Could anyone do it?

Shooting your mate

By the time April comes around the red deer stag has undergone a critical transformation. The normally quiet and alert animal becomes uncharacteristically noisy and therefore more vulnerable to predation by man. This is a deadly time for stags but it also can be a deadly time for his only predator. During the roar the hunter can become the hunted.

Recently, in order to avoid other hunters, my mates and I selected an isolated area in Fiordland. The pilot that flew us in agreed that he would not drop any other parties in our area until he had flown us out. That simple practice of keeping parties separate has been a long standing custom. an unwritten law that meant hunting parties were kept apart. In our case another helicopter, temporarily based in Long Sound dropped hunters so close they roared us out of bed. This helicopter wasn't breaking any law by not communicating with other local helicopter operators. Such stories are commonplace.

The following year, we chose what we thought would be the safest part of the Urewera National Park. The higher altitude areas where most hunters do not bother to go. We knew that deer numbers were at best moderate and that trophy quality was generally poor. Most importantly we thought this area would be a hunter free zone. The weather on the first day of that trip was perfect and we marveled at a 360 degree vista including Lakes Waikaremoana and Lake Waikarieti.

There was no obvious sign of anyone else. No recent boot marks along the ridge or fresh toilet paper. The weather had been a stinker up until our arrival and we hoped this had kept other people away. All indications were that we had the area to ourselves.

The party split and my mate James and I set out along a leading ridge intending to find a large slip. Palatable vegetation is sparse on these slips but from experience we knew that deer were attracted to them. After a couple of hours we had found our slip. I recall that having just walked through the dark cool damp forest it was a pleasure to sit in the morning sun under a blue sky. There were no stags roaring and the loudest noise was a chopper that for a moment we thought was going to start shooting our slip. We sidled across the slip and re-entered the beech forest. It took a few minutes to become accustomed again to the dark shadowy environment. Almost immediately James hissed and pointed in front of me. A deer stood, visible to James, but hidden from me. At last I spotted a hind walking away. It looked back, but through the scope all I saw was a flicker of movement as it disappeared. We waited in vain for another opportunity. Almost immediately came the sound of a full-throated roar, presumably from the edge of the slip.

James crept off towards the stag and I roared back. In the tranquility of the forest a shot is a violent disturbance and during these situations it is difficult to fully relax. I braced myself for the sound of a shot but by now the stag was moving away. I figured that James must be onto the animal. A faint breeze was wafting up the hillside even though the forest was still relatively cool and shady. The sun had started heating the heavens generating predictable uphill air currents.

My estimate is that 15 minutes would have ticked by before I heard another roar. I was starting to wonder what was going on while continuously anticipating a shot. Five minutes can feel like forever. As time continued to slip by; I became cold, and made the decision to slowly move on. The breeze by now was steady and I knew James would try to stay upwind of the stag. It should be safe for me to sidle around the slope. If James frightened the stag it might even cross my contour. I pottered along with no objective other than to keep warm and to keep within hearing distance of the stag.

A further quarter of an hour had elapsed when a stag broke the silence. I couldn't be absolutely sure as to whether it was James or the stag but it was probably the stag. For the first time I began to feel slightly uneasy. Should I respond. Instinctively I lifted the tube from under my bush-shirt. The silence continued. Then I thought I heard a twig crack. To my annoyance a flock of white heads were chattering in the low forest canopy. They made enough noise to interfere with the sounds I was attempting to locate. Once more, from below came what sounded like a cracking twig. My concerns about James's whereabouts were top of the mind so I stepped behind a tree. As I peered down the hill into the vegetation I was sure there was a movement. After a few seconds I wondered that maybe I had imagined the sounds and movement. Scanning back and forth with my scope I tried again to locate the source of the movement. What vaguely resembled the shape of a deer moved into the dappled light and drifted out of view. When I looked through the scope again the eyepiece lens had fogged up. Now I believed that I could make out a stag that was looking intently in the general direction where James should have been. Carefully I slipped some tissue out of my pocket and wiped the lens for a clearer view. Steadying the rifle against a tree, I lined up on its chest and breathed out. As the crosshairs settled I pulled the trigger. My awkward position against the tree trunk meant that on discharge the rifle moved and the deer disappeared. Next I heard a whistle and James's blaze orange hat appeared to my left.

Later we learnt that a hunter was shot near Lake Waikaremonana. There were two more fatal deer hunting accidents to follow. Of relevance is the fact that many deer hunting accidents occur in similar circumstances to the ones I described in this story. That is, when a roaring stag is being stalked by hunting companions. Last year this magazine was a forum for ideas and suggestions around this issue of hunting accidents. The review by Inspector Joe Greene (To Hunt and Return -developing safe hunting practice 2003) revealed that these accidents are not restricted to younger hunters and in fact it is experienced hunters who often shoot their mates. It is logical to believe that the greater the experience of a hunter, then the less likely they would be to mistake a man for a deer. The article provided a compelling rationale as to why experienced hunters shoot their mates. The potential for an accident niggles all hunters and most of us have been careless at some time or another. And what has happened once more during the roar of 2005? We have two deer hunting accidents where experienced hunters shot their mates. Various suggestions have been made to help avoid deer hunting accidents. The general statement that A hunter must positively identify his target has, for as long as I can remember, been central to any discussions or guidelines around this topic. However I believe that in practical terms this rule is of little value. It does not provide specific steps that a hunter can follow.

Buck Fever is a very real phenomenon and anyone who becomes overexcited will not necessarily behave rationally. A hunter when anticipating the appearance of a deer has a loaded gun and loaded expectations. He will undergo some physiological responses to the tension of the hunt such as an increase in the release of adrenaline. As a result, his behaviour will be less calm and calculating and his observations may become selective and even distorted. One strategy we can adopt to minimise becoming a victim is the use of dazzle/blaze orange clothing (as opposed to bright orange). Then our mates can see us more readily while we remain inconspicuous to deer. There are certain wavelengths in the spectrum of light that can easily be seen by man but cannot be seen by deer. This hypothesis has been backed up by practical experiments.

It is interesting how times have changed. I grew up using books like Bush Lore by Tony Nolan as my hunting bible. The following is a quote from that book. Colour of clothing is not important-so far as is known deer are colour blind-but tones should be in keeping with the sombre hues of the bush When considering this wisdom from the past it is not surprising that many older hunters resist wearing of dazzle/blaze orange colours. I wear dazzle/blaze orange clothing believing that it makes me more obvious to other hunters. One simple, but practical guideline provides some specifics for the hunter when he encounters a deer. The hunter, before he pulls the trigger, should have seen the head, neck and shoulders of the deer.

In the Oct-Nov 2003 addition of 'NZ Outdoor' Murray Dench wrote an excellent article titled 'How to Avoid Shooting Your Mate'. If you read this article you would know that the hunter in my story acted questionably on at least two occasions. Finally, when considering the disturbing circumstance of the recent fatal shootings, I draw your attention to the title of this article.

© Copyright All rights reserved. Steuart Laing 2005

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