Memories that won't fade

Some stalks stay with you for longer than others. Michael Wigan reminisces about a few that he will never forget.

Wintertime is an opportunity for reflection. When I hear roaring stags my thoughts drift to past dramas on the hill.

The sharpest memories do not necessarily coincide with the red-letter days of big numbers, big heads, or stonking body-weights. The biggest stag I have shot was, dare I admit it, lying down, on a brown Caithness bog as flat as a pan. Only when we approached the carcass did it dawn on the stalker and I that it was a monster specimen.

That stag though, has no special place in my stalking memories. The approach was a crawl-in, wait, and then bang. Nor have days stayed with me when we shot several. In fact, the bigger number days get a little blurred. One stag merges into another. I recall the stalkers well enough, and often the ground with clarity, but the actual shot and stalk? No, they often merge and lose definition.

There is one stag long ago which sticks indelibly. It was in the 60s, the time of open sights. I had a .256 Mannlicher, one of the classic rifles with open sights and a bolt action that has probably never been bettered. 

On this occasion the stalker and I had been plodding through the Sutherland flow country all day. We had shot one stag and were heading homeward along a ridge looking down over a featureless plain of deergrass turned russet by early frosts. The stalker stopped and spied. Down the slope lay a big old lone stag whose thick antlers I could make out. The stalker started to crawl. In we went, snaking through the inches-high vegetation on the top of the ridge. Then we couldn't get any further.

In our wet tweeds we lay and watched him as a chill seeped across the fading day. Feeling it too, perhaps, the stag rose and then stretched. The stalker told me to get ready. I said that he was an awfully long way off; when I put the bead on the stag it obscured the front half of the animal. I secretly thought he was way out of range. With open sights we took shots at 120 yards, but this seemed to be a lot more.

I held the bead on him then breathed out and looked sideways at the old stalker.  “He's a dead stag” he said. When I fired, the stag rolled over. The stalker's expression never changed and he said nothing but marched down the hill; a small man with a long stride, drawing out the huge knife that hung at his belt.

As I followed, it dawned on me: it was not a boy in his teens who'd taken that shot. It was the old stalker, himself a fabled rifle shot. I had acted as a sort of medium for his marksmanship, a conduit for his absolute confidence. I often think of that day - and that man.

One day on the hinds, we were again heading home and the light was no longer sharp. I had shot five in three stalks and it had been a long day with continuous walking and stalking for seven hours. On a hillside in front and above us was a party of recumbent hinds. Too late to trouble with complex manoeuvres, we merely walked slowly down a burn in their direction and then dropped from view.

We stalked in and then wriggled onto a mound some 180 yards from the hinds. I had handed the old stalker the rifle, and the deer, somehow appraised of our presence, began to move sideways, trotting with determination in a line across the long open face in the evening light. His first shot broke the neck of the lead hind. The party stopped, disorientated.  Another leader appeared, also without a calf, and he shot her. When the party turned to go the other way he dropped the new leader, stone dead. Still picking his hinds he killed six more, all falling immediately at the shot.

It was the best demonstration of practical deer shooting I am ever likely to see. This was long before bipods, silencers and range finders. He shot off his knees spread wide in front of him and aimed at their necks. Firing in a series causes the pressure on the shooter to rise progressively, and it is hard to remain cool. This exhibition showed, too, knowledge of how deer behave and how they react to shooting.  When finished, he gave a low grunt of satisfaction, that was all, and strode off for the gralloching.

The high numbers are explained by the period, when deer were over-numerous, about 20 years ago.  But there were no orphan calves and no animals which would have been better left. The various lead hinds were all senior matrons, as we found when we gralloched them.

Modern management demands that no risks are taken with wild animals and sureness of the shot is fundamental. I have to admit that in my time I have particularly enjoyed those occasions when the shot has required an extra twist of concentration.

I recall one time not long ago when the stalker suggested we try and catch a party that was moving steadily in the late afternoon, heading off the estate. The large hind herd was attended by a big stag late in the rut, and he was old and past it but still holding his females. We had scrambled up a steep boggy burn and to my chagrin watched the massed party moving off.

Then the big stag appeared bringing up the rear, blacker, with a tremendous neck. Hinds were passing before and behind him but momentarily he was alone, a few steps from disappearing over the ridge-top. I pulled off the shot and the stalker and I felt the tension of the whole effort drain away. There was a moment of peculiar harmony.

Stalking guests don't always want to be spoon-fed, irrespective of what they are instructed under Best Practice, the government guide to deer stalking in Scotland. They want a challenge, naturally. If they are up to it, why not? The stalker should know the ability of charge and judge accordingly what latitude to allow. 

This is in fact what stalkers do. Happily, the hill is a private place, or should be, and what passes out there between the stalker and the faithfully returning sportsman - who knows the ground and his rifle - remains their shared communication only.

A friend of mine who was a good Shot but inexperienced on the hill was once taken out by the old stalker mentioned above, and told to shoot a hind. It was followed by another, then another. Two were down but still kicking so the rifleman looked at the stalker and asked, what next. The stalker glanced at them, lay on his back and lit a cigarette, facing the other way. “Finish them off”, he said calmly. My astonished friend collected himself, and did so.

Since that day he has always maintained that being asked to do this, way beyond his experience at that time, was the shrewdest character judgement that old stalker could have made. The eager young fellow needed that extra challenge, and the old stalker's presence made him feel that nothing could go wrong.  The various permutations of what could possibly happen, he had seen before (interestingly, stalkers always maintain that every stalk is different). By putting the finishing-off in the hands of the newcomer the stalker had brilliantly turned the tables and made his charge grow up. 

Stalking is serious, it's not a social matter; big animals deserve respect and commitment, and the sport is more than just following a tweedy posterior through the heather and pulling the trigger when told to.

I tend to glaze over when reading most stalking or hunting stories. The sport is only really in operation when you feel a pit in your stomach. If you wound an animal - as you invariably will at some point - it steels the pledge never to repeat the error. When you see that the animal has no vestige of movement, relief surges through you like a soothing liquor. The shot has done justice to the day, the animal and  the stalker. 

When that nervous tension is not summoned any more by the stalking experience, if at some point your scalp doesn't prickle, the time has come to quit.

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