May 13, 2016

The Salt & Pepper Fallow Stag

During the lead up to the April rut for fallow I had been trekking 4-5kms of the same, hilly circuit on a favorite block of public forest or Crown Land as it's known as here in Australia.  I'd do this circuit at least once a week- sometimes after work as well since it's less than an hour from home.  Week after week I walked and walked and watched the scrapes develop and the number of rub trees increase along the deer trails.  As the croaking of the fallow stags in rut came to an end so did my tired legs.  I saw a few stags getting some action on their ladies but never got the perfect opportunity to take the shot in all that walking and stalking.  I decided that this next morning I was just going to be seated with a book and my bow- to read, relax and wait for the opportunity to come instead of work so hard as I had been doing the previous weeks.

I went in as dawn broke and sat in the same exact log seat that I shot a sambar stag from last year and many fallow does over the past months- each one bringing my culinary skills to the next level as I prepared the humanely harvested fare for the family table with friends. This log seat was a 'producer' at exactly 20m off of a dry creek giving a great view of the sloping hill on the other side where the deer approach from.  Within 100m each way of this seat are at least a dozen deer trail crossings that are used almost daily. 

From this log seat last year, a week before the huge sambar stag graced me with his presence, I passed up the shot on a very young fallow that had the most striking white spots through his coat and a salt-and-pepper tinge to the common brown base under those striking white spots.  He was young but 'old enough' for the table.  He passed me at about 12 meters and though I could have probably harvested him cleanly but I think I was just so mesmerised by his coloring that I continued to just admire him.  His antlers were only about 12 inches from the base to a forked top on one side, but what antler he did have also looked a bit off balance- one was longer than the other and palmated just a bit more.  But it was really the coat that had me vexed.  Was it the lighting?  It's so odd for a fallow to have a blend that almost looked like an Australian shepherd or blue heeler mixed in the brown.  That next week I was hoping to see him again but instead was blessed with a sambar stag the size of a horse.  For over a year I have wondered what that coat would look like if I ever saw him again.  Would it change with his maturity?  

It was a bit past 7 before I reached my seat.  It is only about 150 meters from the dirt road I park on.  It sure makes for easy packing out of meat.  I walk in on a circuitous route though which takes me about 20 minutes of slow stalking to get there.  After reaching the hollow, standing log that makes my back drop I reached up inside it carefully to grab my tripod folding chair that I keep stashed.  Sometimes I sit on the chair and sometimes I sit on the log that is laying in front of it.  Today I wanted comfort for my legs.  I always wonder if the next time I reach up into this log I'll get the fangs of a spider into the back of my hand, but it's part of what we live with here in Australia.  After setting up my seat I took off my day bag and boots, removed my Tight-Spot quiver and placed my bow across my lap.  I grabbed an arrow and before nocking it I ran a homemade strop block over the sharp edges of the 220gr Outback Supreme gleaming on the tip.  I tested the edge by filleting off a bit of skin from the tip of my thumb.

I then enjoyed the next hour or so in silence reading those obscure short books at the end of the old testament off of the bible app on my phone.  Only an occasional interruption from a mob of roos broke me from reading those old words.

About 8:30am small groups of hinds started trickling into the forest from grazing in the farm paddocks all night.  One group had a small stag with them and I watched as they came down to cross the dry creek bed.  If they chose one of the trails within 50 meters of my seat I would look for the shot.  I stood at the ready, but they ended up taking a trail that crossed about 70 meters from me.

I contemplated putting my boots on and trying a quick stalk behind them to 'work for an opportunity'.  I wrestled back and forth within myself for what seemed like an eternity until I finally said, almost out loud, 'No, I'm just going to sit back down.  I could be on the hunt after them for a kilometer or more before I would decide to just come back.  No, I'm going to sit.  If God wants me to bring home meat today He will present the perfect opportunity and it will just be right."

I repositioned myself on the tripod in front of the log.  Having just got settled down again I watched half a dozen Western Grey kangaroos bound through a deer trail as they do.  One stopped and I gave him a quick laser range at '51m'.  I already knew the distance was 50m but I like to keep checking my range estimations in the 'heat of the moment' to gain the confidence I might need to take whatever shot may present itself.

I watched the roos bound up the hill past me and then I turned back to where the action comes from on the other side of the creek.  I couldn't quite believe what I was witnessing.  It felt like time was in slow-motion as I watched a solid-racked stag following closely after a solo hind.  His nose was real interested in her and they were making their way right down into the primary lane I was sitting on!
This was my sambar lane from last year.  This couldn't be more perfect.  This is exactly what I was picturing.  This scenario is what I always picture when I'm in this seat.

Once they cross the creek they are at 20 meters, I thought to myself.  
And as they continue up either side of the forked, primary lane they remain at almost exactly 20 meters.  

I love this spot.  
I know this spot.  
This is ridiculously perfect.

Whenever deer take this primary lane it makes for easy estimation when they finally get broadside.  This lane gives plenty of opportunities for the perfect, unforced, unhurried shot.  And what's even better is that there are only two deer here right now.  Only four eyes to see my movements.  Only four ears to hear if I do happen to rustle some leaves as I get a better position.  And only two noses to smell me… but one set of nostrils is pre-occupied and buried up the hind end of his partner this morning.  This is going to be perfect.

Just be cool.
This scene started less than a minute after the roos shot through, and two minutes after deciding not to pursue the small stag amongst the earlier hinds.  I couldn't believe what was about to be presented to me for just staying faithful to the plan of 'relaxing'.  In fact this stag had a bit of salt and pepper on his coat from the front shoulder up to the head.  This is the salt and pepper stag from last year.  He's lost a bit of his color that I admired but this is him.

