Just in Time New Zealand Stag Hunt
It was a race against the wind, the terrain, and the sun to bag the legendary New Zealand red stag. I was hunting with two gentlemen from Washington state, Keith and Andy. Keith was in pursuit of the red stag and Andy had just fulfilled his goal of shooting a Tahr and Chamois the day before. There was an hour of light left in the day, and we were closing the distance on a group of red stags we had been tailing all day.
We were in the Hunters Hills range on the South Island of New Zealand. It is steep hill country, and it consists of tall tussock grass, jungle drainages, and large rock outcroppings. We were navigating our way down a ridge that had thick bush towards the bottom. We stopped to discuss the rest of the route down to get into shooting range of the stags. I could see the approach ahead, and I knew it was going to get tight. We decided Andy would hang back with our packs while Keith and I descended the rest of the way.
Andy wished us luck, and we dropped our packs to start downward. The stags were feeding just over 400 yards away in an opening near a small stream below us. It was the time of day when the sun is just starting to drop, but the warmth from the sun is still in the air. I looked at Keith and told him the wind would drop soon. We had better get into position as fast as possible. We dropped on the opposite side of the ridge from the stags to avoid being seen or sky lined as we worked down into the thick bush.
We had been stalking one particular stag all day, and we were striving to get within rifle range. He was a beautiful stag with thick crowns and matching kickers that came off his main beams like boat outriggers. It had been a cat-and-mouse game up to this point; we had nearly been in rifle range once earlier in the day before he disappeared into the next drainage. This forced us to hike to the very top of this mountain to have the wind in our favor, with the up draft.
Now the sun was setting, and a down draft would soon be the case. It put urgency in my mind because our hunt would be blown once the stags got a whiff of our scent. At this point, there were only small openings to move through in the bush, so we had to slide on our backsides to move ahead. We inched closer – 400 yards, then 380, then 360. We were making progress, but it was looking good. The bush concealed us tremendously, but we still had a little distance to cover, and the wind was a ticking time bomb. Setting up for the shot wasn’t going to be easy; the bushes were chest height and too flimsy to lay a rifle across to make for a steady rest. Luckily, there was a bench ahead in a small clearing that looked like Keith would be able to lie down and take the shot. This was the spot we needed to get to.
The sun set over the mountains, and the ticking time bomb was now ticking faster. I looked to Keith and signalled that we needed to get to that opening and fast. The ridge was getting steep, and the holes we were sliding through now turned into climbing down. We pieced our way through the final hole and out to the opening, and unfortunately, it was still too steep of an area to lay prone.
Keith and I looked around, trying to find a reasonable rest for him to lay his rifle across. Finally, Keith found a dead bush with a thick branch he could get his rifle on. It wasn’t the perfect rest, but it was going to have to work. The outrigger stag was slowly feeding and was en route to disappearing behind a small hill. It was a make-or-break moment. Keith said he felt pretty good, and he had a bead on him, but the stag was still slowly on the move. The moment was rushed, and I told Keith to hold off because, in past experiences, I’ve seen rushed shots turn into wounds and misses.
The stag disappeared behind the hill, and I said, “Be patient. He will feedback into sight.”
Before I finished the sentence, I felt a light breeze hit the back of my neck. Our wind time bomb was up. (For those of you who are not familiar with thermal wind shifts, it is a typical wind pattern that happens in mountainous terrain. During the day, the sun heats the earth, and the heat rises, causing an updraft. When the sun sets in the evening, the cool air falls, causing a downdraft.) An instant later, one of the stags closest to us picked up his head, briefly looked around, and then took off across the creek and up the next ridge. The rest of the stags followed suit, including our outrigger beauty.
Now or Never
The bitter pain of being busted started to set in my mind, and I tried to fight off the thoughts by focusing on the next-best plan for success. I looked at Keith and said we have 40 minutes of shooting light. If we hustle, we can blaze over to the next ridge and possibly get in range for a shot.
We decided to go for it and high-tailed it the rest of the way down the ridge. Approaching the creek, I looked ahead to the next ridge. The line of stags angled up and across the ridge, so I thought we could get in sight by getting above them if possible. This approach called for going up a steep embankment and then making our way through an open area with intermixed bushes.
We moved as fast as we could, pushing our legs and lungs. We caught the butt end of a stag disappearing into the bushes just ahead of us. I was thinking our Hail Mary just might work. We climbed a bit higher, seeing the line that would put him right in sight. Slowly we closed the distance up the hill. We kept low, our eyes scanning the land in our sites. We came upon the rise down below us, and the stag we were after decided at that moment to turn around and walk down the hill below us. Keith quickly got down and set up the rifle. Laying prone in the grass, Keith put a bead on him. I ranged him at 150 yards and told Keith the distance. The stag was still on a slow walk, so I let out a roar to stop him. I watched through my binoculars, and the stag stopped for a split second. Keith rang out a shot, and it was a hit! The stag took off on a run. I yelled to Keith to rack another shell and put another shot into him if he could.
The stag was on the move, and Keith fumbled to find a good rest. I let out another roar, and the stag turned and looked in our direction. Keith rolled to his side and, in one sweeping motion, took a freehand shot, dropping the stag in his tracks.
“Holy cow! Nice shooting!!” I yelled and patted Keith on the back.
The excitement was all over Keith’s face. Keith said, “Wow, how lucky were we that the only stag that decides to turn around was the one we were targeting?!”
It was fortuitous, and we both knew it. We high-fived, and I congratulated Keith on his tremendous trophy.
I looked down at my phone, and it had a message from Andy. I had almost forgotten we had left Andy way up on the ridge with our packs. I read the message.
“Did you guys get him?”
I told him the good news and that we would meet him by the creek. We waited a little bit before going down to the stag, and we could see Andy carrying all of our packs down the hill. We met up at the stag and told Andy of the luck we had, with this stag deciding to turn around and walk back underneath us, and of the fantastic second shot, Keith had free-handed on his side.
It was smiles all around, and we were sure to get plenty of photos to go with this amazing hunt. We quartered this stag up and prepared him for the taxidermist and freezer. This stag would be good eating, and the memories would last forever.