A few years back, I had a guest out taking his first stag. He misplaced his shot and it struck the antler, just above the burr. It was remarkable that the transfer of shock was enough to kill the beast stone dead. However, what was truly amazing was the fact that the hapless animal was only 80 yards away and my guest was aiming at his ribs. I guess some folk are just born lucky.
For the rest of us, success tends to rely more on the three key elements of stalking: blood, sweat and tears. But before you get to part with any of that, you first have to find your quarry.
‘Glassing’, ‘spotting’, ‘spying’ – call it what you will, but it’s this that makes the difference between having a swine of a day and bringing home the bacon. And I, for one, believe that what you put in front of your eyeballs is less important than what goes on behind them.
There is little doubt that good quality optics give you an advantage. Just remember that the advantage is easily lost if your lenses are dirty or you haven’t focused your individual eyepieces properly. A sandwich bag of dry tissues (I prefer three-inch squares of kitchen roll) is also invaluable for those days of horizontal rain.
What’s much more important than the price of your optics is how you use them. Spy systematically and thoroughly. Logic and experience will tell you where you might expect to see your quarry on any given day, but giving the ‘other’ ground only a perfunctory look is asking for trouble. Similarly, it’s easy to kid yourself that you’ve checked a piece of ground when, in reality, it is too dark, too broken or too far to be sure. Keep your wits about you and spy regularly. When you are on the move, always check any ground that hasn’t been spied as it comes into your sight. Bear in mind this will sometimes require you to look over your shoulder.
You’ll always spy better when you are comfortable. In cold, wet or windy weather, you won’t need persuading to do as much spying as you can from your vehicle. Once out, wearing waterproofs or sitting on a bag will mean you’ll be far more inclined to recline on wet ground. I won’t need to tell you what makes a good vantage point, but it’s even better if it comes with a backrest.
Although your backside should never be overlooked (har har), it’s your grey matter that matters most when spying. Locating your quarry is just the first challenge for your powers of observation. After that there are questions that should be answered before committing to a stalk. Are they going to stay there? Is there a safe shot? Is there a definitely a suitable beast for shooting? Can you get it home? Where is the best vantage point to shoot from? How are you going to get there? Where are the flies in this particular ointment? Let’s look at these one at a time.
Are they going to stay there?
Unless you’ve got a crystal ball, you’ll never really know the answer to this one. However, you can often spot the clues that could save you wasted miles.
Have a good look at your target beast(s) and see if they are totally relaxed. If they are alert, have a good look about, especially in the direction they are looking. It may be nothing, but it could be a distant shepherd who may give 120 decibels of ‘guidance’ to his collies when you’re halfway through your stalk.
If the weather is warm and you see the deer shaking their heads and flapping their ears, they may be fleeing flies before long. Likewise, they will normally only suffer a cold or wet wind for a while before they move to more sheltered ground.
On the open hill, a change of wind direction will often have the deer move. Listen to the forecast before and watch out for it happening. On days of flukey wind, you may be better off holding back until it firms up. On windy days it is possible to get advance warning of eddies where the deer are. Patches of mist, rain and snow are great for this, or you can watch the movement of grass or look for ripples on nearby water.
If your chosen animals are up and grazing, you might have to make an educated guess as to where they will go. Alternatively, you could just wait and see. Be aware that in some situations, a small difference in their position will require a huge difference in your approach. If you find yourself faced with this problem, you can sometimes cut down the distance without committing to the stalk. In my neck of the woods, watching and waiting is always preferable to barking up the wrong tree.
Is there a safe shot?
This one isn’t easy to spot either. Again, a small change in the position of your chosen animal can sometimes make the difference between a safe shot and a prison cell. When you spy, watch out for this possibility. If the potential is there, choose an approach that gives you the most leeway for changing your firing point.
If you can see straight away that you’re going to struggle to get a safe shot, you have few options. You can stalk in anyway and wait for the situation to change. Or you can try to ‘nudge’ your beasts and hope they’ll land in a better place. Or you can go elsewhere.
Is there a suitable beast?
To assume is to make an ass walk a long way for nothing. A telescope can be worth its weight in shoe leather when trying to size up stags and bucks. If you’re unsure, try to find a nearer vantage point so you can be sure before you commit.
Can you get it home?
If you are unfamiliar with the ground, take a good look before you consider going after a beast. It’s much harder to deny yourself that shot after crawling the knees out of your breeks. Hauling a 20-stone stag through a mile of clearfell – or having him haul you down a cliff – is only going to end in tears.
Where is the best vantage point?
On open ground, you’ll be unlikely to get a shot off if you end up eyeball to eyeball with your quarry. And you should always stay within your limitations when it comes to long shots. Can you accurately judge the range from a distance? If not, practise this.
If you have a choice, try to avoid a position that is skylined to your quarry – especially if that skyline is smooth. If the ground is steep and the deer are couched, an approach from below could be equally troublesome as that will be the direction most of them will be facing. Identify a comfortable, level place if you can. If there is vegetation or if the ground rolls between your chosen spot and the beast, try to ascertain that you’ll have a clear shot before you commit to trying to get there.
Most importantly, be sure and memorise the waymarkers that will help you find your way to your spot. You can be sure the lie of the land will look totally different by the time you get round there. When you are selecting your markers, remember you have to be able to identify them readily from your chosen line of approach.
Flies in the ointment
Sod’s law states that the more straightforward a stalk looks, the more likely it is to go pear-shaped. Once you’ve identified the beast(s) you want to stalk, consider your possible approaches. When you think you’ve found the best one, spy the entire route (or as much of it as you can see), checking for pitfalls. For me, these usually come in the shape of sheep, deer or hares. Whichever, you can be sure they will run the wrong way if bumped or winded.
Another pitfall can be when you spot a section of your route that is in sight of your quarry. Depending on the situation, you might manage it with a bit of old-fashioned stealth and cunning. Just remember that a longer detour might end up quicker and easier than if you get ‘pinned down’ on a shortcut.
I know that not everything here will apply to the type of shooting you do. One of the great joys of our sport is learning to overcome the challenges presented by different quarries with different habits, living in different habitats.
That said, you can be sure of one thing: using your powers of observation will usually be crucial to your eventual success. Unless you’re born lucky.