Beware of the contention surrounding this article! Its contents comprise of velvety stags, “trophy” hunting on public land, helicopters, meat wastage and a spot X that will be precious to a core few hunters that will recognise the general location. There’s been plenty of high opinion’s and insult thrown towards those who part-take in summer red stag hunting and I guess that will never change, however once that antler goes hard each season it’s pretty hard to stop a keen bloke from getting out there and having a look for the old stag with the big rack! For me personally when I’m well back off the beaten track, I don’t see much point in meat hunting instead reverting to photography and searching hard for that very elusive mature ole donk and on the rare occasion that a worthy beast is found I aint letting opinions be the thing to stop me from pulling the trigger.
Besides after a long, hot summer with nothing but work to entertain me while everyone else was fishing or at the beech I was sure looking forward to my couple of days of hill time in late January. Richie Williams was to join me on what was supposed to be a hike-in adventure on publicly owned Molesworth Station. The aerial 1080 grim reaper kind of dampened our enthusiasm for putting in the effort, especially after the Dept. of Conservation sent an e-mail to permit holders suggesting that the deer numbers had been knocked so heavily that we may be wise to consider an alternative hunting area! We took the suggestion on board and decided to throw our dirty sexy money at Ahaura Helicopters on the West Coast, booking a return trip up onto the high tops smack in the middle of the main divide of the Southern Alps. This area was also affected by 1080 but hopefully there was enough nearby resident deer population to feed back into the valleys and make a worthwhile hunting trip.
Two weeks out and a cruel blow was dealt when that bloody grim reaper passed by my work place sending a colleague into cardiac arrest while he was out in a paddock shifting sheep. With the support of another first aid trained staff member I administered CPR and AED but we failed to save our work mate. The fall-out from such an incident takes a bit to recover from and I considered pulling pin on the hunt. In the end a decent walk in the hills was just what I needed to get away and clear my head and when the weather cleared perfectly for our pre-arranged departure date that was enough to convince us that we should take the opportunity head on.
Flying in from the West Coast side was much better value than anything we’d had quoted by Eastern heli-companies and the trip itself was lashed with genuine West Coast hospitality and fantastic scenery. We chose a landing spot next to a water supply sufficient for camping on the first night and as soon as the chopper left we set about the most important task, spotting for game!
We still had a little bit of morning shadow to work with so Richie gave the steep faces the eagle eye picking up the odd chamois and red skin, but nothing of significance. The heat soon sat everything down and we lapsed into temporary comas under any shelter we could find, the 3:00am start driving over to Westland had finally got the better of us. By mid-afternoon the urge to look for animals had us back behind the binoculars staring into all the nooks and crannies but the shelves seemed to be bare. We hiked off along the high grassy basins heading for a saddle that would open up a new gully to find some source of life, but just before taking on the climb through rock debris I had one more sneaky look way down into some scrub that we’d glassed over 20 times before. A reddish shape and a little movement caught my eye, it was certainly a deer and as it steeped forward you could tell even from 1.4 km away that it definitely had some head gear. Out with the spotting scope and there was soon no doubt that this stag had a lot going on up top, plus it had both bez tines which are so often missing from the antlers of our wild New Zealand herds.
I really wanted to have a go at this stag but it wasn’t going to be easy with the three biggest issues being; the very heavy monkey scrub that the animal could disappear into at any moment, the massive drop to get down to a shooting position and that the wind was soon to change from the day time up creek flow to a downwards flow as the evening cooled off. I would never make it before dark if I was to try and stay high and go right around and down to a position below the stag, so the best option was to get a move on and risk coming in from above while hoping like hell that the wind change wouldn’t beat me. Richie stayed high using the spotting scope and two-way radios to keep me informed of the stags location, plus his canon sx60 camera was just able to stretch out enough to capture some of the action on film.
I dropped down the basins then into a steep creek which became a real prick to negotiate when I ran into a series of water falls. Some animal trails roughly lead the way around the obstacles but this had slowed me down so much that the threat of a wind change was now very real and by 6:45pm I was feeling the back and forth swing on the breeze. I was surprised to hear Richie’s radio reports that the stag was still in the same region so I pushed on quickly sidling out onto a rock fan that was overgrown with hebe scrub but would hopefully give me enough angle to get a clear shot. Sometimes but not often, things just go in your favour and this was one of those times. The breeze had enough cross wind to push my scent away from the stag, the rock fan had just enough berm to see over the scrub and the stag stepped out into a rocky creek gut just as I was getting the .308 stabilised in a rather springy tree. A final check of the rack through the scope from about 160 meters confirmed that the grim reaper was about to make another appearance. The stag turned broad side and the bullet struck the chest immediately dropping him on the spot. From past experience I knew a second shot was a good idea and this hit him right between the eyes.
Once I bashed through the scrub over to him I realised that ground shrinkage was not going to be an issue. The body size was massive and the antlers sported 15 points with plenty of mass. The length could have been better in an ideal world but looking at the damaged coronets, low pedicles and missing eye teeth it confirmed that he really was an old boy, probably past his prime. The top points were all over the place with a big throw-back giving plenty of character to this wonderful trophy. The velvet was just starting to open up on the top tines and the stag would have started to get annoyed with the itchy fluff and tear it all off within days. If he’d got that velvet off any sooner he would’ve immediately disappeared into heavy cover probably never to be seen in open country again till next velvet season, a phenomenon that has frustrated many hunters and allowed cunning stags to live to a ripe old age.
