Fog, hills and stags

Will O’Meara delivers another instalment of lessons learned from hunts past – this time from a hill stalk in his native county of Wicklow

It’s Saturday night. I have the Landy packed and ready to go. My clothes are laid out on a kitchen chair – boots and gaiters at the door. I pore over the map of Wicklow that’s laminated to our kitchen table. Wind is from the north west and my weather app is showing low cloud. Maybe the forest would be a good bet, but the hill is calling. The wind will suit the spot I want to hunt. Decision made, alarm set, time for bed. My phone beeps a text; “You hunting the wood tomorrow?” “Nope, work away lad,” I reply.

I flick my lights from full beam to dims, to try and find the best setting to help me see through the fog as I drive toward the mountain, regretting my decision. I know the futility of hunting the mountain in the fog… Let’s go and have a look anyway.

Arriving at the spot, I get my gear on. I have just started walking when I hear the distant roar of a rutting hybrid stag – it stops me in my tracks. Binos up and scan; I can see no more than 100 yards, the broken terrain of the mountain before me doesn’t help – I sit and wait. As I sit there an opening appears below me – a clearing in the fog. I glass it immediately, nothing, the fog closes in again. I should have gone to the forest… It’s at that moment it occurs to me: I am obsessed with glassing as far as the eye can see. This may be the mountain, but in this fog I can hunt it like the forest and so my “foggestry” stalk begins. Take a few steps, glass, wait, glass, move on, the cycle repeats.

After twenty minutes or so I have spotted my first deer, a group of hinds above me grazing. They are on the move but at walking pace, no stag to be seen. But I am looking at the back of the group and the hill is concave and hiding the front runners. I slip into a gully and make a quick thirty yards, safe in the knowledge that I am concealed. I pop out on a bank of sheep grass and glass with my binos from the lying position. I can see the whole group now but there’s not a stag amongst them. I slide back into the gully and glass the lower side of the hill below me, elbows rested and to staring through the fog.

The moving forest of fog ebbs and flows, revealing deer like rocks and antler like branches on occasion. Suddenly there’s movement of a hind and calf. They stop and look behind. Just then a male deer stands in full view. He was there all along but hidden . He’s a hybrid with narrow wavy spikes and is going to fit the bill for today. From where I stand I can see him, but a large belt of young gorse about 30 yards to my front will obstruct the flight path of my bullet. Just then a long low whistle that ends in a rumbling roar catches the attention of the spiker and I. We stare into the thick fog to the north. Again that prehistoric roar echoes towards us; the three shrieks tell me he has sika blood, the growling roar at the end said he had red blood – a hybrid.

How do you prepare for the toughest hunts? Be persistent, be proficient, put in the time

From the lay of the land I figure that I’ll need to crawl uphill to get a shot at either of these deer, but the group of hinds are above me. I sit and wait for the situation to develop. The hinds feed steadily away uphill and are soon lost in the fog. I take the opportunity to move slowly uphill; I am in full view of the spiker now. I keep an eye on him as I edge backwards up the hill; he has moved slightly since I first saw him and is now together with the hind and calf. I force myself to move slowly, knowing that movement will catch their attention. I have a clear view now, and I place the rifle on my knee for a seated shot. I curse myself for not bringing the short quadsticks or a long bipod or even my frame-pack; any of these would be perfect for this situation, but my efforts to travel light have denied me these tools.

I decide the range is too far for a sitting shot unsupported, I must find a prone position. I scan the mountain around me for such a position and see a rock 30 yards to my right. I edge across to the rock and find that on the backside of it is a slab of flat rock, a perfect set up for the bipod. I place the rifle carefully in position, the fog has rolled in again. I set up behind the rifle; it’s awkward because I’m lying downhill and I can’t set up to one side because of how the rock is positioned. So I get in position and wait for the fog to clear.

The waiting period gives me time to recall a few things I have learned over the years about shooting downhill. Most shooters know that shooting downhill (and uphill) is not the same as shooting on the flat. We know that the “shoot-to” range is less when shooting at an angle, this is simply due to the fact that gravity is the determining factor on bullet drop. A good way of visualising this is to imagine you are perched on top of a cliff; you have a target that you range at 606 yards, this target is only 100 yards from the base of the cliff; in this situation your “shoot-to” range is 100 yards (your bullet only travels through 100 yards worth of gravity).

