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Each year sees an increase in hunters heading into the bush pursuing sambar. With the rise in deer numbers there has never been a better time to fill the freezer or search for that trophy stag. But with an increase in both animal numbers and hunters there is always a trade off and that means more potential for something to go wrong when on the hunt. In this article we will take a step back from the actual hunting and habits of sambar and discuss a few ideas to ensure your safety in the bush so you always make it home to your family to hunt another day.
Identifying your target
This is the most critical aspect of any hunt, before you squeeze that trigger always identify your target so you are 110% certain it is a live deer in the field, not just a patch of color, or a dark shape or a moving antler. You must be certain what you are looking at is a deer and nothing else. If you are unsure, don’t shoot, wait and either get more confirmation or hold your ground for the animal to give more identity. There is a simple reason why numerous hunters get shot in the field in NZ each year and that is because hunters are simply not identifying their target. There is no excuse, there is no pulling back once that bullet has been fired, there’s no justification for accidental incidents. It’s happened here in the sambar hills before and heaven fore bid it doesn’t ever happen again. We all have varying degrees of experience, but each of us should be very mindful no matter how many days we have in the field, we must always positively identify our target, its that simple.
I remember many years ago some mates and I were hunting in a popular valley. The habitat was thick bush so we decided to all split up and wait on well used game trails we had identified were getting recent use by deer. Just on nightfall we hear a shot from a mate up a gully and making our way over the after dark he let us know he had fired at a dark shape he thought was a deer in the bush. In the fading light he thought he seen the shape move and took a shot. After a look in the headlamps we all realized he had shot at a stump that had the appearance of a deer. He was extremely lucky that it wasn’t another hunter sitting there waiting for a deer and whilst this incident was a one off in the hunting career of our mate, one time is certainly one too many. You will never get that bullet back once it leaves your barrel. Lessons are continually learnt no matter what level of experience you have.
There are many methods of identifying your location in the bush and navigating in and out of your hunting area. From phone apps that work offline on downloaded maps to gps units to compasses there is certainly a need for all hunters to have some form of assisted navigation. I always gps in the vehicle or camp when I leave it, no matter how long I plan on hunting for or where I plan on going to. It’s a great habit to get into. Some hunters will also like to navigate through the bush as much as possible without using the gps, this can be good to fine tune your skills and orientation, but its wise to always have that peace of mind and backup by way pointing in a few key locations.
If you do like to move around the bush using basic skills as much as possible I always like to take note of any features in the bush that are easily recognizable. It might be a rocky cliff that sticks out on a spur, a massive dead tree along the edge of a clearing or a series of termite mounds. These will all go into the memory bank and can be a help reassuring you that the direction you are heading is the right way you are intending to go.
As mechanical units can fail, another factor I always consider when hunting in the bush is the position of the sun. I always do this as I leave camp or start the day hunting. Everybody is aware that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but it’s a great idea to relate it to your hunting plans and keep an eye on it throughout the day. We have found that especially in flatter country where landmarks can be hard to identify, the sun is always a good point of contact, even on cloudy days. I got turned around once on a hunt up north in slightly rolling terrain and if I hadn’t previously taken note of the sun as I left the vehicle I would have been in trouble without question.
It’s an excellent idea to always familiarize yourself with any vehicle tracks, logging roads and walking trails. When you need to get from A to B, sometimes the shortest route is the most strenuous, so think outside the square and always hunt smarter. Roads are great access points and much easier to traverse then bashing you’re way through the bush. Same with gaining elevation in big country, don’t just take the direct route, plan your hike or hunt with terrain and habitat in mind. Spurs are always great to walk up or down and often this feature is much less restrictive then trying to cover ground deep on valley floors or hike out through a gully head. The vegetation will grow profusely in these areas due to increased levels of moisture and it will make for a hard slog.
Make smart decisions
This might seem a natural occurrence for all hunters, but there are times when we get fatigued or take on more then we can handle. Knowing when to turn around and head back to camp, or not go chase that stag in the basin 1.5km away, or cross the swollen river or push on one valley more is extremely critical to keeping safe in the bush. No deer or hunt is that important that you need to put your life on the line with making bad decisions that can impact your safety.
Always let somebody in camp know where you are heading and when you anticipate getting back. If you are hunting on your own leave basic details of your hunt plans with a couple of people who understand what your doing, where you are going and when you are expected to get back out safely.
Whilst our mountains might not compare to the Southern Alps of New Zealand, there is still plenty of steep rocky country where hunters will need to be calculated with their hunt plans and careful with any elevations gain or loss. Stags will often live in steep rocky terrain so when traversing these areas always be careful of shifting rocks and steep sections with drop offs underneath. A stout piece of timber or a hiking pole is a good accessory to carry in steeper terrain and having that third point of contact to the ground will stabilize your movements.
