The family that hunts together

For Scott Heiman and co, it’s the simple pleasures that bring the most joy

When my dad Jim called to discuss his upcoming 70th birthday, it was no surprise when he told me he didn’t want a party. Instead, his wish was to have the whole family together at one location for a spot of hunting. While his needs would be easy for most of us to satisfy due to living in South-East Queensland, I’ve put down roots at the bottom end of the country.

Anyway, I’d expected that dad’s preferred hunting location would be near Tenterfield. Here there’s a property where the family has regularly hunted over the years; busting bunnies, targeting foxes before lambing and chasing goats up the hills. The location is also in NSW, so it alleviates some of the tyranny of distance for me. I was surprised when dad told me he wanted to meet up at Surat.

“Where the hell is that dad? And why?” was my immediate reaction. His response was that the property is where my nephew, sister and her husband work. Besides, he obviously thought there was game to be found. “The owner’s having problems with pigs and wild dogs, so I thought we’d give him a hand.”

This last bit of information was definitely no surprise to me. Our family’s hunting experiences over the years have usually involved helping out property owners. For example, I remember (back in the 1980s) that my school holidays were full of hunting expeditions to Inverell. We would spend the first part of our stay finding out where the goats were, bow-hunting what we needed (trophy, meat), before heading back out with a rifle to fill the farmer’s freezer and then spending time mustering or boundary riding on the property’s dirt bikes.

During these outings, our family developed a hunting practice that we continue today. Specifically, we always create a predator dam. This involves dragging the carcass from each hunt behind a ute to a central location, which generates multiple scent trails all leading to one place. Cats, foxes, dogs and pigs simply follow the trail and become an easy target for spotlighting. This is a particularly useful way to concentrate game on bigger properties in arid areas. Back then, I looked at these efforts as our family’s way of simply assisting a farmer. These days, I’m an Environmental Scientist and know that activities like this can make a valuable contribution to land managers’ vertebrate pest management strategies.

Getting on with it

So, back to dad’s birthday plans. My wife Kath wouldn’t be able to make the shindig on account of work commitments. Which meant that our 10-year-old daughter Scout and I would be taking a three-day road trip to cover the 1000km that stood between us and his birthday cake. To make it worthwhile, we’d planned for at least five days’ hunting at Surat before driving all the way home again. And to kill a few birds with one stone, our trip would involve two nights among Moree’s artesian hot pools where we’d catch up with my mum, and a layover with army mates at Orange. So, that was the itinerary sorted. What about a gift?

This was a good question. After a few phone calls it sounded like dad had planted some seeds of his own. As an avid reloader, he’d been talking to my sister about needing brass for his .243. He had also mentioned to my brother that he needed wads for his 12-gauge. So, we agreed that I would make up a group gift of the things dad wanted and they could fix me up later. What followed was a good excuse to stop at nearly every gunshop between the ACT and Queensland, picking up brass and wads for the calibres dad had spoken about, as well as in .22 Hornet for my step-mum’s rifle, and in .222 for dad’s other favourite firearm. While I was at it, I also slipped in a few bags of .22-250 brass, my favourite calibre. With a few extra bags of brass in hand, I knew dad would return the favour by reloading the casings and giving them back to me at Christmas.

Paddock bashing

We arrived at the property’s gate on a searing 43-degree day. Little did we know that the temperature gauge would soar above 40 degrees every day for the following week. Regardless, after pleasantries with the family and receiving the good oil from the property owner, it was time to think about hunting. We had come too far to fold under the sun’s relentless rays.

Despite our resolve, we knew from the outset that we’d be up against the odds. It doesn’t matter what kind of animal you are, with heat like we were facing, it was obvious our quarry would be hunkered down in the middle of the day with minimal forays at dusk and dawn to find water. So, while we were eager to hunt, we weren’t in the business of futile efforts that would achieve nothing except placing our own bodies under unnecessary stress.

Instead, we took a quick dip in a nearby creek and checked for sign on the banks. Then, by mid-afternoon we were kitted out and ready to go while camp followers prepared to stay at the homestead and cook up a storm with a Brisbane Valley red deer they had brought with them. Once the hunters were split into two groups with clearly defined boundaries, CB channels allocated, and timings agreed, off we went.

Dad and I set out to check several dams while the other group made a beeline for the river at the far western boundary. To be honest, this is my favorite part of hunting. Because I don’t see dad and the crew often, it was nice to sit in the ute and chat as we made our way between waterholes. Sure, we were both scanning for movement and looking for sign, but we were also catching up on the year that’s been while snacking on dad’s home-made venison jerky. And this kind of family time beats a phone call any day of the week.

