Successful deer stalking requires a combination of skills, techniques and fieldcraft that can take years to master. If you’re planning your first ever stalking trip or your 1000th, you need to be prepared for all of the challenges you might face. Preparation is the key to a successful stalk and your equipment must be selected for the specific task ahead. There are of a multitude of innovative products available on the market today aimed at the passionate deer stalker. Many are fun and have value, but not all should be considered essential.
Here’s just a few things that you probably can’t do without on a deer stalking adventure.
This is the item of equipment that deer stalkers take most time to decide upon – and rightly so. Of course, brand and styling are personal choices, but choosing the most appropriate calibre and features can be critical for achieving the best performance in the field. Most of the leading manufacturers guarantee sub-MOA groups from their dedicated deer stalking rifles, so the main focus should be matching features with purpose. Whilst beautiful engraving and exhibition-grade walnut stock look beautiful, some active stalkers now opt for a weatherproof option with a synthetic stock.
The ‘best calibre’ debate continues to rage as more new calibres come to market. The .243 and .308 Winchester are by far the most popular deer stalking calibres in the UK. Both offer a wide variety of ammunition choices and are perfectly capable of taking deer at typical stalking distances, but there are many other exciting options out there to choose from. It’s worth considering that the more exotic the calibre, the more difficult to source and potentially expensive the ammunition could be.
With a multitude of options open to deer stalkers including factory loaded rounds and customised loads designed specifically for your barrel, the choices relating to ammunition really are limitless. That said, you should spend time testing rounds from different manufacturers with a variety of bullet shapes, weights and powders to find what suits your barrel. Once selected, you should take sufficient ammunition for each outing, depending on how many animals you intend to harvest. A competent stalker should never run out or ammunition in the field.
There are three categories of optics that should form part of every hunter’s deer stalking equipment: Riflescope / Spotting Scopes, Binoculars and Rangefinder. Depending on the hunting area, you might also choose to add in a spotting scope. This can be useful when undertaking reconnaissance on your hunting ground and for spotting game over longer ranges such as in the Highlands of Scotland or Hungary. However, for typical deer staking distances of 100m to 300m a spotting scope is not usually required.
Rifle scopes and sighting systems
Choosing a suitable riflescope or sighting system for your chosen hunting activities and shooting style is a highly personal decision that requires careful consideration. If you’re stalking in dark woodlands a compact scope with low magnification is advantageous as it allows for fast target acquisition and optimum manoeuvrability. Out on the hill you might opt for slightly higher magnification with target turrets that will allow you to dial-in your range over longer distances. Either way, choose only the features that are relevant to your hunting environment and invest in the best quality you can afford.
It is likely you will spend more time looking through your binoculars than through your scope, so choose a set that are comfortable to use and don’t place unnecessary strain on your eyes. For woodland stalking, an 8×42 can provide the perfect balance between weight and light gathering. If you spend most of your time in a high seat waiting for last light, you may opt for an 10×56 that offers improved light gathering capability, but at the cost of an increase in weight.
At distances up to around 100 yards, most experienced stalkers are able to judge range reasonably accurately. The relatively flat shooting characteristics of most deer stalking calibres means that misjudging ranges up to around 200 yards will still result in a shot connecting with the vitals. For shots beyond 200 yards, judging range becomes increasingly more challenging and even more critical when staking smaller deer species such as muntjac and roe.
Using a rangefinder not only takes the guesswork out of identifying distances, but many can also be programmed with the ballistics data from your rifle, allowing you to make elevation adjustments before taking the perfect shot. Rangefinders can also be used to plot your route into your quarry when staking on foot. Knowing the distances between pathes of cover can help you to plan the perfect approach.
Shooting sticks & bipods
Your choice of rifle supports will depend on the environment in which you are stalking. In woodlands there are many natural rests to shoot from in the form of trees. Using a bipod can be difficult here due to the height of the undergrowth, but you may still choose to use a set of shooting sticks. These offer an elevated shooting position above the vegetation, but without being limited to leaning on trees. They also offer a solid platform on which to rest your binoculars for long glassing sessions.
