The mist hung over the field. A smell of damp leather, lederhosen, bracken permeated the evening air. The footsteps of a lone stag could be heard on the wet earth. Thirty or so more red deer, rot hirsch, barely perceptible, peered from the fringes of the forest.
That was the scene on the evening of my arrival at SEFAG, in southwestern Hungary. My guide, Dean Cortan, Operations Manager working for Artemis Hunting Ltd., drove us here from the city of Osijek in Croatia, where I was a visiting professor at the law school for a couple of weeks in early October.
Hungary, like Slavonia and Baranja in Croatia, possesses an ancient, rich hunting tradition. These were the favorite hunting grounds of the Hapsburg rulers of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire. Vestiges of the royal and ancient hunting lodges may be seen everywhere, almost as plentiful as the deer.
Red deer, fallow deer, and roe deer were being honored the evening I arrived, a Thursday in October. European style mounts, bleached white, were neatly arranged on posts, garnished with oak leaves and rimming the drive and walk to the year-old and thoroughly modern, well appointed lodge. The accommodations were quite unlike what I am used to in the mountains and deserts of the western United States.
Apparently, the ceremony that I arrived just in time to witness honored all of the best deer taken during the season, about the last two months. Many of the trophies were very impressive. All were treated respectfully.
Custom seemed to be important. Always drink with the left hand, because the knights returning home took the drink with the left and the woman with the right. Violate this rule and you buy the drinks for the party. However, I strongly advise against the custom of drinking the local schnapps, called “palinka.” It smells nice, is made of pears and could be applied to industrial uses.
After the morning hunt, I awoke to the sound of horns. I noticed the day before the long brass hunting horns formed into the familiar ring. My guide, Dean, informed me that there was a ceremony to honor each deer taken. Each specific species has a unique ceremony and unique tune played on the horn.
I watched the ceremony from my window. The guides positioned the deer neatly on the lawn, surrounded by a garnish of oak leaves. One of the guides made a short speech about the animal. Then the horns are played. After that, each guide and each guest salutes the successful hunter with a hearty “Waidmanns Heil.”
Spot and stalk and high stand were the methods used. The staff said they have horses available for a horse hunt. However, several days before, my wife Sue and I rode Lippizaner horses in Croatia where they are bred and raised. It is difficult to imagine trying to hunt on those high-spirited animals.
Because I primarily came here to teach and not to hunt, I did not bring a rifle, bow or really any gear of any kind. Normal hiking boots were inadequate for the soaking brush and puddles. One of the Artemis guides, Mikhail, loaned me some high and water resistant boots. Next time, I will bring the pair of hunters that I bought last July in London and, unwisely, left home.
Central European red deer, which inhabit Central Europe, (C. e. hippelaphus) is a subspecies of the fourth largest deer species. Red deer are generally smaller than moose, elk and sambar deer. The male deer, referred to as stag or hart, average 160-240 kg. (350-530 lbs.) and 95-130 cm. (37-51”) at the shoulder). The red deer’s natural range covers all of Europe, the Caucasus Mountains, parts of western Asia and central Asia and the Atlas Mountains in Northern Africa. It is the only deer species native to Africa.
Like the deer in North America, red deer shed their antlers in the winter. The antlers look similar too elk. The fourth and fifth tines form a crown in larger males.
I arrived at the end of the rut, which apparently starts sometime in August and ends when I arrive. Still, it is not difficult to find them. The stag utter a distinctive “roar like” sound to keep their harem together. They are crepuscular, so it is most common to see them at dawn or in the late evening. Shooting starts and ends long before I can safely shoot. I made a note that the much more experienced German hunters who I met at the lodge had large objectives on all of their optics.
Much like elk in North American, red deer stags have a distinct scent during the rut. In the forest, I could smell where the stag had been, as we stalked them. The scent is very similar to elk. I expect it is created pretty much the same way.
