You wouldn’t think that three little words could change a whole years hunting plans.
“Honey, I’m pregnant”
Shit. “Wow, that’s fantastic!” Shit.
My mind raced as I tried to work out how this happened. Well, I knew how it happened, but…….shit.
A whole range of emotions washed over me as it started sinking in that I would be a dad. At the same time, I could see the years hunting plans slipping away at a pretty rapid pace. As well as harassing the local sambar population, I had planned my first red deer hunt with R.I.D.G.E. and was also about to put a late deposit down on an elk and moose hunt in British Columbia. After missing out on a moose in Alberta the a few years before, I was really keen on the hunt in Northern BC. Realistically, I knew that both trips were now pretty much out of the equation. Wishing I’d married someone a little uglier, I started wondering what Plan B might look like.
I had set myself for a red deer hunt, and with a trip to Queensland not an option, I started to think about things closer to home. A few years back, I had bumped into a small ten point red stag whilst hunting sambar. I was in an area where I had seen a lot of sign from the side of the road, but never really bothered investigating further. Taking the day off work, I had made the short drive from home, keen to see what this overlooked area had to offer. After being in the bush for only an hour or so, I found myself looking over a clearing with the little Zeiss 8×30’s. Looking for sign of sambar, I was amazed to see a red deer hind standing just on the bush edge some 300 metres away. Scanning the area for more animals, my heart skipped a beat as I noticed a ten point red stag walking out in the open, and heading in my direction. Lowering my binoculars, I lifted the custom 7mm Remington magnum to my shoulder and found the stag in the scope. Good tines, nice polished tips, but he lacked a fair bit in length. The stag was probably only 26-28 inches long. Reluctant to shoot, I elected to get a bit closer and have another look. The stag dropped into a dry water course, and as he did so, I made my move to cut him off. By the time I was in position, the deer was heading away and only a fast, quartering away shot presented. I had another look at his antlers, decided he would be best left to grow, and lowered the rifle.
It had been a while since I thought of that red stag, and I couldn’t help but wonder what he looked like now. It was mid summer in Victoria, when I woke early intending to walk back to the same clearing under a full moon. My wife slept peacefully, her belly not yet showing sign of the little man that was growing within.
After about an hours drive I parked the Landcruiser at the end of a dry track. The temperature was comfortable, but I new by mid morning the day would be a stinker. I like looking for reds in summer, as the stags are bunched up and finding one often means getting a look at a few of the other gentlemen in the area. Unfortunately Victorias Red Deer season is in the middle of winter, so today was reconnaissance only. Under the gentle blue light of the moon, I made my way toward the clearing where I had seen the stag previously.
Honk! The unseen sambar scared the bejesus out of me. I knew there were sambar in the area, but I never seem prepared for their warning call. I decided to sit tight, let the deer move off and wait until daylight.
The area I was hunting is interspersed with a number of small clearings, and as the sun got up I walked toward one of them. As I approached the edge, I noticed a sambar hind feeding out in the open. I hardly ever get the jump on undisturbed deer, so I grabbed my camera and decided to see how close I could get. Moving ever so slowly, I eventually closed the gap to about 15 metres, before I started taking as many pictures as I could. Eventually, the young girl must have heard some sort of noise from the camera, which got her attention and she moved off.
Continuing on as slowly as I could manage, I had gone a further 150 metres or so when another deer honked at me. It didn’t startle me like the one in the dark, but it started to feel like there were deer everywhere! Scanning the area, I saw the spiker in velvet standing behind some dogwood. I wasn’t worried that I didn’t have a rifle and was keen to let him grow. Snapping another few pictures, I moved forward in search of fanta pants.
The morning drew on and there was sign everywhere, but no more deer were sighted. Finding a spot to lay under a large gum tree, I slept through the early afternoon. At about 3pm, I got back into things and started hunting my way in the general direction of the truck. Later I came across a red deer fawn, standing on its own. I knew mum wouldn’t be too far away, but for the life of me I couldn’t see her. The day was drawing to a close and I still hadn’t seen that stag from a few years back. The fawn was at least proof there was a red stag somewhere nearby, and a return trip seemed worthwhile. If nothing else, there were enough sambar to keep anyone interested.
Making my way back to the cruiser, I followed a game trail, through an area of mixed re growth and pine forest. As I walked past a thick patch of blackberries I came across the biggest cast sambar antler I have ever seen. Pulling my tape measure out of my pack for a quick check, my imagination ran wild as I saw it stretch just over the magical 30inch mark. For a red deer hunt, the sambar were certainly worth some extra attention!!
