“It’s your call,” offered Mitch, our New Zealand guide. The decision wasn’t easy. Less than an hour into the tahr hunt, we stood looking at a beautiful bull tahr carrying 12-inch horns.
I’d already taken tahr on previous hunts to New Zealand’s South Island, but none was as big as the bull we stared at, less than 150 yards away. But it wasn’t my call to make, as my hunting partner, Andrew Chilkiewicz, was behind the gun first.
“It’s awful tempting,” smiled Andrew. The bull was going nowhere, as the tahr rut was in full swing on this early June day.
“If you think there’s a bigger one up the mountain, let’s check it out,” concluded Andrew. “If we have to come back for this bull, maybe he’ll stay in the bowl with the nannies. Besides, I want to see what all the talk of extreme tahr hunting is really about.”
Andrew, marketing manager for Trijicon, and I were hunting New Zealand’s Southern Alps with Kiwi Safaris. James “Mitch” Mitchell, the operation’s top guide, was point man; and ace guide, Fraser Cooper, was also along on the journey.
The first tahr hunt I did 16 years prior was an experience I’ll never forget. It was a non-guided hunt with some local buddies, and that’s where I learned what true tahr hunting with Kiwis is all about. I soon realized the success of the hunt in their eyes was not necessarily the size of the animal pursued. Rather it was how hard we worked to get him. I knew when Andrew passed up the bull low in the valley that the hunt would quickly escalate to another level.
Rounding a corner in the creek bottom, vertical cliffs surrounded us and there was nowhere to go but up. Mitch and Fraser pulled out their spotting scopes and pointed them toward the sky, searching for tahr high atop the snow-capped peaks. Andrew and I glassed.
“There’s our bull,” muttered Mitch, eye glued to his spotting scope. From the angle at which he was looking, Andrew and I knew what it meant: a climb straight uphill.
Through my binoculars the bull looked good, but when I tucked the eyepiece of the Swarovski spotting scope into my right eye, he looked spectacular. “I’ll go after him if you don’t want him,” I blurted without thinking.
To reach that tahr would take the better part the day, if we could reach him at all. We’d have to climb nearly 5,000 feet, negotiate shale slopes, snow and ice, and, if we were lucky, the bull might still be in the area once we eventually reached him.
“I’m up for it,” Andrew followed. “Let’s give it a try.”
The bull was magnificent. His cream colored, long mane stood out in stark contrast against the cobalt sky behind him. Mitch and Fraser guessed his horns to be pushing 14 inches, which, for a true free-range tahr, is about as good as it gets.
Heading up a scree-strewn draw, the first 1,000 feet were the easiest. We were seeing tahr much of the way, but started seeing more the higher we climbed. They were tucked everywhere in the mountains.
The higher we climbed, the more tahr we saw. Once we hit the 4,000-foot elevation mark, the scree turned to tundra-like ground, and though the footing was better, the angle of ascent grew considerably steeper.
“Not many guys would make it this far,” Mitch complimented Andrew and me as he glassed the surrounding mountains. “One of the reasons there are so many bulls up here is because they’re so under-hunted. There’s simply not many people who can reach them.”
Mitch’s words boosted our spirits, and suddenly the next 1,000 feet of mountain didn’t seem that bad.
Taking one last chug of water, I was interrupted by a tap on the knee. “Take a look at this bull,” Fraser offered, moving aside from his spotting scope. “Which one?” I asked. “That middle one will go close to 14 inches,” Fraser replied. “There’s a 13-inch bull right across the draw,” Mitch interjected.
Sitting in one place we had four shooter bulls in sight. The more I looked at the bull Fraser spotted, the more I wanted him. The thing was, the bull was 2,000 feet below us. “He won’t leave those nannies,” Fraser consoled. “Let’s go get Andrew’s bull then we’ll go get yours before dark.”
Fraser made it sound so simple. But Andrew and I would have to reach deep inside ourselves to pull it off.
“That 13-incher is looking pretty good,” Andrew noted, looking to Mitch for confirmation. “What do you think, Mitch?”
“It’s your call, Andrew. He’s a great bull, but the one at the top of the mountain
will be about an inch bigger,” Mitch relayed.
Andrew was now faced with the decision all tahr hunters eventually have to make. For the first time he understood what makes this trophy one of the most challenging in the entire realm of big game hunting. Very few people would know the difference between a 13 or a 14-inch tahr hanging on the wall, back home. But in his heart, the hunter would know if he compromised.
The question was whether to pull the trigger on a 13-inch tahr and end the hunt right there, or climb another 1,000 feet for an extra inch of horn. The more Andrew pondered the situation, the more he realized it really wasn’t about the extra inch.
Without a word, Mitch and Fraser loaded the packs and soon we were on our final accent. The last 500 feet were the toughest, partly because our bodies were spent, partly because the snow, ice and steep mountain made the going even rougher.
