A hunting eye in the sky

Michel (Jimmy) Durand

When it comes to hunting, where do drones enter the equation? Some say drones are the future of hunting. Drone capabilities have expanded exponentially over recent years yet their prices have never been more affordable. Now compact enough to throw in your backpack for a hunting trip, are they an asset or just an expensive toy? I’ll let you be the judge.

Only 10 years ago the drone scene was very different. Battery flight time lasted just 10 minutes, a maximum flying distance of 300-500m with average quality cameras and basic potential. Yet today we enjoy a battery life which can exceed 30 minutes flight time, 4k high definition cameras (the Mavic 2 Pro carries a Hasselblad lens, the same used on the cameras for the Apollo 11 mission landing on the Moon) and a 5km range with a price tag of $2500. As you will discover, we utilised the DJI Mavic Enterprise 2 Dual.

A quick google search suggests an RRP of around $4200 but its arsenal includes a dual 4k high definition camera, supported by a low-res thermal camera. Interchangeable speakers and spotlights can be used for identification and security with low noise propellers. There are 360-degree collision avoidance sensors to miss trees and 5km range at a top speed of 60kmh. A handy option in its own right yet small enough to hold in your hand.

So, with our equivalent of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and old school equipment, we headed to a cattle station south of Quilpie in Outback Queensland.

The team consisted of Johno, Dave and myself (Jimmy). We all bring individual skills to the team but they have both been covering the skies for many years. They are quick to state it was an acquired skill from zero experience in the beginning.

When hunting pigs we prefer our mid-60s built Winchester .30-30 lever actions topped with red dot sights. We have found the red dot set-up supports solid peripheral vision when the pigs are on the run with fellow hunters in the vicinity. To mount the red dots (due to the top ejection) we had to source some special Picatinny rails from a fellow in Colorado. My rifle was handed down to me from my uncle and is actually older than I am. And for ammunition the three of us opt for the PPU 150-grain soft-points. They are effective rounds at a friendly price. Probably not the best going around but our firearms seem to shoot them well, so we are reluctant to try anything else.

We arrived at the station just after noon and met with the property owner. I am always humbled by the true grit these individuals possess under the difficult circumstances they encounter on the land. But he is the first to say he loves the life on the farm. We headed to the shearers’ quarters to unpack as quickly as we could. Having hunted on this station last year, we had achieved a tally of 14 pigs in two days. The trick this time was to use the drone effectively without being a distraction while on motorbikes and in utes.

So exactly how do you use a drone to hunt pigs? Our general plan is to ride three abreast on the motorbikes and always maintain visibility on the centre rider. Rifles are nestled in grips on the handlebars and we turn to Garmin Rino 750 hand-held radio/Global Positioning System (GPS) units for communication and locating each other. “Pig, pig, pig” is our sophisticated radio call to alert each other that one of us is onto the pigs. As the lignum trees and bushes become thicker, we tighten up and as the terrain opens, we spread out. Simple, right? But anyone who hunts invariably knows, the best laid plans are always subject to change.

We had about two hours of daylight left and the decision was made to hit the spot we had most success with on the previous trip. This channel country had seen rain several months prior, so the scrub was pretty tight in spots. However, quickly you would enter open areas with 200m-plus visibility. After around an hour of riding in 36C heat we deployed the drone for the really tight scrub, which is not bike country at all. When you’re on foot and poking around scrub, it chews up time like nothing else.

Johno can unpack the drone from his backpack and be set to launch within three minutes. So in anticipation of pushing some bacon out into the open, the drone was deployed and patrolled further afield. We repositioned on the bikes and were no longer in sight of Johno, having left him behind. A little logistically challenging at first, but you find the groove quickly. The heart started pumping, with minimum chatter on the radio and eyes peeled. You just don’t know where the action will come from. Johno suddenly sent over the radio the call we are waiting to hear… “Pigs are in the open at your 1 o’clock, 100 metres!”

