Early season stalking with Will O’Meara

As Will O’Meara gears up for early season stalking in Ireland, he suggests his top tips for getting ahead of the game.

Some preseason checks should help avoid disaster

On some parts of the world, hunting is a year-round activity. Here in Ireland, our deer-hunting season is six months of the year, and starts on 1 September.

For me, this means a six-month break from hunting. Of course, there is still opportunity for fox control, some rabbit shooting and also activities likes pigeon decoying with the shotgun. There was a time when nights spent fox shooting were high on the agenda, but not for me in more recent years. 

I do, on occasion and at the request of farmers, conduct some summer culling under special licence, but to be honest I like the break from hunting. It keeps me hungry for the season, and allows me time to develop my skills on the range.

One reason I think that I enjoy the break is because I hunt hard during the winter, and am out in the field a lot. February is the last month of our season, and I always try to maximise this time on the hill, often taking weeks off work in order to guide and hunt for myself, stocking the freezer and making the most of it. This means that by the last day of the season the break is very welcome!

This year has been a strange one for us all, and for me that means I haven’t had much range time. As I write this, it is only two weeks until opening day, and that means I need to get prepped.

Thankfully, it’s not a complete cold start, as I embraced dry fire practice during lockdown and have been keeping the physical training regime going too. In the month leading up to the deer season, I always like to prepare, and that preparation has a number of aspects to it: administration, ground, rifle, fitness, equipment, vehicle and larder, for starters.

First and foremost is having your hunting ground sorted, ensuring that the landowner is happy, that your lease or permission is in order, and that you have the associated paperwork in place.

Time spent scouting is time well spent

If you have new ground to hunt in then a map review will ensure you know your boundaries and help you identify likely locations you might expect to see deer. Google Earth will give you a bird’s eye view of the terrain and help locate open feeding areas within forestry, sheltered areas on the mountain and the best way to access the ground while bearing the prevailing wind in mind.

E-scouting is all well and good, but it’s no substitute for getting boots on the ground, and a good hike to familiarise yourself with the ground will help your knowledge of the area, deer behaviour patterns, help improve your fitness and get some of your kit in order.

In areas where you have a good knowledge of the ground, scouting visits can be helpful in several ways. What does the population density look like? What does this year’s calf population look like? Are animals looking in good condition?

How does the feeding and cover look? Are there new areas of clearfell, or does new growth make some areas difficult to hunt? This may lead to more work, such as moving highseats, creating access routes, adjusting the cull plan, etc.

Having your rifle dialled in is always a top priority. Removing the stock to check the condition of the bedding and ensure no debris in the barrel channel or trigger is a good start. I like to use an air line and a shot of lighter fluid to clean the trigger.

I have a compressor in the garage – it’s great for blowing out such mechanisms. Lighter fluid is a good trigger lubricant, as it will evaporate and condition the trigger. Oil will only act like a magnet for dust, which isn’t ideal in the inner workings of your trigger.

Removing the stock also allows you to check that all is in order mechanically. I check that the pins or bolt that retain the trigger are as they should be, and also that any pins, such as on the bolt release, are fully seated.

First aid kit for vehicle and backpack – now is a good time to check and restock

Reassembly allows you to correctly torque your action screws in an even manner and in line with the manufacturer’s guidelines. I mark the screws on my rifle once torqued so that I can check them visually at any stage.

I have been surprised in the past at how bolts and screws can loosen gradually over time, especially on scope rings. I have used Loctite thread-lock in the past, and if you wish to do so then ensure that you use the correct type for that size of screw, otherwise it may lead to some massive headaches!

I don’t currently use thread-lock on my rifles, but I do mark screws with a dab of nail varnish or a tiny scribe mark, and I periodically check them with the fix-it-sticks torque driver.

If you use a ballistic turret then it can be worth checking this. Doing so firstly at 100 metres or yards will tell you if it is functioning correctly and returning to zero.

Checking it at the various distances will confirm your data. For example, in my 6.5 Creedmoor Tikka CTR I have a 100m zero, and I have 1cm or 0.1 mrad clicks on my Steiner Scope. My data looks like this with the 130gr Sako Gamehead Pro:

RANGE ELEVATION 6 MPH WIND
100m00.1 
200m 0.60.2
300m 1.40.3

With the scope at 0, I shoot one shot at 100m to confirm zero, dial six clicks and shoot again at 100m, then dial 14 clicks and shoot again at 100m, dial back to 0 and repeat.

