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In this two-part sambar article, I will go over what I have found to be effective and perhaps not so effective from a hunters viewpoint when regularly trying to locate and stalk sambar in the bush. It is a very challenging topic to write on as there are many variables involved and an entire magazine could literally be filled with relevant information on the subject. We will try to cover the most important points and also look at a few techniques that we have found work for us. I do understand there are hunters with all levels of experience who might be reading the magazine, and I need to keep this in mind with how much depth I go into the different topics. Even if you only hunt other deer species there will be plenty to take in from these two articles as it is all relevant to deer stalking in other locations.
Lets go over the three main defense mechanisms that sambar use to detect, evade and escape from predators and hunters. As can be expected, all their senses are fine-tuned and of impeccable standard due to their history of evading tigers and other predators in their homeland.
Sense of Smell
There is no doubt that a sambars nose is its most valuable asset and is the most critical factor that needs to be taken into consideration when stalking. Their tennis ball sized noses are large and prominent, very good at absorbing scent and detecting the faintest of foreign odors on the slightest of breezes. Whilst sambar will tolerate a lot from a deer hunter without running away, if they get a whiff of a human nearby, then it is normally game over and they are out of there. Nothing puts them on edge in wild places more then the scent of a human and a hunter should make it his priority to always be aware where his scent is blowing and how it will affect the course of his hunt. Often all it takes is to climb over a spur or contour around a face to change wind direction and your back in the game.
Understanding wind direction and how it varies over the course of a day is extremely important. Wind direction is pretty standard but it can get tricky some days with it seemingly blowing from all directions. Always remember that cool air drops or heads downhill, and in the morning shaded faces will have thermals that are dropping down to the gully floor. As the sun comes up and shines onto ridges and heats them up, the warm air rises and so to will your scent. It generally will stay like this until later in the afternoon when the faces are in shade again and the cold air forces the thermals back down hill. Things can get a bit tricky when wind direction is changing with the temperatures and also when a valley has shade on one side and strong sunlight on the other.
Some days there will be a gusty wind that doesn’t seem to hold down a direction and it might pay to concentrate on glassing, as there will be less chance of alerting deer by your scent when working the optics over a large area. But keep in mind that you will always need to think about any scent dropping over into the valley or area your glassing to.
Habitat can also play havoc with wind direction and consistency. I find that little gullies and rolling country can be tricky with the wind as the changes in terrain often mean variant temperatures within these locations. The topography can also funnel and channel wind in different directions to what you expect it to be doing. There is nothing worse then standing still in a location and having the wind seemingly blowing about towards all points of the compass.
It will pay to understand or get a grasp on how winds can change as weather patterns change and it is a good idea to be looking at the Bureau of Meteorology site or Willy Weather to help plan your upcoming hunts with the likely wind directions.
Always take notice of wind direction throughout the course of your day, whether you have deer in front of you or not, it is the best habit you can get into. If you are constantly aware of the wind, then this will help you make the correct decisions when deer are located and it will help build a picture of just how much time you might have before your detected if the deer are in a location where the breeze could carry your scent to them.
Learn to be patient with the wind, if you are stalking up a gully for the evening and it hasn’t switched directions yet and you are confident it will shortly, then don’t continue on, sit down and wait for the shadows to lengthen and when everything is in your favour continue the hunt into the area you expect deer to be. Many times I have sat on the hill waiting for a breeze to make its mind up what it is doing and I always sit in a location that gives you a good view of the immediate area as often deer will feed past you on opposite gullies and idle time in sambar country should never be wasted.
Of course there is no point waiting for the wind to change if you are right in the area you expect to see deer, it is much better to hold well back and wait for the right breeze before moving in then pushing your scent all over the area.
Some hunters will keep a bottle filled with non scented talcum powder, others will tie a feather or piece of string onto the end of their barrel, but really, there are plenty of ways to read the wind without using these methods. Normally you can feel it blowing on your neck or cheek to give you an idea of direction. Watching which way the leaves on trees move in front of you as you stalk and how the grass blows will also be indicators to take notice of.
