Inland Hunting Properties - Hunting Blog  

Buffalos, Bulls And Crocs

It was the dust that caught our attention, a billowing cloud of fine red dust off to our left. We were working our way through a section of open forest in the Northern Territory, looking for buffalo. The aboriginal custodians had already begun to light their early dry season fires and the understory of grass and shrubs had recently been burnt off. The trees of the open forest now presided over a harsh, bare ground scattered with fine ash.

There was no breeze and it was hot. The cloud of dust just hung in the still air. Inside the dust cloud there was a veiled movement. Then out of the cloud stepped a big scrub bull, his head held high. He was looking directly at Espen and I. He tossed his head in challenge and then pawed the ground vigorously, adding to the cloud of dust behind him. We looked about and could not see any other wild cattle in the vicinity. Clearly he was putting on the display for our benefit.

The bull trotted another ten metres toward us, then repeated the challenge. He was a good ways off still, but in that frame of mind it would not be wise to let him close the distance. Better to take a shot now before he broke into a gallop and we had to deal with him at close quarters and speed.

Buffalos, Bulls And Crocs

I had been looking for an opportunity to try my hunting buddy's rifle and this was the perfect scenario. Espen took my Ruger No 1 African in 458 Winchester Magnum and passed me his Blaser R8 in 375 H&H. He flicked on the daylight setting for the illuminated mil dot in the Swarovski 1.7 - 10 x 42 scope with a 30 mm tube.

The bull was on the other side of a shallow, dry valley. "How far do you think that is?" I asked Espen.

"I reckon a good 200 metres, so aim a smidge high for the shot."

I brought the rifle up and took a firm lean on a nearby tree. The good fit and balance of the Blaser was noticeable. The crystal clear optics of the Swarovski with the fine central cross hairs and the illuminated mil dot made for quick target acquisition and precise shot placement. There was no need to hurry the shot. The scrub bull milled about and continued to paw up the dust and toss his head. I waited until he turned side on and when he did that and briefly settled I was ready.

The crisp trigger of the Blaser released a 300 grain .375 Barnes projectile on its way. The bull staggered at the impact on the point of his shoulder. He reared and then, dipping his head low, he charged blindly ahead for twenty metres before collapsing. It was all over in a moment as the crackle of the shot rolled away through the barren landscape.

"Heart shot, nice." commented my experienced hunting companion. I ejected the spent shell and closed the action on an empty chamber, before passing the Blaser back to him. We walked over to the bull. Even though to every appearance the bull was as dead as a doornail we made a cautious final approach, circling around to approach from behind. Espen chambered a round and carefully lent over to give him a poke in the eye. Nothing, the bull was dead.

Buffalos, Bulls And Crocs

We examined the bull at first hand. He was an old fellow with a developing Roman nose and many scars from years of fighting other bulls. His head, neck, shoulders and flanks were criss-crossed with long gouges from some ferocious encounters with his competitors. His horns were a little worn down and not as sharp as they would have been in his earlier years. Nevertheless he would have been a formidable animal and very dangerous to encounter unexpectedly at close quarters.

I consider scrub bulls the most dangerous animal in the Australian bush. While not as big and strong as a full grown buffalo their speed, aggressive intent and habit of surprising you from close range makes them much more likely to do you serious harm.

It was mid afternoon and we had another project to attend to. In the late afternoon of the previous day when we had driven in, we passed a narrow billabong that was about a kilometre long. It was only ten to fifteen metres wide and shallow in places, nothing too inspiring as billabongs go. It was situated in mostly open country right on the edge of an enormous flood plain. The area around the billabong hosted plenty of buffalo and sometimes mobs of pigs too. Compared to the surrounding country it was an appealing place to camp, but we had no intention of doing that.

Espen was wise enough to appreciate the danger of camping there and I added to that by telling of the very large crocodile that I had seen sign of there over the last 25 years. The big brute used to leave the billabong and cross 80 metres of bare dusty ground to reach the shelter of the nearby paperbark forest.

As I recounted that story we were surprised to see the ashes of a camp fire and some footprints and marks on the ground that indicated some other hunters had camped there recently. Close by and nearer to the creek were the scattered bones of several buffalo. We got out of the vehicle for a few minutes to examine the ground and have a look about. We did not dally long as the evening was approaching and we wanted to get to our camp spot before it got dark.

Early the next morning we drove back past the billabong. I was scanning the paperbark forest for buffalo or pigs when Espen brought the vehicle to an abrupt halt. I looked about expecting to see some game.

"Your old scaly mate is still in residence and he hasn't gotten any smaller," stated Espen. Right in front of the vehicle, at the exact place we had stopped the day before, was a huge slide mark. The big old croc must have watched us stop and then sometime later in the night had come to see what we had been doing there. You can only wonder what he would have done when he found a couple of blokes asleep in swags on the open bare ground. It was a chilling reminder of why it is best to camp well away from water in the north.

