It was so cold that the air crackled into my lungs with every breath. The sky was perfectly clear from heavy rain the night before – the first in over 7 months. The New England landscape, usually a blend of verdant hues was broken, burnt, brown. Everything was brown. Despite this being a mid-season autumn morning, even the trees had a tired, busted look. Not bright with colour or coloured with a bright autumn cleanliness, but tired and ragged. Despite it all, there was a smell of hope in the air. The rain had sent the landscape a message. ‘Wake now. It’s time to rise and prepare for winter.’ A gentle and gusting breeze tore strands off the morning fog which clung desperately to its bed, not wanting to rise before the sun had warmed it.
Silently, and ever so slowly I moved through the fog, noting that the wind was not going to make things easy. Gusting from left to right, fast to slow I imagined myself as a leaf floating on a pond. But today, my imagination is not important. I must stay focused. I must be patient. Assiduous. Is that the right word? I wonder if… Crack. A broken twig. ‘Dammit’.
Snap out of it. Focus. Be present. Live the hunt. Live the moment. Deep breath. Calm.
Realising my mind had been drifting I take to a heel. ‘Take the energy out of it.’ I tell myself. I suddenly notice that my breath is visible on the air and reproach myself for not having noticed this before. Taking a sip of water, the coldness of it shocks me. I can feel the liquid touch every part of my mouth and a slight shiver as I swallow. Lifting my neck warmer to cover my mouth I notice with a sense of calm, that quiet had again entered my being. And as the quiet rolled in I began to notice things again. The sun had just touched the horizon. Its glowing fingers stretched across the landscape illuminating the fog, whilst the darkness of where it wasn’t grew slightly deeper.
‘Warmth. Look to the warmth.’ I told myself knowing that after a night as cold as that, the golden sunlight would attract any game looking to recover from the night air. I began to glass the sunlit areas in front of me, looking to the sheltered areas first. The wind changed.
With every change of the wind, I too had to change my approach, my direction, my plan. Right now the wind had changed and it was directly behind me. This was the worst situation for me to be in. With dark behind me, light in front and the wind from behind this meant that the wind would be blowing my scent exactly towards the game. I slowly dropped myself flat into the spinifex. This grass was so thick that wind didn’t blow through it. Lying flat, the wind would blow over me and disperse my scent with that of the spinifex. Using my knife, I cut two full bunches of spinifex off at the base. The scent of the spinifex would also mask any residual scent belonging to me. The preceding dry made this particularly effective with the concentration of nutrients in the grass being higher than normal, and the sweet smell of the grass touched my tongue as I severed it. Hopefully this would be enough. I rubbed the sweet bases of the grass in my hands and rubbed them over the sweat glands in my neck.
Whilst I lay there face down waiting for the wind to change, I was reminded of a time many years ago when the warmth and shelter that spinifex provided had saved my life. As a teenager I was bushwalking and slowly developed a huge knotted muscle sensation underneath the arch of my left foot. Stopping to inspect I remember the horror of removing my sock to see a grotesque ball of 31 leaches amassed amongst the blood and sweat stamped into my sock. Noticing blood oozing from through the leather of my other shoe, I removed it too, to find another 11. After removing the leaches I had the problem of not being able to stem the flow of blood from both feet. Leaches inject an anti-coagulant when they feed, and so many bites had let the blood flow freely from both feet – both of which I had been working hard up to that point. Before the days of mobile telephones, distress beacons or GPS, and being at least 12kms from the nearest road, I manufactured pressure bandages for both legs and feet and decided to stay put until the blood flow had stemmed. Sitting there with my feet uphill and not knowing how much blood I had lost I began to shiver with cold. I hadn’t really noticed the icy wind that day until I had stopped, but it carried an icy and relentless attitude that leered and said, ‘I’m gonna get ya.’ I remember that day was the first time that I noticed that lying down in the spinifex completely isolates the wind. Lying there and starting to drift into semi-consciousness, I began to cut spinifex and stuff it into my jacket, shirt and pant legs. Using some cut spinifex I tied bunches of the grass together over the top of me. A wonderful makeshift cabin in the woods. I began to notice immediately that I was warming. I slept. I woke. I woke with a nose bleed from my head being downhill. I checked the blood stained and hardened bandages on my feet and the bleeding had stopped.
I jolted out of my reverie as I heard a thump behind me. Lifting my head slightly above the grass I noticed a short way off that a Wallaroo had been making its way down the hill towards the sunlight. Thump thump thump thump. I tensed so as not to alarm the animal and scare it energetically towards any game ahead of me. After a brief stop to have a scratch in the grass, the Wallaroo continued on down the hill oblivious to my presence. I had a brief moment of satisfaction noticing that he had passed me only several yards away without picking up my scent. Not so of the wallaroo however, as its’ scent, a native but grubby smell lingered in the air behind him. Sometimes you can tell the gender of an animal by its scent and in this case it was clearly a male. As it moved on down the hill without any effort to remain concealed, I thought to use the distraction he created to get myself upright and continue. Moving stiffly against the wind, I neared a thicket on rough ground which blocked a vantage point I had been aiming for all morning. My slowness and stillness all morning was starting to catch up with me. ‘I’m going to pull something if I have to draw that bow string suddenly,’ I thought. Subconsciously I began to roll my shoulder in slow circles as I moved forward.