There are a few things the hunter can do to increase scent control. Keeping clean and hygienic is a start and always being mindful of this can often give you an edge when breezes turn against you. If your backpacking or hunting for a few days a box of non scented wipes can often reduce odour and keep you clean. Not wearing your stalking clothes around the fire and infusing them with smoke will also be a good idea. Trying to keep diesel or petrol off your gear and hands will be an advantage when in the bush. Some hunters will also put their stalking gear in a bag of eucalyptus leaves and this can help cover any odour in your gear, just crush the leaves to increase the amount of scent that is being released from them. Even spraying diluted eucalyptus oil on your gear when going stalking is a good idea, it’s easy to obtain this product from a pharmacy.
Some hunters will reason there is no need for all this effort as provided you have the wind in your face it doesn’t matter what scent your leaving behind, and this is correct to an extent. However often it is hard to have the breeze right for the entire duration of your hunt and when it is blowing in the wrong direction you will be glad to have done all you can to minimize foreign odours. Also if you are in an area for a few days, it is better to leave as little scent behind as possible to reduce alerting deer that might cross your stalking route hours after you have left the area.
It is preferred to always be hunting unalarmed deer if you can and the best way to be doing this is by having a smart hunting strategy and try fresh stalking routes each day you are in an area.
It’s quite likely the large ears on a sambar are its second best defense mechanism. If you watch a sambar relaxed and feeding, it will constantly be turning its ears around in different directions, always on the alert for sounds in a 360 degree radius. The ears are cupped to enhance sound detection, have hairy bases to enhance filtering of sounds and they are extremely good at identifying everything making a disturbance in the bush. There is no doubt their hearing is incredible and they rely heavily on this sense.
Noise can be a tricky subject to cover, so lets break it down into two types of noise. Foreign noise, which is noise that sambar hear that makes them uncomfortable and they immediately associate with danger and familiar noise which are typical bush sounds that will be heard by sambar in their daily lives and generally be less concerned with.
Foreign noises are wide and varied. Some are sounds that sambar have previously had bad experiences with and others are new sounds that the deer might not have heard before and immediately puts the animal on edge. Sambar stalkers must always try to eliminate or reduce the level of noise from foreign sounds that they are making. Everything from closing a car door, to bullets rattling in your pocket to items in your pack shifting and clunking together all accumulate to foreign noises that will immediately make sambar nervous. Sneezing, coughing and talking in a loud voice when in the bush are regular noises that hunters might make that will certainly alert nearby deer. A good habit to get into if hunting with a companion is to communicate by whispering or a low tone of voice as soon as you are in the bush.
Way too many guys don’t pay attention to their voices and you just never know where deer will be!
If there are two of you hunting and one hunter needs to sneeze or has to cough, then get the hunter to give a loud bird call whilst the other hunter has to do what he needs to do. A bird call such as a drawn out crow call will cover the foreign noise, not alarm any deer and keep you in the game.
A really good habit to get into is always paying attention to the noise that you make as you move through the bush because if you can hear it then the deer will certainly be able to. Isolate what is making noise and change your gear list or fix the problem. It is impossible to stay completely silent in the bush all the time you are stalking, but you can do a few things to eliminate and reduce excessive noise. Often I will put single items of gear in socks. This reduces contact with other equipment, protects it and extra socks have many uses in an emergency. You can wear them, put them over your hands if you need mittens and use them to start a fire in an emergency. I always like items in my sambar stalking kit that double up for other uses.
Be aware that some foreign sounds like a chainsaw or plane flying overhead will not alarm the deer. Provided they haven’t had bad experiences with these non bush noises, then the deer will generally stay relaxed and in time get used to these sounds. Often deer will even associate opportunistic food sources with machinery such as chainsaws and logging equipment. These areas can have deer waiting around the perimeter for when all is quiet and they feel safe enough to venture out to the recently logged areas to browse on any fresh leaves that are lying around. Not all logging areas have legal access, so make sure you check regulations before travelling through any regions where loggers are working and be well aware that there will be more activity from other bush users then normal, always use utmost caution and stay well away from the actual sites. Often the deer will travel quite a distance to get to logging coupes, so if there is legal hunting country nearby, setting up well back into these areas on well used trails or stalking along travel corridors that the deer take will often increase deer encounters.
