What an absolute disaster for the local hunters of NZ for the start of the 2020 season. Not to be broken however, when we picked up a cancelled Tahr ballot for Week 4 the boys were frothing for the chance to get into the wild West Coast. All we had to hope was the impending decision to go to Level 2 and to get to be allowed to jump in a 500. With the green light 3 days before fly in day, the excitement levels were at an all-time high after being cooped up for 5 weeks. Work was swapped for Adams Range and luckily for us we had 7 days of bluebirds forecasted.
The night before fly in is always exciting especially when you are staying down on the coast at the local hangar. I had driven down from Nelson with Jarrod, and Mike had come up from Twizel. Two other lads were making the journey in a few days and flying in later to join us. Chris was coming all the way from Auckland and Jason up from Queenstown. The dedication from the lads to come from all over the country was impressive. Unfortunately for a lot of locals down in Franz, they were hurting from the effects of the lockdown, so we were happy to be parting with cash and seeing it go through their cash registers.
9AM fly in day dawned and we piled into the 500 and were whisked over the coastal range and dropped into a new block that none of us had been into. It's exciting going somewhere that you’ve poured over maps and visualised for the last couple days. When you actually see it from the bubble plans go out the window and you’re back to square 1 pretty quick. We exited the 500 quickly and went about setting up a safe campsite and decided on a plan. We were right in the thick of it and seeing as we were the first ones in, we decided to hunt close to camp for the evening.
As 4 o’clock rolled round we dropped to the scrub edge and parked up looking into some stunning tussock faces. The tahr were moving about and we were in the mixer with them coming up from under us. It didn’t take long for the experience of Jarrod and Mike to pay dividends as most of the bulls we were seeing were just herd bulls. The skins on these guys were amazing and for my first time hunting them in the rut I was taking in what the boys were saying. We stayed late in our little possy and we saw plenty of bulls but nothing much age or that would have stretched the tape over 12”. We went to bed happy however as tomorrow was a new day and we were heading off early to a new lookout.
Day 2 started with an early 5am alarm and straight into a hot breakfast. We wanted to get into our new glassing spot right on first light, so left early. We actually walked straight into a young bull roaming about 100 yards from camp and he proceeded to stomp and whistle until he had a gut’s full and hightailed it off.
We climbed up onto our lookout rock and got the glass working. We didn’t need the fancy 10 power binoculars for the first culprit, he was only 80 yards below us chasing a half dozen nanny’s around, he was an interesting specimen with a deformed left horn that was actually rounded. We assumed he had been injured somewhere along the line as we had never seen this before and he was left to his own devices.
The rut was definitely underway with all the nanny’s being trailed by bulls, and young bulls on the fringes with the bigger boys holding their ground. Still nothing was really showing much horn with the spotter revealing the half dozen different critters all being in the middle age, 12” bracket.
The one promising bull we did see was a long long way off and holding probably a dozen nannies. He was over 1.5 km away but with the spotter you could tell he would have been worth measuring. He had his work cut out however, we saw him rumbling with a few younger bulls that were trying their luck. We gave him props however as he wasn’t backing down to any fights over straying Nans. Just as we were deciding if he was worth a fly camp mission, disaster from the sky. We knew there were DOC lads operating nearby, trapping for the ZIP program but it couldn’t have been any worse for our plan. The helicopter flew straight up the valley and climbed up the face. Everything went quiet briefly but we saw the big bull was nervous. Seconds later he tore off straight down to the scrub. Nannies, young bulls and anything else he had on his mind was forgotten in the madness. He covered the 200 yards to thick scrub through the flax in seconds and he was gone. Then previously hidden by the ridge, we heard the chopper. He had come up behind them and was now 50 yards from where Big Bull was standing 30 seconds earlier. One hi-vis operator jumped out with the day pack and off he went down the ridge to check his traps. I know DoC has to do their pest work. But the middle of the tahr rut when we are in there to control these tahr for the department? Maybe something needs to be better organised as it was a bit of a kick in the guts at the time.
This quickly changed our plans as we figured that bull wouldn’t come back out there for the next couple days, so back to camp for some lunch and back to the glassing rock for the evening.
After a quick lunch we were keen to get back into the action on the rock and settle in for the evening hunt. Binoculars were working overtime and we were seeing new bulls, so spirits were lifted after our incident this morning. 4 o’clock rolled around and low and behold Mike spotted a couple bulls 400 yards away from us. They definitely weren’t there in the morning so Jarrod whipped the spotter on them. First bull was another herd bull but the lower bull was bigger. His mane was down at his ankles and his shear size gave him away. He had his tongue out and was chasing two nannies up the face. Jarrod had a grin as soon as he got the focus sorted.
“Big bull, get that rig ready Mike”
The following words out of Mikes mouth ring home to the kind of guys I now hunt with.
“Get your rig out Curly, you wanna shoot him?”
Here was this cracking bull at 400 yards that he had just spotted, and his first thought was if someone else wanted to shoot it.
