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I often get asked about how to become a successful sambar hunter. Where to hunt, how to regularly find deer, how to regularly find stags and more often then not how to regularly find mature trophy class animals. Volumes of books and literature have been written on sambar and hunting this wonderful resource. Many dvd’s have been produced and there are plenty of weekend courses out there to fast track hunters who are thirsty for knowledge.
But from my perspective, nothing, simply nothing at all will compare to time in the bush and burning boot leather in sambar country. And by that I don’t mean just clicking over the hours in sambar habitat, I mean really being perceptive about everything that is going on around you, really understanding why everything is happening and just how the little things all add up to increase the prospects of encountering sambar.
Good sambar hunters always have questions and theories about the deer, feed, habitat, hunting pressure, seasons, elevations, locations, herd dynamics, ages, sustainable numbers and really good sambar hunters are always testing them out in real life situations. Sure some hunters are just more natural in the bush then others, but no matter the level of your experience, skill, fitness and abilities there are plenty of deer out there for everybody to enjoy and learn about. Whether you go bush once a week or once a month you should continually be trying to learn and improve your hunting skills to become a better sambar hunter and user of the forest with a greater understanding of this superb deer species.
With cooler weather fast approaching I decided to go over a few important points that you should consider in regards to your approach to sambar and hunting in general. Some will be directly associated with the hunt and deer and others will be factors you need to consider towards planning your hunt and making you a better hunter. There is plenty I have left out, but with all the newer hunters out there its good to go over a few of the more important points to keep in mind for your next adventure into the hills.
Equipment and gear
-Always use clothing that is soft and quiet in the bush, nothing alerts sambar quicker then unnatural sounds and this includes choosing your boots, gaiters and backpack wisely.
-Make sure you carry warm clothing for when temperatures drop. There is nothing worse then having to head back to camp when it gets cold on the hill. This same temperature drop in the evening will also get the deer up on their feet and moving around. Don’t waste your time heading back to camp when you should be hunting.
-If you ever look at photos of yourself or see your hunting partner in the bush with their head and hands covered you will see that often these parts of the body will be extremely visible to deer. Cover your face and hands to reduce the risk of visual detection.
-Minimize rapid movement of your hands and arms. Don’t go waving your arms around at flies, mozzies, or pointing everywhere when you have a hunting partner and are discussing hunt options. Learn to be controlled and calculated with everything you do in the bush.
-Choose your head gear wisely, beanies keep you warm but when you glass they don’t provide any shade from the sun.
-Always have a spare pair of socks in your backpack. They can be very versatile with uses ranging from lighting fires to putting on wet feet after a river crossing, to keeping your feet warm on a cold night to putting over your hands if you have forgotten gloves.
-Always make sure your boots or shoes fit properly, are worn in and your socks are good quality. Blistered and battered feet can be an issue when you are many kilometres from the vehicle.
-An epirb might be an expensive outlay but it’s a valuable piece of emergency equipment to have in your pack. The gps signal models can fix your location very precisely.
Weather and habitat
-Overcast days deer stay longer on their feet and continue to feed well into the morning.
-Cold frosty nights with a full moon will often see deer bed up early in the night but then get up mid morning for a feed and re bed.
-Full moon deer will definitely move earlier in the afternoon to feed, especially if the weather is clear and the night is going to be cold and frosty.
-Deer often seek the warmth of a sunny face after a cold night to elevate body temperature as efficiently as possible.
-Deer will often get up and feed on a drizzly day, especially the first day of drizzle or light rain after a dry spell.
-Deer will predict when a fierce cold front is coming through and feed up in the 24 hours prior to it hitting. Their internal barometers are always in tune with the weather patterns.
-During heavy rain deer sometimes seek the cover of habitat that offers shelter, cherry trees, tea tree and large eucalypts with a broad canopy are all appealing in times of rain.
-Deer often bed up against rocky ledges as this gives them a natural defense barrier from above and the rocks also provide warmth for the animal on cold days as they retain their heat.
-Deer often feed up on the grass underneath rocky areas as the nutrients will slowly leach out of the rocks when water passes over the formation making the grass beneath mineral rich.
