Stag of stags

iStock Sika Stag (Medium)Irish stalker Jason Doyle guides a regular client onto his first medal head sika stag during a dramatic dawn stalk in the Wicklow Mountains.

Last season’s sika rut was as sporadic as I have seen. A cold spell in September started it well, but then a warm, wet spell quietened the activity for a week or so. There had been a few signs of the rut getting into full swing later on in the month – with a some stags holding hinds and becoming more visible. Unfortunately the warm weather returned, and all went quiet apart from some young stags trying their luck with single hinds in the quieter parts of our ground.

The situation was becoming slightly worrying, as October is our busiest month for clients, all of whom come to Wicklow dreaming of a mature sika trophy stag. This is a dream that head stalker John Fenton strives to fulfil. In 27 years of professional stalking he has never sent a client home without a stag. I was feeling the pressure of living up to this reputation, especially as this was my first season guiding clients on stags.

Sika Deer (Cervus nippon)

Luckily, by the end of the first week in October things had started to pick up and the mature stags were in full rut when returning English client Frank Reynolds visited. Frank had shot hinds with us for several years but this was his first stag hunt. It promised to be a different experience for him, as he was used to stalking hinds on open hill in winter where we stalk large herds on clear ground and a shot is more or less guaranteed.

As we drove out to the ground for our first stalk, Frank reminisced on previous years. He had sometimes shot five or six beasts in a day, and up to 15 in a week during the hind cull. I stressed to him that this trip would be much more challenging as sika stags are notoriously elusive, even during the rut.

That morning we would be hunting a naturally forested area that ran up to open hill. The terrain is rough and difficult to hunt. There are also areas in between the forestry with more open boggy spots where deer are easier to locate. My intention was to head through the forestry in the dark and out on to the edge of the open hill where most of the hinds head for their night-time feed. The stags often follow them out to the hill at night, returning to the forest at first light. This behaviour makes the edge of the trees an ideal spot for an ambush.

On reaching our parking spot, Frank filled his Sako .300 Win Mag magazine, and I outlined our intended route through the dark forestry, stressing the importance of him staying as close as possible to me as we stalked. So many opportunities are missed by clients who drop too far behind the stalker, and as a result take too long to get onto the sticks for the shot. Once I was happy we had everything we set off, led by my Bavarian hound Jake who knew the route only too well.

Frank and medal head sika stag

As we picked our way quietly through the rough ground, our excitement increased with the sound of the first stags whistling out on the hill. The sika stag’s rutting call has to be one of the most haunting sounds in nature, and never fails to raise the heartbeat of any hunter. By the time we had reached forest edge the whistling had become constant, with stags responding to each other all over the hill.

We soon spied deer moving towards the forestry in the half light, and a quick range-ping informed us we needed to make 300 metres on them to be in reasonable range of a shot. Sticking just inside the trees, we made our way towards the herd we had seen. Haste was the order of the new morning, as the deer were clearly intent on returning to the cover of the forestry. The piercing shrill whistle ending in a coarse roar left us in no doubt there was a mature stag within the group. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears as we closed on them.

The excitement of trying to get into a shooting position was intense. I could see the suspense was having a similar effect on Frank too – his hands shook as he settled his rifle on the sticks and his breathing was rapid. I glassed the 30-strong herd of hinds searching for the stag among them, but two small six-pointers to the rear of the group were the only males I could locate. With no sign of the dominant animal, I quietly cursed as Frank voiced my thoughts: “He’s already gone into the trees.”

Before I had a chance to agree, one of the smaller stags gave a long, piercing whistle, and before he had even finished the mature stag burst back out of his forest sanctuary to ward off the young pretender. After chasing the youngster for a few metres, he turned and trotted back indignantly to his hinds. Frank chambered a round and I focused my binos on the stag, waiting for him to present a clear shot. The stag, still obviously outraged by the youngster’s audacious challenge, trotted around his hinds, whistling and roaring his claim to mating rights.

I was convinced he would stop long enough for a shot, but luck was against us. I cursed as was what was surely a medal head melted into the trees behind his hinds. Frank’s expression was of pure disappointment. He unchambered the round and removed the magazine from his rifle. Jake shook himself and gave a loud sigh to show he too disapproved of the situation.

“So that’s it then?” Frank questioned. “Not quite,” I replied, as plan B formed quickly in my head. We could still hear several stags calling. They would all be in the forest by now, which makes them much harder to stalk, but I reckoned it was worth a chance. If we dropped back into the middle of the forest and worked our way into the wind, we might create a chance. Avoiding spooking the hinds would be the main problem.

Jason packing the trophy outWith renewed excitement Frank replaced the mag in his rifle and followed as I headed back into the trees. I planned to head for a large clearing about 1km from where we were – this area had always held several stags and there was plenty of calling coming from that direction.

We stalked carefully, meeting several small stags and prickets on our way. Luckily they were more worried about avoiding the sharp end of an eightpointer than us, and we managed to reach the clearing without hearing the all too familiar ‘yip’ alert call.

We glassed the clearing hard, spying some half-visible hinds, but no stag showed itself. Suddenly a stag whistled no more than 100 metres from us in the trees bordering the open area. His call ended with the long, deep growl of a mature animal. Another stag answered immediately, this one maybe 200 metres behind us.

With the adrenaline rising quickly I set up the sticks for Frank as the first stag called again in response. We could only see 45 metres in the direction of his challenging whistle, but we stood motionless, round chambered, waiting to see if he would appear. Jake’s teeth rattled with familiar excitement as a hind appeared from the trees. Frank’s breath noticeably started to quicken as she grazed towards us, lifting her head every few moments and looking into the trees behind her. “He must be coming in behind her,” Frank whispered, and I agreed. The hind was clearly looking back at something.

Suddenly, almost like an apparition, eight white antler tips ghosted through the trees, betraying the stag’s fast-approaching gait. A second later he had appeared as if from nowhere and was standing motionless staring straight at the hind. I couldn’t afford to point the stag out to Frank, but luckily he had seen him and I heard the safety slide forward on his rifle. This click was enough to make the stag turn his head towards us, stretching his head forward to focus on us. I knew we only had a second or two before the stag realised the danger and vanished. Luckily Frank’s nerve was steady enough to place the 180-grain ballistic tip perfectly in the stag’s neck, collapsing him on the spot.

After I managed to call Jake back from his pursuit of the rapidly departing hind, which he was convinced needed chasing down, we went forward to retrieve Frank’s trophy. It was a fine mature stag that later measured 243 CIC points. It was a fantastic trophy for a first Irish sika, and my first medal head as a guide. A stalk to remember – may there be many more to follow.

For sika stalking in Ireland with John Fenton, contact +353 87 98 57 747 or johnsikafenton@vodafone.ie

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