But they stopped short of crossing the creekbed.  
She veered off the main line just 5 meters or so up the embankment on the other side.  
What?  Why?  Wind is right -everything is right.  Just cross the creek lady and he will follow!  What are you doing?

I reached for my rangefinder and tried to get a perfect bead on him but there must have been some very small branches in the way from the two trees that were framing his broadside stance for me like a perfect picture.  Time became reality again and I raised the bow.  I don't remember drawing back. Something in me just pulled the bow back and put his body behind my sight-pins.  I stood motionless estimating the distance as seconds seemed to be ticking fast now.  I calculated a bit for the downhill angle.  She was motionless and maybe looking at me- I'm not sure.  I just knew he was standing broadside at what I was thinking was 23 meters.  Once I made the determined calculation time slowed again.  It's cool to realize the transitions the brain goes through during the times in this sequence of sighting game, determining distance to drawing back.  It is a transition of the mind from unthinking to thinking and back and forth again.  Each task in this sequence of flinging an arrow perfectly is either an out of body experience that comes naturally from practice or it's a very calculated equation of the present reality.  The brain has to be able to switch in and out of both for the whole process to work.  Pass shooting birds on the wing is just zen.  Taking the 280 meter rifle shot on a fox is calculated reality.  Using your bow to take down large game is most often a constant push between both.   It seemed like I had all the time in the world to make sure my peep and sight were lined up perfectly, that the crease of skin that blends the foreleg into the ribcage was sitting in the exact ratio between my 20 and 30 meter pins for a 23 meter shot... 

…while calculating all this I also knew at some point I had to loose the arrow because all these factors within this calculation could change at any moment.  

I let the arrow loose without thinking about it.  I'm sure I clicked the release but when I go through this procedure properly in the field, seeing the arrow fly is almost a surprise to me that wakes me back up.  My entire, relaxed body unconsciously sent the 612 grains of arrow toward the stag- and the one I had been picturing for almost year now from this exact spot.  He let out a barely audible grunt as both of them went opposite directions.  He went back up toward the road where he had just crossed.  Spooked deer will almost always return the exact way they came because they knew that trail gave them safe passage just minutes ago.  

His stride wasn't fast -just a quick walk really.  But he only took about ten steps before his front legs raised up off the ground like a horse in a movie poster.  But they didn't find the ground gently again.  He toppled a bit to his right and I knew I had placed the arrow in the right spot.  From my vantage point, about 35 meters from his prone body, I watched his white rib cage clearly rise and fall only twice against the backdrop of the dark ground of the hillside.  He expired within 30 seconds of being hit.  I knew this truly organic meat was going to be beautifully unstressed- no adrenalin pumped through it- just lovely venison, humanely harvested.

I dropped to my knees in an odd mix of emotion.  

I've never felt elated in the moment of bringing an animal's life to an end.  Death is still a very sobering experience and I pray I never lose the edge of my personality that feels the somber reality.  

Never do I want to get to the point in hunting where I fling an arrow without first thinking through all the consequences of such action and doing so while respecting the life given to the family's table.  

But in this particular moment I felt myself smiling as I dropped to my knees and buried my head in my hands over my neck.  Not smiling in the pleasure of this stag's death but smiling in the experience, the timing, the refusal to strive of my own accord and chase after the first group, the decision to rest, to sit back down and to consciously say 'If the Lord wills, then I will harvest today', and of all the stags He could present to me it is one I had been admiring and picturing in my mind for several seasons, and then to make the connection so purely, so perfectly, so humanely brings this experience to another level.  It's not the biggest stag I've ever flung an arrow at.  It's not the largest animal I've ever harvested.  This fallow isn't even that difficult of a challenge.  The part I won't forget is how I just trusted in relaxing and waiting for the perfect shot to give itself to me instead of working so hard.  

I used the 'timer cam' app on my iPhone to snap some pictures of this moment.  I hardly ever have anyone with me when I hunt.  So I thought I should at least have this timer app in case I want to get some pics at some point.  I am not really that interested in having pictures of myself with death.  It seems odd for me to smile with a 'conquered life' in my hands or at my feet.  But this was one time I wish I could share the experience with my buddy, Toby, back in the states.  He might enjoy my thoughts behind it.

The hide still had a bit of the salt and pepper black, but the spots were still so very distinct.  Either way I usually save fallow hides and get them tanned.  This one will have a special place in our home.  I went up to the rig and grabbed a tarp to drag him out without damage.  

After getting the liver straight into an old, clean pillowcase I removed all the other internals.  I left the heart attached in the cavity, however.  My friends three sons wanted to be a part of the next butchering process so I knew they would be coming over to my house later today.  I wanted to remove the heart from the cavity with witnesses because I had a pretty good feeling my arrow was well-placed.

With Regan and my friend and his boys all around I reached into the cavity without a knife and removed the heart from the side of the rib-cage.  The upper ventricle showed me what I had suspected

I brine cure the neck cuts and shoulder pieces in the fridge for about 30+ hours.  It has clove, bay leaves, coriander seeds, etc in the boiled water mix…. let it cool and then put the meat pieces in.
rinse with fresh water for an hour or two to leech the nitrates back out of the brine and then put together a dry rub for the outside before smoking it to make pastrami.  I use this article for a guide on the dry rub:  Pastrami - Katz's recipe from NYC

I most often do the backstrap roasts in a juniper berry/coriander seed dry rub, salt/pepper, then a drizzle of sautéed garlic/rosemary with a dash of cumin.  Wrap that in bacon and roast for about 20 minutes then bring it to a sizzling hot iron skillet to finish the bacon for a few minutes.

I sure wish you were here to get a taste.

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