In March of 2008, I discovered gold at the end of the rainbow on New Zealand’s South Island. My “Pot of Gold” came in the form of gold medal red stag and fallow deer while hunting with Don and Julie Patterson of Manuka Point Lodge. Hunting Red stag in New Zealand was a dream of mine for years.
I expressed this interest to my wife Christy, who is very supportive of my hunting affliction, but is usually content to let me strike out on an adventure while she takes care of things at home.
Traveling to New Zealand in Christy’s mind is a little different, and she made it perfectly clear: “If you go hunting in New Zealand, you’re taking me with you!” An added twist to the family adventure was the fact that we began planning the trip when Christy was nine months pregnant, meaning our trip would be over a year away and my hunting adventure would be a true “family affair”, including our future one-year-old daughter Sophie.
Committed to making my hunting dream become a reality, our search for a hunting lodge that could accommodate our travel plans and future family was underway. In the end, Manuka Point Lodge stood out from other hunting lodges as a clear choice for our trip of a lifetime. The lodge has two private guest rooms, and to ensure personalized attention they will only take on one hunting party at a time (perfect for a hunting trip with a potentially unpredictable one year old).
Manuka Point Lodge is located beyond the end of the road at the confluence of the Rakaia and Mathias rivers. The hunting area consists of 18,500 acres of private land, and is accessed via-four-wheel drive river crossing. When we arrived at Manuka Point, recent rains had caused the Rakaia River to swell within its banks. Don Patterson, owner and head guide of Manuka Point, felt traversing the braided river bed in a vehicle was a little risky for a one-year-old, so he arranged to have us shuttled across the river via helicopter. Let the adventure begin! Neither Christy nor I had ever flown in a helicopter; let alone our 13-month-old daughter. What a way to begin our adventure with a bird’s eye view of the property we would be hunting for the next five days.
Once we were settled into the lodge, Don and my other guide James Cagney took me to the range to sight-in the gun I would be using for the hunt. The Lodge has several rifles available; I chose a Sauer .30-06 topped with Zeiss optics. The rifle fit me perfectly and we had it shooting tight groups in short order. Confidence high, we were now ready for our evening hunt.
Don Patterson has been hunting the stags of the Rakaia and Mathias River valleys for over 26 years, so experience and knowledge of the area/animals was definitely on my side. Don explained how stags have a dynamic “comfort zone” that expands and contracts throughout the day. If you are detected within his comfort zone, a red stag will disappear quickly. The comfort zone is smallest at first light. As the sun raises, the zone increases and by the middle of the afternoon may be a half-mile in size. Toward evening the comfort zone begins to contract. As Don put it, “Getting you into a red stag’s comfort zone undetected is my job.” I would soon find out just how capable he was at getting us up-close and personal to these incredible animals.
The rain that had caused the river to rise continued the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. This made for a difficult evening hunt, but we still managed to look over 15 different Red stags as well as an equal number of fallow bucks. We returned to the lodge to dry out and have one of Julie’s wonderful meals. After dinner we made plans for the next mornings hunt. Don had been watching the weather and was expecting a break in the rain. He wanted to hunt an area further up the Rakaia valley where he had seen some promising “marks” in his pre-season scouting; he believed the area held stags larger than those we saw this evening. I went to bed to try and get some sleep, not an easy task as my mind was reeling with anticipation.
Morning came quickly and we awakened to a star-filled sky and a light breeze that seemed to be perfect for the morning hunt. After a long hike, we arrived just as the morning light was perfect and glassed a group of hinds feeding on a large flat. Picking our way through the dense Matigouri we angled up a small draw, and headed for a ridge that overlooked the top of the flat, with hopes that stags also would be out feeding. Don crawled to the top of the ridge and instantly glassed a very nice stag at about 250 yards. The stag was raking a Totara tree with his antlers. I now learned that the “marks” Don was referring to were actually rubs on trees.
Don assessed the lay of the land and decided to back down the ridge and continue up the draw to close the distance between us and the stag so we could better evaluate his head gear. We moved up another 100 yards and angled back toward the stag. As luck would have it, there was a small patch of Totara trees that allowed us to remain hidden from the stag. As we settled in behind the trees and began to glass, we soon discovered there was another outstanding stag between us and the first. This stag was larger, and better yet was feeding in our direction. There was a small draw between us and the second stag; when he disappeared into the draw, Don said: “Get your gun ready. This is a really good stag and you need to take him when he comes out.” The small trees we were hiding behind were perfect cover. I was able to chamber a round and rest my barrel through the branches, waiting for the stag to appear.
