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3 Trophy Sika

As February nears the end of its long days and warm nights, thoughts of piercing jap stag squeals and valleys of bellowing angry red beasts as the rut fast approaches is something that plays on every hunter’s mind. I’m an all-season hunter – whether it be putting quality meat on the table or trophy hunting.  However, the Roar is special to me and definitely a highlight in my hunting year. As the 2018 Roar was approaching, it was going to be a different experience for me this year; I’d promised myself I’d put a lot of time and effort into chasing the elusive sika stag. I’ve hunted these deer for many years on public land; as many of you would agree, sika are cunning and challenging to hunt. Over previous years, I’ve had great opportunities and excellent areas to hunt red stags managing some very respectable trophies, but it was time to up my game and push into public land sika country in search of something a little different.

In preparation for the coming sika rut, a close hunting mate Todd and I had scouted many new areas as well as places we’d previously hunted; we saw plenty of animals in some areas and barely nothing in others. The sika stags were in velvet at this time, and we were looking for anything with trophy potential; for the untrained eye, it’s hard to gauge this, but after seeing multiple stags, it’s not difficult to recognise a true monster. Also, mature stags tend to grow and harden their antlers a little bit earlier than younger animals.

Several scouting expeditions later, we’d found nothing of great quality, but after watching a number of young sika stags with good potential, I was certain there’d be something mature in the area eventually. We focused on these places, returning time after time hoping something would show.

A few weeks passed, and things really started to shape up; mature stags were now in hard velvet ready to strip and some had already done so. It’d been a long week of rain and the weekend’s weather was looking promising. I’d been sending my brother Lars pictures of promising young stags from my scouting trips; he was keen to get out there and get stuck into them, but I assured him we’d find something a little better. He doesn’t get to go hunting much due to his job, but this weekend was good timing for him, so we hatched a plan to walk into one of the areas I’d previously hunted as there was generally a good number of deer there. I’d assured him we’d find something worthwhile; however, I still hadn’t seen anything decent on all my scouting trips! This was a bit of a concern, especially with it being one of the very few weekends I could get him out for a hunt … we could only try.

A Weekend to Remember

It was Friday night when I received a phone call from Lars saying he was sick and unable to make the weekend! Well, it wouldn’t be the first time that had happened; after letting a few F bombs fly through the phone, I stuck to the plan while trying to find someone else to come with me … but nothing eventuated. Mid-morning Saturday, I rang Lars to try and convince him that if he came hunting, it’d make him feel a lot better walking and sweating it out; to my surprise, I managed to change his mind.

After a slow drive up to our car park, we set foot in our planned hunting area; it was a tight bush bash down through snow-damaged manuka and kanuka scrub until we reached the creek where things opened up. We walked slowly, nursing Lars’s crook gut, and after a sluggish two hours along an open native ridge, the sign was beginning to look good. We found an open area to glass from where we could see the faces that would catch the afternoon and evening sun. It wasn’t long before we saw our first deer out feeding in the early hours of the afternoon – a sika hind and yearling in their bright orange coats were hard to miss. We kept watching, hoping something else might follow behind or pass through an open patch where we’d spotted the hind and yearling, but nothing was seen for the next couple of hours.

We decided we’d move along and around the ridge, following where the sun was beaming its warm afternoon heat, keeping in mind the direction of a gentle breeze that might affect our chances of seeing anything. While moving position, we found a couple of clearings that we couldn’t see before; there were major game trails over them with both good tucker and warm sunlight – we both agreed we’d be stupid not to watch them till last light.

It only took half an hour before we spotted a mature jap stag with a solid body; telling Lars to stay calm, we both analysed what was on his head … it was clear he was a shooter! He’d stripped his velvet and was in hard antler with barely any colour to them; he stood broadside in the middle of the clearing for what seemed like forever. Once Lars was in position to shoot, I assured him it was a nice head and certainly one of the better ones I’d seen for a while. Relax … stay calm, but don’t bloody miss … send it!

