Adam Deacon with a Billy with a great skin.

Finding Game to hunt and shoot


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How often has this scenario unravelled on your previous hunting trips…

After months of long days at work, you get around to making that all important call to the landowner of your favourite hunting grounds. A few weeks of preparation and planning drag on as you intimately discuss the various rifles, ammunition, hunting clothing and vehicle choice with your mates. Finally the day arrives and you are set to go. After the usual long stint behind the wheel, you arrive at your destination as ‘happy as Larry,’ and full of anticipation of what the next few days or weeks might bring. Visions of trophy Stags, monster Boars, and mobs  of heavily horned Billies run through your mind…

But as the next few days progress you are bitterly disappointed…. Where did all the game go?! Here are a few suggestions on how best to maximise your opportunity of finding the game you like to hunt, and making that trip a memory of a life time. 

What Game Animals Need

We first need to look at what makes an animal tick). All animals usually have four basic needs which ultimately affect your ability and success in finding them. For the majority of game animals in Australia, these needs are:

Water – most mammals need to have access to drinkable water daily, for hydration, cooling and bathing. 

Food – All animals need to eat. Thatís a given. But understanding what they eat, especially at certain times  of the year, and where this food is most plentiful in your hunting property is valuable knowledge. Finding the ‘green pick’ or an oats or cropping paddock that’s just began to shoot succulent green feed often produces results. Also knowing when a certain species feeds increases your chance of success.

Shelter – How often have you had the cross-hairs over  a trophy animal, only for it to dash into thick cover a split second later? Shelter, whether it be thick scrub, high rocky mountain peaks, a den or burrow, or a distant tree line – all provide the safety and cover from danger that game animals face daily, most predominantly, us! Most game animals are habitual creatures and therefore use the same type of cover in a certain area most of the time. This can either lead you to likely areas, or show you the presence of animals that you may have missed at other times of the day.

Socialisation – Another way that mammals protect themselves is to congregate in groups when feeding, laying up in the heat of the day or travelling from one location to another. This way, they are able to warn each other of danger. Many eyes and ears make for safe eating, drinking and moving about. Goats and deer will often have a sentry nanny or doe on watch while the others feed. By swapping and taking turns, the whole group will get to feed in peace, knowing that one or more of them are on constant lookout for threats. 

Tell Tale Signs

With the above mentioned in mind, we now take a look at the secondary features that use these needs to form a pattern of where, when and how to look for your quarry. 

How to ‘Really’ See

Having trained with the military, the principles of camouflage and visualising your target are second nature, but for others this may not be the case. There are six features below that you should consider when looking for game.

These features will help you recognise game in their natural environment, when normally you might walk right past none the wiser. Another important point to mention is our own human eye physiology. Most humans learn to read left to right, so naturally, we often look for game from left to right. After years of practise, our brain skips small details, so that we can accumulate more information at a faster pace. The problem with this is that that small detail may be the one thing that you need to see, and may lead to a successful hunt. The lesson – try to look from right to left. You will pick up more detail this way.

Shape – Look for an animalís natural body shape, but be aware of any changes they may make if they see you. Some animals, especially small mammals, will change the shape  of their body, or their normal ‘look’ to make themselves less recognisable to predators. An example of this would be a Hare lying motionless in the grass with its long ears pulled flat along its back, changing its shape so a predator cannot make out its distinguishable features. When looking for shape, colour is not necessarily important.

Silhouette – Often in thick scrub or mountainous hunting areas, the only visual telltale sign that game is close, is the distant figure of an animal forming a silhouette against the horizon or a rocky hilltop. Look for the silhouette of game on ridges and hilltops, especially when hunting goats or deer. Of course this also works vice versa. Try not to let yourself form a silhouette against the skyline or a rock or ridge, as game recognise the human shape as danger very quickly.

Spacing – Ever thought you saw a deer’s neck and head poking up from the long grass on a scrubby hillside, only to look through your scope to see a fence post or stump? This comes down to spacing. Most man made objects like fence posts are evenly spaced. Natural features and animals are not, so have a good look around. In another way, trophy class Stags, big Boars, or the dominant Billy in a mob with often distance themselves from the rest of their herd or group to limit their own chances of being seen if the group is seen. If you spot one or more game animals, make sure you have a good look around, instead of shooting the first game animal that presents itself. Trophies will space themselves from the herd and are there somewhere – if you know how to look.

Shine – Sometimes the only thing that stands out in a dull, natural coloured bush setting is the shine of a horn, or the glimmer of an antler tip. Look for the small things that contrast. In the same way, limit any shine on yourself or your hunting gear. Shiny barrels, scopes, sunglasses or even an uncovered watch face can give your position away.

Shadow – On a sunny day, everything casts a shadow. Use this to your advantage by looking at the shape of a shadow if you can’t identify if what you are looking at is a stationary game animal. Again, it works both ways. Don’t expect your quarry to stick around when you are hidden behind a tree, only to realise you are casting a human shaped shadow that is clearly visible ninety degrees to your position.

Movement – Probably the most important aspect of a visual search when hunting is looking for movement. Movement draws attention more than anything else. It changes the shape, shadow, spacing, shine and sometimes colour of a game animal – giving your visual periphery a number of factors  it can lock onto. ALWAYS stop at regular intervals and look for movement. Game animals will do the same, so make sure you are well camouflaged and remain completely still until the animal looses interest if spotted. Patience is the key. Often if you wait and watch, game will sense the threat has passed or was never present, and will continue to feed undisturbed. If they are alert however, sometimes it pays to back out slowly and approach from a different angle, or leave them be to for another time altogether.