-Clear hot days will see deer seek shade early, so hunt likely areas first then focus on shaded ridges for deer that are still on their feet.
-Water can draw sambar in, especially in very warm weather. Hidden springs, creeks, rivers and dams will all have appeal to sambar in warm weather.
-Strong windstorms can blow over many trees on an exposed face and this can create a valuable short term food source for the resident deer. Be aware of the types of trees that are appealing to sambar and hunt windblown areas as soon as possible, preferably before the trees die and the leaves shrivel up making them unappealing to sambar.
-Listen to the birds around you to give indications that animals are moving through and disturbing them, the forest and its inhabitants can tell you a lot about what is going on.
-Sometimes sambar will be in the same areas that lyrebirds are feeding in so if you hear them calling be aware that deer could be in close proximity. It could simply be co-incidence or a defense mechanism of sambar to be near lyrebirds.
-Sambar take notice of where the birds are feeding, cockatoos are clumsy feeders and often let clumps of fresh new leaves fall to the ground underneath. In areas with poor browse deer will visit these areas to pick over the new leaves for an easy feed.
-If cockatoos are screeching their heads off and circling you, sit down and relax for a while, sambar will certainly be in tune with their alarm calls and be ready for a secondary sign that danger is nearby. Letting the raucous settle down is your best option.
-If you have alarmed cattle, wallabies, horses or kangaroos and they head off in the direction you are stalking, take it easy and either change course or wait and allow any deer to settle down. A wallaby bounding off won’t send any sambar into the next catchment, but it will put them edge as they try to work out what is going on.
-Wild dogs can make sambar nervous and direct them to head lower down into thicker habitat or around into different basins. Be in tune with where you are hearing dogs howl or seeing sign and adjust your hunt plans.
Finding areas to hunt sambar
-Don’t settle into a routine of always hunting the same systems and gullies. Challenge yourself to hunt deer in different habitats, elevations and locations to ensure you are always learning about sambar.
-Study maps, look for areas with limited road access, good habitat, river systems and head basins that get sunlight at the right times of the year.
-Don’t choose the obvious locations to go to explore as everybody else will be doing the same. Look for areas over ridges that people are too lazy to climb and see what’s on the other side, look for systems across rivers that nobody wants to get wet crossing or can’t because winter rains elevate the water level.
-Think outside the square and be ahead of the curve. Canoes, rafts, boats and mountain bikes can get you into some magic country in sambar habitat that gets minimal pressure.
General hunting tips
-Always walk into the wind, especially if you are bush stalking, let it dictate your hunt.
-Constantly be aware of wind direction, make it a natural habit. There is no need for cigarette lighters or wind detectors. You should be in tune with the bush enough that you can feel it on your face, on the back of your neck, see which way the grass is bending and notice how the leaves are swaying. Having a solid understanding of the breeze and what it is doing every step of your hunt will help you make better decisions when deer are in sight.
-Learn to understand what affects wind direction and air currents. Sunlight, shade, temperature and weather patterns will all have an influence on how and where from the wind will blow.
-Remember the morning sun on a face will increase temperatures to a point where eventually the thermals will rise and head up hill.
-Once that same face is in shade the temperatures will lower and the air currents will switch direction creating a down hill breeze.
-Learn to read cloud formations to give you an indication of changing weather as this will definitely affect deer movements. They always get up and feed heavily before a severe cold front comes through. You don’t have to be in the bush to do this, familiarize yourself wherever you are with what goes on up in the sky so that you can use it to your advantage when in the bush.
-Keep an open mind towards the hunt, it doesn’t always have to end in a dead deer. So long as you are learning and enjoying yourself, every single hunt is a success.
-Always assume sambar are nearby, when in sambar country never think there are no sambar within earshot.
-Stalk at a pace that allows you to cover ground but also not too fast that you are missing important sign left by deer.
-When glassing always go over areas multiple times that might hold deer, often deer will be bedded and get up and move or slowly feed across a face and a single sweep with the binoculars is generally not adequate enough to locate animals in view.
-When hiking into a location, always walk into the area at a good time of the day to encounter deer. It will increase your odds of finding animals when they are on their feet and always keep you in the game.
-Use the downtime period over the middle of the day to gather water, firewood, set up camp and prepare yourself for the evening hunt.
