Fortuitous stag

Head for the hills: Nick hopes to have more luck with the stags than he did with the salmon

Sporting Rifle’s Nick Latus heads to the hills with wife in tow to kindle her interest in Scotland’s finest sporting pursuit and secures an opportune 10-pointer

Each year late August or early September, I join a group of five intrepid hunters complete with spouses and make the seven-hour drive north for a week of hunting and fishing at Glen Etive, part of Blackmount Estates. The base for our stay is the old hunting lodge, which lies on the banks of Loch Etive and is steeped in history. With views from the dining room windows showing the imposing heights of Ben Starav and Beinn Chaorach, it gives a chance once a year for us mere mortals to live like lairds.

Head stalker for the past nine years had been Ian Dingwall, but at the end of the previous season he had taken up a new post as head stalker on another estate on Rannoch Moor, so this year we were greeted by a new guide, Andrew McKenzie. Andrew, coming from a forestry background, had been brought in to help manage both the deer and the forest and was certainly keen for us all to have a good time, be it on the hill or down by the river – it turned out he was an accomplished river ghillie and superb casting coach.

Sitting down on the first evening in front of a roaring log fire, we formulated the plan for the week to come. It would be my turn to go out on the hill midweek – this was fine by me as it had rained steadily for the last three days, which meant the river levels were up and there was a good chance of hooking into a salmon in the meantime. Come midweek, it looked like things would be brightening up on the weather front, which would make my forthcoming ascent for a stag much more bearable.

For the next two days I thrashed the River Etive into a flowing cappuccino with my questionable casting technique, to no avail. It was with much relief when Andrew called on Tuesday evening to say the weather was supposedly on the change the following day, so it should be a nice day out on the hill. Apparently we would be hunting the north march, and with what seemed like a good plan, my only request was if it would be ok to take my wife Nicola with us as she hadn’t been stalking on the hill and was keen to experience the thrill. “Not a problem,” he replied, “I’ll pick you both up at seven in the morning.”

In the distance: Glassing begins at over 600 yards from the quarry

The next morning, Andrew arrived in good time with an up-to-date weather forecast. Grabbing my rifle, I showed Andrew an empty chamber before closing the bolt and securing it in the slip with a full magazine safely in my pocket. We swung into the Land Rover, and Nicola held up the bag of necessities – not least our piece, which would be most welcome at lunch time. A quick stop-off at the target showed Andrew that my rifle and I were up to the task and we were soon bumping along uphill through the forestry.

After 30 minutes or so, Andrew brought the vehicle to a halt at the start of a fire break, which meandered its way up through the forestry and on to the slopes of Stob Coire Sgreamhach, an imposing Munro that made the wife gasp with its magnificence. This hill, Andrew told us, held a good population of red deer, so the three of us disembarked and set off on the steady climb up through the forest spruces.

By now the sun was beginning to make its presence known, and not known for being the fittest of people these days, I was beginning to sweat like a pregnant nun – so it was a relief when we exited the forestry and came out onto the open hillside. After a welcome break, we headed across the moor into the wind. But, we soon realised our folly: the wind, no doubt owing to the nature of the ground, was blowing our scent up the hill towards a group of hinds we had spotted in the distance.

Stopping again to re-evaluate our position seemed pointless, so we continued on our present course to get to higher ground and hopefully get a better chance of fathoming out the wind. The hinds as expected were plotting our every move, and I hoped they didn’t bolt, taking any unseen stags with them. Then Nicola caught sight of movement to our left – don’t you just love it when the wife does that? It was two deer coming down the side of the opposite hill; through the Leica binos we saw that they were two stags.

As the distance was well over 600 yards, all we could do was watch and wait. If they continued on their present course, we would have the wind and they would come to us. However, the little word ‘if’ is a big one when it comes to hunting any quarry, and an hour later Andrew decided to pull out of this hill and try a different approach. He explained it would be probably a better option to go back to the vehicle and make the short journey around the other side of the face we had just seen the stags on. This hill, Meall a’ Bhuiridh, I knew well, having stalked and shot beasts on it before.
Plan B seemed like a good option. It was a quick descent, and the drive up to the next exit point actually ended within the forest canopy and where the start of an Argocat trail began. Following this on foot we were soon once again out of the trees and onto the hill proper. Straight away a group of hinds was in clear view on the top of Meall a’ Bhuiridh, with at least two stags also in residence.
It wasn’t going to be easy getting up to them as we would have to navigate around and below them to keep the wind in our favour, but as the saying goes, ‘no pain no gain’. I for one was willing to give it a go, but I wasn’t sure what the wife thought of it.

Fortuitously, as I lowered my binoculars from spying the deer high above us, I caught sight of the uppermost tips of a stag’s antlers, no more than 100 yards away to our front. They were moving at some pace to our right, the contours of the land now obscuring him from our view. Andrew half-jokingly asked if I was sure I’d not been seeing things. I knew it was a hot day but I wasn’t delirious just yet, so we made off to our right in a bid to pick up the fleeing deer, despite Andrew being convinced it was a mythical one.

A 10-point head – a fine result on the hill

Andrew, who was leading, suddenly dropped to his knees, signalling to Nicola and me to do the same. He motioned for the rifle; I un-slipped it, fed in the mag and belly crawled forward to get a glimpse of the ‘mirage’ I’d seen 10 minutes earlier. The stag stood majestically in full view some 150 yards away. Looking through the binoculars, I could see it was a nice stag with nine visible points, and I asked Andrew if it was a shooter. The affirmative nod was all I needed.

Deploying the bipod legs, I chambered a round. By now the beast was around 200 yards away and heading away from us. Thankfully he came to a small brae and paused, turning broadside to offer me a textbook shot, which I took without hesitation. The .30-06 unleashed 180 grains of lead, hitting the beast squarely in the engine room. Rearing slightly, he surged forward to tumble over all legs and hooves, his life over in an instant. Reloading, I covered his position through the scope, but I knew he was down for good.

Standing up, I shook Andrew’s hand, and the three of us moved forward to admire the trophy, which actually turned out to be a 10-point head. Nicola remarked that she didn’t realise how big a red stag was until she was up alongside one. It was obvious she had enjoyed the experience. With a field gralloch complete, Andrew left us to eat our piece literally in peace amid the beautiful scenery while he went back to bring up the Argocat to extract the beast.

The Highland experience is always earned, but it is a unique one. Taking the wife along may not be every stalker’s, priority but if you can encourage their enthusiasm for the hunt, it makes it a damn sight easier to get a pass out for similar adventures in the future.

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