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The Red Stag - Almost an elk......and just as exciting! at Cabela's

The Red Stag - Almost an elk......and just as exciting!

Author: Craig Boddington

Roar or bugle, Argentina or Scotland, wherever you hunt red stags or whatever you call it's mating song, it is sure to be an adventure.

A nice New Zealand red stag.  This animal only has 12 points, six per side.  Really good 
stags usually have at least 14 points, but mass and beam and point length are also important.

The lilting, three-note bugle of a rutting bull elk is one of the most distinctive and seductive sounds in nature. The European red stag, also very vocal, is closer than a cousin to our elk.

Both are members of the cervidae family of round-antlered deer, and for many years they were considered separate species: cervus elaphus, the red stag; and Cervus canadensis, the American elk or wapiti. It turns out, however, that they can (and do!) interbreed freely, given the chance, so most modern authorities consider them as just one species, Cervus elaphus. So the red stag is almost an elk, or vice versa. With differences. No American hunter who has ever heard it will forget the bugle of a bull elk. European hunters don't call it a bugle. They call it a "roar." Okay, but that's just a word. So what if the red stag is a little smaller in the body, more reddish in color, and with slightly different antler conformation? Surely they must sound the same!

The roar of a red stag is so different from an elk's bugle that the first time I heard it I had no idea what it was! It was in Spain, 20 years ago, and I was walking through a little valley on the first evening of the hunt. I heard this incredible bovine bellow just up the hill. I paid no attention; I was looking for a red stag and distressed cattle weren't my concern! My Spanish guide stopped me, pointed up the hill, and with a (honest) section of cow horn, replicated that ferocious, drawn-out, one-note call. It's a wonderful sound, but it's not a bugle and it's really not a bellow. It's, well, a "roar" that would do a lion proud.

The smallest red stags are found in Scotland's harsh moors, scarcely bigger than large mule deer and hunted very much like caribou in the tundra-like country. Stags on the European continent are larger, with mature bulls approaching a bull elk in size. Voice and body size aren't the only differences; the red stag is more uniformly reddish-brown in color, and on the best stags the antlers will have a distinctive cluster or "crown" of points above the third point. The best European stags are said to come from the Danube Valley and from still-wild areas in Romania and Bulgaria.

However, it is a little tough to tell exactly where red stags leave off and elk begin. When you get far enough east, as in Kazakhstan, the deer are big-bodied, more pale in color, and the antlers may or may not crown. These animals are usually called maral stags. Go farther East, into the forested hills of Mongolia, and the maral stags - now often called Asian wapiti - are indistinguishable from American elk, and even sound the same (they bugle rather than roar). This difference in sound is believed to have evolved because of different habitat - while the bugle carries better in country that is hillier and more open.

A nice Argentinian red stag, short in the beam but carrying long, beautiful points.
So the European red stag is found, literally, across Europe - from Scotland to Spain, and on eastward to the western part of the former USSR. European hunting is almost entirely privatized, so outsiders can't always gain access to the best country. But in western Europe, there is organized hunting opportunity in the United Kingdom (both Scotland and England), Spain, and Austria. On eastward, excellent hunting programs are available in almost all of the countries that lay behind the former Iron Curtain: Hungary, Romania, Poland, both the Czech and Slovak Republics, and so forth. One little detail you probably need to know: European hunters are accustomed to paying trophy fees based on antler size. Americans hate this kind of a system, but it isn't uncommon in Europe - and European hunters pay very large sums for really big stags.

In European terms "nice" stags are Bronze Medal class, referring to the European C.I.C. evaluation system. Really nice stags are Silver Medal class, and outstanding trophies are Gold Medal. Sometimes you can find situations where there's a "flat rate" fee for stags up to Bronze or Silver Medal, and so forth. We tend to like this much better, while our European counterparts are perfectly comfortable with paying for trophy quality by the centimeter! Young stags - and mature stags in country that is poor for antler production - have antlers a little different from raghorn elk, and may be typical five-by-fives or small six-by-sixes at maturity. What you're really looking for; however, is the crown, a cluster of points at the main beam tips, above the third point. Depending on mass and point length, a "good" stag may have as few as six points per side (Europeans follow "eastern count" and would call this a 12-pointer), but most typical for a good mature stag is 14 total points, with exceptional stags often carrying many more points.