-When backpacking don’t camp too close to good feed areas as you might potentially scent up an area overnight that will alert resident deer feeding there. It’s always nice to be hunting relaxed deer rather then animals that are on edge.
-Don’t worry too much about fires in camp, they won’t alarm deer and remember that wherever the smoke blows so to will your scent from when you are sitting around the fire.
-If your trying to find a stag, always hunt where you have previously found them. It could be areas with high hind populations, remote basins or river flats, but certain areas definitely hold more stags then others. Isolate these locations and spend more time hunting them.
-If deer live in areas where they can access varying elevations they will certainly shift their range according to food and the weather. Learn where the best feed is at certain times of the year and understand the patterns of the deer.
-Observe what food source the deer are eating and hunt these areas at the right time of the year. For example blackberry shoots in spring are eagerly sought after by deer, there are always sambar nearby to any large blackberry patches and even into summer blackberry plants can provide a valuable food source in poorer feed areas.
-Be adaptable with your hunt plan. If an area has had a recent fire rip through it, then this location will soon be appealing to any resident deer sourcing the nutrient rich feed that will grow up from the ashes. Keep an eye on any fires burning over summer and go check them out when it is safe to do so.
-There is no doubt that stags will grow better heads in areas following fires. If your trying to find a trophy stag then any mature deer living in an area post burn will usually grow the best head he is capable of. The next 5 years or so will see the effect of improved feed post fires in the stags antler growth with heavier beams and long tine length.
-Understand sambar vocalization and when it is used. This can be very beneficial in many hunting situations. When taking pictures, when trying to stop a walking deer, or when trying to make a nervous deer hold its ground in cover so you can get a better look at it and any other nearby animals.
-If a deer honks and you haven’t got located it, throw a few honks back at it, break some sticks and stomp on the ground to get it thinking it has company rather then danger nearby. From there you can adjust your position slowly in an attempt to get a look at the deer making the noise.
-Listen for vocal communication between deer when hunting. Often calves will call to communicate with their mums, and there is always a chance stags will be near the hind. Stags will grunt and mew when a hind is in estrus and if your nearby this can occasionally be heard.
-If your making a bit too much noise in the bush give out a few hind calls to settle any deer around that might be nervous and trying to identify what you are.
-Where there is one sambar there is a very good chance others will be right there or nearby. Even if one spooks it doesn’t mean all the resident deer have left the system. Sambar don’t have that many predators and they often display confidence to hold their ground.
-When sambar are looking at you, try to move as little as possible, you can get away with slow movement to adjust your position, but certainly restrict rapid movement when they have you located and are trying to work you out.
-Do not sneeze, cough repeatedly or clear your throat when hunting sambar, these noises are all foreign to the deer and wildlife and certainly will get the attention of any sambar nearby.
-Listen for antlers clashing, it might be the tinkling of lightly sparring deer or it could be the smashing of antler from a pair of stags battling it out.
-Listen for antlers rubbing on trees as deer polish tips, remove velvet or rake a tree to impress a nearby hind in season.
-Never slam doors when stepping out of the hunting vehicle, many times deer are within earshot.
-Never talk loud with your hunting friends, if your always expecting to encounter deer when you are in the bush then you need to give yourself every chance of having them not detect you.
-If you have a UHF radio or you are in cell service, always make sure the volumes are turned down so you don’t inadvertently spook deer that are nearby.
-When taking a shot, always try to get a rest, let your previous encounters with deer teach you how much time you have to get a shot away.
-Focus on where you want the bullet to hit, not just try to plonk one somewhere in the chest.
-Use soft point or controlled expansion bullets for the best combination of penetration and effect inside the deer. Bullets need to penetrate but its better if they use most of their energy and expansion inside the animal.
-Put the rifle down and take pictures or video of sambar, there is so much to learn from watching them alive and undisturbed but remember as soon as you pull the trigger there is little to learn from that deer.
Taking the shot
-Always use a rifle you are familiar and confident with, never shoot a firearm you can’t accurately handle both at the range or in the field.
-Routinely check that your rifle is actually sighted in and shooting where you want it to be. The amount of hunters that shoot at and miss deer then find out their firearm isn’t accurately sighted in is scary.