At the end of this test I measure and expect that my shots will be on target, 6cm high and 14cm high respectively. I do it in this manner to confirm my clicks are accurate and returning to zero. If you have any doubts, you can also do this test without firing.

I clamp my scope (carefully) in a vice, and set up a target at 100m. With my turret on zero, I aim at the target, clamp the scope, confirm still on target, dial 100 clicks (10 mRad) then I mark the target where the crosshair is – helpful assistant is handy at this point!

Measure between the two points with a tape. In this example I would expect it to be one metre or 100cm. If it was only 90cm then I would know that my elevation value per click was .9cm per click – I can then input this to my ballistic calculator. 

Next, I will practice at the respective distances; dial zero shoot a shot at 100m, dial six clicks for 200m and fire a shot, then I dial 14 clicks for 300m and fire one shot, rinse and repeat.

I am a fan of the truing process, which eliminates the need to confirm at each distance, but I think with a hunting rifle it is good practice to shoot the practice as described.

It will confirm the function of your turret and your data, give confidence, give you a picture of your accuracy at these ranges, and help ingrain the process of dialling for distance.

This process will also help you to know your limits, and you should be disciplined in this regard. I also encourage the practice of shooting with aides you may use in the field such as bipods, packs, tripods or quadsticks. This will highlight any shift in point of impact using different supports or in different positions.

With my Tikka there is no shift in point of impact, irrespective of position. When describing its performance, I say that you could sit it on the top of a standing milk bottle, align the sights, pull the trigger and impact your target.

Last season I shot deer from some pretty awkward positions – off tufts of mountain grass, tree stumps, rocks and the like – and the CTR always found its mark. Having such a rifle inspires tremendous confidence, and confidence breeds success.

I attribute this to the rifle, the PSE Riflestock and the ammunition – it was all in harmony. Another worthwhile exercise is to check your zero for close shots, such as 20m, and also establish your Point Blank Zero.

Your Point Blank Zero basically gives you a distance spectrum where you can hold centre on the vitals without scope correction and have fall of shot be successful. This will vary depending on the size of your quarry and performance of your projectile.

This Point Blank Zero can be extended by zeroing at a further distance, or in other words by zeroing high at 100m. For example, with most flat shooting deer calibres if you zero 1.5 inches high at 100 yards you will be bang on at 200 yards, you might then be about three inches low at 250 yards. Confirm on paper and have a realistic size and location perspective of the vitals in the species you’re hunting.

The fruits of some pigeon decoying this summer gave me the opportunity to check the functionality of my cold room and provided the motivation to give it a good clean down, sharpen my knives and decide what additions are needed on the larder side this year.

In our house we value the quality and healthiness of wild meat, and I am proud to say that over the past 12 months our raw meat supply has all been wild game that I harvested and prepared myself.

Added to that, about 50 per cent of our fish was what I had caught and prepared. The satisfaction from this effort has been huge. Last summer I purchased a new mincer and an additional freezer.

Look after your boot leather and it will look after you

I made a skinning rail and winch, and I had the cold room serviced. This year I bought a new set of outdoor edge knives that came as a set, and I am investing in a vacuum packer and some extra gambrels too.

Other obvious points are to ensure that you have good fitting boots that you have tested and used. Clean your optics, change batteries and stock up on spares as required. Check that kit such as drag strap, backpack and first aid kit are in good order.

Once you are happy that all your equipment is organised, start making a plan. Include your family in your plans so that they are aligned and understand the importance of your hunting.

Are there some benefits for them? Personally, I try to make the most of the off season with home improvement projects and the like. The meat is also a benefit for the whole family, and me getting into the hills makes me less grumpy and hence slightly more tolerable in general.

For many of us, hunting brings this almost unexplainable sense of contentment. I believe that this is due to the millennia of hunting in the generations before that has been handed down to us in our genetic make-up, ingrained in our DNA. Once you discover this purpose it becomes all consuming.

So remember all the Ps: proper planning and preparation prevents particularly poor performance, and don’t shoot all your prickets. They will of course offer you the most shot opportunity early in the season, but they are your stags of the future.  

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