Memorable Back-Country Stag
You can sit and still hunt farm fringes for sambar or you can climb all over the mountains. When it's the latter it is so sweet when you deck a nice stag.
Story and images: Zach Spark
Sambar hunting is often a frustrating, emotionally exhausting and physically demanding past time. Although nowhere near as steep as other hunting climes, the Australian Alps hold their own unique challenges. These ancient mountains contain ants that can kill, spiders that can kill, snakes that can kill and God knows what else that can kill. (black panthers? - Ed) Sudden weather changes catch lackadaisical, semi prepared hunters out, as well as unreliable water sources that harbour Guardia and other charming bacteria... Getting into “back country” is a difficult proposition requiring planning, fitness and a close eye on the weather, particularly in the prime months of August and September. The prospect of heading into the Australian Alps and unsuccessfully hunting Sambar is the reality that most people are faced with, myself included. Blank stares from loved ones while recounting long, expensive trips into The Alps that involve frigid mornings, dehydrated food, no Instagram access and seeing the back side of fleeing deer are the norm. But it’s these trips that build data around deer during certain times of the year, like bedding areas, feeding areas and social areas like rubs, wallows and preaching trees. This information along with game trail locations, approximate ratios of stags to hinds and many other details form an ever-changing picture of the areas we love to hunt.
Previous trips to my favourite stomping ground over the past four years had proven four things; deer density was low/medium, but they were not very well educated about humans. Quality feed was critical to finding gullies containing game and access to permanent water was essential as most of the country and feed was relatively dry. With these factors in mind and using Google Earth, it was easy to identify several gullies that were hot-to-trot and during conversations with my hunting buddies a catchment containing half a dozen feeders was selected for the next trip. Lush, steep, green gullies with low visibility meant that “walking them up” would be the name of the game, as opposed to my preferred strategy of still hunting ridges and relying on glassing edges of feeding areas at first or last light.
With a few days off booked and a very understanding partner's blessing, I met Seb on a cold, dark morning and we began our long drive into the Victorian Alps. We met Rhys at our pre-determined meeting point and wound our way into the high country, eagerly anticipating the three days of hunting in some of the most spectacular country that Australia has on offer. Upon arrival, we set up a small fly camp and immediately started planning the afternoon's stalk. I chose a gully directly behind camp and snuck (past tense of “to sneak” - Ed) into the feeder for the afternoon, still hunting my way several hundred metres into the system, all the while soaking in the sights and sounds of the bush. After a few hours and only a small amount of sign, I was relaxing halfway up the feeder having a snack when I spotted that distinctive profile that makes every sambar hunters heart skip a beat. 150 yards along the feeder was a hind browsing on a coprosma. She looked heavily pregnant and was working a small area directly around from me. I settled in and manically glassed the country all around her, noting her reactions and general mood. After about half an hour it was becoming obvious she was alone and just making her way in the world, so I settled in and enjoyed her company for the evening until shooting light was gone and I needed to start sliding back down to camp.
Day 2 saw an optimistic hunting party set out into some big country in the early hours of the morning. After an unscheduled meet up before lunch, we decided to summit the main peak and set off down gullies back towards camp. Around an hour into our descent, a loud pop rang out through the valley. Radios were on in a flash and an excited Rhys was happy to report a small stag down, with a few other deer scattering at the shot. Seb was nearby, so he was elected to assist with the carry out and I reluctantly took on the duty of heading back to camp, re-lighting the camp fire and sucking back a few beverages in the afternoon sun… After harvesting the back wheels and loins,
unfortunately Rhys’s deer slid off down the gully and into a rock shoot, so only a big meat bag full of boned venison was recovered and the mountain took the head- a worthy offering in any man’s book! After a quick Captain Cook further down the valley later in the afternoon, Rhys was lucky enough to get some fantastic footage of a sambar stag up a thick almost impenetrable gully system. This area was quickly nominated as a potential hunting ground the next day and an early night was the name of the game.
The next morning, we split up and took on some even rougher country. I worked my way up from the base of the gully and gained about 400 feet before dropping back into the “hot zone” about 50 feet above the thick wattle, dogwood and coprosma. There was fresh sign on the ground, including some stag marks, with plenty of wild cherry trees and rubs, so I was on high alert all morning. After a few hours and only 400 yards travelled along the gully face, Seb and I had a chat on the radio at our pre-arranged call in time. He was the next system over and in a similar situation to me - a bit of sign about the place, but no action. I was starting to run out of patience, so I decided to cut into the first feeder coming up and work my way into the wattle and see if I could still hunt the opposite side, right in the heart of the action, rather than hunting over the top of it.
This meant a painstakingly slow descent through some of the steepest, nastiest, spikiest, pollen saturated garbage I’ve ever had to deal with. After getting bitten by half the insect species in Victoria, including a charming inch ant, I warily settled into my new habitat for the morning and started glassing the opposite face, 100 yards away. I can understand why Sambar love it in there, as it was warmer than up high, more sheltered and there was plenty of feed. About 20 minutes in I got a whiff of my favourite urine soaked creature in the world, drifting up on the rising thermal. I sat tight and started glassing lower, searching for any clues that would expose the inhabitant of this system. Step by step I eased down the feeder, trying to balance visibility of the opposite face with elevation, to give myself some relief from getting too low in the draw.
Eventually on one of my many breaks I heard a tree getting thrashed violently about 100 feet down and on the opposite side of the feeder! I tried to zone in on the sound, but the gentle breeze was making it extremely difficult to find the offending wattle. I kept creeping along and each time I stopped, the thrashing would start and stop with me. I eventually got a look at small ash that was shaking hard and immediately glassed the surrounding area like my life depended on it. The wattle canopy was so thick I had no chance of spotting the stag in there so I decided to wait him out. After 15 minutes, there had not been a sound and I was beginning to think he had given me the slip, so I took one step to the left to try and get a better angle into the other side of the gully. As soon as I stopped, a sapling five yards closer along started getting thrashed and that is when I had my “Eureka” moment for the day! He knew I was nearby, and he probably thought I was another deer! He was waiting for me to move and was probably letting me know he meant business- so I started to experiment.
I waited five minutes and took another step back, he immediately responded and moved closer, bashing up whatever was in his way and generally being a bit of a brat… This went on for the next half an hour with me doing an extremely slow and awkward version of the hokey-pokey, until I got a glimpse of him shrouded in Dogwood across the gully from me. It was time for him to make the first move now - I was locked and loaded, kneeling, rifle braced across my knee and waiting. He was almost level with me on the opposite side, scanning in my general direction, looking for a fight or lady friend. I held my nerve for a few minutes or so and he eventually took a full step out of cover, revealing some bone and a perfect double lung, slightly quartering too short. I flicked off the safety and let fly with a 185 grain Berger, all 90 yards across the feeder. At the shot he immediately lurched and bolted up and across, trying desperately to get out of the gully. I got to my feet and reloaded quickly, tracking him up the gully through the scope, but he realised he was hit hard and turned around coming back the way he came. I got a second shot into him about 10 yards from where the first had landed and on impact he lost his feet, sliding down the gully. He attempted to get back up onto his feet but a third Berger hit him hard behind the shoulder and he went down for the count.
I slumped back into the undergrowth and stared at the sky. A quick check of my watch showed I’d been playing this game for almost two hours and it suddenly felt like I’d been held under water the entire time (refer to the opening sentence of this article). Still laying on my back I turned on my radio and called in to whoever was listening. Rhys was interested in the world war that had apparently started up half a K’ away, but was stoked I’d got a deer down. I let him know I was all good and wouldn’t be back for a few hours. He started heading back along with Seb who was just out of radio range at the time.
Meanwhile, I worked my way over and was immediately impressed by this stunning, big bodied stag that had an unusual head. He had solid bases and healthy brows, but a weak set of tops that were void of Shanghai’s. I collected the back straps and boned out his back legs, loading up my F1 frame pack for the big trip back to camp. Three hours later, after a valve busting slog, I found myself slumped in a camp chair, with jocks full of bark and leaves and generally covered in crap - but knocking the top off a frosty beer next to a fire with some good blokes. Life doesn’t get any better than that!
Weight: 6lb 9 ounces loaded
Make: Forbes 24B in 30-06 Springfield
Scope: Leupold Ultralight 3-9X33 in Talley one piece mounts
Projectile: 185 grain Berger VLD Hunting
Powder: 57gr ADI 2209
This article appeared in the February 2019 issue of Sporting Shooter magazine.