Contrast – This speaks for itself. Unlike most mammals’ vision, the human eye is specifically designed to notice differences in colour contrast over a broad spectrum range. How often have you picked out the white speck on the rocky ridge, only to look through your scope and there are a dozen goats, not just one. Your eye notices that white doesn’t match the natural bush colours, whereas the black, tan, and brown Billies blend in. Look for colours in the bush that just donít fit. The closer the colours are  to white or black, the more they stand out. 

Habitat, Weather and Season

To pattern an animal a hunter needs to take into consideration where the animal lives, and how the weather and season may affect what it does from day to day. In general, summer produces hotter weather resulting in a higher need for water. It also produces more rain which allows for better pasture growth – thus more feed for animals. Winter produces a colder climate, allowing the game to drink less frequently. However, feed is scarce, so the animals will have to travel more often to reach feeding areas. Herbivores will often come onto cropping or improved pasture areas to gain their nutritional needs.

Rabbit and hare shooting over a spotlight at night in winter is often more fruitful than in summer, as the lack  of tall grass and short cover gives away their position more easily. They must also travel further each night to reach areas of feed that were more plentiful in summer. Goats and deer will come to water several times a day in the  heat of summer, and often at first light and on dusk.  This narrows the window for a smart hunter if he or she checks likely game paths and water holes at these times. 

Habitat also plays an important role. Different animals prefer to live in different habitats according to their individual needs and how they survive best. Feral goats, because of their excellent eyesight, feel safer when on a high vantage point. For this reason – especially in the range country, glass ridgelines, mountain tops and granite boulder hills. Mountain boars in colder climates do not need to water as frequently as if they roamed the dryer channel country of Northern Australia, however pigs generally love to be around water, so creek lines, dams, turkey nests (bore holes) billabongs and irrigation channels are ‘must view’ search areas.

Rabbits and foxes like cover. Safety is paramount when you are close to the bottom of the food chain. Look for rocky paddocks, fallen timber, bracken fern and tussock grass, as many hiding places generally equates to many rabbits – as long as there are a few around. Warrens, push holes, furrows through the grass and small droppings are the give away.

Make sure you give a thought to where your targeted game best prefers to live, and at which time of the year he is most active, when choosing an area to hunt. 

Tracking and Animal Sign

All animals need to move in order to feed, reach water, breed, socialise and find shelter. By moving about, they create signs of their passing for someone who knows what to look for. To begin with develop an idea of where your targeted quarry may come to water, eat and bed up in your hunting area. These are the most likely places to work from during your hunt, as game travels between these places. 

Tracking is difficult for most people, especially if you try to focus on just one aspect. It is essential that you maintain a broad focus and look for many different types of sign at once, as individual sign (i.e. only following hoof prints) often disappear after a short while. There are many types of animal sign that you can follow or read to improve your hunting. These may include, but are not limited to: ground spoor or tracks, worn game trails, push holes in fences, hair, blood, diggings, rubs, feeding areas, scrapes, wallows, flattened bedding areas, and scats.

Once you become familiar with the tracks, droppings, fur or hair colour, and likely areas of travel of the species you are hunting, you can then begin to read the sign. 

Knowing how long ago an animal has passed by is especially important in determining whether or not the game animal is still within the immediate vicinity. If the sign is fresh it can then be followed up. If not, move on and keep looking for more recent activity. Make sure you have a close look and try to determine the age of the sign. Check if the mud around a hoof print is still soft, or has it had time to dry out? Are the blood droplets you have found red and fresh, or dark and dried out? Is there dew on the bedding area, or has the animal been laying up there until a few minutes ago? Are there green shoots starting to grow in an area that pigs have dug up (old sign), or are they freshly disturbed? All these hints can influence your approach and the likelihood of coming across game. 

Animal prints generally become easier to read the softer the surrounding earth is. In addition to the fact that water is a primary need for game animals, we also know that water creates soft soil. With this in mind, make sure you check likely dams, springs, creeks and watercourses for animal traffic. Another point to mention is that rain not only softens the ground and makes tracks more distinguishable, but will give you a timeline as well. Rain drops over tracks are old. Fresh tracks will show less, if any rain markings.

If you are familiar with using ambush to shoot your favourite game animal, then reading push holes in fence-lines is definitely worthwhile. Ambush includes anything from fox whistling to blind hunting trophy stags or bucks. When whistling foxes in bracken paddocks or hillsides, made sure you check the most prominent entry points through the closest fence lines. Foxes will use holes put in fences by kangaroos and rabbits  as an entry or exit point from their hunting areas. Paw prints, orange coloured fur caught in barbed wire, and short pointed scat will indicate a fox is using a particular thoroughfare. In a similar way, bucks, goats and pigs all use the larger push holes to make their way to better feeding grounds, water or their favourite hiding place. Look for horn scrape marks in the soil, fur or hair on the wire, and hoof prints. Remember – game can get through holes a lot smaller than you think! You can then focus your whistling, blind hunting or ambushing to a specific area to increase your chance of a positive outcome.

 

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, August 2010.


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