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Sambar deer are probably hunted more over winter then any other time of the year. The weather is cool, snakes are in hibernation, meat can easily be processed and most stags are in hard antler stripped clean of velvet. As this is a time of year when many hunters are in the field pursuing this wonderful game animal we thought it appropriate to go through the habits of winter sambar at different elevations and talk about how their routine and day to day lives are affected by colder weather and even snow when it falls at higher elevation. We have broken it down to four categories in an attempt to cover the entire range where they are living and whilst a book could literally be written describing the hunting of sambar in each of these locations, we have tried to talk about the most important aspects of these habitats and what sambar do when autumn has finished.
The numbers of sambar either living along the coast or at sea level are continually increasing. These deer generally have lots of thick coastal scrub to offer as a protective buffer zone and there is a vast expanse of National Park and sanctuary where they live in relative safety. When they venture out onto farmland for the best feed there is always the possibility of being hunted, but generally they are free to expand numbers and build their population provided suitable habitat is available. Over the last decade their expansion into coastal areas has really been noticeable, from traditional hog deer habitat to farm country in South Gippsland all the way up the mid NSW coast they are certainly living in many regions that were once devoid of permanent sambar.
Not a lot of snow falls at this level, if ever, so generally all these deer have to contend with is cold weather, strong winds and low winter temperatures. Seeing that thick coast scrub has many benefits for protection they are never far from seeking shelter out of the wind and there are many folds and habitat changes to ensure they can always find a quiet zone when a strong breeze is blowing.
Coastal scrub type country really is perfect habitat for sambar, they can detect predators and approaching humans quite easily and provided they have a good supply of fresh water and decent feed within reach of a night time stroll they will always feel comfortable in these areas. There is decent browse and some grazing in the coastal areas over spring, summer and autumn but in winter time the better feed is harder to locate and sambar will certainly appreciate improved pasture on farm country. Corridors or areas connecting larger patches of coastal scrub are always worth scouting for game trails, general sign and placing cameras in attempt to identify increased deer movement. Sitting on wallows, watching feeder flats and waiting on the edge of improved pasture at first and last light are all constructive hunting strategies but as the deer move around a fair bit and can be hard to get a look at, a sustained effort with trail cameras will probably tell you if there are any stags worth pursuing in the immediate area and could save you a lot of time if you are only hunting for animals and just seeing rubs or prints in the dirt. If you are in an area that has high hind numbers and only younger stags then it is likely that a good mature animal will turn up at some stage. Also keep in mind how often you go back and check an area or how long you need to leave those trail cameras out before you shift them to other areas. It’s likely if you left trail cameras in many coastal areas all year long you would get a wide range of animals living both locally and also visiting the area as stags continually shift range and explore new country.
Seeing the scrub is often quite low always consider using any rises or slight hills as elevation points to glass from or if you are in a productive area that sees a lot of deer movement then consider the option of a tree stand.
Something else to consider is it doesn’t get particular cold at sea level, at least compared to the frigid high country winter temps, so these sambar won’t be dictated too much by extreme changes in temperature. Their habits will be pretty similar all year long keeping in mind the basic sambar hunting principles and factors that influence their activity. That thick scrub has great canopy overhead and this helps keep temperatures moderate even on the coldest of days and coolest of nights. It all revolves around pressure, feed and areas that deer feel comfortable living and travelling through. Shooting a mature stag out of that coastal country can be very challenging but also very rewarding when it all comes together.
Some big stags have been shot out of the coastal region over the past 10 years and I’m confident while there is still plenty of feed in the bush and moderate deer numbers we will continue to see some great trophies being harvested. How long it will last certainly depends on population growth and quality of available feed. Too many deer down there will have no benefit to either the deer, hunters, land owners or National Parks.
Lastly always remember to check maps to ensure where you are hunting is legal and within the designated areas to hunt sambar.
Farm Fringe Sambar:
This is a broad category, but deer living on farm fringe can almost be at sea level or quite a few hundred metres up in elevation. Either way come winter the deer living up the back of farm fringe will always be keen to catch the morning sun, especially on the cold days and after a heavy frost. Farm fringe sambar will generally live in the bush and bed up in the safety and security of thicker habitat or out of the way spurs where they have minimal contact with humans and wild dogs. Generally these deer will feed down to farm fringe and improved pasture and graze on the better feed under the cover of darkness. Nighttime hours are long over this period and the deer are often in no rush to hit the good feed up out in open paddocks during daylight hours. This can make it quite hard for the hunter who likes to wait on the bush edge and shoot deer as they come out onto paddocks or into clearings.
What the hunter can do is keep a close eye on the weather and if low pressure fronts with big cold systems are moving in then the deer will be on their feet early and certainly filling their bellies before the bad weather hits.
Its always well worth paying attention to the moon cycles as this has a big effect on farm fringe deer. Generally deer don’t like feeding out in open paddocks on a full moon, they find it too vulnerable for them with a half moon or larger up and they will certainly be back in the trees and cover when the paddock is illuminated or if they are still out when the moon is up they tend to gravitate towards areas shaded from the bright light. Steep hillsides will keep paddocks in shade as the moon climbs and so to will trees and orchards.
