With the western Queensland drought gaining in intensity, shooters can provide a valuable service to the agricultural industry, as Don Caswell explains.
The manager pointed, "That stony ridge, that's where I reckon the deer are coming from." My hunting buddy Mike and I nodded in agreement. It made sense. We were new to that particular property and had only arrived half an hour earlier. With the sun getting low in the sky, the manager was giving us a quick tour of the place to get our bearings before night closed in.
It was a chance conversation that had opened the place up to us. Friends of friends were having a feral problem as the western Queensland drought began to bite, and one thing had led to another. The property and their neighbours did not normally host hunters, as was made abundantly clear by the many explicit signs on the road into that area. There was other evidence on site in that regard too. On a warm summer's afternoon as we drove in to the place we saw rabbits, pigs, deer and heaps of the tamest roos and wallabies I have ever seen outside a zoo.
The country was dry and the grass short and crisp, where there was any grass at all. The cattle though were in great shape though. The owners ran a large centre-pivot irrigation system that prescribed a 200 acre circle of lush green I reckon you could see from space. It was their lifeline now that the natural fodder was disappearing fast. They had mesh fenced the cultivation to keep out the cattle, roos, pigs and deer. That had been largely successful until a couple of deer managed to jump the fence.
They did not mind that too much, but in the last couple of months more and more deer had learned to leap the fence and were now making a big dent in the fodder that they needed to sustain the cattle in the harsh dry times that were coming. Like most agricultural properties of any size, there was more than enough dawn to dusk hard yakka to keep everybody busy and they did just not have the time to spend chasing feral animals off the cultivation. They did shoot the odd pig and deer when opportunity permitted, but it was not having an impact on the situation. That's where Mike and I came in.
Our mission was to get the deer off the cultivation and thin their numbers out a bit. We used Mike's Yamaha Rhino ATV for our shooting transport and an excellent vehicle it is for that. We have used that vehicle on other places to access some wild and rugged country. We spotlighted the cultivation over several nights, culling and removing the deer carcasses from the area. Deer are quick learners and even by the end of the first evening their wariness and approachability had quickly changed.
The spotlight, not surprisingly, showed even more rabbits than we had seen in daylight. "On the last night we are going to give these bunnies a work over," promised my hunting buddy. That sounded like a good idea to me too.
In the early mornings and late afternoons we stalked the deer on the scrub covered stony ridge where they were camped up in numbers. That was much more challenging and enjoyable than just driving around and shooting them in the spotlight. At crack of dawn on our first morning we left camp and set off to investigate that stony ridge. We had not gone more than a couple of hundred metres when a small group of Chital crossed the track ahead of us and started to ascend the rocky slope.
Mike was up for first shot and he quickly drew a bead on the last deer in the group. His Sako 308 boomed. The Chital collapsed and rolled back down the slope. A lightning bolt would not have killed it any quicker. After inspecting the kill we made our way up the slope and onto the plateau of the rocky ridge. Unlike the bulk of the property, which was a vast river flat, long cleared and developed for grazing, the ridge was covered in scrubby bush.
The ridge ran a couple of kilometres before petering out right on the boundary with the neighbours. The flat top of the ridge was a couple of hundred metres wide. We set about looking for any well worn game trails that we could either stalk or sit over in ambush. There was plenty of deer sign in the form of fresh dung and tracks in the odd pieces of soft ground amongst the rocky terrain.
In this semi-open scrub the deer have the advantage. Chital have great eyesight, hearing and sense of smell combined with a high degree of alertness. The modus operandi was to stalk slowly through the scrubby plateau, heading into the wind, and spot the deer before they spotted us. Easier said than done, but a great challenge and very enjoyable. The process requires slow and cautious advances with long stops. During the stops binoculars are used to scan the bush for deer. It is not that they are far away and require binoculars to be seen at great distance.
