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Sambar deer in Australia have had an immense journey of success and there have been many developments with their spread and expansion across all suitable habitat. From the coast to the highest ranges in the divide they have colonized and conquered with ease. The wide variance in habitat certainly has a massive influence on the stags and their antler growing capabilities.
In this article we hope to get hunters minds ticking over a little bit deeper than actual scores and inches and bring back a focus on the more grounding aspects of the hunt such as the challenges provided by the deer themselves and the adventures experienced along the way.
Hunting sambar is a never ending journey and we don’t believe two hunters experiences will ever be the same so neither should the comparison be between hunters and the stags they harvest.
What actually constitutes a so called big stag? Is it Douglas score, antler length, age, weight in the beams, the actual hunt that animal gave, the terrain it was hunted in, the effort put in for that deer or is it perhaps a combination of all these factors?
What about you shoot a stag and tell your mates it was a 22 inch deer, many wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but perhaps if you tell them it had multi tines with beams as heavy as a beer can, irregular antler style and likely 12.5 years of age and the harvest was a result of many months of effort. I would imagine most keen hunters would sit up and take notice and ask about the hunt and the deer. This kind of trophy is easily comparable if not much better to harvest than a younger stag with longer lighter weight beams and all the gear but yet to reach the peak of its life. Length certainly isn’t everything when discussion turns to sambar stags and hunters need to remember this.
It wasn’t so long age that 30 inches on the beams was considered a big stag, then in those golden years immediately following the big fires it seemed like 32 inch deer became the new 30. But have you noticed that a lot less of those monster type stags are now getting shot as the feed and conditions have settled down these past couple of years. Add in the fact that there are an increasing number of hunters pursuing sambar and it surely has to put a certain level of pressure on the males across most of our range. Everything concerning wild deer herds on a global scale goes in cycles of varying duration and our sambar will not be immune to this. It is possible that perhaps we are starting to now see this with our sambar herds, population trends and antler growth for the males.
Lets take a closer look at a few of the factors that need to be accounted for when you harvest that next stag and your mates all asks you how big it was. Perhaps before giving them an answer you should connect a few dots and peel back the layers of the hunt to make them more aware that length certainly isn’t everything and the hunt is so much more important.
Many European hunters consider stags past their prime with antlers deteriorating in quality and size the preferred trophy to harvest. And when you think about it, these stewards of the forest have had centuries of game management policies implemented and ingrained into their culture. They really know their deer and wildlife management. If Aussie hunters continually focus on taking the biggest and best antlered sambar stags every time they head out, then sooner or later that is going to impact on the quality of our sambar herds with a reduction in the percentage of male deer in any region over 7.5 years of age. The flow on effect is that with such a high population of hinds in any area often the lesser age class stags are left to carry a lot of the breeding. It is always preferred that fully mature animals at the prime of their lives mate with the hinds, but this is not always happening in sambar habitat. It is impossible but it would be amazing to gain an insight into the age class of stags that are actually doing the mating with hinds. I could imagine the highest percentage of stags from any age class courting hinds each year would be in that 3.5-5.5 year old range and this is just the class of stag many hunters are letting walk. It is likely this age class also makes up the highest percentage of stags in our population across all sambar habitat. Unfortunately it’s the next age group of older stags we really want carrying the bulk of the breeding, but this is likely not happening.
Every time a hunter shoots a mature stag, it can be quite a while before another mature animal moves in. Sure another deer might step up the next day, but the point is there is no factory of older age class stags in the forest waiting for their opportunity to hold control in a certain area, in fact its likely the opposite. Removing a big stag in any area only gives the lesser males greater opportunity to serve the hinds. This is far from an ideal situation when the long-term benefit of the herd is considered.
How many times in your hunting life have you ever heard that a hunter walked away from a big antlered mature sambar stag so he could breed with the hinds and pass on his genes. Likely never and I can only remember it happening once, and that was an old German hunter down at the club. But this is actually what we need happening and is the very reason many European wildlife managers leave these prime animals to breed and is the same reason why most of the American elk hunting seasons are structured outside of the rut ensuring there is minimal pressure from hunters at the peak breeding times with the bulk of the rifle seasons occurring post rut when the females are serviced and there is minimal disturbance to herd dynamics.
In order for sambar stags to potentially grow big long antlers the age class needs to be there. However if you are hunting an area that sees constant pressure, has habitat that allows for easy location of the resident deer or simply doesn’t have the food source and minerals in the soil to grow those deer that are an extra 15-20% larger then other areas then you simply might never shoot a big long antlered stag that so many hunters aim for. Hunters need to put everything into perspective as this certainly doesn’t mean that your stylish ten year old 27 inch sambar stag is any less a trophy than you hunting buddies nine year old 34 incher taken on the other side of the range in completely different habitat and conditions.
I look forward to the day when Aussie hunters realize that age is just as, if not more important then antler size when they harvest a sambar stag. Once we start acknowledging this our ethics will improve, our mindset to hunting will broaden and the general health of our sambar herds will improve.
As our sambar herds constantly evolve and change there is simply no point in comparing heads of today with deer taken in the past. Sure a hunter can tell you that such and such shot the Arthur Bentley trophy out of that catchment 20 years ago, but so much happens each year with our deer herds that even dreaming of finding similar styles of deer to those taken in the past is unlikely. Sure some areas consistently produce good heads, but in general the deer population changes, pressure from hunters will swing, fires will burn in certain areas, deer will shift catchments and rainfall and snow levels vary annually. Only use previous trophies taken as a yardstick to what that area was capable of producing in the past, and certain not a guideline to what is expected in the present or to compare what you might have taken out of a certain area.
