Grassing a salmon and bagging a brace require considerable fieldcraft but that third component of a Macnab, the stag, requires, in addition, physical fitness for the hill and rifle skills to satisfy a professional stalker, says Graham Downing
There is nothing straightforward about bagging a Macnab – it requires fieldcraft, stamina and a dash of luck. But is the Macnab stalking the toughest component of them all, asks Graham Downing.
The 2020 Macnab Challenge is in partnership with Merkel from Viking. For more information and to enter, see The Field’s Macnab Challenge.
Next to catching a salmon, shooting a stag on the hill is, for most Macnabbers, the toughest part of the challenge. Despite the increased interest in stalking in recent years, many otherwise competent and experienced sportsmen and women still have little or no experience in handling a stalking rifle, so the chance opportunity to complete the triple in a single day can involve a steep learning curve.
Your stalker will do his utmost to get you into a good shooting position within comfortable range of a beast, but while he is doing that he will also be looking for the right animal to shoot. Stag selection is that element in the stalking equation that is calculated to maintain and improve the long-term quality of the herd by removing the poorer beasts, thereby ensuring that the better, fitter ones go into the rut. Poor heads, switches – stags with long beams that have no tines on them – and old stags that are ‘going back’ will be the ones that the stalker wishes to take out of the herd first. That is especially the case early in the season when he wants to get his cull animals dealt with before the first frosts are on the hill and the rut gets underway.
“If I were looking at a group of stags through the spotting scope, I would also be looking for narrow heads and poor body condition,” adds Owen Beardsmore. A professional stalking guide for 15 years, Beardsmore is Merkel’s UK ambassador. “It’s also the demeanour of a stag that’s important and how he reacts within the group. A strong youngster will have a presence about him and I will want to leave him for the future. Poor youngsters we would shoot.”
However experienced you may be with a rifle, you must always expect to be asked to take a shot at the target before going out on the hill. This slightly scary task ticks a number of important boxes. Firstly, if you have brought your own rifle with you, it is a chance to check zero. Even if it was perfectly sighted-in when you left home, a knock or bump during the journey can easily affect the scope. If you have travelled by air, remember that baggage handlers seem to reserve their worst attentions for anything that resembles a gun case.
More significantly, it is a chance for the stalker to check you out. From the moment you take your rifle out of its slip or pick up the estate rifle, he will be looking to see that you are comfortable and familiar with handling it. If not, he will want to know how much coaching is needed for you to achieve that all-important shot. How do you position yourself at the firing point? How long do you take to settle into the shot? And how do you operate the safety and trigger? All can have a crucial bearing on the success of your outing, always remembering that making a hash of your shot and wounding a stag is more serious than losing a fish or winging a grouse.
“I always ask the guest to take the standard DSC1 test of three rounds in a 10cm circle at 100 metres. Then, if we’re actively going to stalk in woodland or around the woodland edge, I will ask them to shoot the same test at 50 metres off quad sticks. I’m an ex-rugby coach, so I’m used to giving advice but the guest needs to be prepared to accept it. In particular, on the day, I want to see how they pull the trigger. Shotgun shooters often tend to snatch at it rather than squeeze it,” says Beardsmore.
He has been stalking for five years with the Merkel Helix and has watched with approval the evolution of the Speedster stock with an adjustable comb. This makes it simple to fit the estate rifle to a visiting client.
THE IMPORTANCE OF CALIBRE
Calibre is important. The woodland stalker who is familiar with using his .243 and a 100gr bullet on roe will probably find that he wants something beefier. Both .308 and 30-06 are go-to calibres for the hill, where beasts are bigger and stronger, distances are greater and a heavier bullet of 150gr or thereabouts will be less affected by the wind. Remember that with a short-barrelled rifle your bullet may start dropping considerably after 200 metres, so get lots of practice in over longer distances on the range at home or do precisely what the stalker tells you if using the estate rifle.
A straight-pull rifle such as the Helix requires a little bit of adjustment if you are used to a conventional bolt action, but once you have familiarised yourself with it, reloading from the magazine is fast work should there be the need to take a second shot. The straight-pull action is also a little shorter, and that makes the rifle more compact and pointable. Beardsmore has hunted in Austria with Merkel’s K5 single shot break-action rifle. A traditional alpine style of rifle, it is exceptionally light to carry so worth consideration for the hill.
“It’s a beautiful rifle, a real precision tool, and although I would not be using it in the winter to knock over a group of hinds, you can reload very quickly after taking a single shot at a stag.”
The degree of fitness required for a full day at the stags is possibly not so important for the Macnabber who has already grassed his salmon and shot his brace, and for whom the sun is already on a downward trajectory by the time he pitches up at the stalker’s cottage. You’re not likely to need to make that lung-bursting ascent to the high tops, and perhaps the stalker knows of a promising spot that is accessible with relative ease. When my guest at Kyllachy, Captain Charles Lyne-Pirkis, scored his triple, the salmon was taken before breakfast and, with a full day’s walked-up grouse shooting in prospect, it was late in the afternoon before a quick phone call was made to Sandy Dey at Coignafearn in the hope that he might have a stag available.
“He was slightly surprised to get the call on 12 August,” says Lyne-Pirkis. “He was busy out on the hill after grouse all day and he told me that he would not be available until quite late. So it was more of an ambush to intercept the stags as they came down off the high ground, but he knew of two particular gullies that they would be likely to use. It was a difficult shot off a 45-degree slope, but I got the stag he wanted about 20 minutes after sunset and it was dark by the time I left the larder.”
Last light chances have a significant bearing on the choice of riflescope. Really good low light performance is essential when shooting late in the day or in poor visibility, and I would always opt for a simple style of reticle with a clear aiming dot or cross. An illuminated reticle is an advantage and can make all the difference when trying to pick out the point of aim on your beast against a dark hill in fading light.