Cloudy and drizzly weather will adjust their avoidance of paddocks on a large moon, but the hunter can use the moon to his advantage. If the moon is full but doesn’t get up to say midnight, often the deer will move early and feed early to accommodate this. They will often feed in paddocks earlier then normal at night then head back to the bush when the moon is above the horizon to ruminate and feed their way through the best country in the bush while they are still hungry then bed up early. Often the best feed in winter is in the paddocks and on farmers crops so the deer adjust their movements and feeding habits around the moon. On the flip side a hunter can work the moon into his morning hunts by watching the moon cycle and if the moon heads down or sets at say midnight, often the deer will come out late onto the paddocks and feed a little into the morning on the better feed to ensure they obtain sufficient dietary requirements.
Another option is to head back up into the bush on well used game trails and sit back in cover where you have a good vantage point and often deer of an evening can be picked up heading down to feed.
Funnels or pinch points with cover and game trails merging together will increase your odds of having deer walk past but always consider the wind direction and I often wait until the last hour or so for the valley to be in shadow before you head into these ambush areas. Having shade in a valley towards nightfall will generally mean the temperatures have lowered and the wind direction will switch and head back downhill making it an ideal situation to wait for sambar to work down from their elevated bedding areas. Wallows can be a good place to watch over, but these can also be hit and miss with irregular stag activity at any time of the year. But if you have nothing else to do, killing a few hours on an active wallow always keeps you in the game and is much better then sitting around camp drinking a few beers. Wind is everything with wallows so never sit on them on days when the wind is swirling everywhere and blowing your scent towards where the deer are likely to come from.
For the hunters who like to glass certainly climbing ridges and laying optics over dry north facing terrain will increase your odds of finding deer provided the habitat allows you to see animals and you can get up high and opposite where you believe the deer will be bedded. A fair percentage of hinds will cycle over winter so always keep your eye out for any stags in the vicinity of females. Sometimes these stags are standing right there with a female or group of hinds and other times they will be trailing the females or up above them just waiting for a hind that’s about to start her cycle.
Like sambar in all elevations deer will get up and feed around when it starts to drizzle so always get out in the field when light rain falls, especially if it hasn’t rained for a while. Trail cameras can always be an asset keeping an eye on what deer are in the area and when they are moving. Having extra eyes in the field even while you aren’t hunting has many advantages helping you understand deer movements so investing in trail cameras is always a worthy purchase.
Mid Elevation Sambar:
These deer might live in typical bush country without access to farm fringe or improved pasture and spend most of their year in this habitat. Being a large animal they need plenty of food over winter and the feed does alter considerably in different regions across the mid elevation range. Soil quality is inconsistent, fires burn, deer densities fluctuate, habitat changes, rainfall levels vary and so does the quality of the feed and browse. The effect this has on the resident bush sambar living at mid elevation level is that certain areas see deer on their feet a lot longer the others. Some habitat is nutrient rich and full of feed 12 months of the year and the deer that live here will definitely travel and move around less each day on their search for enough dietary intake than those deer that live in harsher country with poorer soil and far less quality feed. These animals have it tougher, often with slightly smaller body weights and antler dimensions and need to be on their feet considerably more to obtain sufficient levels of browse. This makes them more visual to the hunter and four legged predator as often the poorer country is open with reduced tree canopy and deer can potentially be harvested easier then those living in the thicker more densely forested valleys.
Similar to farm fringe animals on cold days deer will seek sun, warmth and protection from cold winds. If a keen hunter can keep these basic principals in mind he is off to a good start. Add in the fact that many animals will bed around 2/3rds of the way up a spur or on a face then you can generally narrow down where a good percentage of animals will be during the day.
Winter hunting bush sambar can have its challenges, especially if the area is a few years post fire burn and there is thick regrowth to contend with. Alter your hunting to suit the conditions. If the bush is dry and noisy try to glass or sit and wait in prime locations on the calm days when stalking is a challenge and if possible wait for the rainy weather to hunt all day as wet damp bush will help control the noise you make underfoot. Windy weather can cover up your movements in the bush but keep in mind the deer will also be nervous on these days as they know they can’t detect predators that easily. Look for sheltered gullies and quiet basins out of the wind and resident deer will also seek these locations. Quiet zones are important for the deer and you can plan your hunt into these secluded areas depending on wind direction and terrain.
Stags will often shift range and move around a lot over winter as they search for cycling hinds so this is an advantage if you have a local patch of country you hunt in that a good deer could turn up anytime. As can be expected if you find hinds keep a close eye out for stags nearby or in the group, and if you are hunting a quiet area where you can relocate hind groups easy enough then try to leave as low an impact as possible so you can keep checking in on the hinds and hopefully get eyes on a stag if and when he does turn up. Don’t be in a rush to pull the trigger on a young stag in the bush, as often a larger animal will be nearby or over a ridge with hinds just out of sight. Always remember those younger 3.5-5.5 year old stags that don’t have the body mass or the antler dimensions to fight other mature stags will often be found on the edge or perimeter of hind groups when a mature stag is present. The situation is exactly what happens in the red deer rut when younger stags will be skirting around the herds and these animals are often the most visual.
