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Sambar use many forms of sign posting to communicate with other deer. Due to a lack of prominent vocalization it is important for them to have methods to let each other know who is in the area and how long ago they have passed through. One of these methods that is visually obvious and regularly encountered in deer habitat is preaching or scraping.
Preaching is when the stag uses his front hooves to remove soil and dirt creating a slight depression in the ground. Typically it is under an overhanging branch or beneath a tree with protruding limbs that are within reach of a stag when he stands up on his hind legs. Standing up and balancing is often referred to as bi pedaling. They maneuver themselves up and take little steps adjusting their weight to hold their position in order to scent mark the branches, twigs or overhanging limbs. Stags will push their pre orbital glands into the shrubbery and protruding sticks depositing their scent for other deer to locate and familiarize with. Pre orbital glands are located just below the eye sockets on each side of the face.
The area uncovered by the hooves can vary considerably in size due to the location, soil composition, mood of the stags and number of deer in the area. Sometimes preaching pads are quite small in size and other times they cover quite a large area as stags work away digging in earnest upturning the soil repeatedly keen to let every other male know they are in the area.
Preach trees are located in many areas throughout sambar habitat. They can be on creek flats, in saddles, on bush edges, near clearings and close to wallows. Generally, but not always, preach trees will be located in areas with increased deer traffic, as over the cooler months stags will gravitate towards areas of high hind populations. Sometimes stags that want to let deer know of their presence randomly make preach trees, and other times preach trees are areas visited regularly by deer year after year.
No stag has ownership of a preach tree and throughout the year stags will visit multiple preach trees wherever he travels and feels an urge to leave his scent. Often after rain preach trees will get used and the ground freshened up by the resident stags.
Stags of all antler development will use the preach tree, but usually it is stags in hard antler clean of velvet that will visit more frequently as they are the animals capable of breeding and keen to mix it up with the resident hinds. Female sambar will walk past preaching areas, and occasionally they will also leave scent in areas for stags to locate, but generally it is the males who do the majority of the preaching.
Stags will normally approach the preaching area on a game trail cautiously scenting their way in. His nose will often be to the ground as he attempts to figure out the visitors that have come before him. Often he will scrape the dirt a little to turn things over and work the soil and he might urinate on the ground. Not every time stags visit preaching trees will they leave scent in the limbs above, some will just walk past, check out the area and keep going, but more times then not their instincts will take over and they will scent mark the area.
There really is not set time of day that stags will visit preaching trees however the higher the numbers of deer in an area the more likely a stag will check out preaching sites, especially if they are located near feeding grounds for hinds or near wallows. Probably a good indicator of when preach trees might get used is the higher the probability of a sambar being on its feet and moving around, the increased possibility of him visiting a preaching area. So evenings, night and early mornings are all times with elevated preaching activity.
Not too many hunters set up specifically over preach trees hoping it will draw stags in and they can then shoot that animal. Not saying it can’t be done, as I’m sure some hunters see the value in this, especially if the immediate area overlooks ground of high deer use. Watching a small gap in the forest looking at a preach tree is provably a low percentage play, but if there is a clearing the deer feed in, or nearby wallows or a junction where a series of gullies funnel together and preach trees are conveniently located then these areas are worth watching over.
As it can be quite difficult to accurately judge stags ages simply from the hoof imprints they leave behind, trail cameras often are deployed over these territory marking sites to monitor the stags and their activity. Always set your trail cameras up with a bit of distance between the unit and the preach. Reason being as not all stags will leave scent you want to make sure you get images of those deer that just walk past. Also giving extra room between the unit and the preach will allow animals to remain in the field of view of the trail camera even at full height as they preach. It can be a little heartbreaking when a big mature stags is preaching and your only get the bottom half of him on trail camera because you didn’t anticipate how high he was capable of stretching up.
Stags of all ages visit preach trees and it is not uncommon to have everything from a spiker to a big old stag use preach trees in an area. There is no method with locating a preach tree and saying that only big stags use the area or that its visited only by immature deer. Any preach tree has potential for stags of every age to use it.
Some stags will spend a few seconds at a preach and others will hang around for a little longer. Either way typically they don’t spend a lot of time at preaching areas so it’s a good idea to always have your trail camera on burst mode/multiple picture setting or at least have a short delay between image capturing to ensure you make the most of opportunities whenever deer walk past.
Some hunters in the states create false scrapes to encourage whitetail bucks to visit more frequently thinking competition is in the area, but this tactic is not likely to work on sambar due to the nomadic lifestyle some stags live and the irregular estrus cycles of sambar hinds within any population.
There really is no method to entice stags to a particular scrape or series of preach trees. So your best bet is to keep on checking known preaching sites for activity in the hope it indicates stags are recently in the area. Always remember though that every time you visit a scrape and look it over, the stags that visit soon after you will also smell human scent and be alerted to your presence in the area.
In all regions that sambar live in there will be game trails that define and dictate sambar movement. They serve a purpose for the deer often allowing safe passage between bedding and feeding areas. For hunters with a keen eye and an open mind there is plenty to learn from game trails and the animals that have passed along it.
