Just over a knoll, we spotted the unmistakable tine tops of a large stag flickering among the brush and ferns as he fed. Judging by their height, it looked to be a big stag making his way up the side of the ridge. Watching, waiting and maneuvering into position for a clear shot was now our mission.
As this “monarch of the glen” bent over to feed, his head was now clearly visible. “Oh, my God,” I thought. “His rack is enormous!” My mind switched to autopilot as I notched the safety into top gear and centered the crosshairs. The stag hesitated for a moment. The wind was in our favour–maybe he just sensed our presence–who knows, but his eyes were fixed on our location, less than 50 meters away.
The shot had to be squeezed off now. This was the moment of truth.
On a Thursday in late April, the Air New Zealand plane from Queensland, Australia, touched down in Christchurch, New Zealand. We cleared customs and then the airport police station where my temporary New Zealand firearms license was issued, and picked up my rifle. I felt a wave of relief pass over me.
In the hotel lobby, Jonathon, from New Zealand Quest, tapped me on the shoulder and asked, “Are you John?” He loaded our gear into the Toyota and after four hours of beautiful Lord of the Rings-style roadside scenery and the snow-capped mountains of Arthur’s Pass, we found ourselves on the far side of the South Island, near the town of Greymouth.
The views from Jonathon’s property are spectacular, with lakes, surrounding mountain peaks and valleys. In the midst of it all was the five-star quality, lovely cabin that awaited my family and me.
My wife had a strange look on her face as she heard me say, “Gee, honey, we could live here!” Jonathon told us we were only the second clients to use the new cabin, located within 50 meters of pristine trout waters.
An hour later, I was donning my hunting gear and cranked the .338 Win. Mag. for a couple of test shots to check its accuracy because I’d had some serious trouble with the trigger. Some clown had played with it before I purchased the rifle. I wasn’t taking any chances after the flight and handling. It always pays to make sure the shot is true. The KS Mountain Rifle was spot-on at 100 yards.
Midafternoon found Jonathon and me headed into the valley and river flats. These New Zealand valleys seemed to touch the sky. I was filled with awe as this was completely different country from any I’d hunted before.
I wanted a big red, and I wasn’t talking about Rutherglen Victoria wines. New Zealand is the home of big, wild red deer. We must have walked 10 kilometers the first afternoon, crisscrossing gumboot-high streams and thick rain forests.
Not a deer was to be seen. Still, I was in good spirits, with a mild adrenaline rush. The weather was moody for my first afternoon hunt. Wearily, we walked out, back to the cabin about 6 pm for a well-earned rest and dinner with the family.
I awoke to the sound of rain and my heart sank. Would it stop? At 5:30 am, after a quick cuppa, the rain eased enough for us to make our way out for day two, into the glimmering rays of dawn filtering into the valley. This morning, the sign was fresh and the red deer tracks were easy to spot in the sandy soil. Every now and then, a faint whiff of deer scent wafted by on the breeze. It was nothing like the strong, musky smell of fallow bucks–more like a wet cattle smell.
“Come on, stag,” I thought, “sooner rather than later.” My mind was racing. But as any experienced stalker knows, you can’t hurry hunting.
The weather changed again. A mist blew up and enveloped us. Then, the rain came down big time. We were ducking for cover by a large pine tree when a big, fresh rub caught my attention. “Look at this,” I said to Jonathon, “only hours old,” the sap was still oozing from the wound.
Jonathon knows the valley like the back of his hand. He’s lived there for more than 15 years. We searched every nook and cranny, I thought. We were close, but no cigar. It was hard on my feet traversing the slippery river stones and boulders. “How much water can one take in a day?” I thought.
After lunch, it was time to hunt again, with a change of species on the menu. New Zealand arapawa rams were the midday special. The weather was briefly kind and provided a window of opportunity to take a nice ram. The one that first caught my binocular and then my scope had good curls, and I took him. We estimated his age at around five years.
Later that afternoon, we walked farther up the river flats. Again we saw red deer sign. It was fresh, but we sighted no deer. Between the rain and the wind, conditions deteriorated, but we pressed on until darkness gobbled us up.
During the walk back to the cabin, I thought I was seeing things. The whole side of the narrow part of the valley was glowing showing us the way. Glowworms lit up like Christmas tree lights were festooned along the overhanging valley walls, forming a fascinating display.
Stories of big deer came thick and fast after an excellent dinner. Looking out the front door of the log cabin, I saw the sky streaked with long, windblown winter clouds. The full moon slid out from behind a cloudbank, and for a moment the tree branches were silhouetted against the sky. Just as suddenly, another cloud covered the moon and everything went black. And the rain pressed on. I kept praying for it to ease before my last hunting day.
Emotionally, I felt stuck somewhere between a rock and a hard place as the rain pounded down relentlessly and red deer roared across the valley flats. An elk bugling near the log cabin woke me. Now, that’s something to get your heart beating fast, no matter what time it is. Jonathon kept two elk as pets. All this action before sunup made me jump out of bed and say, “To hell with it, this has to be the day, wet or not.”
But 10 kilometers later and with the morning long gone, there was not a deer to be seen, only a couple of paradise ducks. “I think the rain must have them bedded up in a sheltered area out of the wind and wet,” Jonathon said. “We will hunt high after lunch.”
My clothes, warm from the dryer, increased the comfort level a bit as we began hunting higher along the narrow ridge where the valley floor met the sheer vertical sides. Waterfalls plunged, swollen from the rain. The scrub was thick and wet. At times, both of us were on all fours looking for a bedded stag under and between the ferns and brush. Talk about close action. At last, just on the far side of the knoll, we spotted the magnificent stag.
Jonathon patted me on the back. “One shot, and he never moved,” he said, and shook my hand enthusiastically.
I’d killed a huge red deer. This was my first red deer and the stag of a lifetime, scoring 293 4/8 SCI. The right antler measured 42, and the left 39 inches, with a width of 30 4/8, and front tines over 16 inches, with a total of 16 points.
I was exhausted, drenched and elated, with a grin from ear to ear as the rain peppered us. Then the heavens opened up and unleashed a torrent. Caping a deer and taking photos in the rain is no fun, that’s for sure. Jonathon smiled and said, “You know, last week the sun was shining every day.” Singing in the rain came to mind. Wet but happy, we got on with the job.– John Hossack