Though it was June, I packed as I would for Kentucky deer stand hunting during the really cold, late muzzleloader season, as it was the middle of winter in New Zealand where I was headed. After 24 hours in the air and multiple layovers on the ground, Clay (my brother), Mamaw and Pap (my grandparents, a.k.a. Alice and Sam Monarch), and I arrived in Christ Church, New Zealand, where our outfitter, Ewan Bennie, greeted us warmly. We were going to be Ewan’s last hunters as he had sold his hunting business, Hollyburn Trophy Hunting, to another outfitter, Steve Millard, who would be hunting with us.
The drive to the “hut” where we would meet our guides was gorgeous with one side of the road being “Iowa flat” and the other supporting beautiful, snow-covered, straight up mountains. We would be hunting on foot in the Cook Mountains and while I knew they were steep, I hadn’t visualized that they were straight up. I was ecstatic. The chance of taking a tahr on foot with a muzzleloader was slim, but I was excited to be hunting and excited to be a “big time hunter” heading out on foot with my backpack, my “hunter’s briefcase.”
As we pulled up to the hut, we were again greeted warmly, this time by our guides, Don Greg and Greg Maw. After talking with them for a few minutes, I knew we were going to have a good time.
Later, as we made our way up a winding, narrow road cut into the mountain, Don spotted a herd of tahr in the tussock (snow grass). We stopped abruptly, grabbed our binoculars and rolled out to have a better look. Soon Clay, Ewan and Steve were beside us, all with binoculars pointing straight up. From a distance of 1,000 yards, the professionals were discussing horn length to within a quarter of an inch while Clay and I were just glad we could see the tahr.
Ewan and Don agreed that the big male would go 12 1/2 inches, but we were looking for a 13-inch bull, so we moved on. I wondered how we would have gotten to that tahr anyway — the mountain looked straight up, and I could see no way to stalk within 150 yards. Clay and I hunt with muzzleloaders and we have a self-imposed 150-yard maximum range. We had practiced at every opportunity and were comfortable taking shots out to 150 yards, but that bull was 1,000 yards away — straight up!
Five of us would be hunting: Don led the way, followed by Clay, then me, with Steve and Greg walking side by side. We spotted several tahr but nothing that met our minimum. The walking was bearable, and I thought tahr hunting on foot was going to be easy–no serious climbing; we were just going to follow this creek until we saw something big up close. Then, I heard the guides talking about Clay, Steve and Greg climbing the mountain, and Don and me following the creek before going up.
We soon reached an icy waterfall and began our climb straight up beside it. The climb was extremely steep and there was nothing to hold on to. When I finally reached the top and caught up to Don, I spotted a tahr. I was excited and Don was impressed.
I was seriously hot after the climb, so when we stopped for an early lunch, I shed a few layers. After lunch, Don pointed straight up and said, “We are going up there.”
Don easily stayed twenty feet ahead of me. He was not even sweating, but I was soaking wet and struggling to keep up. An avid hunter, Alan Kirschenbaum, had warned me that I should exercise on a stair climber before this hunt, but I thought I was physically fit. After all, I’m sixteen years old, on my school’s wrestling team and run track.
I should have listened to Alan.
The weather was freezing, I was dripping wet with sweat and my feet were squishing in my boots. I shed another layer and when we stopped, I was freezing!
About two-thirds of the way up, we reached a ridge with a good vantage point where we waited to see what the weather would do. Soon a cloud engulfed us in an icy mist, making me wet inside from sweat and wet outside from the icy mist. After a while, we decided to keep moving in the cloud. The higher we climbed, the harder it became and the more I slipped.
Walking the ridgeline was not as steep, but the snow was deeper, making us work harder to get our feet high enough to clear it. We continued walking the ridgeline until about dark and at times, snow came at us sideways with blizzard force. Just as we were about to turn downhill, Don spotted a tahr ten yards below us. I could have jumped on its back!
After Don studied the tahr, he whispered that it was too small.
With that assessment, we started down and I gave a sigh of relief, thinking that going downhill would be easy, but I was wrong. Walking down was almost as hard as climbing up.
When we met Clay and his guides, their report was like ours — plenty of nannies and small bulls but no shooters.
The next day our hunting parties again split, with Don and me heading straight up another mountain. I wasn’t slipping as much, but as we moved up, the ridge became steeper and doubled in height.
