Editor’s note: Each Friday we dig into the Safari Magazine archives and run a classic story. This week, we join Bill Paulin as he hunts red stag in Poland circa 1986 in a traditional European hunting experience. This article originally appeared in the September/October 1986 issue of Safari Magazine
It was about 4 a.m. as my Polish guide, Ryszard Ryborczyk, and I edged our way quietly down a tiny dirt road toward the distant tree stand. Then we heard it. The unmistakable roar of the Polski (European) red deer – so close it seemed to shake the leaves off the trees. I’d hunted the world over but had never heard anything like it – certainly not from an animal that carries a rack of antlers!
We continued to weave our way through the Black Forest to a small, open meadow where a tree stand rose some 20 feet in the air. In the dark, we could hear the barrel chested roars of red deer, some very close and others more distant. It was a sound I can best describe as deep, guttural bellowing. I sat very still, keenly aware that several animals were quite near to me, or so it seemed. As dawn broke and the rest of the forest awoke all around me, nothing broke the distant line of forest in the direction of the sounds I had heard. About 1 1/2 hours later, we broke the hunt to return to the host estate for a hearty breakfast of Polish sausage (the real thing!) and eggs.
The European way of hunting begins two hours before daylight, ends early and does not resume until evening – about two hours before dark. Midday was reserved for resting, sightseeing and some great duck hunting.
Poland’s forests are mainly pine and oak with farm lands and swampy areas. Game is abundant because the animals are managed so well. Bag limits are very liberal, and hunters may add animals for very reasonable fees. The climate is similar to that of our northern plains. Hunting seasons are from August through February. It can be from very warm to very cold. Its largest big game animal, the red deer (Cervus elaphus) was once found all over Europe.
Unlike the fallow deer, it is extremely shy of man, inhabiting large wooded areas. A near cousin to our own North American elk, the Polski red deer has three distinctive features. First, it’s a bit smaller. Second, it has no shoulder “collar” and third, the antlers of mature bulls cluster at the top. Of the three subspecies, the European red deer is the largest (a mature bull weighs 500-600 pounds). Because of their extreme shyness, they tend to stay in the heavy forest for cover and cross open meadows only during the early morning and just before dark.
This hunt all came together at a Safari Club International convention in Las Vegas. Later, seven Americans – George and Zelda Moore, Doug and Jennie Robinson, Paul Robey, Dennis Jensen and myself met in Copenhagen and flew to Warsaw, Poland, where we were met with drivers and interpreters by Jan Krosstieg of Denmark’s Diana Travel.
Everyone was friendly, excited and eager to get on with the hunt. We were the first group of Americans ever to hunt this area of Poland and, interestingly, there was no delay at all in checking our guns through customs. Next, we were all treated to a pleasant seven-hour drive that took us south and west of Warsaw through the beautiful rolling countryside and farmlands of southern Poland. Some of the farms are still worked in the old traditional way with horse and plow. After passing the town of Milicz, we continued further south until we arrived at our destination, a government hunting estate.
On the evening of the first day of hunting, Ryszard and I returned to the same area. As we approached the tree stand in the forest, we could see them at last. There they were, the magnificent red deer of northern Europe.
We froze in our position in a low area and watched these graceful animals while a swarm of thirsty mosquitoes had a field day on every exposed area of our bodies. As the deer faded into the forest, we put a stalk on them – only to hear them roar back at us as they retreated out of range.
By the morning of the second day, my feelings of anticipation were very strong. The roaring sounds continued to tantalize me. There was a feeling of electricity in the air. Once again, Ryszard and I found ourselves in the tree stand. By now the sound of red deer crashing in the brush was all around us in the forest. One of them kept coming closer (and I mean close). It came prancing right up to the tree stand almost directly underneath me. The light was good as we watched it pause in the center of the meadow. We could clearly see now that it was only a young stag with four tines on one side and five on the other.
As it faded into the forest, our attention was suddenly drawn behind us to the grunts of a wild boar coming our way. Its movements were quick and powerful. Sensing our presence, it stopped and then moved off into the forest in another direction.
