Third time lucky

SONY DSCMaureen Virtue tries for a quality roebuck that has evaded her for nearly three seasons, professional stalking guide husband David and young daughter Georgia at her side.

I have been after this buck for two years; today would be my third try. The first time I saw him he was magnificent, standing against the skyline, huge horns standing thick and proud – a top-end gold. An unsuitable shot situation had made sighting irrelevant, and I didn’t see him again that year. The second time I had missed him, totally and spectacularly. He had been chasing a cocky young buck during the following year’s rut and, although almost a year ago, he was still as fresh in my mind as though it had been yesterday. It was time to have another try at him.

The mixture of nerves, excitement and the fact I haven’t been out shooting for a while threaten a bout of buck fever, but a trip to the range and a good performance sees some of my confidence return. The fifty-minute drive to our intended destination gives me plenty of time to ponder on the past attempts, however, and the doubts come flooding back.

SONY DSCPulling into park I snap back to reality. “Right,” David says, “We still have a few fields to walk through before we can look for him, but we need to be careful the bucks don’t get wind of us – so follow up close.” Georgia and I follow (stalking is a family thing for the Virtues) as David guides us carefully along the field margins. My hands brush the long ears of the corn, and I relax a little as senses tune in and anticipation heightens the experience. Crossing into another field, I see a tell-tale mark of the rut as David points out a roe-ring, circles of long grass flattened were the buck has been pressing the doe, chasing her round and round.

Reaching the top of the field, we approach the edge of the wood where the high seat is located. David stops abruptly. “The buck’s out there,” he whispers. Looking over his shoulder I see the buck chasing a doe. At that moment she decides she’s had enough of her tormenting suitor and disappears into the trees, the buck following close behind her.

“I’m not sure, but I think she might have spotted us,” David says seriously. “Quietly as you can, let’s go on and get into the high seat. We might be lucky and get another chance.” We creep carefully over the rough ground between us and the seat, climb up, and settle in. It’s a tight squeeze.

From my vantage point I take in the woodland where my buck usually resides. To the right are patches of arable crops, and I note how high they are getting now. David nudges me: a doe has appeared. I’d been expecting to wait a while for things to settle down, but there doesn’t seem to be any rules in the rut. “The buck might be just behind, so get ready,” David whispers, but I am already preparing my .243. Safety still on, I feel myself tense as we watch the doe stop in a small clearing, alternatively nibbling grass and raising her head to see if danger is around. Moments later, she jumps the fence, and we watch as she heads towards us, before jumping the fence again and crossing back into the woodland. She then appears only ten feet from the high seat, alert, pausing a moment before bolting back into the wood. She more than likely spotted a movement from Georgia, or else we had been betrayed by an errant eddy in the wind – it was hard to tell.

“Hopefully she won’t bark a warning,” David whispers, but before the words are out of his mouth the familiar bark of impending danger sounds. “We’ll have to be really lucky to have a buck come out after that,” David murmurs.

Pic0101We wait on, and after giving the land time to settle down, David begins calling once more. Moments later, a buck comes bounding out of the trees in hot pursuit of a possible doe. He pauses momentarily, and I line up the rifle, hairs rising on the back of my neck. Looking through the riflescope I try fixing on his heart, but buck fever grips me and my rifle wavers.  My breath ragged, I’m too unsteady to warrant taking a shot. I can feel David’s impatience barely masked beside me as the buck bounds off, heading along the same path the doe had taken not 10 minutes earlier. David exhales loudly, his frustration obvious. I try my best to ignore it as I watch my buck bound out of sight.

“He’s off now. You don’t get a lot of chances this time of year – looks like he doesn’t have your name on him after all, Maureen,” David says. Frustrated, I look on to a now empty vista, still harbouring a feeling that it’s not all over just yet.

An agonising wait ensues before I catch sight of something in my peripheral vision, a small movement in the barley. The buck reappears looking somewhat dejected, obviously having had no luck in finding his doe. Raising the binoculars, I track him through the scope as he bounds along, popping neatly over the fence into a small clearing on the woodland edge. I look on anxiously as David tries another call.

Momentarily confused, the buck pauses. I view him through the scope, heart hammering. He’s almost front on, unshootable. David calls again – a risk worth taking, as the buck shifts slightly, and I have a split second of a chance. An incredible calm overcomes me as I slip off the safety, squeeze the trigger, and release the bullet. Everything stands still except for the buck, who jumps slightly and runs.

“Good shot!” David shouts, however my buck disappears, jumping the fence into the rough ground towards the trees, and out of sight. Doubt sets in, but David is confident of a good strike. “It looked good Maureen, we’ll give it a few moments to see if he jumps up, or he might just have dropped in the thick over there.”

Moments pass that feel like hours, and finally David makes ready to go and look. “Right, let’s go and find him,” he murmurs as he clambers down, and I note a more relaxed tone in his voice.

Disengaging ourselves from the high seat, we follow the path the buck took, David hunting for any blood trail. I follow on in dead silence. “Here!” David’s excited voice breaks through my despondency. “The blood trail starts here. Now, Mrs CSI, you take it from here!” David’s voice is much lighter now.

SONY DSC“It’s dark red, so it’s a heart shot. The blood has pumped out as he leapt the fence,” David helpfully explains, as I’ve never followed a blood trail before. I follow the direction, heading slightly right, and find another splash. The intermittent trail takes us through some thick undergrowth and over another fence. And there I see my buck, lying in some rough cover. I note everything about him, the little bit of twig between his horns from marking his territory, his silky orange coat, his thick dark antlers – he is magnificent. David explains the beast is now well past his prime, but his quality genes will have been passed on in previous ruts to ensure many a fine buck will follow him.

It might have taken three seasons to get this buck, but he was certainly a challenging prospect and one that would leave me with great memories. Shooting is not all about pulling the trigger: it’s about the whole experience, and more importantly respecting the beast. This buck deserved a lot of respect, and he certainly had that from me.

Three months later I had the head measured. He was indeed a fine buck, measuring a high bronze – and only three points short of a silver. But to me the score mattered not: he was a buck well done and much respected.

For roebuck stalking opportunities contact David Virtue: www.dvsporting.co.uk, 07866 901019

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