We have several tools that can give us our shoot-to range. The handiest tool is one that’s built into your rangefinder – at the touch of a button you have your range. I’ve previously had an inclinometer fitted to a rifle which will give me a percentage of the range to apply. There’s also a few little cosine angle indicators you can make up from laminated card, string and a button. All, bar the rangefinder option, require some quick calculation and are not terribly handy. In a practical application I have found that for hunting ranges, and the typical mountains I hunt in Ireland, there is no need to compensate for range. For instance a 30-degree slope will reduce your range by about 10%, 30 degrees is a pretty decent slope. At a range of 200 yards on a 30-degree slope your shoot-to range will be 180 yards; with a 200 yard zero this difference will be 0.1 of an inch for a 130gr Ballistic tip from my .270Win. At 300 yards in the same scenario it will translate to a 270 yard shoot-to range; a difference for me of just 2 inches.

Whilst it’s important to be aware of the effects of shooting up and downhill it is more important to be able to quantify it and realise at what point you need to apply it. What is even more important to know about shooting downhill is the effect that body position will have; if I overload the bipod with your body weight on a downward slope, I will shoot higher than normal. This is why I always focus on backing off from the rifle, to ensure my point of impact is accurate.

After a few minutes in the lying downhill position, I decide to sit up, no sooner have I done so that the fog clears below me to reveal the spiker. I confirm the range, reassume my shooting position, load, check the safety, back off slightly and check my turrets. I have a clear backdrop behind him, I place the crosshairs; no wind, I focus my eye on that spot, I focus my mind on the trigger.

The hybrid spiker presented a steep downhill shot, taken precisely by Will

As I walk up to the spiker hybrid, the fog closes in around us once more. The bullet struck as I aimed. I prepare the animal for extraction and as I do so I hear that echoing call of the big stag. I casually glance toward the sound and there he is, dark in body, light in antler colour. My subconscious instantly tells me he is the stag from last week (the star of last months article), but am I jumping to conclusions? I mark the spiker on my GPS app and close the distance to the stag. I contour around the hill, keeping low, and lose him from sight as I approach what looks like a shelf on the hill side. I edge forwards on hands and knees and spot him. I crawl forward, chest to the short sheep grass, and slowly deploy my Spartan 300 bipod. I range the stag and know I will only have a brief window of clarity from the fog. I tuck my bum-bag under the butt of the rifle and take a second to go through my pre-fire sequence.

I wait for the stag to present for the shot; he stands there facing me for what seems like forever, then he turns sharply, runs a few steps, stops and roars. I pick a spot where his coat seems darker; eye on the spot, mind on the trigger. The shot seems like a whisper of a thud in the dense foggy air. I see through the scope, the stags rear legs fold under him as he drops to the shot; good placement and follow through.

I continue to watch for a minute and reflect on the morning, on these magical beasts in this ancient landscape and I am thankful of being a hunter. It is only when I get down to the stag that I can for sure confirm he is the stag from the week before. I take a moment to admire him, I recall our encounter the week before, I recall the sound of his rutting call; a unique call that is not unusual in these mountains, but that particular call was unique to him and it will never again echo through these hills. I am stuck by the dichotomy of why we love and respect these wild animals yet we choose to kill them. As I gralloch and check for any sign of disease or infection I reconcile these feelings with the knowledge that this is all part of the circle of life. It provides a source of meat and allows me to work with the flow of nature. I know that my passion for hunting is pursued in a fair, ethical and balanced manner. It is part of my DNA; inherited though centuries of mankind’s struggle for existence. It is a natural thing and I am fascinated by it and the wild places it brings me.

That feeling was quickly replaced by another feeling when I realised I had not one but two hybrids to drag a significant distance back across the mountain. Luckily I’m a fan of mountains and of moving heavy things from one place to another!

From a technical perspective we’ve seen forestry tactics can be applied in the mountains; be flexible in your approach. We can also see that being patient and allowing the situation to develop can work in our favour. But it’s only with experience that you will know when action must be taken. The lesson of not overloading the bipod when shooting downhill will vary in its application based on the rifle, but the important thing is that you are consistent. If you are, your shot placement will be consistent. Finally, we remember that shot placement is of the utmost importance and to be accurate you must aim small; focus the eye on the spot and the mind on the trigger; stay in the process, and the result will look after itself. Each stalk is a lesson we can enhance our effectiveness as hunters by learning from each experience. I personally hope my learning never ends.

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