Buffalos, Bulls And Crocs

But, here were the makings of a very interesting project. We decided to see if we could entice the big lizard out for a photo opportunity. So it was that in the afternoon, after the encounter with the scrub bull, we dragged a buffalo cow to that spot. With the ample evidence of how big the croc was we needed to anchor the bait. The removal of the buffalo carcass would not prove any difficulty to a croc of those proportions. There were no convenient trees so the best we could do was to tie the carcass to an ant nest. I positioned my camera fitted with a new lens borrowed from my wife and set up a remote wireless release trigger.

The next few nights, after our dinner bbq, Espen and I would sneak back to the billabong under the ample light of a half moon in a cloudless sky. We kept safely clear of the water itself and secreted ourselves on the edge of the forest about 70 metres from the bait. The old croc was way too clever for us though, as a dawn examination of the ground on each of the following mornings showed.

He was obviously not hungry, or was waiting for the buffalo to ripen more. But he was certainly possessive and determined to keep the pigs and dingos away from his prize. During the night, after we had left, he would cautiously leave the billabong and lay right up against the buffalo. The last evening as we sat in the dark on the edge of the forest keeping vigil on the bait, a car load of our Yolngu friends came by on their way home from a fishing expedition. They stopped for a chat and were curious about why we were sitting there in the dark.

They told us that another white fella had tried to photograph the croc a few years back. The big old baru had come out of the billabong and eaten in one gulp the leg of buffalo that was on offer as bait. It then waddled over to the camera and ate that too! Now, there was a conversation that I did not need to have with my wife in regard to her new camera lens. We will revisit that spot again, but next time we will be better prepared with a few trail cameras.

Apart from visiting my old hunting grounds and enjoying some hunting with Espen I was also keen to test the 500 grain Nosler Partitions that I had begun to use in my 458 Winchester Magnum. I have become a great fan of Noslers over the years and was really pleased when they brought out the Partition in .458 calibre.

Buffalo numbers were well down on what they had been after a series of chopper culls during my absence. The choppers had been through again some months earlier and were supposed to be returning again before the end of the year.

I estimated there were only about 10% of the buffalo we were used to seeing in the past. There were still quite a few buffalo to be seen though, even with the reduced numbers. Big full grown bulls were noticeably few and far between. In talking to the Yolngu people they said they had already seen a significant environmental improvement in the creek systems where they gather a lot of their food. With greatly reduced buffalo numbers the creeks had recovered from the mud holes the buffalo had created and were once more filled with clear water, flowers and bulbs, fish and turtles.

Buffalos, Bulls And Crocs

With big bulls scarce I searched out the biggest cows I could find. They weigh less than a big bull, have a less robust physique and a thinner hide. It was obvious that the Nosler Partitions hit them particularly hard. Unfortunately I never recovered a projectile from a cow. They all exited through the chest, even after hitting shoulder bones. But they did leave impressive exit wounds. That and the obvious emphatic impacts had me feeling confident even in the absence of recovered projectiles.

I moved on to the many half grown bulls that were about the place. It was the same story. The only projectiles that did not exit were those from front on shots where the spent projectile ended up buried deep in their guts after tearing through the vital chest organs. From past experience I did not undertake the needle in a haystack exercise of tracking down a bullet deep in the plumbing.

Our culling exercise now became more like a trophy hunt. We needed to find, stalk and seek to shoot a big bull with a broadside shot. With help from my accomplished and dedicated trophy hunting buddy Espen, I drew on his skills to hunt some bulls. After chasing one particular bull three days in a row Espen had him worked out. He dropped me off at a particular spot on the edge of the flood plain where he knew the bull would head for.

The bull was nearly a kilometre away out on the open flood plain. He was watching us intently. Each previous day he had retreated out there where he was quite safe from us. It was only early dry season and there were still several narrow, but deep, muddy creeks criss-crossing the drying plain. No vehicle could hope to get across that zone of deep, soft mud.

Buffalos, Bulls And Crocs

I got out of the Toyota 4WD and walked a short distance into the grove of small bushes that marked the edge of the great plain. Espen drove off to a couple of kilometres away and would watch the proceedings through his binoculars. Fifty metres to my right was a well used game trail that the bull had used in the past and would most likely use again.

I watched the bull as he followed Espen's progress into the distance. Once he figured the car was a safe distance away he started to walk briskly towards me. It took a few minutes for him to cover that distance. I was sitting on the ground next to a small bush. There was a scattering of similar bushes around me. Behind me the bushes thickened over fifty metres until they merged into the dense forest.

