On a perfect day’s stalking on the hill, David Barrington Barnes comes to appreciate that a successful stalk is the combination of all kinds of tactical plans and decisions
My day at the stags was solo but supported. I would be stalking self-guided and the support would come, if required, in the form of an obliging keeper in his Argo.
As I was going to be out alone, I checked my kit list carefully. I didn’t want to get up on the high ground only to find my ammo or bolt was still in the truck. I didn’t want to be overloaded either, and settled for binos, rifle, ammo and knife. A clip-on bipod and a stick completed the list.
I parked my truck by the farm buildings and headed up the burn. I could feel the brisk breeze on my left cheek from the south. I decided to walk the burn on this cheek wind and then, on arriving at the ridge, turn and stalk into it.
The burn sides were steep and mainly covered in bracken providing ideal cover for a stag wishing to rest out of the wind so I decided to spend some time glassing these. I looked long and hard for antlers or at least the tips of antlers above the bracken.
Only after lengthy observation did I dare go on having satisfied myself nothing was at home. I recalled some years previously bumping a stag in a similar situation and thinking then that there is no more difficult ground on which to spot a stag than one lying up in bracken.
There was no definite summit at the top of the burn. The top was fairly flat and marshy with the burn meandering through it dark and deep. I walked through the rushes here and gradually more of the hill came into view.
Another decision was now required, and this was when I should turn south and stalk the various shoulders of the ridge. I opted for a route just below the summits, which enabled me to gradually acquire views of their west faces and the grazing tables below these.
Proceeding in a stealthy manner, I spotted a young stag on the second top. He had a perfect observation point and blocked my way forward. If I moved him he might clear the hill in his flight. If I stayed where I was, he might lie all day on his vantage point.
I lay in the heather for some minutes chewing over the decision and was still working it out when I noticed the young beast raise his head and look intently to the south before standing up and making off out of sight. Though I had not seen any other creature, I surmised that it was extremely likely that there was a stag holding hinds over the hill. I decided to move forward.
Edging round the west face of the next high point, I saw first three hinds and second the stag in possession. Two of the hinds were lying down with the third, a young one, grazing close to them. The stag was on his feet having, I supposed, seen off the youngster.
I assessed the stag. His back was bent, his face grey and his coat dull. Old and tired, I thought – just the stag to shoot. He had just six points on his racks, which confirmed my decision. At 250 yards he was still too far for a shot and I had to decide how to get closer.
Twenty yards in front of me there was a gully – I thought that if I could get into this I could reduce the distance. With the stag now lying down, I crawled slowly over the ground immediately in front of me and got into the gully. That was the difficult part.
I then crawled down this gully until I reached a handy block of rock, which would mask me while I emerged from the burn and settled in a firing point.
These steps, decided on one after the other, had all worked and I could see the stag below me at around 130 yards. The stag and his hinds were unaware of my presence and I enjoyed watching them. Meanwhile I had clipped the bipod on to the forend of my rifle ready for a shot.
However, another decision was needed. I could wait for the stag to stand. I could roar or whistle and get him to stand. I could shoot him in the neck. The breeze from the south was warm, the sun intermittent and the day only in its early afternoon.
These factors combined to make me elect for the first option. For some while I lay in the heather, half dozing, enjoying the place and the afternoon and the presence of these wild red deer. Then the stag became restless and stood up, looking enormous, as stags often do on first getting to their feet.
A step or two and a slight turn presented me with a perfect opportunity for my shot precisely how I had decided to take it. The stag took a few steps and dropped.
I lay still while the hinds cleared off, which they were in no hurry to do. I was pleased, not for killing this old stag, but for all the steps leading up to that action. All my small decisions had come right. I had the right kit, the right route and the right use of ground in my stalk, the right selection and the right shot.
As I thought about all these, I reflected on past mistakes of mine in all these areas and how the decisions made this day were distilled from the mish-mash of previous errors, misadventures and successes. As is so often the case in stalking, the stalker must not forget to eat a good dish of humble pie.
Time enough for that back at the lodge. Time now to call for the good man with the Argo. Time now to walk down to the stag and perform a tidy gralloch and then, in the lengthening shadows of the autumn day, to walk off the hill all on my own, a lone figure in a highland landscape as old as time.