Traditional hunt in Latvia – Beavers

Our friend from Belgium Tom Van De Maele, shares with us his experience in Latvia, whilst hunting beavers.

It was at IWA in Germany that I received an invitation for a traditional Beaver hunt in Latvia. I’m from Belgium myself and we’ve started to get some beavers back in our country. Some were released others made their way from Germany. As I never had the challenge to hunt them in Belgium where they’re protected, it did not take me long to accept this invitation. Beaver season in Latvia starts the 15th of July and ends the 15th of April. We would hunt on the 14 and 15th closing another beautiful beaver season.  

Two weeks before the beaver hunt, I was in the UK where I received a message from Linda that the weather started to change and the long frost period came to an end. Probably by the time we arrived, streams, ponds and soil would be defrosted again. During the last week before the hunt I received pictures from Linda who had shot herself 3 beavers in one evening. My expectations were raised even higher! Nerves began to grow and I started to carefully pack. I wanted to be sure not to have forgotten anything. I also thought about gifts to explain my gratitude for the people that were kind enough to invite me. Some chocolate for Linda who invited me and some good liquor for the people who we would hunt with seemed to be a proper gift!  

At last the day of departure arrived, 13th of April, my airplane was on time and I arrived at 13:05 in Riga. Our two French friends  Philipe and Michel that would join us at the same moment in Riga were less fortunate, thunder and lightning made them arrive late with all their gear. While we enjoyed some lunch together waiting for them, we could enjoy the Latvian sun. An hour later they finally arrived with all the kit they had. Drones, cameras, gun, clothing, … I have to say, the Toyota Landcruiser Linda was driving earned all possible respect after it was stacked up to the top with 5 people 2 dogs and all the gear! I was glad she didn’t drove a smaller vehicle.  

After a three-hour road trip from Riga to Liepaja where we would hunt on roads where we were allowed to drive a maximum 90 KM/H we already had an idea about the nature and biodiversity of Latvia. With only 1,8 million people living in a country twice the size as Belgium there is a lot more forest and field, the number of forest even increased last century. We saw many storks, cranes, roe and beaver houses and dams. A perfect sign. Linda told us about the large variety of animals that roam Latvia and/or can be hunted. Hares, moose, red deer, capercaille, black grouse, hazel grouse, lynx, wolf, bear to name only a few. In the late afternoon we arrived at our hotel which was very cheap and still clean with very nice sized rooms (To be honest, we only saw our hotel on short occasions to sleep or to take breakfast). 

That same evening, we were introduced to our hosts. Katé Sterna the local huntress and our guide and her husband who would dig and work to get the beavers in front of the guns. In our honour they organised a party at their house where we would already get a taste of beaver meat. We received a soup with vegetables and beaver meat, an oven roast filled with herbs and Katé’s husband was smoking beaver meat and tails to eat in the forest the next day.  

After the nice dinner party, we went for a nice walk on the beach where we enjoyed the sunset which delivered us with some fine pictures. Satisfied we ended this first long day and happily we dove into our beds exhausted from the long journey. All to soon nonetheless our alarm clocks started beeping and the adrenaline kicked in. We quickly prepared and were driven back to Katé’s place where the dog handlers and a couple of local hunters were introduced to us. We drove off to the place where we were allowed to do a “driven hunt” on beaver. Driven means, you have a stream where you have several dams and a beaver house next to it. You start taking apart the beaver dams so the water of the stream gets lower, then you put the dogs into the beaver house which in their turn make the beavers fled their house. If all goes well the beaver should pass the guns which in turn then allows the guns a clean and safe shot to be taken.  

We arrived at the hunting territory and the owner of the land proudly came by to greet us. He felt honoured that people from Brussels and France came over to hunt on his grounds. Some obligatory pictures had to be made as a memory for him and his family that we hunted on his land. That was quite a funny experience, I have to say!  

The first dam we did was very exciting, the sun was out and it was already 20 degrees. This was a warm welcome after the winter. It was really exciting for us who never participated in such a hunt, trying to find the right spot and angle to stand and to look at the water. We were between some Christmas trees which didn’t allow you to see the dog handlers nor some of the colleagues who worked further up or downstream to make everything work. Ducks flew over our heads and we heard our friends starting to take down the dams. We already in our mind saw beavers passing us by and us taking the perfect shot at them. Michel set up his camera’s in the perfect place using the right angle. After 20 minutes the dogs started barking and a shot was released, did we get our first beaver, would more follow in our direction? Apparently not! After several minutes we found out that the dogs just had chased some roe deer and the handlers tried to get them back. With empty hands we went back to the road.  