The overnight rain had desensitised the grounding cover in the thicket, meaning I was able to move through it with a surprising amount of speed. The sun was now slightly higher in the sky providing me more light than shadow to work with. This also helped me to make more haste than I had expected. This lifted my spirits as I had actually hoped to get to the vantage point before sun up. I noticed as I entered the thicket that it was colder there. Something about the denseness of the bushland had trapped a small pocket of air which was colder and wetter. I love the feeling of dry chilled air, but the thickness of the air in all this dry was almost relieving. It softened me a little and made me smile. The fingers of sunlight had not yet touched the thicket making it the perfect dark for me to take as a viewing platform. I settled into the rear of the thicket and checked my camouflage for completeness. I was in the dark now, but as the sun continued to rise and touch the thicket I needed to stay perfectly concealed. I checked my bow and noticed that a large piece of grass had wedged itself into the bottom cam. With little effort I pulled the grass out from between the cam and the string and inspected the cam groove for any dust or dirt. Noting this was clear, I removed by binoculars from their pouch and began to glass the view before me. The fog made this a challenge, and I drifted the binoculars around the edges of the fog looking first at the open areas and then looking again, deep into the bushland on the edges of the clearing. Continually adjusting the settings on the binoculars eventually I began to see into the deep of the bushland. This takes some time to get used to, and I remember my father telling me, ‘you have to learn to look into the bush instead of just looking at it.’ So many times now this advice had paid for itself. As my eyes adjusted to the depth of focus I required I began to scan the distant bush, branch to branch, twig to twig. Suddenly, a slight movement. A quick shift of the binoculars and a refocus and switch to a higher magnification. ‘What was that?’ My eye settled on a Butcher bird nearly five hundred metres away that had moved into the sunlight on its tree. I watched it for a few moments being glad that it was so far away. Butcher birds are the security guards of the bush and happily fly into the branches above hunters and send out an alarming call for all to hear. Many times my hunt had been thwarted by this little bird and the willingness of game to respond to its cry. This morning however it wasn’t acting as the watcher on the wall. Instead, it was just moving into the sun to warm up after a cold night. Something about the bird made me think of the word, ‘relief.’
The wind continued to gust and change direction and the landscape before me became an angry mix of violently mosh pitting trees, grass and bushland. Nothing about today was uniform. ‘Today will not be an easy hunt’. I thought. ‘Nothing is calm in this weather’.
Almost in response to my musings I notice in the far distance and on a neighbouring property, a herd of over thirty deer suddenly burst from the thickness of the bushland and at full speed, blasting across a clearing. Almost as suddenly, they sharply changed direction in response to, well, nothing that was obvious. They did it again. And again. Their ballistic behaviour which was almost irreverent towards the standing image of a deer, I had seen before and was usually in response to high hunting pressure. Today however, they were responding to the significant change in weather overnight and the gusting wind, literally running from their own shadows. I grimaced when I saw this behaviour. These make the hardest hunting conditions. Game travelling in large herds and hypersensitive to anything that looks, sounds, smells like danger are often grounds to pack up early due to the tiny odds of success. I had however travelled seven hours to get to this property for a one day hunt. Those circumstances would make even the least die hard stick to their guns, but inevitably, I like the additional challenge this provides. ‘I’m going to have to be very careful today’, I thought. With a sigh I put these distant crazy town deer into the deepest place in my mind and thought, ‘today will be about looking towards shelter.’ Adapting my seating position I twisted around so that I could see the lee side of the valley beneath me. Still in shadow, the treetops down in the valley presented a remarkably calmer image than what I had observed already that day.
What I wanted was to find from my vantage point, an individual or small isolated group of deer hopefully numbering less than three. Doing so would provide me the opportunity to observe them for a time and build a strategy whilst minimising the number of eyes and other senses that would be looking out for danger. Deer in herds typically arrange themselves such that one or two individuals take the watch, whilst the others go about their business, however almost inconceivably I’ve noticed that when the group size is less than three, they simply forget to do this. This makes a herd of three or less the most attractive from a hunting perspective as the stalk is noticeably easier. But as it happens so often, a hunter seldom gets what they want. Hunting is about building a strategy, and having enough tactics to be able to adapt and overcome whatever you are presented with on each hunt. I continued to glass around the edges of the dark. I began to feel tired now. ‘How can I be tired its first light?’ I ask myself. I check my watch and notice it’s exactly 6am. ‘Hell hour’ I thought. The hardest hour of the day to stay awake is from 6 to 7 and here I am, wrapped up cosy and warm in a nice thicket of bushland looking into the blackness of shadows and deep, deep dark. Letting the binoculars settle back into their cradle I settle comfortably and rub my face with my hands. ‘I’ll rest until there’s a bit more light.’ I thought, closing my eyes.
I heard my father speak, ‘Stop. Close your eyes. Listen. Smell. Breathe. If you can’t see then stop. The best thing you can do on any hunt is stop.’ From behind me I began to notice the song of several birds awaking for the morning. The wind continued its irregular cacophony making many different sounds. Branches of trees clashed together whilst others groaned under their load. The scent of rain. A rustle in the ground cover near me. Drifting across the wind came the barking of dogs on some property, many miles away. The scent of dirt and piss and dirt. Silence. Sudden, deep and echoing silence. No wind, no movement, no sound – nothing. Silence so thick I could feel it deep in my chest. My eyes jolted open and I notice that a complete stillness had overcome the land. Not a thing moved. Nothing made a sound. Such a perfect moment comes along so rarely in life that it is so easy to miss and as I sat there I felt completely connected to the land. No longer was I a stranger moving through this land, I was of it, and in it, and a deep part of it. And it was of me, and in me, and a deep part of me. I open my eyes feeling deeply settled and now, the sun had just filtered into the valley before me opening up small pockets of sunlit areas amongst the black. Taking up my binoculars again I began looking at the outside and then the inside of these pockets looking from detail to detail.
