Hunting Red Stag in Central Europe: A heavy fog hugs the forest floor and looming shadowed trees stretch into the low hanging clouds above. You can hear a leaf crinkle, a twig snap, and single beads of condensation rolling off the leaves above and falling to the ground. We slowly exit the Soviet-era light duty pick-up truck in which we had just slopped through the muddy roads and gather in front. It is eerily quiet in the forest this morning.
They say that love is the universal language, but I would argue that there are two universal languages—love and hunting.– John J. Radzwilla
Our guide, Zoltan, sparks up his morning smoke, a cheap brand of Russian cigarettes, as his partner Lazslo gazes off into the darkness. Zoltan is shorter in stature with beady eyes that can pierce the thickest of pine forests. He speaks no English, and even if he did, wouldn’t have much to say. He is emotionless, and his hardened face displays a seriousness for the hunt we are on.
The light crackle of tobacco can be heard as it burns upon his inhale. The deafening still of the morning is broken by a sound that brings chills to my body. It is an almost guttural laugh reminiscent of a villain in a cartoon but deeper. It increases in volume and becomes the telltale sound my cousin Jamie and I traveled thousands of miles for—the roar of a red stag. Zoltan’s emotionless face ever so slightly cracks a grin as he pinches the cigarette between his fingers and checks the wind with the rising smoke. It swirls and lightly ebbs towards us. Zoltan motions for us to fall in line, and we begin to creep towards the beast.
As Americans, when we think of red stag hunting, most will think of New Zealand or Argentina, not so much in Europe. Few realize that those stags are descendants of stag that were imported generations ago from the very ground we stand on, deep in the forests of central Europe. Hungary to be exact. They are the ultimate trophy and the most symbolic quarry of the European hunting culture.
Hungary is a strange land full of history—most not so good. Siding with the Nazis during World War II, the country was ravaged by the opposing Red Army. Many Hungarian men were taken prisoner and enslaved in the gulags of Siberia, never to be heard from again. Later, after the war, it was taken over by the Communists and whisked behind the Iron Curtain until the ‘90s. The secret police subdued the population, and fear nearly broke the spirits of the people, but they endured and clung onto their traditions and culture. Today, the country is free, but in most areas, clues of its past are still present.
Soviet-era Ladas (cheaply made, no frill, vehicles) are seen occasionally on the roads, and concrete Stalinist-style buildings pop up amongst the more modern buildings of Hungary’s capital city, Budapest. As the Soviet influence is stripped away, a new era of Westernism, full of hope and economic rebound, is present.
The language is equally as odd and full of tumultuous history as well. Hungary is surrounded by a patchwork of German, Slavic, and Romanic languages. Hungarian itself though, sits isolated on its own idiomatic island. The root of this language can be traced by to the nomadic tribesmen that conquered the region over 1,000 years ago and can be traced back to west Siberia. It is complex, strange sounding, and notorious for extremely long words. Lazslo speaks decent English, but with a thick Hungarian accent.
Mending the gap
The day’s hunt was hard and fruitless with countless miles spent spotting and stalking. Nothing replenished our spirits though like a hot bowl of soup spiced with Hungarian paprika, a cold pilsner, a shot of Jägermeister, and conversation. We laugh for hours in broken English; playing a game of charades to fill in the blanks. There is a common theme, and with the help of an iPhone, we bond as we recount hunting stories and share stereotypical “grip-and-grin” photos. It is endearing to me and in my opinion, what hunting is all about.
From drastically different backgrounds, Jamie and I, American, and Lazslo and Zoltan, Hungarian, all of us living through the Cold War. We sit and dine in the exact room that former socialist and communist leaders such as Leonid Brezhnev, former president of the U.S.S.R. and Fidel Castro, communist dictator of Cuba sat. Both Brezhnev and Castro were here for the same reason Jamie and I are—red stag.
The next morning, we all wake well before sunrise and shuffle back into the truck. In contrast to the day before, the forest is alive with the roars of stag, and again Zoltan begins his morning ritual of judging the wind with cheap cigarettes. This is probably not suggested as a metric due to the inherent danger of spooking the beasts with stray secondhand smoke. However, for Zoltan it seems to work.
For the remainder of the morning, we navigate the thick forest following the roars. The stags are like ghosts in the pines. They seem to simply appear and then disappear just as quickly. The occasional cow walking through gives us hope that we are on the right track though.
Suddenly, Zoltan motions for us to get down, a stag is approaching, and we prepare to shoot. A cigarette hangs from Zoltan’s lip like a dangling limb on a tree. He is motionless. The smoke slowly rises like our anticipation. Lumbering through the trees appears a massive stag, and Zoltan directs us to set up for the shot. With the precision of a surgeon, Jamie lets the shot break. It’s perfect.
In Hungary, there is a great respect for the harvest and a celebration of the animal’s life. The wound is cleaned of blood and in the stag’s mouth, a branch is placed to represent his last meal. A prayer is said to St. Hubertus thanking him for the bounty of meat we just harvested.
Zoltan, once stoic, jumps up in celebration, and his eyes even tear up slightly. He is elated for us, hugging us and shaking our hands profusely. Laszlo cracks open pilsners, and the celebration begins.
What occurs to me as we all gather around the stag and relive the highlights of the week’s hunt, laugh together, and sip pilsner, is that no matter how different our pasts, the language barrier, our homes being hemispheres apart, and our cultural differences, is that while it is said that “love is the universal language,” it is more than apparent. Again, I would argue, that there are two universal languages—love and hunting.
So, Egészségére (that’s “cheers” in Hungarian), to your harvest this season.
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