough to have ruined them. You have been wearing out your joints by standing on your bones rather than on your muscles. You must learn to creep along on the balls of your feet. ‘Dig’ your toes in. After a time it will become ‘second nature’.
Spend a little more time paying attention to where you are placing your feet. So much easier if you lead with your toes. You really don’t want to be letting off rifle-shot sounds every other stride by breaking every single branch which lies on your route. If possible, break none! Thinner shoes will help with this. The Topos for example – and they because they try to approximate to barefoot walking will encourage you to walk properly on your toes. If you do loudly snap a twig. Stop. Stand totally still for two minutes. Every eye (and ear) is turned in your direction.
Vary your pace. Pause a lot. There is nothing attracts attention to a sound (save its loudness or its juxtaposition, ie its ‘out-of-place-ness’) than its regularity. You must all have heard something crash off in the shrubbery. Didn’t you pay careful attention to that ‘Thump…thump…thump’ to ascertain whether that invisible fleeing creature was a macropod – ie a wallaby or a roo?
And make use of cover. If you haven’t noticed the deer doing it yet, you haven’t observed many – you know how hard it is to see the deer which just honked at you. Almost to the last whisker s/he is standing stock still behind a tree or bush. So, as you ‘scan’ a new field of view (emerge from a thicket, come around a corner or over a rise for example) do so slowly so that your eye can take it all in – which takes longer than you think, rather like the ‘Where’s Wally’ children’s books!
President Teddy Roosevelt (a truly great hunter – read some of his books) once said ‘speak softly, and carry a big stick.’ If he had been giving advice about hunting rather than foreign policy, he would have said ‘walk softly and carry a big gun’. He gave a speech for over an hour by the way after he was shot once in the chest himself – and survived. Quite a guy. I love the film ‘about’ him (amongst other things eg Barbary Pirates), ‘The Wind and the Lion’. You will too. Watch it. Candice Bergman was delicious! Or Sean Connery too!
BTW: About that gun: It only really needs to be a single shot. One well-placed shot is enough. A single shot rifle will teach you care and patience. Certainly though, you should ‘walk softly’. I use a lever action so that my gun is never loaded, but I can get a shot off very quickly, albeit noisily at need. It will take practice.
Incidentally, the less weight you put on your feet as you set them down, (ie the more you ‘glide’) the less effort walking is. You will find that you can effortlessly walk twice as far! Emulate that cat. It is a matter of balance which so many folk ignore. The better your balance the fewer falls you will have too.
Hiking poles play merry hell with one’s balance. Walking sticks are a geriatric’s tool really though they certainly make walking easier and prevent falls. Give a pair to your Nan! Or better still ballet of karate lessons. I carry a shortened pair (which fit in my pack) for walk-outs. If you are carrying a very heavy load they are a blessing.
Next, just as there are lots of ‘Silly Walks’, there are lots of ways of seeing. Most are just one kind of blindness or another. Some ways of seeing become semi-automatic after a time, so it is hard to explain. For example, in the beginning you will no doubt be paying lots of attention to deer tracks – and other tracks.
An aside: You know how lots of creatures love the same water-hole. It has ever been a predator’s strategy to lie in wait by the waterhole (by ‘the great, grey green greasy Limpopo’ – Kipling, ‘The Jungle Book’, or elsewhere) and wait for dinner to perambulate towards him. Personally I haven’t the patience for that. I love to be about seeing and doing, and have long since shot more creatures than I want to anyway.
You must have sometime followed a game trail to a watering spot by a lake, creek or river. There you will have found many different sorts of tracks: deer, roos, wombat, birds, goannas, wild dogs etc. I’m sure you have looked carefully at all those wild dog tracks and ascertained that they all have claws. Not one large pad was ever made by a large ‘dog’ with retractable claws – yet folks who rarely venture into the bush are forever seeing ‘black panthers’ – and Yowies! Astonishing!
To continue: An almost irresistible early ‘habit’ is to pay attention to deer tracks, which is natural. Mind you, no-one ever saw a deer by following its tracks. It is just too hard to look in two places at once. It will not be standing in the tracks you are looking at. To see the deer you need to look up! However, you also need to pay attention to which way it went in order to be looking in the right direction. It is a bit of a conundrum!
You will develop the habit of seeing ‘the line’ the deer has taken. It too has its own ‘silly walk. Its stride has a metronomic regularity. You can better tell just how big it is by the length of its stride than the size of its feet. Just like people, the same sized deer have different sized feet, but a deer with a longer stride is obviously a bigger deer. I have followed a deer for several kilometers (because I could not believe it!) whose stride was longer than I could pace – so close to a metre! What a monster!
So, you don’t need to ‘see’ every footprint to perceive the line the deer has taken, and be able to ‘project it forward…so that it either angled this way or that. Oh, up ahead there is a scuff just in the right place there, so look out that way. After a time you will be able to follow the line of tracks without looking down. You have to train your eyes (and yourself) to do this.
A similar sight-training exercise: It should be no surprise that deer (usually) see you first. That’s why the first thing you often ‘notice’ is the deer honking at you (happily) or simply crashing off in the distance (alas). Of course they live in the bush (which you don’t) and have (lots of) predators which you also don’t – else you would have better manners! Deer have the ability to look right through the bush which is largely invisible to them.
You can develop this ability. For example, if you live in a town (poor thing) and have acquired the habit (you should) of every day taking an evening walk, then you are probably walking past a lot of picket fences. Discretely develop the habit of becoming a ‘Peeping Tom’. Yes, seriously. When you are standing still, focus through the cracks or gaps in the fence between the pickets into the people’s yards. Keep looking into the yard and slowly begin walking. You will notice that you can still see into the yard and that the fence has effectively disappeared.
You can do the same thing when you are driving (certainly when you are a passenger) by focusing through the fringe of trees and vegetation which makes up the roadside verge into the paddocks beyond (or through a hedge if you are in the city). After a while you will be able to see the entire contents of the paddock without paying any attention at all to the intervening vegetation. That is what a deer is doing all the time. It is ever looking through the bush.
Once you have quite mastered this knack. It takes some conscious effort. And will confound your friends who will think you have developed X-ray vision like Clark Kent’s alter ego. You will begin to see lots of deer (and other creatures) which were invisible before. It has the added advantage that you will also be able to much more clearly see the ‘lie’ (or ‘fall’) of the land so that you can plan your route more intelligently to consume less effort and encounter fewer obstacles. Finding your way, and your way back will also be enhanced. (These links are just some of the woodlore you should try to master).
So, two main skills for the deer hunter’s apprentice to practice: walking and seeing. There are many more, but they will have to wait another day…
Oh, and this particular ‘deer hunter’s apprentice’ should understand that the remarks herein were not addressed to him. He is instead the origin of the idea for the article. And, he was good company, and will get to come again!
I will find photos to illustrate this later. So far as I have noticed none of Dickens’ or Conrad’s book have single pic, but millions have managed to read them. Not that I am comparing myself to them
– Written on a wet afternoon when I had a sore ankle – else I would be out doing. Still, it is clearly now the autumn break, so time to clean up that rifle, break out the kit and plan the next hunting expedition!
Some recent hunting related posts:
Some Other Hunting Adventures: