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I have been pursuing big Sambar stags for just on 10 years now. A whole decade is a long time to be fixated on one goal. But that’s been my chosen passion. For all those years I have been making 2 or 3 times a year journeys into the Sambar hills. Living in South Australia means several thousand kilometres every time. Sure, I have shot a few hinds and a spikey for meat but nothing decent in the antler department. I’ve passed up a lot of smaller stags in the hope that a big one was just around the corner. I’ve also passed up bigger stags that were out of my chosen range. It seems like every time I got home from an unsuccessful trip there would be another edition of Wild Deer with a grinning hunter and a big Sambar. It just rubbed salt into the wounds and made me train harder.
Very quickly I worked out my hunting ethic for these elusive animals. It was to be backpacking into remote mountain areas. I know that there are other ways to find Sambar, but this was the challenge that seemed to strongly resonate with me. I’d been inspired by a few articles I’d read and the call of the mountains! I’ve hunted different country, but this was the part of hunting that gave me the most enjoyment.
I have made many trips into lots of different spots carrying big heavy packs. It took me a fair while to work out how this is all going to work. I’m also very grateful for one particular successful Sambar hunter who took me under his wing and showed me just how this Sambar backpacking thing works. He knows who he is – thanks mate, I owe a big debt of gratitude. There is a lot to learn for a novice and he was very generous with his knowledge and experience. He helped me with appropriate training too. I’ve also made a lot of good mates along the way!
This trip, like the last couple was solo. I’d parked the car and walked in behind the gates with a heavy pack all set for 7 days. Over the years I had been learning what was really necessary but with unpredictable weather forecast I had to prepare for a variety of circumstances.
The first day was simply a walk in mixed with a little glassing and a fair bit of sweat. I constantly try and keep in shape and ramp it right up prior to a trip but for a flatlander it’s always a challenge to have the legs in the best condition. I camped that night in a saddle and awoke to a hard frost in the morning. The next day was more of the same – walking and a bit of glassing.
By that night I had found a spot that looked promising. Although you can never tell in Sambar country, that’s one thing I have learnt! It wasn’t long before I spotted a couple of smaller stags but nothing that I was prepared to drop the hammer on. You don’t get big deer by shooting the small ones. Right on fading light I spotted several hinds and one that was obviously in season. She was being tailed by a malform and then all of a sudden, another stag appeared and took over from the malform. I crawled into my sleeping bag that night contented to have just seen a few animals. I always think that seeing a deer a day is a good thing.
Prior to dawn I was at my glassing spot waiting for light. Immediately I spotted animals. They were several small stags. About 10 minutes after full sun they trotted off over the next ridge and I was left wondering why did they move off so quickly? Was it that they smelt me? I didn’t think so. I put it down to the hind and that they knew she was close, but there was that nagging doubt that they could have seen or smelt me. What was going on I wondered? I was now in two minds what to do. I knew that there was some bad weather coming in so do I move spots and hunt where I had planned, or did I stay and hope that there was another bigger deer close by. I decided to move, so I packed up and swinging my camp on my back I worked my way up the hill, still in two minds.
I managed to get a little bit of phone reception and so I made a few calls to a few guys asking advice. They helped me think through what I could do. By this time, it was midday and I was running short of water. I decided to go and see if I could find some… I knew of a soak about 2ks away. I hardly remember taking a step as I was thinking about what my next plan of attack would be. In reality I had only one chance. With rain and big winds forecast I knew the deer would be bunkered down and having survived big winds before I wasn’t real keen on experiencing them again. Where do I throw in my lot?
I rolled the dice and went back down the ridge to the same spot. It was a calculated gamble and even with good advice it was my decision. This is what solo hunting is. I arrived in the glassing spot a lot later than I wanted to and immediately found no deer. That sinking feeling when you have made the wrong decision. I glassed until almost dark and still no deer. I began to second guess myself and the negative self-talk of ‘another empty trip’ started to bubble away in the background. My spirits began to sink, and I was trying to work out what plan B would look like. Over the years I have found a lot of cast antlers and I’d come to think of myself as always the best man never the groom. Was this trip to be the same as all the others, chalked down to experience?
As so often happens I shifted my glassing position about 500mm and I spotted a deer. It took of all of a Nano second through the binoculars to know it was a shooter stag. Pressing the rangefinder button, I also knew he was in my effective range. But I needed a shooting lane and fast as the light was fading. I decided to go back up the ridge a bit and I thought there was a tree I could lay down and get a rest on the side of.
As I often do I had taken with me a small dry bag that had a spare pair of thermals and socks in it. I’ve never used it before but I thought it might come in handy as a rest. Having found the tree and a shooting lane I put the rifle on the dry bag but was aggravated by a small flat rock. I went to move the rock out of the way and then realised that it was a perfect rock to put under the butt of the rifle. Having set up in this manner I had a ‘rock’ steady rest. I ranged the deer at 310m, which is within my limit. I’d practiced out to 300m previously and found that I could hit milk bottles full of water easily enough (you know when you have hit them without walking over all the time). I put the 300m reticule on the stag’s flank which by this stage was quartering away from me. So I aimed at behind the back rib and towards the off side shoulder. I remember touching the trigger and it not going off and then consciously squeezing my hand and then the belching of the 300WM echoing around the face. I quickly gained control of the recoil and through the scope saw legs and body going over and over each other down the steep face. Then nothing. Not a sound not a movement.
And just like that it was all over. It took me a few minutes to come to terms with what happened. A big stag had stepped out and I had taken a 310m cross gully shot at him. I didn’t know how big as I didn’t allow myself to take any more than a momentarily glimpse of his antlers. I didn’t trust myself with the shakes on such an animal. But I knew he was a shooter.
And then before I knew it, darkness descended.
There was no way I was going over on to that face at night, simply for my own safety and then because I thought I might push him if he wasn’t dead.
So I set up my camp, still bewildered at what just happened and wishing that it would have been a short night. I hadn’t taken a photo, even though it had gone through my mind. I had just decided to shoot and take pictures later. Sitting at my tent I didn’t feel like eating anything, but I forced myself to eat as much as I possibly could, knowing that I’d probably need it the next day. I went to bed with the image of the stag’s legs tumbling down the hill. I wouldn’t allow myself to think that I had a dead stag, no getting ahead of myself. I was just praying that he was dead and that I could find him. It was a long night, 12am, 1am, 2.05am, 3.15 and finally it was almost dawn.
I packed a day’s supplies into my backpack and set off as soon as it was light enough to take a photo of the spot where I’d shot the stag. I had also hung something in the tree where I had shot from, figuring that I could get a good sense of where I was when I looked back. The joys of hunting solo. It took me a bit to contour around to the other face and initially I thought I had the spot but when I checked the photo it was not quite correct. There was one little more gully to go over. A few minutes later I had found the spot and I could see my mark from where I had shot. Then just like that I spotted a ginger rump and looking through the binoculars I could see an antler poking up through the foliage. My video recording of the moment makes for interesting listening as I thanked God and continued to say ‘oh my goodness’ over and over again.
Reaching the stag, I was stunned at the size of his antlers! What a cracker this one was – a bull! I thought he must be all of 27 inches. I knew he was in a tentative position and that any moment he was going to roll down the hill, so I tied him up with some paracord. I’d heard stories of guys being impaled from a dead stag sliding down the hill.
I just sat with him, here was 10 years of work. All that effort and all those Km’s, all that training and practice with the rifle, all that expense, now realised at my feet. So many emotions came over me – and no one to share it with. The joys of mountain solo hunting.
My bullet had done exactly what I had hoped. It had angled in and killed him quickly, even instantly. I could see where he had crashed down the slope, smashing trees and dislodging rocks. He had been dead all night. I was pretty grateful that his antlers were intact.
After the photo session and some butchering, I made it back to my camp. I had taken in a small rope saw that I thought might help me skull cap a deer. Well it was probably worth the eBay amount I paid, and after it broke it took me quite a while to finish it off with the little saw on the Leatherman. I packed up my camp and now with a heavy pack started the long haul out of the bush. Stopping on the way about three hours later to call my wife and some good mates. It was really nice to finally share it with someone! I camped that night half way home and with the weather closing in made the rest of the journey to the truck the next day. I had calculated that I was 26ks from the car. Those antlers caught every branch and bush, every stick and wattle on the way out. But what a labour of love to carry that deer out. Every time I looked around I could see the antlers behind me. Even the brutal uphill couldn’t stop me smiling.
Late that night I made it back to my mate’s place for a clean-up and a shower. The next day I made the journey to an ADA scorer to find that my deer hit the magic 30 mark and went over the 200DS. I never imagined that something like this would ever happen to me.
They say that if you ‘do the miles you get the smiles’ but that happens to other people not me. I had killed several pairs of boots, merino tops and had just about worn out a pack. I had learned many lessons, endured wind and rain. Fallen over more times that I’d like to admit. But pursuing these magnificent animals solo – well there is nothing like it. And funny enough you would have thought the fire might go out a bit after reaching the goal with 10 years of effort. Not on your life! I will soon be back in those mountains chasing big Sambar again.