The buck of a lifetime

John Dunn

Sometimes it’s better to hunt for the sake of the chase than for a particular animal and that thought crossed my mind as we drove to the crest of the hill and stopped to glass the broad flats beyond. We’d been hunting for three days and nothing had popped up to pique my interest.

The previous afternoon Pete Spurgin had taken a wonderful fallow buck with his vintage Winchester 1885 High Wall in .38-55 and to date that was the best deer we’d seen. We’d glassed fallow, red, chital and sambar and while they were all wonderful to observe, nothing really moved me, though I wasn’t unhappy. We were constantly looking at deer and even when you can’t find something to hunt, time spent watching deer is never wasted.

We’d used a good part of the afternoon searching for a red stag with a drop tine the landholder had mentioned. I like non-typical antlers so he seemed like a prospect - if we could find him. We couldn’t but did bump into a broken-antlered stag and his hinds on the lee face of our hill. He’d been hesitant to leave, perhaps because of another as yet unseen stag with a deep voice roaring on the other side and if that was that the drop tine stag there was only one way to find out.

A couple of hundred metres away a group of lesser red stags and spikers cleared the sheep fence and jogged away with that proud, head-up almost regal mode of shambling movement they have when they’re not in a hurry but leaving anyway. Trailing behind was a mob of bleating sheep that bunched up in the corner of the paddock, squeezed through the gate in the frantic way sheep do then spread out to feed on the other side.

Half a kilometre or more away a drain bisected the flats. As we watched, the red deer splashed through the water, climbed over the mound on the other side and dropped out of sight behind it to join a scattering of reds already feeding there. One of them appeared a reasonable animal and as we checked him out we heard yet another roar even further away on the edge of the timber. Though he was little more than an active spot in the binoculars, he had to be worth a closer look.

Where a concrete bridge crossed the drain, Shaun Cooke stopped the car and grabbed his binoculars and spotting scope. One by one we climbed through the fence around the bottom of the drain mound then clambered to the top to use the elevation. The edge of the bush was a good 1500m away and the stag we wanted was no longer in sight. Bit by bit we began the search, checking every dip and hollow or patch of vegetation that might shield him.

A couple of hundred metres away a big stag with scrappy antlers was feeding into the wind, oblivious to our presence, while off to our left the stags we’d pushed across the drain were doing likewise. Where a finger of bush jutted out into the grasslands some fallow does were mooching about in the timber while others basked in the afternoon sun. Closer in a couple of kangaroos hopped out for an evening feed as once again a deep-voiced red was roaring in the timber.

It was an idyllic landscape, easy to sit back and enjoy with no real need to do any more. Tucked in behind the spotting scope as he often is, Shaun swore softly then turned and asked me if I fancied a crack at a sizeable fallow buck. What fallow buck? There wasn’t one when I’d looked earlier so where had he come from and more importantly, where exactly was he?

Shaun pointed him out and, just like him, I was amazed by the size of the animal. With his wonderful high-swept antlers he looked like a moose. Pete had a look and the verdict was unanimous - here was a fallow buck too good to walk past, he was big and we all knew it. There was no need to go into detail of counting his tines or mentally gauging his palms, the sensible thing to do was hunt him and worry about the finer points later.

We talked tactics and agreed a direct approach was the best option, the buck was 800m from where we sat and what little cover there was ran out halfway to him so beyond that we’d probably have to crawl. There were kangaroos and other deer we’d have to work our way through and how they reacted to our approach would be crucial to the outcome. All we had in our favour was a quartering breeze and afternoon sun behind us.

With Pete atop the bank to survey proceedings, Shaun and I set out across the flat, heading for a thin stand of trees that looked the best available cover. Stopping to check ahead, our boy had moved and was now lying in his rut hole among the trees watching his does. The kangaroos had hopped out of our approach line and the red deer were still feeding. So far, so good.

We made another couple of hundred metres and huddled in behind the trunks of a skinny pair of tea trees. Our buck now had his eyes closed, most of his does were feeding and the kangaroos no longer a consideration. The red stag off to the right had no idea we were there but a couple of those on the left had their heads up, curious but unable to smell us upwind.

We were still 400m from the fallow and there was no more cover except short grass and, given the slightly elevated position of the deer, that probably wouldn’t be enough. Our only hope lay in a tiny mallee knoll ahead and off to our left, if we could reach that we’d have some cover and hopefully be within shooting range. To arrive there all we had to do was sidle through the clear for 100m or so and resume a direct approach, the only flies in the ointment the red deer. If they were spooked this show was over.

We took our time, moving slowly, watching the red deer monitor our approach. A big hind lifted her head a little higher, snorted softly then turned and walked away. The others followed her lead and a few moments later they were all jogging steadily down the wind. We stopped and waited, anxious to see how the fallow would react, wondering if our stalk had been blown.

A few minutes later we were watching him through a skinny screen of mallee trunks. Shaun ranged the buck at 200m which was good but there were no gaps to shoot him through the trees. I slid forward to the edge of the mallee and, sitting flat on my butt, rested the rifle on a horizontal stem and waited patiently, checking the buck through the scope. Soon he opened his eyes and trotted down into the clear to push two of his does back towards the edge of the timber. With his neck extended he gave a half-hearted grunt then thought better of it and stood there, the paddles of his antlers rocking from side to side as he looked around.

I told Shaun I was about to take the buck and if he’d any doubts about whether or not I’d done my job properly he was to shoot the deer again and we’d talk about it later. He gave me a laconic affirmative as I heard him work a cartridge into the chamber of his .300 Winchester Magnum Mannlicher.

From a rock-solid rested position I put the cross-hairs on the base of the buck’s neck and squeezed off my shot. I saw him crumple and by the time I’d reloaded and found him in the scope again all I could see was a single antler jutting up out of the grass, rocking gently as he kicked his last. We waited a few minutes to ensure he wasn’t going to stand up then walked in to see what we had.

At our feet lay the largest antlered fallow buck I’ve ever seen in the flesh. His antlers were long, as were his broad palms, their back edges bladed above a strong pair of guard tines. He carried four good points on either top with nice long brow and bey tines out front. Viewed front-on the antlers were over spread and broadly V-shaped, the tops turning in as they always do on mature fallow heads. He looked wonderful lying there in the last of the evening light and as Pete had been the day before, I was more than a little awestruck.

As evening settled in and the light faded I sat beside my trophy, quietly thanked him for the hunt he’d given me and promised him pride of place in my trophy room. What else would you do for the buck of a lifetime?

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