Everything seemed to be on track for the bull to pass close by and give me the opportunity for a side on shot at the point of his shoulder. Unexpectedly, when we was still a 150 metres out in the open the bull stopped and turned to face me. He stared intently at my location. The wind was variable but seemed in my favour and I had not moved a muscle, so I could only presume that an eddy in the breeze had given him a whiff. After a long wait, he resumed his brisk walk, but now that was directly toward me.

I kept hoping he would turn off and give me a side on shot at his shoulder. However, he just kept coming straight at me and when he was within ten metres I could not risk letting him get any closer. A front on shot with a 500 grain Nosler Partition from my 458 Win Mag dropped him comprehensively.

Over the next few days, with Espen's valuable assistance I did manage to locate some good sized young bulls and get a number of side on shots. I recovered a few projectiles and was most impressed with the weight retention and penetration. The construction of the 500 grain Partition essentially guarantees a minimum weight retention of 81%, even when all the front lead section is lost on impact. For the projectiles that did not hit major bone structure and retained some of the front section lead I had spent bullets with weight retention of up to 96%.

That and my own observations of the emphatic impact of the big Partition means that I have now achieved the sought after one gun - one load for my 458 Win Mag. From now on the Nosler 500 grain Partition will be the only projectile I use in that calibre.

© Don Caswell 2014

The Reloading Journey

Reloading provides the ability to tailor-make your own ammunition with the projectiles of your choice and obtain improved accuracy at reduced cost. Reloading is an option most hunters consider and many undertake. Don Caswell recounts his journey in reloading and suggests it pays to start simply and work up.

My journey into reloading began a long time ago and took the path most hunters would be familiar with. I had not long bought my first centrefire rifle, a Brno in 223 Remington. The rifle came with a hundred rounds of factory ammo. I was an avid reader of the various shooting magazines and by the time I had fired most of my factory ammo I was keen to try reloading for myself.

I bought some basic reloading gear from a fellow who was trading up. It was a Simplex press and 223 Rem dies. That was it. I visited the local lock & gunsmith shop where the proprietor sold me a can of the appropriate powder (at that stage I did not even know what propellant I should be using), a funnel, some primers and a box of Nosler Zipedo 55 grain projectiles. He was a pleasant old chap and offered to make me a dipper, at no cost, to get me started.

The Reloading Journey

He trimmed down a 303 shell and soldered on a piece of heavy gauge brass wire for a handle. When I collected it from him he gave me some basic advice on reloading and a few tips on getting an accurate powder measure at each scoop. That was to always use the same small, deep bowl and keep it filled to near full. I practiced a few times in his shop with him using his scales to check my throws. It did not take long to establish a technique that gave fairly repeatable results. In hindsight, he had made the dipper such that I could not throw an overcharge. He even engraved the charge weight and powder to be used on the side of the dipper. He was a thorough old chap.

I went home and began to neck size and de-prime my fired cases. There was nearly a disaster straight up. I had neglected to lubricate the case necks. Luckily, no damage had been done and the lock and gun shop was not far away. I made a quick trip and bought some case lubricant. I gave the now successfully de-primed cases a quick wipe over and then used the attachment on the press to prime the cases.

The custom dipper made quick work of charging my first twenty reloads. I then seated the projectiles. At the time I had no means to measure the overall cartridge length and determine where the projectile just met the rifling. The old gunsmith had queried me on seating depth and, obviously detecting that I was clueless, suggested that I load the cartridges to the same length as the factory ammo. Realizing that I had nothing to accurately measure them with he suggested just lining up a reloaded cartridge with factory rounds six inches to either side and balancing a stout wooden ruler across them. Quite a simple and reasonably accurate technique as it turned out.

The Reloading Journey

The next Saturday morning I was at the local SSAA range bright and early. I eagerly and quickly fired off most of my rounds at the target. At that point of my career barrel cleaning and cool down periods were not part of my repertoire. I waited impatiently for a cease fire so I could confirm what looked through the scope to be some reasonable groups. From memory they were probably about one and half MOA, but definitely an improvement on what the factory rounds had been delivering. I was stoked!

For more than a decade I continued to use that very basic approach to handloading. Eventually though, I started to appreciate the need for a bit more rigour and finesse. My reloading has progressed quite a ways since those days and I continue to learn and improve on my technique as I go. I began to acquire a bit more gear and learnt how and why to use it. Now my reloading kit has expanded to include a case tumbler, scales both manual and electronic, callipers, neck chamfering tools, primer pocket and flash hole reamers, case trimmers, priming tools and sundry other bits and pieces, all of which get used.

Occasionally at the rifle range new shooters ask for some advice on getting started with reloading. That requires some questions to be answered.

