Hoggie stag confronts the photographer
By Col Allison
I WALKED INTO the butchery on Sunday Island and there hanging in the meat cool room with half a dozen mature hog deer stags and hinds was a fox-sized yearling weighing a mere 15kg. A sheepish Robert Borsak, my politician shooting mate of 40 years, owned up to decking it.
“It was a mistake, mate. But it will be a great eater. Of course if you don’t want your half, I’ll keep it.” As if! There is no better venison than hoggie meat. It’s sweet and tender and the only possible rival is chital venison, but for me Hog is best.
Robert had previously been hunting a far flung block of the island where he had taken a cull fallow buck croaking its head off. Mandatory checking of all deer on the island saw him hump the menil buck 600 metres to where he’d parked the truck, then struggle by his lonesome to get it in the back. The antlers were to be a present for a grandson, who celebrated his sixth birthday that day.
As luck would have it, I had successfully shot a good hog stag on the block closest to the island settlement – the airstrip block – and when the second shooter of the season had cancelled his hunt, Robert-on-the-spot was allowed to take his place and finally get a chance at a hog stag.
A big head better than my 13-1/4-incher was hanging about so Robert held out on shooting the 11 hinds, a few spikers and
a decent fallow buck he’d seen in favour of trying for the hog stag. But at the last minute of the third day of hunting he went for meat over horn and shot the fawn when the hind swapped places in the near dark. Hence the vealer on the meat rack.
For the last five years now, it’s become the norm each season for Robert and I to travel to historic Port Albert on the far south-eastern Victorian coastline. This year we left a day after my 72nd birthday in April. We overnight at Yarrum, grocery shop in a local supermarket, then drive the short distance to the port to catch the island boat owned by the Para Park Co-Operative Game Reserve Ltd. A short run along the channel soon saw us unloading our gear on the 500m-long jetty to Steve Mathews, the island manager. Using a quad, Steve pushes the luggage in a small carriage along a rail line to the jumping off station, hub of a thriving community of visitors who stay in tin sheds called “tents” of around 7mx3m, each fitted out as nifty weekenders.
Steve and his wife Leanne offer a great service to the 230 members of the co-op, which has safeguarded a unique herd of hog deer numbering about 300-350 animals for the last 40 years. From this closely managed Sunday Island herd comes about 60 per cent of the Victorian hog deer catch. A growing herd of fallow has also spread about the place, to the consternation of some hunters, including me, concerned they will eat out the limited range of the more distinctive hoggies.
The animals are hunted by ballot as they are in several places on the mainland, from about Lakes Entrance to Wilson’s Promontory. But many of the prime parcels of land holding quality hog deer on the coast are on private farms where shooting a head can cost up to $8,000, when available, more than twice what it costs to join Para Park. Other land is government owned where hog deer – axis porcinus – are protected. Nearby Snake Island, off Port Welshpool, has long been a magnet for poachers. But the price of getting caught is high today, with loss of licences, guns and even vehicles likely.
So for me and a lot of my Sydney and Victorian mates, Sunday Island and its wonderful herd of hog deer is a bargain, a lifetime membership investment that can even be passed on to relatives after your death. Each year every member will be balloted a block to hunt but yours could be the first set of boots on the spot during the season – or the fifth or sixth. On some blocks the hog stags become nocturnal as the pressure increases, as happens on the mainland.
Year after year, depending on the season, a limited number of stags – usually 20 to 30 – can be taken and a hog hind is also allowed. I’ve never shot a female simply because I’m always holding out for a top stag until the last day’s last light. With just two to three day’s hunting, to my mind it makes no sense blowing your chances of a quality stag for meat, no matter how good it is. That’s me. Most hunters are more ambivalent.
The hunting of hog deer is very strictly controlled. A limited season. All animals weighed and gutted and jaw bones removed for assessment later (the two stags I have shot were 9 years old for my big 15-1/2 incher of 2014, and barely 6 years for the 13-1/4 incher of 2016). All animals are recorded. Not unsurprising for an exceptionally rare animal outside its native range – the high grass swamps of the Himalayan foothills and along the banks of rivers in East Pakistan, Nepal, Assan and Bhutan. The biggest heads come from Burma, though heads to 20 inches have been recorded in Australia, but not on sandy Sunday Island, where last season drought killed 40-odd animals.
Hog deer are closely related to axis or chital and come in small packages – the size of a Labrador dog for a mature male, and slightly smaller for a female. My recent stag went 32 kg on the hoof, the heaviest of the-then month-long season, but on the coast they can weigh in at up to 45kg.
In sunlight or dappled light in scrub clearings, the pelts of hog deer can look orange with a dark dorsal stripe flanked on each side of the spine by a row of faint white spots. But at your feet, the skin is creamy-grey on young animals and browny-grey in older. From a high seat this year, my trophy stag stepped from the thick teatree jungle and glowed brightly in the first rays of sunshine in two days.
It doesn’t pay to continually walk about your hog hunting block when shooting begins. The deer will not come out of cover if disturbed too much. Conversely, they are used to people strolling around in the non-hunting season, on Sunday Island at least (where half the membership are non-shooters). That’s why stand hunting is the norm in Victoria. Deer don’t look up and from three or four metres aloft you have a better field of vision for when the deer leave the swamps and thickets to eat or sun themselves in the tussocks. When the sun strike a hog deer rack it positively lights up like a beacon.
While a 23-1/4-inch head taken in the colonial days of India holds the world record (Rowland Ward, 1967), occasionally a mighty impressive head is shot in Oz. Typically Asiatic is style – three points aside is normal, but extra points are not uncommon, particularly on the upper tops – trophy heads begin at about 12 inches. Such critters would be three to four years of age. Left to grow old and mature, as seldom happens in confined spaces, you get heads of 16 to 17 inches in the 8-10 years + age group.
Robert Borsak shot an old, non-typical head in a left-right, stag-hind double a few years back with his .270 Winchester. To my mind such going-back racks on any species are really unusual, and thus highly desired trophies that have passed their best qualities through the gene pool.
Binoculars, camo gear, an accurate rifle of .243 Winchester and up, local knowledge or guidance, an understanding of your
quarry and it’s ecology, plus lots of patience, are prime requirements when stalking hog stags in known locations. In fact, to hunt Sunday Island, you must regularly pass marksmanship tests and written exams, mostly on safety and hog deer regulations and hunting behaviour.
These dainty, diminutive deer are not difficult to kill – but you must anchor your target to the spot with a single shot. Or risk losing it if it runs into thick stuff to die.
I have previously written about my biggest hog stag; how I shot it with a .30/06, it went down, got up and staggered off into the bush, leaving me emotionally gutted. I searched for it for hours, but extraordinarily Steve Mathews found it after midnight with a torch 70 metres from where I had dropped it. He’d done this dozens of times and it’s one of his unrequired services.
Like all the Asian deer, hog deer are tenacious and best not shot running between bushes. I’ve twice on five successful stag hunts been forced to track wounded game into thick scrub, a challenging pursuit, let me assure you. All my shot deer have been recovered.
You find your quarry, assess its antlers, take your time with the shot and hit it in the boiler room, anchoring it immediately. Do that and you’ve scored one of the greatest little game animals in the world. On Sunday Island, you’ve done it all by yourself for there’s no one to guide you on your block. Hog stag hunting this way is trophy hunting at its most basic. Are you up to the challenge?