Flagging: A Russian Classic Wolf Hunt

A line of red flags used for Russian wolf hunting

As grey wolves are making a spectacular comeback in North America, and more and more states and provinces delist them and consider more and more generous wolf hunting seasons, the question remains – how to hunt wolves? The intelligent social predators were brought to near extinction by trapping, but it’s not easy at all to hunt a wolf with guns, bows and arrows.

What would you say if someone told you that it was possible to contain wild free-range grey wolves in a definite space in a forest, and make them move precisely where you want to, within a few feet? There is a way, invented by Russian hunters in the second part of the XIX century, and has been used with great success ever since. Here are a few wolf hunting tips from Russia that could help you not only tag a grey wolf, but might work magic for coyotes and red foxes.

A Bit on History of Wolf Hunting in Russia

Before 1861, the solution for the wolf problem in most parts of Russia was the borzoi dog. Actually, it took many people, horses and hounds. A patch of wood was surrounded by mounted hunters with two or three sight hounds apiece. A pack of scent hounds would be then set into the wood to drive everything out. When hunters saw a wolf, they would set their borzois on it. The job of the hounds was not so much to kill a wolf as to slow it down until the hunter rode up and kill the predator with a dagger. The borzoi hunts were a great big thing, but even landed gentry could afford these hunts only with free labor of serfs. Once serfdom was abolished in 1861, the borzoi hunts were history.

Love hounds? Check out our blog stories about hunting leopards and mountain lions over dogs!

But Russians came up with a new and very efficient way to hunt wolves. The invention is attributed to professional hunters of the Pskov Governorate. If old books are anything to go by, they brought the art of a driven hunt to near perfection, and one such hunter could push a wolf or fox in an open field within the range of his partner’s crude muzzleloader. They occasionally made an improvised scarecrow made of spare clothes to turn the quarry in the right direction. One thing after another, they realized that a regular line of bits of cloth, smelling of humans and twitching in the wind, appears to a fox or wolf as a danger, nay, an impenetrable barrier. The method that we shall call “flagging” was born.

What Is Flagging?

Flagging is a way of hunting canine predators by surrounding a bit of cover where they are in by a line of flags. Flags are rectangular bits of cloth, ranging from 10 by 15 sm (roughly 4 by 6 in.) to 15 by 30 sm (6-12″) in size. Traditionally flags are made of red cloth. Wolves being color blind, flags of other colors may probably be just as efficient, but red line is more convenient for people to follow. Another debatable question is whether the flags should smell of people or not. It appears logical that a smell associated with danger will add to the effect. On the other hands, many experts point out that the key word here is “associated with danger”. In urban areas, many animals don’t perceive human smell as a hazard, but flags still work.

The greatest part of the impact is the “what’s unknown is dangerous” attitude common to most canine predators. There are mixed reports on flagging’s efficiency on felines; bears and ungulates don’t give a damn. But some wolves in areas not previously hunted with flags were known to stay within the surrounded area for up to a week, not daring to cross the frightful red line. Then, sooner or later, hunger will prove stronger than fear, or some freak accident like a fall of a tree will open a passage through the line. Innocent wolves, who see the flag line for the first time, will spend sometimes hours walking along the flag line, looking for a chance to crawl under or jump over. When they decide to crawl, often they leave yellow marks on the snow when passing under the line.

Wolves are intelligent animals who learn fast. A wolf that dared to break through the flag line once would never be afraid of flags again. In an area which is heavily hunted with flags the flag-immune wolves survive and teach their young not to be afraid of them, so hunting success drops. But after a few seasons without flagging, the “learned” generation is replaced by new, unsophisticated animals, and flags begin to work their magic again.

The right way (1) and the wrong ways (2-4) of laying the flag line. Arrows show where wolves can break the line. From “Wolf”, by A. Sokolov, 1951

To keep intervals regular, and to make flags appear as if they are handing in the thin air, they are fixed to a rope, just strong enough so as not to break under their weight. The distance between flags is usually 45 sm (roughly 18″). It is more convenient to have the rope with the flags on reels, to make mounting the flags easier. The rope is fixed to trees and bushes (one also needs a few poles to hang the rope across large clearings) at about the animal’s eye level – not too low, so the wolves can’t jump over, and not too high, so that they can’t crawl under.