I have really enjoyed the red stag hunting that I've done in Europe. This has included stalking in Scotland's boggy moors, Spain's Mediterranean hills, forested valleys in Austria's Alps, and forests to the east. Part and parcel to any European hunt is the strong tradition - and with hundreds of years of successful and intensive game management, most European hunting is wonderfully successful. But it isn't necessary to go to Europe to hunt red stag, and in fact some of the very best stag hunting may well be elsewhere today.

As a popular and typical game animal, European settlers moved red deer around quite a bit in the 19th Century. Thank goodness North America wasn't a recipient! There are some fenced herds here and there, but over time, free ranging red stag would wreak havoc with our bigger-bodied elk!

Places where introductions of red stag were spectacularly successful include New Zealand and the Bariloche region of Argentina. In fact, with a total absence of predators the red deer increased to nuisance numbers in New Zealand. Years of market hunting eventually reduced the population.

Today the best New Zealand stags are behind game fences, with free-range hunting still available but pretty catch-as-catch-can.

Glassing for red stag in the Austrian Alps.  In more wooded country, hunting red deer is a 
matter of both looking and listening, with the roaring of the stags important for locating hidden 

Argentina is another story. Down there the population is almost entirely free range, and while the best Argentinean stags don't rival the best from eastern Europe, the average is very good and the hunts quite economical. Actually, a red stag hunt in Argentina was one of my very best and most memorable hunts ever, a horseback affair in big, open country that backed up to the foothills of the Andes. I didn't get a genuine monster, but in a week's hunt I took two very nice stags, saw a lot of game, and had a wonderful time.

In Europe, the stags generally roar in September, but in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons reverse, so April catches the rut in both New Zealand and Argentina. This offers a unique opportunity for a good off-season hunt...although it can cut into the turkey season a bit!

Most of my stag hunting - on four continents now - has been during the roar. This is not essential, but it is clearly the best time. The hunting gets far more difficult later, with the bulls retreating into the most remote hideouts to lick their jousting wounds and recover some energy. And of course, as the rut wanes the likelihood of broken antler points increases. It's okay to miss the rut. Especially in Europe, the game management is so effective that most hunts are expected to be successful regardless of condition. But what a shame to not hear the stags roar!

As is the case with elk, hunting varies depending on the country. In thickly wooded terrain, which is the case in much of Europe and New Zealand, the roar is extremely important for locating stags. Sometimes they will answer a challenge and come all the way in, and sometimes the roar is used for locating and stalking - just like elk. In more open terrain, typical of Scotland and Argentina, the hunting is done by glassing and stalking - and timing the rut exactly is not quite so critical. But wherever you are, the time of roar is the best time, simply because the sound is so wonderful!

One full moon night in Austria's Tyrol, I was staying in a cabin with stags roaring all around. It went on all night long, one of the finest serenades I've ever heard. The sound does seem different in Scotland's open hills, and in Argentina's open heather. But it's still a wonderful sound wherever you hear it, almost like an elk...and in some ways even better.

Author Craig Boddington
Arguably the most experienced hunting writer alive today, Craig Boddington has hunted big game in 29 American states, five Mexican states, and seven Canadian provinces . In addition to his vast North American hunting background, he has been on 46 African safaris and has thoroughly hunted 25 different countries, effectively spanning all six continents.

He currently lives on California's Central Coast when he's not away hunting or on duty with the U.S. Marines. His work includes numerous magazine articles as well as 14 books on hunting and shooting (several of which can be obtained through Cabela's).

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