High magnification scopes, laser rangefinders, super-flat trajectory ammunition, bullet-drop compensating turrets ? the amount of technology and paraphernalia devoted to the art of long-range shooting underlines the fixation that some deerstalkers have with taking shots at targets that stretch their shooting ability to its limits. And with websites and Internet forums filled with discussion about how to shoot successfully out to eye-watering ranges, it is easy to forget that it can be equally challenging to take a successful shot at an animal that is so near that you can almost reach out and touch it.
In the past few months I have had some unusual experiences with deer that were extremely close at hand. On one occasion, towards the end of March, I was sitting in a high seat early in the morning on the edge of a woodland ride that is criss-crossed by deer paths, and which regularly produces shooting opportunities for me. As the first grey streaks of daylight filtered through the bare branches to ground level, a muntjac doe walked out of the wood behind me no more than 15 yards away. Watching it out of the corner of my eye I could see that instead of stepping out into the open and crossing the ride, it was walking slowly along the edge of the treeline towards where I was sitting. To have turned towards it would have alerted it, so I sat perfectly still.
Steadily it crept towards me, hesitating for a moment only feet away, then moving onwards until it was directly under my high seat, exactly beneath where I was sitting. It had actually stepped between the legs of the seat and the tree against which it was leaning. Knowing that it could not possibly see me, I used this brief moment to move my rifle and, guessing that it would emerge from below me to proceed on its course, I positioned it so as to take a shot when it had got out to about 20 yards. Having successfully executed this manoeuvre in total silence, I was confident of putting it in the bag until, a moment later, there came a kerfuffle from below me. The starting of an alarmed muntjac was quickly followed by a retreating shape which darted back into the wood in exactly the place whence it had come.
It had not seen me, it had not heard me, and my scent was well above its head, so why had it run? I thought about it for a moment and then realised that it must have got the hand scent from my stalking sticks which I had left leaning against the tree when I had ascended the high seat.
Some stalkers recommend that you bring your sticks aloft into a high seat with you. I have never done so, but most certainly that would have prevented this particular doe from being alerted to my presence. The blank was saved 20 minutes later, however, when a fallow pricket walked out into the ride at the much more respectable range of 60 yards.
Another series of close encounters occurred in mid-April. I had left a free-standing portable seat out in the middle of a crossroads between two rides in a wood where I had organised a cull a month earlier. Nobody had enjoyed any success from that particular seat during the cull, but I knew there were muntjac in the wood, so it seemed a good plan to wait until the dust had settled and then spend another morning in the seat.
Three of a kind
I?m glad I did so. Approaching the crossroads in the earliest glimmer of day I caught a movement in my binoculars. It was still dark at ground level and it took a while to identify the shadowy shape, but my binoculars confirmed that it was a muntjac doe walking towards me. I set up the rifle on the sticks, eventually picked it up in the scope and waited for it to present a suitable target. Luckily, at 25 yards it did so, turning broadside past a clump of daffodils against which it was neatly silhouetted. I heard the thump of the .243 bullet striking it, waited for a moment and then walked forward to check the ground. There was nothing to be seen beside the daffodil clump, but I knew it could not be far away and, not wishing to cause any further disturbance, I retreated to the high seat which was now 30 yards to my right, climbed the ladder and waited.
About half an hour later I spotted a muntjac buck. I had not seen it come out of cover, but there it was, standing on the ride only 15 yards away, looking straight at me, eyeball to eyeball. For what seemed like an eternity ? but was in reality about five minutes ? I didn?t so much as move a muscle; indeed I hardly dared breathe in case a plume of vapour emerge through my camo headnet into the chill morning air, betraying the fact that I was a living being and not merely a lump of leaf-coloured debris perched up a ladder. The buck repeatedly tested the air with its nose, advanced a pace, hesitated, tested again and then retreated. This game went on until, quite suddenly, the buck seemed to have decided that I represented no threat after all, whereupon it ambled towards me, turned at the foot of the high seat and walked directly away.
Now at last, with the buck?s gaze focused ahead of it, I had the chance to raise the rifle ever so slowly on the shooting rail in front of me and to lower my head until I could see the back and hindquarters of the retreating muntjac, waiting for the moment when it would turn its neck and head to one side. In the split second that it did so, I positioned the red dot two-thirds of the way along its neck and squeezed the trigger. It dropped where it stood.
A further 15 minutes passed, whereupon another doe stepped out of the wood beside me. This time it was facing away from me with its head up, looking across the ride, and I was able quietly to move the rifle round and look straight down at the back of its head only 20 yards away, place the reticle on the top of its neck and take a simple shot.
My dog, Pintail, found the first doe quickly for me. It had run into the wood, leaving only a few specks of blood for me to follow but plenty of lovely scent for a Labrador?s nose to savour, and by the time I got up to where she had stopped, about 40 yards back into cover, she was gleefully licking at and dancing around the dead animal. What she really appreciated, however, were the tasty titbits of no fewer than three muntjac hearts shot from animals at a total combined range of about 65 yards.
All three muntjac that morning were an object lesson in close-range shooting: wear a headnet and gloves, trust your camouflage and don?t move a hair while the animal is looking in your direction. A high seat may put you out of scent of a deer, but it does not make you invisible and the slightest unguarded movement will give you away. Move your rifle only when the deer is either facing away or when its line of sight is interrupted ? perhaps as it passes behind a tree. Remember these simple rules and successful close-up shooting is both easy and hugely satisfying.