It’s a sad fact that not many Aussie deer hunters who live outside of Victoria will ever have the chance to hunt the diminutive and elusive hog deer. With their limited habitat confined to the very bottom of Victoria’s Gippsland region and some offshore islands, access has always been at a premium.
Some time ago my good mate and hunting companion Warren McKay alerted me to the existence of the Blond Bay Hog Deer Advisory Group (BBHDAG) who, in association with Parks Victoria and the Victorian Game Management Authority (GMA), run an annual ballot for punters to hunt hog deer in some of Gippsland’s National Parks. On my third attempt at the ballot in 2010 I snared an invite to hunt the Boole Poole Peninsula, where I took a small stag and a hind and while thinking it unlikely I’d ever win the ballot again, I persevered over the next 10 years and was again rewarded with the chance to hunt the little deer.
This time it was for the recently acquired hunting areas on Snake Island, administered by Parks Victoria, which lies adjacent to Sunday Island where a successful private hog deer project has been run for more than 50 years by the Para Park Co-operative. Fortunately I was able to attend the annual Australian Deer Association (ADA) hog deer hunter education weekend in January on Sunday Island, where all attendees were thoroughly schooled in the habits of these beautiful animals and the laws, regulations and hunting procedures of Snake Island and other Parks Victoria areas were set out.
Fast forward to March and I hit the road with all the gear I’d need for the week-long island hunt. One of the main pieces of equipment was my ‘ladder stand’ with wheels that would be used as a dual purpose ‘equipment cart’ and ‘stand’ from which to sit and wait over the semi-open feeding and watering areas. The island is far too thickly vegetated to walk and hunt, the most successful method being the sit and wait approach as deer have to eat and drink.
The logistics of hunting Snake Island can be difficult but as I arrived several days early I was taken on a recce of the island by my good mate Matt, who owns a boat. Matt’s also a keen hog deer hunter who’d experienced Snake Island via the BBHDAG ballot the previous year and had taken a respectable stag. The viewing gave me a good sense of the island’s topography and a chance to claim a camping spot reasonably close to my hunting area with regard to the prevailing westerly wind.
On completing the mandatory briefing from Parks Victoria on Sunday morning we were into the boats and off to Snake Island before the drizzly weather deteriorated any further. Monday dawned fine and cool with a mild westerly breeze, perfect conditions for my hunting area and ‘ladder stand’ location and with deer usually coming out to water and feed any time after 9am until 2pm, then again just before last light, it was a leisurely task to position my ‘ladder stand’.
The sit-and-wait hunting approach was foreign to me before I hunted hoggies on the first occasion, where I learned just how effective it was, taking both a stag and hind. Attempting to stalk them through Snake Island’s thick vegetation would’ve been a waste of time and the ADA hunter education weekend had again reinforced this method as the most productive way of taking the elusive deer.
The day passed slowly on my semi-comfortable ‘ladder stand’ where I was fascinated by the abundance of native bird life, the array of brightly coloured parrots and small wrens a welcome distraction while awaiting deer. Throughout the day gangs of large, loud, arrogant crows swooped in to drink and swagger about with all other bird life vacating the immediate area, something akin to hoodlums ambling into a shopping mall, loudmouthing their arrival and strutting around to frighten everyday people. It was both educational and entertaining.
Later in the afternoon as I looked to the far end of the clearing, my heart skipped a beat when I identified a patch of brown fur behind a tussock though a quick scan with the Leicas revealed only a lonely swamp wallaby having a drink and nibble on the fresh green grass. He fed for a while before hopping back into the scrub.
Nothing moved on the swamp for the next half-hour except the ever-present parrots and domineering crows until, just after 4pm as if by magic, a deer appeared on the clearing 180 yards away. It was a nervous young spike which trotted swiftly back into the bush after a gang of crows kept following and moving towards him. Ten minutes later he reappeared on the clearing and anxiously started to feed, all the time keeping his distance from the crows.
By 9am next day I was back in my stand watching over the length of the clearing. The morning was warm with a hint of westerly breeze under a clear blue sky and the parrots, wrens and crows were again providing the entertainment. As the mild breeze swirled and changed direction I was startled by a sound I’d heard years before. It wasn’t a bird cry but about 30 yards to my right, in undergrowth surrounding the clearing, came a sharp ‘buhh, buhh’ - the alarm call of a hog deer. The animal had clearly been coming in to water and feed when it caught my scent on the swirling breeze and retreated to the scrub. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the stag I’d been waiting for.
Later in the day as my concentration began to wane I noticed movement to the left of the clearing as an adult hind stepped out less than 100 yards from my stand. She watered and fed as she pleased, taking scant notice of the crows dotted about the swamp, but when she neared them she’d walk briskly in their direction, causing them to scatter. She continued to do this as she fed around the clearing until they’d had enough of her and took off. This was clearly the learned behaviour of a mature animal as she wasn’t worried by the crows at all, unlike the young spike who looked intimidated. She continued to feed and move about the clearing for some time, before heading back to the cover of the bush.
As the shadows began to lengthen I was contemplating the walk back to camp when movement at the far end of the clearing caught my eye, and even without binoculars I could tell it was a mature stag, closer inspection through the binos revealing he was exactly what I’d been waiting for. The stag appeared nervous as he glanced around, checking the surroundings before putting his head down to drink. As he did I alighted from the stand as quietly as I could.
I’d set up shooting sticks just in front of the stand at the edge of the clearing and as he started to feed he turned to present his left shoulder at 220 yards. I carefully placed my rifle on the shooting sticks as the stag lifted his head and turned to face me and as the reticle centred on his chest I gently squeezed the 1kg trigger on the Ruger .270. I don’t remember feeling recoil or hearing the shot though I did pick up the thwack of a solid hit echo back to me as the stag buckled before staggering a few short yards towards the scrub.
I marvelled at his unique antlers before attaching the GMA tag to his rear hock then completed the obligatory photo session and field dressing, and back at camp I carefully caped the stag before toasting him with a couple of celebratory ports. I organised my departure from the island for the next morning followed by the mandatory GMA checking station visit to weigh and measure the stag. The BBHDAG ballot is an excellent program which had again given me the chance to achieve something many deer hunters can only dream about. For anyone interested in hog deer, the ballot is well worth the $25 entry fee for a chance to secure the potential hunt of a lifetime.