Article By Alexander Sharif
No one can argue that our fraternity of North American sheep hunters are a passionate bunch and are enamored with their mountain game. Nevertheless, our mountain hunting history hardly surpasses one century. In Europe’s alpine nations, however, mountain hunting is not just a tradition or a pastime but a fabric of the society that is densely engraved in the culture. Walk around in souvenir shops in Bavaria and Tirol and you are going to see all sorts of memorabilia related to hunting. Austria, in particular, has the most authentic of all hunting cultures anywhere on the planet — the game receives the utmost respect when harvested, and the hunters exercise their traditions and rituals with great pride.
ABOVE: A typical day in Austria’s gamsbok country.
In December of 2015, on a blistery cold Alberta day while sipping on spiced wine with my German friend Lutz and his family at their foothills property and marveling at the snow-covered Canadian Rockies, the subject of our family summer vacation to Austria came up. Knowing that he had hunted the alpine chamois (gamsbok or gams) in Austria, I inquired about the same and before I knew it, he had made arrangements with the Aigner family in the Lungau/Salzburger region to host me for a hunt. I was thankful but also elated to no end and started planning, studying, and dreaming about this hunt.
July came and we were air bound for the Iberian Peninsula, where we would visit family for a couple of weeks. As the Salzburg-bound train left the vineyards of Bolzano in northern Italy and entered the Austrian Alps, my heartbeat started racing. Seeing those spectacular peaks, glaciers, and postcard-type villages, with a first-class infrastructure to support it all brought great joy to my heart. We visited Salzburg for a couple of days, treating ourselves to some of the best European foods and culture in Mozart’s birthplace and then drove down to Lungau, a UNESCO biosphere region that is sparsely developed, self-sustaining and built in a fairytale setting. We were hosted and stayed at the Aigner family’s farm which has the title of Erbhof. This prestigious title is only given to families who have farmed in the same homestead for over 200 years. The Aigners have been at it for 500!
ABOVE: Michael Aigner glassing the steep slopes for bucks.
Our gasthaus was simple, yet tastefully decorated, and the meals were all prepared with fresh organic ingredients that came from the farm. I was overjoyed not only because I was going to hunt a native European species in its natural setting, but also because my family was with me and would enjoy some ecotourism and hiking while I was scaling up the loose rock of the Hohe Tauern Mountains in pursuit of my trophy. Even though I speak five languages, German is not one of them and my buddy Lutz had made considerate arrangements with his friends, Alfred and Gunter, to drive down from Germany to be my translators. After meeting the two of them and the Aigners, I felt like royalty and knew I was in good hands.
Our first order of the day was to sight in Alfred’s .300 Winchester Magnum, which we did in 20 minutes, printing a tiny cloverleaf triangle 2” above bullseye at 100 meters. My guide would be Michael Aigner, Sr., an affable man in his mid-sixties who had been raised right here in Hemarach and has successfully run the family farm for decades. His beautiful wife Marianne and his younger son Tomas also help run the day-to-day chores at the homestead. They live this pure, almost saintly life in what I see as the last country in Europe to have preserved its classic culture.
ABOVE: Negotiating the steep and slippery 30-degree slope.
Michael Sr. has great affinity for the wild game that roam his property. His homestead spans across two valleys and has everything from wild boar to roe deer, chamois and red deer. In 2016, he was only permitted to take two “class-A” bucks from the chamois herds, and they had to be eight years of age or older.
Another German lad by the name of Uli, who is also a family friend, was hunting and staying with the Aigners; being an organic beer maker in Germany, he brought with him kegs of his scrumptious and divine beer for us to enjoy. After supper, I turned to my wife Eneida and asked her if this was for real or a dream? She told me to relax and hit the sack early so I would hunt with a clear mind the day after.
ABOVE: Michael and Joggel arriving at the anschuss on the precarious slope where the buck collapsed.
04:00 am is when we rose, and with a quick dash of kaffee, hopped on Michael’s truck and drove partially up the mountain. He also brought along his tracking dog, a handsome, tan-colored male Bavarian Mountain Hound by the name of Joggel. After two hours of steep scrambling up the mountain in the dark — with no flashlights allowed — we were just leaving the alpine whence Michael decided to hunker down under a clump of pine trees, to wait for daylight to appear.
In about an hour, we had enough light to glass and sure enough, a herd of red deer was flanking above us across the mountain. We sat still and shortly after saw a group of eight chamois rams feeding at 650 meters in the rock bands above us. They looked tiny, similar in size to a pronghorn doe. There was no way to get closer, and Austrian tradition prohibits taking long shots and risking wounding of the game. With the help of his Swarovski spotter, Michael was pretty sure one of the bucks was a shooter. We had to just sit and wait for them to make a move, hopefully feeding lower down the mountain.
