Red Stag Rut


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By Nick Harvey

 

Dawn was just breaking when I gained the top of the mountain after a long climb. I stood there feeling the sweat grow cold on me in the chill pre-dawn breeze. Suddenly, from the shadow blackened gully below me there issued the bull-like roar of a red stag. He wasn’t far away as the volume was terrific, sending loud echoes racketing through the valleys and across the hillsides. The mystery of the rut has always lured and fascinated hunters for it’s the time when trophy seekers realise their dreams and excitement runs highest.

The sound was cut-off all of a sudden and silence once more descended on the forest. Slowly, I pussyfooted across the summit and started moving diagonally downward as the roaring started up again. Now the stag was walking away, hurling menacing bellows at a rival away in the distance who answered with a long-drawn -out hoarse call.

The stag’s mating call is urgently expressive, and its meaning needs no translation. After a night spent serving a number of hinds, by mid-morning he sounds like a sleepy bull in a barnyard. But when he gets disgruntled with his harem of wives he grumbles and coughs and grunts like any dissatisfied husband. But when he’s feeling brimful of affection he gives out in rising voice, a long hoarse bellow and, follows up with a bark or two for added emphasis.

The stag was still roaring intermittently after I’d crossed the gully and started skirting along the edge of the lantana scrub on the far side. He sounded closer now. Bent halfover, I crept forward easing one foot after the other as I cautiously pushed through long wet razor grass. Taking advantage of a shallow fold in the slope to hide my approach, when I stuck my head up what I saw took my breath away. There he was, a magnificent red stag posed nicely side-on with his head turned away looking back up the hill. A dozen hinds were quietly grazing all a round him. He was a wonderful sight standing there with his long antlers sweeping upward. Three ivory tips on top of each antler formed crowns, he was a royal, a 12 pointer and a trophy well worth the taking.

Slowly raising the rifle to my shoulder, I braced my hand along the side of a tree, got the crosswires in the scope quartering the deer’s chest and started applying pressure on the trigger, but I held my shot as the hinds bunched up ahead of him, clouds of steam issuing from their nostrils. Then they raised their heads and started sniffing the air nervously. The stag trotted up behind them and grunted impatiently as he nudged the rearmost hind with the side of one antler. Suddenly another stag burst out of the bush shaking his antlers from side to side menacingly as he roared his challenge. The master stag defiantly sounded a screaming acceptance and trotted toward the intruder.

Through the scope I could see the other stag was a stout 10- pointer with heavy timber and long even tines. His rut-thickend neck outstretched, he stood there hurling challenge after bellowed challenge at his rival. Suddenly, the stags charged at each other, locked antlers and began pushing and shoving each other back and forth, digging their front hooves into the ground to gain purchase. It was a trial of strength and both stags were soon grunting loudly from their exertions. Before long the challenger was being driven back and forced to give ground. He ended the unequal contest by breaking away, and shakily quit the field leaving the victor to return to his harem.

While the two protagonists were thus occupied, there was a crashing in the brush and I heard the thud of hooves on the carpet of dry leaves as a young, eager 6-pointer came bounding onto the gully floor, intent on cutting a few hinds out of the old stag’s harem while he was engaged in a fight.

The master stag spotted him, let out an irate grunt and trotted between him and his harem with a stiff-legged gait, ready to do battle. The overeager youngster thoroughly intimidated by this show of belligerency and realised he’d taken on more than he could handle and turned tail, retreating to the safety of the bush. No doubt he’d run himself poor covering a lot more territory in search of some unattached females.

I’d become so rapt in watching all this that I forgot to shoot until the stag started to herd the hinds away along the valley floor. Waiting until they got out of sight, I came out of cover and began to follow after them. The breeze was blowing steadily in my face and the soft grass cushioned my foot steps as I sneaked across a shallow gully and slowly raised my head to look over a low ridge. Not unexpectedly, the stag had been watching his back trail, he saw me at the same time I spotted him, and let out a muted roar that alerted the does and sent them milling around.

I was wearing Swazi’s gum tree camo which blended in with my background and although the stag saw movement, he couldn’t identify what I was. He stood there momentarily unsure of what to do. I raised the rifle to my shoulder and through the scope I saw a red-eyed stag with heavy black ruff flaring out out, white- tipped antlers laid back as he stood with his head turned toward me. Pointing his nose in the air until his crown points touched his rump he tested the air and took a couple of steps toward me.