The first question is what the calibre and rifle is. Then, we need to determine the main purpose of the rifle and ammo combination. For hunters looking to shoot a range of game, from small to large, the choice of projectile has to be tailored to the largest animal that will be hunted. Obviously, if a hunter will be chasing animals from rabbits to deer then the projectile has to be suitable for use on deer. You would never take a shot at deer with a light varmint bullet. This is particularly relevant with popular high velocity calibres like the 243 Winchester that cover that broad range of quarry nicely. Sometimes, new shooters do not appreciate the importance of bullet weight and construction that must be considered and require some coaching.

The Reloading Journey

For most shooters just starting to reload, the powder dipper approach is quite reasonable. Some reloading dies, like those by Lee, come with the full three die set and a suitable dipper. It needs to be stressed that the dipper should only be used on specified powders. You cannot blindly use a dipper for any and every propellant.

For more finesse a set of scales is required. I am still using the RCBS balance scale I bought second hand of some bloke more than thirty years ago. I do have a set of modern electronic scales, but I find most times I just reach for my old balance scales. Electronic scales can take a while to warm up and need to be carefully monitored for drift and recalibrated regularly. The old school balance scales are a lot more forgiving and are not prone to drift.

A few standard weights are useful for checking any sort of scales before measuring out charges. Projectiles are manufactured to very tight tolerances and can be used to check your balance. I find the 17 calibre 25 grain V-Max quite useful for that. If the scales measure one of those at 25 grains then I am confident in doing a run of 27.0 grain powder charges.

Likewise three of them weigh 75 grains which is very close to the powder charges used in my 458 Winchester Magnum and 257 Weatherby Magnum.

If you are going to be loading in larger quantities and want a bit more precision than a dipper will give you then a powder thrower is required. My powder thrower came with the scales and I have had a lot of use out of it. Powder throwers require a consistent technique to maximise their accuracy, but that is not so difficult to master. I have carefully checked my powder thrower for consistency and was more than happy. Even with a fairly notchy powder like AR2208 it produced a very tight band of thrown weights. All were within ± 0.2 grains. With finer powders, like Benchmark for example, it is even better.

To consistently get MOA groups, or smaller, then a few refinements in reloading gear and technique are required. One of the first things you need to do is to adjust the seating depth of the projectiles you are reloading. Bullet seating depths, for the beginner, should be the standard SAAMI dimensions found in factory ammunition. However, it is not difficult to do better than that.

The Reloading Journey

The depth at which the projectile just touches the lands can be easily determined by using a projectile loosely seated in a fired case that has not yet been resized. By pushing the case neck firmly against a flat, hard surface a flat spot is created which is sufficient to hold the otherwise loose projectile. Apply some marking pen to the projectile, insert the projectile in the case neck and then chamber the round. The bullet will contact the lands and be pushed back into the case, leaving a clear mark on the inked surface. On ejecting, the bullet may well be moved, or even remain in the barrel from where it can be dislodged by a gentle tap with a cleaning rod, but the scratch mark in the ink will be the reference line.

Despite the fact that benchrest shooters often seat their projectiles so that they engage the rifling on chambering, hunters should always seat their projectiles at least 20 thousandths of an inch short of the lands. This avoids the risk of the projectile engaging tightly and being pulled from the case if the shot is not taken and the unfired cartridge ejected. The best seating depth for your projectile needs to be found by trial and error, adjusting the seating depth by ten or twenty thou at a time. Typically, the sweet spot is somewhere in the range of 20 to 70 thou short of the rifling, but sometimes it can be even more.

Using simple gear and techniques, along with staying a grain or two below the listed maximum charges shown in the reloading guides, will be quite adequate for a lot of hunters. This is particularly so when reloading for the more standard calibres such as 223 Rem, 22-250 Rem, 243 Win, 308 Win and the like. I would suggest that anybody keen to reload should cut their teeth on these standard and more forgiving cartridges. It would be unwise to begin your reloading career with a hot magnum straight up.

For decades I reloaded a range of different calibres using only neck sizing dies, powder balance scales and a thrower, and seating bullets to factory dimensions. As I sought to achieve and get better than MOA accuracy it was necessary to do more than that. For hunters using sporter style rifles in the field a rifle that achieves 2 MOA, or better, is perfectly adequate. Few shooters can shoot better than that in the bush even when armed with a rifle capable of shooting tiny groups off the bench.

The Reloading Journey

It goes without saying that once you start seeking to achieve sub MOA accuracy then you need to be prepared to do a lot more testing of different loading configurations. Another essential is keeping good notes about your test work and clearly differentiating each batch. During load development I typically do test lots of three rounds at a time which I place in zip lock sandwich bags along with a label clearly identifying the load parameters.

In recent years as I began loading hotter magnums, like the 257 Weatherby, seeking maximum performance and sub MOA accuracy, I have had to get more precise in my reloading technique and measurement. That required the addition of a micrometer accurate to ten thou of an inch so that I could better track the expansion of the belt diameter on firing. I also needed to begin checking case length at each reloading, having found as others before me have, that hot magnums can produce case length growth to exceed the maximum shell length in as few as three firings.