My binoculars began to fog up in the cold due to the warmth of my breath and hands. ‘So much for fog proof’, I thought. Though I really should not complain as these binoculars which carried the weight of reliability had been all around the world with me and had barely had a problem. Taking out my lens cloth I wiped the lenses back to clear. Within seconds of use they had fogged again. Feeling a little frustrated, I unzipped my outer and inner jacket, dropping the binoculars inside against my skin. Suddenly I realised just how effective my technical clothing was, as the cold metal of the binoculars bit tightly against my chest and stomach, burning away my comfort. Rain began to filter through the roof of the thicket making a fat and disjointed patting sound on the ground and suspended leaves around me. After a time I could tell that the warmth of my body had moved into the binoculars, so withdrew them and continued my observation.
Time slips lightly by when hunting and this morning was no exception. I enjoyed observing the landscape as the sun rolled into even the deepest of darks before me and burned away the light rain and fog of the morning. As I continued to glass the depths of a far thicket of trees, suddenly and unexpectedly from the depths of my glass I saw a flicker. A sudden, subtle, fickle movement that was so lightly placed on the world that it would go missed by any casual observer. So slight, even the owner was probably not even conscious of the moment. But hunting, is about observation of subtleties. Unsure of what I had seen but with the determination backed by previous rewards of observing such inconsiderable signs, I began to dial in on the position of the movement. Changing the magnification on my binoculars and softening my breathing I noticed that the smallest part of the image in front of me was an aberration. Similar to the first time you might see a person in highly effective camouflage, or to the experience you might have doing one of those blind spot tests my mind was telling me, ‘I know there is something there. I can see it, but I cannot work out the shape of it yet.’
I adjusted my eyes. An old strategy I had learnt when your brain can’t compute the scene in front of you is to look just to the side of it and instead use your peripheral vision. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing again. Putting the binoculars aside I thought to use my naked eyes for a time. Sometimes the binoculars can play tricks on your mind and removing them helps you to come to terms with things. But in removing the binoculars, I realised the thicket was so far away I was unlikely to see anything without them. But then I did. Another slight flicker seeming nothing more than a momentary change in the subtle lighting of the thicket, but sure as anything it had changed. Something had moved. But whatever it was it hadn’t moved position as I’d seen it through the same tiny clearing on both occasions. ‘Could it be the flicking ear of a deer or kangaroo? Could it be the wing of a bird?’ I asked myself several questions to help my head make sense of what I had seen. The only conclusion I made was that it wasn’t a bird, and whatever it was, it was very close to the ground. Perhaps more of an instinct than anything else I became convinced that what I’d seen was either a deer or kangaroo lying down.
I thought back to a hunt several years ago that had started this way. The smallest flicker of an ear in a distant shrub had given away the position of a deer which later that day I had taken. ‘I need to change my perspective’ I thought. It’s times like this that there’s only two real options. Stay still and wait for the something to move of its own accord, or move yourself to gain a better perspective. It’s all about angles sometimes, and this was no exception.
After checking the wind and sources of cover, I decided not to be too careful. The wind was favourable and with my back to the sun any eyes from that direction would have a hard time seeing me. I also wanted to preserve available time that day for other hunting if this turned out to be a kangaroo or other animal I didn’t want to hunt. Collecting myself I stood to a half hunch and slipped quietly from my thicket towards the general target direction - just long enough to drop my silhouette beneath the horizon. I began to slip sideways across the hill making sure to keep beneath the ridge, staying as silent as possible, but moving with purpose. It’s always so hard to move, watch where you’re going and also keep your eyes and mind on a tiny, perhaps half imagined target whilst also maintaining your awareness of where the target is or might be. I juggled my bow around the obstacles and long grass before me and after having moved a short way, I sat to observe the sunlit area behind the target bush. But before I had even had the chance to raise my binoculars again I noticed a short distance to the right of where I’d imagined my target to be, a small deer lying in the sunlight. And then I saw another. And another. Raising my binoculars I began to count the deer. All of them less than three years and inexplicably not an antler amongst them I counted nine deer all lying in the sunlight protected by the long spinifex.
The deer I could see were calm and I noted that they sat deep in the saddle behind a small hillock. This would have been the lee side of the hillock if the wind blew from me directly towards them but the wind was still all over the place. The wind behind the hillock seemed to remain idle and calm however which took me by surprise. I still cannot explain why the surrounding wind did not seem to enter the area in which they sat, but they had obviously chosen that spot for a good reason. I thought to myself, ‘good place to build a cabin one day’, whilst I took out my range finder.
I always begin a stalk by ranging the target and multiple pieces of cover between myself and the target. I’ve only trained with my bow out to sixty yards and for ethical hunting reasons only like to loose at about half of that. I find this approach helps me to best identify the stalking strategy and hopefully, several final firing positions depending on what the wind and other factors may decide to do whilst I’m stalking. I noted that six hundred yards lie between the deer and my position. I also noted that the first part of the stalk would be a two hundred yard steep downhill crawl across entirely open ground. ‘Slow and hot’ I thought. I wondered if I might find a more comfortable way to approach the deer and began to zap multiple trees and shrubs with my range finder. Whatever I did, I didn’t want to alert the deer even in the slightest. The behaviour of the other deer I had seen that morning would immediately replicate itself in these deer if they became aware of my presence and they would be gone in an instant.
