Part 1: Don Caswell covers the period when they are more widespread and their keen senses are on point
A hunter’s chance of success is greatly increased by good knowledge of the prey animal’s behaviour. Traditionally, a hunter’s understanding increases a little with every trip afield, in a never-ending process of gradual wisdom building.
This acquiring of perception can be accelerated by taking advantage of the expertise of more experienced hunters. Some species are well catered to in that regard. Red deer have been a premium species for millennia, as celebrated widely in the art of many cultures from antiquity.
The behaviour of red deer has been closely observed over the years and many excellent books written on the topic, in many languages. In more recent times, since the introduction of deer to New Zealand, a strong hunting culture and appreciation of deer has developed there as well. Over the past 100 years, many fine volumes have been written about New Zealand hunting and red deer in particular. Being a close Southern Hemisphere neighbour means that specific seasonal behaviour of deer in New Zealand can be related directly to Australia.
One particularly helpful book is Red Deer in New Zealand – A Complete Hunting Manual by Roger Lentle and Frank Saxton. While the deer information presented there is also scattered through many other sources, Lentle and Saxton pull it all together in comprehensive fashion and draw valuable insights into how hunters can exploit that knowledge. Anyone with an interest in hunting red deer should track down a copy of this book.
Another useful source of hard data, specific to Australian conditions, comes from the SSAA sponsored study on red deer at Cressbrook Dam in South East Queensland, as reported in the Australian Shooter of April 2013, ‘Red Deer Research Project Update’ by Matt Amos.
Stags beyond the roar
Hunting red deer stags during the roar is a major fascination to many hunters. For a month or so around Easter, the stags and hinds concentrate in one location to mate. The stags are fully antlered and driven. It is during this time that the stags roar at each other in competition for the ladies. To be camped out in deer country and listening to the bellows of the stags is a memorable experience.
However, a lot of hunters, like me, are not that interested in trophies of the roar. We are more concerned about bagging some prime venison and you will not manage that from a hormone-loaded stag laced with adrenalin.
Outside of the roar is a period of around 10 months when the stags and hinds separate and return to their own territories. There is a distinct seasonal variation, influenced by weather and climate, that has a major impact on the behaviour of the deer and where you can expect to find them. This is not just the domain of the venison hunters either. The stags will carry their antlers for another five months, through until September, when they shed.
During this time the stags will be many kilometres (10 to 30 is not uncommon) from where they were during the roar. And, their wary senses, no longer dulled by the imperatives of the roar, are back to a keen level. This is a challenging time to be a trophy hunter, quite different from hunting stags during the roar. An added benefit is that the stags’ venison is more palatable (if you like the stronger stag flavour) during this period.
The hinds give birth in early summer, from late November to early December. Male fawns spend less than 12 months in the protection of the hind group. The pregnant hinds chase out the yearling spikers in the latter part of spring as they begin preparing for the arrival of the new fawns.
The spiker stags wander off and seek to find a company of stags to join. This is a dangerous time for the yearling spikers. Lacking the full sense of wariness and experience embodied in the hind groups, the spikers are relatively easy targets for hunters. And carrying a load of prime venison does them no favours.
By joining a stag company there is some safety in the numbers and experience of the older stags. But it is still hazardous for spikers as the older stags will often let them go ahead into potentially risky situations while hanging back themselves. And, in the event of an alarm, there is no coordinated group escape marshalled by the experienced old hinds, but an every-stag-for-himself scenario that often leaves confused young spikers dithering in harm’s way.
Over the first few years, the surviving spikers build on their knowledge and wariness. They also go from hanging about on the edge of the rut to a tentative participation as their size and antlers grow. After five years, as an eight-pointer, the now maturing stags engage fully in the roar. The sixth year sees 10-pointers which, as time goes on, can develop into even bigger heads. In free-ranging Australia, 12- and 14-point stags are not rare, but by that age they have a full kit bag of tricks and precautions, requiring a careful, dedicated, and experienced stalker.
A bit of well-earned luck does not go amiss either. In some places, good wild deer genetics, boosted by superior farmed escapees, may produce the odd even larger free-range stag. It may lead to accelerated development in some wild stags which, in a farm scenario of excellent food and great genetics, can produce huge antlers of many points in only a few years.
For free-range deer habitat anywhere, the key to developing a herd of big-antlered stags is as simple as having the discipline to not shoot anything (other than culling obvious poor genetics) smaller than 10 or 12 points.
Where and when to seek stags
The red deer study reported by Matt Amos did a lot of GPS collaring of both stags and hinds. This quantified a lot of the anecdotal observations and matched hard data from overseas in locations equivalent to red deer habitat here in Australia.
The stags are more wide-ranging than the hinds and have larger home areas. When you factor in the corridor the stags travel to reach the rutting grounds, that significantly adds to average scope of the stags. Typically, from Matt’s South East Queensland data, the stags’ span is over 3000 hectares while the hinds’ area average is 700 hectares.
At the end of the autumn roar the stags trek back to their base area. As winter approaches the stags tend to ‘yard-up’ into a smaller area of their domain. During winter, when it is cold and food is harder to find, deer slow their metabolism down and stay in small, sheltered zones away from human activity, often far from their normal feeding grounds. Their travel and feeding are greatly reduced during this winter period. The yarding grounds of red deer can be productive for hunting.
As winter passes, and the warmth of spring returns, the deer are hungry and they begin to actively seek out food. At this time the stag companies become looser and more scattered. Red deer are predominately browsing animals and do most of their activity in the late evening and early morning. However, in spring (September-October) they prefer the initially more abundant grass grazing. During this time, they are often to be found on the more open, sunny areas.
As summer approaches they move back to forest browsing. Typically, the stags linger longer on the grasslands than do the hinds before heading back into the bush. Deer will feed extensively on clear full-moon nights and will be camped up by first light. They feed on dark nights too, but less efficiently and will be found feeding still at daylight. So, hunting at dawn on the dark of the moon is a rewarding strategy.
In country with lush vegetation and heavy dew, the deer satisfy most of their water requirements from their browsing and will infrequently seek water to drink. In drier country, the deer will need to find surface water. They generally do this in the late afternoon, after their siesta, before heading out to feed into the evening. Hunting water sources in the late afternoon can be productive.
The stags shed their antlers in September and then begin the summertime process of growing a new set for the next year’s roar. During the time their antlers are growing rapidly, encased in the delicate velvet, the stags favour the more brush-free areas of their range. They also shy away from fences that, at other times, they would pass through or over. This behaviour is all about protecting the delicate new growth of antler that is sensitive and easily damaged.
Putting it all together
Obviously, the starting point for an aspiring red deer hunter is locating where the animals are at any time of the year. That requires a lot of trips to assess country and look for clues to the deers’ presence.
The finding of cast antlers is a good clue to the whereabouts of the stags’ territory outside of the roar. The existence of wallows nearby to where there are hinds is a great indication of where the stags will be during the roar.
Once you know where to look, you need to be right up to speed on understanding the acuteness of the deers’ senses and their varying behaviour. The seasons and prevailing weather impact that, and your chances of hunting success. To be continued…