-Different bullet weights, changing factory loads, climate changes, knocks in the bush, elevation variance and screws that come loose in your mounts and rings are all some of the factors that will potentially contribute towards a change in point of impact.
-Always fully identify your target, never shoot at anything you are not 110% certain is a deer.
-Be aware of the background and foreground when shooting at a sambar. Once the trigger is squeezed there is no turning back for the bullet.
-Neck, head, spine, high shoulder and even heart shots offer a small area to hit that can be easily missed resulting in wounded animals. The rifle that might shoot sub moa at the range off a bench in a controlled situation is always going to be less capable in real life hunting situations where many factors will influence your accuracy. Again play the percentages with bullet placement.
-Never try anything too fancy, double lung type shots offer the largest kill zone, and are always lethal, even if the deer runs up to 150 metres after the shot.
-Always consider the angle any deer is facing and take this into account as to where you put the crosshairs. The lungs will sit very differently when the animal is side on as opposed to a quartering on animal.
-Always follow up deer cautiously and quietly, you might know you have just shot at one, but often to them they have just been disturbed by a noise they might affiliate with a large tree falling down or a bolt of lightening.
-Look for reactions from the deer that a shot has been lethal, has the deer humped up, it’s the tail erect when it runs off, listen for the sound of a solid hit.
-Always follow up every animal you have shot at. Sambar are big and tough, they sometimes run downhill when hit and sometimes they head up hill.
-When tracking an animal, look for blood to the side or underneath the trail to indicate a hit, but keep in mind sambar wont often loose a lot of external blood due to their large and course haired frames.
-Learn that bullet wounds in different regions of the body will leave varying blood trails and blood color and formation will vary depending on where the animal was hit.
-Observe how a deer you have shot at has run off, is it crashing through bushes randomly or contouring a hillside along a game trail. Sambar are notorious for carrying lead, especially poorly placed shots.
-If tracks become erratic often it means a deer is struggling and on its last legs.
-Always persist with searching for a wounded animal. Often they are right there, down in a little gully or lying against a log. Do your best to give every effort with finding a deer you have shot at.
-Always give respect to any sambar you killed, you have taken its life, its not your right to do this, but a privilege we are very fortunate to be able to do twelve months of the year.
-No sambar is just another number to your tally. Remind everybody you hunt with to fully utilize the resource we have. The meat, antlers, bones and hide can all be used one way or another and if you pay respect then you are showing maturity and a broad knowledge towards ethical hunting.
-Look over any animals you shoot, their hooves, teeth, general condition and body size to try and understand the animals you hunt a little bit more.
-Take note and/or measure the size (width and length) of sambar stag hooves. They do vary a lot between animals of the same age, genetics, habitat and general body condition. This will help you become more accurate when assessing marks in the field as to what potentially might have walked before you.
-Backtrack any sambar you have harvested. It will make you a better reader of ground sign, but it will also help you understand what the deer was doing prior to you shooting it, which direction it came from and what direction it was heading. All this will go in the memory bank for future hunts to add more pieces to the sambar puzzle.
-Fully utilize the animal when butchering, don’t just whip out a backstrap and leave the rest for the wild dogs. Sambar provide wonderful free range, lean organic meat. It’s a precious commodity in this day and age when people are really beginning to understand the nutritional benefits of wild game meat, especially deer.
-Always ensure your knives are sharp and carry a steal.
-Game bags, pillow cases or cotton sheets made into bags can be great storage for bringing your venison out of the forest. If you don’t have them on hand, plastic does work, but cool the meat prior to putting them inside and swap meat over to an esky or a shady tree as soon as you get back to camp so it can continue cooling.
-Leave skin on the meat if you don’t have any bags to protect against dirt and potential bacteria.
Sambar hunting is a never ending journey where even the most experienced guys will always have plenty to learn and end their careers with just as many unanswered questions as when they started out. Its a wonderful pursuit to drive you through the tough days at work and give you hope that come the weekend you and your mates will soon be sitting around a campfire in the mountains with a million stars above and a valley full of sambar to hunt in the morning.
Best of luck to everybody hunting sambar in 2017, be safe and enjoy every day.