Four Seasons Safaris New Zealand; A recap of a Red Stag Hunt!
By: Larry Weishuhn
In the far distance, sliding down through the bush lined canyon could faintly be heard a roar or was it a bellow? The wind was blowing so hard I wasn’t sure if I really heard the sound of a roaring red stag. Actually it sounded like the gruff roar of an African lion. But it made no difference, I was simply thankful Shane had stopped and was grateful for the opportunity to catch my breath. About a half hour earlier we had started our “walkabout” just above the steep banks of the Rakia River. “Want to be about three ridges up by the time the sun starts dropping behind the ridge. By then the stags should be feeding.” Sounded like a great idea, but after crawling upward at a very acute angle for a half hour, I badly wanted to stop and “listen”.
When my huffing and puffing slowed so I could hear something other than my own breathing, way off in the distance I heard stags roaring in such numbers that it created a din of roars, making it difficult to discern one roar from another. I must have been smiling considerably, “Is that a smile on your face, or are your lips frozen into that position?” queried my guide.
“I love hunting red stags! I love listening to them roar. I’ve heard stags before many times, but I’ve never heard that many at the same time.” I managed to say, breath finally restored where I could talk without gasping.
Just then a stag opened up, real close, just around the next bend. I looked back at Shane. With hand signals he motioned for me to put a shell in the chamber of my Ruger .300 RCM. He motioned me to slowly follow him. Bent over nearly to my knees we moved stealthily thru the thorn bush. We angled upward and to the left. The stag roared, his voice was deep and “growly”. Shane turned to look back at me with a huge smile on his face, then pointed to what appeared to be a deep, brushy draw. Just then another stag roared above us, then another from down below where we had come from. “We’re surrounded, Mate…” whispered Shane.
We continued moving forward at a snail’s pace…Ten steps more and we could see ivory tips on dark, massive antlers just above the brush. We hunkered down, taking advantage of the tall brush to hide our presence. As we watched, “our” stag threw back his head and roared. He was immediately answered by five other stags, all within less than 200 yards.
“Red stag heaven!” I mouthed. I’m not sure who was smiling more. I set up my Bog Pod shooting sticks, got my rifle into position, cranked my Zeiss Conquest scope down to 4x. In so doing I saw Shane raise a finger and wag it in a manner meaning, “NO, wait!”
I watched the stag’s rack, head and shoulder come into full view less that 25 steps away. He was massive, had extremely dark colored antlers, ivory tips….then I noticed he had broken off at least three tines including one of his brows. Shane confirmed the decision I had already made, “Don’t shoot!”.
The stag put on quite a show for us and tolled in five other stags. All six were impressive. Each time one presented a shot. I looked at Shane. Each time he shook his head in a negative, don’t shoot manner.
We were pinned down by stags for about 20 minutes. Finally they walked away.
“I know they were big and looked good, and I agree two them were really close to being shooters, but as you’ll recall, Mate, you told me you wanted a stag that would score over 400. The biggest of those five would have scored about 380 or so.” I nodded. “We can and will do better!”
Normally scores are not important to me. Usually I simply hunt for mature animals regardless of what they score. But in the past I have hunted red stag several times including on Austria’s Rudurshal Reserve, which was once the exclusive hunting ground for the Hapsburg family. There I had taken a remarkable mountain stag that was according to the local gameskeeper 12 years old. I’d had also hunted red stag in Argentina where I had taken a sizable, mature 6 x 7 stag. And, I had previously hunted red stags in New Zealand on the North Island where I had taken several really nice stags, one of which scored close to 400. This time I was looking for an even bigger one!
I had known Shane and Vanessa Johnston and their Four Seasons Safaris for several years and had previously visited with Shane and Ms. Vanessa at Dallas Safari Club Conventions. I had also talked to numerous satisfied Four Season Safaris clients and friends of mine who highly recommend the operation for big red stags, chamois, tahr and fallow deer.
“Let’s head up slope. Seems that where the majority of the hinds are. Chances are the biggest stag will close to them,” suggested Shane.
That afternoon before it became too dark to see antlers, we looked at 21 big, mature stags, numerous younger stags and over 100 hinds. Some stags were long of beam and tines, others wore massive racks with many points, three had long drop-tines. But each time I commented about one or more of those bulls striking my fancy, Shane commented, “We can do better!”
That night over a fabulous meal at the Quickenberry Guest House at Terrace Downs where Shane “quarters” his hunters we discussed the next several days of stag hunting, and also if time remained spending a couple of days hunting tahr and chamois which I consider the most under-rated game animal in New Zealand. Chamois though not as majestic as red stag, are a fabulous game animal!
