F&S Classics: Weidmannsdank!
Hunting red stag and chamois in Austria's Alps is cause for a sportsman's "thank you"
“Nicht Schiessen!” came the hoarse whisper from Nicholas, and the jaeger plucked at my sleeve. “Don’t shoot!” repeated the guide. The crosshairs of my scope had already settled into surety just behind the shoulder of the great stag, and he was as good as dead, but Hochsteiner’s anxiety was wasted. I didn’t intend to fire, indeed had lifted the bolt handle of the Steyr-Mannlicher halfway to make impossible any accidental letoff. I knew full well that a “Kapital” stag with 12 massive bone-white points like this one was not for me. As far as deer were concerned, my invitation extended only to a pair of Class II hirsch, not the real royalty of the red deer family which are so carefully kept whole through prime breeding age. But it was a thrill just to make believe taking so fine a trophy, with his characteristic three-pronged coronets whitely visible atop each antler in the half light of dawn.
Not shooting is what the American hunter must get used to in Europe—and he may well learn to abide by it on our own North American continent before too many generations. We here generally bust the best bull or buck we can find, on the democratic principle of every man for himself, I suppose. And while we will gaily pay thousands for the services of a fine stud horse or a pedigreed bull to improve our domestic breeds, generally we let herd improvement of wild animals happen as it will. Not so on European big game herds. On any well-run Jagdrevier, or hunting lease, they are managed with great care to produce on a given acreage the highest possible number of head of the best possible quality that can be assured by selective shooting. And when the jaeger, or professional guide—and my friend Nicholas after thirty-odd years in the Donnersbachwald was near professional perfection—says do not shoot, you simply do not shoot. So that morning I had to pass up the monster and content myself with an eight-pointer that with four hinds crossed the Alpine basin a few minutes later. He stood fatally still just too long at what Hochsteiner assured me was “zwei hundert metres,” precisely the yardage at which the newest model Mannlicher in 7×64 was zeroed. And that was the last really easy shot I had in Austria.
Characteristically, Nicholas made much of it. First, as we approached the stag he unleashed from his pack his trailing hound, a red-brown dog of a breed called Bayerischer Gebirgsschweisshund, used by jaegers solely for trailing up wounded game. Normally the hound trots tied to that pack all day, never makes a sound, stays quiet when his hunters are glassing or stalking. Dogs like these could almost eliminate the hit-and-lost percentage that wastes so many of our own deer.
Nicholas let him wool the stag a bit as a sort of reward, then reclipped the leash and bent to snip with his knife two branches of ground spruce. One, the letzer bissen or last supper, went into the stag’s mouth, essentially a last-meal symbol of respect from the hunters whose interest—and money—had in the final analysis made life possible for the deer. The other was dipped in blood, and this schuetzenbruch was laid across Hochsteiner’s hat and offered to me with the traditional salute: “Weidmannsheil!” To that I replied with the formal “Weidmannsdank,” or hunter’s thanks—as much for the opportunity of hunting as for the luck of the chase—which closed our little ceremony.
We could, I suspect, over here do with a bit more of such attitudes toward our own game. Formality is foreign to American customs, by and large, but if a small formality helps increase respect for the animal we hunt and finally kill, I’m all for it.
Widespread among American hunters is the idea that Europeans who pursue deer and boar are pantywaists in green knickers who shoot on barbered reserves that are overloaded with half-tame game. This may have been true on some “royal” areas—I cannot envision Hermann Goering, for example, hoisting his poundage very far after chamois—but today the facts are quite the contrary. European hunters wear knickers because long pants are a blasted nuisance in steep climbing. They prefer green because it’s good camouflage where the timber is largely conifers, so it has become the hunter’s traditional color. For reasons of training and licensing procedures the idiocy of shooting at noises in the brush, or odd-shaped lumps that might or might not be game, is less common among Europeans than it is here. Red or blaze orange is just simply not needed among the overseas big-game fraternity.
