I’d made an off-the-cuff promise that would come back to haunt me. At the time, my six-year-old son Daniel suddenly decided he wanted to be a hunter like dad, and wanted immediately to take on an 18-point rutting red stag in the roar. I pointed out that to be a hunter, you had to start small and progress to bigger game. We agreed on a rabbit, and I was put on notice to deliver one before he turned seven. Nothing more was said, and I thought the notion of becoming a hunter had flitted out of his head as quickly as it flitted in.
Then, months later, he sidled up to my chair one night and said matter-of-factly, “You’ve got two weeks!”
“Two weeks for what?”
“Two weeks to get me a rabbit!”
His birthday loomed. And I learned in a hurry that you can’t break a promise to a six-year-old.
That set in motion a journey that continues today – father teaching son to become a hunter. It’s something that cannot be done overnight, over a weekend, or throughout the course of a series of lectures. It’s something that, like making good cheese, takes time, because it is a process where maturity comes toward the end.
Foundation skills are taught first, such as how to hold a rifle, various shooting techniques, and simple stalking skills. Safety is not simply taught, but ritualised so that it becomes an inherent part of handling firearms in any situation, and adherence to it becomes a religion.
Skills are added and developed or extended as they become age appropriate; introducing something too soon, such as gutting an animal, can be detrimental and turn a kid off hunting. So the process between father and son becomes quite intimate, with the mentor measuring the young nimrod’s achievements and quietly extending his boundaries on many levels, to a point where a subtle shift takes place.
Of course, it is not always plain sailing. I was confronted by Daniel one day bemoaning the fact that life wasn’t fair.
“I have this new rifle and I never get to use it – we never go hunting.”
“All this from a boy who shot his first rabbit at seven, his first goat at eight, a Pitt Island trophy ram at nine, his first deer in Hungary at ten – not to mention several red and fallow deer shot locally since!” I countered.
“Now that you put it that way, I suppose I’m not doing too badly after all.”
I pointed out that I didn’t shoot my first deer until I was 18. He thought for a moment while the statement sunk in, then replied: “Well, I guess I’m just a better hunter than you, Dad!”
The little toad! I have no idea where he gets his quick wit from.
No matter how good he thinks he is, however, there is still plenty of room for learning. A trip to Southland was aimed to bump the now 14-year-old to an adult level by hunting big country, extending his shooting out to well beyond 100m, and having him complete all aspects of a hunt, from the finding and stalking to the carry out. It pushed his strength, fitness and endurance to new, higher levels, and he thrived on it. The timing was right. Over the hunt, he saw over 100 animals, made some mistakes, pulled off some superb shots, and grew in stature and confidence significantly.
This was not achieved through my tuition alone, but with the help of my ‘adopted son’ Aaron Shields, also known by the nickname ReeS-hAB (short for rip, s*** and bust), and his buddy Tom. They are a pair of young dynamos who get a lot of animals because they hunt at 186,000 miles per second and eventually stumble on to animals they can run down. Both are useful teaching tools because they lead by example; generally bad examples.
“Dad,” Daniel bemoaned as he came back up the bush track towards me. “Aaron said we had to be quiet because we might strike deer at any moment, then he ran around a corner and spooked a deer standing on the track!” We were hunting down a long spur one evening, and I was lagging well behind on account of the fact that I’m too old to hunt at the speed of light. I eventually caught up with the lads waiting on the edge of a steep, scrubby clearing, and their body language clearly telegraphed their impatience. I couldn’t resist the urge to glass the vegetation-choked gully they had already “thoroughly checked out”.
Then I sat with my back against a tree and enjoyed a leisurely snack and a swig of water. Some distance away, the dynamic duo orchestrated an exaggerated litany of non-verbal cues indicative of an impatience to get moving again: rolling eyes, theatrical sighs, pacing back and forth, and imploring skyward glances to the god of hunting. Then it became too much, and Aaron blurted out, “For Christ’s sake old man, what the hell are you waiting for?”
“To see which one of you wants to shoot that deer,” I said simply, indicating a feeding hind way down in the gully below.
Daniel pulled off his longest shot to date: a clean kill at 230m. Tom also shot a deer that night; a dopey yearling 17 kilometres from where we’d parked the bike.
Early next morning, as the rising sun warmed a tussock-covered face, we sheltered in the shadow of a fringe of trees and watched four deer feed back towards their beds. Two hinds were slowly marshalling their yearlings up the hill, foraging as they went, but totally oblivious to our presence, so we stalked Daniel in closer. Lying prone over the cusp of a small spur, he rested his rifle across his daypack and took steady aim. I fired moments after his shot rang out, and two hinds collapsed and rolled down into a steep gutter covered in flax. We watched as the yearlings bolted around the face and into a distant pine plantation, then we sat back to enjoy ‘smoko’ before dealing with the task of butchering and retrieving the meat.
Presently, a yearling strayed back into view, this time coming over the knob and heading back towards where it had last seen its mother. It soon disappeared into a shallow depression, but didn’t re-emerge on the opposite side. Instructing Aaron to keep watch in case we flushed it, I took Daniel on a stalk to see if we could track the yearling. Having made note of various landmarks and features of foliage and terrain, I guided Daniel to where I’d last seen the deer.
I picked my way along a path I thought the deer might have taken. Periodically, in loose patches of dirt, I could make out encouraging scuff marks. Stepping over a low hebe, I froze, and Daniel did likewise behind me. Slowly turning my head, I indicated to the front of me, signalling with my eyes that I had the animal in sight. Daniel looked ahead and shook his head. He couldn’t see it. I nodded again, but this time his face became contorted with worry. He really couldn’t see it. He shrugged his shoulders helplessly. I couldn’t risk talking, so I leaned back and whispered faintly in his ear as he craned forward, “At my feet!”
He looked down, dumbfounded, at the resting yearling a metre-and-a-half in front of me. He closed the bolt, disengaged the safety, and reached forward. Without aiming, he put the barrel to the back of the deer’s head and squeezed the trigger.
“That’s about as close as you are ever going to stalk to a deer,” I said afterwards.
He then set about the task of gutting his kill, all the time with a smile on his face.
“So, what do you think of the hunt so far?” I asked.
“Brilliant,” he shot back, “I can’t lose.”
“I’m learning how not to hunt from Aaron,” he grinned, “and how to hunt properly from you!” At least the kid has the sense to charm his old man.
Over the next few days he continued to add to his skill set, and his overall tally of deer climbed by another five. The property we were hunting held good numbers of reds and fallow, so this was, in part, an expedition to get meat for the freezer and cull numbers at the same time. As a learning experience it proved invaluable. Aaron realised that if he slowed to a fast trot, he’d actually see the deer he was running past, Daniel morphed into a young man, and I was transformed as well.
Somewhere on the hunt, a subtle shift took place: I slipped from lead hunter and provider to ‘old fart’ and camp cook.