Throughout history, kings have worn crowns made of precious materials beautifully adorned with sparkling jewels as symbols of power and exceptional prowess. Commoners dreamed of being worthy enough to have an audience with the monarch who wore such an awesome decoration upon his head and for years I had dreamed that one day I might have a similar audience — not with a king of men, but a king of deer. Jewels may be precious to some, but antlers with many points in a crown-like formation were the objects of my quest. I saw those antlers, both in the scope and on the ground on June 9, 2012. The icing on the cake was that my nine-year-old son was with me on the stalk and watched it all unfold. Later, he, too, would get to squeeze the trigger on a magnificent creature most fellow Pennsylvanians have never even heard of, let alone seen.
New Zealand is known for its many mighty red stag. For this quest, my son, Tommy, and I traded a Pennsylvania summer for winter in beautiful Queenstown on the South Island of New Zealand. Before this adventure, the largest member of the deer family I had hunted was mule deer. I had held red stag antlers in my hands before, but the anticipation of taking one was at times all-consuming. I also decided not only to hunt stag, but also chamois, a tahr and wallabies. I hoped this would not be my only trip to New Zealand, but if Tommy and I were going that far to hunt, we were going to make the most of the trip.
On the morning of our stag hunt as I was lacing up my boots, the outfitter explained that there was a certain stag with light colored antlers that no one had been able to find for weeks. I thought it must be a good stag if the guides had been looking for him, but that my chances of finding him were probably slim. With that in mind, Tommy, our guides, Sam and John, and I set out on our stag hunt. The first two stags we came across were respectable, but not what I wanted to pull the trigger on just an hour into the first morning of a five-day hunt. We carried on and climbed a very large hill to glass and spotted five stag across the next valley. I thought long and hard about taking the biggest one, but while we were formulating a plan, we learned that the stag with the light colored antlers had been spotted.
Sam took off ahead to get to the area where the stag had been spotted while Tommy and I followed with John at a much slower pace. We arrived to see Sam seated next to a spotting scope on a trail about a mile away. As I looked through the scope, I saw a nice stag lying in some tall grass that was almost as light as his antlers. We watched the stag for a while and when he turned around I saw his antlers from behind. I wanted crowns and there were certainly crowns upon his head and I knew for sure that he was the stag I wanted.
We formulated a plan to work our way toward the stag by heading down into a riverbed and then using the other side of the bank for cover. We crossed over a stream and wound our way through thorny bushes and then across the face of the opposite bank to just below and out of sight of our quarry. At times I had to reach back and grab my son’s hand to help him up the bank, but he kept telling me not to worry about him and to focus on what I was doing.
I was hunting with my trusty Model 75 Sako chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum. I would have had no trouble taking the stag from the spot 260 yards away where we first popped our heads up over the embankment, but Sam thought we could get closer undetected. We snaked our way through the prickly brush on the embankment, staying as low and as quiet as we could, then stopped at a spot where Sam took off his pack. He ranged the “deer,” as the Kiwis call them, at 160 yards.
I laid down prone and used Sam’s pack as a rest. The stag was standing broadside, feeding, and had no idea anything was around. He certainly had no idea my crosshairs were coming to rest behind his shoulder. I found my focus, shifting a few times between the antlers and the shoulder and when I was comfortable, pulled the trigger. But nothing happened. I had forgotten to put a cartridge in the chamber… again, safety first. It’s not often that we get second chances, but that time I did. I worked the bolt, got comfortable again and squeezed off the perfect shot. As soon as I got my eye back on the scope after the recoil, all I saw was antlers hit the ground. The stag never knew what hit him and he went down without taking a single step. It was exactly what I wanted — a great stag, taken cleanly and quickly.
As we walked up on the stag, Tommy was very excited. He wanted to see the stag on the ground and I was very happy to have him with me and to share this perfect moment with him. We learned as we got closer that the stag’s right hip had been injured. It was apparently dislocated. He must have been in some pain and been hunkered down as a result. Perhaps that is why he had been elusive for weeks. The fact that he may have been in pain reinforced my decision to take this particular stag. I like to believe that I ended his suffering without causing any more.
The stag was eventually scored at 368 SCI, which I understand makes him a gold medal stag. There was some discussion back at the lodge about having the antlers stained, but I have no intention of doing that. His light colored antlers are what attracted me to him in the first place and I am not about to change them. I want him to remind me for the rest of my life about the hunt with my young son in such a far-away place. His golden crowns had shown in the New Zealand sun and would look just as spectacular in our home.
Our New Zealand adventures took a turn toward the extreme when we decided to go after chamois and tahr. Gary had spotted some chamois on a steep rock face of a mountain and took Tommy with his rifle and put a shotgun with buckshot in my hand. The plan was for Tommy to take the chamois, but if the animal ran my way, I was told that I would need to shoot him. I was also informed that chamois are not slow movers.
Gary and Tommy moved farther up the mountainside. Things seemed a bit slow once we were all in position, but then I saw a chamois’ head pop up from behind a rock. After a second or two of contemplating whether to shoot or not, the old “one in the hand is worth two in the bush” thinking kicked in and I sent some buckshot toward the chamois. He ran up the hill away from me and I fired again, then lost sight of the animal.
A few seconds later, I heard a single shot from Tommy’s rifle and shortly thereafter Gary appeared from behind a rock with a smile on his face and a thumbs up. He had Tommy’s rifle in his hand so I presumed it was Gary who finished the chamois. To my delight, I learned that Tommy had fired. It turns out that my shots had sent the plump chamois up to the opening of a nearby cave and if Tommy had hesitated, the animal would have quickly retreated into the darkness. Tommy took aim, squeezed the trigger and put the chamois down. Once again, he made me proud.
We shifted gears to become tahr predators and went to another area where tahr are known to reside. As luck would have it, we found some, again on the side of a mountain near some large boulders and caves. There was a nanny with a few young in a group and as our luck continued, big daddy was close by.
I was not going to be able to get as close as I did to the chamois. I was at the bottom of the ravine with a snowy mountainside in front and another behind me. I ended up resting my rifle on a snow-covered boulder with the barrel pointed up at what I felt was a pretty significant angle. The tahr hunkered down and Gary decided he was going to try to move toward the group to make something happen. After waiting a bit, the nanny and her youngsters started to move and then it got a bit confusing. One of the young tahr ran toward me and came within 20 yards of my position. The tahr that I wanted appeared broadside and I took a shot, then another and another. The tahr was moving but not running and I could not understand why I kept missing or why the beast would not go down. I emptied my gun and reloaded, then got closer to the tahr as he moved to a rock formation on the side of the mountain. I had him in my scope broadside at a very reasonable distance and put three more bullets in him before he tumbled down, head over heels.
I could not believe the toughness of the tahr. Not only do they live in places most creatures have no desire ever to climb, but they do not go down easily. When the animal was caped out, I learned that I had hit him in the boiler six times and also grazed his front leg. I felt better about my shooting skills and was shocked at the resilience of the tahr. Gary called him a monster. I don’t have any knowledge or experience to confirm or argue with his assessment as I had never seen a tahr before, but I took his word for it. The tahr was surprisingly heavy and difficult to move on my own and in my mind will always be a “monster.”
In the end, our quest for the crown was a complete success. Tommy and I took great trophies. New Zealand is spectacularly beautiful. We learned about Kiwi culture and took in lots of the adventure activities Queenstown has to offer. We bonded as males, as hunting buddies and as father and son. We learned, laughed, shed a tear or two and loved each other and our experience at every turn. As the Kiwis are oft to say, we had “no worries, mates,” none at all.—Tom Anderson