And if their hunting is easy, then my experiences in Norway, where twelve hours of foot-slogging after caribou or moose was our normal daily stint, or in Spain, where the gentry of the Corzala wore my legs off to the knee clambering around after ibex, or on half a dozen other European hunts, were not typical but exceptional. And chamois hunting has to be tough no matter how you cut it, unless you can find one tied to a tree close to the road. In that event the peak-loving chamois would probably pass away from too little altitude or too much air pressure!
The Donnersbachwald would be no cinch, I learned early. It was too beautiful an Alpine area, and where you have fancy scenery you have steeps. Standard procedure for Nicholas and me from our dinky Glatthutte which clung below Donner or Thunder Basin, called for crawling out of the sack at 4. We shivered down tea and crusty bread, then started before 5, with flashlights, to climb above timber line onto the grassy top levels favored by the red deer. An hour and a half of steady plodding upward would see us right—but we’d still be from one to two hours of hard climbing below the chamois peaks. Plenty of room to operate in. The revier jointly controlled by the Steyr-Mannlicher people and the Semperit Tire outfit totaled 13,000 hectares—that’s roughly 33,000 acres or 50 square miles—of timber, narrow valleys, and alpine peaks running up to 6,500 feet or so. No Mont Blancs, but the day’s hunt started at about 3,500, so the climbs were long.
A Mountain Hunter’s Heaven
The countryside is lumbered in the clean and selective European fashion which leaves no slash tangles, and the valley people run a few milk cows, feeding them hard-to-dry hay through the deep snows of winter. A Forestmeister, the bearded Herr Loschek, and his crews, which include seven jaegers like Nicholas, rule the operation. Its game production is phenomenal. From the Glatt region of some 7,500 near-vertical acres for which Nicholas is responsible, his hunters had last season taken 20 stag hirsch, 40 hinds, 10 roe deer, 24 chamois, without at all harming the population. Hence the entire revier, with its seven similar sections, is well worth the $50,000 annual lease fee shared by SteyrMannlicher and Semperit. In America, that would be charged off as a nontaxable business expense!
Observant hunters in this country are already noting similar approaches set up by individuals, companies, or by syndicates, as for example the New Hampshire Blue Mountain Reserve. Whether this trend is good or bad could be the topic for a future discourse.
As far as Nicholas and I were concerned, Donnersbachwald was a mountain hunter’s heaven. While he gutted the hirsch—the Austrians do not attempt to split the pelvis of these heavy deer, but core around the anus and so take it in rather than out—I had already spotted moving dots up on a sawtoothed ridge. They had to be chamois.
The chamois, or gams—gamsgeiss for the female, gamsbock for the male—of Europe may be no close relation to our white mountain goat, but they share delight in the highest, rockiest ledges and scree slopes available, their chief defenses being altitude and eagle-sharp eyes. Rarely weighing outside the 40-to 60-pound range, the little gams is far fleeter than our goat on open slopes, and has balance and jumping ability to navigate ledges impassable for the larger animal. On one point of importance to hunters the chamois differs from our rather solitary-minded bearded billy—often they run in mixed groups that may count between five and fifty. As with the white goat, however, trophy estimation on a chamois is a real task, the difference between good, bad, and indifferent measurements of the dainty back-hooking horns being only a few centimeters.
On the Donnersbach schedule, as Nicholas finally got across to me in our communication mishmash of a little English, a little German, and a lot of gestures, the season, or jagdzeit, on male chamois is not open until November 11, beginning of the gamsbrunft, or rutting time. But as confirmed hunter Dr. Breitenfeld of the Steyr-Mannlicher staff had already told me, a really old and smart female grows longer horns than the average buck and is locally considered a better trophy. How big or how old or how smart I had no clue from my earlier experience on the dainty goatlike climbers in New Zealand, since the aim Down Under had seemed to be more quantity than quality. In Austria my permit said two chamois and I reckoned to make at least one something special.
