A Bowhunter’s High

I am a bowhunter – pure and simple. Over the past 35 years, I, along with my sons Jason and David, have almost exclusively pursued the white-tailed deer in Mississippi, Illinois and Kansas with a bow.

My trip to New Zealand to bowhunt has been on my bucket list for quite a while, mainly because of the dogged persistence of one of my best friends, Dr. Kyle Ball. Kyle has made this trip to hunt with Gary Herbert, one of New Zealand’s top safari outfitters and professional hunters, three times over the past eight years and, as a result, has a wall covered with trophies to prove his success, not to mention a dozen published articles recounting his adventures.

The fact that Kyle’s wife Maury has accompanied him on these trips and they both are still talking about what a fantastic and unforgettable time they shared together, only added to the allure of such a hunt. A true “Second honeymoon” for Mary Frances and me! It just seemed too good to be true, but we finally made up our minds to make this the year to go to New Zealand and to see the country we had heard so much about and to pursue a red stag, an elk and possibly a Himalayan tahr if time permitted.

After arriving at the lodge, we quickly reacquainted ourselves with Gary and were introduced to his staff. We were afforded an opportunity to get unpacked and soon I had uncased my bow and headed out behind the lodge where bow targets were already set up and waiting. After several sets of shooting, I concluded that if I missed an animal in a hunting situation, it would not be the bow’s fault; the bow was still dead-on.

“How’d you like to start your hunt a bit early and try to get in a late afternoon hunt?” asked Jason.

“That sounds great,” I replied.

I don’t know what my expectations were, never having been in this situation before. But within an hour we were on top of a small knoll overlooking a riverine bottom with five red stag bulls feeding less than 200 yards away! The enormity of their antlers caught me initially by surprise –“massive” in a word. I was finally here! New Zealand! On the mountain!

Their racks could easily be seen above the lush cover they were feeding in, as they moved from side to side. Jason immediately put together a plan to circle downwind and come up on the largest of the five. Here is where the devil is in the details–we had to get downwind of the stags, all the time not making any noise, then navigate into bow range while not alarming any of the other feeding bulls.

After about a 45-minute stalk, we were within 35 yards of a 400+ Class Super Gold Medal stag feeding off to the side of the main group. As I came to full draw, the stag immediately saw my movement, wheeled and ran straight away from us, never giving me an acceptable shot. As it so often happens, the thrill of being that close and actually drawing on a huge stag was immediately replaced with a feeling of disappointment and the subconscious thought, “Was this my only chance?” Little did I know that this “near miss” was the best blessing that could have happened to me, for I had a huge challenge coming my way later in the hunt.

The next day, Jason and I got on a trophy 8×7 bull elk that we both agreed would score about 380 SCI. After stalking him for more than 1 1/2 hours, Jason called out the distance –“53 yards…Take him.”

I buried a 125-grain Montec G-5 broadhead right behind the bull’s onside shoulder. Obtaining full penetration, blood began spewing out both sides. The bull stumbled several times and then collapsed, having not made it 75 yards before crashing.

Two things became immediately evident to me at that moment: Number one: I was convinced of Jason’s ability to get me close to my quarry by utilizing his uncanny ability to take all things into consideration – the wind, the terrain, what the animal was doing and, from that information, be able to put together a stalk to place me in position for a clean shot. Number two: I convinced Jason that if he did get me close, I would close the deal. It was obvious, even after only two days of hunting that the two of us made a great team. It was a true “Bowhunter’s High” coming off the mountain that afternoon.

That night, after a fantastic 5 star meal prepared by Gary’s very competent kitchen staff, Gary asked if he could talk to me privately. “Mmm, what’s up?” I asked myself. “ I have a proposition for you,” Gary said. “ My guides spotted a very large stag this afternoon on one of my other ranches. I would really like you to get this particular animal with a bow. My plan is to send an extra guide with you and Jason for an extra set of eyes, and also include Mark Hamilton, a videographer I use frequently, to record the hunt and hopefully the shot , and if you’re lucky, the harvest.”

I quickly tried to process this invitation but already knew the answer. “What do you think my chances are?” I asked. Gary, not hesitating, said, “ 50-50 on finding him if you hunt all day, 50-50 on being able to get into position for a clean shot.” Oh well, that sounded good enough for me!

“I want you to be ready to pull out at 5:30 in the morning – about an hour before anyone else would be going out. I want you on top of that mountain by first light,” Gary said.

As I walked back to my room pondering over what had just been said, I thought to myself, “You forgot to ask him the most important question… ‘How big is big?’” Little did I realize at that particular moment in time just how much I was about to be educated!

