Talking about stalking

One of your greatest assets in the field isn’t any piece of kit, says Will O’Meara. It’s effective dialogue and teamwork

Communication is a funny thing. There’s what you said, what you thought you said, what I thought you said, what you meant to say, and what you should have said! It can all get a little confusing, especially in dynamic situations like hunting. As rifle hunters we are sometimes on our own and sometimes with a friend or guide. It can be of great advantage to work together as a team, but for effective teamwork we need to have effective communication skills. As a guide you need to be able to communicate well with the hunter, explain the plan, point out the animals to them, talk them onto the correct animal, coach the shot and a follow-up shot if required. The guide must use the advantage of his experience to effectively communicate with a hunter who he perhaps has never met before, who may have little or no experience and who may or may not speak the same language… it can be ‘challenging’ at times. All the jibber-jabber surrounding the shot is sometimes referred to as shooter/spotter dialogue and it is a skill and an art that only improves with practice. While the guide must be able to communicate effectively with a visiting hunter, hunting buddies can take the initiative and improve their chances of success by practising dialogue and developing a reference system that they both understand and are comfortable with.

Let’s start with the plan. Before you start the hunt it’s always a good idea to talk through the plan: where the wind’s at, where you’ll start from and so on. It’s also important to consider the type of terrain you’ll be hunting and what aids you’ll be most likely to use: bipod, tripod, quad sticks, kneeling sticks etc. If you are hunting as a pair you’ll also need to decide who is going to shoot first, that way each person can concentrate on their own part in the plan. When working as a team the first part will usually be to locate the game. It is best in this scenario to glass different areas, one start on the left, one start on the right, that way you can glass different country at the same time. This will maximise the chances of seeing game that is moving or only temporarily visible.

Once an animal is spotted you need to be able to bring your buddy onto that point. The way to think of this is like giving directions; start at a known point and walk them on from there. An example of this might be as follows:

Spotter: “Reference the big rock shaped like a heart 200 yards to our front.”

Shooter: “Seen – looks like the Holy Stone of Clonrickart?”

Spotter: “Yes, Ted. Go 12 o’clock of that rock to the first ditch line.”

Shooter: “Seen, ditch line is at 600 yards?” (Dougal is clever and uses his rangefinder!)

Spotter: “Yes. Follow ditch line along to the right until you come to the first tree.”

Shooter: “Seen, tree has a distinct V shape?”

Spotter: “Yes. At the base of the tree on the left-hand side you can see antler-tips.”

Shooter: “Seen.”

Know your scope, its unit of measure and reticle. Some spotting scopes such as Leupold’s also have a reticle

In this example, the spotter starts with a distinct reference point (heart-shaped rock). This is important to get off on the right foot. Each time the shooter sees what is being described, he acknowledges it but also describes it back to the spotter in a different way – this confirms to them both that they are on the same point.

Before we get into the stalk phase I want to mention some techniques associated with glassing. It’s worth a full article but this is a quick summary. There are different methods to glassing – scanning, gridding, searching and so on – but the first thing to do is to look around you, close in.

I remember on one particular day many years ago, hunting fallow in the mountains of Tipperary. We had stalked up through the forest at first light and out onto the open hill, hoping to find some fallow deer making their way up from the fields below. They would often bed on the open mountainside as the heather was waist-high and gave them shelter, cover from view, and allowed periodic feeding and sunbathing. Standing in the treeline, we glassed the open mountain for 20 minutes. I had just uttered the words “No deer on the hill today” when I heard a giggle from Paulie. I lowered the binos to see a fallow doe and fawn not 30 yards from us, staring intently. We had both been so busy glassing the distant hillside that we hadn’t seen what was under our nose, for God knows how long. We live and learn.

