Chasing the sambar dream in Australia

 

Sambar deer have always been on the list for me to hunt and after plenty of door knocking around the Manawatu area I was still struggling to gain access to these secretive animals. There are areas of DOC land in the Manawatu and Rotorua/Bay of Plenty region and some fantastic trophies have been obtained but the majority of the Sambar herd is locked up on private land. Sambar were first introduced into the Himatangi area in 1875 and there was a failed liberation near Morrinsville in the Waikato before a later introduction in the Bay of Plenty took place and now there are good numbers in both locations. Australia is another place and the Victoria high country has produced some true giants. Numbers are becoming high and they can be hunted by bush stalking or hound hunting where packs of assorted breeds of dogs are used to track down the Sambar and they are either shot in a walking bail or taken in a standing bail.

Australia is an awesome place to hunt but unlike NZ, bush there has plenty of things that like to bite and sting. It is home to some of the deadliest snakes in the world and care is needed while stalking. Most times they will move off before you see them however you only need to be struck once and your chances of survival are very limited to say the least due to the remoteness of the hunting.  Through the winter conditions the snakes tend to not be seen but as spring arrives in the high country and the temperatures rise the snakes are a lot more active and best respected and avoided, kiwi hunters are not used to seeing them and I’m pretty sure we make for some funny viewing to our Aussie mates when we encounter our first snake.

A good mate of mine had moved from the Naki to Melbourne and is also a keen hunter. Over the last few years he has chased the local Samber stags around every spare minute he had before he finally got the jump on a true giant of a stag which was a trophy of a life time. When he mentioned that I should come over for crack for a stag myself I jumped at the opportunity. With a few other commitments I needed to tidy up first I found myself jetting my way to Melbourne on the first week of September to chase my dream Sambar. Arriving in Melbourne and going through the usual security checks without too much drama we were on our way 3hrs south to meet up with Jason’s mate Jesse he also was a mad keen Sambar hunter and he was also going to be hunting with us for the week, Jesse had a good knowledge of the surrounding country and with that we set a plan to chase down one of these big beasts.

 Fresh Rubbing!

Fresh Rubbing!

Getting up well before first light we awoke to cool misty conditions that were very similar to a winter’s day back home, however the weather was predicted to improve as the week went on so nothing to worry about. Over the next hour we drove the dirt roads that lead us to our destination.  With headlights on we made our way to a likely lookout that had a mixture of cut over bush with a lot of regenerated scrub that the Sambar loved to feed through. Over the next few hours we gave all the likely areas a good work over with the bino’s before I heard the words theirs one and as I swung my bino’s into the general direction a big mature Sambar doe materialized out of  nowhere then a half grown calf come trotting out totally oblivious to the potential dangers. As the sun got higher they made their way to the safety of the bush and it was now time to bush stalk our chosen catchment as the breeze would be in our favour while we sidled through the faces hoping to catch a stag bedded or moving back to his bedding spot.

Over the next few hours we quietly sidled in and out of the chosen catchment hoping to catch a stag bedding on the more open sunny spurs but nothing played the game. While having a break mid-afternoon we kept an eye on a couple ofbroken faces thatSambar liked to use when a Black Dog poped up, then another and before we knew it there was 6-7 cross bred wild Dogs working the face and they were on a mission. Jessie explained that wild Dogs had become a real problem within Australia and account for a lot of wildlife lost so these dogs were lucky that they weren’t in range. With the area spooked we headed back out and checked a few more likely spots until darkness took over signalling the end of the days hunting.  Over the next couple of days we watched over likely spots and bush stalked some really nice bush and some not so hunter friendly with a few doe’s and yearlings and the odd spiker spotted but we were yet two see a stag.

Alert hind.JPG

A change of tactics were decided on and after a good drive up into the snow country we set a good pace up an old logging/4X4 track that wound its way up into the snow gums where Jessie had a trail camera set up near a Sambar perching tree where Samber stags rub there scent on it as a part of their rutting patterns. We were eagerto see what was home and after chucking the memory card in my camera it told us they were there and the two pictured stags were around 24-25” which was good to see. With the excitement levels up we carried on to a likely lookout and settled in with the bino’s as the day was wearing on. After a couple of hours a couple of does were spotted then out walked two stagsboth very big in body and even at 1100yrds antlers were visible. Out With the Swarovski spotter and it revelled another nice stag around 25” long with good width and shape, spinning the spotter onto the other stag I was a little slow and got the back half as he disappeared back into the scrub. Jessie said he looked better but where he was there was no chance of getting there tonight and the wind was in their favour from the angle we would have to approach from. So it was well after dark before we made it back to the truck and as we headed for home we planned another spot to hunt for the morning, like the last few days 430am wouldn’t take long to arrive.

Leaving the Ute well before light again we picked our way through some cut over scrub and climbed a small ridge that would put us in a position to start sidling into are nice water shed. It wasn’t long and we spotted a doe and yearling feeding totally undisturbed, we sat and watched hoping a stag would be with them as they fed in our direction. Suddenly the doe raised her head and that sixth sense kicked in, her eyes locked with ours and we thought the gig was up. Staying dead still she watched us as I clicked away with the camera until she decided that it was now time to depart and with a couple of big honks they were gone, what are great start to the morning! After covering another portion of the next gully we were discussing the good amount of rubbings and a fresh scrape up ahead when a honk from above snapped us back to attention. Again holding our breaths we watched the doe walk up towards the ridge and as we crept forward an unseen stag broke from cover startling all of us! I lifted the gun but could easily make out a small set of antler as he disappeared over the ridge so he was safe from me. Over the rest of the morning we bumped into a few more does and there was plenty of stag sign with wallows and rubbings on all the small saplings. Sambar favour the wild cherry trees and stags will return year after year to rub these tress which gives a nice dark stain to their antlers.

