Somewhere between Perpignan, the Mediterranean and Andorra, the Pyrenees roll out into an altitudinal plateau where top notch athletes go to polish their physical condition. They’re not the only ones to haunt this magical area.
At the end of September, the Pyrenean Piedmont plateau is still affected by the summer’s drought, but as the travellers enters into the craggy valleys of this mountainous rampart that extends between France and Spain, they will discover a biotope ruled by chlorophyll. Towns are rare and cling to the sides of the massif, whose landscape is fractured by torrents of limpid water populated by massive trout. Once past the junction that leads to Andorra, Nirvana to tobacco connoisseurs and appreciators of other duty-free consumer goods, the number of vehicles thinned.
We still had a bit left to go, until the view finally cleared as if by magic, and the rare area was exposed: the Capcir Plateau. Perched at an altitude of 1,700 metres, this area offers the ideal playground for all sorts of physical activity training, whether it be sport or military related. Here we met with Julien Blanc, the director of Actéon outfitting service for the south of France (see box). He would be our guide, accompanied by Thomas, a young apprentice guide. As Julien put it “the apprentices need to be prepped to be able to provide service in this domain that is growing in popularity.” Until now, the young Thomas was specialised in roebuck stalking. It was time for his baptism in stag stalking. He would not be disappointed, and nor would we…
Once we had arrived, we found ourselves changed into our hunting clothes, ready to confront the king of the forest. For reasons concerning altitude and to preserve the health of his clients, Julien brought us up to 2000 metres with his vehicle. According to him it was better to begin the hunt gradually, as oxygen starts to become rare at these altitudes. We resented nothing and were euphoric for the hunt. We commenced our three hours of stalking through a mountain pine forest, with the herbaceous blanketed ground and moss cushioning the noise of our progression. We had experienced worse. We followed a ridge, that descended a gentle downgrade, when Julien suddenly stopped and looked at the opposing slope. The binoculars immediately picked up three young stags frolicking in the undergrowth in the middle of the afternoon, not bothered at all by the human silhouettes.
We were off to a great start! The young stags seemed quite preoccupied by what was going on in front of them, but we couldn’t make anything out. Was it maybe a mature stag? After a few minutes a reddish form filed through the vegetation. It was a fox; whose stature was close to that of the roebuck fawn that he carried between his teeth! We continued our stalk by attacking the flanks of a granite hillock and came nose to nose with a red deer hind and calf, who were soaking up the sinking sun and the impressive view of the Capcir plateau. A little further on another hind blocked our passage, and though we stayed completely still behind a tuft of fern, some sticks snapping prompted her anticipated disappearance. This time there was no doubt, the snapping sticks must have come from a stag marking his territory.
The file of three hunters glided towards the direction of the snapping, and were surprised when it was a big wild boar who bolted off quietly, not before taking his time to observe us carefully. Julien was miffed, since theoretically there should be stags everywhere, and the forest should be resounding with the echoes of their roars. However, at the moment only two far-off stags seemed to be active. Once nightfall set in and the temperatures sank below the 20-degree bar, we finally witnessed a concert worthy of this place’s reputation. A dozen crown stags spread over a good thousand hectares delivered their vocal jousts and only our binoculars offered us the ability to observe a few of them, accompanied by sixty-some hinds on the prairies of the plateau.
The next morning a thick fog blocked our view of the surroundings and once it dissipated, the animals had already retreated into their safe grounds. Throughout the course of the day the south-easterly winds picked up and transported with it thick clouds that promised rain. The dip in temperature was brutal and in the middle of the afternoon we left our accommodation to attack the mountain in front of us. The wind was strong, the rain thin, and the conditions were ideal to thwart the hearing and smell of the big stags. It took us two hours to reach the summit, where we stationed ourselves against enormous boulders that sheltered us from the wind and the rain. Very soon, a young stag passed close by our improvised ground blind, followed by a hind and a splendid twelve point. At exactly that moment the wind turned and carried away with it the typical scent of a stag in rut.
We only had one hour left to hunt and Julien decided to begin the descent towards the green prairies of the plateau. It was a prudent choice in regard to the rapidly worsening weather. Motivated by our fleeting encounter with the red deer, we doubled our caution while losing altitude. Suddenly, as we were gliding along an old skidding trail, an animal took off from underneath our feet and offered us only the spectacle of his ivory tips and tines. Julien imitated a hind’s call to stop the stag, a technique that had an immediate effect.
The crowned stag stopped and stepped into an opening that revealed the front of his body. Julien and Thomas, who stationed behind me, confirmed with their binoculars that it was a nice eight-point stag before authorising the shot. However, the command was given too late and the vegetation had already swallowed up the animal. Once again Julien voiced his lover’s beckoning call and signalled for us to advance into shooting position again. After a few seconds the stag stood at 113 metres on top of a boulder, and offered a broadside shot. The 30.06 offered him no option of escape.
What is Actéon?
Actéon is an association with the objective of promoting rural areas to the hunting tourism industry. Its main function is simple: local hunting societies wish to sell a portion of their hunting management plan, allowing tags to come into the hands of foreign hunters. These foreign hunters are guided by the Actéon staff, who oversee the entire organisation of the trip: from the reservation of accommodation to the delivery of the eventual trophies to the hunters’ homes. Multiple thousands of big and small game are harvested each year. Ultimately, this results in financial profit for the local hunters, who deposit these gains into the hunting area for their management. Additionally, this system creates lasting employment opportunities for locals and promotes hunting tourism in remote regions.