Jason Doyle recounts one of his most memorable stalks on his patch in County Wicklow – not for sika or red, but for a cross of the two species
As a stalking guide, the opportunities I get to grass a beast myself are surprisingly infrequent. During the rut all my time is taken up with clients, and most of our hind cull is also completed by guests. To be honest, the lack of personal trigger time doesn’t bother me in the slightest as the gratification one gets from seeing a fellow hunter make the most of a good hunt is far more rewarding than taking the animal myself. That said, every once in a while I take a notion and head out to high ground to explore new areas and cull something small and suitable for my table.
It was on one such occasion in early January I took the afternoon off and headed for some, to me, unfamiliar and particularly high ground. I had glassed it from afar the previous day and witnessed a nice group of sika/red hybrids (my personal favourite venison) gathered on a westerly facing area. It was a long and steep climb to reach this herd, making it the perfect exercise to clear the last of the sluggishness left from an overindulgent Christmas. Intending to shoot only a calf, I was travelling light. No rucksack this time, just a waist bag containing a few essentials, rifle, binos and my ever-present hound Jake.
I pressed hard up through steep, dark forestry, small shafts of light striking down through the tight canopy, showing the way to the open hill above. On reaching the end of the trees I was greeted by a beautiful Wicklow evening, golden January sunlight bathing the chilly hill in just enough warmth to clear the frost as the sun swung westerly to light up the mountainside in front of me. Legs burning and chest thumping from the climb, I lay against a rock to glass my quarry. Still a good mile and a half away, the hybrids were easily visible, lit up by the sunlight. On first impressions the stalk would be easy enough with plenty of dead ground between us to cover my approach – but things are not always as they seem. So often on rough mountainous ground I have spooked animals previously hidden from view, and the hunt has been ruined as a result. With this in mind I set off at a steady pace, glassing regularly as every new piece of hill became visible.
Everything was going to plan and my Leicas put the herd at 800 metres when a silhouette appeared on the skyline above the hybrids but closer to my position. One quickly turned into a dozen sika, grazing but moving steadily to bask in the last of the evening sun. I sat tight, cursing them as they settled within 400 metres of me. They were a tempting option but I had made up my mind I was here for a hybrid, so I resolved to stick to the original plan. The sika would just make things a little more difficult. Scanning the hill in front of me it was clear there was no easy route to my chosen quarry without being plainly visible to the sika herd so a long crawl was on the cards. I had the rapidly dropping sun on my side – to spot me, the sika would be looking directly into it, so with this in mind I set off on hands and knees, keeping eyes on the sika at all times in case there was any sign of one spotting me.
I’m no stranger to crawling during a stalk, but after 600 metres through long heather on rough ground trying to carry a rifle I was exhausted. The sika above me were unaware of my presence, as were the hybrids 200 metres in front. The herd was stretched over a good area so I studied them hard to select an appropriate target before making my final crawl into a shooting position. There was a group of four closest to me and one was obviously a calf. It often amazes me how difficult it can be to distinguish between young and adult deer on the mountain. With heads down feeding and bodies partially obscured by rocks and heather, age can be difficult to determine, but I was sure this was a calf.
I’m no stranger to crawling during a stalk, but after 600 metres through long heather on rough ground trying to carry a rifle I was exhausted
Slowly and quietly I slid forwards, chest pressed against the ground, eyes on the deer at all times. Sensing the importance of this stage of the stalk, Jake was at my shoulder, moving and stopping as I did. The heather opened up nicely at one spot as we crawled – this was perfect. I reached down and clicked off the waist bag; pushing it ahead of me, I lay the rifle on it. No need to range the deer now – it was under 150 metres. Jake moved back behind me and sat quietly, keeping a keen eye on proceedings. The calf was grazing towards me; I quietly fed a round into the chamber, keeping my fingers against the bullet to avoid any unwanted noise. At this manageable range, I reduced the magnification of my scope to give the best chance of seeing the animal’s reaction to the shot. Just as I did this, the calf turned broadside, I drew the crosshairs up the foreleg and settled on the centre of the shoulder. Safety off, breathe, and bang.
The long drag back was a satisfying one, tracing the route I had crawled earlier with the cold air fuelling my heaving lungs. I chuckled to myself at the lengths we as hunters go to for our sport. The harder one has to work, the more memorable the whole experience. As the last of another stunning Wicklow sunset sank out of sight I headed home, already looking forward to the next time. ν