Image: Prisma by Dukas / Contributor / Getty
April can be a fickle month for roebuck stalking. Our continental cousins don’t start on the bucks until May, a fact that draws many European stalking clients to our shores in spring. A fickle month it may be, but I’m glad we have it, as this is the time when I take most of my cull bucks, and in the process closely analyse which older bucks I’m going to take with guests.
Nowadays I’m not that fussed at grassing a trophy buck personally. I’d rather an appreciative guest enjoy the experience. It’s always the hunt itself that I find the most rewarding, and the harder the hunt, the more it is seared in the memory.
As I have noted above, April is the month when I take most of my cull bucks that I have earmarked during the later end of the doe cull. I move on to the older trophy animals in May, pursue those I didn’t catch up with during the rut in July/August, and finally finish on any cull bucks that have continued to best me in October.
This is the story of the ‘Alder buck’ that I eventually managed to grass after more outings than I can honestly remember. It is a story of ill luck, cutting corners and the errors therein, immense frustration and finally hard-won contentment.
I had earmarked the Alder buck for the larder during a walk with the rifle in late February 2016. The buck had made his winter home in a place known locally as Quintin Bottoms. It’s a secluded place, almost fairylike, where ancient alders and willows are surrounded by poplars planted at some point long past, with a chalk stream brook carving its way, snakelike, through the bog-loving myrtle, shrubbery and trees interspersed with occasional moss-lined glades. A pretty place it may be, but it conceals bog and marsh that would trap the unwary. The wood itself ran along the boundary, and that obviously had its own limitations. Add to that a public footpath, a village at one end and the main road into the closest town at the other.
I’d had a couple of opportunities to assess him during the off season. Even in velvet he had a stumpy head on him, a grey face, and a thick neck. He cleaned early, though it was his thick neck and the way he carried his head heavy that convinced me he was an old stager who’d grown and cast his best heads. He’d been pushed into a lesser territory, and though when April came around he was master of his own bailiwick, it was hardly the best real estate the land holding had to offer.
I engaged countless times during April 2017 and he had the best of me on all occasions. It was almost as if he knew he was an untouchable. I tried him in the wood, working the wind and moving carefully along the deer paths, spying systematically for the slightest sign – a flick of the ear, a blotch of colour to give hi, away, part of a white caudal patch, or a smudge of brown/grey hair that shouldn’t really be there. I periodically took a knee to scan low and up against the light, looking for a silhouette that would give away his presence, but he would always clock me first and disappear at a rush through the wet ground, defiantly barking his ridicule back at me as he made for safer quarters.
Ambush was an awkward tactic – there were only two high seats in this wood and both required a careful stalk in to ascend. On each and every occasion he smelled, heard, saw or sensed my approach. Let me tell you with time-served certainty, the patience and dedication required to wait out in a high seat for three hours after you have plainly alerted your quarry at the outset is well beyond most right-minded stalkers. Nevertheless, I was so committed to this elusive buck, I tried my patience to its very limit to no avail.
I even staked out the woodland edge, which had wide margins, at different hours of the day, aware that I had been pressing him too often at dawn and dusk. But thanks to Murphy’s Law in the form of dog walkers, kids trying to fell anything with catapult-propelled ball marbles (I kid you not), farming operations and a courting couple thrown in, all I got for my efforts was the occasional fleeting glimpse, or what eventually sounded like ‘boredom’ barking by my nemesis as he again and again marked my presence and vain efforts to bring him to book.
In the end I had to admit that this buck had bested me and the time I’d spent pursuing him would have been better spent putting some more of his brethren in the larder to keep up the pace with my cull plan responsibilities.
There was a lesson to be learned here, and I have taken it on board since. My average success rate on local roe is one beast for every three outings. This particular buck had cost me big time, and though I managed to make my numbers up, I was hard pressed to do so. My rule now is to give an earmarked beast three attempts and then turn attentions elsewhere. Of course a cursory look every now and then on the way to another appointment will eventually pay dividends, but pressing a buck too hard just educates him, and possibly change his behaviour to nocturnal feeding – and then you will be done.
I tried the Alder buck once more in the spring of last year, when a colleague was home on leave from a posting in the Congo and we tried him at last light. Matt and I spied him working up a hedgerow that ran perpendicular to this woodland abode. We had the wind, the road was behind us, and the hedge ran into a hollow, which would give a safe enough backstop – if we could get within range. Alas, he beat me again when a slight eddy in the wind reached him just as Matt shouldered the rifle. I watched the buck in the binos lick his muzzle as he recognised the airborne warning scent. He changed ends as if electrified and bolted back to Quintin Bottoms to live another day.
It wasn’t until the very end of the season that I managed to grass the wily old buck, and it was a freshly piled-up muck heap that proved his undoing. I spied the buck on the forest edge from the lay-by on the main road. The wind was completely wrong for a direct approach, but that was the only way in. Between us was a fresh muck hill on the field margin. By fresh I mean it was still steaming. Using the muck hill to hide my approach and mask my scent (trust me, the muck stank more than me), I stalked into the muck hill and slowly rounded it with sticks at the ready.
As I deployed the rifle, the buck caught my movement as more than half of me was now in plain sight and the buck no more than 70 yards away. The Alder buck looked up, alarmed but in an incredulous way at this apparition, and gracefully turned broadside on to spy this new addition to the landscape more carefully. From the sticks I had a good backstop, and touching away the trigger, the satisfying ‘thrummp’ of a bullet striking home followed the harsh bark of the .30-06, and one of the most difficult bucks I had ever pursued would soon be hanging in the larder. Despite his age, he was in relatively good condition, but it was his time, and I hope to be challenged by his progeny in the future.
The satisfaction of roe stalking really isn’t in the harvested trophy. It is in the challenge, and every trophy should be about that treasured memory of a worthy beast engaged, and displayed as a fitting marker of a memorable encounter.