FINALLY, I drifted off to sleep, absolutely dejected by losing a mighty hog deer stag seven hours earlier.
The shot had been good, the stag dropped, then jumped up and ran off into thick tea-tree. I searched for hours, but couldn’t find what I reckoned was a cracking 15-incher.
I was dreaming of trying to find my car parked in some back street, wandering around and around unable to locate it, when The Redhead nudged me in the ribs.
“Steve’s here,” she said. I bolted upright and cracked my head on the double bunk above. “Ouch!”
Steve Mathews and his wife Leanna are caretakers on Sunday Island, off the Gippsland Coast of Victoria. The island is owned by 200 blokes like me – members of the Para Park Cooperative Game Reserve Limited, who manage the world’s best herd of the unique little hog deer.
For a one-off initial investment of $3,500 to buy a share, you have hog deer (and now fallow) hunting for life in a well-managed environment,
Expecting the worst, I staggered to the back door of the unit and there was Steve with a silly grin on his face. It was 1.15am. “I found your stag,” he said. “It’s a beauty.”
I was gob-smacked.
Last year I’d drawn Block 3 in the annual ballot, but in the third period, meaning two other hunters were entitled to shoot a stag and hind each before I had a chance. Block three is the second smallest of the island’s nine blocks, one of the closest to the living area.
By the time Alita and I arrived in 2013, almost 20 deer had been shot. As I sat in the high seat in the middle of the stock paddock beside a dam, shots went off everywhere.
Not surprisingly I saw few deer drinking – except a dinky 11-inch stag – though I surprised a bunch at daybreak on the second day at a fence corner. That was basically my hunt as the deer – Australia’s smallest – went nocturnal.
This season it was the usual 1,440 km trip from Port Macquarie, an arduous journey to Port Albert where I’d booked the co-op’s boat to take us on the short trip to the low-lying sand island. Some 60 hog deer were to be culled, followed by a fallow deer season.
It’s a social place, the island, with about 40 “tents” of large garden shed style and four blocks of ritzy apartment units with all mod cons.
I own a tent with Robert Borsak and two others but was fortunate to be set up in an apartment, thanks to Alita. Go by myself and it’s sleep in the shed… You meet mates from all branches of the hunting scene and soon make new friends.
I had a beer with Kieran Carson, who drew the first shoot on Block 3. I was to follow and was interested in the 14-1/2×15-inch stag he shot on day one.
He “said there was a 14-incher hanging around” the central high seat that I might be lucky enough to shoot. He himself didn’t shoot on day two so when
I headed for my block at sun-up the next morning, pack on back and rifle in hand, I was happy it hadn’t been worked for a day. Hopefully the deer had settled down.
Nobody but an oaf stalks through the blocks. That would just frighten the game and the numerous ‘roos and wallabies that live in the thick tea-tree. You steal into one of several high-seats on each allocated area and sit and wait for action.
Action came early for me. As I followed a game trail through a large patch of ferms and tall tussocks leading to the middle high-seat at a corner of a fire-break, I saw a fantastic stag feeding in a patch of short brown sedges a ranged 137m away.
I started shaking with excitement. He was the stag of dreams. A classic six pointer. A wide 15-incher with good brows and fine inners on both main beams. And heavy, with that bayonette shape that invariably signifies age.
I’d shot three stags nowhere near as good as this critter, the last 41 years ago. I really wanted a good stag in my dotage.
I dropped to the ground and cat crawled towards the high seat through the ferns and bullrushes. I hoped to climb up unnoticed and end the hunt at 7.15 am with a 40m 30/06 shot over a rest down onto the stag.
Well, that was the plan. The reality was I bumped the tube of the ought-six on the aluminium ladder while climbing aloft.
Deer and wallabies went everywhere. I’d seen none of them feeding head down in the swamp grass, so intent was I on keeping the stag in sight.
My only course of action was to leap into the stand and try and hit the retreating stag, who was obviously unsure of why his mates had fled. In no particular hurry, he ran hesitatingly in a wide arc towards the bushline. I reckoned I could grass him before he made it into the soup.
There was time to swing on to him when Bam! I was almost blinded by the magnified first rays of a rising sun in the Leupold ‘scope, set on 10X.
I was disappointed, of course, but the world didn’t end with the missed opportunity. After surviving prostate cancer, such things seemed insignificant.
Shrugging in disappointment – that’s hunting for you – I made my way to the main high seat by the dam in the horse paddock. The hunt wasn’t over yet. Not by a long shot.
I didn’t see another hog deer until late in the evening. But it was a fascinating day. Sitting on a plastic chair, I finished a novel, photographed parrots and three bands of fallow deer totalling 21 animals that had been let out of the breeding enclosure after many years.
At one stage, a massive menil buck of maybe 240 Douglas Score points with big yellow ear tags (signaling he was a not-to-be-shot breeder of Ron Tonning bloodlines) appeared from nowhere. He went galloping below the stand, head lolling, tongue hanging out, obviously seeking a hot doe.
It was April Fool’s Day and the fallow rut was cranking up six days before my 70th birthday.