Familiar noises are sounds that sambar will hear on a regular basis. If you sit still in the forest and listen, taking in everything going on around you, then you will notice there are many sounds from a wide range of sources. Birds will be flittering in the branches and leaves or on the ground turning bark over, wallabies, wild horses and cattle could be moving around and making noise as they forage for food and drink from water sources. On windy days there will be trees losing limbs that crash to the ground and creak in the breeze as they sway back and forth. When trees trunks rest against each other if they have grown too close together noise will be made when they move with the wind. Rocks sometimes roll down hillsides if soil shifts during heavy rain and branches will fall under the weight of snow after a big fall. Dingoes will howl, cockatoos screech, wombats will fight, possums often snarl at dusk and the tawny frogmouths call can be heard long into the night. All these sounds and many more are just normal bush noises that sambar hear regularly. If they ran at all the noises they heard then they would be running every minute of their lives, the key is to identify the noises you are making that are foreign to them and reduce the incidence of making these noises that will potentially alarm and disturb the deer.
As you move through the bush it is inevitable you will make noises that sambar are familiar with, it’s important to realize that so long as these noises are infrequent and of a low volume then they generally won’t alarm the deer too much. Always try to place your feet down gently, heal first and as you roll your foot forward onto the ground be prepared to shift your weight if there are sticks underfoot. Never just thump, thump your footsteps as you walk along, as this will definitely alert sambar. If you feel you are making too much noise in the bush, then stop for a while and let things settle down. Often you will have deer walk by you or come into view when you take frequent rests and many hunters have shot good stags when they have taken ten minutes to answer the call of nature or paused to let the bush sounds get back to normal.
Sambar are large bodied heavily framed animals with quite small hooves for their size.
Even though sambar are an imposing animal, they can move around very quietly in all habitat but they do make noises from time to time and if you stalk slowly and listen you can often pick up tell tale signs that deer are up ahead. The snap of a twig, the noise of branches straightening back up as a sambar pulls leaves off limbs, the harsh rasp as stags rub antlers, thrash shrubs or even fight each other are all noises that hunters can pick up when stalking in the bush. When approaching wallows or seeps listen for splashing in water or mud to indicate deer might be in them so always approach known wallows downwind and very cautiously.
It also isn’t uncommon to hear sambar communicating vocally to each other when they are in groups, familiarize yourself with these sounds so when you hear them you can identify them straight away. Sometimes in heavy cover the stamping of a hoof will be audible as a deer alerts its companions that everything might not be quite right and when this happens you need to slow right down and concentrate on finding the animal that will be very close to your location.
Understanding that sambar will typically not run at the sound of a rock rolling down a hillside, but it will get their attention, and if rocks keep falling down a hillside and they can’t identify what is causing this or where it is coming from then they will certainly be sensing danger is the mindset that hunters need to have for all types of noises they are making in the bush. Its not about being super silent in the forest as nobody can stalk and stay silent, its about being aware of the noise levels you are making and the types of noises you are creating and how these will affect the deer and their behavior. Taking note of how far ahead animals, birds and deer are reacting to noises will give you an idea of how far the sounds you are making are travelling.
If you have sambar in front of you and you are not interested in shooting one, pick up a stick and knock it against a tree or snap it, keep doing it increasing the sound until it gets the attention of a deer. Watch the deer and see how long it takes for it to relax, and put its head down to feed. Take note of how often that deer looks back up to check on the area the sound came from. What is the body language from the deer, is it relaxed and casually observing or is it burning holes into you. Is it still chewing its cud or browse and reacting to other noises whilst trying to check you out. What happens if you deliberately make the noise again for it to hear, is the body language getting different, has the animal turned directly towards the sound and even moved its position a few metres to try to get a better view of the area the sound came from. Is the tail up, is the animal tensing its body, is a foot lifted about to be stomped down, is the animal tilting its head up and opening its mouth but not making any noise, if so its just trying to work out whether to bark or not. There are a lot of visual clues that sambar give off that will help a hunter determine how much time he has before that deer is likely to either run off or continue feeding. And the best experience a hunter can have is simply watching sambar in all states of alertness, nothing will teach you more then contact with the animal itself.
When sambar sense danger nearby some will certainly use the tactic of pretending to put their heads back down to feed but immediately lift it again hoping to identify movement from an object they aren’t sure about. They will also put their heads down to feed and quickly lift them up a few inches off the ground to try a sneaky look when attempting to locate danger hoping that whatever is close by thinks the deer is still feeding. Hunters need to be aware of these tactics and always be patient when a sambar has spent some time looking at them and realize that they often take a while to fully relax and settle back down.