With the hirsch properly cleaned, rather surprisingly Nicholas produced from his rucksack a walkietalkie, waited a few minutes for a precise 8 o’clock, and made contact with his home five or six miles down the valley. From our position in the high basin it was a straight shot, no radio interference. Porters to come up for that first stag were quickly arranged I had been wondering just how the two of us were going to tote 150 kilos off the mountain.
Hunting in Yodeling Country
By midmorning I wondered how I was going to get myself off, since we had worked steadily upward across a major ridge and into a truly alpine area of cliffs and trickling snow water. We were surrounded by all manner of fine yodeling places. Up among the echoes is no spot for a man over 50, even if he is cavorting around in boots handmade by a Viennese expert! But we had made operational contact with the chamois.
“Too many,” I said to Nicholas as we peered up at the high basin or col opening beyond our final clump of brush. “Zu viel.” That exhausted my supply of German, but perhaps the situation wouldn’t exhaust our ingenuity. About half of a mob of four dozen chamois we had seen earlier had fed up over the left ridge and settled down for a midday snooze. More had disappeared onto ledges in the shade of the peak proper. With careful study-the middle-European jaeger still swears by a 3-foot extension telescope and his climbing staff instead of the modern spotter and tripod-we found more. Five had bedded further to the right. The nearest ones were over a thousand yards from us, but once beyond that last bush we’d stand out like coal on a bed sheet.
“Nicht gut,” we agreed.
The pidgin-English-German began to flow again, this time aided by a stick and a little patch of smooth gravel. If we dropped back behind the lip, moved across the basin mouth under the shaded right-hand wall, which would keep us hidden from the far right group of chamois, perhaps we could use a glacial moraine to hide us from any eyes at center and left. There was no other possible stalk.
A Chamois Ceremony
When it ended we were still in a poor position, at least 300 meters below the little group, a long shot for game so small. The odds could be bettered either by bellying up through a gully floored in ice-watersoaked moss, or by working left along the crest of a breakneck dropoff. I dislike crawling among ice cubes, so we took the circling climb. Finally the end of our cover was still 250 meters from the sleeping animals, but study with glasses showed the lowest one to boast creditable horns, so I wormed into a comfortable shooting position and was ready. Then it came again.
“Nicht schiessen!” hissed Nicholas. “What now?”
As far as I could make out from Nicholas’ words and gestures I must wait until the chamois woke up and stood, not so much that a standing target was better, as it is, as that it was simply not kosher, not sporting old boy, to clobber the game while asleep. That waking-up process might take all day!
It didn’t. Just as my arms were about to break off from holding the rifle, the chamois stirred and stood. Then it dropped instantly when a 173 grain H-Mantel bullet whistled through its rib cage. Fine.
But Nicholas didn’t seem to think so. He was violently urging me to get up, to sprint to a little ridge beyond which the other chamois had disappeared. From his muttering I gathered that one of them had, as they moved, showed a very distinctive length of horn.
Hitting a hundred-pound pronghorn antelope on the run is tough in the flat country of Wyoming. Expecting to hit a chamois of half that size which is leaping all over a tilted-up Austrian rockpile is downright ridiculous. But I bellied over a boulder and waited until the bouncing figure Nicholas pointed out finally stopped to look back. Pretty far, but a backline hold might do it. It did.
The Weidmannsheil and Weid mannsdank ceremony over the first chamois was quick and simple. On the second, Nicholas put extra fervor into his handshake, said his Heil a bit louder and with a broader smile. And my thanks was even more fervent. As we studied the horns and teeth it was evident that this trophy, 10 inches, or 25 centimeters, around the curve, was of extra quality, worth recording. As Nicholas pointed out, at 18 years the animal was a real oldtimer, surely past breeding usefulness. It was hard for me to believe that a 50-pound animal could beat the deep Alpine snows and howling blizzards for so long.