On really cold days sambar will have a need to get up and feed, they just can’t stay bedded for long in very low single digit temperatures so if you can take advantage of these really cold days by staying out on the hill and hunting then you will have multiple deer encounters.
Often deer numbers will be higher in areas adjacent to rivers and large creeks and the flats will be an area sought after by sambar hoping for good browse. If the habitat is too thick to stalk through river flats or clearings will draw deer in and time spent waiting or slowly stalking these areas in the first and last hours of the day will often produce results. Wallows are typically in these areas as well and you can plan your hunt through locations that will be most productive to deer sightings.
As to the moon, it certainly has an effect on sambar in the bush. We have found that often on a large or full moon that is up most of the night and into the daylight hours there will be a lot of deer bedded up at sunrise or not far off finding their beds. Frost is a big factor on clear winter nights with a large moon and deer will often be in those beds waiting for sunlight to warm them up then they typically shift around a corner or into a more secure area to bed mid morning. Sambar that bed up early in the morning on a large moon often get up early in the afternoon to feed so always be hunting at these times as you will be quite surprised how many deer are on the feet not long after midday during that full moon period.
A while back I was up in one of the ski fields and putting a bag of rubbish in the bin when a gentleman walked up. He was collecting trash left behind by tourists and also heading towards the same bin. I noticed he was an employee of the ski fields by his clothing and struck up a conversation. We talked about all things associated with snow and the ski fields and he soon discovered I was a deer hunter. As this person spent a fair bit of time in the area all year he was interesting to talk to about the local sambar deer. How the population had increased considerably the last few years, the obvious issues associated with sambar and vehicles, the effects of fire on deer and I asked him about deer in the winter during times of heavy snow. It was interesting that he said the deer often bed down in heavy snow or live right up at the snow line and when he is grading ski runs and clearing trails he would often see fresh beds in the snow. He didn’t see a lot of deer as obviously they would get up and move in front of the snow machine, but he said they often stayed up high and didn’t seem too worried by snow falls.
I have always thought about what effects the snow has on sambar and whether they actually move that much lower in elevation when heavy powder falls and cold weather is at its peak during winter. My theory on this is that as sambar need to get up and move around a lot more to combat the cold weather they are much more visual on cold days and people are attributing the increased sightings to an increase in population due to a perceived shift in range of the deer that were living higher up over the warmer months, when in actual fact all they are seeing is more movement from the resident deer that are always there. Yes some deer will move around and possibly head to lower ground in the cooler months, stags will travel a lot more to areas with better feed and higher hind numbers, but in general there doesn’t seem to be a mass exodus of deer from the high country to the flats and farm fringe like there is in deer and elk herds across America and other regions.
We also need to keep in mind Sambar are a tropical species generally from Southern Asia and the majority of our deer came from Sri Lanka where very little snow falls. Clearly these deer are adaptable and strong enough to survive in the cold Australian winter weather, but their survival mechanisms from the very short 155 or so years they have lived in the wild in Australia have not adapted to the extent that deer and elk in the USA have. Generally those deer species in the middle of winter reduce movement and activity at the coldest periods to slow down their metabolism and conserve energy. I believe sambar are the opposite as they are a coarse haired species with very little thick under fur or hair to their hide. This inability to trap warm air and conserve energy means they must get up and keep moving to regulate body temperature and in doing so they have to eat as much as possible during those really cold temperature periods to combat their higher metabolic rates. Something else to note in the favor of sambar is that larger body sizes conserve energy better then smaller species due to a lower surface to mass ratio. Put fallow or hog deer up high at 1550-1600 metres over winter and there is likely to be a lot more casualties.
Hunting high country deer in the middle of winter just takes a little thought. Many deer will gravitate to the north facing ridges and benchy country that allows both food, warmth and protection from cold winds. Sambar will certainly live at or just under the snowline and have no issues feeding in the snow or traversing through it. They will happily browse on leaves of branches that have recently broken due to the weight of snow and they will always find palatable shrubs and grasses to consume.
Don’t discount the ridges and faces that never get morning sun because remember these will probably catch the evening sun, sambar being sambar are always keeping you on your toes and never quite predictable.
In higher elevation the deer over winter generally don’t feed out into the big open plains and faces during this time, the grass growth there is poor at this time and whilst you might catch them moving across a face or big opening, normally the better feed is under the trees and in the gullies and areas with mixed browse.
The same theory with the moon applies to the deer at higher elevation, and whilst they might not have access to the paddocks and better feed they will still move and adjust their habits around the moon almost as much as they do to the sun. Pay close to attention to the moon phase and what you observe with sambar movements and you will soon start to see patterns no matter where you are hunting.
Please note this article is more an overview of generally what happens over winter, always keep in mind individual areas will have variances and sambar do change their habits and routines in adjustment to many external factors. Always have an open mind about your cold weather hunting, learn from the encounters, hunt those sunny north facing ridges and always be prepared to mix it up depending on what the deer are doing.