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In part one of ‘Stalking Sambar’ we covered a few basic points with the deer, their keen senses and the essentials you will need to keep in mind when hunting them. Part two will cover a few more hunt tactics and tips on what you need to do in the bush to increase your odds of encountering deer on a regular basis.
Take advice from club members
We have said it before in previous articles, but it is very relevant and needs to be driven home. The fact is there are many hunters new on the deer hunting scene who are thirsty for knowledge, and as all of us need to belong to a registered hunting club, this is a great starting place for many. From the regular newsletters, meetings and club hunts, there is a lot to gain by being an active member of your local club. But always remember not to sit back and take, you have to put in effort, share any knowledge you have and also be prepared to help others. At these meetings there are often great opportunities to discuss deer stalking with club members, there is plenty to learn from other hunters. You can even ask your club president to have a session where a few of the more experienced guys get up front and members throw questions at them in regards to deer hunting and stalking, this can be a very interesting discussion and you will find that not all hunters reply to the questions with the same answer. It will illustrate to you that there is no cut and dry, right or wrong when it comes to sambar hunting. Deer Association, Gippsland Deer Stalkers, North East Deer Stalkers and the Deer Stalkers Club of the SSAA. A quick search of these club names online will put you in contact with them.
Learning when not in the bush
There is a lot of information available in both printed material and online about sambar deer. A search of Google and YouTube, or any of the many hunting forums will put you immediately in touch with endless accounts of the hunting and stalking of sambar. A few books have also been written and like articles from various authors, they all have merit due to the fact that the authors have different experiences and backgrounds and keen hunters will glean relevant information and adapt it to the sambar and environments they are hunting in.
You can purchase quality books from many locations and some rural libraries have hunting titles on their shelves. Online you can download research and study papers, and even if some of these are from overseas countries it will all have relevance to our local sambar. Also there is an endless list of sambar hunting dvd’s and the content will in some way be beneficial to your sambar hunting. Never just watch a sambar DVD once, there is so much to learn from viewing footage of sambar in their natural habitat and even after watching a hunting film a dozen times there will be little things still to pick up. If you can use this learned knowledge when you are in the field then you will only become a better hunter.
One way to fast track your acquaintance with sambar and gain valuable information from hunters with decades of experience is to book in for a hunter education course. There is a growing trend for hunters with a solid history of hunting this magnificent deer to offer their advice for keen hunters over a multi day tutorial.
All topics should be covered concerning habitat, food sources, hunting, bush craft, harvesting and processing of sambar and it would be a great idea for a lot of hunters who might be new to the sport or with limited experience to organize a mate, save some dollars and book in for one of these weekends. You wont become a sambar ninja over night, but it will fast track you with knowledge what would normally take years to acquire on your own in the bush.
Gear and clothing
I like to keep my stalking gear very simple. The less buttons, buckles, zips and pieces of velcro I have on the clothing I’m wearing or gear I’m carrying the less chance there is for foreign noises to be made when I move through the bush. I don’t like to carry my rifle on a sling when stalking, I prefer to keep it by my side and as I’m right handed its normally on the right side of the body. I find it quite annoying to have metallic or plastic buttons on the outside of pant pockets that seem to knock against the stock regularly and make noise. Some hunters might not think the little things like this matter, but they certainly do and unfortunately can happen at the worst possible times. Hunters will have enough to concentrate on when hunting sambar and there is no point being distracted by clumsy gear alerting deer.
I like to wear a merino base layer against the skin, its warm, minimizes body odor and very comfortable. From there I layer with soft fleece, wool or merino and normally have a quality rain shell in the backpack for windy and wet days. If I am on big hunts or backpack trips I will always take in a down jacket and use this when the temperatures are low. A down jacket will double as a pillow and you can also sleep in it if your sleeping bag is under rated for the overnight temperatures.
With rain gear it isn’t so essential to have the quietest product as often if it is raining so heavy you need your jacket on, then you normally wouldn’t be doing a lot of stalking. Better to sit under a tree looking into a nice gully head and wait for it to pass. I prefer to have durability and performance with my rain gear before looking at noise levels, but of course it is preferred to not wear gear that makes a lot of noise if you can find the right product that gives you the best of both worlds.
