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Hunting Mountain Stags in Spain

Backcountry bowhunting for red deer in the rut — an alternative to elk hunting, but in Europe.

Hunting Mountain Stags in Spain

There is no more beautiful place to bowhunt red stags than Spain’s Cantabrian Mountain Range. (Photos by Pedro Ampuero and Fernando Hernandez, Slotsmedia)

It is still pretty dark. I’m not sure if the clarity of the day is slowly coming up or my eyes got used to walking in the darkness. I try to control my heavy breathing so I can hear what’s happening around me. It is mid-September, and the first rain from the fall has not yet arrived. It’s probably a week too early for the peak of the rut, but it’s better to be too early than too late. I’m hoping to hear something before the light comes up, so I can move fast and position myself while I am still hard to spot. Far out in the distance, I think I hear a roar, but it’s so far away I am not sure if I’m making it up or if it’s real.

I often get tempted by friends to join them chasing elk in the states. As much as I would love to, our red stag rut in Spain is at the same time of year, so I’m not sure it’s a sacrifice I want to make often. There are many things about elk hunting that resemble what we do here, and the hunting experience is very similar. If you fall in love with one, you would love the other, even if there are a few differences.

I release a smooth location roar, hoping to pinpoint the stag more precisely. As much as I love the interaction aspect of calling deer, stags are much harder to call in than elk. Hinds are not as vocal, and stags rarely come to challenge calls. That said, it’s my favorite way to hunt, and I call to them all the time. I know it is not the most efficient way, but neither is hunting them with a bow.

The stag finally answers, giving me a better idea of his location. I unstrap the bow from my pack and start closing the distance. Some believe the depth of the roar can give you an idea of how old the stag is, but my experience has proven that the tone or pitch guarantees you nothing. Some of the biggest stags I have ever seen sounded terrible. In my opinion, what sets apart the class of stag you are chasing is their mood. The king of the mountain doesn’t need to prove anything — everyone knows who rules. He just needs to roar occasionally to remind others he is around. On the other hand, a stag in his prime needs to show off and attract attention. He will be way more active, respond faster, and roar more often. Younger stags remain silent, hoping to steal a hind without being noticed.

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The red stag “roar” is an exciting experience every bowhunter, especially elk hunters, will appreciate.

Our instinct is to hear the roar and go straight to it. By the time we get there, the stag has already moved, we fall behind and end up wasting the whole morning chasing his roars hundreds of yards ahead of us. Often, they just seem to know we are behind them, and they maintain a safe distance with their herd. After years of wasting my time, I finally understood that it was like a chess game, and I was doing it wrong.

It was not about chasing the stag in the present, but rather chasing him in the future. Like in chess, the key is to predict future moves in advance. It is all about understanding the terrain, the situation, and the stag’s language, when trying to predict where he will be in a half-hour. Is he heading to bed, or coming out to feed? Is he alone or with hinds? You must try to be a couple moves ahead of them.

In my opinion, there is no greater challenge in Spain than chasing mountain stags with a bow. The amount of pressure game gets exposed to during a year is huge. It is not like in the States, where seasons are short and restricted. The hunting season here is over six months. We can hunt them for damage control in the summer, stalk them during the rut, and even partake in driven hunts during the winter and fall. All weapons are allowed equally, and there are no advantages for bowhunters — no special areas or seasons. Stags have excellent hearing, incredible eyesight, and an amazing sense of smell. By the time a stag gets mature, at around eight years of age, they have seen it all.

New Zealand is probably the first place that comes to mind for people chasing stags. The reality is that red deer are originally from Europe. In Spain, the “Iberian” stags are slightly different from the central-European deer, as they are smaller in body size, have a softer roar, but have good crowns, which is a handful of four or five points on the top of their antlers.

At first light, the stag slowly climbs the mountains, nurturing his four hinds and looking for a place to bed. We get a glimpse of him, and he looks gorgeous, so without losing time we proceed to go around and gain altitude before the thermals change with the first rays of the sun.

After a couple of rough seasons without any success, I was ready to give it my all. You can chase stags all over Spain and you will not find the biggest trophies in the Cantabrian Mountain Range, located in the northern part of the country, but that has never been a priority for me. You will not find a more beautiful place to chase stags than in this mountain range, so I was committed to spend another rut up there.

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The terrain where the red stags live in Spain is much different from the timbered elk country in America.

In this country, there is no really dense forest. The stags this time of the year rut in the high country, often finding them above the chamois. Small patches of bushes offer animals enough shade for the day to rest from a long night chasing hinds.

Most of the hunting grounds in Spain are private, owned by the different countryside towns. These towns will lease, by auction, the hunting rights to hunters, who would oversee managing the territory for the duration of the lease — typically 10 years. They cannot do as they wish but must follow the government wildlife agency rules that establish the appropriate quotas for each species after considering population surveys, hectares, food sources, and cover.