I began to be troubled that of the nine deer I could see, none were observing or keeping watch. ‘Where are the others?’ I asked myself whilst glassing the target zone again, fully expecting to see at least one mature deer keeping watch, perhaps further off in the distance. I always like to have visually observed the watcher before starting a stalk. This helps to control the risk of the stalk and also provides me with a constant watch point. If the watcher becomes alerted to your presence you can almost guarantee that the day is done. Seeing nothing I wondered if I should continue to slip across the hill further to open up more of my vision to the clearing occupied by the deer. Looking to my right I decided against this as there was more open ground far too exposed. It was also more likely to dry out quicker when the sun kissed them and make it a noisier path. Through the range finder I observed two final firing positions both seeming impossibly close to the deer. One was going to take me to within twenty yards of their position and provide good cover for my shot. The other would take me to about ten yards of their position. Closer, but this close is exceedingly difficult. A single change in the wind would end the day. Furthermore the cover available to me for my shot from that position was limited only to a small root ball of a fallen tree and the height of the spinifex grass to its side.
Noting that reaching either firing position was going to be an arduous task, I decided that there was nothing for it but to begin. I packed away the range finder and ensured that nothing was hanging loose from by body or pack so that it could snag along the way. Pulling my shammock up high around my neck I noticed that the day was fattening around the middle and despite the cold air the sun was beginning its beat. Several small adjustments to my gear, final camouflage and wind check and then I sank to the ground, face down and began descending the steep rocky ledge before me.
It’s always so strange doing a low crawl with your head downhill. There’s something that is almost overbalancing to it and it feels like you are going to begin falling at any moment, especially when there’s any steepness. I held few thoughts as I descended the rocks making certain of every foot and hand movement, dragging myself as close to the ground as I could to remain lower than the spinifex. Left hand, right foot, right hand, left foot, breath, rest, again. Over and over again I made these slow and deliberate movements whilst checking after every set the wind conditions and my direction. My belt snagged on a bit of jutting rock so for a moment I had to reverse crawl back up the hill, remove my belt from the snag and then holding the belt flat, and continue over the rock and onwards down the outcrop. There’s something about the stalk that helps you to empty your mind of anything but the simplest thoughts of your movement and the environment. There’s an intensity in every action, but the intensity is calm, controlled, coordinated action. All of your senses are heightened and your sixth sense – an ability to know things about your quarry without even seeing them kicks into gear. I could smell the dirt inches beneath my nose and the acrid smell of old dying grass that is giving way to new.
My hands and knees are hurting now as it’s been a while since my last stalk and they’re out of condition. In addition to this, the occasional sharpness of the thistles or other sharp things I dragged myself over made themselves known, but both disappear just as quickly as my heightened focus passes them out of mind. As I near the bottom of the steep descent I begin to feel a throbbing deep in my nose and head. Checking my watch I note that my head’s been downhill for over an hour now and I note that much more of this and I may end up with a head ache. I decide to correct this as a throbbing head would not help me hunt well. Now on the flat but with my back to the hill, I sit up and take my first look towards the deer, noticing that they are still sitting in exactly the same location and with the same posture as they had held before I began. A quick sip from my camelback I noticed a heavy draining sensation from within my head as the blood settled back into my body. The throbbing slowly subsided as I rested for a few quiet minutes.
Having completed my descent I was about a hundred yards closer to my quarry, and the stalking conditions had now changed. The deer which had an elevated position above me would have a perfect view of the flatter area I now needed to cross if it weren’t for their seated and lying postures which limited their view over the grass. I was pondering the best route to take and about to set off when suddenly the smell of rancid piss and rotting meat wafted across the breeze. Fox. I hate the smell of fox but despite this was glad that the fox announced its presence in this way. Much game, deer included will take flight at a fox so I’ve always found that it’s important to pay attention to their entry to the playing field. Looking upwind I recovered my binoculars from their pouch and began scanning for the fox. Less than fifty yards ahead I began to see flashes of deep, deep orange flicking from tuft to tuft of grass. It is a fox’s way to move quickly, or not at all and I noted that this fox was true to his form. They say that foxes are cunning, but I think that cunning is more descriptive of their movements than their thinking. With a certain and crafty sleaze the fox flitted this way and that, moving from cover to cover, thicket to thicket and then stopping for long moments to sniff the air. As I watched him I began to wonder how an onlooker might describe my movements through the bush. Did I flit from tree to tree? Did I move with cunning? Or sleaze? I don’t think I’d like being told I moved sleazily through the bush. There was something in the fox’s movements that seemed a little bit too familiar, but also a little bit too different to assimilate with. Maybe an onlooker would describe me as cunning or sleazy? I definitely move slower than the fox and am less flighty. But I think there’s more similarity between a cats movements and my own than that of a fox. For all a fox carries in reputation, I’ve never seen one move with the calm predatory purpose of a cat or lion that is on the hunt. Could a cat’s hunting movements be described as sleazy? No, I don’t think so. As I begin to put these thoughts out of mind and regain focus, comforted by my resolution that I probably wouldn’t be described as sleazy by an onlooker, the fat tune of the Pink Panther theme drifted into the back of my mind.