When stalking, a good tactic is to always try to utilize game trails and animal pads in the bush, especially if they are heading in the direction you want to hunt. Sambar will know these travel routes very well and will expect noise to come from these locations, and usually they will be less concerned with hearing disturbances along these trails. Another advantage is that you increase your chances of deer encounters when traveling along trails as they too will also be utilizing these routes. Normally game trails will be well travelled and have less forest litter and twigs on them, and this also reduces your likelihood of making noise as you cover ground.
Another tactic I use when in an area I am confident deer are and I think I am making more noise then I can get away with is to give out a few animals calls. This will make any deer within ear shot settle a little and hopefully hold its ground. You can vocalize the odd calf or hind call to replicate animals that are communicating with each other and by switching directions from one animal call to the other you can realistically present a scenario that is indicative of what deer would be doing in a natural environment. If there are horses or cattle in the area then nothing is stopping you from giving out a few calls from a species you feel the resident deer will affiliate to. Your not trying to call sambar in, you are just trying to present yourself as an animal that they are comfortable with and buy yourself more time before deer move off. Of course don’t over do the calls and there is no need to bellow like a bull every few steps if you’re in cattle country. Just take note of how much noise these animals make and the types of noises they make when they are moving and feeding in the bush and try to replicate that.
Deer have their eyes positioned up high on the side of their skulls to ensure an almost 300 degree view. This is clearly for identifying predators and gives them a much greater chance of early recognition of danger by visual awareness. Hunters need to understand that sambar have capabilities far greater then we have in regards to picking up movement and it is vital to acknowledge the importance of this.
When in the bush, always limit excess movement to a minimum. If you stand still and look into the forest you will notice plenty of movement. From birds flying, to leaves swaying in the wind to animals moving around. Obviously sambar will not run at the sight of this type of movement so you need to be aware that whilst movement in the forest is a natural occurrence, always try to reduce the amount of movement you make. Rapid or irregular movements are what will immediately catch the attention of sambar and repeated abnormal movements that they cannot identify will cause alarm and eventually flight. Swatting of flies, swinging your arms around pointing at stuff in the bush, basically any unnecessary movement will increase the probability of sambar locating you.
When stalking in the bush, always plan a methodical approach, slow and steady with purpose. Pausing often will help you locate movement from deer nearby and also calm down any wildlife that might be trying to figure you out. You certainly don’t want other wildlife in the bush departing quickly from you, as this will alarm any nearby deer of approaching danger. I always try to skirt around or if possible wait for any nearby animals to feed off before continuing on my stalking route. The less animals and birds you alarm the more chance you have of finding undisturbed deer. Sambar are very good at interpreting reactions from other bush animals and they will certainly use this to their advantage and survival strategy.
Hunters need to be aware that when stalking in full sunlight you will be very visible to animals, so utilize shade when you can and if your going to pause somewhere and wait a while or stand still, do so in the shade, lean against a tree or be in front of a bush so your outline is broken up. If a deer does happen to walk into view or is watching you, then you will be a lot harder to make out if your stationary.
If you are stalking in the bush and a sambar is looking at you, it doesn’t necessarily mean it is about to run away. If the wind is in your favor and you can hold your position the deer will often relax and settle down. Obviously this will depend on how much movement it has seen and what it is interpreting you are.
A key point with movement and sambar is always try to remain as still as possible when deer are actually looking at you. If you do move when animals are looking directly at you it will only reinforce their belief that danger could be close by, especially when they can’t identify what it is that is moving. When they are locked onto you, now is not the time to move, if you have to do so to bring a camera or rifle up or you are in an awkward position, then always move extremely slowly and deliberately.
I have noticed at low light levels, such as the last 10 minutes of the day, right before you have to turn a headlamp on to navigate, that sambar seem to take a bit longer to identify visual danger. Low light levels probably make it a challenge for sambar to pick up definition and detail and along with the fact that a lot of big mature sambar stags don’t move around until the last hour of the day, this is another reason why a hunter should always be in the bush in a prime area at the peak times for deer movement. Always be prepared for a walk back to camp with the headlight on to maximize your opportunity during the best part of the day.
With this first part article I feel like we have briefly scratched the surface on a massive subject. Hopefully hunters with all levels of experience can take something from it. Always just keep in mind that successfully stalking sambar is an accumulation of one percenters, as with other forms of sambar hunting, you won’t get it right every time, but keep chipping away making good decisions and sooner or later you will start seeing results.