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As the owner of the lease, you can re-sell the tags to other hunters, hunt them all yourself, or maybe just rent the small-game hunting rights. Possibilities are endless, but it’s a completely different structure than you find in America. In terms of management, it works great, as the tags are issued according to the current situation of an area. Typical leases are 3,500 to 7,000 acres. The disadvantage is that hunting is expensive, as prices fluctuate with the demand. On the other hand, if you can afford it, you can hunt without the need to draw a tag.

After spending so much time watching the stag, we had a good idea of where he might bed down.

As we lose the stag inside a patch of small trees and bushes, we wait a little bit for the wind to settle before closing the distance. I am not a huge fan of stalking bedded animals, because the only thing they have to do is watch for danger.

I go on my own to cover those final meters very slowly. We cannot see the stag, but he’s bedded somewhere in there. After every step, I stop to glass. The hinds are harder to spot, as they don’t have a giant rack between their ears.

Spain-Mountain-Stags-Fog-1200x800.jpg

At 50 meters, I finally locate one of the crowns of the stag, and he is gorgeous. He’s bedded, and I do not have a shooting window even if he stands up. With the wind hitting my face hard, I can only wait for him to stand. Considering the time of the day, I don’t think he’s in a rush.

One hour, two hours, three hours pass. Maybe I should throw a rock to make him stand up? Or better yet, why not send a low roar? Or I could get closer and search for a shooting window. A thousand things come to mind as I wait on my knees, ready for the stag to move. It’s freezing cold and I have no food or water, as I dropped my pack earlier. Something in me knew I had a good wind and the best move was to be patient. An animal that stands by itself always offers a better shot.

Somehow, the stag moved and bedded again in a spot I could not see. Every hour I sat there without moving made me more committed to doing whatever it would take. It was one of the animals I have worked the hardest for, and I wasn’t going to quit.

I was now at the six-hour mark. It couldn’t be much longer before the stag moved. I was not going to throw away six hours of effort for nothing. Then it became seven hours; then eight hours. I even peed inside a mouse hole to contain the scent. I was completely losing my mind.

Ten hours later, the sun was settling on the horizon, and I was going crazy. This would be either the biggest waste of time in my life or the most brilliant stalk ever. I was even starting to doubt myself and whether the stag was still in there. Then, I catch an antler tip moving. The stag beds again, but I think if I improve my position 10 more meters, I may have a shooting window. There is still hope!

I crawl to 47 meters of the bedded stag and find a clear window. Hunting success involves a combination of thousands of little decisions, each of them as important as the next. It is all about risk analysis. Should I wait for the stag to stand up? Am I running out of light? If the stag takes two steps, will I lose him in the bushes? Should I roar to make him stand? No, too risky, as I am too close and would have to rush my shot. What about shooting it bedded? That is difficult, especially because the stag is bedded facing away.

The sun is going down fast. I’m exhausted and need to make a decision. I can hit an apple every time at 47 meters. I’d rather take a shot when I have plenty of time than one that is rushed. I just needed to analyze the patch of fur on the stag I needed to put my arrow into to reach the vitals. The vitals on animals bedded on their side are not as intuitive as they may look. I use a clump of grass as a reference, adjust the sight to the exact yardage, and take a deep breath.

My arrow hits the stag exactly where I was aiming and penetrates all the way in up to the fletching. He stands up and disappears behind the bushes downhill. I remain quiet, listening for a hint of what might be happening. Ten seconds later, I hear my buddies Samuel and Fernando screaming at the top of their lungs.

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It was a long, grueling stalk and a complicated shot, but I was thrilled to take this stag in my home country of Spain.

I run up to my pack to get my radio to tell them to shut their mouths. I did not want them to spook the stag. As I turn the radio on, I can only hear them saying, “Pedro, Pedro, listen. It is dead, it is dead…the stag is dead!”

I have a hard time believing it, so I ask, “Are you guys sure? It was a complicated shot.”

They replied, “It is down. It dropped in seconds!”

My arrow entered in the hip, went all the way through the lungs, and ended up in the heart, stopping at the sternum.

Just when you think about bowhunting and your choice to make things harder, this kind of thing happens. These moments bring you so many emotions that you forget all the suffering involved. There isn’t any other amateur sport that can bring you such moments.

It took three seasons to finally be able to lay my hands on a stag. I guess having another 10 hours to mentally prepare for that shot helped. Loud and aggressive is not the only way to hunt elk… Sorry, I meant red stags.

The author lives in Spain and has written several features for Bowhunter about his extensive international bowhunting adventures.

Author’s Note: I used a PSE EVO bow; Victory VAP TKO arrows; Grim Reaper broadheads; Bohning vanes; Spot Hogg sight; QAD HDX rest; America’s Best Bowstrings; Carter Wise Choice release; Total peep 1/8"; KUIU’s Merino 145, Kenai jacket, Pelton 240, and Kutana pants; and Leupold Full Draw 5 rangefinder.




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