We were back again at the same tree stand that evening. Then, just at dusk, there it stood as if suddenly materializing out of another era of which legends are made. Looking every inch the Hartford stag. It was magnificent.
“Wow, that’s a good one”, I stammered. But shooting conditions were poor. The big stag wandered in and out of the trees and, at a distance of 350 yards, never presented a clear shot.
The next morning, I couldn’t wait to reposition myself back in the same stand. As the day began to awaken around me, two hinds wandered into the meadow, followed by what I think was the same stag we had seen the night before. My guide muttered quietly in broken English the words he knew: “He’s a good one.” I quickly pulled down and squeezed off a round only to watch the big stag disappear into the forest. We looked for him carefully but couldn’t find even a trace of blood.
It was wet everywhere that morning. Ryszard and I had a difference of opinion as to what direction the stag had jumped. After scouring the area a bit longer, Ryszard took me back to meet the rest of our party. He then left the group to find his dad to help him track the stag.
That same day, we enjoyed a fine duck hunt and a delicious picnic lunch attended by all seven Americans, our travel host Jan Krossteig and his wife, plus the mayor of Milicz and several forestry officials. After formal introductions, we enjoyed some great pass shooting. Afterwards, they started a big fire for the picnic.
About that time, Ryszard’s dad came by and said they had finally found traces of blood. Doug then confirmed that he had heard the shot and knew at once that it had hit home. A few minutes later, Ryszard arrived all out of breath and wearing a big smile. It was now confirmed. They had found the stag. The mayor then made a European ritualistic presentation to honor the kill. Tradition and ceremony is very important to the Polish people and for that reason you experience a hunt very differently.
It was indeed a fine stag, with six points on each side and a three-point crown and good mass.
The second animal I hunted was the European roe deer, a very small deer with horns that differentiate greatly. The roe buck is extremely territorial. On the morning of our fifth day, I watched a small roe buck scamper under our favorite tree stand and off into the forest. I had a very good close look at him and scored him at 31. While it only
takes 30 to place in the SCI Record Book of Trophy Animals, I decided to pass him up because Ryszard was convinced we could find a bigger one. After no success that evening, I had another talk with Ryszard through our interpreter. He said that the roe deer would be there in the same place and the same time the next day. Since this would also be the last day of the season, I wanted to try for him.
Much to my amazement, the doe and two fawns crossed right on cue as if the scene I was watching had been scripted. Same time, same place. And then as if on cue, the roe buck suddenly appeared in the clearing. At first, it stayed down in the high grass and didn’t show itself. When it finally came into view, I could see that he was clearly the same buck. A well-placed shot bagged my second record book animal from Poland.
After hunting seven days at the estate, we moved on to a new hunting lodge, where everyone in our group gathered for the final days of the hunt. Here, the forest was even thicker than what we had seen earlier and there were flying ticks and mosquitoes in its swamps.
There was heavy fog on the evening of the ninth day we hunted this forest, but we could hear the red deer roaring as we got into our tree stand. I will always carry the picture in my mind of the fine stag and its two hinds we saw standing in the middle of the meadow as the fog moved out. This was how I had always dreamed of Europe – a stag suspended in fog with dens forest as a backdrop. Its antlers were high and heavy, just as in my dreams.
It rained that night, complete with thunder and lightning, but I was satisfied. I had hunted nine memorable days, taking two record book animals. Paul, Dennis and I decided to take an extra day for sightseeing. But first we had to pick up a box or something to transport our hides back home with us. We went shopping in Warsaw and found suitcases that fit the bill perfectly.
Next we were off to Auschwitz for a tour of the museum and to learn more about the history of World War II.
Our time spent in Poland was truly a fine experience. I took every advantage I could to see and experience the country behind the Iron Curtain. I had tea with Ted, Zelda and our interpreter in a tea house that was centuries old. I had signs painted for my roe buck and red deer trophies telling where they came from and when they were taken. I shopped in department stores finding things that don’t exist in stores in America.
We spent our last night in Poland at the Hotel Orbis Forum Warsaw. The next morning we were off to Copenhagen for the last leg of our truly fine European experience.—Bill Paulin