The big crunch

Jason Doyle and a Norwegian client orchestrate a careful stalk in to a sika hind – if the snow doesn’t give them away first

Snow is an uncommon sight where I live by the coast, but 40 minutes north and 2,500 feet higher in our sika stalking ground, it’s an entirely different story. Most years we get a good dusting on the high ground, and every few winters we get a fall that has the snowploughs out in force and roads that are impassable for weeks. Beautiful as the mountains may be when clothed in their finest whites, it makes them a difficult area to access and an inhospitable place to hunt.

Generally we try to avoid the high ground during the snow when stalking with clients owing to the increased risk of falls and injury. The area is tough enough at the best of times, with hidden holes and drains under the heather. Add a foot of snow to the equation and even the most experienced stalker needs to take extra care.

It was after one such heavy snowfall last season when I was tasked with guiding a Norwegian client who had visited us for several years during the hind cull. As he was an a

ccomplished stalker, fit enough for our toughest ground and hailing from Norway (very much at home in the snow), I opted to bring him to the high ground and chance our luck stalking some hinds. The morning was a white-out with fresh snow falling on a strong northerly wind. Visibility was barely past the A-bar on my pickup, so after an anxious couple of hours we decided we would retreat to the comfort of the local restaurant for a coffee, and return in the afternoon, weather permitting.

By early afternoon the snow had ceased and the wind had dropped, so we headed back out to our chosen area. The weather had now completely changed, and the low winter sun treated us to a view of Wicklow at its finest – clean white snow bathed in golden sunlight. It was a magical view as we crunched our way up a forestry ride heading for the hill above. Stalking in the snow is never an easy challenge owing to the extra noise underfoot – somewhere between walking on cornflakes and stepping on a clay pigeon is the best way I can describe the racket we were making as we moved up the track.

We were passing a clearing with some hardwoods in it when we heard the familiar ‘yip’ of an alerted sika. I quickly set up the sticks as a small herd of hinds and a young stag ran from the conifers onto this clearing, stopping briefly for a look back at us. Unfortunately all the calves stood directly in front of their mothers, making a shot impossible. We watched for a few seconds, waiting to see if a calf would stand clear. Luckily, one took a step in front of the hind, but just as the client trained his scope on this calf, they decided they’d seen enough. With another couple of ‘yips’, they were gone.

With this amount of disturbance I knew there was no hope of a shot in t

he forest, so we walked quickly, aiming to have as much time as possible on the open hill before dark. On reaching the top edge of the trees, we put our binoculars to use and scanned the snowy landscape for deer.

Winter whites: Though a spectacular sight, snow-covered terrain makes for difficult stalking

One would think that deer should be easy to spot in snow, but it’s often not the case. The snow was broken up by dark patches of long heather and exposed rocks, and even when looking through good-quality glass the scene became almost black and white. Hill sika are generally quite small, and in long heather only the top half of their bodies will be visible. The grey winter coats of the hinds and calves make them tricky to spot, even in the snow.

Just as we were about to move further out, I spotted a group of deer some distance away across the hill close to the edge of another forestry block. We had a fair distance to walk ahead of us and we pushed on to cover the kilometre or so, watching the hill above us all the time for more deer.

The walk was tough, and we stopped regularly to catch our breath and check with the binos that our target herd were still in the same place. I explained to the client that we would stalk out onto the open hill above the herd and approach them from above. He favoured an approach from below them, but that would have meant losing sight of them for half an hour or so as we came through the forest. When stalking sika I like to keep them in view as much as possible. It might seem a better option to get completely out of sight of them while making your approach, but experience has taught me to keep eyes on them at all times. That way you can see if the herd decides to move off, and adjust your route accordingly. As a beginner I often made blind approaches to herds of hinds, and on arrival found they had moved off – or worse, moved towards me, meaning I ended up spooking them.

This stalk proved my theory – as we got closer we saw the herd move further down the slope and away from where we had first seen them. As they dropped further down I was concerned that they might head into the trees before we got into range, so we pressed on as quickly as we could in the difficult walking conditions.

On reaching the skyline above them, we crawled to avoid silhouetting ourselves against the winter sky. The crawl was easy on the steep slope, and we were soon in a suitable position to view the herd. Ranging them at 400 metres, we could see they had settled again and were feeding. My chosen approach was to get into the first line of trees in the forest, close enough to the edge that we could still observe the deer, but just giving us enough cover to remain undetected. Progress was slow as we tried hard to avoid breaking low branches and keep noise to a minimum. The slope was very steep and we were acutely aware of how careful we needed to be with our footing.

Slowly but surely we reduced the range to a suitable 140 metres, and finally got ourselves to a point where we could discuss a suitable shooting position. A prone shot was preferable at this range, and we selected a rock 10 metres outside the trees that would give a clear view of our target. We would have to crawl to the rock in view of the deer so we moved very slowly, keeping our eyes on the deer all the time.

05 Toby Bakke03Just before we reached the rock, a hind noticed our movement. I saw her head lift as she strained to see us. We stopped immediately and I whispered to the client to lie completely still. Sika have good eyesight, but if you can stay still upon being spotted and wait long enough, there’s a good chance they will settle again. The trick is to keep waiting, and even though they watch for 10 or 15 minutes, if they don’t see any more movement they will settle again. By the time this hind returned to feed we were both very glad we had warm, waterproof gloves on.

The excitement of a good stalk was apparent in the client’s breathing as we slid the last few feet to our chosen shooting platform. He was gulping deep breaths to calm his nerves as he extended his bipod and settled into the rifle. I explained that there was no rush now, and we viewed the small herd, looking for a suitable cull animal. We agreed on a yearling hind at the outside edge of the herd.

Just as the snow started to trickle down once more, the .270 barked into the valley and the hind dropped on the spot. After reloading and covering the animal for a suitable length of time, we broke out into grins and shook hands. Freezing cold and soaking wet, we slid down the hill and retrieved our trophy. We had worked hard for it, but it was worth it in the end.

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