Lightweight gloves probably have their place in the sambar hunters kit. If you are going to wear them, make sure you can still shoot safely and competently with the gloves on and as often sambar wont give you time to fumble with gloves in stalking conditions. The other option is to wear fingerless gloves and this gives you normal control over functioning your firearm.
A facemask or head net is certainly an advantage when stalking. Often your head is the first part of your body for a sambar to see and if its unexposed then there is every chance it will identify you very quickly. Its important to find the right face mask that you can stalk in, yet still breath easily when hunting. Some can also prohibit the hearing a little, and I often cut out extra holes in the mask for my ears.
Footwear is very important. There are many variances with the sole stiffness on hiking boots and trail runners and this will impact how much you will be able to feel under foot. Generally the typical country sambar are found in will not require an alpine hiking boot, but some guys will wear these for the solid ankle support the more rigorous boot offers. I try to get away with as lightweight a boot or shoe as possible. Generally a summer type, non leather boot will do fine for many earlier season hunts and then I switch to leather if I know its either going to be wet or a chance of snow as I hunt the months over the middle of the year. The heavier the weight of the boot, the more you tend to drag your feet come the end of a long day and the increased chance you will not be clearing sticks and stones and making extra noise in the bush. The lighter weight hiking boots also tend to have more flexible soles and this is another advantage as you traverse terrain. Cross trainer hiking type runners are also a viable item to wear up the bush and often they have a good aggressive sole for plenty of support. If you want to keep wearing heavier boots, but need to reduce noise one option is to buy a pair of ‘Safari Sneakers’ from Crooked Horn. They fit over your boot or shoe and certainly reduce the noise levels you make with the soft fleece sole that comes into contact with the ground rather then your solid rubber tread. I have worn them for many years and have to admit they really do help with controlling noise from underfoot.
Hats are pretty important as well for the sambar stalker. I tend to like a bucket type hat that has a full brim all the way around, rather then the baseball style cap. If you are not wearing a facemask and half your face is in shadow due to your hat, you are at least reducing the glare coming from your skin. Often you can find burnt tree trunks up the bush or old fires in campsites and rubbing charcoal on your face, hands and forearms will also assist to break up your outline. It is hard to wash off when you have finished your hunt, but certainly helps when you’re in the bush and have no other option to reduce glare from light coloured skin.
There is a huge amount of information written up on the subject of deer hunting and camouflage. Read ten different articles and you will probably get ten slightly different opinions on what is most suitable to wear. Due to the fact that sambar live in a wide range of habitats from sea level to around 1800m, there is a huge variance in the foliage, plant species and terrain across their occupied range. It is safe to say that no one camouflage pattern will be perfectly suited to all sambar country and it will be better to wear camouflage that you believe will best break up your outline in the type of terrain you will be hunting in. As a standard guideline, the more open the terrain and countryside the more open your pattern should be and the lighter shades it should consist of.
There is plenty of camouflage on the market and most of it is suitable to some form of sambar habitat, so match your gear to the specific hunting you will be doing each time you head into the bush.
If you are new to the hunting scene and unsure just how certain camouflage patterns will actually look in sambar habitat, take notice of the harvested deer pictures in the Wild Deer magazine and look subjectively at the hunters who are wearing camouflage and how their image is broken up by what pattern they have on. This will be a good starting point to selecting what might work for you.
Often a great looking camouflage pattern in a gunshop will just be a solid blob to a deer at 100 metres out on the hill. Consider both what you are looking at and how the animals will perceive it. But above all, restricting movement at the crucial times when deer are in view and especially when they are looking at you is probably just as important as to what clothing you are wearing.
Sambar are the greatest of teachers
There is no substitute for spending time in the bush and burning boot leather in sambar country. Approach each day with an open mind, let the forest and the deer be your teacher and learn from all it has to offer. The more encounters you have that go right or wrong, the greater the opportunity to learn first hand. Even on the days when you don’t see a deer, you can still interpret an incredible amount about the deer in the area you covered. Every hour you clock up in the bush and every kilometer you walk will be an investment in your sambar career and will accumulate towards a greater understand of the deer, its habits and behavioral traits.
