New Zealand Stag Hunt
Just in Time
There was an hour of light left in the day and we were closing the distance on a group of red stags we had been tailing all day. We were hunting in the Hunters hills range on the South Island of New Zealand. It was steep hill country, and it consisted of tall tussock grass, jungle drainages and large rock outcroppings. We were navigating our way down a ridge that had thick bush towards the bottom and where we stood the bush was starting to get thick. I was hunting with two gentlemen from Washington state, Keith and Andy. Keith was hunting for a red stag and Andy had just filled his goal of shooting a Tahr and Chamois the day before. We gathered together to discuss the rest of the route down to get into shooting range of the stags. I could see the approach ahead and I knew it was going to get tight. We decided Andy would hang back with our packs while Keith and I descended the rest of the way. Andy wished us luck and we dropped our packs and started down. The stags were feeding just over 400 yards away in an opening near a small stream below us. It was the time of day where the sun was just starting to drop, but the warmth from the sun still was in the air. I looked at Keith and told him the wind would drop soon and we better get into position as fast as possible. We dropped on the opposite side of the ridge from the stags to avoid being seen or sky lined as we worked down into the thick bush.
We had been stalking one particular Stag all day and we had been striving to get within rifle range. He was a beautiful stag with thick crowns and matching kickers that came off his main beams like boat outriggers. It had been a cat and mouse game up to this point, as we had nearly been in rifle range once earlier in the day before he disappeared into the next drainage. That forced us to hike to the very top of this mountain to have the wind in our favour, with the up draft. The sun was going down and a down draft would soon be the case; it put urgency in my mind because our hunt would be blown once the stags got a whiff of our scent. At this point there were only small openings to move through in the bush, so we had to slide on our backsides to make progress. 400, 380, 360, we were getting closer and it was looking good. The bush concealed us tremendously, but we still had a little distance to cover and the wind was a ticking time bomb. Setting up for the shot wasn’t going to be easy, the bushes were chest height and two flimsy to lay a rifle across to make for a steady rest. Luckily, there was a bench ahead in a small clearing that looked like Keith would be able to lie down and take the shot. This was the spot we needed to get to. The sun set over the mountains and the ticking time bomb was now ticking faster. I looked to Keith and signalled that we needed to get to that opening and fast. The ridge was getting steep and the holes we were sliding through now turned into climbing down. We pieced our way through the final hole and out to the opening, and unfortunately it was still too steep of an area to lay prone. Keith and I looked around trying to find a reasonable rest for him to lay his rifle across. Finally, Keith found a dead bush with a thick branch he could get his rifle on. It wasn’t the perfect rest, but it’s was going to have to work. The outrigger stag was slowly feeding and was in route to disappear behind a small hill. It was a make or break moment. Keith said he felt pretty good and he had a bead on him, but the stag was still slowly on the move. The moment was rushed, and I told Keith to hold off, because in past experiences I’ve seen rushed shots turn into wounds and misses. The stag disappeared behind the hill, and I said “be patient he will feed back into sight.” Before I finished the sentence, I felt a light breeze hit the back of my neck, our wind time bomb was up. (For those of you who are not familiar with thermal wind shifts it is a common wind pattern that happens in mountain terrain. During the day the sun heats the earth and the heat rises causing an up draft, and in the evening when the sun sets the cool air falls causing a down draft.) It was only moments later one of the stags closest to us picked up his head, briefly looked around and then took off across the creek and up the next ridge. The rest of the stags followed suit, including our outrigger beauty.
The bitter pain of being busted started to set in my mind and I tried to fight the thoughts off with focusing on the next best plan for success. I looked at Keith and said we have 40 minutes of shooting light and if we hustle we can blaze over to the next ridge and possibly get in range for a shot. We decided to go for it and high tailed it the rest of the way down the ridge. Approaching the creek, I looked ahead to the next ridge. The line the stags had taken went at an angle up and across the ridge, so I thought we could get in sight by getting above them if possible. This approach called for going up a steep embankment to start and then making our way through an open area with intermixed bushes. We moved as fast as we could, pushing our legs and lungs. We caught the butt end of a stag disappearing into the bushes just ahead of us. I was thinking our Hail Mary just might work. We climbed a bit higher seeing the line that would put him right in sight. Slowly we closed the distance up the hill, we kept low, with our eyes scanning the land in our sites. We came upon the rise down below us and the stag we were after for some reason decided to turn around and walk down the hill below us. Keith quickly got down and set up the rifle. Laying prone in the grass Keith put a bead on him. I ranged him at 150 yards and I told Keith the distance. The stag was still on a slow walk so I let out a roar to stop him. I watched through my binoculars and the stag stopped for a split second and Keith rang out a shot! It was a hit! And the stag took off on a run. I yelled to Keith to rack another shell and put another shot into him if he could. The stag was moving and Keith fumbled to find a good rest. I let out another roar and the stag turned and looked in our direction. Keith rolled to his side and in one sweeping motion took a free hand shot, dropping the stag in his tracks. “Holy cow! Nice shooting!!” I yelled and patted Keith on the back. Excitement was all over Keith’s face. Keith said “wow, how lucky were we that the only stag that decides to turn around was the one we were targeting?!” It was fortuitous and we both knew it. We high fived and I congratulated Keith on his tremendous trophy.
I looked down to my phone and I had a message from Andy. I had almost forgot we left Andy way up on the ridge with our packs. I read the message, “did you guys get him?” I told him the good news and that we would meet him by the creek. We waited a little bit before going down to the stag and we could see Andy carrying all of our packs down the hill. Thankfully he grabbed ours as well! We all met up at the stag and told Andy of the luck we had with this stag deciding to turn around and walk back underneath us and of the amazing second shot Keith had free handed on his side. It was smiles all around and we were sure to get plenty of photos to go with this amazing hunt. We quartered this stag up and prepared him for the taxidermist and freezer. This stag would be good eating and the memories would last forever.