Dave and I hammered the throttles in that zone. With eyes scanning and the adrenalin pumping, we worked our way through the low branches and lignum. We broke out of the scrub into a vast open vista that provided us with 300m visibility yet dotted with small patches of scrub. Dave was the first to spot the three mid-sized black pigs tearing across out front. In support, I swung wide and back a little to position for the second push should it be needed.

Dave managed to position himself as close as he could and jumped on the anchor to pull up the bike. With his trusty old .30-30 settling into his shoulder the rookie of the team fired the initial shot of the trip. He took out the first pig with a solid engine room hit at about 50m. More shots rang out and the second pig was winged and cartwheeled to a stop. The third pig changed its path and headed right towards me. So at this point, I have to say, I missed some plum shots. The angry hog swung back in the direction of Dave and for some unknown reason pulled to a halt. Obviously confused, but a misguided decision as Dave sent another round downrange with success.

Johno had been in pursuit after recovering the drone and hearing all the shots fired. He operated the Garmin to locate our position and found us dragging the three pigs together. After much banter regarding my inability to hit the side of a barn, photos were taken and we headed to camp as the sun set to prepare for an evening of night-time hunting.

Using the drone at night is a pretty daunting task. But the boys have been doing this professionally for a while and use all the assets available in these high-tech units. GPS tracking, live thermal footage and spotlights mounted on top for the high definition camera collectively assist to create an ‘eye in the sky’.

We set out in the ute with all the gear for a night’s spotlighting. The Mavic drone was ready to launch with four batteries charged which provide 30 minutes of flight time each. Our plan was to employ the drone when we could not access particular areas with the vehicle. Or to check the other side of creeks or escarpments to evaluate if it was worth heading over to search.

We don’t ditch the .30-30s at night, as they are always in the ute. These days we have replaced the old spotlights, whose cords seem to tangle on every little lever or switch in the car. We now run a hand-held Klarus XTR30 LED hunting torch. With a realistic distance of 350m, it is ample for us. Spare batteries are recharged constantly from the car charger. For night-time shooting I prefer my .243 Win Haenel Jaeger topped with a bargain basement Bushnell scope. I run the Buffalo River 87-grain polymer tipped Hornady V-Max rounds. I have taken pigs out at 200m with this rifle and never been disappointed. Backing that up is my Howa .223 REM. This time sporting a budget Vortex scope. The Howa prefers Australian Outback 55gr Sierra BlitzKing rounds and is effective on cats and foxes without the percussion blast effect of the slightly larger calibre.

On this occasion the Mavic drone again proved its worth but not how you would think. The beauty of pig hunting at night is they tend to take off more slowly than during the day, until you start shooting that is. But it provides you with some crucial extra seconds to prepare the shot.

The temperature was still in the low 30s but fortunately there was a slight breeze to blow away the dust generated by the vehicle. There is nothing worse than trying to look through a scope at night with the spotlight on the target and all you can see is dust.

After 20 minutes cramped in the HiLux cabin we stumbled across a small mob of pigs. I jumped out and leant across the bonnet to take aim. A couple of shots were fired, with one pig down but the mob split. At this point we had to make the call as to which direction they had scattered. What a perfect time to send up the thermal drone. We quickly found the pigs only 150m away but moving steadily into the scrub. A quick assessment indicated that we physically could not navigate the trees and tight scrub in the dark. It was not worth wasting any more time on this mob. So we moved on.

What we have learnt from these experiences is that ultimately the drone isn’t necessarily about ‘finding’ the pigs (or deer, wild dogs) as it is in saving us hours of wasted time searching for what is no longer there.

Every trip is time-critical and this means moments saved deliver an extra opportunity to cover more ground. The trip concluded with a tally of seven pigs, three cats and one unlucky rabbit.

When it comes to drones and hunting, possibly a more holistic approach is required. They cannot serve as a ‘total solution’. But used in conjunction with fundamental hunting skills, drones have the ability to enhance opportunities in the field. They are also great fun.

Thank you to Jeff at CR Kennedy in Melbourne who provided the Mavic drone for this trip. His constant support in the hunting and pest management field is second to none.

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