Now there’s two terms –“wapiti” and “rimrock”– that no one would ever associate with New Zealand, but they are both there. Wapiti, otherwise known as elk, and specifically the Rocky Mountain variety, have been found in New Zealand since the turn of the 19th century when the original herd of 200 were gifted by then-President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt. That original herd has grown and, with constantly improving genetics coupled with intense herd management, produces a trophy quality unrivaled anywhere in the world.
Rimrock county is best typified (in the United States at least) by territory seen in southern Utah or eastern Wyoming where huge ridges of stone are interlaced with deep canyons, coulees and dense thickets. This description contrasts sharply with the usual description of New Zealand’s Southern Alps where ridges are covered with beautiful tussock grasslands and ravines choked with New Zealand’s own matigouri, a bush that starts branching at ground level and is, for all intents and purposes, impenetrable.
Having been the fortunate recipient of two previous adventures in New Zealand’s great outdoors, my expectations were high as I arrived in the Ahuriri Valley on the central South Island to begin my pursuit of a giant bull elk.
I was hunting with professional hunter, Marcus Eccles, who informed me that we would be hunting a concession located midway between Omarama and Queenstown — a holding that possessed tremendous elk as well as super gold medal red stag.
“First we will be on good paved roads, then we will be on good gravel roads, then we will be on poor gravel roads, then we will be on broken rocky roads, and finally on dirt, then we are there,” described Marcus.
“It’s tremendous cover for both elk and stags. We will have to look individually into the huge canyons and cuts to find your trophy. Lace your boots up, shoulder your pack and let’s get on with it,” he said, and we were off.
Slowly we ascended the first promontory to glass the canyons. Early mornings and late evenings are the premium times to catch animals out in the open, feeding on the abundant green grass on the side hills below us, but only a few tahr were visible from our first vantage point.
“Let’s side-hill around this big abutment to the west and see what’s about,” Marcus said as he re-shouldered his pack. “Sounds like a plan to me,” was all I could reply.
Huge stone overhangs loomed above us as we side-hilled on narrow game trails along the steep canyons. It didn’t take much imagination to wonder what physical calamities awaited one unfortunate enough to slip and fall from our precarious perch.
As we continued around, down and up the next ridge, we were caught in the open by red stags on an adjoining ridge. As we were able to set up our spotting scopes in their direction, one large stag soon transformed into four super gold medal stags ranging in score from 420 to 460 SCI.
As is so typical of super gold medal stags, each one was unique unto itself: one narrow, one wide, several with tremendous drop points and others with exceptional mass. It was a veritable smorgasbord for the trophy hunter, all within 300 yards of our position. I whispered to Marcus, “This hunt would be over if I was looking for a super gold red stag. Where are the elk?”
“They are obviously not on this side of the rimrock,” he replied, “but we have a lot of ground to cover and the day is just getting started. Be patient.”
We slowly and methodically continued searching each canyon and ravine, always checking the wind direction before we ascended a promontory and set up our Swarovski 20×60 spotting scopes. The scenario continued throughout the morning without success and, as the sun rose into the late morning sky, so did the temperature.
Marcus soon tapped me on the shoulder to say, “The rising temperature has these animals bedded down after their morning feeding. Let’s loop back toward the truck for some water and a sandwich break.”
Following our break, it was obvious that, for that time of day, we would be looking for bedded animals, not feeding ones. Marcus laid out our plan: “We are going to the highest points on the property where we can glass a lot of country, especially into these ravines where it is cool and the animals will be bedded.”
As we ascended a promontory in the rimrock south of where we had previously made our morning “walkabout,” I could see Marcus glassing intently to the west and heard him quietly singing to himself, “I see an elk, I see an elk. Bet you can’t find him, bet you can’t find him!”
He looked at me and said with a wink, “You will have to locate this one yourself.”
Quickly focusing my 10×50 Leica binoculars toward the west, I initially panned a wide, close swath and then expanded my vision outward. At 900 yards distance, over three ridges away, I could just see the tops of an elk’s rack as it rotated its head from side to side. We had found an elk! As I continued to observe, it became quickly obvious, even at that great distance, that those antlers were huge.
“Are they as big as I think they are?” I asked Marcus.
“If they look huge at 900 yards, imagine what they will look like up close!” he quickly replied.
“Let’s go! Let’s go!” was all I could say.
“Calm down!” Marcus said. “Let’s make a plan. You see that rock on the third ridge? According to my rangefinder it is 740 yards away. The bull is 910 yards away, leaving approximately 170 yards from that rock to the bull. If we can approach to that rock undetected, we will have him cold, as long as he doesn’t move during the stalk.”
After a thorough study of the terrain, I dropped my pack and binocular, carrying only my rifle to make the approach. I was carrying a Mark Banser Custom Built .300 Winchester Magnum with a Swarovski 4.5×14 scope, shooting Hornady 165-grain SST bullets. It’s a true “tack driver” and had proven itself many times. I knew the equipment would do its job — I just had to do mine!
Marcus led the way with me closely on his heels as we slowly inched toward the top. I watched Marcus slowly ease his binoculars to his eyes; a smile slowly formed in the corner of his mouth as he turned toward me and gave me the “thumbs up” sign.
As I slowly crawled the last 10 yards to join him, he was already putting his pack in position to serve as my rifle platform. I eased along side him, and the absolutely massive elk came into full view. Even at that distance and with the naked eye, the massiveness was humbling.
We slowly glassed and counted points — 12 on the right, 10 on the left and the beams looked at least 60 inches long. It was easily the largest elk I have ever seen in my ten years of elk hunting. The bull was bedded in the middle of a circular patch of thornbush and our elevation above him allowed us to see its entire body. He was facing directly away with his head turned slightly to the left. His eyes were closed and the adjacent thicket supported his massive rack. He was a trophy of a hunting lifetime — asleep at 177 yards!
One hour came and went and I turned to Marcus for his assessment. “Before he stands up, he will begin to move his head around to loosen himself up.” Marcus responded. “Then he will lean his head forward to give himself some leverage as he gets to his feet. Be ready when he starts those movements, because he will be on his feet very quickly. Shoot him through the shoulders as soon as he is stable. Don’t let him get out of that thicket!”
Soon after the words were spoken, I noticed the elk’s head movements were increasing.
“He is getting up,” Marcus hissed.
Quickly, I released the safety as the crosshairs found their mark on its massive left shoulder. Gentle finger pressure on the trigger began, then “Boom!” the report of the .300 Winchester Magnum sent the bullet on its way downrange.
The bull reacted immediately to the shot as his front legs folded underneath him and the weight of his tremendous rack drove it to the ground. “Fantastic shot, Doc!” Marcus yelled.
As I chambered another round, the bull appeared down for an instant but miraculously was back on its feet, weaving under the impact of the bullet.
As we approached from the downwind side, the most incredible case of “reverse” ground shrinkage occurred. The closer we approached, the larger the bull elk became! When I finally placed those massive antlers in my hands, the realization that my dream had become a reality slowly sank in. This massive bull elk was ours; Marcus and I had done it!
Once the adrenalin faded, and that took a while, we took stock of our trophy: 12×10 bull elk, 61-inch main beam length, 48-inch inside spread, green score 444 3/8 SCI. My New Zealand “rimrock wapiti”– my quest — was finally brought to full fruition through hard work, dedication to task at hand and more than my fair share of “hunters’ luck.”– D. Kyle Ball, M.D.