Handloading hunting ammo can be a lot of fun and very rewarding. And of course anything that contributes to sure, one-shot kills on game is worth pursuing. While it is good for new chums to discuss and work out their reloading technique with a buddy, keep in mind that reloading is not a social event. You are dealing with powerful explosives and there is a significant risk of rifle damage and personal injury if you make a mistake. My personal policy for driving a vehicle, shooting and reloading is to be at zero alcohol level and I would recommend that to anyone. Save that nice cold beer, or glass of red, until the job is done and dusted.

© Don Caswell 2016

Wild Dogs Bad Habits

Wild Dogs can be as much creatures of habit as humans are. But established habits can prove to be dangerous, and bad. Bad habits can have fatal consequences, as Don Caswell explains.

Wild dogs had been attacking the new born calves and generally upsetting the breeding herd. It was prime wild dog country. The large cattle property rolled from rugged dividing ranges down to extensive river flats. The property was still heavily forested in most places as well. The access tracks were few and rough, even for ATVs. Most of the cattle work was done on horseback.

It would seem that everything was in the dog's favour and our chances of success were slim. However, we did have a few things to our advantage. The range country was steep and thickly timbered over a boulder-strewn terrain of long grass and scrub. After the wet season had passed the creeks quickly dried up and the only permanent water was that in a few of the large dams at the foot of the hills.

Wild Dog Bad Habits

Wild dogs will mostly follow a track for the same reasons that you would. The walking along established tracks is much easier and visibility excellent. At times you will encounter particularly wary old dogs that have learnt to avoid paths and will always travel into the wind. Those types of wild dog can be extremely hard to come to terms with.

Most dogs though will opt to follow the easy way of the beaten tracks and more often than not they can be a bit over-confident and careless when it comes to watching the wind too. Another advantage for the hunter is that dogs are also prone to developing established habits. That trifecta of behaviours is an enormous advantage in hunting wild dogs.

There were three of us reconnoitring the place before working out a game plan on how to attack the wild dogs. My hunting buddy Mike had his son Peter along on the mission as well. After a discussion we had spread ourselves out around the edge of a large clearing, overlooking the dam. We had already walked the edges of the dam and had seen recent dog tracks.

Wild Dog Bad Habits

Generally, dogs will water in the early morning and in the late afternoon. We had positioned ourselves in the area we thought the dogs would approach and pass through. If any dogs did that and presented a safe and sure shot then we would take it. However, discipline was needed and no chance shots were to be taken. Best to pass on the chancy shots and be better positioned on the following day.

And that is just what transpired. Just as the sun set behind the nearby ridge a large male dog came trotting down the vehicle track from the opposite direction to what was expected. As wild dogs do, he was getting along at a jaunty pace, quickly covering the ground. The wind was blowing from behind him and he was clearly not taking any precautions in that regard. That is a particularly bad habit for a wild dog to foster.

He did not go to the dam to drink either. He came in close for a look without deviating or pausing and then passed around the bottom wall of the dam and headed up into the thickly forested valley that ran up into the range country. There was a last remnant of water a couple of kilometres further up where we had seen dog tracks.

We waited until dark and then regrouped to compare notes. Peter had seen a second dog, much further away that had also headed up the gully. So, the next afternoon, Mike and I set ourselves up on the corner of the dam wall while Peter went off to stake out another dam.

Hunkered down with only the tops of our heads protruding above the dam wall we had the full swathe of a 360 degree circle covered. Mike had his 308 Sako fitted up with a bipod and it made sense for him to cover the wide open country while I covered the lower, more forested country behind the dam wall.

In doing that, I set up my FoxPro remote predator call and decoy lure about 50 metres away in an open patch of short grass, spotlighted by the late afternoon sun. Any dogs sneaking up the timbered valley would see and hear that before they could scent us. Additionally, if the target dog approached in the same manner as the previous day, it would, on rounding the dam wall corner, see the lure and be distracted by that, reducing the chance of it detecting us.

We lay in our positions, still and wordless as the sun slid down to the range top. Mike had his Leica binoculars glued to his eyes and I was likewise constantly sweeping my share of the terrain with my Swarovskis. Just as the sun was having its last peek over the range a small flock of Red-tailed Black Cockatoos flew slowly over us. They gave their creaky call as they circled overhead before landing in a nearby gum tree.

Wild Dog Bad Habits

It took them a while to survey the surrounds before committing to a very cautious landing for a drink from the water's edge. My observation of the cockatoos was broken by Mike's voice, "I've got a dog!"

"Where?"

"About 11 o'clock and seven hundred metres away, coming down the track, just like yesterday."