If you are unsure of how your hunt plans are turning out, take a break, sit down and think through things. How is your body feeling, are you fighting fit or loosing energy and can you continue on tomorrow where you finished up today. Sometimes just pushing on further and further doesn’t necessarily mean you will be turning up more deer, hunt wiser and always have a strategy.
This is probably one of the most important aspects of ensuring you have a safe and enjoyable hunt every time you head into the bush. Even if you are only going out for a day hunt, always check the forecast and understand what is happening with the weather. Learn to read wind direction and speed, understand how it correlates to changes in weather patterns and take notice of cloud formations and what they tell you about any upcoming precipitation and temperature trends.
You don’t only have to do this in the bush, when you are at work or outside at home, be more vigilant to changes in the weather and take notice of what is happening around you. This will give you basic knowledge of how to interpret changes so you can better prepare yourself in the bush.
Strong winds will mean trees across tracks, potential hazards with falling branches around camp and in the bush and increased fire risks over water months. Lightening is often associated with thunder and storms so be prepared if your out on the tops glassing or setting up camp when storms are expected to roll through. Never remain out on open exposed ridges when lightening is coming down around you, always head for lower sheltered ground. Thunderstorms could mean rapidly rising rivers or creeks and this can have ramifications with flooded campsites and gear or issues with river crossings. Heavy snowfalls will also mean colder weather and lower temperatures, tougher navigation through the bush and it can make getting in and out of areas a challenge.
Spend enough time in the bush and sooner or later you will be faced with a situation where you might have to choose between a long late night hike back to camp or stay put and see out the night before continuing on. You need to ask yourself if you were to spend an unexpected night in the bush, do you have sufficient clothing on hand and the right gear in your backpack to keep you safe.
A space blanket should be in every pack, but lightweight tarps can also be carried that roll up very small and these will often give you that extra protection against fierce winds, rainfall and snow.
A rain jacket is always advised even if you start out the day in bluebird weather as you never know where you will finish up at the end of a day or what the weather might change to. Having that extra layer protecting you could be critical.
If you do get caught out overnight and don’t have an external shelter in your pack do what the deer do and find a brushy tree to crawl under, a hollowed out log to slide into or a cliff face to back up against. Its important you remain sheltered from wind and moderately protected from any rain or snow and the cold frost that might work its way into the night.
Always ensure you have methods of being able to light a fire. Matches that are waterproof and reliable or lighters that are in waterproof bags will one day potentially save your life. Lighting a fire during an unexpected night out will keep your body temperature at a safe level, give you reassurance that everything will be ok and keep you in positive frame of mind. A fire at night will also send smoke down a valley and if people are out looking for you this could be enough of a signal for them to locate you.
Its important you are competent at lighting fires in adverse conditions. Anybody can start flames when the weather is fine, you have plenty of time and you have everything at your fingertips to burn. But what about when it has been pouring rain, your tired from a massive day in the bush and unexpectedly find yourself stuck out with everything around you saturated. It’s a great idea to learn how to find dry kindling and enough fire starting material from within the forest to get a fire going in wet weather. Looking underneath fallen logs, inside hollow trees, on the lee side of standing trees and learning where to find dry twigs, grass and identifying leaves that are flammable are all extremely important survival tactics. This will only come from experience and trial and error so it’s a great idea to brush up on your fire lighting abilities at every opportunity. Put simply it can be the difference between surviving a night and not making it through until sunrise.
Diet and Fluid Intake
Always ensure you have adequate and appropriate food intake both when in camp and on the hill hunting. Be smart with the diet you are fueling the body with and the level of hydration you are consuming. Eating healthy and adequately will ensure energy levels are optimized and you will have the strength and stamina to carry you through typical hunting conditions. Be mindful of the type of snacks you eat during the day, and if you don’t feel thirsty keep drinking at every opportunity. Often you will become dehydrated if you get distracted on the hunt or have big distances to hike and don’t make stops for hydration. Dry lips, mouth and a reduced urine output are the first signs of insufficient fluids and it can lead to muscle soreness and impaired cognition in severe cases. Learn to identify the signs your body gives off when you are dehydrated and act accordingly.
Make sure you drink fluids that will help replace electrolytes and eat a good hearty meal when you get back to camp, no matter how tired you are. Your body will benefit from the rest and the nutrients fuelling it while you sleep. A few beers and a couple rum and cokes probably aren’t the ideal intake around the campfire at night after a big day in the bush.
