As Thomas Nissen follows a team of hunters through the Latvian wilderness, he experiences more than just one kind of game
The terrain is covered with a thin layer of snow and the temperature has dropped to minus 14 degrees, but the weather is, nevertheless, close to perfect for the hunt we are going on.
Many of the 13 hunters participating are fond of hunting in the Baltic countries, and some of them reinforce this passion by returning to hunt at least once every year in Latvia. That is why Nika Hunting Tours launched their driven hunt in the Latvian countryside over 15 years ago.
On our first morning, 24-year-old Thomas Clausen – whose primary ambition on this trip is to bag a lynx or a wolf – shoots a moose calf. The calf appeared in the very last moments of the second drive.
In the same drive, Albert Christiansen – who has been in Latvia between two and three times a year since 2003 – and Stig Bendtsen each also shoot a moose. None of the moose are particularly special, even though on a hunt like this there is a high likelihood of meeting a bull…
Which is just what happens to Willy Anderson at the end of the day when snow starts to fall.
In the last drive, the hunting gods favour Willy. He has participated in Latvian driven hunts through the past three seasons, however in none of the previous years has he seen moose.
As the drive is almost over, the loud sound of a driving dog reaches him. The noise approaches Willy’s post, but before the dog reaches him a massive giant squeezes out the scrub 30 metres away.
An experienced shooter, Willy does not get put off by the size of the beast nor the fact that it has horns for a trophy. With two shots clean on the shoulder he takes it down – it falls after stumbling on for another 50 metres. Finally, Willy claims his prize.
Hunting in Latvia
The hunt took place in a state area where the hunt has been managed by Arnis Zeiers for the last 30 years. The area is approximately 60,000 hectares divided into five “smaller” areas of approximately 15,000 hectares each.
In the last three months of the year, a driven hunt with 15-20 people are conducted each week. You will hunt moose, roe deer, red deer, wild boar, lynx and wolf in this hunting area, where the seasons and numbers of licences are as follows:
Roebuck season is from 1 June to 30 November, while roe doe can be shot from 15 August until the 30 November. 200 bucks and 300 does are culled annually.
Red deer has a season from 1 September to 31 January, and 150 animals are on license, which is divided with one third of each stag, hind and calf.
The moose, which has a season from 1 September to 31 December, is managed after the same model as the red deer, but 250 licenses are released for moose, as the species is considered to be hard on the forests, which are primarily managed from a commercial point of view.
There are 250 licenses for wolves across Latvia, of which in this 60,000 hectares they annually take between 10 and 20. The wolf season begins on 15 July and ends when the licenses are shot up, which usually means mid-February.
The lynx season begins on 1 December and runs until the total of 150 Latvian licenses have been shot. In Arnis’s area, approximately the same number of lynxes are killed as wolves. Essentially a very good success rate on the two predators – and the snow offers a great advantage.
The missing lynx
The snow continues to fall, and obscures our view for the evening, but ultimately it is good news for us – the next morning the fresh snow allows us to spot not only elk and deer tracks but also wolf and lynx.
A few centimetres have fallen overnight, and in the first drive there are moose tracks to follow. Midway through the drive, two young moose bulls are shot and after them a single cow.
The cow is killed by Carsten Ottesen who is an experienced hunter, but in this remarkable environment it is the first time he sees how the moisture breaks out of the fur and atomises as the bullet hits the shoulder of the animal.
With a few colourful oathes, he watches this dramatic spectacle that is followed by the steam from the cow’s lungs pouring into the ice-cold morning air; what a view – both dramatic and poignant!
Eventually, it is time for us to try a Latvian driven hunt highlight – a drive for lynx. In a remote area, hunting manager Arnis Zeiers has found tracks from five lynx that have gone into a section of the forest – and there are no tracks out… it looks like the lynx have to been in there during the next drive!
For Thomas Clausen, this is the dream situation, an opportunity he has been looking for since he first visited Latvia six years ago. As the first man on this drive, Thomas sees three lynxes just a few minutes into it.
They are straight ahead and in front of him. They move gently through the dense woodland just 50 metres in front of the young hunter. He cannot shoot though, as the forest cats only look like blurred shadows in the dense undergrowth.
At the sight of the stocky cats, his pulse rises instantly, heartbeats are skipping in his chest, but no shot presents before the animals disappear back into the forest. It takes a few minutes before two of the cats suddenly return. Thomas stands completely still, but his heart and mind are racing, hoping for success.
