The 2010 fallow rut in our neck of the woods had come and gone with
little more than the odd grunt during what we thought was normally peak
rut time. Day after day and week after week we'd pay regular visits to
out favorite fallow gullies waiting and wondering why they hadn't
started grunting. Some say it takes a cold snap in the weather to get
the stags grunting. Was it the unseasonal late summer we were
experiencing or had the stags all disappeared. A few mates in
Queensland's Brisbane Valley had mentioned they were experiencing the
same deal with the red stag rut up there also. I personally put it down
to the unseasonable late summer we were experiencing. Impossible I
thought to myself, I'd hunted here for years and never experienced it
before. My son Mick, had also put in a few trips with me and later a
trip with our friend Alex in his area with similar results. Sure we were
seeing lots of does and the odd immature buck, but no mature stags and
definitely no grunting.
Nevertheless, unable to explain 2010's unusual so-called rut, we carried on hunting regardless with little or no results. It wasn't until early May, however, when in normal times the fallow rut would be winding down or finished that Mick took a run with Alex to follow up on some pig sign and to their amazement, the stags were grunting. Turning all their focus on the deer, Alex and Mick hunted all day and saw several mobs of deer and what's more, most had a stag in tow. To cut a long story short, Mick took his best stag to date with a magnificent cape and skin that was unscarred and led them to believe the rut may have just began.
Marcus and I had already planned to hunt with Alex the end of that week to whistle up a few foxes on film, but in view of what was happening agreed to turn our focus to the rutting fallow. Thursday night, Marcus and I met up with Alex which would give us at least a few days hunting, before heading back for work on the Monday. Alex had been out scouting the previous day and had confirmed they were still grunting. The following morning we entered the property we'd be hunting well before first light and to our amazement the stags were grunting from all four corners of the property. At first light we donned our packs and followed the distant grunt of one particular stag for a closer look. Slowly and carefully we snuck into the gully he and his harem were in. Most of the does were busy feeding but the grunting buck ran stiff legged back and forth in a feverish frenzy, trying to intercept one fleeing female he persistently followed.
A stag will travel from mob to mob during the rut in an effort to locate does on heat and will generally stick with that mob until the job is done. During this time if challenged by other stags, he will stand his ground and fight for supremacy. In big mobs of deer, it's not uncommon to have a couple of mature stags present along with a few young stags. With this comes a lot of fighting, broken points, battle scarred capes and hides and the odd limping stag cast out of the heard by the dominant male. Fallow stags are said to be one of the most aggressive fighters of all six species of deer in Australia and sometimes will fight to the death. In fact in New Zealand, I've witnessed a mature fallow stag give a big old red stag a run for his money.
Once all the does on heat are serviced, he will generally move on to the next mob in search of others and that explains why you will sometimes see a stag in broad daylight, traveling across an open paddock or across a hillside, generally with nose to the ground and hot on the heels of a doe on heat that's passed through the area. During this time, referred to as the rut, stags lose a tremendous amount of body condition, as most of their time is spend in a crazed frenzy chasing does and very little time feeding. The rut is also the best time to hunt a wiley old stag as this is when he lets his guard down and forgets how to avoid his predators, thinking only of the mating process. Not only is he sometimes caught out in the open, but his persistent grunting is almost like he's calling to let you know exactly where he's located.
This stag, although in full rut was only a young animal and after we'd captured lots of photos and video footage, we decided to move on. The next mob we stumbled upon presented a similar scenario, however, as the sun had well and truly risen, the grunting became less and less evident until by late morning all went quiet and most of the deer had disappeared into the bush. Deciding to head up high into some lightly timbered country, all three of us glassed from a vantage spot for any sign of movement in the surrounding hills. Sure enough it didn't take long to pick up a stag that had decided to bed in a patch on timber not five or six hundred meters from where we were located. As all else was quiet, I decided to try and stalk in for a few photos and a bit of video footage. Puzzled at why he was on his own, I moved in with the video camera and filmed to my hearts content. The boys had also moved down to where I was and a closer look revealed the stag was a large bodied, mature animal with one good palm and what appeared to be a three point antler similar to a sambar stags head gear on the other side. All agreeing this malform should be culled from the heard we made plans to take him. The boys suggested I take the shot having located him. As I was carrying little more than a back pack and video camera complete with tripod, Marcus offered me his Sauer 202 chambered in .30/06 to take the shot, to which I gratefully accepted. Leaving Alex and Marcus to man the camera, I slowly closed the gap to little more than 100 meters, when the stag stood up offering me a broadside shot. Lifting the Sauer, I placed the cross hairs on his shoulder and slowly squeezed the trigger. The stag fell instantly as I rushed over to inspect his unusual head gear and the boys weren't too far behind.
As I lifted his unusual rack for a closer look, Marcus and Alex pointed out another younger stag that had jumped its bed at the report of the shot. The younger buck had a very pronounced limp as it slowly made tracks over the ridge, indicating he had probably been fighting. After a few photos and removing the antlers and cape, we packed up and moved on. The lightly timbered, undulating country we were hunting contained a healthy population of predominantly menil fallow, with very few blacks present and the antler quality in general was strong, from good blood-lines. Continuing to hunt on for the afternoon, the three of us overlooked several other mobs, each with a stag present, however, not wanting to shoot anything but a trophy or malformed such as the one I had taken, the boys passed up on several opportunities.
With very little light left for the day, we changed direction and decided to make tracks towards the vehicle which was a couple of kilometers as the crow flies in the opposite direction. Moving back towards the flat, pasture improved country, it became more and more evident that the back hills were where the action was and where all the rutting was taking place, as you could no longer hear the grunting, nor see the numbers of deer we'd seen in the hills. Sure, they'd feed down during the night, but by mid morning the majority were back in cover and up higher. Considering we'd been out hunting since first light and it was now almost dark again, we had heads down and tails up in an effort to get back to the vehicle.
Now remember what I said about it not being uncommon to see a stag wandering out in the open during the rut- Well, I must admit we'd all become a little forgetful about those sort of lessons, however, it was Marcus who happened to look up at one point and unexpectedly see a nice stag not 80 meters from where we were. What's more he was stock still just staring at all three of us. 'BUCK-BBBUCK' he whispered, as Alex and I lifted our heads to see what Marcus was having difficulty believing was there.
This stag was a nice even head and bound to exceed 200 Douglas points. In fact he was probably a little bigger than the one Marcus has shot on a previous trip we'd done the two years before.
Marcus instantly lifted the Sauer. 'He's a good one', I whispered. 'Wait till I get the camera going' I urgently whispered, to which Marcus just held fire, awaiting the command. It must have been the longest ten seconds of his life. In one quick motion I had the legs spread on the tripod and the record button switched on when I signaled the 'OK, take him' to Marcus. In fact I don't think I'd finished the sentence when the stag turned side on to make his escape and Marcus fired drilling him on the run through the lung-heart area.
The stag ran about twenty meters and expired. He was probably in search of does and was possibly on his way up to where we had come from. Rushing over for a look we congratulated Marcus on an excellent shot. The whole unexpected affair happened in a matter of seconds and certainly woke up three tired hunters who otherwise thought the day was well and truly over.
Again, a valuable lesson learnt, even for this old hunter. Don't give up, nor stop hunting until you're back at the vehicle with the guns put away. The following day we returned for another eventful dose of late season madness and saw many deer including several stags, but none as good as the one Marcus had secured. As Alex had already scored on an exceptional buck a few weeks prior, he too passed them up. Next year should be a great season, as the ones we passed up showed lots of promise for the future.