THE BUCK'S OTHER LIFE
The sun has just broken the horizon in the east. Golden rays pierce the misty morning air between the crowns of the trees, striking the tower in flickering dapples. I’ve been waiting for this sunrise. Eagerly anticipating this day – the 16th of August – the first day of the Swedish buck hunting season.
The tower I’m sitting in is in the middle of our grounds. We call it “The Crossroads”. There’s a clear view in all directions, but best of all down 130 metres of open forest track. The place is criss-crossed by wildlife trails. The buck has rubbed several spots in the area and one of the other hunters in our little consortium actually spotted it during a boar hunt a month ago. It’s a tall, old six-pointer. The perfect mature buck.
The opening day
There’s a special feel to the first day of the season. The wait is over. I’ve been poised and ready for this morning for a long time. In fact, about six months - at least! And then again, not. Because as I sit here at dawn, I realise once again that I’m never quite ready for this full-on encounter with the natural world. There’s always something new to experience and learn. I close my eyes and inhale deeply through my nose. The forest smells awesome this morning. It smells of life.
I’ve whiled away the months of waiting by preparing. What can you do to improve your chances of getting within shot of the perfect buck? Perhaps I prepared more than needed. But this is part of the process – part of the pleasure. I’m not about to be let down by my hunting gear. This year, I’ve got myself a brand new rifle. It’s a Sauer 404, and fitted with the best sights I could source. The rifle has been calibrated, checked and double-checked and several trips to the firing range have made the rifle and me the best of friends. Pulling the trigger is second nature after firing hundreds of dry shots. I’ve also picked the right hunting apparel for the occasion, checking it and laying it out on the table in the hunting cabin just before I went to bed yesterday. Everything had to be just-so for today. I’m aiming to down a prime buck or a weak cullable buck if the chance arises. It’s got to be the right one, or none.
What do I actually know?
Nature is awakening around me. Small birds are getting busy, and, on this otherwise windstill morning, are making a lot more noise than usual, I reckon. I’m thinking about what I actually know about deer. What do they feed on, why are they active in the morning and evening? I’ve heard many rumours, and I’ve given it a lot of thought. Now the time’s come to put the theories into practice. Will my tactics work? I’ve been a huntsman for 29 years, but in many ways still feel like a novice. I’m surprised all the time, learning something new all the time – and I love it.
I know that deer are ruminants. This forces them to feed about every four hours. So it doesn’t really make sense to me that they are only active in the mornings and evenings. Perhaps the morning and evening activities, when the deer are moving between their daytime and nighttime domains, are just more obvious to the deer stalker? More obvious because this is the longest trail the buck makes in every 24-hour period. A trail the animal spends a lot of time on because it forages as it goes on the varied assortment of seasonal herbs, buds and shoots, all the while staking out its territory. Today, I’m thinking the buck’s morning route is going to bring it past “The Crossroads”. At least, I hope so.
I’ve put some serious recon work into him recently. I concentrated on the locations I know are visited by the bucks and where hunters from our consortium have got lucky in previous seasons. I’ve scouted for fresh rubs and signs that the spoors criss-crossing the forest floor are in use. I’ve done all I can to intuit what the roe deer go for. I’ve spent many hours observing and thinking. Because I know there’s a buck in this location. A mate of mine saw it. The fact that I’ve not even caught so much as a glimpse of it when out scouting confirms my idea that I’m after a stealthy old buck. One that’s learned to stay well clear of anything that sounds, smells and looks like us people. It all feels right. That’s just the kind of buck I’ve got at the top of my wishlist.
My reveries are broken by a sound. There’s something moving to the right of the tower. I shift my gaze. Not my head – just my gaze. I feel my spine tingling. My heart is suddenly pounding. I hope this isn’t turning into buck fever!
I can’t see far enough right without turning my head, so I swivel it ever so slowly towards the faint sound of hesitant footfall in the withered grass of the forest floor. It's like it's all happening in slow motion. Seconds feel like minutes. Is it a buck or a doe? Or maybe not even a roe deer?
I hear the faint rustling again. A bush moves. I catch a glimpse of russet pelt through the leaves. A foreleg steps out on the forest floor. The animal freezes mid-movement. It is definitely a roe deer!
It’s standing stock still. For a long time. The thoughts are flying through my head. Has it sensed me? I can hear a throbbing in my ear. My throat is dry. All my senses are keen. The bush moves again slightly. The deer is obviously nibbling the leaves on the other side. I move in restrained slow motion, holding my breath, balancing my rifle on the edge of the tower. The deer is approaching under cover of the bushes. I cock the rifle now for fear of scaring the animal if I wait until it comes closer. The distance is less than 15 metres now. The only thing I’m sure of is that a roe deer is approaching.
