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South Westland has a long history of deer hunting accessed by jet boat, and these days it’s still somewhat of a mecca for jet boaters and hunters alike.

On any fine weekend you’ll no doubt find trucks and trailers at any of a number of the places you’re able to drop a boat in.

Pre the helicopter hunting era the jet boat was a key tool, often in combination with horses and fixed wing aircraft. To this day you can see the remnants of old meat safes and deer traps in some places, and even the long rusted remains of a few tractors that were used to get venison back to the road end. One can only imagine the logistics and sheer hard work involved, not too mention the skill required in navigating these rivers in old glass boats or tractors up the riverbeds.

You don’t have to look too far in old books to read about the legendary yarns - and more often than not misadventures of the likes of Dave Saxton further South in the Pyke in the very late 60’s and early 70’s. A jet boat was the obvious tool to use on a big river with vast river flats for commercial meat hunting at the time. It began with Dave Saxton dismantling a Jet 30 and getting everything flown into the Pyke for him to reassemble. Negotiating rapids, log jams and simply running aground, that boat and subsequent boats would have all been sunk many times over. Only a seriously determined and resourceful person could keep such an operation afloat so to speak. You can read a lot more about Dave’s adventures in a book published by Dave Drangsholt – “ SAX -the life and times of Dave Saxton”, and this is where the classic photo below is from.

dave drangsholt and dave saxton

Dave Saxton's Donna Lee loaded down with a serious amount of venison from the early 70's, Dave Drangsholt

These days we still have to deal with the inclement weather and associated floods, but were not going to miss pay day if we don’t manage to get a deer or two in the boat for the return journey. And having started out boating some of these rivers in a classic old fibre glass bottomed Jet 32, I can tell you it’s now much less disconcerting being in a more modern alloy hull that can handle the inevitable knocks and bruises of South Westland boating.

jetboat hunting

Image @Ross Nimmo

Tying the boat up high and dry and taking off for a few days is something best saved for a good forecast given the incredible amount of rainfall this area can receive, and the speed at which these rivers can rise and fall. Lying your tent listening to it rain all night and wondering if you really picked a good spot to tie up isn’t exactly relaxing, as getting it wrong would make getting back to the truck seriously problematic.

jetboat left overnight

Cole Lucas returned after a night away to find the river had dropped and left him well stuck in the silt.

Years ago some buddies of mine were about as far up one of these South Westland rivers as you can really get in a boat, when they ran aground having taken a wrong braid. After many hours of trying to push their rather heavy boat along, they came to the realisation that they still had hundreds of meters of pushing to get back into water deep enough to get going again. They didn’t really have a show of getting unstuck without a second boat and a serious amount of rope so began the long walk back to the truck, including camping a night on the way. It took them the better part of 2 days to make it back, then of course they had to organise the salvage mission and get back up there to retrieve the boat.

This sort of scenario certainly makes you think just how resourceful those old original jet boat hunters would have needed to be, they mostly had to rely on getting themselves out of the proverbial the whole time, and certainly had none of the modern day conveniences we now take for granted such as satellite phones and inReaches.

south westland jetboat hunting

@Tom Overton at the end of the line

I guess some of us are just natural born problem solvers, and some of us certainly aren’t, but it’s amazing what you can come up with when you don’t really have a choice. A few years back and again near the top of a long river, but at least this time travelling with a handful of other boats. One  guy managed to shear the keyway that locks the impellor to the shaft of the jet unit. With a handful of tools, the unit was soon apart,  the problem spotted and a solution of sorts was found. This involved smashing in half the closest-fitting Allen key we had between a couple of big rocks, to “create” a new key. This worked and the guys got the boat 40 minutes downstream and all the way back to the trailer, with the trade-off being that it wrecked every bearing in the unit in the process.

It pays to have a healthy respect for rivers and exercise at least a little caution, particularly if your travelling solo. With a reliable boat I don’t hesitate these days in taking off up a river by myself for the night, if I know the river well. Just a few weeks ago I did just that, positioning myself for an evening and morning hunt up a couple of good side creeks and pitching camp only 50 meters from the boat. With the prime hunting literally that close, it’s always hard to hold yourself from starting your stalk too early, which is a lesson I seem to try and learn again at least once a year.

evening jetboat hunt

Off for an evening hunt

Stalking up the side creek furthest from camp with a promising amount of sign around, my eyes were peeled and I was moving carefully. But not carefully enough to avoid spooking the half a dozen cattle I came across, that were a million times more switched on than the dairy farm editions. They all took off up the creek, spelling and end to hunting that creek for the evening.

I quickly made the short boat ride back to camp to hoping to still have enough light to look in what was supposed to be my morning creek. I hadn’t gone 100m past my tent when the dog starting sniffing the wind and looking keen, slowing right down and peering around the next corner I spotted a yearling hind only 50 meters further along which was a little surprising given I’d only just pulled up in the boat a couple of minutes prior.

Having got what I came for and finishing the mighty 150 meter carry to the boat I realised I still had just enough day light to make the 15-20minutes boat journey back to the truck and a comfy bed for the night, so I packed down camp in super time, loaded the boat and took off down stream, stopping only when I saw another yearling on the rivers edge. I lifted the rifle then put it back down again as I realised I was out of time already and trying to jet boat in the dark is really more stress than it's worth.

Originally produced for NZ Hunter Magazine,  grab yourself a subscription HERE


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