It was the simplest of questions, but it made me think. We had just finished a delicious lunch of venison with a small group of friends. It was no secret I had procured that fine fare through my own efforts. One of the ladies asked me what I liked about shooting deer. I gently pointed out that I had obtained the venison through stalking my deer on foot through the bush, rather than just shooting it.
That drew another question, “Why do you call it stalking, isn’t it just walking about with a rifle looking for something to shoot?” I had to think about that. In its barest essence she was right, and that is exactly what it is. But, of course, it is a lot more than that as well. Just as a pyramid can be described as a pile of stones, a pile of stones is a long way from being a pyramid.
I had never really thought about it before and I struggled to find the words to clearly define it, and why it appealed to me so much. I was helped out by our other friends who had visited us in Arnhem Land, years earlier.
They came to my rescue and related an occasion when I had taken them on a buffalo stalk quite close to where we lived. The intention was purely to get them up close to a wild buffalo, take a few discreet photos and withdraw. I often did that with visitors. For non hunters it was always a memorable experience and I was never disappointed by their reactions and comments.
My helper described the afternoon I got her and her husband up close and personal with a big old bull as one of the most exhilarating / terrifying episodes in her life. She said it ran only second to the time she bungy jumped off a bridge in New Zealand. She went on to describe the essential ingredients of a wild game stalking experience.
Firstly, there was the building excitement of travelling to an area where you expected to see game. Then there was the hushed briefing at the car about what to expect and what to do in different circumstances.
Before leaving the vehicle, the wind was studiously checked, to determine which direction to travel. The stalk began with a careful, single file walk along a game trail into the bush. After a little while, the guide paused, and everybody instantly froze, their heart rate jumping with anticipation. Silently, their guide beckoned them to come forward and join him.
Wordlessly, he pointed out fresh buffalo tracks where muddy water was still circulating like milk freshly poured into coffee. He put finger to mouth, reinforcing the need for utter silence then indicated they needed to keep a sharp lookout. The heart rate stayed high. They moved on, intently looking about them. The guide stopped every twenty or thirty metres. They would stand stock still for minutes, slowly and intently scanning the surrounding bush.
The trail led on and the bush became thicker as they approached rolling dune country. After a longer pause the guide beckoned them forward again. They put their heads together and, in the barest of whispers, the guide explained that the big bull had gone off to the left and the wind was no longer favourable for a direct approach.
He knew where the bull would be heading and they would have to detour back aways and then go with the wind until they got ahead of the bull and could tack back in towards where he would be found.
The visitors admitted to being secretly relieved at the prospect of increasing the distance between them and their unseen quarry. It was described as a curious, competing mixture of desire and dread.
They cut through fairly thick, scrappy bush nevertheless making good time now that they could travel faster and with less care. After about half a kilometre their guide slowed them down and they resumed stealth mode. They headed back towards the more open dune country, again taking their time and pausing to look around regularly.
The breeze was in their face and the sun was getting low in the sky behind them. As they discreetly emerged into the open dune country they could see a buffalo, then another and another. Being on foot and out in the open they felt intimidated by the size of the beasts. Hearts were racing again. Their guide called them forward for another hushed conference and the game plan was explained, and the protocols of the stalk reinforced.
The final stage of the stalk began. There were a couple of younger bulls between them and the big fella. The buff were scattered and feeding along on the fodder in the hollows between the low, undulating sand dunes. The breeze was blowing in from the sea and the buff, through experience, obviously expected any trouble to be coming from that direction.
The three stalkers had to detour around behind the younger bulls, being constantly wary of any shift in the wind, or any of the animals looking up from their feeding. That seemed to happen regularly and they were often obliged to freeze and wait for the animal to resume grazing. Luckily the sand was soft and the sighing breeze covered the sound of their passage through the short, sparse coastal grass.
They managed to bypass the younger bulls and were then within a hundred metres of the old bloke. He looked enormous. His wide and battered horns and scarred hide made him look wild and unruly, dangerous even. They edged closer. It became difficult to use cover anymore. There were now only smaller, scattered shrubs between them. They struggled to contain their breathing, which sounded amazingly hoarse and loud. And surely the bull could hear their racing hearts, thumping about in their rib cage like kettle drums?
But, no, the bull gave no sign he had heard that. There were only fifty metres separating them by then. The bull looked to be at least as big as a council bus. At that moment they suddenly realised that they hated their guide. He was clearly a maniac. What on God’s earth were they doing there? It had seemed like such a good idea back at the house. Now, as much as they wanted to run, he had somehow bewitched them. Like well-trained zombies they mimicked his every move, freezing when he did, then tip-toeing even closer.
The bull drifted out of the hollow, over a low dune and into the next hollow. At last! Now they could abandon this madness and go home. But no! The guide, with a look of demented glee, hastened them along on rubbery legs and up to a small, scatty bush on the top of the dune. He mimed the need to get ready for a photo opportunity.
