Where the Giant Stags Roam

I have hunted ducks, doves, pigeons, blackbuck antelope and wild boar in Argentina. But red stag is the game animal that keeps drawing me back to the land of the gauchos.

On this trip, we would hunt at Algar, one of the most well known lodges in the world for red stag hunting. The owner and manager, Liliana Saccomano, has a charismatic personality and has been participating in SCI conventions and fundraisers for a long time. We were sure to enjoy great hospitality and hunt quality trophies.

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Five hunters were at the lodge. Four of us were friends and the fifth we got to know at the lodge. My father had flown in from Brazil, Troy Lutze from Wisconsin and James McCarthy from Pennsylvania. The fifth hunter was Jerome Powers, who is from Texas but works part of the year in Oman.

Algar’s 60,000-acre private ranch is located 60 miles north of the beautiful city of San Carlos de Bariloche, in the province of Neuquen. This was everyone’s first time in Patagonia and we were all thrilled with the surroundings. The scenic and hilly terrain is surrounded by rivers and furrowed by streams. The vast, open country makes it easy to spot game from high vantage points. The hunting season for red stag opens at the end of February and lasts until the end of July. Algar also has one of the world’s largest populations of Pere David’s deer and is the only place in the world where it can be hunted free range.

red-stag-0424132All of us were seeking an entry-level stag, which means antlers that score up to 320 SCI points. We wanted to hunt a 40,000-acre portion of the ranch and were warned it could be difficult because the peak of the rut was long gone and most of the big stags had already headed back toward the high mountains.

The climate at the ranch is quite arid, especially during the fall. If not for snowmelt forming rivers and streams, it likely would be too dry for the red deer to survive. This part of Patagonia is similar to some parts of New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.

The hunting was mostly on horseback. The lack of cover and trees made it difficult to get closer than 100 yards from our quarry. Although reddish in color, they blend in quite well with the native grasses.

The afternoon hunt was long and tiring. We went up and down many mountains and saw nothing but a few females. These cows were alone, which meant they either were no longer in heat or their harem male had already been taken by one of Algar’s many clients. As the day started to fade, I was anticipating a nice shower and a good meal when my guide, Daniel Millapi, spotted a nice male and five to seven females. It was like guzzling a gallon of Red Bull. Suddenly we were ready to do whatever it took to get within shooting range.

red-stag-0424135Fortunately, the deer were in a canyon with lots of small trees and bushes, which served as cover for us. We tied up our horses and set off on foot.  Daniel seemed to have a GPS device wired into his brain. We marched straight to the spot where we had last seen the stag. Five minutes later, I was sitting on the ground with my rifle propped on my bipod, watching the stag through my scope. The setting was like a painting, with the stream in front of the majestic stag and the female red deer in the background.

The stag looked straight in our direction. He had by far the largest set of antlers I had ever seen and I was waiting only for confirmation from Daniel to squeeze the trigger. Daniel was reluctant because the stag had not yet turned sideways and he wanted to make sure there were no broken tines before giving me the OK. After a few tense seconds, the stag turned and took a few steps to the side. We knew for sure it was at least a 14-pointer. My .300 Win Mag roared loudly and the thump of the bullet hitting the target was clear.

The stag ran about 30 yards before folding up. We had to cross the stream to go get to it and there were a few anxious moments spent finding the shallowest path. But I finally was able to lay my hands on this beautiful trophy.

The stag exceeded my expectations. It had a total of 16 points if you included a small point on the left antler. My shot had been perfect and the only drawback was that it was now too getting too dark to take pictures.

It was a bittersweet feeling taking my stag on the first day of the hunt but it turned out to be the right choice. First, because he had no broken tines, which is quite unusual late in the rut. Second, because I did not see a bigger stag during the following four days of hunting.

red-stag-0424131What was I to do now that I had already taken my trophy? Jerome had mentioned on the way to the hunt that Algar offers management stags for only $500. It had to be for an 11-pointer or smaller, but I still could not believe the price and we were all excited about the opportunity to hunt a second deer.

On the second day, Jerome got his trophy stag, which scored the highest among our group of five. The third day, Dad and Troy got their trophies in the morning and James shot one in the afternoon. We were now ready for our management stags, although Dad decided not to hunt one because he was running out of wall space at home.

The following days I hunted hard for my 11-pointer, but it soon was Thursday and I still had not had success. Meanwhile, Dad had joined me because the trip now was about enjoying ourselves and doing some father-and-son bonding.

Our plan for the early morning was to ride alongside the vegetation in a canyon where Daniel had seen a nice 11-pointer several times. The previous day we had spotted a small 12-pointer there and also a group of wild boars. If we could push the stag out of the brush, we would have a chance to shoot because it would be slowed down climbing up a steep mountain to escape.

Daniel chose to move away from the streambed and climb a nearby mountain to glass. When we reached the peak, the stag we had been looking for and his harem of five cows emerged from the brush. Although he had only 11 points, we could see he had lots of mass and long points.  I was excited, but we were at least 500 hundred yards away, with no chance of a shot.

We kept watching as the cows sought cover in the thicket. But for some reason the male chose to make his way up another peak. Daniel said it was the first time he had seen a red stag act so elusively when hunters were so far away. Perhaps the sixth sense animals seem to have told the stag it was safer to run for the hills.

red-stag-0424136There was no way we could stalk the stag uphill because there was no cover and we would have spooked it even more. So we waited until it cleared the top of the mountain, then set off on horseback.

It took about 20 minutes to climb down from our perch, cross the stream, and then climb the other peak. We stopped the horses about 20 yards from where we had last seen the stag. Dad stayed with the horses so our stalk could be more effective. As we cleared the crest of the mountain, we came to a plateau with good visibility. There was no sign of the animal. We could only assume the stag had crossed the plateau and was now moving down the other side of the mountain.

As we moved across the plateau and headed downhill, Daniel started the unmistakable crouch-down stalk that will make your heart race even if you’ve done it hundreds of times before.

We still had yet to see the deer. With little cover around we should have been able to spot it, even if it was out of range. We were about ready to head back when I spotted the deer trotting away from us about 150 yards off. I quickly got into position to shoot but there were no trees or stumps to prop up my rifle and I would be shooting at an odd angle, downhill on rocky soil. I didn’t feel confident shooting at a moving target that was now more than 200 yards away.

Daniel told me the deer would eventually stop and look back. And at about 270 yards, it stopped and stared at us. I tried to get a shot off but I was breathing heavily and I thought the distance might be too great. To add to my indecision, I kept asking Daniel if this was really the 11-pointer we had seen because its antlers looked too huge for a management stag.

I did not want to kill the wrong animal so I waited for Daniel’s OK before shooting. But his reply never came and the stag disappeared over the next hill.

red-stag-0424176Then I noticed that Daniel had put his fingers in his ears to protect them from the noise of my rifle. No wonder he hadn’t answered my question.

I explained to him that I was not ready to risk just wounding the stag and that I hadn’t felt good about the shot. Daniel smiled and said to me, “No hay problema. Asi es la caceria” (No problem, that’s hunting).

Would it have turned out differently if I had taken an extra step? Maybe. Hunting skills come through experience, trial and error, taking chances, making mistakes and seizing the moment. That is why I always look forward to my next hunting trip. No matter the country, game species or method of hunting, I will always learn something to help make me a better hunter.

The hunt ended with the five of us taking eight stags in five days. Thanks to Algar and to Liliana’s awesome attention to detail, there were zero problems or surprises. It was another successful hunt in South America, with new friends made and a new region of the world explored.– Pedro Ribeiro

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