I can see its snout, but it’s still not enough to tell me if it’s a buck or a doe. Just a single step forwards, and it’ll be in my sights. Just one step. I survey the world through my scope. My finger is resting on the edge of the trigger lever – ready to come into its own if the situation develops to my advantage. The back stop is perfect.
I can feel a gentle breeze lift the hairs at the back of my neck. I have time to think that the direction is as bad as it could be before total silence descends. Two or three seconds later, I hear the animal’s nostrils working. I know that it’s game over. The animal has got wind of me. It backs up, turning in the bushes.
In a split second, the volume has gone up from a hushed rustling to a noisy rebuke. With pounding hooves, the roe deer disappears in furious protest back down the same route it came from. I don’t get a proper look at it.
Over the next few minutes, I regain my calm. The encounter settles and crystallises in my mind. I recap on the intensity of the situation. Analyse the seconds of the event. Could I have done anything differently? I smile to myself. It’s a fine morning in every way. I’m at one with nature.
Day-long deer stalking
My plan for the day is simple: I won’t be returning to the cabin to sleep. Instead, I’ll be stalking my way to the black tower further inside the forest, resting a couple of hours at the edge of the clearing and then heading off for the hide, where I’ll be spending the evening. I’ll be out all day. I’ve been out a few hours by the time I reach the clearing. There’s nothing to see right now, so I lie down in the soft bed of faded moss, resting my head on my pack and getting a few moments of shut-eye…
I jolt awake. The wind has picked up and is now blowing steadily from the west. Maybe this was what woke me? I’ve lost all sense of time, or of how long I’ve been asleep. Was it minutes, an hour, or two? I reckon it’s all the same, and despondently survey the large clearing in front of the tower. At first, I see no more than the scrubland I expect to see, but as I let my gaze wander across the location one more time, I spot a patch of that perfect summer-buck shade of russet.
My eyes peer at the light, but I’m not sure if I’m seeing a roe deer because that’s what I want to see, or if it’s just a withered branch at a deceptive angle. I dig out my binoculars and systematically survey the jumble of withered branches and tree stumps until I’ve homed in on that spot – 192 metres away according to the binoculars’ range finder. At first, I can’t find the russet patch again, but all of a sudden the deer steps out of the bushes! I spot it right away. It’s a buck!
It’s not the six-pointer described to me, and which I imagined stalking, but another, older six-pointer with a handsome, asymmetrical set of antlers, well above ear-height. I spot some trey tines and slightly smaller bey tines. The coronets are broad, fused and noduled. This is a real old forest buck, who’s kept under cover. It’s never been seen in these parts before.
The buck is standing in a dip. From where I’m sitting, I can only see the top of the back, neck and head. It turns broadside towards me, unawares, busy nibbling at leaves between the bushes. The wind is in my favour, so I decide to try and get closer. I creep across the clearing on all fours. Some fifty metres ahead, I’ll have the buck back in my sights again, if it’s still there, that is. There’s also a small tree I might be able to use as a stand if I get the chance to take a shot.
The dry branches and the stones on the forest floor are cutting into my palms and knees. I’m concentrating on my breathing, on not making too much noise, on protecting my new rifle from the first scratch. It’s more of an effort than I was counting on, and I’m hot and bothered in an instant. I’m paying close attention to my ground contact, keeping my progress smooth and even. I register how the effort to control my breathing is actually making me gasp more. 50 metres on all fours can easily come to feel like miles on end. I sneak a look ahead at my target. Less than 10 metres to go. Is the buck still there?
I reach the tree, and slowly shrug off the rifle. I’m on my knees, but that doesn’t get me high enough, so I get up as quietly as I can from behind the slender birch, which for whatever reason was left standing among the spruce stumps. My heart skips a beat or two when I realise that the buck has moved closer and is now calmly feeding less than 80 metres away from me. The back stop is good.
I don’t have a chance to think the situation through before my rifle is cocked almost reflexively. I steady my left wrist against the birch trunk, leaning against it to stabilise my aim. The reticle wanders slowly up the buck’s foreleg and when the crosshair approaches the middle of the body, my index finger has somehow of its own accord applied enough pressure on the trigger for the shot to sound.
The buck collapses on the spot. One hind leg gives a couple of jerks and then lies still. That jittery feeling spreads through my body. A touch of the buck fever sets in, but it’s not unwelcome when it happens after the shot. It’s good to be reminded that I’m not a machine. I’m alive and I can feel it. Buck hunting is just the best.
It’s early afternoon by the time I get back to the cabin with the day’s kill. I’m pleased I decided to make a day of it. I didn’t bring home the buck I had envisaged, but a buck that, on account of its atypical behaviour, had never shown itself before in its long lifespan. This is the kind of encounter you stand to gain from staying out longer than usual in a buck hunt. I’ll definitely be doing that again.