It was the same dog. He had a distinctive curled-up tail that we had commented on the previous day. Mike and I had a quick, hushed discussion to confirm the game plan. If the dog kept to the script then he would pass within 50 metres of us. As he cleared the corner we would be exposed to his view and, even though we were lying low and wearing camo, there was every chance he would see us. However, once he came around the corner he should also see the decoy fluff-ball jiggling about and that would get his attention for a couple of seconds, giving us our last chance for an easy shot. The wind was a factor too. Once the dog reached that point he would likely pick up our scent even if he did not see us.

If the dog deviated from the plan, and appeared to be alerted, then Mike would take whatever reasonable chance was presented out to about 300 metres. If the dog did not come within striking distance then we would watch him go and make another plan for the morrow. The dog covered the distance between us in no time at his steady trot. I watched him through my binoculars over Mike's shoulder as he came on directly towards us. He was large and clear, filling the sight picture of my binoculars. I could see every hair on his coat.

Wild Dog Bad Habits

The dog did exactly as we had hoped he would. He trotted around the corner and glanced fixedly at Mike and I, but without showing any recognition or alarm. Before he had a chance to come to any conclusions in that regard I could see his attention divert to the lure. Without pausing he changed course slightly to head for the decoy, taking him nicely side on to us. Just as I was thinking, come on Mike, shoot, the silence was broken by the bark of Mike's 308. The dog was flattened in mid stride. He never knew what hit him. My hunting buddy and I exchanged congratulations. It is a great feeling when a plan works out perfectly and the end result is exactly as envisaged.

We waited another half hour for the dark to settle in, but no more dogs appeared. Camp was about five kilometres away and we figured on spotlighting a few bunnies on the way back. I put my rifle away as Mike got out his Brno 22 and the spotlight. We also kept the Sako 308 in the rack in case we had a chance encounter with another dog. A number of rabbits fell to the 22 and we were just on the point of making a bee-line for camp when the spotlight revealed a good sized pig rooting about on the edge of the track. Mike quickly exchanged rifles and the 308 boomed once more, rolling a big black sow. That was a nice bonus to round off a memorable afternoon of hunting.

Predator calls are most useful for bringing in wild dogs, but you also need to avoid over-using them. In an ambush situation I often use a combination of the Scotch bellows caller, which produces a raucous, penetrating call, and the FoxPro remote electronic caller with decoy. Every fifteen or twenty minutes I will give the bellows a good pump and then wait to see if there is any movement. If a dog does appear I avoid using the bellows again. Instead I may briefly activate the bunny distress call, at about half volume, on the remote FoxPro in order to draw the dog's attention to the decoy. Once the dog spots the decoy I do not make any more sound and simply wait for it to come into a good position for the shot.

If I am walking the country, I generally do not deploy the remote call and decoy. Instead I rely on manual callers. I will stop and use the bellows about every half kilometre or so. I give the Scotch bellows a good pump, wait five minutes and then repeat. If a dog appears I may give a brief, soft blow on my Tenterfield rabbit squealer. You need to avoid having the dog locate the source of the sound; otherwise he will be looking right at you. You just want to encourage it to keep coming in your general direction and give you the chance of a shot.

As already noted, wild dogs have two speeds, fast and really fast. They travel everywhere at a trot and if alarmed break into high gear and disappear in an instant. You need to be ready to take a shot as they trot by, or try to stop them with a whistle or other sound. If they do stop, it will be brief and they will then take alarm and sprint off, so you need to be ready.

Camo clothing is not essential, but having said that, your clothing needs to be drab and bush coloured so that you blend in with the surrounds. I often wear auscam army surplus gear, mostly because of the good pockets and heavy duty material more so than the camo effect. If it is a cool morning I will most times have on my old Dryzabone coat anyway.

Wild Dog Bad Habits

The other thing that I believe helps is to wear mitts to disguise the movement of your hands, especially so as you raise and lower binoculars regularly. I think a face mask is also a worthwhile proposition, particularly in wooded country where your encounters may be at close range. Likewise, I have a camo cover that slips over the front part of my rifle and also my scope. Reflections from shiny metal or glass are a real give away that will send your quarry off in a great hurry. Naturally, it pays to sit still and avoid any unnecessary movements. When using the binos make an effort to raise and lower them quite slowly.

You need to position yourself with due consideration to the wind. Even dogs that are a bit incautious and run with the wind will bolt when they get a whiff of close-by hunter. A good look around and behind you every now and then is a good idea too. Occasionally it pays dividends with the really cunning old dogs that will make a big detour in order to approach you position with the wind in their favour.

