Poland’s wisent appears on vodka labels, tourism posters and billboards as you drive into Warsaw from Frederic Chopin Airport. Being almost unique to Poland, unlike the ubiquitous red stag, roe deer and wild boar found across Europe, the wisent is an unofficial mascot for a country that, today, offers the best and most varied big-game hunting in Europe.
The European bison is completely protected, but the fact that it even exists tells you something about the nature of the country. Poland is a land of agriculture and forests remarkably similar to those found in southern Ontario or Michigan. Full-time, professional foresters manage not only the timber but also the animal populations. It is difficult to foster timber growth if all the seedlings are munched down by deer, or the fields plowed up by wild boars.
At the same time, these animals provide a welcome source of income through leasing of hunting rights, and from foreign hunters visiting Poland to hunt, and leave euros and dollars behind.
Not to insult other independent states from the former Warsaw Pact, especially those that were part of the Soviet Union, but Poland is today what it has been for centuries: A very cultured nation. The fact that they renamed their largest international airport after their favorite composer should tell you something.
We were hunting in southwestern Poland, in what used to be called Upper Silesia. Depending on the date of the history book you consult, it might have been part of Austria-Hungary, Germany, the Russian Empire, or the on-again, off-again state of Poland over the past 500 years.
Until 1918, Silesia was Germany’s second industrial area, possessed of both coal and water power, so it is not completely rustic. As with all central European countries, however, the forests are prized for themselves (not just for the timber) and throughout history, the position of Head Forester has been a highly respected profession, not merely a job.
We had three days of driven shooting, in which 17 hunters (or guns) were positioned on stands while an equally large group of beaters marched through the woods and over the adjacent fields, moving the game (in theory at least) toward the hunters. Sometimes we had high seats, sometimes we were just placed by a tree; in one stand, I could see for more than a mile across a vast, cultivated field; in another, my visibility was, by actual measurement, less than ten feet, peering into a thick tangle of undergrowth. In the latter position, my job, as I figured it, was to be an obstacle to the game emerging there, and nothing else.
There were many and complex rules about what we could, and could not, shoot. For example, the season for roe buck was over, and the bucks were losing their antlers, so we needed to be very careful not to mistake a buck for a doe, which were fair game. The penalty was 750 euros — a considerable sum for an understandable mistake.
These forests having been hunted for centuries, the foresters have the drives down to a fine art. Each morning, we drew a card with a chart of numbers on it, denoting the number of hunters, drive numbers, and stand numbers for each drive. Thus, our whole day’s activities were laid out. In a group of 17 hunters, on drive number four, you might find yourself on stand number 11; on the next drive, stand number two.
I was told by others with more experience that in this situation, with good drives, we should expect to collect 1.5 animals per hunter; the closest we came was the third day, when 16 hunters took 18 animals, including one excellent stag, wild boar of various shapes and sizes, a couple of foxes, roe deer, and hinds.
Since the animals you see are usually sudden, in close and running flat out, it is difficult shooting and requires the kind of practice that is almost impossible to find in the U.S. Still, it was fascinating to take part, and if nothing else, imparted a desire to go back and do it all again — and next time, knowing what to expect.
More on rifles, techniques, and Ron Petty’s great accomplishments on the last day coming soon.—Terry Wieland