A lot of hunting stories start with something along the lines of ‘dawn was just breaking as…’. This was not one of those hunts.
I had decided to take Sami into the bush for some quality father-daughter time, but had some work admin to attend to first. So by the time that was done, and we had driven down to the edge of the amazing Aorangis and got into the actual bush, it was close to 9.30am. Ah well, the deer didn’t evaporate after dawn. Things had been wet but cool and conditions were ideal for bush hunting. We were heading up a big bush ridge that meant that the wind would be crossing it a bit more than just straight in our faces. Once we had gained elevation further up the ridge, my intention was to drop off the side and sidle back through the faces with the wind completely in our faces. The wind was a bit swirly, but would come really good for later on.
Early in the hunt, Sami at eighteen months old was a mix of business and youthful exuberance but she soon settled into the rhythm we had established as a team. Once again, she was on the busy side, but was regularly self-checking and when needed, coming closer or waiting till I caught up. Deer sign was pretty average but half an hour up, Sami lifted her nose and drifted us off the right-hand side of the ridge and almost with the wind. Strange. We did 80-odd metres like this and then she caught another good puff that saw us heading up and around back to the ridge.
Fifteen minutes later she was getting more animated as well as stealthier. Stuff was getting closer to happening. Suddenly I caught a good strong whiff of venison. We were getting close alright. Excellent. Then Sami started to act a little out of character for this stage of a hunt. She got busy and was going back and forth. I got a bit irritated but said nothing. I could get whiffs of venison and they were good ones. Sami was acting too loose and instead of sneaking, she was casting about a bit. Then she locked up, pointing straight uphill into some rubbish. I crouched down and didn’t move. It was in there somewhere. Sure enough it was, and I caught a glimpse of a deer flicking out the other side. Bugger!
All the movement had warned and spooked it. Sami hadn’t budged and I moved up quietly beside her and gave her a pat, honouring the effort she had put in. Then I sat down to let the deer settle down and have a think. It didn’t take too much to realise that the issue had been the swirling wind and a keen, younger dog trying to work it out.
In hindsight I should have put a stop on her and settled her down before proceeding carefully. Ah well. Sometimes you simply don’t get those ones as it is hard for the dog to lock on to the scent source when it keeps changing.
We headed up to where the deer had been, and Sami dropped her nose and started tracking. Good girl. The deer headed up along the main ridge and we followed behind. Most of the time I struggled to see any tracks but occasionally a bit of disturbed earth gave it away. I trusted Sami.
We went this way for half an hour, then we ran in to some fresh pig rooting and plenty of it. Sami got really interested. I could see that the deer had veered off over the left side but Sami seemed to decide that what we had in front of us was of greater interest. I am not a purist and could see that the deer was still travelling steadily too. I also decided to trust Sami’s nose and instinct. We were not after just that one animal, so I didn’t see the point in pulling her back onto that one.
We worked the sign on the flat ridge top and then Sami took me over the right side and through the heads of several guts. Pig sign was along our route and it was smokin’.
Excellent! We headed down and around and then Sami veered down a little beech spur. I ticked along about ten metres behind. The vegetation got thicker and then 100m down the spur, she turned right and over the side through some pole beech.
That is when I lost sight of her. I carried on in her direction and checked my GPS. She was ten metres in front still – but hello – she was stopped. I crept in, looking for her. The first thing I saw was the end of her white tail and then she clicked into focus. She was locked up and looking to her right, so I did too. I didn’t move either. Sami did not acknowledge me by moving her head. All I saw was the slightest flick of her tail end that said she knew the boss was ‘on site’.
A low grunt came a couple of minutes later and was about five metres in front of Sami. We were on! Another minute after that, a 60lb pig walked through a small gap where we were looking. We waited. It came back into view again briefly and was moving slowly to our left.
The next time it moved into a gap it would be off to the side of Sami where a shot would have less impact on canine ears. We waited. It crossed the gap and all I needed was the second it gave me. As the report of the suppressed 308 echoed briefly, I rammed another round in. I looked at Sami. She was already looking back where the pig had come from and hadn’t moved a muscle. Neither did I.
Seconds later another pig grunted and moved quickly along the path of the first one. A low whistle and it paused briefly in the same gap and quickly joined its mate. As the shot died away, I looked at Sami. Now she was looking at me and her tail was wagging. Job done. Good girl. I moved to her and gave her a pat. As was her way, she wasn’t really interested in that and was focused on where the pigs lay. I gave her the ‘in front’ command and she took me the short distance to them – both sows and both mud fat. I was stoked. I didn’t have pig dogs any more, but in my humble opinion there is not much that can beat fat, berry-fed pork. Mmmmm. It wasn’t a long hunt, and certainly not the full day we had planned, but who can complain?
The next hunt took place a couple of weeks later in the same area. I still wanted to get down into those sunny faces and so decided to have another wee look. Sami, as ever, was a starter. You gotta love a canine buddy.
We headed up the same ridge and past the scene of the last bit of action with no indications from the real hunter in the team that stuff was about. We reached a high point and started to sidle off along the face. The wind was not quite as good as last time for this side, but it would do. We were sidling up valley with the wind down valley in our faces but gusting up the face at times as it succumbed to the northerly and warming of the air. Once again, it would come right eventually. The day was a cracker and the bird song was fantastic for this time of year. Bellbirds are a personal favourite and the Aorangis hold a lot of them. It is a very special place.
