Romanticised as the Monarch of the Glen, the red stag is Australia’s ultimate trophy hunting experience.
Populations of mostly wild red deer exist across Australia, with very few still being farmed as a viable meat export. However, red deer farming still exists in New Zealand for meat and trophy hunting, with many record-book heads coming from these fenced populations.
Reds (Cervus elaphus) are the fourth-largest extant deer species, behind the moose, elk or wapiti, and sambar deer. Here in Australia, they are the second largest of our six species. Stags range from 135kg to 200kg, with hinds weighing 80kg to 130kg. Stags stand between 100cm and 130cm tall, with the hinds slightly smaller.
Red deer get their name from the colour of their bright reddish hides. Both sexes have straw coloured rump patches with a grey/white underbody. Calves are born spotty to aid in camouflaging them from predators but these spots disappear as they mature.
Stags can often have darker colouring, ranging from dark brown to almost black when wallowing in grey mudded wallows. When stags are rutting, they stand out like sore thumbs due to colour, size and behaviour.
Reds are herd animals and can be found in groups from four to 20, usually led by a dominant hind who will spoil many a hunter’s dream.
In wild Australian herds with a reliable food source, heads of 16 points and greater have been taken. Red deer can reach a whopping 50 points or more through food and breeding in farmed herds. Forty inches of antler length is regarded as the holy grail when chasing these majestic beasts.
A red deer with 12 points (six per antler) is called a royal stag, while 14 points make an imperial stag, and an animal with 16 points or more is referred to as a monarch.
A 12-point red stag has a main beam with three tines, the brow, bey and trey. What are regarded as the tops of the antlers consist of an inner and outer royal tine and a back tine to make up the 6×6 royal antler configuration.
HABITAT AND DISTRIBUTION
The first red deer sent to Australia were shipped from the UK by Prince Albert in 1860 from the great Windsor Park herd. The deer were sent to start a herd at Werribee Park, southwest of Melbourne in Victoria.
The largest population in Australia now is in Queensland. However, red deer are also found in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. The most recent herds have been started from escaped and failed farming ventures.
Red deer thrive in most Australian landscapes. They prefer heavy woodland areas with a mixed bush pick. They are grazing animals and are generally hunted on fringe country next to a heavily timbered area that provides cover from hunting pressure.
SIGN TO LOOK FOR
When looking at a new area for red deer, I try to look for wallows. Wallows can tell you a lot about what is going on in that section of bush. They are also key spots for trail cameras to be a set of eyes for months on end. Wet gullies and soaks are great places to look for these key areas.
Red stag prints are hard to miss. They are the biggest print from any of the Australian deer species. A mature stag’s print can be four fingers wide. Their size makes them very easy to distinguish from a hind’s prints.
An active stag will rub an area. Trees with tine marks almost out of reach can tell you that a mature stag is in the area.
Pre-season, I look for concentrations of red hinds in quiet gullies. Reds do not take the pressure like fallow and rusa deer, so tread lightly when close to these hinds and calves.
BEST TIMES TO HUNT
There are no seasons or bag limits for red deer hunting in Australia.
The red deer rut kicks off in the last week of March and carries on through most of April. The stags cast their antlers throughout October and November and are normally fully regrown by February. Pre-rut stags can be found in bachelor herds that will break up in early March as they fight to establish rutting areas to attract hinds.
During the rut, stags are extremely vocal with their roaring. This is when they are most vulnerable, as an active stag can give his position away all day long.
The stags roar to attract hinds. This also attracts satellite stags which leads to a lot of fighting and even more resounding, more aggressive roars. It all makes the hunting even more exciting.
A good tactic I use is walking ridgelines before dawn to try to get a start on a stag that may shut down his roaring on first light. Of course, this leads to long days but it has often been the difference between sealing the deal or going home empty-handed.
Red deer are easily pushed out of a hunting area, so a gentle approach is best. Staying out of their way as much as possible is a tactic that will let you see many more deer. Rushing in and blowing hinds out is a sure way to see the stag move them to a different location.
Wallows are hot spots during the roar and having a walk above or below a wallow is a good tactic to find or locate a stag. Often stags will roar in the wallow during the rut. Try to keep your scent out of these areas and check them with binoculars as active stags may visit them at any time of the day.
When pre-season scouting, I concentrate on finding the key hind areas as these will often be where you find stags roaming before the rut. Stags will move into the hind areas before the rut. I have found many roaming stags this way.
The stags will move into the areas holding hinds up to a month before the peak of the rut. Cameras have shown that a stag can cover a huge area in this time, finding and marking his desired rutting area.
Stags holding hinds can change daily, so don’t give up on one group of hinds. Always check a roar, even if you think you know the stag making the noise. I’ve witnessed three different mature stags working a particular group of hinds over a couple of days.
A mature stag will sometimes strip a hind off the herd and bed with her lower than the others, so be sure to glass the area thoroughly when you find a red bedded in the bush, seemingly alone.
Roars through tubes or cow horns can be used to attract animals. However, I usually use this as a last-ditch effort to try to locate animals. Many people swear by it, but in my experience it has generally brought in sub-mature animals and my position was given away.
A good hind call can be a valuable tool when trying to draw a dominant stag closer or for a better shot opportunity.
GEARING UP FOR REDS
Being one of the bigger Australian deer, a .270 with a decent hunting projectile is generally considered the minimum for ethically shooting any red deer. I have used many calibres for red deer over the years; my favourites are the .300 WSM with 150gn Barnes TTSX and the .280 Ackley with 140gn Barnes TTSX.
A bright pair of binoculars are handy for all deer hunting and red deer are no different. Much of the action from mature stags takes place in the very first and last light of the day. A bright pair of binoculars can help identify a stag and his trophy potential.
Callers are very popular with some people and a good roar can be the key to locating a stag on a quiet day with little action.
AN ADDICATIVE PASSION
Stalking red deer during the roar is a very exciting and action-packed way to hunt deer. It’s a very vocal type of hunting that can make the hairs on your neck stand to attention. Once you’ve hunted the roar, you’ll come back for more.