Respected deer manager and trophy measurer Dominic Griffith says rising early isn’t always the best way to ensure a successful stalk
The old adage ‘practice makes perfect’ applies as much to deer stalking as it does to any other skill or pastime. With practice, we come to know the ground, the deer, their behaviour and their feeding patterns. With roe deer, an amateur would generally get to know how the deer use the ground after just a couple of seasons’ experience and would then reckon on one selective cull per three outings. A professional will have to do better and work towards an average of one selective cull per outing. Some years ago my own average through November was an average of 1.4 roe per outing.
With fallow, this average is dramatically reduced to the extent that it makes little sense for a single person to try to achieve the cull alone. In many circumstances the only way that fallow can be stalked efficiently is for at least two people to work together, and even then success will rarely match that experienced with roe.
As our personal skills improve, the most significant advance in success rate comes in ‘timing’. Much has to do with being predictive, and understanding the techniques used by the individual species to feed. Muntjac, for example, tend to dart around the forest, pausing briefly to snatch a bite here and there. They are a small quarry, often obscured by the understory. It is therefore essential to observe their direction of movement, and to try to predict where they will move to. Then, if you see a clear area, you can get the rifle up and waiting so if the deer passes through that area, may be offering an opportunity for a shot.
The roe, on the other hand, is a much more sedentary feeder, typically taking a few paces between each bite and stopping to look around in between. Shots should not be taken while a roe’s head is lowered to feed, as the vital organs are pressed into the stomach. However, when it throws the head up to look around before resuming its motion through the forest, this gives the perfect opportunity for a shot. The whole procedure becomes a rhythmic and predictable pattern of movement into which the chance of a shot is readily planned and eventually becomes second nature to you as a stalker.
Another factor that becomes increasingly important is the effective use of daylight. Many of us, often under pressure from clients, force ourselves into the illogical situation of entering the forest before dawn.
In fact, the records prove that this is a poor use of time, and often reduces success through filling the forest with unnecessary human scent before the deer are even visible. Furthermore, having repeatedly risen too early, you are then tired after 2-3 hours and inclined to return for breakfast – at precisely the time when the records show the roe to be at their most active.
In a sample of 2,000 consecutively stalked deer (excluding does culled in movements) including 1,180 does and 820 bucks, the results will come as a surprise to many. Of the bucks culled in the morning, 90 per cent were shot between 5.15am and 8.30am, with a clear peak around 7am. Although 18 of the 820 bucks were shot at very first light, it accounts for only 2 per cent of the total cull, and one has to ask oneself whether it was worth ‘busting a gut’ to get up so early for them, especially as there is every chance that many of them might have been shot at more normal times. Furthermore, particularly in April when cold north-easterly winds frequently blight the early signs of spring, bucks are often more active after 8am. I believe that many stalkers are tiring and returning home just as the deer are beginning to become active. Surprisingly, midday rut stalking accounted for only about 2.5 per cent of the total.
During the evening buck stalking period, 91 per cent were shot between 7pm and 9.30pm with a clear peak around 8pm. So the morning has a three-hour effective period, but the evening only a 2.5-hour peak of activity. Perhaps the most interesting bit of information, which surprised me as the counting progressed, is that the evening/morning success ratio is almost precisely even at 51 to 49 per cent.
Turning to the morning doe cull, 87 per cent of all does culled were shot between 6.30am and 9am, with a clear peak around 8am. The later morning, however, is significantly more productive than with the bucks. This has much to do with the feeding activity of roe does in late winter, when in certain conditions they can be active at all times of the day. Note also that people always talk of restricted winter stalking time, but here is the proof that the effective 2.5-hour period between 6.30am and 9am is a full one hour less than the equivalent effective summer buck stalking time.
In the evening, however, there is some compensation in that the effective stalking period is slightly more extended and more evenly distributed than for the bucks. It lasts from 3pm to 5.45pm – during this time 94 per cent of all does were shot, and there was no clear peak hour.
One might ask why anyone would ever stalk alone when collaborative culling is so much more productive. More and more stalkers are realising that collaboration at one level or another has an exponential effect on their returns. Two people stalking or sitting more than doubles the net success, while 10 on the same area exceeds even that.
Of course this method of culling is not for everyone, especially if as a recreational stalker you wish to enjoy each and every outing yourself. But when you get behind and have a significant cull to achieve in a short time, consider collaborating with your neighbours and they will be sure to reciprocate and the object achieved.