After the stag and selfie photo session I realised that time was slipping by and I had a decent mountain climb ahead of me to get back to camp, something I was dreading seeing as this was the first proper hunt in months and my fitness levels were very poor. The stags head came off and sadly I just could not cope with a heavy load of meat, besides the heat and flies over the next few days would have spoiled it regardless. It really does seem wrong to let such a beautiful animal go to waste and if there is such a thing as karma then maybe she’ll pay me back for my wrongs one day, I just hope she takes the time to stop by on those cruel bastards that sign off the aerial 1080 drops before she gets to me.
I made it back up to camp just on dark as the fog started to roll in. Richie arrived back at a similar time after whipping up over that saddle we’d been heading for earlier and he had tales of the chamois and deer that he’d spotted on the other side. I was a bit sore in the ole-knees and sleep came fairly easy after a long day. The alarms were set well before day break as we intended to pack up and ship out during darkness to climb over into a new catchment and spot for game as the first light made an appearance. We did just that but the fog refused to shift and had us sitting up on a little mountain col eating breakfast and stripping the velvet off my stag while waited for hours and hours hoping it would clear. Eventually we gave up on getting a view, back packing our way around into the next basin and it wasn’t until 12:30pm that the clag started to lift. We checked the gully heads of the immediate area and nothing showed its face, so we then climbed up and out again to get a view into the next big gully system which had a number of lovely high tussock basins and tarns that we could camp beside.
Once we dumped our gear at a good camp site we got out onto a prominent knob and set to glassing around the big valley below us. There were a few chamois and the odd hind here and there but eventually Richie spied a couple of big symmetrical dead branches poking out of the scrub 2.3 km away. These dead branches were actually the antlers of another big mature stag, he was lying down with his head upright and seemed to be solitary just like the big fella the previous day.
It was Richies turn for what would be a mammoth trek and this time it was me tasked with the spotting and radio duties. The hunt was pretty much the same as mine except it was nearer the middle of the day so the wind would keep rising up the valley for several hours yet. We studied the terrain before the stag and located a hummock beyond a shingle scree that would probably give a clear view to the stag of around 300 meters, so Richie set off with a hand full of bullets and a heart full of hope. The weather closed back in on the higher slopes and it started to rain so I was no longer able to keep an eye on the stag’s location and Richie was running blind. Three hours later it cleared enough for me to see down the valley again and amazingly the stag hadn’t moved an inch. I relayed that info to a very relieved Richie as he closed in the final section to make it up onto the hummock. As if it was all meant to be, the stag got to his feet and had a little stretch and a chew on some flax. Two things suddenly occurred to me; one that this was a real ripper of a stag and two that if he moved one single body length to either the left or right he would be completely swallowed up by the bush. This was making me feel very nervous for my mate but with that thought the stag suddenly dropped dead right on the spot! It was about 4:00pm and Richie had pulled off a perfect shot from about 250 meters and now it was his turn to destroy himself climbing all the way back up to camp.
I went for a chamois hunt along the top peaks over the remainder of the evening with a few lesser animals seen prior to the fog monster swallowing me up again. Return to the camp was only possible via GPS and it was very wise for both of us to be carrying one at all times. Richie was wrecked by the time he got back to camp and now both having heavy stag heads to cart around on our packs we made the decision to pull out a day early and get the chopper to come and grab us the next day.
This is where a bit of new technology became very handy. The Garmin Inreach is a leap forward in back country communications using satellite technology to send text messages or e-mails to any other device anytime, anywhere. And the message recipient can reply to the message from their ordinary mobile phone or computer. The recipient also receives a map with a pin marker showing the exact location of the sender along with other useful info such as travelling speed and direction of movement, which in our case was nothing at all as we were sticking pretty close to the sleeping bags at this stage. It was simply a matter of turning on the Garmin Inreach, adding the pilot’s cell phone number, typing out a text and hitting send. Moments later the reply came through that noon the following day would be perfect for the pilot and that we should text through a fog report at 11:00am.
In the morning I decided to head back over into a basin we hadn’t seen properly due to the fog and I soon eyed a couple of chamois. One lone animal looked pretty solid and I made an assumption that it would be a buck and was worth a closer inspection. The animal disappeared from view as I dropped down the rock jumble and sidled around to close in. I wondered if it had sat down in a little gut, so I got the wind right and snuck in to peak over the rocks and there the chamois was only a few meters away. It jumped up and ran a little before stopping and taking a pee while looking back at me. As soon as it squatted its back legs I realised that it was no buck at all, just a big fat dry doe. A lovely healthy animal but not something I would be interested in shooting. She ran away totally confused and now I had to traipse all the way back up through the head basin and climb out through the steep rock face and back down to camp, but it was a good leg stretch after taking it pretty easy the day before.
The day was really cooking up so a refreshing dip and a couple of bombs in the mountain tarn next to our camp became another highlight of the trip. A clear weather live update was texted through to the pilot and 40 minutes later the Robby 44 landed beside us. The stag heads wouldn’t fit inside the cabin, so Heath slung the packs and antlers in a carry net which didn’t seem to make too much difference to the handling of the machine. We soaked up the scenery of bright red flowering rata on the steep spurs and the hundreds of great looking tussock ridges and gully heads that could potentially hold that next big stag or buck. Then quiet abruptly we were sitting in the car heading for home where our missus’ would be waiting with a list of chores that should have been done last week. That’s way scarier than the back lashings of the hunting fraternity for shooting fluffy antlers and wasting meat!
Thanks also to Tim Perry for lending us his Garmin InReach to take for a test run on this hunt.
Here is the video link for this trip: