Jurassic Stags of Kuranui

Drops of rain rolled from countless species of emerald colored ferns, making footing difficult as we traversed the saturated and well-worn game paths etched into the mud of the canopy-covered hillsides. We were hunting a pristine property known as Kuranui, in search of red and rusa deer.

The area consists of deep, narrow valleys with densely arbored “hillsides.” The visibility inside the vegetated canopy would be measured in feet, not yards. At any time, we expected to be treated to the sight of a tyrannosaur in pursuit of a fleeing duckbill, or a pterodactyl gliding overhead. Hard to believe New Zealand has no snakes and mosquitos were non-existent.  The scoped rifle I carried seemed an anachronism.

The object was to gain elevation and stay hidden in the dense foliage, trying not to spook any animals that were feeding in the lush meadows below. We often “bumped” deer on our climbs, pushing them higher along the hillsides instead of out into the open where their movement would alert the feeding stragglers. With the continual drip of falling rain covering the sound of our ascent, we often managed to get so close to hidden deer that their musky smell betrayed their location. On numerous occasions, the guttural bark of a fallow, rusa or red deer sent my startled heart into near fibrillation.

Glassing the open meadows from the seclusion of the canopied forest allowed an un-intrusive and somewhat voyeuristic ogling of fallow, rusa and red deer enjoying the days grazing. Shooting distances could range from fifty yards to well past three hundred.

I had chosen Rusa timorensis, that grey rust colored, typically 3×3 antlered South Pacific ungulate as my primary species. Mid-May would be the time, the North Island of New Zealand the place. The natural habitat of rusa is Java, with most New Zealand herds coming from New Caledonia in the 1950s. Rusa rut begins in mid-May, and male rusa are known for their aggressive rutting behavior. Many are killed in the process of seducing a selective female. By mid-June, antlers are battered and broken and the usually long hair on the male’s neck is shorn to the skin from the constant fighting. The weather would be damp at best and we expected rain daily. We were not disappointed! The light Merino wool base layer I had chosen was just the ticket for this event. Did I mention rain gear?

Hunting involved an early morning departure from the lodge following an excellent breakfast and a bit of storytelling. There was no need to travel by car as the lodge is smack in the middle of the hunting property. We spotted many deer from the porch of our private chalet. It was important to keep the binoculars handy.

While stalking, I carried rain gear and bottled water, along with a light wool jacket/shirt and a couple of granola bars times two. Chivalry is not dead. I did not want my wife, Betsy, to get hungry, thirsty or wet!

Betsy would make every climb and take every step with me on this hunt. If I can teach her to cape and skin, she will be perfect. With only a mere 31 years of training, it may be unreasonable of me to expect that much.

The red deer had recently completed the rut and were no longer in the “roar” as the Kiwis put it. Hunting “reds” proved difficult, as their behavioral focus turned away from attending the post estrus hinds (females) and the stags reverted to a more secretive existence.

Our best chance of collecting either species would come early morning or just prior to sunset. However, the red deer stags would be feeding longer into the day in an effort to improve their post-rut condition.

We left the lodge on foot, crossing a wooden bridge extending over a small babbling river that seemed intent on draining the lush hillsides of every drop of the early morning rain. Sunlight washed the emerald landscape with a clarity I had rarely seen. The Pleistocene epoch seemed less distant at that moment.

We climbed to an overlook that gave us vantage of two narrow meadows and we began to glass for game. A white fallow deer appeared on the edge of the tree line and started to feed. As I watched, I could see other fallow inside the cover but partially hidden by the shadows. Two young rusa females busted out of cover as if racing for the dinner table. They slowed to a walk, having decided that the fodder was just about perfect directly under their feet, and began to graze. Farther up the valley, I noticed the white polished tips of antlers moving into my line of sight as if a periscope from a submarine were inching from the surface of the sea.

My heart stepped in time to the rhythm of the approaching stag’s trot and I held the binoculars just a bit more firmly. He looked huge. I attempted to count his points as he made his way into full view, the red color of his pelage beamed in the mid-afternoon sunshine. “Red deer.” It must have been a genius who named them!

“That stag has to score close to 400 inches,” I said to Mort. “He is gold medal for sure,” came the reply. I can kill him from here was my answer, but Mort insisted that it was the first afternoon and he wanted me to look at some of the other stags he knew inhabited the grounds. As if on cue, a second stag appeared from the same bowl from which that the first monster stag rose. “There must be a nest,” I thought! The second stag carried a nearly equal set of antlers with just a bit less mass. Each carried massively weighted beams with at least 20 ivory-tipped points atop mocha colored tines.

I looked over at Betsy and quietly whispered, “Do you see the stags”? She stared back with the facial expression she always gives me when I ask a stupidly obvious question. I broke into a childish giggle.

We had made a long trans-Pacific flight to shoot stags of this quality and now all we were going to do was look at them! The balance of that first afternoon was spent watching that valley for rusa, fallow and red deer. As the light began to fade, we harnessed our backpacks and hiked back toward the lodge. While I walked, I thought of how quickly this trip had come up and knew it would end in a blink of time. From the back of my head, I could hear a voice telling me to enjoy the experience. It will be over all too soon. I turned to check on Betsy’s progress and she gave me a reassuring smile. She was enjoying it, too.

Following an excellent breakfast seasoned with great conversation, Betsy and I headed to our chalet nestled into the hillside just above the lodge and overlooking lush green pastures. We collected my backpack and Meopta 10X42 binoculars, along with Betsy’s rain hat and iPad, then proceeded to rendezvous with Mort to begin day two of our hunt.