With the husky red deer, winter survival is easy to understand. I knew that at Donnersbachwald discreet feeding was practiced in hard winters, and perhaps more important, careful culling of the herd tended to eliminate less desirable animals that would waste browse during the early snows yet couldn’t make it through the crucial later months. Though it tends to concentrate the hunting privilege in the hands of a few, this management on a more intimate scale than we can apply on a state basis does have certain advantages.
We watched half a dozen stags the second day, for example. One was another heavy-antlered “Kapital,” untouchable, and none seemed quite right for my second tag. Interesting to me, the red deer male, who in the rut does not bugle like our wapiti but rather roars with a sound like the combination of an angry bull and a seasick yachtsman, also continues to feed more or less normally while he is managing his harem. The elk I have watched in full rut have always seemed more concerned with breeding than with browsing. But perhaps the hirsch we glassed were close to the end of their roaring period.
I was close to the end of my hunting, anyway, since when Nicholas woke me at 4 of the last morning, I realized we had only until a couple of hours after sun-up to find the proper stag.
Going Out with a Roar
Nicholas was humming as he stoked the breakfast fire, and his “Guten Morgen” was bright. I got the impression he had something up his sleeve. When we struck out in darkness cut only by flashlight glimmer, heading in a brand-new direction, down the valley rather than up, I finally figured out what he had in mind. Down that way at dawn and dusk of the previous day we had heard the roaring call of a fully mature stag, one apparently anchored to a preferred spot with his hinds, probably halfway up the mountain, where timber gave way to grass.
As we crossed the creek to climb through the conifers we heard him sound off again. Much higher. And again, after thirty minutes, higher still. Nicholas was moving faster this morning and I had already puffed through both first and second wind. Perhaps the stag had roared from this next clearing, I thought hopefully?
But the jaeger stepped briskly across and headed upwards and there was nothing to do but follow. I could already see the timber opening onto higher slopes just ahead.
I hadn’t realized we had come to a watching place until I stumbled into Nicholas and almost stepped onto his old Gebirgsschweisshund, trotting happily along unleashed as a special guest on this final hunt. At thirteen years of age, the dog was wheezing less than I was. We slipped in behind a big moss-topped boulder, across which we could see, beginning 200 yards up through scattered larches, the yellow of a steep grass slope. Deer were already visible, and Nicholas had time for a telescopic peek at the darkest-necked stag before he fed in behind a treetop. I’d already had my 7×35’s on the animal. It was good, perhaps too good. But Nicholas looked at me and nodded. “Schiessen,” he said quietly.
With the Steyr-Mannlicher laid over that mossy rock bulge the scope was steady, but the waiting tiring. Would the stag never move into the clear? A hind fed out first, then another. But the neck showing next was dark, shaggy, and I could see the flicker of polished antler tips. One step more.
Nicholas had already indicated that the range would be something like 350 meters, and it seemed to me all of that. But I was shooting very steeply uphill, more than 30 degrees, enough so that the gravity effect would be lessened. A very scant backline hold should be about right, I guessed.
As the stag showed his whole forequarter and I laid the horizontal wire tight on the withers the rifle bucked. The hirsch collapsed into a sliding fall as we heard the bullet strike. The guess had been good.
Mountain Hunting—a Universal Adventure
When I finally clambered up to where the fallen hirsch lay, Nicholas looked rather odd. There was a touch of the “boy caught at the cookie jar” in his face. It wasn’t hard to see why. This stag was indeed good, perhaps really too good. Not quite a 12-pronged “Kapital” but no scrub either. It was heavy and the warty beading around the antler bases indicated it a gentleman of some years.
Then Nicholas relaxed. What was done was done. This American’s hunting holiday had certainly been rounded off to near-perfection. As the jaeger handed over the blooded sprig of evergreen and I received it with a heart-felt “Weidmannsdank,” we smiled at one another. In the strong and ancient brotherhood of sportsmen, whether on the Alps or the Rockies, the thrills and satisfactions of mountain hunting are always and essentially the same. That both Nicholas and I knew.