Always remember once you pull the trigger, there is no more learning from that deer, apart from the butchering and carrying out process. The more time you spend watching live sambar in their natural environment the greater the benefits will be to you in the long term.
A good tip to remember with sambar is when you find one deer, put the brakes on and slow right down. Whilst they can be solitary animals, normally if one deer likes an area, there will be others nearby. They could be a hundred metres lower down the hill, up higher in elevation, over the next ridge or right there near the deer you have in sight. Be very patient when you have undisturbed deer in front of you and always give plenty of time for other animals to make an appearance. Mature stags have a habit of bedding above hinds, appearing out of cover very late in the evening and just being that next level or two in cunningness above female sambar and young stags.
What to look for in the bush
When stalking through the bush there are many visual clues that give away the presence of sambar. It might be the flick of a tail, the turning of an ear, the horizontal outline of a deer’s back, or the swaying of a set of antlers as a stag feeds. In bush stalking country it isn’t that often that hunters pick up the entire body of a deer standing in the open. Normally it is movement or a body part that looks out of place that a hunter first locates then identifies what it is that has caught his eye.
Often when stalking in the bush there will be many times a hunter pauses to check out a deer shape that turns out to be a log or a rock in the shade. But don’t worry, this is a good sign that you are looking for all the right things and sooner or later that dark shape will move and materialize into a deer and you will be glad you stopped and checked out all the objects along the hunt that could have been an animal. When stalking in the bush, don’t ever look at object and think it couldn’t possibly be a deer and walk away without confirming what it is. Many times hunters have told stories about big stags they put up and got away after the hunter didn’t patiently take a couple of minutes to confirm what the shape was. Sometimes these lessons need to be learnt the hard way and it is unfortunate when they do.
When bedded up, sambar also have a habit of remaining low to the ground before exiting the area when danger has passed them. They will do this if they believe the danger hasn’t identified them or won’t identify them and I can only imagine in a typical sambar hunters lifetime he or she would have walked past many bedded deer that held their position.
It is very hard to stalk and locate bedded sambar; they always seem to position themselves in the best locations for early detection of danger and safe departure if hunters are in the area. When bedded they obviously aren’t distracted by eating food sources and can concentrate all their senses on detecting danger. Stalking through gully heads, along benches in plateau country and down dry spurs when the breeze is lifting will always put you in the game for a chance at locating bedded sambar. Remember that once you scent up these areas during the middle of the day it will be a good idea to leave them alone for a couple of days as you will no doubt have put the resident deer on alert. The key to locating bedded sambar is to find the height and terrain the resident deer are bedding at in the current conditions and go very slow working your way through their habitat. You will need to glass often and be very patient.
As a very rough guideline to how fast you should be stalking, you can start with moving through the bush at a similar pace to what the deer will be doing. Early in the morning and late in the evening they will moving around and covering ground a lot more then what they will be doing during the midday hours when they get up to feed a little and shift bedding location. Always at the prime times though, slow right down, this is essential in order to reduce alarming deer, as most sambar in any area will be on their feet early in the morning and late in the evenings.
Sambar live in a wide range of habitats and some of it is very challenging to stalk through. Generally I like to adjust the speed of my stalking to the time of day, conditions and habitat. If the country is open and pretty quiet underfoot then I will happy move faster to cover more ground and then slow right down when I think I am in an area deer are likely to be in. If it is windy and the noise from underfoot is being absorbed, then I will also move through the bush with more pace as I know I have less chance of being detected by sound.
Quiet days can be a challenge, the deer have everything in their favor and it will pay to slow right down. If I am committed to an area and I feel the wind is a bit dicey but likely to change, then I tend to stalk a bit faster thinking I would prefer to keep up with the breeze and risk having the deer hear me rather then go slow and have them smell me up ahead and disappear before I get a visual on them. I always slow right down on ridge tops and saddles as often stags will bed in these areas and if a deer is just over a ridge it probably hasn’t heard any sounds you might have made in the previous gully.