Looking up the valley just behind the lodge, we spotted a red deer stag sporting massive antlers. His crown was even more impressive than the two stags we had seen the day before. Checking him with my binos, I called it to Betsy’s attention. Her immediate reply was for me to look at the one to the far right accompanied by four hinds moving up the hill into the forest. “My God!” was my response. I motioned to Mort who was now standing out in front of the lodge waiting for us. I was waving my right arm with enough enthusiasm to pull Mort quickly up the hill to our position. As Mort gained elevation, he, too, could see the object of my desire.

“I haven’t seen that stag in more than a month,” was his tort. He will score close to 500 inches.

We all watched as the group of reds disappeared into the vegetable morass of jungle on the steeply angled hillside. The impression was indelible and I would never forget that sight. This was a truly magnificent animal. The experience reminded me of Italy and viewing Michelangelo’s David. Perfection does exist.

This stag epitomized nature’s artwork. He possessed it all: mass, tine length, points, symmetry and he carried that crown with a regal elegance. We watched as the last deer disappeared into the lush, wet, emerald bush.

I turned to Mort and told him that I would not shoot any stag other than that one. His response was that we may never see that stag during the rest of my hunt. We spent the balance of the day hunting rusa and fallow deer, and talked about a plan to relocate the 500.

That evening over an excellent dinner of venison and a superb Sauvignon Blanc we made our plan.

We rose an hour earlier the next morning. It was raining and dark. We planned to climb the steep bank of the hill where we had last seen the stag the morning before and hoped to find him feeding in the meadow behind the lodge as daylight broke. We would use the thick cover of ferns, forest and the darkened sky to shield our movements as we gained a vantage over the lush meadows lining the valley floor.

The sound of heavy rain helped to mask any noise we made sliding along the well-worn game trails. We risked busting rusa, fallow and the red deer from that same cover. Stealth was of the utmost importance.

Once into the cover, we searched for openings from which to view the pastures below.  The cackle of a rooster pheasant brought a smile to my face and I wondered if he was cursing the rain or welcoming the daylight.

At that instant Mort stopped in mid stride and pointed downward and out between a small opening in the canopy of fern and trees. We had been walking for more than half an hour and visibility was still not optimal. I looked back at Betsy and motioned her to stand still as I eased my way up a few feet to Mort’s position and peered over his left shoulder and along his outstretched arm. Off the end of his pointer finger I could see two magnificent stags feeding not more than 80 yards below. Sixty of those yards masked in shadow, leaves and branches. I queried as to which one was our target?  The one feeding toward us and closest was the reply. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes, that’s him,” he replied.

“Can you shoot him from here?” Mort queried.  While we relied on the thick foliage to shield us from the stags, the dense cover was also shielding the stags from us! The problem with so much cover is that there is little room to thread a bullet between branches, tree trunks and the underbrush of lush ferns. This was going to be an offhand shot and from anything but a stable and steady position.

I eased past Mort along the narrow and mucky game trail. He whispered that there was a third stag off to the right of the 500.  Nice — more eyes, ears and nostrils to contend with. Murphy should show his ugly face at any time.  The trail started a downward slope and mud made traction almost non-existent. The lugs of my boots were now filled with muck, making them more like ice skates than Vibram-soled hikers.

I bent my knees and eased my rear end down into a sitting position, butt crawling /sliding down along the greasy path etched into the hillside, hoping not to spook our quarry. The feel of cold mud against my rear end made me think my rain pants were leaking. Easing farther down the hill, I tried to locate a line of sight; a small opening through which I could send the projectile unobstructed. The target was feeding toward me, not the exact attitude I had hoped for.

As I raised the rifle, a rusa deer appeared below and to my right. I froze, hoping she would not smell me.  She was close at 50 yards and just inside the edge of the trees. If she barked an alarm, the red deer would bust and disappear in two bounds into the trees below, or make for the far hillside across the meadow. I waited motionless until she disappeared into the thick foliage below and to my left.

My view of the first stag was much better than the target stag and while he was farther out, he presented a better shot. He, too, was a monster that I estimated at that 400-inch level. Training the crosshairs of the scope on the open alley to the paddock below, I watched as the 500 moved across my line of sight. The angle was acute, my brain willing him to turn slightly, giving me a shot into the crease behind his left front shoulder.

I squeezed the trigger and he jumped at the shot and bolted along with the third stag into a finger of thick cover extending out into the meadow.

Standing, I followed his flight path as Mort indicated that the shot was a bit back. Had the bullet clipped some obstruction that I had not seen in my scope?  Wanting to get another round into the animal, I located my target as he moved away and fired a second time though the canopy of leaves and branches, the bullet striking him forward of the right hind leg, and passing through the kidney and into the lower lobe of the left lung. This had been the only shot he presented. It all happened quickly.

As the animal hit the ground, Mort asked if I had shot a second deer. For an instant, I felt ill. Playing the scene over again in my mind, I smiled and assured him that I had not killed a second animal. Betsy smiled as she realized that we were not being charged for a second stag and that I would not be dipping into the Christmas money this year.

After standing a few minutes, regaining my composure and taking in the moment, we eased off the mountain and down to our prize. The first shot had been placed well, the bullet passing over the top of the heart and out the far side.

Mort had a more obstructed view of the proceedings and had not seen the second hit. He had however, seen the animal go down.

After the high fives, hugs and backslaps, we positioned the trophy for photos. This animal was as impressive on the ground as he had been when we first encountered him. No shrinkage here. He was indeed close to 500 inches. In fact, the official SCI score is 493 and 5/8 inches. Good eye Mort.–Jeffery Belongia

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