With the red stag season beginning in Scotland, David Barrington Barnes remarks that it’s not all about the glorious Macnab – there are more accessible options that are just as enjoyable
Most Sporting Rifle readers will be familiar with the Macnab. For those who aren’t, ‘Macnab’ is the name allotted to the feat of a sportsman who, during one day between sunrise and sunset, grasses a red deer stag, catches a salmon and shoots a brace of grouse. These may be taken in any order.
Achieving a Macnab requires a good deal of luck and a high level of proficiency. In planning a Macnab there is always a great deal of debate as to which quarry to tackle first.
Early-season sunny weather may mean that an early start on the river is favoured and a grilse or summer salmon may be persuaded to take a fly before it gets too bright for good fishing.
If the feat is being attempted then the stags will likely be in ‘bachelor parties’ on the high tops and the grouse, assuming there is a stock on the hill, should be encountered around the lochs to which they routinely resort for a drink.
In picking the first quarry of the day, regard should be given to the views of the estate stalkers and ghillies, as they should know better than the sportsmen when and where stags, salmon and grouse are to be found.
It’s worth remembering that the original Macnab was the brainchild of that remarkable author and man, John Buchan, later Lord Tweedsmuir. In his novel John Macnab, Buchan had three bored city gents wager to poach a stag or salmon from three different estates, and the ways in which they attempted this are described in detail.
Having fished, stalked and shot on the same or similar estates, I have now and then recalled their fictional exploits. These emphasised the sporting aspects of their pursuit of the three species and I would say that today’s sportsman should do this too.
A park stag should not qualify, nor should a roadsided grouse or wormed salmon. All three species must be in season, so the earliest date for a Macnab is 12 August – though if I was going to try for a Macnab, I would likely choose late September as the time to do it.
“I drove home that evening, exhausted and ecstatic. I had achieved my unique McBarnes”
By then there will likely have been a frost or two, and with an autumnal sting in the air, salmon may be aggressive and more likely to take a fly, and the stags should be breaking out and less wary than in the height of summer.
Going for a Macnab is an expensive business, not least because it ties up various members of an estate’s team. If the stag is an awkward customer and not shot until late in the day, the river ghillie may be kicking his heels for most of the day awaiting the return of his client from
the hill. One of my nephews accounted for a stag and a salmon and set out in failing light for the grouse. It was an estate with few grouse on it, and only his ambition for a Macnab kept him plodding along behind the dogs.
A few moments after the long-suffering keeper finally suggested they give up, a covey flushed and my nephew showed composure to take a right-and-left. There, in the gloaming, he had completed his Macnab.
Another complication is that not all estates are suitable all the time. For instance, the dates of the red stag stalking I take are after the fishing season. But if for whatever reason you cannot try for a Macnab, there are variations. I discovered one of these quite by accident.
Having a noontime invitation to fish a local chalk stream in mid-May – on my birthday as it happened – I rose early and made my way to a high seat on my local patch. From this seat I had a commanding view of three fields, and I settled there to enjoy the chorus of the birds and any animals that might show themselves.
I can clearly recall the roebuck that came out of the trees to my left and made to cross in front of me. He was in no hurry, now and then stopping to graze, and it was while he paused that I dropped him.
Later that morning at the riverside, I stalked and caught a nice brown trout on a hawthorn fly, a number of which were hatching. After lunch, a big hatch of mayfly came on and in the space of a few minutes an epic rise was under way.
After inspecting and rejecting several ‘candidates’, I selected a two-and-a-half-pounder as my target trout and caught him on a small partridge-hackled mayfly with a yellow wing. I drove home that evening, exhausted and ecstatic. I had on my birthday achieved my unique McBarnes. Only two species, but as with all sporting endeavours, it’s about the experience and not the numbers.
There are numerous opportunities for readers to create their own personalised Macnabs. On a productive stalking day, for instance, it may be possible to engage two or three species of deer.
In my neck of the woods, muntjac, fallow and roe can frequently be found on the same ground. Some regions of Scotland, such as the south-west, are home to a great variety of quarry.
A goose first thing, small game during the day, and a roe doe in the evening are all possibilities, even with the constraints imposed by the short Scottish winter afternoons.
A fox should, in my view, be included in the list of legitimate Macnab targets, particularly a hill fox. Last autumn, out stag stalking, I encountered a hill fox in some lochside knolls.
Quickly getting into a firing position on a hump, I made a few squeaks to get him to show himself. From there, taking the shot was simple. We risked losing our stag, but any chance to do the hill keeper a favour was one we really had to take.
Luckily, the stag was only 150 yards away, so, leaving the fox where he fell, we crawled into the stag and found him still there holding hinds. It took us the rest of the day to grass a second stag, so my stalking day concluded with two stags and a fox.
No Macnab, then, but one certainly meriting a dram of fine Macallan back in the lodge that evening.