Off to the next stream. There we saw what kind of damages beavers can do to nature. A nice birch forest completely full of rotten trees. This is due to the fact that the beavers set the forest under water and the trees start to rot and fall down. The weather was even warmer as the sun stood at its highest and the dog handlers started again taking down the dams, lowering the water level but again without result. The only beaver they came back with was a dead one that was caught by a trap further on.  

It was already noon and we started to get hungry. The local products came out and we all shared with each other. A fletched string of smoked cheese, beaver tail, smoked beaver, bread, drinks, moose sausage, beer, tea, coffee, … It was a real party although it was not complete yet. One thing was still missing, a successful hunter with a successful story. We went to take a look at the trapped beaver. Katé explained it was still a young animal. She showed us where the glands were and showed us the teeth. What an amazing animal! It is just incredible how they manage to take down such big trees only using their teeth.  

In the afternoon we moved from territory as they felt there were less beavers then they thought there would be. The trapping might have been more effective than the owner of the territory thought. The first stream looked very promising. The year before they got 9 beavers from it. As I had my waders on, I wanted to have the experience and the opportunity to take apart a dam. Equipped with shovel and waders I jumped into the stream and started to shovel away the dam. I have to say, it was harder then I imagined but the respect for the dog handlers and Kate’s husband who did this the whole day for us only grew by it! The water lowered but again, no beaver. We had the feeling the day was cursed.  

Another stream and a very promising one with fresh tracks and a big beaver house made us already dream about the perfect shot, but it was too late to lower it down on time, maybe it was better to keep this one for Sunday? We went to a small creek, to check a trap next to the airport where Katé’s husband works and of course there was a beaver in it. In the end we returned with 2 beavers but none of them shot by us that day. Were we disappointed? From one site yes, the dog handlers, the dogs, Katé, all of them did everything they could without success. But you know, that is what hunting is all about! We’re not killers, we’re working with wild animals and try to do proper management. Game is unpredictable, sometimes we’re very lucky, sometimes we’re not. After all we were fortunate to be in such a lovely country with such a wide diversity of animals not to mention the people we were hunting with. Although we did not go back to our hotel with a successful hunting story, we had the pleasure to have the first day of over 20 degrees this year and we saw many other beautiful animals like swans, frogs and roe. This resulted in the most amazing pictures. And we were lucky enough to receive good food in the evening!  

A plan for the next day was made. As the dog handlers couldn’t be there on Sunday, we decided to do a kind of stalk. In the morning we would take position next to streams, rivers and ponds where there were dams and beaver houses. As the day would get on, we would be able to spot any beavers foraging and if lucky to place a clean shot. I was placed at the bank of a nice pond who had a kind of semi-isle going into the middle of the pond from where you could check both sides. Only after a quarter of an hour, I heard something nibbling at roots, was this a beaver? I stayed concentrated, but it was too dark. Two of our ladies came back from the dyke and pointed towards me, apparently the big fat beaver who I heard eating was in the water, staring at me and I even didn’t see him while he was carefully checking me out. The sun started to rise and swans flew over me. There must have been at least 200 of them coming over in various V-shaped formations. In the corner of my eye, I saw a bit of movement on the other side of the pond.  A beaver swam in the water, I slowly changed my sticks from side. As I aimed, I saw the beaver quite blurry in the scope. This had nothing to do with the quality of the scope but with the sun that was behind me and troubled my sight of the beaver as it was directly shining in the glass. It took me several seconds but finally I saw the beaver well enough. The safety was set off and I went back a final time into the scope but just when my finger wanted to go to my trigger, the beaver dived under. Two opportunities but no shot and certainly no beaver to show for it, I was humbled down again as a hunter.  

We came back together and heard the story of the others. Linda had seen several beavers but all too far on the opposite side of the river. Dodo had shot a beaver but it managed to escape and swim to its house. Philippe had seen a couple of beavers and shot a couple of times with a slug at a beaver only to miss. Michel had more success with his camera, some very nice pictures of the morning were his share. Philippe was frustrated and asked for a riffle for the evening which Katé provided him with.  