The fox, now downwind from the deer and upwind from myself stopped for a long moment and tilted his snout high into the air. A few still moments went by and he seems to instantly disappear from his spot, reappearing about ten metres to the left on top of a large and dirty boulder. He looked directly in the direction of the deer for a long moment, and then another. He seemed to be having some thoughts and I wondered what they could be. Was he thinking about having a stalk of one of the young deer? No. Unlikely. Foxes are scavengers. Immediately he answered my internal question by jumping from the boulder and as fast as he could possibly run, bolted from my view and disappeared into the distance. What is he running from? Almost in answer to my question I noted the wind was beginning to carry for the second time that day the sound of distant farmyard dogs barking on the wind. I pictured these dogs tied to their kennel awaiting their end of the day meal and with nothing better to do than bark the day away. True to his nature, Mr Fox had taken wing at their sound even thought they were probably several kilometres away.
I observed the deer and thankfully they had remained oblivious of the fox’s presence. ‘Lucky he stayed down wind and that the wind didn’t change’, I thought whilst packing away my binoculars. Lowering myself to the ground I began to move across the broad expanse of flat ground ahead of me. I’d gone only several metres when it occurred to me that the height of the grass in this area was shorter than elsewhere and that my height when combined with backpack and bow would be higher than the grass. Stopping to remove the pack and the bow I removed a lanyard I kept specially prepared for this occasion and attaching one end to my boot and the other to my pack, then began to move off through the grass dragging my pack behind me.
Left hand, right foot (yank), right hand, left foot I continued. This trick I’d learnt from an old SAS sniper I met once when he was once fresh out of luck. I’d since hunted with him many times. He used to carry an item he called a drag bag for this exact purpose and I remember it being a filthy old scamp of a thing that didn’t really fit into the world anywhere unless it was tied to his boot and being dragged through the mud and the shit. I think that thing carried mud and shit from four or five continents and never got cleaned. The more torn up it became the better it was at its job with frayed burlap pieces attached here and their it carried with it a memory of old and dead vegetation from far off places. But for all this, a drag bag is an item of need and not an item of pleasure and for all the good they bring, they carry just as many problems. As I moved forward now I thought on these things. The bag lowers your profile and lets you keep two hands free for stalking – a boon really letting you use the full articulation of arms and hands and fingers. The dragging however makes a lot more noise that you make yourself and depending on the environment and shape of the bag will continually get snagged on every possible item of opportunity. It’ll also lumber over anything dry or brittle and break these items up whilst keeping tune with the local orchestra. Depending on their weight they also become a highly fatiguing item when you’re continually dragging the full weight of rifle and pack on your leg. I remember as a younger man asking my friend why he tied the drag bag off to his foot and not his waist, my reasoning being that the weight would be more central that way. His answer was, ‘try it and then you tell me.’ Doing so, the problems quickly became obvious. When the bag was heavy enough you actually have to lift your hips and waist higher above the ground to be able to move it. This not only increases your profile, but moves a lot of the weight to your hands and arms which are already the weakest link. The other problem was that with every snag that the drag bag caught the only real option to clear it was to strain against the weight of the bag and the cord and vigorously thrust your hips forwards and upwards to try and clear the snag. This action in proximity to the thistles and snags were not the only problem this presented as you might imagine. On the other hand, the strength of your leg and additional articulation you can achieve with it when the bag gets stuck or otherwise meets an unusual obstacle makes attachment to your leg the better alternative.
As I continued forward it quickly became important to groom my forward path of all sticks, leaves and otherwise potential noise makers from the path of my drag bag. Move stick, moves leaves, left hand forward, waist over tuft of grass, right foot (yank), the process continued. After what seemed like a huge length of time, I was beginning to fatigue, but decided to continue on across the flatter area to make up some distance. A quick look above the line of the grass showed me that I was growing close to the end of the flatter area and would shortly start the ascent towards the deer, being the final ninety yards or so. It’s never a good idea to make your final approach when you’re already fatigued, but I decided to push on until the end of the flat before having a break. Just as I’d made this decision and as quickly as a dropped glasses smashes on a tile floor, the wind which had been blowing in my face so far for the entire stalk, completely changed direction now blowing from directly behind me and towards the deer. I dropped as low as I possibly could against the ground amongst the tufts of spinifex. I held to myself for a few tense moments as I tried to assess what was happening with the wind from amongst the grass, but unfortunately, all I could tell was that the wind was building on itself. ‘Nothing. This is a time for actively doing absolutely nothing.’ I thought. The noise from any movement I made and my scent would easily carry on the wind towards the deer especially from this close distance, so lying face down in the grass I closed my eyes and waited. And listened.
As I lay there listening to the wind overhead, I wondered how much time had passed. An hour? More? Were the deer still there? My sixth sense said yes, but my curiosity was rising and patience falling due to having lay completely stationary for the past… however long. I bet that reading this your initial reaction would be something like, ‘well, how hard is that?’ In the words of my sniper friend, ‘Try it.’ And I mean, ‘Really try it’. Make sure you don’t cheat. Set a timer for an hour and lay face down on your lounge room floor and remain perfectly stationary for at least an hour. The simplest things are actually the hardest things when you break them down.
The sun was beating down on my back, legs and the back of my hood and beginning to bake through the waterproof nylon camouflage I was wearing. This was such a conflicting experience. As I was breathing air that was crisp and now growing icy due to the onset of the afternoon, the sun felt like it was burning through my body to my soul and trying to burn it out of church. But the wind continued, and continued, and continued to blow in the same direction. ‘What would happen if it doesn’t change?’ I thought. The answer which I knew too well was that eventually it would get dark, and then I would have to just get up and walk back to camp. There’d be nothing for it. I thought to myself about letting myself drift off to sleep for a while, but was too uncomfortable for that. I lay there listening, baking, sweating and getting cold. No, not just cold, I was beginning to get over cold. ‘Is it possible to get heat stroke and hypothermia at the same time?’ I thought. I wondered about the possibility of this and was imagining what the treatment for hypothermic heat stroke would be when as quickly as it had started, the wind stopped. It didn’t change direction, it just stopped. ‘Not perfect but better’, I thought as I rolled over onto my back.
Do you know that feeling you get after a very big day when you finally drop down into bed? That final action of the day when your beds arms wrap themselves around you and make everything better, everything fine, everything restful? Well that’s what this rolling over was like. Sudden and tremendous relief from the sun which was no longer beating onto my back and baking through my body. I took a mouthful of water from my camelback. And then another. I wanted to gulp thirstily at the tube from the pack however I limited myself to a few small mouthfuls. A few small, tasty and precious mouthfuls. The water was so cold that even with the small amount I took I felt the cold slide deep inside me. I felt an almost desperate need to open my rain jacket but knew this would allow a miasma to escape which would probably alert the deer. Time to push on.
Wishing that the wind had actually changed back to blowing in my face, I continued on pressed low to the ground now starting to ascend towards the deer. The deer were positioned in the low of a saddle, and I was now approaching them from the hummock side. This meant I would have a bit more cover as I ascended provided from the perspective shift of the hummock and some small vegetation on its summit. I got to an area which was slightly clearer than the rest of the space around me and took the opportunity to glass the land above and behind the hummock. ‘Nothing. That’s a good thing as it means their still they’re and still seated.’ I thought. With the shift in visual perspective I decided that noise was now more important than profile and so didn’t want to continue using my drag bag. Pulling it up tight I removed the lanyard and also removed the bow from the backpack. After placing the backpack onto my back and checking the bow for any drag related damage I continued on up the hummock.
About two thirds of the way up the hummock, and now what must only be forty yards or so from the summit I came to a patch of ground that was more vertical than that around me and with substantially less vegetation. This meant that the ground cover was very dry and even the slightest pressure in crossing began to cause it to cry out remorsefully. Always exposed to the sun it was a patch of ground used to being baked even despite the recent rains. I couldn’t see any way around it if I wanted to continue. This limited my options. I could now take a risk with the noise, use my camel back to wet down where I wanted to step and soften my movements, or sit and wait until a deer by happenstance moves around the hummock. I didn’t like the third option because at that moment I had the advantage of the wind, and the deer had remained stationary for the entire day so far. If I wetted down the ground, the smell from the freshly wet grass and ground might be enough to alert the deer, however it wouldn’t frighten them away. In fact it might draw them in. This, and I only had ten yards left to get to my final firing position meant this was the lesser risky option.
‘Things might happen quickly now.’ I thought and so took some slow moments to ready my bow, release aid and prepare an arrow. Afterwards and remaining only a hairs distance from the ground I began to spray the ground in front of me with my camelback. Noting that I only had about two and a half litres left I sprayed carefully in front of myself, then moved about ten centimetres, then spray, move, spray move. I began to notice the smell of the grass and dirt beneath me. I slowed down somewhat making sure I kept a vigilant watch on the small horizon of the hummock. The sweet freshness of the smell of newly wet grass in the heat of the day could easily attract a curious deer wanting a fresh pick of grass. Listening intently I noticed the wind had increased slightly and was barely noticeable now, but it was drifting into my face. Often little eddies around hillocks and summits of even the smallest hill can have a behaviour of their own and as this thought crossed my mind I wondered about the possibility of travelling currents taking my scent around the hillock towards the deer. After another few carefully made movements I was only several yards from the summit of the hillock and as planned, with the protection of a few small shrubs. It’s so rare that a good strategy will actually take you over a hillock like this… its usually something entirely to be avoided however the opportunities on this property and legal thoughts around not crossing onto neighbouring land limited the hunting options to this extent. It occurred to me at this very moment that I’d reached the limit of my experience at this very point. I couldn’t think of another single time where my approach had led me to a firing position on the exact summit of a hillock. As I thought through this and looked to my past for guidance, it occurred to me that I had a problem. I had no real way of drawing my bow without being a fully exposed silhouette on the horizon, only yards from the deer.
I thought back to my earlier thoughts of nine deer and general curiosity towards the location of the others. It occurred to me now that there was a good opportunity that there would be deer in the lowest part of the saddle immediately behind the hillock. This could be as close as fifteen yards, but I couldn’t see them yet. This would give me perhaps less than three seconds of broaching the hilltop to loose an arrow at a target that I hadn’t locked eyes on yet. I began to grow uncomfortable with the soon to be failing light and the only obvious opportunity to continue which was to back off down the hillock and instead approach in the softer lay of land on the far side of the hillock. Lying flat in the grass, bow in hand I suddenly heard a brief snap from nearby and drifting into my view for a tiny moment was a young doe. She walked to the summit and looked over for a short second and then casually turned back the way she had come. I think she had smelt the wet grass.