Flagging is a winter hunt. It works best when there’s snow on the ground. Snow cover makes it easier to track the animals and make sure they’re in the right position to be surrounded by the flag line. Flagging is possible without snow, too, but the minimum requirement is that there shouldn’t be any leaves on the trees, and the undergrowth should be down. Otherwise, the flags will be lost in the grass and leaves, and wolves will simply not notice them.

Russian professional hunters quickly discovered that flagging was a very convenient way of selling the hunt to a sportsman. Once flagged, wolves could stay in the circle for a few days, giving the hunters time to send the message to the clients and to recruit drivers from the local peasants, to figure out the plan, and to wait for the clients to arrive.  Bounty hunters also used flagging with great effect. In Russia, wolves have always been a problem. Some areas still pay bounty for wolves, and in many places it is legal to hunt wolves with the help of motorized vehicles, including snowmobiles and even helicopters! However, many hunters still prefer the old-fashioned flagging, both as DYI hunts in groups of friends, and at hunting preserves who offer wolf hunting to paying clients.

Finding The Wolves

The biggest trick of this hunt is, of course, knowing that wolves are in a certain part of wood. Tracking by the snow is the most reliable weapon. A person who can imitate a wolf’s howl well can confirm the predators’ presence by calling them out. Finally, professional outfitters often used baiting to attract wolves to places that are easy to hunt.

Once the wolves are located, they have to be surrounded by the flag line. This part is what makes or breaks the hunt, but overall it’s a straightforward and intuitive process. Where do you start surrounding? How wide should the area to be surrounded be? How many people do you need? Do you focus on speed or stealth? How high should the line be? How frequently do you fix the rope? How should the flag line go? If you have any hunting experience, give these questions a thought, and it’s a safe bet you can figure out the answers yourself.

When laying the flag line, adjust the height for snow level.

OK, answers for self-check. The size of the area is mostly dictated by the lay of the land. You don’t want your flag line to come real close to where the wolves are, so as not to alarm them before due time. Russian woods are typically broken into 1 km by 1 km plots, and these are usually employed to run the flag line. On the other hand, you don’t want the area to be too big – it’s hard to work. 15 km in circumference is about the maximum you want to go, as it will take at least three hours to lay the line, leaving too little time for the actual hunt.

The surround starts at any convenient place. For choice you start from downwind, so when you pass the upwind side, where the wolves have a better chance of smelling you, the other side will already be flagged. It’s easier and faster when there are two people at it: one gets the line off the reel, the other picks it up and hangs it. It’s even faster if there are two teams, each doing a semi-circle and meeting each other on the other side. Any leftover hunter may be sent to the most likely escape route to watch out in case the flag hangers spook the wolves.

Spooking before the flag line is completed is one of the most common blunders that ruins in this hunt, but there’s a little trick here. If the area is densely populated, and wolves get to see and hear people who are no danger to them, you better be relaxed and natural. In perfect wilderness, by contrast, stealth is essential. The flag line should be as close to a circle as possible and any turns in it should be smooth and rounded. If a wolf gets into a corner, it is much more likely to break out of the flag line.

Hunting the Wolves

Even though wolves can stay behind flags for days, you shouldn’t push your luck too far. The hunt should start as soon after the flag line is laid as possible. The obvious choice to hunt flagged wolves is a drive. In the traditional Russian wolf hunting lore drives are divided into “open” and “closed”.

The “Open” Drive

With an open drive you have a definite “firing line”, with four to ten hunters placed in, well, a line. There is a break in the flag line, and the firing line is placed a short distance outside of the break. A number of drivers walk through the woods, making noise, and push the wolves towards the opening. The more drivers, the better, and in fact the drive is organized so that the wolves would go to the firing line even without assistance from flags.

