Mistakes and mishaps

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David Barrington Barnes reflects on the blunders that can plague low-ground stalkers, and the lessons that can be learned from them

A friend recently asked me why I enjoy deerstalking so much. I told her that I like watching the animals and birds, that I love the countryside, and so on and so forth. My reply cannot have been satisfactory as she was simply not convinced that these attractions were sufficient to lure me out stalking day in and day out.

On reflection, my friend was right to suspect there is some other reason, and it’s far more compelling than any I gave her. Cutting to the chase, I would say it’s the decision making. If one thinks about it, every low ground stalking outing involves the constant making and updating of judgements. The decisions required of the deerstalker, together with some luck – be it good or bad – determine the outcome of his outings. In telling our war stories about these stalkers tend to emphasise their successes. These favourable outcomes are much more satisfying to re-tell than those affected by the stalker’s mistakes.

Although I consistently and correctly disclaim any skill at stalking, I am sorry to note this tendency creeping into some of my recent contributions, which have dwelt on more successes than failures, so I now intend to redress this by sharing with you some of my mistakes.

I hate to admit I have (once) arrived at my stalking ground without my rifle and (twice) without its bolt

I admit that I am not the most methodical of men but, that said, I hate to admit I have (once) arrived at my stalking ground without my rifle and (twice) without its bolt. On the first occasion, a guest arrived at my home very early and (I claim) distracted me while I was loading my truck. Keeping the rifle and bolt separately is good security sense, but creates another task if the stalker is to ensure both arrive at the stalking field together. Many moons ago I recall I once took the wrong calibre ammo with me. These three blunders ended stalking outings before they began. Other items I have ocasionally omitted to pack include binos, boots and sticks, the lack of which can be overcome one way or another. These days I avoid the problem by two actions. I keep duplicate kit lists in the house and car, as suggested by Richard Prior. I also keep bags of spares – old pairs of binos and boots and so on – in the back of the truck.

On those outings for which I actually have all the kit I need for stalking, my first action is to check the direction of the wind. Now and then I have gotten this wrong, with dire consequences for my outing. On a soft pre-dawn summer morning there is often no discernible wind direction and an indication can likely only be obtained by the use of a puffer bottle, bubbles, smoke or similar devices. I have tested the wind in the vicinity of buildings and woods and obtained “false readings” on numerous occasions. The stalker needs to test the wind in the open but be aware that it will likely swirl around obstructions. When I have got it wrong, the consequences have often been that, with the coming of daylight, I have found myself stalking with the wind on the back of my neck. With that realisation, I have invariably been reminded of the late Arthur Cadman’s dicta: “…that only a fool goes stalking with the wind in the back of his neck.”

Wind woes: Misjudging wind behaviour around obstructions and obstacles is a common cause for error

Wind woes: Misjudging wind behaviour around obstructions and obstacles is a common cause for error

Out on the ground, the way to approach the selected high seat is also a matter of judgement on each visit. The stalker has to decide whether to go in well before first light and wait – risking bumping his quarry en route – or leave it until he can just see, and then stalk in. I recall a successful early summer morning approach into a roebuck that routinely occupied a grass patch to the left of the seat. I made it to the seat but inadvertently lifted the front edge of the plank seat with my backside. As it dropped back, it made a noise and that regular roebuck departed like a greyhound, leaving a rueful deerstalker sitting up over an empty clearing.

After making a mistake like that the stalker has to decide whether to stay or move. On another early summer morning, a roebuck barked as I climbed into a high seat just out from the woodland edge. I sat it out and two hours later the barking buck stepped boldly out of the wood. Well, even I get it right now and then!

In hunting the stalker’s progress starts from the first yard of his walk. In the half-light of a different morning, I was out of my truck and making ready to stalk when a shootable buck appeared and stood in the first gateway. Only my sticks were extended by the time he disappeared into 50 acres of standing rape. On my next visit, I started further back, but of course never again saw that buck.

In either field or woodland, the most exacting decisions are those that have to be made when deer are in view. When deer have seen me it’s Hobson’s choice! I know my only chance is to wait them out and hope their heads go down. However, when I have spied unsuspecting deer I feel as if I am in a mental minefield. First, I have to decide whether they are in range and if any of them are shooters. If they are, then my next concern is whether a safe shot is possible. Then I may have to consider whether I can get closer. If I think I can or must, then the painstaking approach begins, and it’s agonising just because experience tells one so many things can go wrong.

Earlier this year, in a gale force wind, I watched an old roe doe, buck and follower return to couching cover after a brief feed. Benefitting by the noise of the wind, I crawled into a position at the foot of a high seat about 50 yards from them. I could have had a safe shot at the doe from there but wanted the extra safety I would have gained from the height of the high seat. As I climbed it, the deer got me and made off… a good chance lost through over-confidence. Another dank, drizzling morning found me sitting up for fallow does. When a doe and follower duly appeared 60 yards to my right, I could not see either of them through the scope. Both lenses had a film of moisture over them, which I should have known as I had been having to wipe dry my bino lenses periodically from the start of my session.

I have left my worst low ground stalking mistake until last. Many years ago I was sitting up for red deer on some big black bales, that gave me a splendid view over a pasture. A stag duly appeared (not, as I expected, nicely down the field) obliquely just off the end of my rifle barrels. My shot took the top off one of these bales and missed this sitter. Since then I’ve never forgotten that a clear picture through the scope is no guarantee of a clear line of fire.

Avoiding errors, getting it right, making the correct decisions – call it what you will – those are the spices that flavour low ground stalking. The number and variety of them perhaps explain why I made such a poor fist of informing my friend of the reasons for my passion for deerstalking. And, having eaten humble pie, I try not to forget Oscar Wilde’s apt aphorism: “Experience is the name men give to their mistakes.”

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