Impressive forestry management maintains large herds in Hungary. The heavily forested area north of the town of Barcs, which is located at the border crossing from Croatia into Hungary, is relatively flat. The trees appear in straight rows, giving the impression of long-term intensive management.
The company that owns the lodge is a forestry company, SEFAG, which it seems is somehow state-owned. The lodge manager, Harmath Krisztian, speaks excellent English and German. He is also a wonderful cook. We ate native Hungarian dishes that included healthy helpings of vegetables and meat and both sweet and spicy peppers.
The local guides were state-owned company employees. They were knowledgeable concerning the area and pleasant to be around. I had to speak German with my guide, since he spoke only a very little English, but spoke German very well.
Although we saw plenty of deer the first evening, I passed on shooting any since I had several more days to go. This was done with full knowledge of how many hunters have regretted such a decision. Fortunately, I would not this time.
The following morning, we traveled about 20 minutes to a different field. None of my hunts required longer than a short 10-30 minute commute by four-wheel-drive and foot. The process was pretty much the same: park, walk to a high stand, climb up in the dark, sit there and wait for the dark and fog to lift, look around, climb down and go for a walk on the edge of and in the woods. Apparently, the guides in this part of the world generally hunt from about sunup to 9 or 10 a.m., have breakfast and then go back out from about 5 p.m. until dark. This seemed a bit short, but it was plenty of time to see all the deer we needed to see.
I also did not shoot anything on the second day. We saw some fallow deer (damen hirsch) and a lot of European wild boar. Those were not what I was after, so we enjoyed just watching them. We also heard several packs of European jackal. Although I was interested in taking one, I never saw one. Dean took a great video of a jackal that trotted right up to the high stand. Unfortunately, I had gone for a walk.
On the third morning, we again drove out to a different field, ascended the high stand, watched the sun come up and the fog clear, looked around, descended and took a walk in the woods. This time, we were almost bumping into red deer.
Tall deciduous trees, oak, poplar and ash planted in obvious rows made walking fairly easy in most places. Deer could be glimpsed flitting in and out of the dense forest, like momentary pictures in a frame. We could plainly hear roaring from several locations. Andreas, the local guide, started to make tracks toward one roaring pair of stags.
After reducing the perhaps 300 yards of forest to about 100 yards, and wading a clear knee-deep stream, we spotted the stag I was looking for between the trees. Using a tree to cover our approach, Andreas and I walked—there was no point in trying to crawl, since that would provide no more cover—we made it another 30 yards, when the stag looked right at us. He moved to the left so that I could see only his mid-section, broadside, with a good lung shot.
There comes a moment in hunting when you can either smile and say to yourself, “that was a great stalk” and stand down, or take the shot. But that moment doesn’t usually last very long. Andreas said “scheissen,” the meaning of which is obvious, even if you don’t speak German. Using his shoulder as a rest, I fired.
The handloaded bullet, from the composite .300 Win. mag sporting the Zeiss scope provided by Artemis so that I wouldn’t have to take a rifle across the border into Hungary, cut through both lungs. I did not hear the impact. I’m not sure Andreas can hear much of anything after that. But it was easy to find the blood trail and in less than five minutes, about 50 yards away, we found the stag, fully dead.
There is a video of the hunt and the photos that Artemis provided. However, nothing can do justice to the feeling of tradition at the ceremony that followed when we returned to camp. A group of four German hunters had also returned, three of whom also had taken deer: one red deer and two fallow deer.
One final note about the ceremony: Apparently, when one shoots his first fallow deer, there is a special ceremony that involves a specially prepared switch, with the hunter’s name on it, three wishes, three “schlags” (whacks) with the switch, three candles and three shots of palinka. One of the German guys had taken his first fallow deer.
On my final day, I hunted for fallow deer and kept a sharp eye out for European jackal. The woods were absolutely teeming with fallow deer. It was the middle of the rut, called the “brumpft.” Fallow deer aren’t very big, except for the outsized antlers, but the bucks make a tremendous grunt. The trees were throbbing with the sound. I lined up on a good one, considered the palinka shots and passed.