“He’s right up there,” Mitch whispered, having moved ahead of us by 30 yards. That was all the motivation we needed. Adrenaline took over and the last 30 yards felt like we were walking on flat ground.
Quickly, Andrew nestled his rifle into the shooting sticks and waited. “The bull is behind those nannies coming out of the brush,” Mitch instructed. “You can’t see him now but he’ll come right out into that patch of snow.”
Sure enough, just as Mitch predicted, the massive bull strode into the snow. Then Andrew broke the silence with a single shot, hitting the bull on the point of the shoulder. It collapsed instantly and slid out of sight. Amid the congratulatory handshakes, Mitch caught a glimpse of the bull several seconds after the shot. It was rapidly sliding down a snow-choked ravine. It crashed all the way to the bottom of the gorge, out of sight and going 30 miles per hour.
Getting down to Andrew’s tahr was more dangerous than the hike up. The snow was deep and the ice thick on the north-facing slope we had to descend. Crampons, ice picks and repelling gear would have helped, be we had none of that. Instead, we had to plan each footstep tediously, rely on our fingertips to hold us tight to shale cliffs and trust that the ground wouldn’t give way.
Two-and-a-half hours later, hands bruised and bloodied, nerves frayed, we reached Andrew’s tahr, nearly 2,000 feet below where he’d shot it on the tip-top of the mountain. Tattered and bruised, the horns remained intact, but the pelt looked a bit worse for wear.
“We’ll skin this thing out, you and Fraser go get your tahr, and we’ll meet ya at the bottom,” Mitch instructed. It hadn’t even dawned on me. I figured we’d be short on time, as we were nine hours into the hunt with not much daylight remaining.
“Let’s go. We can hop over and see if that bull you wanted is still there,” Fraser encouraged. Again, he made it sound easy, which was encouraging to me.
We had three ridges to cross and just over an hour to do it before darkness set in. The best part, we had to lose very little elevation, meaning we could swiftly cover ground by side-hilling our way to where we’d last seen the bull.
Forty-five minutes later, Fraser and I were hunkered down alongside some sword grass, glassing for tahr. “There’s one bull, and another,” Fraser shared, barely breathing. I was still trying to catch my breath, drinking what little water I had left and figuring we’d be heading back up the mountain tomorrow.
“They’re just over 400 yards away, let’s try and get closer,” Fraser insisted. All of a sudden, covering the last 150 yards seemed trivial — that’s how motivating these animals are.
As I erected my three-legged Bog Pod shooting sticks, Fraser found the bull in his spotting scope. “Take a look, make sure he’s one you want,” smiled Fraser.
Staring at that bull took me back to my very first tahr hunt, where, in the final minutes of the last day, we saw a giant bull that I could have shot, but had no way of getting to in the jagged, ice-covered peaks where he lived. Since then I’d dreamed of one day getting a massive-chested, big-maned bull, and there he was, in my scope.
“Take your time, we’re in no rush now,” whispered Fraser.
The herd had no idea we were perched just over 200 yards above them. All three bulls were still there, feeding, occasionally prodding one another, then chasing nannies.
Though the bull undoubtedly had incredible horns, it was his stunning coat that enamored me. Golden, almost blond, in color and long all the way behind the shoulders. This was as much a prize as his headgear. Watching his long coat shimmer with each step he took reminded me of the grizzly bears I used to hunt in Alaska, while living in a tiny Inupiat Eskimo village on the north slope of the Brooks Range. This setting was even similar to the Brooks Range. “He looks like a grizzly bear with horns,” I mumbled.
Getting in the gun, I put the point of the Trijicon AccuPoint behind the bull’s shoulder. Pressuring the trigger, I was in no hurry, for I was still in awe of this massive beast that seemed so close in my 9x scope.
The report of the rifle jolted me, and when I heard the bullet impact and saw it plow through the long hair behind the bull’s shoulder, I knew he was ours. He ran downhill, but didn’t go far in the tall brush.
Later in the hunt I took a free-range red stag and the best chamois of my life. Those hunts were great fun. The chamois was a tough hunt, no question. But the tahr, that was something special.
Not only was it one of the toughest hunts of my entire life, second only to a mountain goat hunt, but working as a team we helped one another overcome physical and mental hurdles that would have been nearly impossible alone. The fact that our bulls both carried horns near the 14-inch mark and aged out at 7 1/2 years was icing on the cake.
The real reward comes every day when I look at that bull, mounted life-size in my home. His horns are something to behold and his stunning fur is every bit as striking as the first time I laid eyes on him. But what really comes back to mind is the pain, endurance and mental anguish that was continually overcome to reach the top of the mountain. Those are the real rewards of tahr hunting.–Scott Haugen