It’s hard at times like that not to get excited and rush into action. I had an image of myself lurching up out of the grass, drawing an arrow all at the same time, loosing it on the fly and bagging the doe. However too many scars has taught me that the best thing in that situation was the exact opposite. Stay calm. Take the energy out of the situation. Back off. Be calm. Be patient. Be a hunter.
After the doe had receded I decided that I needed some quicker movement to preserve the remaining daylight. Taking of my backpack to lighten my load and movements and taking only two arrows I left the backpack and bow quicker on the ground near the summit and silently moved back down the hillock and into the slightly longer grass beneath. Self-doubt began flooding in at this stage. Was this the right decision? I was so close? Maybe I should have just waited for another deer to summit? But action is always the best way to cull maybes, so I continued down the hillock at a pace I wouldn’t have dared to make on the ascent. I’m not absolutely certain, but something about the complete placidity of doe had told my sixth sense that I would get away moving a little faster, and so I began from a lower altitude to circle around the base of the hummock hoping to pick up the approach line I’d chosen from above. After a short time I found my line and checked the sun to notice that there was about an hours’ worth of light left. Deer usually like to go for a drink at this time of the afternoon and it occurred to me that I may have less time than I’d predicted if they decided to depart, and so again with haste I began a silent lizard like crawl back up the hummock. This approach had more cover and was a gentler ascent than previously, however I would get to a point where the grass provided no cover. That was my chosen final firing position which I estimated about twenty yards from the deer. I slowed down when I was within fifty yards of my firing position and decided to have a rest. There’s nothing worse than loosing on an animal when you’re exhausted or breathing hard. Shortly after I stopped I felt a deep pinching sensation on both my legs, feet and ankles and each pinch was followed by a slow toxic, acid type of burn.
I lay there trying to remain quiet, calm and composed whilst ant after ant journeyed into my pant legs, socks and shoes and started injecting me with their fury. Looking at the ground I noticed I was actually lying fully on a nest. I rolled several times to the side and, remaining lower than the spinifex first removed my gaiters, bite, bite bite, then shoes, bite bite bite, then trousers and socks. I began removing the ants one by one and tried to do so without expressing the general sense of alarm that I felt. I’ve had similar before, and normally you can grab the ants through your pants leg and crush them without needing to remove your clothing but these ants were about an inch long, red and had black nippers that looked like hells can openers. Trying to crush them between thumb and forefinger just got me bitten more, and I ended up discovering that the best thing to do was to actually throw them away. Who would have thought that ant could be so big that they had enough weight so that you could actually throw them distance like pitching a baseball. And so that’s how, on that afternoon I came to be laying on a New England hillside overlooking kilometre after kilometre of rolling countryside, with no pants.
After collecting myself and thoroughly inspecting pants, socks, shoes and gaiters for ants and redressing, I took a few deep breaths and continued on up the hummock with an earnest eye pointed towards little black holes in the ground. As I dragged my body forward it occurred to me that I’d never heard of an instance of stealthy undressing and redressing in the final stages of a stalk before, but I’m sure it’s been done. But as I was having these thoughts the burn from the ants stings began to intensify, but interestingly enough rather than this producing any desire to quit, it summoned up a steely eyed grit to proceed. I covered the final thirty yards to my final firing position quickly, assisted by the wind which had begun to gust into my face again. The gusting wind made enough noise that with each gust I was able to move more quickly enabling the wind to mask my sound, and I would stop when the wind stopped. And so in this way I made the final and fast approach to my final firing position unhindered by my backpack and quiver. Looking carefully through the grass I noticed that I was indeed within twenty yards or so of the deer, but there was not nine. There was not twelve. There were twenty or more with the thickest of the bunch being settled in the saddle. It occurred to me that their spread had meant that in my previous firing position I was probably only ten yard or less from the closest before I had moved away. But I now had another problem.
The additional numbers of deer and their wider than anticipated spread meant that there were far more many eyes and far more many senses for me to deal with. Due to my relocation I didn’t have to worry about my silhouette, but still had to find a way to draw my bow, steady myself, aim and loose and with my only cover being the height of the grass, all of these actions would again have to happen in full view of the deer, which were only twenty yards away.
I peered through the grass and noticed that they remained entirely calm. A few had taken to foot and were moving around further up the hill whilst the remainder were well sheltered by the length of grass of the saddle. ‘I’ve got about three seconds’ I thought. That’d be three seconds to move from lying completely flat to a kneeling position, draw my bow, steady it, aim, loose. Is that possible?
As I lay their contemplating the options it occurred to me that if I waited about forty minutes or so the sun will have drifted below the horizon. Perhaps the dark would help because the deer would not see me. However the additional time lying there might be enough with a change of wind for them to spook at my scent. Furthermore, I was so close that one of them could simply stumble upon me lying in the grass and I’d be unprepared. My previous thought reoccurred and I formed the view due to several of the deer now standing that they may be soon to depart for water. Time was not on my side in this instance. I needed to find a way to make the shot before the circumstances changed.
A thought occurred to me at this moment. A crazy thought. A thought I’ve never thought of before. Can this be done? Surely it’s the best option I’ve got and will reduce the time it takes for me to loose a shot. It had been a beautiful hunt up to this point. A beautiful hunt and a beautiful game. ‘I’ve had such a good day, that I’ve already won’ I thought to myself. I truly have had such a good day up to this point that suddenly, the risk within my crazy idea didn’t seem to matter so much, so with a ‘why not’ attitude I decided to give it a go.