When I got the reticle in the scope held steady on his shoulder and fired, he reared up on his hind legs and spun around before slumping onto the ground. The hinds broke in all directions and fled into the bush. When I walked over to where he lay on his side in the grass, I could see that his neck and belly hair were all matted and black where he’d urinated all over his chest and belly. He was a splendid trophy with the brow, bez, royal and sur-royal tines all long and symmetrical with ivory tips.

On one typical hunt I set up my tent in a valley alongside a running stream of clear fresh water, and the next morning started up a ridge in the pre-dawn. After an hour of hard going sweat ran down my back, my shirt clung to me and the cold frosty air burned my lungs. There wasn’t a sound to be heard anywhere, but as I crossed a gully, I caught a whiff of wet musky hair mixed with the acrid odour of a stag in rut. Then as if on cue, from somewhere down in the cobalt blue shadows edging rainforest scrub a stag called briefly and then stopped abruptly.

I sat on a fallen log and watched as dawn gave way to early morning, quietly melting away the fog to reveal a panoramic view of timbered mountains stretching away as far as I could see in which long streamers of grey mist drifted to collect in a sea in the valleys. The area has an air of mystery and untroddenness with a blue haze shrouding the lofty peaks.

It was great to be hunting red deer again, and I thought of all the different spots where I’d found deer trails meandering through the inkweed and lantana scrubs and imagined the jumble of tracks around the muddy wallows where the deer come at dawn and dusk to roll about in the mud and then rub it off on the rough barked trees nearby. I remembered how the bark hung in long ribbons from saplings and the twisted bushes where stags had rubbed the velvet from itchy antlers.

Soon it was light enough to shoot, and I broke my reverie to follow a game trail heading around the sidehill that descended the ridge and allowed me to glass the valley floor. Away down the valley the first stag sounded reveille which was quickly taken up by other stags dotted all around in the forest who answered with lonely long-drawn roars. As the light grew stronger four or five stags were all calling together.

The randy deer were making beautiful music that caused my eager blood to run faster. And when a young spiker in the clearing below me joined in with a brassy shriek, I smiled quietly to myself. His puny effort sounded so weak and inadequate against the basso profundo booming out down through the valley.

He was somewhere in a thicket of lantana on the far side of the clearing. As I tried to locate him, a dozen hinds came filing out of the forest. Their sleek bodies, fat with a summer’s good feeding were rusty red, with the undersides and rump fading into dirty white.

Surely there had to be a mature stag not too far away. Then I heard him making a low grunting sound and roared at him. After a brief wait he replied with a loud roar. After an exchange of low bellows, I threw out a challenging call, hoping the stag would break cover and come running in full of fight, but he hung back in cover.

Getting a trifle impatient, I decided to stalk closer and moved down the gully with the breeze coming from the side, heading in the direction where I’d last heard him. Then I heard him walking on dry leaves and looked around to see a big 10- pointer intently eyeing me off from the edge of the scrub. He’d been circling around downwind trying to catch my scent.

That’s when I made my second mistake. Instead of throwing up my rifle and taking a quick offhand shot. I sat down to make sure of him, but he wouldn’t stand for it and went straight into overdrive, running across the valley floor to catch up with the hinds. That was his mistake. As he bounded across in the open I swung the crosswires in the scope along past his rump and when the intersection got about a metre ahead of his chest touched Old Betsy off. He kept going for a few metres then dropped in mid-stride and lay still.

He was an old stag, long past his prime. He had thick antlers with heavy pearling and nine exceptionally long tines. He sure wouldn’t please those who dote on the Douglas score, but by more realistic European standards he was a worthwhile trophy.

I’ll own up to missing a better stag two days later. After I jumped him he took off running across the open ridge below me, so I ran to get a clearer shot. But when he stopped it was behind a patch of scrub oak and I could only see his head, his body was entirely shielded. He had an unusual pale ginger coloured coat, and very even 12-point antlers. He took a step forward and I caught a glimpse of his shoulder through a gap in the branches, and snapped off a shot. Unhit he went tearing away through the trees and was lost to sight. Although I spend an hour looking him, I never saw him again. But that’s deer hunting all over, the unpredictable luck of the game is what makes it so exciting.

 

 

 


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