It’s becoming a bit of a thing this whole velvet stripping stag hunt scenario. The popularity of summer red stag trophy hunting is definitely on the rise and it’s probably due to seeing some amazing results of numerous big racks displayed in the hunting mags, TV shows and youtube clips, where some lucky dude was in the right place at the right time.
The right time takes a bit of working out, especially on public land where another bloke or a chopper could slip in before you, but if you’re too early you’ll be confronted with a soft jiggly stripper and nobody wants a soft jiggly stripper. The time to hardening depends a lot on location, feed availability and the age of the animal, with the big old boys on the best feed hardening as early as mid-January. In most areas it will definitely be all go for mature red stags by mid-February so the race is on to get out in the hills and cover as much ground as your time off work and your legs will allow. At the tail end of the summer stag priming season, most experienced hunters will tell you that the big boys just seem to disappear and you won’t see them again until the onset of the rut with them likely turning up in a completely different location. Where they go during the pre-rut is as mysterious as the case of the single sock that never makes it back from the wash-house, but it means you have a pretty narrow window of opportunity each summer.
The right place to hunt summer stags is best kept under your hat because that knowledge comes from a lot of homework and often years of foot slogging to find the “stag fattening zone”. In the South Island back blocks these spots are often in the very high basins and gully heads where the fresh spring growth doesn’t occur until the middle of summer. Wet patches that grow clover and short lush grasses are the hot spots at this timing, whereas the long rank seed head grasses in the main valley floor have usually gone sour and less attractive by then. So for the would-be stag hunter some hard uphill foot slogging and time in the hills will be required, which usually cuts out the “Christmas let-them-self-goers” and all those suckers that chopped out their work leave loitering at the beach.
There is a plus side though because the stags are also letting themselves go. There is just one thing on their minds and that’s eating lots and getting fat before the roar. They are not hanging out with hinds and will commonly be found in bachelor groups with their heads down and bums up, being fairly non-alert which allows good opportunities for a successful stalk. And if you manage to drop a big trophy red in the summer you will now have one hell of a load of very good venison, layered in fat, but with none of that rank “seasoning” you get during the roar.
I was very fortunate to get a free pass at the “right time” and what turned out to be the “right place” when my mate Chief and I ventured into a new spot on public land in the South Island High Country near the end of January 2016. We had to wait out a bit of foul weather and when the forecast looked to be on the improve we bolted for the spot we’d been google earthing and drooling over for the previous few weeks. It was drizzling steadily as we back packed our way up a creek for a couple of k’s to find the spur that would lead us up over a low saddle into our dream basin, that would be teaming with monster stags. Luckily I’d thrown the GPS in my kit as we couldn’t see anything in the clag and needed some satellite assistance to hit the right basin. We sidled down through the tussock into the creek head and dropped far enough through the clouds to gain a view of the lower country and what a stunning view it was. Steep faces with bits of scrub and flax bottoming out onto green terraces lush with juicy clover and fresh grass shoots. The creek trickled out of the tussock basins and down through a tight gorge choked with matagouri and sweet briar. The out flow under the gorge opened onto alluvial “sports fields” where we imagined deer would be holding wildlife jamboree’s.
The immediate action was to glue the binoculars to our faces for the next half hour and locate all these monster stags, but they were obviously at a different jamboree! Nothing was spotted and the clag didn’t seem to be lifting at all, however we did have a steady breeze shifting up the valley so none of the country below us was spoiled.
We dumped our packs and wandered off downhill staying well above the gorge and checking each side gut thoroughly before passing through. There was plenty of deer sign and we started spotting hinds and fawns here and there, all of them were in there natal pairs but not mobbed up as hind groups. It was a good sign to see the hinds about but past experience told me that there would likely be no stags nearby at this time of year. With the females populating these lower reaches we now starting contemplating the high basins and gully heads which is why we’d come here in the first place, but of course we still couldn’t see a thing up there so our best bet was to head back to our packs, set up camp and sit it out till the morning.