The open drive has two definite disadvantages. First is that it requires assistance of many people. Not many areas today can provide enough people ready to tramp the woods all day for a few small coins; cost is also a factor. The second disadvantage is that wolves escape the drive at full speed, and a galloping wolf is an uncommonly difficult target.

But for the Russian guides of the XIX and the early XX century these disadvantages didn’t matter. The local peasantry was only too happy to make a few kopecks for their services as drivers, which improved their relationship with the guides. A missed wolf was the client’s fault – and could be found, flagged, and sold one more time. If a wolf was missed because a client moved about, lit a cigarette, or did something like that, other hunters will see that and have no question who the bad guy was. With short an clear-cut action, the clients who were inexperienced or plain bad hunters had fewer opportunities to ruin the thing, and, all in all, an open drive is it a convenient way to arrange a hunt for a motley crew of city hunters of uncertain ability.

Schematics of an open and a closed drive. From “Wolf Hunting” by B. Razumovski, 1981

The “Closed” Drive

But when the objective was to kill wolves, not to sell a hunt – or whenever the client was a trusted and able hunter, it was a whole different game known as a “closed” drive. It can be done with as little as two people, though four or five works best. As the name suggests, with a closed drive there’s no opening for the firing line, and no firing line too. The most reliable shot would take position to cut the most likely escape route of the wolves, the second – the wolves’ possible Plan B, and so on. The shooters’ position is inside the flag line, about 30 meters deep into the drive.

In a closed drive, there will be only one driver, who will move on silently and carefully, tracking the wolves to their beds. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes the wolves let the driver sneak in range for a sure shot, and if the driver is 100% sure of a kill he or she is justified of firing. But in 99% of cases the wolves will sneak out just in time, and make their escape – hopefully, in the direction covered by the shooters.

The hunters who wait for the wolves in a “closed” drive will have a much more difficult job before them than in a regular “open” drive. They will have to stand still for an indefinite period of time, covering a 270 degree radius. You can seldom tell where the driver is and how things stand. Wolves come in slow, making them an easier target, but stealthily. They may come from the inside of the drive. Or, if they took a different route but were stopped by the flags, they would move alongside the flag line, and come from your right or your left. In any case, a hunter who can stand quiet and blend in well with the landscape may have a wolf come within a spearing range. Then it is only a matter of making a careful shot.

Guns for Wolf Hunting

The traditional weapon for this hunt is a shotgun loaded with buck shot. What size of buckshot works best is a matter of endless debate. However, many modern wolf hunters swear by AK-type semiautomatic rifles for 7.62×39 Russian, or even lighter .223 and 5.45 mm rounds. These work fine for no-limit hunts, but American wolf hunters, who will have just one tag and that if they’re lucky, may find the one shot, one kill philosophy more appropriate. Any gun powerful enough and in which a hunter has confidence can be used. But if you asked us, the perfect gun for trophy hunting wolves by flagging would be a combination gun, for 12 gauge in one barrel and .308 Win or a similar round in the other, with a red dot sight. Such a gun will give you an instant choice between buckshot from the shotgun barrel for short range and a long-range rifle bullet. wolf3

Can Russian Wolf Hunting Techniques Apply in North America?

To be honest, we can’t see a reason why not.  Wolves’ behavior is similar all across their natural range. People who try flags in new areas, where this method had never been used report great success. “I could never imagine flags are so efficient” – says one hunting concession owner from Kazakhstan after a trial. – “Two wolves that had been fired at and missed at the firing line tried to escape and ran into the flag line, and it literally stopped them in their tracks .You could see “skid marks” from all four paws where the wolves “hit the brakes””.

Apart from wolves, flagging will work for red foxes. Most hunters use smaller flags for fox, and hang them lower, to match the animal’s height at eye level. It could also work for coyotes. Actually, all it takes is a small investment into flags and reels.

Borzoi dogs were introduced into the US for the purpose of wolf hunting in the XIX century, but there’s no record if the flagging was tried or not.  If any North American hunter experimented or is planning to experiment with flagging, give us a hoot – we’d like to cover your results. In the meantime, discover what wolf hunting opportunities are there on BookYourHunt.com

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