Jason, Dan (my extra guide) and I met Mark at the gate to one of Gary’s ranches long before first light. After exchanging pleasantries, Mark explained what he would be doing and how it was going to be done. We then all loaded up in the Polaris Ranger and started slowly up the mountain, winding and climbing constantly to the highest peak.

We took positions and began glassing the surrounding slopes and the valley below, not just looking for a stag bull, not just a stag that fell into a certain class, but “THE ” stag. After about 30 minutes of glassing without success, we relocated. We traversed side-hill about a half mile to the west to a new vantage point. New slopes, new valleys, but no stags of any kind were spotted. Nothing but the female “ hinds.”

After some discussion between Jason and Dan, we decided to move again. At that point, I noticed a little bit of urgency and change of tone in Jason’s voice. As we wound around the mountain, it suddenly dawned on me–the stag was not where the guides had left him the afternoon before and, with the sun now well up over the ridge, the stags would be finishing their feeding and bedding down soon. Once bedded down, it would probably be late afternoon before they would be up and visible again.

Our third observation point was absolutely panoramic. We were on a high knoll with mountains on both sides and a huge valley in front. It was one of those spots where you can “see forever.” It was there I began to second-guess the process.

“This is crazy,” I thought. We can see for miles and we are looking for one particular animal–not going to happen. This was truly like looking for the proverbial “needle in a haystack.” Jason was in position looking over the valley, while Dan and I searched opposite slopes. I noticed Dan stand up and go to the Ranger and start back with the spotting scope. I began glassing where he had been looking. I finally spotted a stag feeding a very long way off. Even with my Swarovski binoculars, it was hard to tell much about how big he was. After setting up the spotting scope, Jason took a look and after careful deliberation turned to me and said, “I think this is the one!” After one look, my previous bowhunter low went to a very high bowhunter’s high. The next obvious question was, “ What do we do now?”

Jason said, “We’re going to watch him and see what he does.”

After no more than 10 minutes, the big stag bedded down in the thick Matigouri bushes and only the tips of his horns were visible. At that moment, the realization suddenly came over me–if we had been just 15 minutes later getting to this spot, we never would have seen the stag because he would have already bedded down. I guess that’s why it’s called “Hunter’s Luck!”

Next came the real strategy and that’s when the professionals took over. Jason spent a good while studying the landscape around the bedded stag and checking the wind. He told me it was not going to be easy.

“I would like to come at the stag from above or from behind the way he is facing, but the open terrain above the stag and the prevailing wind is going to prohibit those approaches. Our only choice is to come up directly below the stag. If we can get to that rock outcrop in front of the bull, we have a chance. The bad news is, he is facing directly downhill which would put us trying to slip into position straight in front of him. No chance for error here. The good news is the wind is coming from top to bottom, which is perfect,” Jason said. “I’m not saying it’s impossible, but for us to have success, everything has to go perfectly!”

After a three-way conversation with Jason, Dan and me, Jason decided to leave Dan on the ridge top with the spotting scope and a radio. Our route required us to backtrack off the back side of the mountain we were on, follow a very narrow valley, and then turn up the opposite mountain directly below the stag. That approach would put us in the position of not being able to keep tabs on the bedded down animal. We would completely lose sight of the stag until Jason put me in position.

That’s where Dan would prove to be invaluable. Little did we know how important that one decision would prove to be in the overall scheme. Further complicating the challenge, Mark would be following Jason and me as he filmed the stalk.

As we headed off the back of the mountain, picking our way down through the rocks and thickets, I felt another “low” coming on. How in the world are three grown men going to sneak up on a wild animal and get within bow range?

“This will never work,” I thought to myself.

After making our way down the mountain and turning into a very narrow valley, we faced our first obstacle–a stream with running water in it ran through this ravine. The faces of the two opposing mountains were shear walls down to the water. Our only choice to remain undetected was to wade into the stream and pick our way across to the other side. The water was not deep, but oh boy, was it cold!

After making our way across the stream, Jason turned uphill onto the slope. I was glad Jason was in charge because, at that point, the surrounding terrain all looked the same to me! Mark and I followed behind Jason when suddenly I heard an unusually loud, barking sound. Jason said, “Get down and don’t move.”

“What in the world is that?” I asked.

“Some hinds have seen us. That’s the alarm sound they make,” he replied.

I quickly thought about a whitetail deer blowing–usually the jig was up when that happened. I heard Dan calling Jason over the radio.

“Don’t move. The stag is standing up looking in your direction trying to see what all the commotion is about,” Dan radioed.