If I encounter fresh sign, deer or know there are deer in the immediate area I will slow the pace right down and ease my way through the habitat. I believe it is hard going fully concentrating on every step of a stalk, so certainly relax when moving through deer country, and be on point when everything is telling you deer are close. If you find yourself loosing concentration then take a rest, have a nap or grab a bit to eat. It can be draining stalking sambar and there is no need to keep on going if your body is telling you to have a break. Often when you do drop your guard you will loose concentration and this is when animals will be put up or missed and it can be quite frustrating after a few hours on the hill to have this happen, but we have all probably been there.
When contouring a bench or valley, keep in mind that you will need to look both up above you and down below. It is easy to relax and only look straight ahead and in areas that don’t require much movement of the body, but the more ground you cover with your vision as you stalk the more animals you will potentially locate. Don’t have tunnel vision and be aware of all country around you.
Deer themselves when up on a bench or gully head often face downhill when they are lying down so it does pay to always be up high when stalking, especially come mid morning when deer are back off their feeding areas and in their bedding locations.
Always be prepared to hunt new areas
Many hunters put in the hard yards, find a few deer and become competent hunters to the level where they can regularly stalk and harvest sambar. Nowadays with the population growth in many areas this isn’t too hard. However, as sambar deer are quite complex and there is still a lot to learn about the deer and their habits, it always pays to be open minded with your approach. Never think you know it all with sambar, as they will soon prove you wrong.
Challenge yourself, hunt new areas, new locations at different times of the year and learn to find deer in areas with different terrain and habitat you are normally hunting in. It will make you a better hunter and certainly get you thinking about sambar whilst looking at the big picture rather then just stalking the same gullies over and over until you have worn out a trail from your boots. It is always an advantage to learn areas really well, but it is even better if you can continually be pushing into new country and exploring new areas having to make all the decisions, right or wrong, every step of the way.
Something to keep in mind is that no area will probably stay the same over a couple of decades with animal numbers and hunting pressure. Some areas get publicity when a big stag is taken and there is an influx of hunters in the region, or areas become well known through specific articles and hunting clubs having group hunts there. This is all good, but it is a reminder to always have a few areas up your sleeve to choose from that you are familiar with. When hunting pressure increases, more animals get harvested and the population will either plateau or decrease slightly, some hunters will move on and hunt different areas trying to find other locations with greater numbers of animals. This will relieve some of the pressure and animal numbers will likely get back on track and increase making the area a better prospect again.
The key is to always be taking into consideration population densities, hunting trends, pressure etc. to make sure you are either hunting an area that is back on the rebound or preferably on the upward curve without too much pressure due to not a lot of hunters knowing about its potential.
With the explosion in animal numbers in many regions across the sambar range, people don’t have to travel too far to find good numbers of deer, so this does relieve some pressure from animals that live in remote locations. But I could confidently say that with more and more hunters heading bush each year pursuing sambar, there probably isn’t a valley, gully or basin that doesn’t get hunted at some stage of each season. Always keep this in the back of your mind and plan your hunts accordingly.
Safety comes first, each and every time
A good habit to get into is to never check out objects that you are unsure about through the riflescope. Always have a set of binoculars on a harness around your chest and use them at all times when looking for deer, identifying animals and scanning terrain ahead. It is a key point in being a safe hunter that you reduce risks of something going terribly wrong.
Always make sure you identify your animal and confirm 110% that it is actually a deer you’re looking at before taking aim. Never let excitement and adrenalin over ride better decision making with identifying animals. That animal is likely to stick around and even if it does spook and you don’t get a shot before you have positive identification it, remember there is always next time.
A good encounter with an animal that got away is much better then a life changing experience with a hunting tragedy due to poor judgment behind the trigger.
Once that trigger is pulled there is no turning back, so each and every time you hunt with mates always reinforce the safety aspect of hunting and make sure everybody in your camp is well aware of the importance of being responsible around firearms.
Good luck to all hunters who pursue sambar. We are currently hunting during an era that we have never seen before in the history of sambar with population growth and a healthy percentage of big mature stags in all catchments. There is no better time to strap on the pack, lace up the boots and head off in search of our premier deer species.