I can think of countless areas that are in the top handful of places any sambar hunter will reel off when asked about where to go hunting. And to be honest, I find if most of these areas are on every hunters mind then they are probably well past the curve with percentage of older age class stags alive due to the pressure they constantly receive.
I recently put trail cameras on a plateau where I used to get lots of big mature stags with great antler formation following the big fires. It’s amazing when feed settles down and gets back to normal how antler growth is affected. The deer are still there, but definitely not in the numbers that they were when all the food was at its peak post fires and certainly the antler growth is not as good in general as those boom years immediately following the fires.
You can only shoot stags an area is currently capable of producing so don’t worry too much about those deer that have been shot in the past in any region you hunt in.
Within our sambar herds there is a large variance between the genetic capabilities of the stags. Years of selective harvest of the biggest and best antlered sambar stags certainly impacts on our deer herds. If you think about it, many stags get left alone on the hill because they don’t have that trophy appeal. It might be uneven or short inners, irregular antler growth or a general style that doesn’t qualify it in the mind of the hunter as a trophy class stag.
Hunters generally don’t find these types of stags appealing to shoot or don’t want to shoot them in case a better antlered stag is in the next valley, so generally they leave them alone and just keep on hunting. If this scenario is repeated time and again everywhere in sambar habitat sooner or later those nice mature stags will slowly get picked off and look who is left behind to do the breeding, those very same deer that are left alone because their antler style wasn’t considered trophy class. Even keeping in mind that a large percentage of genetics also comes from the females, how do you think the offspring of those weaker antlered stags are going to develop? Its pretty clear if we keep taking the cream from our sambar herds it will only get harder and harder to actually find the style of stag that is so sought after by all hunters because more and more breeding will be getting done by the very same stags that are left alive by hunters.
It needs to be written that genetics alone don’t produce big trophy stags, but it is an important factor that is added to the mix of age, habitat, soil and feed availability to produce animals with antler growth that little better then average.
The bottom line is if your favourite hunting area is not known for fantastic antler formation, then it is possible you might never shoot that big attractive style of stag. You can try to improve the situation by harvesting as many poorer antlered stags as possible and leaving the promising young stags, but this program needs to be intense and consistent and of course hind numbers need to be kept in check and it is almost impossible to determine which hinds have better genetics than others.
QUALITY OF THE HUNT:
Comparing antler sizes of sambar stags is actually like comparing apples to watermelons. A large antlered stag certainly does not mean it was a great hunt and often the really big stags are taken purely by luck or an accumulation of factors. Just because your mate has taken half a dozen monster stags over a certain size doesn’t make him any better a hunter then a guy who spends a lot of time in his local patch where big antlered deer are few and far between.
If you focus more attention on the actual hunt and effort involved with the harvest of each sambar stag then we will begin to appreciate all aspects of the hunt rather score or inches.
How can you compare a hunters success sitting on protected farmland on the edge of paddocks with quiet deer where he selectively takes a good stag every few months to the hunter who backpacks solo in remote country behind seasonal gate closures to work hard for every deer he locates, let alone stag he turns up.
I’m not saying one method is better than the other, but its just an example of how you really can’t compare sambar stags taken by different hunters as there is so much more to the hunt than simply how big a certain stag was that you harvested.
And what about the hunter who has never shot a sambar stag, yet has put in many days learning about the deer and habits. Eventually they get an opportunity at a deer with antlers and bowl it over. Walking up to the stag they will have just as much satisfaction from their experience whether the animal is 22 inches or 32 inches. To them it will still be a trophy and we shouldn’t think any less of their efforts and achievements.
ANTLER STYLES AND LENGTH:
I would go as far to say that likely more than half of all sambar stags alive today in the wild will never be capable of growing antlers with beams reaching 30 inches in length.
There are just so many factors that need to line up for an Aussie sambar stag to reach this perceived benchmark. The bottom line is they are all trophies and provide fantastic memories to the hunter and meat on the dinner plate so who are we to judge and determine purely by numbers whether an animal is a trophy or not.
Lots of hunters have shot beautiful heavy stags with curly beams approaching 27-28 inches that have a pair of 12 inch inners with nice brows and these deer at 9.5 years of age will never improve with antler formation. They have simply grown as large as they can and that’s their peak. Compare this to a thin 32 inch stag at 8.5 years of age with short brows and weak inners and you soon realize that actual beam length is a very small part of trophy assessment of a sambar stag. Yet if you told a mate you shot a 27 incher then told him you shot a 32 incher I would confidently say he will get a lot more excited about seeing pictures of or hearing about the 32 incher when in fact many of the lesser length beamed stags are far greater trophies in respect of antler formation and age.
Hopefully a few hunters will read through this article and give a little more thought to the pursuit of sambar stags. Maybe they will take a little limelight away from actual length and score and if any mates ask if it was a 30 incher, tell them the experience was unforgettable and perhaps focus on all the reasons why we actually go hunting and how amazing our sambar are.
Always remind your mates around the campfire or in the ute heading up the bush how lucky we are to be able to hunt this incredible resource so freely.
Sure its nice to throw numbers around, but when the dust has settled and the stag is either up on the wall or sitting in the shed with all the others, I can tell you right now it will be the memories of the hunt you remember more than anything concerning each and every deer you harvest. Live for the moment and experience and don’t ever compare yourself or the animals you hunt to other hunters and their success.
Give a little more thought to what you are actually pulling the trigger on and what you are letting live and hopefully more hunters will broaden their mindset to the definition of what actually is a trophy sambar stag.