We lay motionless for about 10 minutes before the hinds moved on and it got quiet again. Another 20 minutes went by before Dan called back and said the stag has bedded back down. Jason became very cautious at this point, constantly checking the wind. Our pace became very slow and deliberate as we climbed straight up the incline. Finally, after about two hours, Jason pointed to the rock I recognized from our previous vantage points above, now about 20 yards away from us. “ Easy here,” said Jason. I knew we were close. We slipped up to the outcropping, and Jason slowly peaked over the top. As he slowly brought his head back down, I waited for the verdict.

“He’s there, and he’s close,” Jason whispered.

“How close?” I asked as I thought about my site pins set at 40-50-60-70 yards. By the look on Jason’s face, I could tell he was excited but I was unprepared for his response.

“Maybe 15 yards,” he whispered. Fifteen yards! Good Grief! A two-hour stalk, probably more than two miles covered, and we end up 15 yards away from a monster stag bedded down. Are you kidding me? I still was having trouble processing this when I asked again, “15 yards?” thinking maybe I misunderstood.

“Fifteen yards and he is facing directly our way. His head is below the ledge but you won’t have any trouble seeing his horns. He won’t be able to see you, and the wind is good. Here’s the plan,” Jason said in a whisper.

“Ease up the incline beside the rock outcropping ’till you see his horns. When he decides to get up, you will know it because his horns will begin rotating from side-to-side. Come to full draw before his head clears the bushes. He shouldn’t see you, he should then turn left or right and at that point will be broadside, but only for a couple of seconds. That will be your shot opportunity,” Jason said.

Well, all that sounded real easy…. NOT!

As I inched up the incline, I remembered Mark was right behind me with the video camera. Oh brother, this was going to be really good or really bad, but either way it was all going to be on film. No pressure here!

Then I encountered what would become my biggest obstacle. Because of the steep incline, my left foot was more than ten 10 inches higher than my right, leaving me in a very unstable shooting stance. I had practiced at home shooting from my knees but never thought about shooting off an incline such as this. I was really wishing both feet were under me, especially when I got my first glance at the stag’s horns.

The adrenaline rush just about took me down. He was enormous! Just for a second, I looked away. “You’ve got to get it together and quickly,” I thought. I clicked on my release and tried to imagine what the different permutations of this situation could be. They seemed endless. To be this close to a world class animal armed with only a bow and arrow was just about too much to contemplate. Five minutes went by, then ten. I started to feel the ache in my legs. I had been mostly numb up until then. Fifteen minutes, then 20 minutes go by and I’m getting really tired. My emotions were going up and down the Richter scale. Jason later told me that every time the stag turned his horns sideways in the bed, my legs would start shaking. That made him laugh!

After about 30 minutes, Jason whispered, “How long can you last?” I really did not know. I reflected on my good friend Dr. Ball watching a bull elk for three hours in the bed before finally getting the shot. I knew I wasn’t going to make it that long. What were my options? None came to mind.

Suddenly, I felt what most bow hunters are keenly sensitive to and fear the most–the wind hitting you on the back of the neck, signaling a complete wind change, now blowing directly toward the bedded stag.

Almost simultaneously, Jason said, “Get ready!”

Sure enough, the huge rack started turning and I instantaneously came to full draw. It was not happening at all like I envisioned. The monster stag stood up, looking straight at me. No casual looking side-to-side– straight at me 15 yards away! As our eyes met, he immediately wheeled sharply to his left, launching out of his bed like he had been shot out of a cannon.

I can only say that instincts took over because it happened fast…really fast. As my sights crossed the fullness of the stags’ chest, I touched the release as he wheeled, witnessing the carbon arrow bury itself into the bull’s neck and can only remember hearing Jason screaming, “Great shot!” in his best Queen’s English.

Jason jumped up beside me and yelled, “Let’s chase him!”

At that point, all the emotions and adrenaline seemed to drain out of my body. Just for that moment, I was done. After being on high alert for more than 30 minutes standing in an extremely awkward position, I fell to one knee and waved Jason on. It was several minutes later before I could gather myself and take up the trail behind him. As I came over the top of the ridge, I saw Jason grinning from ear to ear.

The words I wanted to hear, “He’s down!” echoed across that mountainside. As we made our way to the downed stag, I heard Mark say repeatedly, “I got the whole thing on video, I got the whole thing on video!”

As we came upon our magnificent trophy and were finally able to put our hands on him—the realization of what we’d just accomplished was finally beginning to settle in. We had done it!

The trophy of a hunting lifetime—a New Zealand red stag, 20×19 points with a SCI green score of 464–truly a memory for a lifetime.–Rusty Ellis

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Safari Magazine

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