When asked about a memorable hunting trip it is always hard to pick one, but one thing that comes to mind is the enjoyment of taking guys out and getting them on their first deer.
The nerves before the trigger is squeezed, the sigh of relief afterwards, the look on their face, that smile that goes from ear to ear, that feeling is something you just don’t forget.
A good mate had never been hunting and was keen to get out in the roar. I had a spot in mind, a private block, surrounded by some awesome public land bush county. Big deep valleys with grassy floor stretching up into step faces of thick native bush.
A small old Shepherds hut sat at the bottom of the valley with a wide river running along side, this would be our home for the next few days. It’s a cosy spot, log fire keeping the cold night at bay and fresh water on tap from the river made it pretty comfortable place to grab a hot feed and dry the clothes.
We spent the first day getting our bearing and seeing what sign was around. A couple of good ‘wallows’ caught our attention but nothing seen, nothing shot. The next morning was thick in fog as we made our way around the valley heading to “the spot”. The day before we had spotted a knob up the face on the north side of the two big ‘wallows’ so we crossed the river and made our way up the opposite ridge, then dropped back down into “the spot”.
The two wallows sat at the bottom of the valley in a swampy area to the side of the river. The morning fog was still covering the valley floor as we setup. We got our gear sorted and settled in, looking down the river and valley, but more importantly 150m below the two ‘wallows’ that sat 15m apart.
As the fog cleared, nothing, not a sighting or sound - nothing. As the morning sun broke over the ridge top behind us, still nothing. Mid morning passed, a few roars let out with no response we made the move and started heading back towards base camp, the shepherds hut. We glassed the surrounding ridges from the valley floor as we moved up and across back into home valley with nothing seen.
The wood stove was still ticking along and soon the billy was boiling, and with a hot cup of tea in the belly we headed off for the afternoon in the other direction. After check a couple of spots I had had luck in previous trips into this block, we made our way around to the far western valley. A wide valley with a swampy stream weaving its way down, tussock grasses out growing everything in its path. As the grass hit the bush edge the land quickly climbed up into high ridges that over looked the gully and at this time of the day brought the sunset a little earlier than normal.
As we moved along the side of the valley weaving in and out of the scrub we heard that sound; the sound of a Red stag roaring. I looked around and Jimmy’s eyes were wide, “Is that … is that a stag?”. “Sure is, and he sounds not too far away.” Before I could finish my sentence he roared again.
We got our bearings, he was on the opposite side, about halfway up the ridge. I let out my best impression of a red stag hoping it wouldn’t sound so bad that he would just go quiet. To my delight he replied straight away, good news!
With a slight breeze in our faces we dropped out of the bush edge and started to move into the valley floor. As we walked through the swamp, a roar came bellowing towards us stopping us right where we were. He was moving down the ridge straight at us! We stopped and got Jimmy setup, checked the range, the bush edge 150m from us. Not a problem for the Tikka .308!
We traded roars; his big, deep and powerful; mine horrible, but he continued to talk and move closer to the bush edge. The excitement grew as he was coming straight down towards us. We were ready bolt open and pulled back, all that was need was to slide that smooth Tikka action forward and drop the bolt once he came into sight.
He moved to the bush edge, we could hear him moving through the thick undergrowth. I let out another roar to which he replied with a booming presence confirming how close to the edge he was. But the movement stopped and the only time he made a noise was when I let out a roar myself. I checked the wind thinking I might have stuffed it up but it was good, very slight breeze going onto my face.
He wasn’t moving, not coming out, he had stopped in his tracks. Decision time, keep him roaring while one of us move in on him, keep trying to draw him out with the calls or walk away and come back tomorrow.
The light was fading fast, it would be dark in the bush very soon, so moving in was not an option. He wasn’t moving so drawing him out now was highly unlikely. Coming back tomorrow was the call, as dark was upon us and we couldn’t see the bush edge anymore.
We moved off in the dark, keeping the wind on our collar. As we got a good distance away we flicked on our little Maxtoch headlamp and moved into the river bed then onto the warm hut waiting for us.
Warming up in front of the fire and with a warm feed we sat and critiqued our actions for the day. Disappointed but excited with expectation now knowing that we had a roaring stag in our hunting catchment. A stocked up the fire and a little Glenfiddich whiskey sent us to bed ready for an early morning start.
A 4am alarm broke the quiet, not long followed by the whistling kettle providing a morning coffee before heading out.
We stepped out of the light into a thick fog covering the valley floor, the Maxtoch headlamp was required to light the way as we negotiated the river making our way up the valley. Reaching the bend in the valley floor before it opened out, lights went off and the speed of the walk turned into a stalking pace. Visibility was very low, so ears and nose are now our best tool.
Lucky for us a slight breeze was coming straight down the valley towards us. We advanced, stopped, listened, nothing. Advanced, stopped, listened, nothing. This continued for the next half an hour or so, as we slowly made our through the swampy valley floor. The wind then started to lift the fog, so we made the decision to park up and wait. Wait to see if the lifting fog revealed a prize out in the open valley.
But nothing, once visibly cleared enough for us to see a 100m or so we moved on, slowly making our way round the bush edge on the north side, the side our noisy stag from the night before was hanging out. Jimmy was a metre or two in front, we stopped had a quick chat as my gut was telling me to stay alert I got Jimmy setup putting a round in the chamber bolt half cocked, and we moved on.
We crossed a big swampy patch and as we both looked up, there not more than 50m away was the tops of antlers coming around the corner. We froze! It kept on coming. Jimmy looked at me, I mouthed, “Shoot it”.
He lifted the rifle as the stag saw us. It stopped and then turned on a dime, all in one quick motion, and bolted. I grunted as it ran, he pulled up in this tracks turned side on looking at us, BOOM. Before I could look at Jimmy the .308 had drop the stag on the spot.
Jimmy stood there looking back and forth at the stag then looking at me. “Nailed it!” I said as I reached out to shake his hand. We walked up and as we got closer we started to see just how special the moment was. The stag that we had only got a glimpse of prior to it being shot was a great animal, the couple of antler tips, turned into 12 points and a big chested stag. A trophy for a bush stag in this part of the country. A trophy for any hunter on his first hunting trip, his first shot fired at a wild NZ deer.
The smile on Jimmy’s face was ear to ear, and he was quiet with a bit of shock. He looked at me and said “Wow, the adrenaline, the thrill, that was awesome, thanks.”. “Not a problem mate. Well done! Great shot, straight in the engine room.”
We dressed and packed him out, grabbing the head of course and headed off back down the valley towards the hut. The plan for a good feed of bacon & eggs for breakfast had now changed; bacon, eggs and back straps were now on the menu. With smiles on our faces, we chatted analysing each step we had taken, allowing our minds to not notice the load on our backs and steps we were still taking. Soon enough we were back at the hut.
For a first hunt it doesn’t get much better and now that 12 pointer sits pride of place on top of the mantel piece as a life long memory for him, and a smile to his face. The preparation and time shooting steel prior, getting comfortable behind a rifle, and learning to breath and squeeze off the shot, made that moment happen. To share the privilege of watching a mate take that first shot and nail a great animal, is what hunting is all about.