At 5pm, two hog hinds popped out of the bush, skarfed a feed on the flats and ducked back into the bush. A young hind strolled out, totally unafraid, and fed in an open patch of pig-face succulents. Then a big hog stag appeared, a blur over my right shoulder.
I caught the movement as I adjusted myself in the plastic chair, my bum numb from the long sit. The stag just materialised, as they do, from the bush, head high sniffing the wind.
He walked from the tea-tree, propped behind some bull-rushes and threw his head high, then hauled it back almost above his rump, testing the wind. He was the stag from the morning hunt … a whopper.
The antlers, in this late afternoon light, looked totally white, the sun-glint on the worn bayonet beams reflecting all angles. I studied his form. Yes, he’s definitely the one I missed earlier.
I brought my Zustava M70 up, resting it over the tops of some manuka brush used to camouflage the hide. When the stag tossed up his rack again, I touched off the trigger. The 150gn Partition at 3,000 fps knocked the stag down instantly with a neck-shoulder strike.
So confident was I of the kill, I pulled the rifle back, ejected the spent round, pocketed it, and sat the rig in a corner. Then the downed stag got up, hit its stride and ran into the thick stuff, a blur of white antler bone. I was flabbergasted. Aghast!
It was 5.18pm and I searched high and low for 90 minutes in a grid pattern unsuccessfully. Having sighted no blood, I headed back to the island office to report my bad luck, in deep dudgeon.
Steve, on the go since 5am that day, was asleep. Leanne woke him and he heard out my story, bleary-eyed.
“Mate, you’re a proper hunter,” he said. “You killed him but he didn’t know it. Let’s go for a look-see.” We searched until dead-dark when Steve called it off.
“I’ll bet I find him dead later tonight. I’ll check later with the torch…. I’m a bow hunter, and most of the trophies I have taken run off and bleed out in the bush. You have to find them and over many years I’ve gotten good at it. They call me bird-dog because I always find the dead ones that run away.”
I’ve found a few that ran away, too. Including my last hoggie shot quartering in the rump with a .44 magnum. It took 90 minutes to track his good blood trail. There was none from the current hog stag I hit.
So I trudged home, heavy-hearted, convinced Steve would have no luck at all. I was confused. Did I miss totally? No, the buck went down. My Serbian Mauser shot sub-MOA groups all day long and I knew it well.
Did I pull the shot? Possible, but the buck did go down instantly. So what happened? Why was it not dead on the spot, like almost every animal grassed with my custom 7mm Magnum.
I skipped tea, went to bed, with Alita trying to comfort me, couldn’t sleep, drifted off eventually after midnight. My wife was convinced Steve would find my lost stag.
I wasn’t. Then came his knock on the door to announce that by torchlight he had found my dead stag 70m from where I tagged it. Can you believe it? And this, in just 15 minutes. He lived up to his knick-name.
“I thought it was a doe at first, a body in the light, then I turned it over and boy, what a head,” he said. “It was even better than you thought – 15-1/2 inches both sides, as even as can be.”
I got dressed and sleepily trudged down to the meat-house where Steve had already started to skin out the stag for a full body mount. John Mumford and Doug Schupe, old mates, were there to offer support. Both shot stags this trip; John the first in yonks, Doug his very first ever hog.
I was the toast of the island for days, with the best stag of the year to date. And nobody could be happier. My first hog stag in close to half a century and found in unbelievable circumstances by a top bloke, a selfless manager of the island. I couldn’t have been happier.
Robert Borsak MLC, my long time hunting mate “Pop” and personal friend since our 20s, was somewhat cynical.
“Congratulations on a record-book stag, Unc. But you do realize you will draw a late season block next year on the relatively deer-less end of the island. Just like me this year!”
He’s probably right. But I couldn’t care less. Sunday Island – one of the great flathead fishing venues Down Under, incidentally – is a great place to be. Big stags on the ground or not. In or out of season.
And as an incentive to hunt the far end of the sand spit, this year they opened the option of shooting a fallow buck instead of a hog. Sounds like a challenge for me in 2015.
FAST FACTS: Hog Deer Harvest
HOG DEER (Axis porcinus) in Victoria are the most managed of all Australia’s feral species and greatly valued and respected. Data from harvested animals is used by resource managers, farmers and hunters to keep track of the health of the population.
Licensed hunters are permitted to shoot one stag and one hind during the April hunting season. Whether on the mainland or Sunday Island, your kill must be tagged and then measured at checking stations, which have been set up in Gippsland since 1997.
Leanne Mathews does the official measuring and weighing on Sunday Is. Hunters must also send in a Hunter Return Form whether or not they harvest a deer.
Between 1997 and 2011, some 1122 deer were presented at the mainland checking stations (70.4% male; 29.6% female), with annual totals ranging from 38 in 1999 to 111 in 2011. There was little evidence that the number or sex ratio of deer harvested annually changed substantially over the course of this period. Most deer were under seven-years-old.
The overall percentage of deer harvested on public (52%) and private (48%) land also did not show much change. The hog deer population appears to be stable.
(More information can be downloaded from the Arthur Rylah Institute.)
This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Sporting Shooter magazine.