Trail cameras are a great tool for the hunter as well. It is often surprising how many dogs show up on these cameras when you were under the impression you were just chasing a single dog. It is not just dogs either. Trail cameras capture all manner of scavenging, and sometimes just plain curious, creatures. The time stamp is of prime interest and where a dog is visiting a spot at pretty much the same time each day you have the opportunity to be there waiting. Predictability is a bad habit for wild dogs.

© Don Caswell 2015

Stony Ridge Deer Hunting

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.

Stony Ridge Deer Hunting

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.

Stony Ridge Deer Hunting

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.

Stony Ridge Deer Hunting

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.

Stony Ridge Deer Hunting

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.

Stony Ridge Deer Hunting

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.

© Don Caswell 2014

 

Hunting Chital Deer

Something had moved in the early morning stillness on the forested ridge. I caught only a fleeting glimpse, a hint of a flicker, as I scanned the bush ahead. My eyes had moved on before it even registered. It may have only been a bird, but my impression was that of an ear flick. I remained frozen and, slowly, brought the 10x25 Swarovski stalking binoculars up to my eyes.

I was stalking a couple of kilometres of low, stony ridge that overlooked a number of huge, circular, irrigated pastures. The property ran beef cattle but also produced a lot of hay and silage. The irrigated land had been fenced in an effort to exclude the cattle, roos, pigs and deer that would relish a feed of the lush green fodder within. The fence had proven successful at keeping out everything, except the resident Chital Deer. A few times each year I visit for a few days and cull some deer. The survivors flee the area and give the cultivation a rest for a while.

Hunting Chital Deer

My preferred approach is to start where the ridge runs right down to the cultivation fence. I always camp about half a kilometre away, down on the river flats. In the predawn darkness I walk up to the cultivation. My rifle is either a 223 Remington, firing 60 grain Nosler Partition handloads, or my 257 Weatherby Magnum firing 100 grain factory loads or 110 grain Nosler Accubond handloads. Around my neck are my binoculars. On my belt is a knife, a pouch with a few spare rounds of ammo and my rangefinder. I also have a backpack with a water bottle, small survival kit, spare knife, diamond steel, a pack of disposable latex gloves, hand sanitiser and a bunch of large plastic bags for the meat.

Putting the cultivation behind me, I begin a slow and cautious stalk up onto the ridge itself. The ridge is covered in open forest. I begin the stalk as soon as there is enough light to shoot by, well before the actual sunrise. Sometimes I have success without having to actually walk up the ridge at all, if a mob of Chital are a bit late in leaving the irrigation. In those cases I pick my target from the line of deer following a well-worn path up onto the ridge. While it is always nice to get an easy one, I am not disappointed if the deer have already moved up onto the ridge. I simply love the opportunity to stalk them on the plateau. It is one of my favourite hunting activities.

The ridge seems to play host to at least six distinct mobs of Chital. These groups range in number from half a dozen up to thirty animals at times. Having left the pasture and adjacent river flats before daylight fully breaks, they camp up for the day in patches of shady scrub on the ridge. The location of the ridge lends itself to morning stalking. The sun will rise behind me while the breeze, when it picks up, will be coming from the direction I am walking. Chital are a very wary animal with great senses and you have to be right on your game to surprise them.

Hunting Chital Deer

Stalking the ridge is a slow process. Given that the deer may well be within a hundred metres, full concentration is needed right from the start. I walk only five or ten metres then stop. I look carefully and slowly all about me, before repeating the scan with my stalking binoculars. After some minutes, carefully picking my steps in an effort to be as stealthy as possible, I again move forward then repeat the surveillance. It can take a couple of hours to travel a kilometre through the plateau’s open forest this way. But, it pays dividends.

I was sure that I had detected an ear flick in a patch of scrub about 150 metres ahead. Having slowly brought the binoculars to eye I peered at that patch of bush. I could see nothing initially, but that did not disappoint me as I now have enough experience to know that the first look does not always reveal the truth. As I tracked the binoculars back and forth over about thirty metres of the bush there was suddenly a deer in my sight picture. It had been there all along, but the wonderful spotted coat and coloration of the Chital hind had blended it seamlessly into the background.

It was staring fixedly right in my direction. She was not alarmed, but had clearly heard or seen something and gone on alert. If the old girl had scented, or gotten a good look at me, she would have yelped a warning and all I would have seen would have been the white rumps of the deer disappearing at speed. As I looked at the hind through my binoculars there was a movement beside it. An accompanying yearling had flicked its ear and now I could see it clearly. I spent a good five minutes, maybe longer, studying that patch of scrub. One by one the deer resolved themselves and I could see that there were at least a dozen Chital camped up there. The doe and yearling, and another doe, were standing and keeping sentry while the rest of the deer were laid up on the ground.