While the chatter continued as we drove along the property’s back tracks, it was a sure bet that it would stop once we’d pulled up the vehicle to close the final distance between us and a dam on foot. As the engine stopped, so did all noise. We’ve been doing this long enough that it happens by instinct. There’s no need for ‘shhhh’ or risk that doors will be slammed. As decades of hunting and military service take over, communication resorts to head nods, hand signals and eye gestures.

That bloke Murphy

Despite our efforts, we found no game that day. In fact, we little sign of anything except cattle and roos. Returning to camp, it was the same story for the other hunting group. Indeed, it continued this way for the next couple of days. It was clear that the heat had made everything go to ground. But we were still having fun. Between morning and afternoon hunts, we were swimming and skeet shooting in the heat of the day.

There’s a real joy to be had in going back to basics with a family group like this. Remote from our home bases, and without the distractions of work or mobile reception, life takes on a level of simplicity that’s becoming increasingly hard to find.

Out on the hunt our patience paid dividends. On the fourth day of our visit, a pig finally felt the kinetic energy held by a quickly expanding projectile. With this, my brother-in-law Roy baited a bunch of pig traps along the creek line and multiplied our chances for further success.

Meanwhile, dad and I found a small mob of goats. In this case, the farmer had asked us to leave the goats alone. So, as we eyed off the main billy, with a set of horns that would have looked nice as a shoulder mount, we agreed he was one of the luckiest animals on Earth that day. With our arrows remaining firmly in our quivers and cartridges in the magazine, all we could do was to note down the mob’s location so we could inform the property owner later that day.

Then, just a few hours later, we had pigs in our sights. Returning to the ute after circling one of the dams on foot, we walked on to a sounder of four wild pigs. Now, you’d expect that with a couple of experienced hunters involved, something would have come of this, right? The trouble was that, standing firmly behind the pigs and directly in my line of aim was an unescapable obstacle. Namely, my HiLux. The Mexican stand-off between two humans and a little mob of pigs lasted a while, but eventually they spooked and ran into the thicket. Thwarted again…

The endgame

But all was not lost. While the feral animals were in no hurry to be close to us, we continued to forge ties among one another. For one, I enjoyed the opportunity to play ‘old bull’ to my teenage nephew Tyler. While he’d check out the creek line with a bow, I backed him up with a .22-250. After all, no-one should hunt alone. Agreeing that he’d shoot first while I’d take the second-chance shots, we worked our way quietly along the water’s edge.

After a week on the property, it was time to start packing away. But not before our hunting party had one more success. In this case, it was a feral dog taken by Tyler’s brother Casey. While we’d had a frustrating time at the dams, Casey’s luck had been better. With a dirt bike to take him around, he’d moved up close to the dam dad and I had been scoping days earlier and found a feral dog.

But that’s hunting… sometimes you can do everything right and still come home with nothing. Indeed, there are statistics from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife which show that, regardless of whether you prefer to hunt with a rifle, shotgun, muzzleloader or bow, only one person among you and your 10 mates is likely to be having any luck.

In all, our hunting party left Surat with little to show in the ice-box but plenty gained in other ways. Ultimately, the five pigs, three goats and two dogs we encountered were the backdrop against which a family reconnected. The food was great, dad smiled – a lot – and my young daughter was spoilt rotten.

Sure, we would have been even happier with a camera full of ‘look at me’ shots and freezer full of wild harvest, but our minor achievements on the hunting front simply generates an incentive to get back together again and do better next time.

Besides, after we left the property the rains broke. And apparently Roy’s baited pig traps worked a treat. While we weren’t there to see the results ourselves, we know we were directly responsible for some timely vertebrate pest management and a dose of farmer’s gratitude.

With the return of the pigs, so too it was with the dogs. Which gives us even more reasons to go back.

Local history

Before going on a hunt, I like to research the area I’m visiting. This includes collecting satellite imagery of the property and finding a decent map. I have these tucked away in my pocket to help navigate the ground when I’m hunting, as well as to deal with possible unwelcome scenarios if someone becomes separated or lost.

For the trip to Surat, I discovered that in April 1846 explorer Major Thomas Mitchell camped on the river that forms the hunting property’s western boundary. The same property also served as a changing station for Cobb & Co coaches.

Meanwhile, on August 14, 1924, the very last coach trip for Cobb & Co travelled between Yuleba and Surat, a town just north of the property. These facts alone fuelled a bunch of great fireside stories during our family get-together.

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