Peering through the grass I selected a deer, a young doe perhaps three years old. I zapped the doe at twenty five yards off using the range finder and then adjusted the range setting on my bow sight. The doe wasn’t the closest nor the largest, but was standing, mostly broadside and was slightly bigger than the other spikers which would be a harder target due to sitting deep in the grass. The doe was standing calmly, and eating as I, laying completely flat on my back nocked my arrow after placing the arrow into the drop away rest. Immediately, the arrow fell from the deep V of the drop away rest. ‘Wish I had the whisker biscuit today’ I thought. I corrected the arrow onto the rest and had to tilt the bow to keep the arrow on the rest. I clipped my release aid silently onto the bowstring and closed my eyes for a long, deep, lasting breath. Making a conscious effort to swap my trigger finger to the complete opposite side of the release aid for the draw, I rolled my shoulder and laying completely flat began to pull against the full 75 pounds of my bow string. Pull, pull, pull, no, push push. As I struggled to pull the string from this posture past the break over point of the cams, it seemed more natural to achieve the full draw by pushing the leading hand more so than pulling the string. Push push pull! Finally the bow string broke over the cam and relaxed into its relieved position, and at the same time, the arrow again fell from the deep V of the drop down rest. Still lying, flat backed beneath the grass I began making several uncoordinated movements to try and flick the arrow back onto the rest whilst holding the bow at full draw - actions made substantially more difficult by the use of the release aid. Beginning to strain against the bow, I began to wonder if once I got the arrow onto the rest if I should just release the arrow into the ethos and be done with it. Muscle fibres twitched as I began to squeeze my shoulder blades together in the effort to restrain the bow it occurred to me that this might not have been such a good idea.
Settling into the drawn bow and finally getting the arrow back onto the rest, my problems shifted from how to draw the bow, to how do I actually get up? All the things I’ve ever learnt about weapons handling were flooding into my head and screaming, ‘bad idea!’ as I fought to keep the bow safe whilst struggling against its force. Lying there with the bow drawn across my chest I would need to make a large movement, driven only by my core to move into a sitting position and then using only my legs move into a kneeling position. I couldn’t allow the bow or any part of it to be in contact with the grass whilst it loosed and I still needed the time to fully stabilise myself and aim. In intense ache began to form across the front of my chest and rib cage. It occurred to me that I was controlling the bow with muscles that weren’t used to this. It also occurred to me that I needed to be quick or else fatigue would take its toll.
Seeing nothing for it, I tensed my core and using more energy in one movement that I had used accumulatively during the entire day so far, I forced myself into a sitting position. Time slowed as I wheeled my feet around beneath me and my legs, burning from the ant bites and lack of hydration and the sudden intensity of movement. As I moved into the seating position I saw over twenty pairs of eyes and twenty heads which were otherwise relaxed and somewhat bored turn sharply towards me. All aspects of their mundane and day to day features vanished sharply and smashed intensely and suddenly into an astonished and terrible fear. As my knees settled to the ground and found the firmness of grass and dirt instead of air, more than 80 legs and hooves fired with an instant bolt of electric lightning firing upwards. My sight settled on the mid-section of the target doe and I began to settle into the shot. In a haze, everything began to move around me, however for the smallest part of the smallest second, the doe who was slightly more distracted than the rest with a head down posture stayed entirely still. I began to squeeze on the trigger of my release aid with bow clear of the grass and a full and tidy sight picture. A heavy dust began to rise from the ground and the noise of stampeding hooves filled the air around me. The doe flinched just as the release aid clicked. I must have loosed five thousand arrows from this bow, but I’d never noticed before just how slowly the arrow begins to accelerate. As the arrow left the bow the doe, the only deer amongst the bunch that hadn’t noticed my presence was struck by that same internal machinery that had given rise to the others. Her legs stiffened and she bounced directly upward. The recoil of the bow rocked forward into my leading hand as I noticed my arrow closing to the doe who at this stage seemed to be levitating in thin air. I noticed the silent flick of the bow in my leading hand and its slight roll towards my left. The doe’s head bucked down as her back shot up into the air with astonishing speed, but ever so slowly as my arrow tore through the air. I watched intensely as my arrow passed underneath the chest of the deer just behind the leading leg. The arrow passed cleanly beneath the deer, so close that it must have parted the hair on leg and chest, as the doe continued to rise into the air to an impossible height - two, no, maybe three times her standing height. My arrow cut a trail in the rising dust as it careered on into the twilight and the doe fell back to earth, and like the fox of that morning, completely vanished from sight.
I knelt there with only my bow and remaining arrow as the dust settled around me. Intense relief fell across my chest muscles as a manic grin fell across my face. I rolled my shoulder and started to massage my chest as I moved to stand in the failing light. I looked happily in the direction the doe had departed in and feeling the happiest I had felt for some time, turned to see the sun casting colours of whiskey and wine across the blue lit coldness of the view in front of me. At that moment, nothing in the world mattered. Nothing. Nothing at all. I’d had a beautiful day and had played a beautiful game. I’d hunted a beautiful deer and had been out-gamed by her. I’d spent the day in the stunning landscape of Severn River Park and could now look forward to heading back to camp after collecting my backpack, making a fire and eating a simple campfire cooked meal. It is these simple reasons that makes us want to hunt. Don’t look to big reasons. Look to small ones. And you will find them all here. This trip was a true reflection that life’s best experiences happen in the outdoors and that we hunt because doing so is a part of our soul.
Get amongst it.
The Outsider. March 2019.