With the game spotted, the stalk begins. This can take minutes or hours and there is still the need for communication. What if one of you spots an animal – how do you alert the other? Many’s the day I’ve been making psssttt noises and low whistles to alert my buddy or guest to the sudden appearance of a deer but to no effect. Usually I have to say the word “deer” or their name to get their attention. When you are in tune with each other, though, it’s a different story. You’ll be listening for that psssttt, you’ll be regularly looking around to make eye contact, you’ll be expecting that there might be a deer between you and your intended destination. Once again it is down to process focus – forget about the destination, concentrate on the now. It is a good idea to move together as one, present one silhouette, be within arm’s reach of each other so a squeeze on the shoulder can alert the other of an issue.

The teamwork continues as you locate a firing position and get set up for the shot.

The shooter’s role includes knowing the correct windage and elevation

Rushing at this point is a common mistake and can foil the stalk. Take your time, move slowly and deliberately. As a guide it can sometimes be challenging to get a visiting hunter onto the animal, but again using a solid reference system will help. Their adrenalin will be flowing and the heart rate will be up after the stalk, which means the body is stressed. Studies have shown that cognitive ability can be reduced in these situations where the heart rate is elevated. This can only be overcome with training and with methods that reduce the stress. In such situations I will often get to a suitable firing position and have the guest stay low. I will make sure the position is suitable and sometimes even place the rifle for them. Then I will give it a minute and reassure the guest that all is good, give them a calm smile and a thumbs up, then slowly get them into position. I’ll again use very clear references and verbally ‘walk’ them on to the deer, or set up the optics for them. It is important to ensure that they are on the right animal. I will quietly say what the deer is doing: “Head down, feeding to the right, stopped, staring, one deer to his right, one to his left…”

If I feel there is any doubt, I get them to talk me through the picture. More than once I’ve been in situations where the shooter was on the wrong deer. Little tips like backing off the zoom can help the shooter to get a wider field of view. There is a lot to be said for practising pointing your rifle. Pick out a target and then put your rifle on it and find that target in the scope – this will improve with practice and is one of those small little things that becomes super instinctive after some time. So the shooter is set up, the spotter’s job is to watch that bullet strike, watch the animal’s reaction, track it and give corrections and range for a second shot if necessary. Position yourself slightly above and as in-line with the rifle as possible in order to best see the strike. One of the biggest errors here is that the spotter is not ready when the shot is fired. This is also a good point to mention that if the rifle is unmoderated and you are not wearing hearing protection, it’s most likely that you won’t observe the strike. Between you and the shooter there should be a simple sequence such as:

Spotter: “Ready.”

Shooter: “On.”

Spotter: “Fire.”

Additional dialogue might be along the lines of “Reload”, “He’s moving to the right”, “Same point of aim, ready,” or similar. If the first shot missed owing to wind or elevation, the spotter should be in a position to give the shooter a meaningful correction.

Teamwork makes success all the sweeter in the end

How this best works is with practice. Find a system that is meaningful to you both. Using inches can be difficult – it is a guess at best. Sometimes you can use the animal’s body dimensions as a reference,

“Missed left, aim half his body length to the right.” The only truly accurate way to ‘speak the same language’ is if you are both using the same reticle in your optics. This is one reason I like using a milradian- based system in my scope and spotter: the scale is the same for both of you and it’s as simple as saying “add 1 mil” or “come .5 right”. But again, practice is required so you have a system. I prefer to hear or say the correction as opposed to the error – this keeps it simple. If I hear “half mil right” then I hold 0.5mRad right. Again, this is a system that can work if you and your buddy both use the same reticle in your scopes, but ensure if you are using second focal plane scopes that you are both on the same magnification.

Dialogue is a fantastic tool. It is one of those little things that you can practise as you are glassing – point things out to each other, make an effort to be clear and descriptive when the pressure is off, and when the pressure is on it will pay off. This reminds me of a time I had a Scandinavian guest out and I spotted a lovely eight- point stag who appeared from nowhere. I quickly got the rifle set up and the visitor in position.

“Nice stag, 200 yards, just at the end of the gully.” Silence.

“Do you see him?” Silence.

“Full broadside, 200 yards. Follow the gully down the hill until you see him.” Silence… followed by… “What is a gully?” If we hadn’t laughed, we’d have cried.

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