The next few minutes were surreal. The culmination of 16 months of anticipation were coming to a head. The morning sun was beaming down on this majestic red stag as he made his way out of the draw. I was living my dream. Suddenly another stag with equally impressive antlers appeared further up the draw. I now had two huge red stags at less than 100 yards. Don made a quick assessment and said: “Take the one on the left. Yes, the one on the left, but you had better hurry. He knows something is not right.” The stag was now 72 yards away, fully alert and looking in our direction, trying to catch our wind. I settled the crosshairs on the base of his neck and squeezed the trigger. Lunging forward, the stag came to rest 50 yards away from our shooting position. How’s that for getting in their comfort zone! I absolutely could not believe it when we walked up to this awesome stag. The color and incredible mass of the antlers, along with a total number of 25 points – I was speechless! This truly was the stag of my dreams. As I took in the moment and the incredible scenery, I looked up the sun-bathed Rakaia Valley toward the glacier-covered peaks to see a rainbow spanning the entire valley. Could it get any better than this?
The morning sun was replaced by dense cloud cover, and by mid-afternoon the rains returned. Our plans were to go on an evening scouting trip/hunt for fallow deer, but with the steady downpour and in light of the morning’s success, we elected to stay warm and dry in the comfort of the Lodge. Don, who is an official SCI measurer, informed me my stag taped out at a whopping 375 6/8-inches earning Gold Medal honors. That evening we celebrated our successful red stag hunt with a traditional toast and made plans to strike out in the morning in search of a trophy fallow buck.
My guide for fallow deer would be James Cagney. James is a native New Zealander with a wealth of knowledge of New Zealand’s flora, fauna and natural history. After the evening rains, James was optimistic for our morning hunt. He felt the deer would be out feeding in full force, and that all the rain would be like “salad dressing” on top of the grasses.
Our hunt began on foot from the lodge at first light; we hadn’t travelled 100 yards when we jumped a group of fallow bucks. There were no shooters and we still had many miles to cover. James was right; the deer were out feeding in large numbers. We saw groups of fallow does as well as red deer hinds and stags on the way to our glassing location.
James explained how fallow deer tend to stick close to the Manuka brush and at the slightest hint of danger disappear into the dense vegetation. fallow deer also have the ability to appear, suddenly seemingly from nowhere. You could glass an area for an hour; look away for a few minutes, look back and have fallow deer start materializing out of the Manuka brush. From our location we were able to glass several fallow bucks, but nothing that James felt was worthy of a stalk.
We were getting ready to call it a morning and hailed Don on the radio for a pick up. To our good fortune, Don had been glassing from the Point and thought he had seen a good fallow buck further up the valley from our location. With this information, we angled back up the terrace to gain some elevation as well as to achieve a favorable wind. After several hundred yards James spotted a group of fallow bucks slightly below us and still 400 to 500 yards away. We continued to gain elevation and closed the distance. Our hopes were that the bucks would soon show themselves from within the dense Manuka.
One by one we watched as six fallow bucks emerged from the brush and worked their way out to the crest of a hill. There were two bucks that stood out from the rest, and the one bringing up the rear had tremendous palms and width. James said: “That’s the one we want! Take him as soon as you get a chance. He’s right at 200 yards.” I placed the crosshairs behind the shoulder and squeezed the trigger. A solid hit. The buck jumped forward and came to rest in a patch of mountain daisies. As we approached the buck, I was amazed at the size of the antlers; there was definitely no ground shrinkage here. James took one look and said: “Jeff, he’s a real cracker!” Which I think is Kiwi for: “You’ve got a good one.” The buck had a total of 18 points and an inside spread of nearly 33 inches. I later found out just how good this buck was. With an SCI score of 251 inches, he would qualify within the top 20 of the SCI Record Book.
I now had two magnificent New Zealand trophies that exceeded my wildest dreams. The kindness and care extended to me and my family at Manuka Point never will be forgotten and will make the success of this trip more treasured. Now that I am home, I find myself frequently dreaming of New Zealand and the wonderful time we had. Thoughts of tahr and chamois drift through my mind. Someday, when the time is right, my hopes are that we will return to this incredible country for another hunt of a lifetime.– Jeff Siems, D.V.M.