As it was still early in the morning, we took breakfast all together. After our breakfast we were offered a cultural tour. We went to see the beach and old fortifications of Tsar Nicolas the Second. Afterwards we saw a beautiful orthodox church and last but not least an old “prison” or as they called it, a correction institution. Well I can tell you, if you had seen the conditions, you rather would prefer to be in our prisons then this fine institution. Funny fact, we were guided by the last commandant of this fine institution (although he tried to keep it quiet). Nonetheless he had a fine sense of humour and several interesting stories to tell. At our afternoon lunch that followed we spoke about the strategy for the night. Everyone would take back the same position, I would stay around my pond and Philippe would get a rifle and scope.  

Together with Linda, I walked back to my pond only to find out the wind changed direction, so it was better to take cover at the other side of the pond where the reed/cover was higher. I sat down on a chair, gun at my side and the shooting sticks open. Linda went to the river. It took a very long time before Linda send me a message that she saw a beaver but too far. I was focussing on the left where the big fat beaver had laughed at me from the water but nothing moved until I heard some noise in front of me. I couldn’t see anything. After a while I saw again in the corner of my eye some movement, it appeared to be a beaver who was swimming from my side to the other. I put the stalking sticks in position, dropped the gun in them and tried to take aim. But hunting fever took the better part of me and I decided not to take the shot. The beaver disappeared in its house. Minutes passed by but for me it seemed like hours. All thoughts passed through my mind and although I am happy of myself I didn’t not take the shot when I was not certain of a hit, I was afraid I would have blown my last chance to a successful hunt. Luckily 10-15 minutes before it was getting dark, the beaver decided to pop out again and to swim back to the other side. This time I was ready. I saw his head and from time to time his tail above the water, he swam nice and straight and didn’t know I was there. As I mounted the gun and followed him in the scope I saw his head above the water. I put the crosshair at the base of his head, adapted my speed and pulled the trigger. The bullet was gone, the crack of the gun roared and a split second later, I saw my beaver floating on the water. I recharged and followed up. No movement anymore. I texted Linda and asked if she could come with her dog. I made my way around the pond. Halfway down, the beaver was still there at the same position. Only when I arrived at the other side, it had disappeared. When Linda arrived with her dog, it went mad at the house where he was in earlier. This made us believe that it might have fled into the beaver house. We started to dig and it took us so long that the others arrived and started to help us dig. It was dark by the time we dug out the house only to be empty handed. The dogs were still going crazy on the house but we decided we had to quit.   

Philippe had at last shot a beaver that was in front of Katé, a big female. A local hunter who joined our group had shot 3 beavers but all of them sank after a short while. Devastated of the insecurity of the fact my beaver sank or was wounded, I went back to katé her house where we enjoyed some food and shared our stories. We said goodbye to our friends and went back to the hotel. I couldn’t help, but to ask Katé if she would keep an eye out for the beaver.  

Together with Linda, her two dogs, Dodo, Philipp and Michel we drove back to Riga. We dropped our French friends at the airport and Dodo at home with one of Linda’s dogs. Linda’s other dog was picked up by her father. Soon it was time for us to go to the airport ourselves to fly to Bulgaria where we held the FACE annual Members Meeting.  

Then it happened, exactly two weeks after my shot when I was picking up my mum from her work. I heard a Facebook message coming in on my phone. Linda said she had some great news for me. Katé was walking her dogs around the pond where I shot the beaver. In those two weeks the water lowered down. When she went around the pond, she saw a strange shape that looked like a beaver at the exact location where I had shot it. Curious as she was, she threw a stick in for her Weimaraner to catch. I can tell you it didn’t came back with the stick but it did bring back my beaver! And even better was the fact that she had put every part of the retrieve and of the recovering out of the water on camera and made several pictures of my drowned beaver. At last I got some closure. It appeared to be a female of about 2 years old and it was indeed shot at the base of the head. I was relieved that it didn’t suffer and that we found it back. It was only sad to realize the fur and meat were not going to be used.  

Nonetheless I got an excellent experience! I can recommend it to everyone to go beaver hunting in Latvia, it’s amazing! Best of all, since we behaved as good hunters, we were invited to go over again! You can bet upon it, the story will be continued! If you would like to experience the same or even a better experience we had, you can always contact our outfitters on http://huntinginbaltics.com