Communication in the bush for hunters
Having the ability to reach out to others and let them know you are safe or in danger is very important. Everybody has a cell phone, but often these don’t get service down in sambar habitat or in remote regions. If you are hunting on your own and are in an area that gets patchy service you can keep your phone on and when you receive signal or a notification it might be an idea to gps in these locations to have a log of where you get signal for emergency reasons. Also a solar panel or external battery charging source are good pieces of equipment that might get you out of trouble on remote hunts when the phone is all you are carrying.
Another option is to carry a handheld UHF in the hope that when you need to use it others will be in range to hear your communications, this is great in areas that are often frequented and on weekends, but I wouldn’t be relying on this as your best point of contact for emergency help. If you are purchasing a handheld UHF for the bush, get a quality 5 watt model.
A satellite phone is a great device for communication and one of the more reliable methods of accurate and prompt deliverance of emergency information. The downside is that satellite phones tend to be a little heavy and cumbersome to carry around in a hunting pack and they do rely on batteries being charged. I have mates that take sat phones away hunting, but they tend to leave them in base camps or in the vehicle and this is probably a good purpose for them.
An epirb is probably the most efficient emergency device available. Whilst they don’t send messages out or allow for speaking to other people, it does transmit a signal on the 406 MHz distress frequency via satellite and earth stations that will get received no matter where you are or what time it is. I like the models that have an inbuilt GPS device in the epirb as it pinpoints your location to emergency services to within 50m, give or take. They are a single use item and not cheap, but there is a lot of reassurance with having an epirb in your backpack. It could save you from snake bite, hypothermia, personal injury, flooded rivers, general health issues, a vehicle crash or any complexities associated with hunting and general bush use in remote areas.
There are other methods of communication people can use, but generally if you have a plan utilizing an extra device or method of signaling to outside help then it will give you and your family confidence that everything will be ok. Hunting with partners will certainly reduce risks but if you can’t go away with others, always take precautions to ensure you can get help when needed on solo hunts.
Leaving a note on the dash of your car is also a good idea if you are going hunting on your own. You can leave the contact details of the people that know where you are going and write an approximate schedule or hunt plan on the note so that in the case of an emergency people who read the note have an idea of where you are headed and when you are expected to get back to the vehicle.
Having quality equipment is always important not just for success in the field but also for safety reasons. Generally good gear will protect you from the elements and function when needed. Whether it’s a rain coat, down jacket, pair of leather hiking boots or a four season tent having gear and equipment that works every time you need it to will go a long way towards making sure you get home safely. Never skimp on purchases for hunting equipment and always buy the best you can afford after doing proper research on items that suit your hunting style and conditions. Quality gear will keep you warm, dry and cut down any wind chill that often blasts its way through the range in our cooler months.
With certain equipment I always ensure I have spares on hand, these items I consider essential and potentially life saving so doubling up on them is a wise decision. Batteries for a gps, an extra headlamp, bullets, a spare set of merino base layers in a waterproof bag, rope, compass, food, socks and knife are just some items that sooner or later you will use to help you get back out of the bush safely.
First Aid in the Bush
It’s a good idea that everybody has at least a basic understanding of first aid in the bush. Most businesses encourage employers to have regular first aid updates, but if you don’t get them, take a few minutes to read up on some online courses and familiarize yourself with general practices. It might be methods for bandaging a sprained ankle, treating bites, recognizing hypothermia, heart issues, dehydration, low blood sugar, diabetes issues, the list is endless and if you spend enough time in the bush either on your own or with other hunters sooner or later complications will arise.
As far as carrying first aid in the bush, it’s a great idea to have general equipment in the vehicle that covers a range of items then also carry essentials in your pack so you have equipment on hand. Items that might be suitable for your pack include sterile water, bandages, creams to treat burns and stings, basic dressings for cuts and blisters, items for lighting a fire and a space blanket. I would never head out for a hunt no matter how long the planned duration is without a small first aid kit safely tucked away. First aid kits are in all my packs and I never remove them. It’s a small weight to carry for a lot of gain in the field.
Snake bites are always on the minds of hunters who head into the bush over the warmer months and I would advise everybody to make at least some effort to familiarize themselves with what is required in the event a person gets bitten by a snake. Its not a good thought, but it’s a real threat to all of us, so don’t ever think it won’t happen one day.
Whilst we have only touched on a few of the important issues associated with safety in the bush it’s always a good idea to get the mind ticking over. No matter what level of experience we have in the bush there is always the potential for something to go wrong. If you plan ahead for it and hunt wisely you will mitigate any potential risks and hopefully enjoy a lengthy hunting career without any serious incidents.