Thrilling, exciting, masterful – these are just a few of the words one could use to describe stalking. Calling for fieldcraft, patience, and restraint, it’s one of the most rewarding types of hunts. Today, we are discussing it with three incredibly experienced stalkers – Matthew (Matt) Roberts and Mark Stobbs from the UK and Riccardo Tamburini from Italy.
Matt: I enjoy all methods of hunting and fishing, but stalking is, without a doubt, my favorite. The variety of species, terrain and conditions you can stalk in the UK alone is vast. Fieldcraft, physicality and accurate shooting all come into play, and when you get it right, you are rewarded with a good quantity of healthy, wild venison. Stalking flicks a switch in me that filters out the daily noise and drama. It’s addictive. I love it.
Mark: I do many types of hunting here in the UK – from driven game and wildfowling to vermin control and deer management – but I must say my passion lies in deer stalking.
Riccardo: I think that if you want to be a thorough hunter, you need to know all hunting styles – from long-range shooting to stalking. But I’d say stalking is one of my favorite types.
Riccardo: To get very close to the animals, of course. You need to know not only the animal habits but also the environment; then, you also have to be a good wind reader.
Mark: One of the biggest challenges, in my eyes, has to be trying to keep on top of the numbers, as the population in my hunting area is so large. Also, the time and effort needed to produce quality animals constantly and this is due to good deer management and being selective.
One of the greatest things about stalking has got to be a sustainable source of fresh, natural wild meat – knowing where the meat has come from and using every part of the animal.
Matt: In the UK, the biggest challenge most people face when trying to get into stalking is finding land of their own to shoot on. From the industry perspective, the biggest challenge is educating the public, media and occasionally the authorities that deer management is a necessary and humane method of control that’s in the best interest of the environment and deer themselves. In my experience, the best thing about stalking, other than the venison, is the people that do it. I’ve found people I’d count among my closest friends through stalking, and while it’s often thought of as a solitary sport, having like-minded people to enjoy it with can make it even the most grueling, painful and exhausting extraction enjoyable.
Mark: Above all, fieldcraft. You have to know your hunting ground and surrounding area, also knowing your quarry, as every species of deer behave differently.
Riccardo: Patience, of course. All my failures getting close to the animals happened in a hurry while covering the last meters to place a good shot or find a clear line of fire.
Matt: Patience and fieldcraft will get you where you need to be, but restraint will take you from being a deer shooter to a deer stalker. Deer management is about selection and time – it’s not all about pulling the trigger. Your best shot is sometimes the one you choose not to take.
Matt: I’m the wrong person to ask because, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t practice, you learn the hard way… at least I do. Time in the field, in all weathers, and learning from decisions that didn’t go to plan. It’s as simple as that. At the end of the day, deer are wild animals, so even when you think you do know it all, they can always find a way of reminding you that they live there and you’re just a tourist.
Mark: It all comes down to experience. I have learnt through trial and error over many years what to do and what not to do in relation to the type of quarry. Although every stalk is different and you never stop learning.
Riccardo: You have to spend a lot of time in the wild. Being a good stalker is something that you can’t study from the books; the more time you spend in the wild, the bigger will be your knowledge and your skills. You can study the biology of the animals, of course, but this is only a part of the game.
Matt: Charge the thermal. Message the landowner if I have to. Clean the knife, rifle crown and carcass tray. Make sure the mod & sling studs are tight, check the wind and crack on.
Mark: First off would be clothing, not only weather and environment dependent but also for my safety, making sure all is coated well with tick repellent. Next on the list would be an equipment check. Thermal, binos, sticks, etc. Quick rifle check to make sure everything is true and accurate. And then, last but not least – the hound.
Riccardo: Directly, using the right wear and the right tackle; indirectly, studying the environment, knowing the habits of my prey, and being able to read all the signs and tracks they leave on the ground.