Sambar use game trails for a variety of reasons. They can keep in touch with each others movements by scent and sight, they can learn from each other about any food sources that have recently become available, like crops in farmland or fallen trees in the forest that will provide abundant food sources. They will notice and pick up why certain deer are travelling in particular directions at important times of the day and wander along to check out what is happening.
Game trails also offer a fast passage through the bush and when in danger after contact with humans or dogs, it is generally game trails that sambar will exit the area on.
For travelling deer that are moving into new areas the quickest way to determine who is around and where to head is to follow game trails made by other deer. Like interconnecting roads in a city, game trails all have purpose and meaning for the local sambar.
Sometimes sambar will feed across faces and clearings picking their way through the best browse with no meaningful direction of travel, but you can be assured that when those deer need to climb for the day and bed up, they will do so along recognized trails that have been used repeatedly by wildlife.
Personally when hunting I like to travel on game trails as much as possible. I do this for a number of reasons, one of them is that it is generally the quietest route for a hunter to walk, another is that as deer will use the very same trails there is always the possibility of bumping into sambar on the same trail your stalking along. Hunting along trails teaches you plenty about the resident deer and what they are doing. You can take note of the browse the deer are eating, the direction the tracks are headed towards and how much deer movement is on the trail.
Keep in mind that not all trails are the same due to location, soil composition and time of year. A game trail at 1600m asl in the snowgums when the grass is long and it’s rocky might simply be a faint path through a low saddle where the handful of resident stags occasionally walk over. Compare it to a mid winter pad heading off a ridge down to a river flat and it doesn’t take much for a few deer to create a large path where you think 50 deer have walked before you. And this brings us to another point. When checking out pads, you need to be mindful of any recent rains. If it hasn’t rained for a while and there are a few deer routinely using the pad, often going back and forth on it each day then there can be some misleading information about just how many deer are in the area. Think what a trail might look like if 8 or 10 sambar used it each day for a few days and you will soon see how it can be hard to determine accurately the numbers of deer in an area simply by the tracks left behind.
Generally in the bush sambar wont use the same path day after day. Weather, other deer, pressure and food source will all determine just where those deer will walk, feed and bed. Farm fringe deer coming out of the forest onto pasture tend to be a bit more channelled with their travel routes due to fewer options for them to come out of the bush. But once they get the grass under their hooves they will meander wherever the best pick is. It’s always nice to walk farm fringe and see big game pads and trails leading off spurs or along creek flats indicating a healthy population of deer are in the area and coming onto the paddocks.
Often when travelling by vehicle in sambar country it is easy to pick up the fresh marks of recent deer activity in soft banks and if your searching new areas game trails are always worth keeping an eye out for, especially those that show signs of recent use. Depending on the soil, the steeper the bank or road edge the more visual the game trail will be as deer slide and slip their way along. Hard ground doesn’t easily give away the presence of deer so keep in mind that in certain situations faint or hard to see marks doesn’t mean the trail is rarely getting used. When in new country if you do see a heap of marks coming down a ridge it could be well worth taking a walk seeing what is making all the deer head in that direction. It could be an active wallow, new food source or even saline lick where recent dirt has been exposed and the deer are gaining extra mineral intake for their general health.
Hunting game trails can be rewarding, especially if you are patient and forward thinking. I often set up of an evening in areas where I call funnels or junction zones where a number of game trails merge into a specific area, typically a clearing or food source or river crossing. Rather then hunting a single game trail and being dependent on animals using it, hunting a few game trails at the same time looking over the area they merge into can often bring reliable results.
Topography often dictates where the game trails are and if you are hunting clearings where a few fingers ridges run down to the area then there is a fair chance that there will be trails on all these ridges, even more so if they are north facing, or come off north facing bedding areas. If you are setting up over game trails always be mindful of which way your scent is blowing, it is a waste of time watching a series of game trails if your scent is getting blown up into the area you expect or hope the deer to come from.
When hunting along game trails, keep in mind what the actual trail is telling you. Often you will notice when you get 2/3rds up a ridge the game trails start thinning out and will even begin to contour along faces. This is telling you that you are getting at a height where deer are bedding up and it’s probably a good idea to slow right down and consider your next move. Climbing game trails finding where the deer are coming from and locating bedding areas is a good tactic for future hunts and you can mark these areas on the GPS or look across the gully and see if any glassing points allow a view back into the immediate area.
When hunting on game trails keep in mind all other bush users will also traverse along these pathways so it can be a bit tricky navigating around the natives so as not to spook them and alarm animals up ahead. Often it is impossible to not spook wildlife up ahead so when that happens either sit down and wait a few minutes to let the bush settle down, or switch direction and climb or drop in elevation to work around the general area the alarmed animal went into.
In the big scheme of sambar hunting preaching trees and game trails might not be to glamorous for the new hunter, but they are important pieces of the sambar puzzle that need to be identified and slotted into place so next time you walk past a well used preach scrape or heavily used trail, stop for a moment and give it some thought. Often there is a lot of information to be gleaned right there in front of you, it just needs to be figured out and included in your hunt plan.