If those daydreams were about beautiful landscapes of mountains or canyons or lush green fields, then you’ll find it in the paradise of the country known as New Zealand.
I doubt there is anyone who hasn’t fantasized about hunting there. Mostly about those huge red stags, or record book fallow deer, or Rusa, tahr, even the wily ole opossum with hair (definitely not the almost hairless American opossum) you actually make into wool garments—quite expensively of course.
And then one day you are lucky enough to actually go there and go hunting. It has happened several times for me, this last time to a very special place in the Maori Homeland area.
I had taken trophies of most all the species available in New Zealand, except for Sambar deer. So when the opportunity arose to hunt free range Sambar on the North Island with Shane Johnson and Four Seasons Safaris, I jumped at the chance.
Sambar are very secretive deer, elusive might even be a better term. Even on estate hunts, they can be difficult to take. But I will only talk about this particular population located way up in the Northwest portion of the North Island of New Zealand.
The ranches there are situated in some of the most gorgeous countryside you would ever want to see. I was astonished by the breathtaking beauty of a working ranch there. The terrain is just hills after hills, but there are pastures everywhere on top of an incredible number of these hills.
Whether time wore down the tops so there were relatively speaking flatter areas for pastures or the ranch managers took them down themselves, I don’t know. All I know is that the lush, green grasses would be a rancher’s delight anywhere. Then there are these deep draws and canyons interspersed amongst the pastures. The vegetation is most thick, dense and difficult to travel in were it not for the game trails, which crisscross up and down and along the sides of those magnificent canyons.
Sambar rarely come out into a pasture to graze, and when they do it is only along the edges for a short period of time. There really is plenty to eat on the sides of the canyons.
So how in the heck do you hunt them? Once you’ve seen the terrain, you really start asking that question very seriously. I had been forewarned that the odds of taking a Sambar were not good to start with, less than 50 percent, and that I needed to come during the rut, either May or August. I chose August because of work related requirements.
But even during the rut it is a question of being there during the right time of the month. And worse yet, they remain shy, almost nocturnal animals—just they aren’t solitary anymore. The stags don’t collect large harems of hinds; they normally only have one or two females with them. In the rut, they still stay on the canyon walls, just not singular males, which are hard to spot as they weave in and out from underneath the canopy.
The first afternoon we went out and hunted. Hunting was a matter of driving around the ranch to various far edges of fields, approaching and climbing over the fence to the side of the canyon walls and glassing. Only it was too thick to see much from the edge, so we climbed down the walls of the canyon to a decent vantage point and glassed the opposite side and the bottom if visible. Distances were around 100-200 yards across.
Sambar are large bodied animals, dark brown, almost black as they get older. Their antlers have three points on either side, can be wide or narrow, the taller antlers being thinner and they thicken up as they age, but they are shorter as they age, too.
Day two was much the same, but this time we were fortunate that Corey went out early and glassed another area of the ranch while we were working opposite sides.
A small stag and several hind were spotted, but nothing shootable.
The next morning, it was threatening rain—and did rain later in the day. Just like before, we were on one side of the ranch and Corey was on another.
Jim got a call from Corey about 9 or so: “Come now, John’s not going home empty-handed.”
Thirty minutes later we were slowly sneaking and slipping down a canyon wall to a small open spot where a tree had fallen. The root ball was still there, offering a very solid rest should I need it.
Corey pointed out the area on the opposite side where we could see two hind, but no stag. Corey said to wait, and then an old stag that looked good stepped out.
Jim studied him and said that he was one to take. So I steadied the rifle, one I had borrowed from Shane actually, placing the crosshairs on the Sambar’s shoulder.
One shot and five steps — he was down. While I put another round into him at Jim’s insistence, he was done.
Everyone was excited and we headed off to work our way down to the bottom of the canyon and then back up the other side. It couldn’t have been more than 140 yards-plus across at the level from which I shot. But it took the better part of an hour and a half-plus to get across.
The old stag was indeed old, and big bodied. He had scars from fighting all over his old head, his ears were split and his ivories were almost worn away from munching on the native vegetation to include saw grass! Corey and Jim estimated him to be 10-12 years old.
He had really thick horns. If not for one tine that was partially broken off, he would have been gold. We took lots of pictures and caped him out. Fortunately someone else would come back with horses for the meat, but we took the trophy out.
We celebrated with Corey at his place that evening and made plans to head back to Auckland the next day. Not knowing if we would spend a whole seven days hunting Sambar or not, no serious other plans had been made, but Shane had a provision for us to visit Stravon Ranch where we would hunt wallaby and pigs.
Next morning, Jim and I took off for Stravon, which is located outside of Hunter Hills in Central South Canterbury. If a place could be more hilly than the Rotarua area, this was it. We left our vehicle at the ranch house and took a Quad up for two hours to a cabin that has been enlarged a couple of times very near to the highest part of the ranch. It sits on a point overlooking a beautiful waterfall. A very special place.
We hunted for pigs for a day and did not see anything, but tons of tracks as well as a couple of really big fallow deer.
Then we went out looking for wallaby, which is when you hunt them there. Then after another home-cooked meal, which is Jim’s specialty, and a good night’s rest, we started down the mountain.
About halfway down, four pigs burst out of some brush, headed for safer places. They didn’t run downhill, they ran up the adjoining hill. Tough pigs those are. I managed to take two of them by some stroke of blind luck. Running shots are not my forte for sure. But when luck smiles, it smiles.—John McLaurin