They could hear the breathing of the buffalo and the crunch of each mouthful of grass it took. A large and ominous shape loomed ever closer behind the thin screen provided by the scraggy shrub. The rich smell of buffalo was heavy on the afternoon air.
With shaking hands the camera was pointed into the hollow. Moments later the buffalo obligingly walked out from behind the bush into full, unimpeded, sun-lit view. It was less than twenty metres away. The guide poked the photographer in the ribs, rather harder than was really necessary, in an unspoken command to take a photo. “CLACK-ITY-CLACK” went the shutter.
It sounded like somebody had just dropped a tonne of building supplies from a great height. The bull looked up and straight at the group – OMG! OMG! OMG!
The buffalo took a few steps closer, paused for what seemed a very long moment, then wheeled and galloped off into the scrub. The story-teller says that she believes in that long moment one of two things happened. Either, through sheer will power she managed to stop time or, perhaps, she was temporarily in a state of clinical death induced by extreme fright. She is a dramatic sort of lady.
My friend summarised the afternoon neatly as half a day gone in what seemed minutes and a moment that lasted a lifetime. She also added that she had never before, or since, felt more alive and aware of her surroundings than she did on that afternoon in Arnhem Land. Stalking may not always be as exciting as that, but it is always a buzz.
To some folks game stalking is almost a religion, and they are much better at it than me. Some of my bow-hunting buddies are in that category and, of course, my Yolngu mates are in a class of their own. I have to admit I love stalking game, whether it is for a photo, just for the hell of it, or the occasional shot. I find it thoroughly enjoyable and quite addictive. Also, to me, the meat I get from a well planned and executed stalk seems somehow to be sweeter than that from an animal shot from the ute in a spotlight.
When stalking with a shot in mind I like to travel light. Apart from my rifle and a few rounds of ammunition, a small pair of binoculars is essential. Other than that I carry a water bottle and a couple of knives on my belt and a small backpack with some freezer bags for the meat.
As already discussed, you need to spot your quarry from afar and then make an approach with wind direction very much in mind. Take your time. Move slowly. Stop repeatedly for at least a few minutes and glass thoroughly around you, not just your quarry ahead.
Sometimes other animals, such as cattle, roos or pigs may be about and could be spooked and alert your target animals. You may have to alter your approach, or just sit tight and be patient until the situation improves.
As you get closer, take even more care. Use any natural cover you can, keeping it between you and your quarry. Even small bushes, saplings and dead sticks can be useful for that. When the animal, or any of its companions, looks up, you must freeze. Don’t crouch or move your hands. Just freeze solid until the animals are all looking away or grazing again.
Obviously, single animals are much easier to stalk than a herd where there always seems to be one wary old critter looking about. Patience is essential, and rewarding.
I have never been a subscriber to camo clothing and have mostly used brown or green work shirts, or overalls. My old overalls did get very bleached from much use and repeated washing. During one particularly boring, house-bound wet season in Arnhem Land, while ratting about in the shed looking for something to do, I found an old packet of dye.
Anyone who has lived in the tropics would understand such a monsoon project, so enough said. Anyway, the result was – interesting. The Bride, and my hunting buddies, had a lot of uncomplimentary things to say about my project, so I was naturally obliged to wear them as much as possible. I even mowed the lawn in them, just to prove a point.
For stalking though, I am beginning to believe that there may be an advantage in the break-up style of camo clothing. This is particularly so when seeking to approach game across fairly open country and complete the stalk in scattered open scrub. Most of the camo clothing available is the American style which is really intended, and ideal, for sitting in ambush. I do not consider that style offers any advantage over drab mono-coloured clothing when attempting to stalk game.
However, there are manufactures of the break-up style clothing which fits the bill. Viewed close-up in the shop, or in a catalogue or on a web page, it can be un-appealing to consumers because it looks quite garish. However, from a distance in the bush such clothing can really disguise the tell-tale shape of the human body.
Remember also that science tells us that the animals we seek do not have colour vision. That is another vital point for appreciating that pattern is far more important than colour for stalkers.
Regardless of what you chose to wear, and whether you carry a camera or a rifle, stalking is a lot more than just walking about looking for animals. It is a subtle art that is quite beguiling. So leave the car, test the breeze and sleuth off into the bush. You will not regret it.
© Don Caswell 2011
Originally published by the SSAA in Hunter 47 - January 2014.
About the author
Since 1981 Don Caswell has been a freelance writer, photographer & illustrator. Don is the author of hunting stories and the provider of technical shooting information. Don an independent reviewer of hunting, shooting & outdoors products, in addition to being a blogger & webmaster with Facebook & Instagram presence. Don is also a senior writer for the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia (SSAA) and his articles appear regularly in their publications. This article was originally published in the SSAA in April 2014.