Summer turned into Autumn, and I spent my weekends finishing the house renovations, in preparation for the new arrival. I occasionally thought of the R.I.D.G.E. red stags roaring in the Brisbane Valley, and wandered of the red deer closer to home What really had me interested though was finding the owner of that cast antler.
Ten days after the start of the 2008 Victorian Red Deer season my life changed forever. Young Harry Dene Wardale entered the world and brought my wife and I a lifetime of pride, laughter, joy and worry. Occasionally I would watch over him as he slept at night and wonder what the future would bring us. Dreams of hunts to come with my little boy flooded my mind. The sweet smell of high country air, the exhilarating chill of snow covered mountains, swags under bright starlight – that strange combination of excitement and numbness at the felling of your first stag. It all lay before us. For now though, I would kiss his little forehead and let him sleep. His hunting would have to wait a few years yet.
It was September before I got into the bush again. Waking at 3am, I quietly entered Harry’s room in the half light. Gently touching his hair, I let him know that one day he would come with me. Alone for now, I shouldered my pack and the ever reliable 7mm Remington Magnum, and headed out for the sambar stag who had cast that magnificent antler.
I had planned on starting on the same game trail where I had found the cast antler. Parking the cruiser, I prepared for the hunt as light rain fell on my face. With the aid of a headlamp, I meandered through the pine forest and eventually into native vegetation. The rich damp smell of pine needles in the rain, changed to eucalyptus as I moved through the bush. A damp spring morning in the high country is a truly exhilarating experience. Entering a more open area, I decided to sit and wait for the coming dawn.
In the grey blue light of pre dawn, I pulled my binoculars out and attempted to distinguish shapes from the dark shadows that lay before me. Within only a few minutes, I made out the muscular ‘pot bellied’ shape of a mature sambar stag. My heart pounded and breathing heaved as I realised just how close the deer was. I strained to see his head, and then quickly lost sight of him as he ghosted between the trees. Just like that he was gone. Fighting to maintain my nerve, I walked no more than five paces at a time before stopping and scanning the terrain with my binoculars. It was a tedious process, and many times I felt like giving up and walking to a new area, but I fought the temptation. The stag wasn’t alarmed, and had simply walked into the shadows.
As the light gathered I struggled to maintain my concentration and patience. I moved at an excruciatingly slow pace – another five steps, then up with the glasses. Eventually I located the magnificent beast. He was standing in that way characteristic of sambar – body behind a tree, with head and neck peering out from behind. He new something was wrong, but not sure what as I raised the custom Remington 700. Shooting light gathered, as the Leopold’s cross hairs bounced across his thick, strong neck. Looking at the stags antlers I took a sharp breath – you don’t ask yourself “how big?” on truly mature animals. I struggled to maintain my composure as I took up the pressure on the beautifully crisp trigger. The cross hairs floated to and fro before finally – boom.
I lost sight of the stag as the recoil shoved me slightly backward, but regaining the sight picture I could see he was down. No kicking no struggling, nothing. The stag was resting peacefully, behind the very tree from which he was peering only moments before. The Winchester Supreme factory load performed impressively yet again. On big deer, the 160gn Nosler Accubonds are simply devastating.
Racing over to my prize, his antlers seemed to grow the closer I got. I started shaking, laughing and swearing. He was big. I sat there for quite a while enjoying the peace and exhilaration of being with this magnificent animal. I couldn’t take my eyes off those beautifully even antlers. Eventually I pulled the tape measure from my pack. He was a fantastic mature animal at just over 28 inches long and wide. His cape was thin and worn, and bore the signs of the rugged life of a mountain monarch. He had very little hair over his face, but his rough cape showed the real character of the beast he was. Briefly, I considered that this was not the owner of the cast antler I had found months before, but he was a great consolation prize.
I caped the stag, removed the backstraps, eye fillets and back legs. He was an enormous ‘boof headed’ beast, and I was glad the track wasn’t too far away. It only took two short trips to get the head and meat back to the Cruiser and I was home by 1:30pm. Walking inside I picked up Harry to show him the big stag that daddy had brought home. At that time it struck me that had he not been born, I would have been somewhere in British Columbia chasing elk and moose. In his own little way, Harry was largely responsible for the taking of this great stag. I looked at the little guy and smiled. May there be many more young fella. May there be many more.