The doe was still staring fixedly in my direction. Every now and then she rotated her ears and tilted her slightly, trying hard to determine just what it was that had caught her attention. I had to stand still. If I moved she would pick me up for sure, sound the alarm and scatter her companions. The stalemate continued for what seemed like an interminable time. I did not hear her call, but the doe began to move and the resting animals got to their feet and also began to move off. They were just walking, not running. The doe kept looking back in my direction. When she looked away, I stepped sideways, chambered a round and sighted in on a plump, healthy looking yearling.

Hunting Chital Deer

The doe had seen me move and her yelp of alarm coincided with my shot. The yearling flopped over. As is often the case, the dominant stag had been secreted close by. He burst out of concealment and I had a brief glimpse of some impressive sized antlers before he disappeared into the bush. One deer was enough for me to process anyway. I took off my backpack and laid out my kit close at hand. It did not take long to break the carcass down. I took the back straps, thighs, front shoulders and all the shanks, leaving only the torso and neck.

Each cut I bagged and tied off to keep flies and dirt away from the meat. The back pack was filled with meat and I carried the shanks separately in their plastic bags. Deer shanks are just as good as lamb shanks when slowly cooked. Loaded up with meat, I cautiously picked my way down the rocky, steep escarpment then set off the kilometre or so to camp.

It was only early morning, but pretty warm already as a northern Queensland summer’s day began to roll out. Stalking, despite being a slow and measured progress through the bush, is a demanding activity. Part of that is the muscle strain required to move slowly and freeze for lengthy periods of time when required. The level of focus and concentration is substantial and can leave you feeling mentally drained at the end of a couple of hours, particularly on those occasions when you have not bagged a deer.

I kicked off my hiking boots and flopped into a camp chair to absorb a much needed, big cup of strong, brewed black coffee. Max, my hunting buddy’s detector dog in training, came over and pushed his head in under my hand for a bit of attention, and reassurance. During an idle moment he had torn my old Dryzabone coat to bits and, even though we had not punished him, Max knew full well he had been naughty. In his own puppy way he was still apologising for that episode. Max’s master, my hunting buddy Mike, had been hunting another ridge and had grassed a plump young stag. After breakfast, and a swim in the river, we would take our bagged meat over to the property homestead where we had been given access to the large chiller room. Apart from having plenty of meat for ourselves we had also trimmed up and bagged some select cuts for our hosts. They enjoyed venison too, but in working dawn to dark they rarely had the time to spare to do any hunting themselves.

Fact Box – Chital Deer

Location

Chital, sometimes spelt Cheetal, are also known as Axis or Spotted Deer. Their natural range was the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon). Chital have been introduced to a number of other countries. They were the first deer to be introduced into Australia. That original introduction was onto the lands of the Surgeon to the New South Wales Corps, Dr. John Harris in the early 1800s. Those deer did well initially and were reported to be in excess of 400 by 1813, however they eventually died out.

The most successful release was in the Charters Towers area of North Queensland where Chital were introduced in 1886. Those deer are thriving and have extended their range into other parts of central Queensland. There are also substantial numbers in northern NSW. The great similarity between the climate and terrain of India and Australia accounts for the success of Chital’s adaption to our continent.

Size and Weight

A midsized deer, male Chital typically stand about 900mm at the shoulder and weigh up to about 90kg, but occasionally can exceed 100kg. The stags’ antlers have three points each side and a total antler length of about 900mm in particularly good specimens. The world record length of Chital antler is 1,118mm. Broken tines, from jousting, are common. The female Chital stand about 700mm at the shoulder and normally weigh up to about 45kg, occasionally exceeding 50kg.

Breeding Season

Chital, being a tropical species, do not have the distinct rut and breeding season seen in other species, such as Red Deer. Chital breed throughout the year and, likewise, stags can be seen in full hard antler, in velvet and shed of antlers at any particular point of time. The gestation period is about eight months and a single fawn is the norm.

Behaviour

Chital mostly graze on grasses but will also browse for leaves and fruits. The stags will stand on their hind legs and use their antlers to shake down fruit such as shiny apple. In times of drought most of their food comes from browsing and they will resort to eating even the unpalatable, and poisonous, castor oil bush leaves under duress. They camp up during the heat of the day, feeding early and late. It is common to find them moving to their rest areas at first light. In areas with increased hunting pressure they will become more nocturnal.

Chital are social creatures and readily form mixed herds ranging from a few individuals to gatherings of more than a hundred. They have well honed senses of hearing and smell and excellent vision to boot. Their beautifully patterned coats provide wonderful camouflage in the bush and light forests where they dwell. In any gathering of feeding, drinking or resting animals there will always be one or more sentries on alert, making them a particularly challenging deer to stalk.

Venison

The meat from Chital, even mature stags, is excellent, being fine textured and quite mild. There is not the gaminess that you get in Red Deer venison, for example.

© Don Caswell 2016

 
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