There was no way I could be happy shooting Mikes bull and he had accumulated a lot of weeks over many years in the alps chasing bulls. This brute was Mikes' to shoot and I was sitting there hoping the bullet found the mark. Cameras were set up to capture the action, ear plugs were in and we sunk in behind the binoculars to watch it go down.
405 yards and he turned broadside, stretched out his neck and curled his top lip for the nanny 2 yards in front of him. The 270 WSM roared and the bullet found its mark, at 400 there’s still a lot of energy in the 130 grains. It found his front end and whopped him clean off his feet, the silence is always sweet. It all sunk in and we shared a few handshakes. We were confident we knew where the bull would be and decided to attempt the recovery the next day and take the time to take good photos in the daylight. We packed up gear and headed for home.
Sharing a whisky with dinner, after a heck of a day we figured we deserved it. Jarrod asked Mike jokingly “if by chance your bull goes 14, will ya shoulder mount him?” He thought about it for a while cause he was pretty confident he was around the 13” mark but decided if it was 14 he was going on the wall. Tomorrow would tell all.
Day 3 was a slower start. 6AM alarm sounded and we nipped out the tents to discover the ZIP work DOC was doing obviously had some results. 15 odd kea had destroyed our camp and all of our tents had felt the wrath of their beaks. Nothing we could do would worry them but by 8 am they got sick of our antics and buggered off for the day. We gathered our gear for the recovery and set off for the day, but not before we dropped our tents and covered them with a big tarpaulin. We took our time heading over to Mikes' bull and found him down in the creek. Mike wasn’t overly convinced as he walked up to him, his face said it all.
He gripped his tahr and turned him over and in a flash he had a massive grin from ear to ear, he was a rocket. Age rings stacking up and we estimated he was at least 9 ½ years. I grabbed the tape out and handed it over to Mike for the honours, the faithful sewing tape doesn’t lie and his bull taped out a couple whiskers over 14, shoulder mount for Mike it was.
We dragged him into a few different spots for some photos and took the time to do him justice. Who knows when you might get another bull that big, or it might be once in a lifetime. I'm a huge advocate of taking plenty of photos to remember the moment so we spent a couple hours getting some good shots. We were all wrapped for Mike, a heck of a hunt resulted in a stunning bull and his cape was a cracker too.
We decided we would leave Mike to skin out his bull and head over to look into another catchment. We legged it for an hour and climbed up into a good vantage for the evening, we sat down to look over a cracking looking gut that we hadn’t had a chance to look in yet, so hopes were high.
We sat there for an hour and didn’t see anything, maybe we had picked a dud. So we circled around for a different vantage point, but still nothing was showing up. We positively joked about maybe we just couldn’t find anything here, cause this was the home of the biggest bull on the range. With half an hour left of light we were still sitting there with not a tahr sighted. Giving it 5 more minutes paid off, a nanny popped out 100 yards below us followed by another nanny, and another. I decided there was definitely going to be a bull next but no deal. Another nanny. 6 nannies piled over the spur and then finally he came over.
His mane was an absolute cracker and down past his knees, all the way back down to his rear. The only issue was he was following his girls and they were walking onto a face that most likely was going to consist of short frozen tussock in 20 minutes. We decided somehow getting him to stop on some sort of bench and sacking him on the spot was our only option.
He waltzed along sniffing and tongue flicking at his last nan totally oblivious to our presence. The tahr had walked up the face and were now level with us but still on this horrible face, if he slid he was going to go 500 yards to the bottom but he was heading towards a rocky bench. I got the rifle set up whilst Jarrod got set up on the camera.
The bull walked onto the terrace and I pulled the trigger on my new .300WSM and unfortunately for me he ran. 10 yards across the face he went and slipped behind a tiny spur, totally out of sight, my heart sunk because it had gone totally wrong. We needed him to sit down and now we couldn’t even see him.
His nannies were flying everywhere now but only the 6 that were with him, it seemed like they might have actually been the only tahr in this gully.
I was confident in my shot and Jarrods' film showed it was a direct hit but possibly a couple inches behind his shoulder blade. It's super hard picking your spot perfectly on those big fluffy bulls so I was slightly gutted, he was dead but not on the spot. We quickly gathered our gear keeping our crampons on top.
We discovered the face was just as slippery as suspected and still couldn’t see the bull. I walked up onto the spur he went behind and low and behold there was my bull, piled up on the smallest patch of rocks and inches from sliding 400 yards to the bottom. I gave Jarrod the thumbs up and he scurried over. With a cracking skin on him and taping out a whisker under 13” I was wrapped to say the least. Pretty bloody good for my first winter tahr hunt I reckon. More photos for us and his skin was coming home with me, strapping his skin onto the faithful pack as darkness surrounded us, it was now it was time to get off that face. A couple “No Fall Zones” were called out on the way over and noted, we clambered around without a hitch and found our way back to the shooting spur. After a few swear words and slips we climbed back out of that gully and back towards home, seeing Mikes light down at camp was a welcome sight.
Day 4 was another sleep in as we got home late and needed some rest. We had the rest of the crew coming in for the remainder of the week, so waited around for them. The sound of the machine thundered up the valley and 2 lads climbed out to join us for the rest of the week.