Matt: A rifle you know, married with optics you can trust and zeroed with the ammunition you’re confident with. I also take a thermal spotter on every stalk as not only does it make locating deer easier from a census and management perspective, but it’s also invaluable in spotting pedestrians where they shouldn’t be or locating animals that have run on after the shot. All my risk assessments include the use of thermal spotters for this reason. They’re an invaluable tool.
Riccardo: Camo is very important, too. I think that you need different gear for every season because colors in the spring are completely different from winter colors. You also have to cover your hands and your face: they are like a light bulb in the dark.
Matt: For the last 6 years, I’ve used the same Helion XQ38F. It’s been bombproof and has never let me down. More recently, I’ve been using the Merger LRF XP50, which is a significant jump in terms of image clarity, and the LRF feature has proved very accurate and useful. I use a Digex C50 for my pest control on my .17HMR & .223 and for wild boar on my 6.5CM and 30-06. The 5 caliber profiles on the unit combined with the Blaser saddle mount system means I can interchange the scope between barrels without loss of accuracy, making it very quick and versatile. I also use the scope for some novice client stalks as not only can I guide them in what they’re doing through the Stream Vision 2 app, but I can also record what could be a special moment for them.
Mark: The two devices I currently use are the Pulsar Helion XP50 and Axion 2 XQ35 Pro. Both devices are really durable, easy to use, and slip perfectly in your pocket while out stalking. They are great for locating quarries, following up after a shot, and, importantly, helping spot any dangers, such as dog walkers or people walking off the footpaths.
Riccardo: Generally speaking, I always prefer to have a high-end device because stalking could also start by detecting animals from far and approaching them silently. So, I used the Merger LRF XP50, but now I have the new Merger LRF XL50 in my hands, and it is amazing. The Axion family would be great, too, because of its compact size.
Mark: In short, it goes like this: equipment, rifle, motor, location of the quarry, shot, extraction gralloch, tag, and larder.
Riccardo: To me, stalking starts after detecting animals from far; it’s easier because you already know the position of the animal, and you only have to stay covered and downwind, trying to get close to it. Other times, you start stalking blindly, starting to walk silently and slowly in the woods, stopping frequently and watching through your thermal device. The secret is seeing the animals before they see you. And it’s not easy. Another stalking way is to use calls: it’s easier because you can stalk in the woods, stopping frequently and using a call; but in this case, it’s the animal that comes to you and not vice versa.
Matt: The process of stalking should be focused on locating, selecting and humanely culling deer. Walk a little, look a lot – no point charging from one ‘likely spot’ to another as you’ll likely bump into the deer en route. Observation is key as well – seeing a whole silhouette of an animal is rare unless they’re out in the open. You’re more likely to catch the flick of an ear, the flat horizontal of a saddle or the round of a haunch, so tune into and process everything. Look for other signs of activity too. Browse lines, fraying, slots, scatt, wallows, disturbed water, and bedding areas – it will all help build a picture of what might be around the next corner. Wind direction should dictate strategy wherever possible, and the safety of both the shot and extraction should be your primary consideration.
Before you can do this, though, some sort of plan is always helpful – what are you hoping to achieve? Is there a management plan, and if so, what is it? Do you have to account for numbers (if so, how many, what species, sex, age etc.), or are you out for a recreational wander to fill the freezer? Assuming it’s not a welfare cull, there is no point in shooting a deer if you cannot process it or get it to an outlet of some kind, so planning carcass requirements in advance is important, as are extraction logistics, manual handling, and food hygiene considerations. If a commercial operation, a risk assessment may need to be in place as well as insurance for public liability, livestock, property and members of the public and landowning neighbors. Assuming all this is squared away, how do you intend to cull the deer – high seat, foot stalking or both? And how will the seasons, wind, and weather dictate how practical these routes or positions are? Lots of questions need to be answered before you even chamber a round.