As the day wore on myself and Jason went back to a look out that we watched on the first day while Jesse went and checked out a couple of other gully’s with the plan to meet back after dark. Jason and I watched all the likely spots around the bush edges and about an hour before dark we had picked up at least half a dozen Sambar but no stags. As the eyes really started to strain we picked up two very big bodied stags but on closer inspection with the spotter it showed they were spikers with very dark skins. Jesse had also spotted them but as darkness took over nothing else showed itself. Tomorrow was to be my last day chasing Sambar so we planned to hunt another watershed near where we had finished up today as there was a lot of promising sign in the general area and hopefully a nice stag.

The early mornings were starting to take their toll and we were all feeling the pinch of some hard hunting but unlike work it’s a little easier dragging oneself up to chase a trophy Sambar! We didn’t quite expect the marathon effort awaiting us however. Stalking nice and slow as the sun progressively got higher we picked up a few does again and the odd wombat rustling around which kept us on our toes but was welcome distraction being new wildlife for myself. By mid-morning we still hadn’t found that elusive stag but there was still that magical last minute hope up our sleeves. We were making our way down a ridge heading over to another area when I stopped to empty my didgeridoo and Jason and Jesse carried on. The boys had advanced about 120 yards further down the ridge when suddenlythe bush erupted and the sound of a deer fleeing caught my attention. I caught a glimpse of a stag exiting the scene and with one motion the gun was loaded and the shot was sent. Jason and Jesse were back beside me in a flash as all they had heard was the action of the rifle working and the following boom. What was it they asked? A pretty good stag I said. The shot felt good but it was a running shot from 70-80 yards quartering away from me.  As we headed down to where I had seen him we arrived to find it was clear there had been contact with a good amount of blood on the ground and a clear trail that led us downhill, the out of control slide marks had us thinking he would be piled up around the next bend. Over the next 2 hours we followed the blood trail expecting to find him down but as the blood dried up we were starting to get that feeling of dread at maybe having lost the stag, we searched around hoping to find a drop of blood but nothing. Surely not! Not after all of the effort we had put in!  We weren’t willing to give up and over the next hour we searched high and low. Jason had back tracked and placed toilet paper on the last few spots of blood. Jesse needed to head home so after reluctantly leaving we walked back out and headed home. The agitation/frustration was setting in and we just couldn’t let it go so after dropping Jesse back we drove the hour back and high tailed it back to the last drop of blood.

Again we methodically searched in a grid pattern detective like in our approach. We had covered a reasonable area when all of the sudden Jason looked at me and said “blood”! We were spurred on again and the drops were quite close together which indicated he had slowed down and as we tracked him again we felt we were closing in when he erupted out of some crown fern but no chance for a shot! Bugger! “That was our chance” I said to Jason, he still looked pretty mobile as we tracked his marks and the small blood trail he was leaving. Over the next 2 hours we followed him as he tried to shake us by taking us down a dry creek bed followed by the thickest vegetation he could find. At one point I said to Jason “let’s stop and give him time to settle down” but the day was getting late and we needed to keep pushing along.  He took us into a group of deer and as they departed we were unsure which one was him but after some hands and knees stuff we were back on his mark and we were feeling like we were gaining on him. We could hear a deer moving and climbing around above us but we still couldn’t get a glimpse! Time was ticking and the intensity was rising as we were running out of day light. We tracked his marks uphill and at last I caught a glimpse of him going downhill again, he had played the ultimate game working the wind to his favour. Seeing an open patch ahead I took off running and as I popped into the open there he was! Up with the rifle and boom! But he just kept going! I ran around the next clump of bush and he soaked up another round, as I worked the bolt again he finally staggered and collapsed.

Jason was right there and had witnessed the finishing of the most intensive hunting adventure he had ever been a part of.  I was so relieved to have put him out of misery and stoked to have claimed my first Sambar trophy. It was hi fives and back slaps as we had tracked him 7 kilometres and it had taken 6 hours of tracking to put him down for good. We managed to get some photos in the fading light and I whipped the cape off under the headlight and removed what meat we could carry all the while cautiously looking over my shoulder for a King Brown or that fella from those Wolf Creek movies! The walk back to the car went quickly as we just couldn’t stop talking about what a day it had turned out to be.

With the cape dropped into the local tanners and the head wrapped and packed away I was easing into my luxurious economy class seat on my way back to NZ, reflecting as one does on a great adventure. Getting through customs wasn’t a problem and I’ve never had problems in the past but as a week ticked by and still no head delivered from fumigation I began to worry a little. From there the phone calls started and over the next week we went through the dreaded situation of my head becoming a bio security risk! I had specifically drawn their attention when entering NZ that it needed to be addressed ASAP, however they had dropped the ball and let it fester. In the end I lost the battle and the head was destroyed. As you can imagine to say I was gutted was an understatement and the buzz of the hunt had been dulled somewhat. On the upside I guess I’m going back to fulfil the dream, maybe once the snakes have gone back to sleep again though.