They were eager to rip in so stood the tents and we split up, 4 Lads went up and Mike and I went down. Bumping into a lone bull about 200 yards from camp we quickly whipped the spotter on him, a very nice bull that would have been over 12 but possibly not quite 13 and not quite old enough. Better to give him the benefit of the doubt and leave him be. He was watching us and actually decided to walk down the gut towards us and then we noticed his front left leg, it was bent and he was hobbling, he had either been shot through the elbow or had taken a nasty fall. His hoof was about 6 inches long from not using it, so it must have happened a while ago. We decided if he survived this long, it can't have been hindering him that much. We slogged it up into the next gully and snuck up it, closely followed by the West coast cloud, sitting down right where we had hoped the tahr would be but we couldn’t see more than 50 yards and the other boys were having the exact same issue. We were skunked for the first time on this trip. We waited until dark hoping it would lift at some point but it wasn’t to be, then walking back to camp with our tails between our legs, defeated.
Day 5 Contemplating our options, and deciding the cloud would hopefully bugger off. We thought we could get a hunt in close to camp and then fly camp that evening a bit further away from camp. We quickly got a forecast on the Inreach and that stuffed that plan real fast, with rain and lots of it forecasted for the whole day, and a pretty decent storm at that. 3 days of rain had come early, and the boys who had flown in just yesterday were guttered! It had changed our plans pretty fast, but that's the coast I suppose.
So, the plan was to do a big mission into untouched country for the evening and then make a decision in the morning, I teamed up with Jarrod and knew I was in for a heck of a mission. We push each other in the hills and this evening was certainly going to be one of those missions. Leaving before lunch we walked 4 hours to a spot we had decided was worth checking out for the evening. With the probability that this was our last evening, we wanted to check this gully out properly before we left and hoped the cloud would play ball. After some nasty pinches and dicey saddles holding onto scrub, we parked up on a knife edge looking into some beautiful country.
It wasn’t long before we started seeing tahr coming up out of the scrub, so we settled in. I was still getting the hang of assessing bulls, so was kind of relying on Jarrod’s knowledge here. We saw some nice bulls that would have been over 12, potentially pushing towards that 13” mark but the cloud kept rolling in and out making it super hard to get a good look at them. An hour went by and nothing in range was really standing out so we turned around to check out some country behind us out of curiosity. We were glassing the face 800 yards behind us and it was bare, for some reason the tahr just weren’t there. We watched it for a good 20 minutes and still nothing. We put the binoculars down to turn back around and there was a flipping bull staring at us 40 yards below us.
Jarrod hissed at me “Big Bull, shoot it bro, shoot it” I had my rifle sat right next to me and slowly reached for it, while the bull just kept staring, he should have run but he was just frozen there. I slowly got the rifle and tried to give it to Jarrod, he had already set up the camera and was filming it close range. He must have never seen humans before cause he didn’t know what to make of us. Jarrod didn’t want the rifle and told me to take him.
He looked like a monster all puffed up so close, I wound the scope right down and put the crosshairs on his chest. The 300 did its job perfect this time and dropped him on the spot. What a turn of events that was, we soaked it up and chuckled at how fast it can all change, then making the small distance over to the fallen beast and enjoying the moment.
He was a super nice scrub bull and was broomed back and had big cracks out of his ridges, a real character that's for sure. We guessed he was a conservative 7 1/2 years old with the potential to be older. Boy I’d been having some luck on this trip! We spent the rest of the evening up on that knife edge, and the cloud kept rolling in and out, it was frustrating for hunting but we were happy. We sat up there till dark again and then had the long slog back to camp, which always seems a bit easier when you’ve had some success for some reason. Headlights guided us home and we managed to keep our boots dry, it was good to be back to camp to catch up with the other lads. Massive disaster for them again unfortunately, the cloud had engulfed their spot and they sat in the cloud scratching their heads as to why the coast was picking on them. They did get a few breaks and saw some promising bulls but as quick as they saw them they were gone again. We had a couple beers in-case we were getting a pickup early and climbed into the scratcher.
Day 6 we awoke to thick high clouds, and it did not look good for us. We quickly text everyone on the Inreach we could, just to see what was happening on the coast and they all suggested we get out of there ASAP. We regretfully had to then tell them we wanted to bail out and if they could get a machine to us we wanted a pickup. 45 minutes was the reply so we frantically packed our camp down as the cloud seemed to linger around the tops. I was starting to think if this cloud dropped even slightly, the reality of being stuck there with a tent that had numerous holes in it from Keas was going to come to fruition. Luckily for me, that undeniable sound wandered up the valley and we climbed into the 500.
6 days of hard yakka had come to an abrupt end and we were headed for home 24 hours early. Such is life when hunting in the alps unfortunately but then again, we had a very good run to get those 6 days. No complaints out of me that's for sure, but I was gutted for the lads that come in late. They would just have to bide their time until Winter when hopefully life went back to normal. Until then I'd be content with the memories.
By Alex Davies.