As they try to sneak out, between Thomas and his neighbour’s post, he shoots at the one in front, which goes down straightaway – a clean kill, a dream came true – it clearly takes a while for it all to sink in for the young hunter.
He’s not alone on the lynx front. 44-year-old Martin Petersen has a post on the flank where the lynx have gone into the wood during the night. This is his eighth visit to Latvia, but this time is the first that he has seen a lynx.
The possibility of taking this animal on a Latvian driven hunt never used to mean a lot for Martin, but within the last couple of years, the dream has become stronger. These days the lynx are higher on his list of hunting targets, simply because of their elusive nature.
Martin is standing with a deep, irrigated drainage channel behind him and looking forward to a storm fall area, where the fallen wood forms an opening. In advance, he selects a pair of openings where he can shoot, should the opportunity arise.
As the drive is 200-300 metres from being finished, he sees a round head with striking, pointed ears on one of the open tracks he has set. There are in fact two animals, 10 metres apart, and when they stop at about 40 metres he shoots his first shot
He misses though and the lynx run a few metres. One disappears and the other one stands just behind a tree. As it moves a little forward after a few seconds, Martin is ready. The red spot dances over the target before the bullet is released – the lynx drops on the spot, dead.
Flying forest cat
As the drive is almost over, a lynx comes along the edge of the forest between the drivers and the shooters. As it is next to Kjeld Andersen, who is posted not far from Martin, it is only 10 metres away.
Despite the short distance he cannot shoot into the drive, as the drivers are so close. As the cat detects Kjeld, it turns inwards into the drive, but is stopped by a beater that causes it to turn. It is heading for an opening five metres to the right of Kjeld.
It accelerates to its top speed over just a few metres and as it passes the drainage channel with a great leap, Kjeld’s hastily despatched bullet only scratches its skin.
This is why this forest cat is as sought after as it is. It is a species that offers both ups and downs. It is a species that brings the blood to the boil and makes hunters feel that they are alive – both the successful ones and the unfortunate.
Before the next drive they spot the tracks of wild boar – formerly one of the most numerous species on the tableau under driven hunts in Latvia. But after African swine fever ravaged the country, seeing wild boar has become a bit of a special sight.
In this instance, Kjeld Andersen takes an überlaufer from a big group that passes nearby while neighbouring hunter Steen Larsen sends a single pig thundering over the road about 40 metres from him. As I recall there was also a missed shot or two…
There is also an unexpected visit from a brown bear. The bear is protected in Latvia, but it is nevertheless a great experience to have the opportunity to see it.
Albert Christiansen noticed the track of the bear passing the road out of the forest just 50 metres from him. Unbelievably the big animal came and went so quickly and quietly that we never discovered the king of the forest was even nearby.
More bang for your buck
On the third day, we were driving all the way to the Russian border. In fact, we are so close that I can almost feel Putin looking over my shoulder when I place myself behind Martin Petersen for the first drive. The day before, Martin was so lucky to be one of those taking a lynx, but halfway through this drive, his luck seems to be gone.
Three red stags come towards us through closed birch forest, but although Martin takes three shots at the front deer, it carries on without being hit once. Seconds later the stags reach Carsten Ottesen’s post, where the crown-bearing 10 pointer is taken in the first shot.
In the second drive, young Thomas Clausen puts down a nine-pointer stag, while Niels Madsen becomes his own beneficiary by shooting two moose in the same drive.
In this situation a total of five moose break out of the woods, in order to bypass a completely open area of forest. First comes a cow with two calves, from which he takes one from two shots.
Then he becomes aware that a very nice bull is within the group. Quickly he takes a shot on the giant before it disappears on the other side of the opening, but the bullet is a little behind, and the animal disappears in the woods.
Niels skips the mandatory soup for lunch and instead tracks the bull. He and the guide get in touch with it after about 300 metres. It has been wounded, but it comes to, and senses the hunters before Niels gets a shot – it flies off and tracking therefore continues for a few minutes before contact is made again.
Suddenly, the Latvian guide draws hard into Niels’ arm as he commands ‘Shoot!’ The bull stands just behind a small pine tree, a mere five metres from the tip of the barrel – it crashes on the spot when the bullet hits it in the neck.
In total, a three-day hunt of 13 hunters in the Nika Hunting Tours group ended up with two lynx, one fox, two red stags, two wild boars and 11 moose, from which five were bulls – something for us to build on over the next 15 years.
The trip was arranged by Nika Hunting Tours. If you are looking for a driven hunt in Latvia, the hunting agent can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org