Once out on the hill, you may opt for a bipod to take prone shots, or perhaps a combination of bipod and shooting sticks. This is particularly useful when hunting over rolling terrain, where a decline shot may be necessary. Kneeling off sticks is an incredibly effective way of taking a supported decline shot. Each of these support options requires practice, not only shooting from them, but also deploying them quickly, silently and effectively. Fumbling around in a panic trying to mount your rifle onto a set of poorly positioned sticks is a recipe for disaster.
Stalking often requires long days out in the field in all manner of weather conditions. When deciding on your outfit, you need to know environment in which you’ll be stalking and the weather forecast. Most leading brands of hunting clothing now produce highly sophisticated garments designed to be lightweight, breathable and able to withstand adverse weather.
Choosing an advanced layering system will allow you to customise your outfit throughout the hunt in line with conditions. Technical base layers wick moisture away from the skin, helping you to regulate temperature and stay dry. These can be supported with insulating layers of fleece or down (depending on the temperature) with a breathable waterproof outer layer that can be removed and placed in your backpack up in warm/dry conditions.
Long gone are the days when stalking boots were hard leather with rigid soles that take weeks to break in. Nowadays boots designed for deer stalking employ advanced performance materials and construction to provide the perfect balance of support and protection. But there are many types to choose from, depending on where you intend to stalk. Lightweight, water-proof boots are essential for summer woodland stalking. Choose a pair with soles that allow you to feel the ground as you walk, trying to avoid the crack of breaking twigs and branches. For winter high-seat stalking, a warm insulated boot will keep your feet toasty, allowing you to spend more time comfortably in the seat.
Once you have successfully harvested your game, the real work begins. A high-quality razor-sharp knife will help make the next stage of your hunt go a lot more smoothly. Avoid the dramatic looking ‘Rambo’ style Bowie knives and opt for a hardened steel drop-point skinner of the appropriate length for your quarry species for field dressing. For larger animals such as woodland red deer, you may also want to take a bone saw to open the brisket, depending on your preferred method of gralloch. A folding scalpel is also useful if you prefer to cape out your trophy in the field. This makes the work of turning lips and detail around the ears much easier and more precise.
The ‘roe sack’ is the traditional pack of a European deer stalker and has been carrying harvested animals out of forests for years. These are still very popular with traditionalists. But there are now many new innovative luggage systems specifically designed for hunters. There are numerous lightweight packs with quick-deploy rifle carrying systems and sophisticated strapping systems to pack out meat and trophies.
Whatever your choice of pack features, the critical consideration must be comfort – both for carrying around your equipment and clothing during the stalk, but more importantly when carrying your fallen game. Invest time in training with your pack, adding progressively heavier loads until you are ready for the weight you expect to carry. Use unstable loads such as sand bags to simulate the shifting of dead weight and work out how to comfortably secure the loads for a long pack out.
In case of emergency
Accidents can happen and you need to be ready for every possible eventuality. Always think safety when it comes to stalking and hunting. A first aid kit should be included in your pack in an easily accessible section so that you can reach for the necessary items if needed. Don’t forget your mobile phone to contact the emergency services if needed. This can be a distracting item, as you wouldn’t want it to go off as your about to squeeze the trigger on a deer you’ve been stalking all day. Simply put it on silent mode before you get out of your vehicle.
Enhance your chances of success in stalking adventure by keeping your equipment simple and effective. Avoid taking any unnecessary gear in the off-chance you might use it. Try different combinations of equipment and find out what works best for you, your chosen quarry species and the environment in which you choose to hunt.
Whether you’re successful in harvesting an animal or not, be sure to enjoy the experience.
Read more technical hunting tips and advice from Hawke here
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