Ewan had advised wearing fewer clothes, which I did, but I was already dripping wet from head to toe. The sweat made my socks so mushy that it felt like I was walking on sponges. Snow was waist deep in places but only ankle deep in others; consequently, walking was strenuous, as I never knew if I’d be waist or ankle deep. I didn’t know how far we’d climbed, but I was elated when we reached the top of the mountain and Don turned to me and said, “Only the most dedicated hunters come back this far.” Don had included me in the “most dedicated hunters” category.
Don spotted a mob of tahr about 600 yards away, slightly downhill.
As we moved along the ridgeline, the winds picked up and blew yesterday’s snow in our faces, but the nearby tahr kept me focused. When we reached a good vantage point, we discovered dozens of nannies with a half-dozen bulls mixed in. We crept down the face of the mountain to get a closer look and got within 25 yards of a nice bull, but he wasn’t a shooter.
As it was beginning to get dark, we began to work our way down. Soon, we came to what appeared to be a huge gravel slide or “shingle scree.” Don stepped next to the scree and said, “Just dig your heels in and lean back and you’ll slide right down.” And with that, Don stepped in and was gone.
A feeling of insecurity — no, panic — hit me. Don was gone and I had to follow. As I stepped into the scree, I clutched my rifle in front of me and said a little prayer. I was externally composed, but internally, I was losing it. I slid about 10 feet and came to an abrupt stop. I had leaned too far forward. As I leaned back, I discovered that if I did a sliding into home baseball stance, I moved quite nicely and soon caught up to Don.
Day Three was to be a true spot-and-stalk day with both hunting parties: Ewan, Mamaw and Pap glassing for tahr in a new area. We glassed the crevasses and rocky spots for a couple of hours and saw several tahr, but no shooters. As we rounded a bend, Ewan stopped abruptly, grabbed his binocular, and began looking straight up. Steve, Don and Greg quickly joined Ewan and I could hear the excitement in their voices. They were looking at a tahr they thought would go 12 3/4 inches with good bases. I quickly gathered my gear as it was decided that Don, Greg and I would go on the stalk.
We continued along the mountain and glassed to see what we could find. We soon spotted another herd of tahr and the stalk was on again. I opined that we should go low as there was intermittent cover, but the guides echoed an earlier comment by Ewan, “Tahr look down for danger and they rarely look up,” so we took the high route. When we reached the top of the ridge, we spotted a nice bull, but it was too far for the muzzleloader and we were stuck. We couldn’t get any closer because the rock face was too steep, and we would be busted if we moved in the other direction.
Severe weather was in the forecast, so on Day Four, Clay, Greg and Steve headed back to the first mountain, while Don and I went after the big tahr from the day before. Some time later, we located him and the stalk was on. We walked up the same creek and made our way through the same woods. I was excited and had high hopes that today would be the day. Except for the blisters on my feet, my body was adjusting to climbing and we seemed to move faster than the day before.
As we worked into range, we heard one of the nannies whistle so we set up quickly. The range finder read 194 yards and the big bull moved another six yards. When The tahr was broadside and my muzzleloader fell steady, eight inches above his back. When smoke filled the air, I knew it was a good shot. The tahr moved to the left and I saw him fall. I was relieved. I was proud. I had taken a tahr on foot in the mountains with the muzzleloader.
Don was excited, too. He immediately radioed Ewan, “Tell Sam he was right! You have to hold 15 inches high at 200 yards.” Don confirmed that it was a big, old tahr. It had a beautiful long, blonde mane that faded into black down his back. He had big, thick bases that curled back, with one horn having a “kick” on the end. The tahr was breathtaking.
The difficulty of the two-hour climb down was overpowered by the elation of taking my tahr.
When we reached the bottom of the mountain, I was greeted warmly with hugs and smiles from my grandparents and Ewan. I could see the pride in Pap’s face as he told me, “You and Clay are hunting tahr the right way. You are hunting them on foot.” The hunt had been very difficult, but it was very rewarding.
As we headed to the hut to meet Clay, the anxiousness of whether he had a tahr was growing. Clay and I went back and forth.
“Did you get one?” Clay quizzed.
“Did you get one?” I responded.
After the third exchange, I said, “I got one!” The smiles on their faces told the rest of the story. Clay had a tahr. We were overwhelmed. We had gone in different directions, climbed different mountains, hunted with different guides, and both tahr were magnificent.–Tom Monarch