The classic babbling brook sound beside our camp made for a good snooze and we were up and ready on time at day break. The clag however was still loitering so we decided to pack up and carry everything along with us while climbing up high onto the main ridge. Finally we broke clear into the dazzling summer sunlight. The beanies were soon traded for brimmed hats and sun glasses, while the clothing dropped down to a single layer. The first few basins only revealed occasional hinds and later we bumped into some geese sitting atop a high peak. Further along the ridge we did discover a chamois sitting on a rock outcrop surveying its territory in typical chamois style. A closer inspection through the bino’s revealed it was a doe and she had a big family group tucked up in the tussock nearby. We passed by as they spooked off down the shingle, but not before they all stopped within easy shooting range to take a pee. Female chamois were not the target but it was great to see a decent mob of nannies and kids and all in very good condition.
It was now a superb calm day with views for miles over the Alps which made for pleasant tramping along the rocky tops. Another few creek heads were inspected but still no stags could be found and the day really started heating up so we stopped for a long lunch and to dry the condensation out of our sleeping bags and bivvies’. My camera tripod with a tent fly draped over it made for a suitable sun shelter to take the bite out of the summer heat, but we soon ran out of water and this lack of moisture was the key feature in our next decision.
By mid-afternoon we thought it would be best to cross over to another catchment and drop into the gully head creek to refill our bottles. Something red caught Chief’s eye in the scrub several hundred meters down below and he reckoned it was a stag for sure. I set up the camera and zoomed in to 60x as we watched the LCD screen in anticipation. It sure was a deer and it appeared to be lying down with its big fat bum and creamy rump patch sticking out. If you squinted and used some imagination there was also some big solid sticks poking out from the other end! Finally we’d found a stag and it looked to be a significant mature animal at that.
The wind was awful heading straight down into the gut and a nearby hind and fawn confirmed this situation by scampering out from below and threatened to give us away to the stag, but thankfully he stayed put in his grassy bed. We were getting a bit sick of climbing hills with the packs on, however we had no choice but to climb back out again then head along the spur to get past the stag and drop down the face downstream with the wind in our favour. This mission took some time and it was late afternoon by the time we closed in to get a decent look at the stag. Peering over we found not one but two stags grazing away, their velvet was still intact but looked very close to coming off. The bigger of the two was definitely a huge beast with long tines and heavy beams, the stalk was on!
We dumped our packs and I got the camera rolling as Chief carefully led the way down a gut that kept us out of view. We popped out for a look using a knob as a vantage point but the animals didn’t seem to be there. The stags had grazed their way down into the creek bed and we suddenly spotted them directly below us at about 130 meters. With fear of a wind swirl giving us away we quickly set up for the shot, Chief behind the Tikka 300 wsm and myself taking careful aim with the camera. The big stag slowly turned to expose his shoulder and both of us managed a dream shot as the stag instantly dropped on the spot.
The younger stag trotted off confused but un-harmed, however the big boy never moved again. It was hard keeping up with Chief as he raced down to see what sort of rack it really was. What a monster of an animal, in great condition and sporting 12 long heavy points and 44 inches of length on the longest side. The missing bay tines and uneven tops took little away from the greatness of this huge public land trophy red stag.
After the photos we took to him with knives to slash off his head, hind quarters and back straps, the amount of fat on the rump of these summer stags always amazes me, as does the sheer weight of the back legs. It was a hell of a load to lug up the steep face to get back to our packs and by the time we were loaded up it was dark. We had made the decision to walk off the hill that evening and stupidly we stuck to that, making for a long hard trek down and out to the road after we had already had a massive day climbing hills. The road was reached at just before mid-night meaning we had done 17 hours of footslogging. The ute was about 5 km further along the gravel road and we had nothing left in us to go and pick it up. The stars were shinning so we rolled out the sleeping bags and crashed on the road side without bothering to use the bivvies’.
Chief drew the short straw in the morning and made the trudge along to retrieve the ute, then we bolted for the closest tea room for a double big breakfast rinsed with strong coffee and PowerAde. The memory of the hunt lives on when you pick up that huge rack and feel its weight and the video of the hunt gives us the opportunity to share the highlights with others. Take a look for yourself but definitely don’t tell our wives that we’d spent two days becoming part of the stripper club.