Matt: The internet doesn’t give you experience and only helps you so much – the best way to learn is to get out there, in ALL weathers and times of day, and see for yourself. You don’t need a gun for most of it, as practicing skills like silent walking and getting over gates and fences quietly are so helpful and crucial for when you can get out on a real stalk. Range estimation is also a free skill to learn. Get comfortable estimating 50 / 100 / 150 / 200 / 250 m ranges just by picking a feature on your route as you go. The shot is the easy bit; it’s your fieldcraft and awareness of your surroundings that will get you where you need to be to take it. We’re lucky in this country to have footpaths all over the place, so there’s no excuse not to.
In terms of processing (field gralloch/butchery), I’d say take your time – the internet is full of people who think that to be good at something, you have to be fast at it. Decisiveness is fine, haste is not.
Mark: A good tip would be to obtain a deer stalking qualification in order to gain experience and knowledge. Secondly would be to go out with a trained hunter who has lots of experience to learn key information.
Riccardo: It’s very difficult. Success in stalking is a mix of a lot of things: knowledge, patience, and experience. Being also a wildlife photographer, I can say that the time I spend with a camera in my hands outdoors is the best training possible to have success in stalking; I think that you also have to be a very good nature observer, first of all. You need to read signs and tracks, and you have to preview where the animals could be at that precise moment. You always have to consider the wind direction to stay downwind, but it’s not easy because when the wind changes its direction, the animals read it before the human being, always.
Riccardo: I was quite lucky in my life because I had the chance to hunt in different conditions: buffalo in Zimbabwe, stags in Hungary during the rut, wild boars and roe deers in Italy, ibex in Turkey, chamois in Slovenia and Italy, and so on. Sometimes, I followed local trackers, incredibly skilled: without them, it would have been impossible to get a good result. All these adventures gave me good knowledge for when I hunt alone, so I think that the most exciting stalking is roe buck in my hunting area. I think it’s one of the most difficult due to the roe’s habits: a roe deer is the sole ungulate that needs to feed 10-12 times per day, so he’s always moving in the woods, from sunrise to sunset. It’s difficult also because it’s a common species: at first sight, it could seem an advantage, but if you are following a precise animal, you could not notice the presence of other roe deers; it will be a big problem because roe deer bark a lot when scared, alarming all animals in the wood.
Mark: There are two ideal scenarios in my eyes. One would be a still summer’s day in late July or early August, the roe rut in full swing with the bucks coming to the call. The second would be a damp morning in March with little vegetation for them to hide in and no crunchy leaves under your foot to give you away.
Matt: 100% fallow pricket, mid to late September. The temperature is starting to cool, and the leaves are beginning to turn, making the colors of the forests and hedges varied and beautiful. Fallow prickett is known to be a bit gormless, but with lots of canopy and ground cover about and lots of eyes on you from other members of the herd, they can hide in the dappled shadows, making them a challenging stalk. Their coats are lovely and tight, and they’re fat from easy summer living, making them excellent eating. The evenings still draw out nicely, giving you a gradual fade, and the ground is often still hard enough for easy vehicle extraction – it doesn’t get much better than that for me.
Mark: I have a few up-and-coming hunts planned back up in the hills in Scotland after some beautiful red stags in the rut and also another trip back down to Dorset after mature sika stags, but also some very exciting European trips planned with good friends for chamois, mouflon, and ptarmigan.
Matt: I have a lot of culling and processing to do this year, which can be straining, so having recreational hunts with friends to look forward to is important to remind me of why I do what I do. I find the random, last-minute ad-hoc hunts are often the most exciting and rewarding as there is no big build up, so less pressure or stressing about the weather or deer movements.
I’ve got a nice red stag to look forward to at some point this year, but it won’t go in the diary… At some point, the bat phone will ring, and I’ll just drop everything and jump in the car!
Riccardo: Actually, my new challenge is bow hunting. Bow hunting is the essence of stalking: you need to get very close to your target to place a good shot, and everything has to be done in the best way possible. So I’m really looking forward to stalking with a bow.
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