First-time fallow

Joe Norris recalls a landmark weekend

I never had the chance to hunt fallow deer despite spending considerable time researching where they were located and seeking permission from landowners in these areas, until the family of a bloke who worked for me sold their central Queensland cattle property and bought some land in the Glen Innes district – I finally discovered I knew someone in fallow deer country.

When the topic of deer hunting came up at lunchtime one day, John told me there were deer on his parents’ new block and naturally my ears pricked up. After asking him later if he thought they’d let me hunt on their new place he said he’d ask and a couple of months went by when John casually said one day: “Mum and dad said you’re welcome any time.”

I couldn’t break from work until late April so the rut was all but over when I finally reached Glen Innes and on arrival at the farm, John’s parents welcomed me into their home and insisted I stay there instead of camping in the shed. Over dinner that night Ron told me he’d spotted deer at the back of the property but hadn’t noticed any big bucks lately so next morning I was up before daylight to check out the area. It was bitterly cold and a heavy fog was obscuring the landscape, the fences white with frost on the wire, something I hadn’t seen before.

Walking round the yard and sheds I saw rabbits scampering about and lots of birdlife in the gardens. Ron said he’d take me for a drive round the property to find my bearings so we clambered into his off-road ute and headed off into the fog. He pointed out where deer were entering his property from the neighbour’s as well as dams and other feed areas he’d seen them frequent so I spent the rest of the day helping with station work while making plans for a look next morning.

The alarm woke me well before daylight and I made my way outside, the morning a carbon copy of the day before with heavy fog and no wind. When I reached the back paddock where Ron had seen most of the deer in the open I came across some saplings well beaten and shredded by antlers, when suddenly the sound of running hooves broke the silence and several deer took off up the hill and effortlessly cleared the boundary fence into the neighbour’s place where I didn’t have permission to hunt.

I sat on a log for 20 minutes to let everything settle down again even though I thought I’d blown it and all the deer had gone. After I got going again the light had strengthened to the point I could see quite well through what was now much lighter fog. Contouring round a hill, about halfway up I came across a bare patch of churned-up ground which I realised was a rutting pad and I was carefully scanning the area for any remaining deer when I spied a young buck watching me from the trees about 80m away.

I tried an old trick that works with cats and, pretending I hadn’t seen him, looked the other way and carefully raised my rifle so I could see through the scope then swung slowly back to the deer which wasn’t overly concerned as he stood his ground facing me. Through the scope I noticed both his main beams were broken off so I kept my movements slow and fluid as I lowered the rifle and took the camera from my belt pouch. All the while the buck stood frozen and I was able to take a couple of photos.

I shouldered my rifle again, swung back to the buck and in doing so noticed another four or five deer feeding further down in the bottom of the gully. It became clear fallow deer really are scrappers as every single male had broken main beams which made my mind up to take one for meat and that lovely chocolate coloured hide. The one staring me down was closest as I focused on his throat about 8” up from his brisket to allow for the downhill angle then touched the lightened trigger of my Ruger 77 in .243 Win. The buck folded at the shot and didn’t move again.

The deer in the gully took off in the opposite direction as I approached my prize and while it may seem strange, I always kneel beside the deer and give thanks to the animal as any creature harvested should be respected. I dragged the buck up to the fighting pad then away again so I wouldn’t contaminate the pad when I gutted the animal. I called Ron as arranged to give him the good news and he picked me up for the trip back to the shed so I could hang my deer and allow it to cool before skinning and breaking it down for the freezer.

I thanked him for letting me hunt on his land and he asked: “Are you only taking one? You can take as many as you want.” Now my freezer can easily hold two so I told him I’d like to take another if possible, Ron saying he’d ask his neighbours if I could cross their fence if I saw deer on their side which luckily they agreed to. Next morning I found myself back at the fighting pad as the light slowly strengthened so I sat and waited for decent visibility and as the fog cleared I could see a mob of deer down on the flats.

Most were females or bucks with broken main beams so they only had brow tines and a short main beam which made them look like young spikes. I started a stalk but the wind which had been non-existent sprang up out of nowhere and in seconds the deer threw their heads up and raced away. I’d no choice now but to cut back around to make the wind right and was sneaking along the boundary fence when I spotted deer walking up the gully towards me. Kneeling down I checked the mob through my scope and noticed all the bucks had broken heads – I wondered if they were lacking nutrients in this area as almost every buck sported busted headgear.

Holding on the shoulder of the biggest buck I dropped him as he paused almost directly opposite me on the gully at about 150m. Once again he went down without fuss and as I was preparing to cross the fence I spotted movement further down the gully. A fox was trotting towards me and as Ron had told me to shoot any foxes I could, I wasted little time in lining him up and flattened him with a shoulder shot from the .243. The echo of the shot had barely subsided when another fox came into view so she was put down just as emphatically and on inspection I’d downed a breeding pair with beautiful winter skins, though sadly the .243 isn’t the best if you want to harvest fox coats.

I gutted the deer and hung him by the antlers so he’d drain and I wouldn’t have a damaged cape then found a couple of sticks and removed the fox tails as the rest of the skins weren’t salvageable. I gave the deer about an hour to drain then made it into a Kiwi-style backpack and carried it and the fox tails to a point where Ron could easily pick us up. Back at the shed I processed the deer hanging there from yesterday and hung up the latest one so I could cape it and salt both the hides, cape and fox tails for the trip back to Queensland.

It was so cold that by the time I’d salted the skins the remaining deer was chilled enough to cut up for the freezer. Luckily Ron wanted the bones for his working dogs so I didn’t even have to dispose of them, just bust them up with an axe. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I’d been to secure access to this land and the help and hospitality shown to me was extraordinary. I thanked them sincerely before heading back to Queensland and while I’ve hunted fallow in other areas since, you never forget the first time.

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