Deer sign started to show up when we hit the sunny faces and Sami began to get more animated. Scent was about. She got busier and I made myself relax about that. I ticked along the face, following game trails and watching her closely. One thing a book can’t teach you is how to read your dog. They and we are all different and any partnership needs to figure it out. I knew Sami’s mannerisms pretty well by now and time would improve on that.
We cruised along. About half an hour in, Sami started to show interest down slope, so I followed her down 150m, then around the face. Occasional deer marks showed up in loose gravel, which had to be reasonably fresh. Excellent. Most importantly, we were both relaxed and enjoying ourselves. When you are like that, it is easier to keep your concentration up and stay focused. This is critical in bush hunting. A mate once described it as a cross between a game of rugby and a game of chess.
Sami again showed interest below and we headed down further. This is where I think a lot of people go wrong with a young dog and especially while they are learning. You must be prepared to honour your dog where possible and follow it, so lazy or unfit people will struggle here. If you don’t like climbing out of gullies – it will be an issue for you.
We hit fresh marks and Sami worked them as she does and then went on a wind scent. Great to see a young dog switch between both. We headed further around the hill. It was steep and shingly. About 100m on and she was obviously struggling to get ‘lock on’ with the swirly wind, but she persisted. I watched this and knew that I would have to add value here if possible. I made a mental note to be extra vigilant out to the sides, to be safe.
It paid off. Sami was about ten metres in front on the same contour and had stopped to try and figure out the wind scent she was getting. I stopped too while she did and carefully looked around. Twenty metres below me, I saw a movement. Up went the rifle and through the scope I saw an ear. That was all. A step to the left and the head and neck of a stag lying down came into view. It didn’t know we were there. ‘Ahhh, there you are, you bugger.’
I checked Sami and she was still trying to work out the wind. It was possible there was another deer too, but I think it was most likely the changing wind had let her down. Bolt down – and four legs went up and over at the shot – and then down a very, very steep face. I looked at Sami again. She was looking at me. I called her over and she came, but looking hard around her for what she knew was down.
And here is the thing. Hunting with a dog doesn’t mean you have to stop hunting. You are a team. Sometimes you are the champion and sometimes it’s the dog.
Combined, you are better than twice as good as you are as individuals. We went to the place where the stag had been bedded and Sami went into action on command. As you should ALWAYS do, we hunted the dead one just as we would hunt a live one. The stag had staggered a short way around the face and then rolled down.
I followed Sami and managed her enthusiasm. Eighty metres below, we found it draped around a tree above a bluff. Dressing out was interesting and involved some rope. The stag was not in good nick as is often the way with late winter deer. The head was left behind in favour of meat. I decided to drop down to the creek for the trip out. Recent floods had dumped a ton or million of gravel in it and made travel a lot easier. Wet feet are always better than hanging by your fingernails.
Halfway down the creek, Sami dropped her nose to the deck. I checked it out and there in front was a set of large and fresh marks. What were they doing here in a cold creek bottom? We followed them downstream. Sami was ‘on song’ as she tracked the deer, criss-crossing the stream on the way. About 500m on, she suddenly climbed out and up and around a face. I did my job and followed along quietly behind, my eyes doing the tango all over every inch of the public real estate within view. We sidled about 100m and only about the same out of the creek, when she slammed the canine brakes on.
I couldn’t see anything. I took two steps left (again) and an enormous orange arse came into view only ten metres in front of her. Also sticking out from a tree was a very respectable looking antler.
Hello, hello! Another step and I could see more of the stag and a small gap into the back of his chest that I could angle a shot through and into the engine room. Bang!
The stag lurched and bizarrely it turned and staggered back towards us. It was dead on its feet for sure, but Sami was right in the way. It staggered up alongside her and I watched in disbelief as she started to walk alongside it, keeping pace. She normally never moved but this big animal was right beside her. The stag made several metres and then stopped and began to sway. Sami was right beside it and she reached up and licked its back leg. Unbelievable! A curt ‘in’ and she came right back to me instantly. A second shot made sure and the stag crashed over in a welter of arms and legs down the face. A splash told me it had hit the creek. Should have been a detective with those powers of deduction...
We made our way down and there was a good, Aorangi 10 point stag, dead. Hunting is always the unexpected! Unfortunately, the stag was in extremely poor condition – you could have played a tune on its ribs. I could see no injuries and its internal organs were fine. Just a hard winter after a big mating season maybe? Sausages it was destined to be. This time the head joined the meat and I don’t need to tell any of you how good the transport looked when we reached it at last with the final load.
So there you have two hunts with Sami at around eighteen months old. Still just a baby. There have been better and worse performances since then for both of us. She has calmed down a lot since those hunts and at the time of writing, at just over two years old, she is a different dog.
It is often about trusting your dog, backing your training regime and knowing that maturity will come and help with time. The next article will be the last in this series and I will have a chat about some of the lessons I have learned. I will continue to learn too.
I say again – I am not an expert but I am someone who thinks a lot about what I do and I love hunting and dogs. See you next time.