ABOVE: I was on cloud nine after finding out my buck was ten years old.
Around 10:00 am, dark clouds filled the sky and it started to fog up and rain. Michael took advantage of the fog and we climbed some 300 meters further up the mountain. The fog lifted but the rain never stopped. Unfortunately, the bucks had also climbed higher and were out of range again. We decided to climb down out of their sight and flank the mountain to look for other opportunities. As we started walking the steep scree slope, I noticed a single gamsbok across the slope in a very precarious place and tapped Michael on the shoulder. We sank to the ground and got the big lens out again. The buck was feeding slowly, unaware of us. It took Michael a good 45 minutes to confirm that the buck was pushing eight years of age. With those tiny, 3-mm age rings that are almost touching each other at the base, I have no idea how he was able to age the buck, but I trusted him.
The Leica rangefinder read 270 meters. Michael looked at me and I could see worry in his eyes about my shooting ability. However, having seen my cloverleaf group from the previous day, the calm set of circumstances, and the fact that the next two days could be completely socked in were convincing enough for him to allow me to take a shot. My nerves were calm and the sight picture of the German post reticle on the buck’s shoulder looked good. The .300 barked and the echo of the slug hitting hide came back with assurance. One more follow-up shot for good measure, and the buck was down for good. Was I ever relieved — yet joyous — that I had not goofed up in front of Michael and Gunter!
ABOVE: Yours truly in his element; mountains, mountain game, a tracking dog, and a Mannlicher Schoenauer.
The precipice was so steep that the 270 meter uphill scramble over the slippery rocks took me 30 minutes to climb, at times on all fours. Michael and Joggel arrived at the anschuss moments before me, and I could hear Michael scream, “Weidmansheil!”
To which I firmly answered, “Weidmannsdank!” In my broken German, I asked Michael, “Acht jahre alt?” (Eight years old?)
He responded, “Nein, tsin”, meaning that the buck was ten years old. This is when the emotions of the moment overcame me and I grabbed him hard and gave him a big hug. We had just killed a superb buck past his prime — what the Austrians refer to as zukunfthirsche; guaranteeing the health and proliferation of the herd.
ABOVE: Prost with a stiff schnapps, and the glass held in my left hand!
Right then is also when the funniest event of the day took place. Joggel, which up to that point had been my friend, allowing me to pet the hide off his ears, became intensely protective and all of a sudden claimed my gams as his own. Just as I approached to give my gams a good look, he started barking, growling, and even biting at my boots, not allowing me to sit anywhere close to my trophy. As Michael tried snapping no more than two photographs of me next to my trophy, with a firm push off his muzzle Joggel pushed my buck from the tiny ledge we had perched him on and the buck started rolling down the steep slope below us. I was a tad upset but at the same time laughing my butt off.
ABOVE: Michael with a pirschstock in one hand, dragging my gams down the steep precipice.
After the dust settled and we had hiked down, Michael grabbed the buck’s horns which were thankfully not broken and started dragging him down the mountain. Using the pirschstock he had lent me, I made it down the steep, slippery slope in one piece and we started walking to the tiny, mid-slope hut that Michael had built. We celebrated my success with a simple slice of speck — coarse rye bread — and, of course, homemade schnapps. I also took a moment to thank the good Lord for this blessing and had another toast to my late father and uncle, who I am sure watched the whole thing unveil from sheep heaven. Once the alcohol’s effects wore off, we packed my gams and descended down the mountain to the farmhouse.
ABOVE: A dream family vacation with a fine gams to boot!
The following day after a hearty breakfast, my entire family, together with Gunter, grabbed our packs and drove to the nearby trailhead that led to one of several huts built by the Austrian Alpine Club. We hiked up as a family, and upon arrival at the halterhütte, enjoyed a wonderful jause — a platter of local meats/cheeses and other goodies — served by the hut keeper. Upon return to the Aigner homestead and a warm shower, we were all treated by Marianne to a meal worthy of kings and dignitaries. A starter consommé and kraut salad, followed by my gams roast, delicately garnished with the sautéed wild morel mushrooms that Eneida and the boys had helped pick, knödel and trimmings, all washed down with some wonderful Austrian wine made a feast for the records. Lots of good jokes, hunting stories and schnapps followed. Similar festivities followed for a couple more days.
ABOVE: Long live Austrian hunting traditions!
All in all, Austria 2016 was one of the best vacations we’ve ever taken as a family — and as a bonus, I came back with an old gams to boot. I want to take this opportunity to thank my pal Lutz and my new friends Alfred, Gunter, Uli, and the entire Aigner family — including Joggel! — for making it all happen. Someday, I hope I am fortunate enough to go back to Austria and experience the red deer rut. In the meantime, be safe, diversify your mountain hunts, and enjoy the schnapps.