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For several years I had been working on two major goals: shoot a 30-inch rusa stag and get some high quality photographs of a 30-inch stag. Coming into one season, it finally happened.

At the end of April I saw rusa hinds and small stags at the end stage of velvet, with larger stags still needing a little more time to finish growing. Heading into mid-May I still hadn’t seen any stag sign that seemed to indicate a mature animal in my area. In fact, I was seeing very little large stag sign where I would normally.

Early June I started checking areas and blocks that I wouldn’t normally have time for. I quickly noticed a particular gully seemed to be holding quite a lot of deer compared to the surrounding area, and a flash of antler one day piqued my interest.

I finished work early one day and was walking in with about an hour and a half of light left, perfect. As soon as I hit the bush edge a hind barked but didn’t sprint off. She poked her nose forward, stomped and slowly moved off. Very typical of an animal which has seen movement but can’t smell you. This turned out to be the catalyst that secured my first 30-inch stag.

I immediately slowed right down; her head movements indicated there were other deer around which I couldn’t see. After a few minutes of straining my eyes through the glass I saw a stag staring straight at me. Had she not slowed me down I would have moved through and most likely spooked this boy in the spot he was bedded, blowing out all the surrounding deer. This stag was not a shooter but he was displaying very similar behaviour to the hind. Looking at me, he was repeatedly glancing around a corner I was unable to see.

After he moved out of sight, I cautiously moved my view around a big lantana thicket to see where he was looking, one step at a time. Five steps in, a brown patch that could only belong to a deer showed up. A hind. Then more hinds and spikers. I assumed this was just another mob of hinds and spikers, and the stag I’d seen was the guy in charge. But a large shadow behind the hinds caught my attention.

Immediately I was met with a new problem as the shadow materialised. There were three large stags, close together with lantana obscuring them. It was difficult to tell which body belonged to which antlers, and they were agitated.

With crosshairs pointed, I found what appeared to be the biggest set of antlers and followed the body shape. Fortunately he was the one in front. The bullet line had sticks within 20-30cm in all directions but it found the mark without any trouble and fired.

He piled up about 40m away. His antlers forked quite high compared to the average Rusa, which caused me to underestimate how long he really was, but after running the tape over him I had broken the magic 30-inch mark.

As the mob had taken off with the shot, I was certain there was another set of mature antlers running through the scrub. It turned out I was right. Three days later, 50m away from the carcass of my stag, I watched an enormous stag sail through the air over a lantana thicket. If a crowd of grown men were there none of them would have been touched. I was so amazed by the sight that I almost forgot why I was there.

Same time of day, same place, another five days later. Walking slowly, after an hour I crested a small ridge in the gully when I was barked at from the other side. A lone deer. It felt like it took 10 minutes to locate the source of the noise, but it was probably only 30 seconds. Once I saw those massive gleaming antlers, I wondered how I couldn’t see him straight away.

He was locked onto me, so there was no way of moving to another position. A gum tree stood between the majority of his vitals and my scope. I had limited options, try offhand at 100m for a neck shot or try to slip the bullet close to the tree and hit the front part of his lungs. I chose option B. The shot felt good but he ran straight uphill. This was unsettling.

Standing where he was hit, with light starting to fade, I felt like I’d blown it. However, following his tracks uphill for 30m, I spied a white rump on the ground — a huge relief.

This stag had a larger body size and I weighed it when I got home. Pack and gear, two hind legs, backstraps, head and cape came in at 52kg.

It took me a few years to get to the point where I knew the deer and the properties well enough to mix it with the big boys and beat a mature animal, and I did it twice in a week.

The deer hadn’t even started roaring yet and I felt I had done more than enough, so I left this herd alone and focused on my second goal, to get high-quality photos. I dedicated time to just photography and focused on getting some good behavioural footage. Capturing a high-quality photograph of a wild, mature stag is much more difficult than putting a bullet into one.

Many times I was within 10m of roaring stags, watching them thrash, lock antlers and phlegming on the hinds; learning the intricacies of their behaviour, their tolerances and how the hinds respond. Sitting and watching will teach you more than shooting them ever will.


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Zac McKenzie

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