We were in the hills at first light. A cold wind blew from the south. Stags roared all around us. Life was good!
We spent the day glassing and stalking. Several times we crawled to within easy rifle range of big, mature stags. I dearly love hunting red stag, one of favorite antlered game in all of this entire wondrous world. They’re fascinating in many ways, but particularly their antlers. While there may be some similarities between stag racks, no two are exactly the same. Couple that fact with during March and April (New Zealand’s fall) is when the red deer rut occurs, a time when there really isn’t any antlered game to hunt in northern hemisphere.
As a ‘Down Under” friend of mine says, “Stags sound masculine with their roar.” I admit, I dearly love the stag’s roar! He indeed does sound “manly”! Handsome, unique, masculine…good combination!
That night over food fit for someone far more important than me, Shane said, “Tomorrow we’ll head to the Hunter’s Hill farther south, want you to see that region, totally different than where we’re hunting now.”
We spent the next two days in some of the most beautiful, rough country I’ve seen in New Zealand, shy of being high in the “Southern Alps”. While there we looked over many stags.. And each time we found one of considerable antler size, I beat Shane to saying, “I say Mate, we can do better!” Shane smiled, then muttered something about my Texas tainted New Zealand accent.
While we were in the Hunter Hills Shane decided my hunting partner Blake Barnett should take a stag. While glassing a grassy ridge we found a freshly broken massive antler, broken off a stag’s skull just below the pedicel. “If we find that one-horned stag he’s your’s!” said Shane to Blake.
That evening just before dark we found the one-antlered stag, a stalk was on & Blake then took the stag.
Back at Shane’s Terrace Downs base, we started early the next morning on the western edge of the range. We took our time crawling to the second shelf where we listened to many stags. Some stags were chasing hinds, others were fighting. Off to our left about 400 yards or so away we heard a coarse gruff roar, like you would expect an “oldtimer” to make. Shane motioned me to follow. We walked to the edge of the bench and spotted the stag. He was long of beam, massive and palmated, and had a LOT of points on each side, no doubt he would score more than 400 points. As we glassed, he laid down.
“Perfect! The wind is in our favor. He’s in a place where we can get to within a hundred yards. If he’s like all the other stags I’ve known he’ll stay bedded until about 3 or so this afternoon. It’s now 10 o’clock, let’s head his way and find a place where we can get a shot.” We started walking down the slope, taking advantage of various trees and bushes to hide our approach. Nearly 30 minutes later, having made a couple of adjustments I was set the Ruger rifle on my shooting sticks, pointed in the direction of the stag I hoped would soon stand up. All I could see were the stag’s gorgeous antlers, his ears and eyes, not a great target. The wait started. Minutes passed, then it clouded up and rained. Then it cleared up, no cloud in the sky. The stag remained bedded. It clouded up once again and started dropping huge cold rain drops. The stag didn’t move. We ate sandwiches, the stag remained bedded. I threatened to take a nap, the stag remained bedded. Hours passed. I remembered Shane’s words, “He’ll stay bedded until 3 or 4 then get up to feed and start chasing hinds.” It was almost 3 o’clock. The stag showed no signs of wanting to get up.
About 30 minutes later a nearby stag roared and started raking bushes with his antlers. “My” stag stirred just a bit and turned sharply to look in the direction of the antler rubbing.
“Get ready,” Shane whispered as I got into shooting position. “He’s going to get up…” Just then the stag rose from his bed, exposing his shoulder. My Zeiss crosshairs immediately settled right behind the stag’s shoulder. I gently tugged the Ruger’s trigger. The Hornady 165 grain GMX bullet struck exactly where I had held. I quickly bolted in a second round and shot the stag this time squarely through the shoulder. He went down. I bolted in a third round and waited for any sign of movement. There was no movement, but I stayed on target until I was certain he was down for good.
I accepted Shane’s extended right hand, “Good on ya Mate, great shot! He’s the monster you’ve been waiting and looking for. Let’s go have a look, ay Mate?”
I could not believe the stag’s size, both body and antler. I’d shot several mature red stags in the past, but this one was bigger of body than any of my previous stags and certainly he possessed a bigger rack than I had previously taken. I was ecstatic and couldn’t keep my hands off of his marvelous antlers!
For more information about hunting with Shane Johnston’s Four Season Safaris please log on to www.fourseasons.co.nz Four Seasons Safaris also offers extremely good tahr, chamois, and fallow deer hunting, as well as some of the finest fishing in the world!