In the scrub the Chital were mostly between fifty and 150 metres from us. Their spotted brick-coloured coats provide amazingly good camouflage in the speckled shadows of the scrub. Good binoculars are wonderful at highlighting deer under these circumstances. It is not uncommon to discover, with a start, that the bit of scrub you are scanning for the third time has a Chital doe staring right at you. It has been there all along and you have only just seen it. Suddenly you become aware of other deer nearby as well. Lower the binoculars and you often cannot see those deer with the naked eye.
If you are lucky and the deer are not alarmed, they will move slowly away. If that canny old hind gives the high pitched bark of alarm and their tails go up, then you can expect to see them disappear at speed within a split second. It turned out that there were at least six separate groups of deer on that plateau. That is how many we encountered anyway. There may have been others. We were culling, not trophy hunting, so we had no specific interest in the stags. As it turned out we did not see any stags of trophy class. We found a couple of stag skulls and numerous, whitened cast antlers. None of these showed any evidence of trophy sized stags either.
Mike and I took our share of Chital in a series of early morning and late afternoon stalks along that stony ridge. But it wasn't all our way either and quite often the deer spotted us first and made good their escape. On one particular occasion Mike had dropped a nice young deer and we decided to harvest the rib fillets for our camp dinner. We had leant our rifles up against a tree and I was watching Mike do the knife work when a movement down on the open flat, just off the edge of the ridge, caught my eye.
I gave Mike a whisper about that and, as he continued to bone out the fillets of his kill, I slowly made my way over and retrieved my rifle. Cautiously and as quietly as possible I descended the rocky slope, angling in toward the spiker stag that was sauntering along about 100 metres out in the open country. As I neared the edge of the scrub I found a good tree for a rest and got ready to take the shot. I was using my Savage 223 Rem loaded with 60 grain Nosler Partitions, a very effective medium game choice.
I waited until the stag walked slowly past me, broadside on. A light squeeze on the trigger released the Partition and the stag folded up to a precisely placed heart shot. Over several days we had numerous successes like that, but each day the hunting became more challenging. After a few days the deer deserted the ridge and were not to be found on the cultivation at night either. It seemed we had achieved our brief in comprehensive fashion.
Unusually, I had brought my air rifle along on this trip as well. It had only just been returned to me after being sent away to be refurbished and tuned. I figured that I could get it sighted in during the middle part of the day when we sat out the heat of the day in our camp. There was no shortage of targets either. The ground was liberally dotted with dung pellets from the many kangaroos and wallabies. I paced out twenty metres and, using the roo poo for targets, I quickly had the air rifle zeroed in. Mike and I then entertained ourselves with impromptu air rifle contests as we sat in the shade and drank tea.
The air rifle, a .22 calibre Weihrauch HW 97K, was useful for more than target practice too. On our daily trip to that stony ridge we encountered plenty of rabbits skittering about on the short dry glass. Being both powerful, and quiet, the Weihrauch was a great choice for some ad hoc bunny busting on our way to do some deer stalking. I managed to roll my share of rabbits with the air rifle in daylight without jeopardising our chances on the deer.
On our last evening, after a cruise about the cultivation failed to reveal any deer, Mike got out his Brno 22 rimfire. In no time we dusted off a couple of dozen rabbits. It was a great way to finish off the last night of the hunt. The next morning we were up early for one last stalk of the ridge. It was a misty morning and as we walked up the slope of the ridge, close by the cultivation, we caught sight of a wild dog just on the limits of visibility in the fog.
The dog disappeared rapidly into the mist. But, it need not have bothered. In our talk with the property manager about what ferals we could expect to see he had mentioned that there was a pair of dingoes on the place as well.
"Do you want us to shoot them if we see them?" I had asked.
He thought about the question for a few moments and replied, "Nah, they don't worry the cattle and we reckon they eat their share of fawns. So they're earning their keep for the moment. You better leave 'em be. Just give them deer hell."
With no sign of the drought breaking, I will be calling those folks again in a month or two. If the deer have returned then so will we, to hunt that stony ridge.