David Barrington Barnes recalls the lessons learned from previous outings and explores the art of calling for quarry.
Where are many good reasons for the great enjoyment that deerstalkers derive from their pursuit of deer. High among them are the unique opportunities that stalkers have to enjoy the countryside in its quieter hours around dawn and dusk.
Strolling through the purple loosestrife, tracking through the dew and appreciating nature undisturbed all have to be high on the list of deerstalker’s perks.
However, such nature study does not stand comparison with the absorbing interest provided by the engagement of the rifle with the deer he hunts. The lessons to be learned from these encounters are limitless.
I remember years ago hosting a friend with whom I had not previously stalked. We were after fallow does. Our morning outing had been unproductive so, after breakfast, I installed my friend in a high seat overlooking a deer lawn of rough grass and walked a wide loop with the intention of moving any deer in the adjoining woodland within range of his high seat. Whilst returning to him I heard a single shot.
On reaching the high seat my friend said a fallow doe had come on to the deer lawn about 80 yards in front of him, had stopped broadside and presented nicely for his shot after which she had run into thick cover.
Dead as a doe deer
We went forward and searched for paint and pins on the grass but found nothing at all. We then went into cover with my young Labrador but without result. By then I was beginning to doubt my friend’s story. Apart from the ideal circumstances in which the shot was taken, the absence of beast, blood and hair suggested a clean miss.
My hope and expectation diminishing, we kept up our search, gradually extending our range. Then, suddenly, we stumbled on the dead doe which was concealed in a bramble patch. She had been shot accurately and had, for some unknown reason, an unusually long death flight.
I learned several lessons from this. First, as a host one needs to trust a guest. Secondly, one needs to search and search again without time constraints or other pressures. Thirdly, even if there was no reaction and is no sign whatsoever there may be a dead beast in the cover.
By coincidence, my friend of that story has recently been my host for an evening’s red deer stalking. His object was to thin out stags and prickets on a grass farm.
My friend had assembled a team of four rifles and placed us in high seats five hundred yards apart. The oblong shaped scrub and gorse between us was bordered by rough grass pasture giving each rifle a good view of the ground on to which the stags and prickets would hopefully emerge.
As I settled into my allotted high seat on one corner the light was just beginning to thicken and I was soon scanning actively with binoculars and my thermal. Not much time had passed before I heard two rifle shots from the far end of the scrub and shortly afterwards I picked out a hind and follower and a hind on her own all of whom were behaving in an agitated way.
They disappeared and after a short pause two stags came out on to the grass followed quickly by several larger stags. This group made its way towards me and marked time in front of me, play fighting and partially masked by some ancient thorn bushes and also by the fall of the ground between the thorns and the scrub. This made it very difficult to pick a beast and shoot it.
Eventually patience paid off and I engaged a stag without ever seeing it again after my shot or hearing any bullet strike. The other stags moved a little distance but, remaining behind the thorns only offered risky shots which I was not prepared to take.
With worries about the outcome of my shot the last thing I wanted was to tell my host I had two wounded beasts in his near impenetrable scrub. When he and my two colleagues joined me they immediately said they had heard a good strike.
That at least was encouraging although the lack of any signature from my thermal was still a negative factor in my mind. We went forward past the thorns and into the dead ground on the outside edge of the scrub. No beast! Downhill for a distance and then, hooking round, we searched the thorns. There, in the top edge, my friend found my stag.
I have learned and been reminded of several lessons from this. First, one does not always see a reaction to a shot. Second, the shooter does not always hear the strike. Third, search and search and then search again. Last, if the outcome of the shot is uncertain for whatever reason another beast should not be engaged.
While stalking, I have more than once seen well-shot deer left on the ground. One young stalker engaged a fallow doe on the woodland edge, made a cursory search and rushed off to work.
Checking out the scene after he had left, I found the doe within 50 yards of the place at which she had run into the wood. She lay on an open ride. In another case the stalker had simply underestimated the distance run by the sorrel he had shot.
Going back to the beginning, events like these test the character of the hunter. There really is no place for the rifle who just wants to have a pop at a deer and go on to the next. One needs to be thinking of all the possible consequences that may flow from the shot not just the shot itself.
When one has experienced most of these, sometimes more than once, then it’s a matter of applying that experience to recover the shot beast. When that experience bank is readily available it makes for good outcomes and great interest. It’s a privilege to stalk with thoughtful companions and the right way to fill the chiller.
With these lessons in mind, it is also prudent to look back at past ruts in order to learn lessons for next year and beyond. I was out on my home ground late in the rut and interested in grassing an indifferent roe buck grazing on his own. I started calling and the buck was unimpressed, indifferent to the calls.
However, within a few seconds a roe doe ran out of the long grass. She stopped short of me, retreated, approached again and then circled round me. She was agitated and it was obvious to me that she had tucked up a kid nearby.
I pulled out then because my calling was causing her great agitation. Since that morning, I have never persisted in calling in the presence of a disturbed, agitated doe. She has problems enough with predatory foxes, wild, uncontrolled dogs, grass cutters and the like without a stalker adding to them unnecessarily.
When it comes to calling roe buck, limited calling is a useful method of bringing in a known buck for close range assessment. For several successive years I called a grand buck who had made his home in a particular wood. He was a classic master buck and head and shoulders above the other bucks on that ground.
I suspect his dominance caused him to come so well to the call but came he did, year after year. Far too good to shoot, I made my repeated annual inspections, always enjoying a close look at his fine head and big body.
Then, one spring morning, I found him in a smaller, adjoining plantation. He had been bested, probably by one of his own sons and had gone back in all respects. A combination of his failing condition and his new territory’s proximity to fast vehicular traffic led to the view that his time had come. By then my affection for this old fellow was such that I called in a connection to finish the job.
Another small wood that I stalked had coppice regrowth in it that was very attractive to the local roe. One afternoon, again during the rut, saw me calling from a slightly elevated wood edge bank with only a few yards visibility into and in places through the regrowth. Not an ideal calling position at all but I was desperate to take out the yearling roe buck which I had previously seen on the edge of this wood.
Standing on top of the bank, I tried a call or two and elicited an immediate response. A roe buck came in with caution. I could see he was a buck but only small parts of his body. I assumed he was the young buck I wanted and necked him. Going forward I saw I had unintentionally shot a nice mature buck.
Smacking my wrist, I started to gralloch him when I noticed a branch moving quite violently from a position further into the thicket. The realisation that this branch was moving on an entirely windless day because it was being ragged by another buck had me pick up the rifle again, reload, call and, only a minute or two later, shoot the yearling roe buck that was my original quarry.
Shooting both these bucks undoubtedly prevented a lot of damage to the coppice. Calling had facilitated the culling of both bucks. The fact that the second buck came on after the disturbance caused by my shot and subsequent gralloching demonstrated just how unaware roe bucks can be during the rut and how great a safety hazard this is for the deerstalker.
My roe calling experiences include several in which the buck has come in closer than is ideal. Calling for my son one evening I had taken him into the entrance to a small hillside wood which had one ride just inside the woodland edge and another going up the hill towards the middle.
My son got on his sticks positioning them so that he was looking down the first ride. After calling for a little while the buck came on to this ride just ten yards in front of us, offering a broadside neck shot that could be taken without spoiling the carcase.
Very often, in calling, the buck comes directly at the deerstalker whose facing, downwards neck shot is likely to also damage the saddle. Having spoiled several saddles I am now inclined to pass on this shot unless there is a pressing need to cull the particular buck.
My pursuit of roe bucks in the rut has led to some entertaining incidents. Once, up in Argyll, a red deer stalker put me on to a buck with an unusual head.
We went out together and I picked a patch of bracken separated from another, larger clump by short grass. I began to call and the buck charged out of the clump, crossed the grass and came close up to my knee before retreating, at which point I shot him.
Another malform buck that I called in the fens proved to be very sticky. Eventually, I took my guest forward through tall reeds to a place in the dyke where a substantial alder tree was growing. Always reluctant to move after calling, I thought that if we could make it to the alder bush we would likely get a shot. We made it just in time as the buck was already approaching.
My guest got on his sticks and waited for the buck to arrive and present a clear shot. A few moments later and the malform was down. That, we both thought, was a most satisfactory and enjoyable stalk.
Calling a roe buck is an exciting and interesting form of hunting. It’s definitely a way of making something happen. The cautionary aspect of it can really be summed up by suggesting one should not overdo it. There is no need to shoot every buck you call.
Nor should the frantic response of roe does with kids be disregarded. Finally, it’s worth remembering that if a buck will come into your knee he may ignore some other person concealed by the leafy screens of summer growth, potentially setting up an awful shooting accident.
More from David Barrington Barnes
- Red stalking with David Barrington Barnes
- Fallow shots w/ David Barrington Barnes
- The off-season with David Barrington Barnes
- Stalking Century: David Barrington Barnes hits a three-digit target number on a deer cull
- David Barrington Barnes on the Macnab