The smoke from the blast blurred my vision for a matter of seconds … I heard a solid hit but couldn’t see the animal until my binos cleared. When they did, all I saw was the beast’s feet in the air and it rolling to the bottom of the clearing. “Did I hit it?” Lars asked.

“Yeah, bro … he’s toast!”

A sigh of relief from Lars followed by a huge smile and, “Chahoo!” as we both celebrated.

“You’re not so sick now, eh?” I laughed.

We packed up some of our gear and sat there for a few minutes giving the animal some time in case he wasn’t hit properly; we then headed down through tight bush and ongaonga nettle to inspect this sika stag up close, joking about how Lars must be good luck and how there was no ‘right time, right place’. We eventually found the deer near where he’d been hit; he was everything we’d suspected bar one point – he turned out to be a seven-pointer … but still a very exceptional stag – a hunt to remember!

We both agreed we wouldn’t spend the night and should have enough time to butcher the animal and get some good photos before heading back towards the truck – we were hoping we wouldn’t need headlights. Things took a little longer than expected after exploring the area for future hunts, but we still managed to get most of the animal packed out and back to the truck in what seemed like less time than we took walking into the area. We were both pretty happy with the outcome of this hunt and considered ourselves a little lucky starting late and finishing early with such good results.

I believe it’s important to put time, effort, and perseverance into your hunting even if it doesn’t always pay off – the more time you spend in the bush chasing these beasts, the greater the chance that one day, you may just bump into one.

First 8-Pointer of the Year

Being such a good day’s hunt on Saturday with Lars, I set out solo the next day into the same vicinity. Knowing we’d disturbed the area the day before, I branched off the same ridge a lot earlier to look at some new country; I knew deer were there and my mindset was right. I didn’t have the excess baggage of a sick brother dragging the chain this time and had big plans about how I’d push a little harder and try to put something on the ground myself. I ran into a sika hind, spooking her, as I was head down looking at clearings I’d marked on my GPS the night before.

Breaking a sweat, I thought I’d take a rest and look at a nice ferny clearing while I readjusted my pack. My motivation to move on quickly disappeared after sitting down longer than I’d expected. It was, again, one of those clearings that had everything looking just right, and I couldn’t pass it up; I decided to dedicate the afternoon to watching it, hoping just maybe I’d crack the same luck we’d had the day before.

I spent a large portion of the day glassing into this nice clearing in the native valley, moving up and down the ridge looking at smaller clearings while still returning to the main one hoping to catch something out at the right time. As I peered into the clearing with heat haze blurring the view through my binoculars, I caught a glimpse of movement. What I’d first thought was a branch moving was in fact one side of a nice-looking sika stag’s antler; he stood there rubbing his antlers on an old fallen native tree, but all I could see was one side of them. After watching him for a few seconds, I realised if it had its other antler, there was no question this deer was in serious trouble. I threw down my binos, quickly ranging the animal before trying to get in position. I was on a really steep face without an adequate platform; frantically trying to prop the front of my rifle up, I was finally ready for a shot. Once in position, I found the stag in my scope, but he was still only showing one ear and antler.

I knew if I was going to get a shot away, I’d have to see a good portion of his front end; all he had to do was take a couple more steps forward and he’d be in a dangerous spot. Bolt up, I painfully watched him rub his antlers for the next 10 minutes before he turned around and disappeared. My gut dropped, but I knew he hadn’t caught my wind or been spooked, so I persevered waiting and watching where I’d last seen him. Two hours passed when I locked eyes on a stag about 30 yards below where I’d last seen him.

He was on the move; I reacted fast, letting rip with a whistle that echoed the whole valley, hoping it would stop him before he reached the other side of the clearing and disappeared. I raised my gun and quickly found him in my scope; but to my surprise, it was a completely different stag … a young 6-pointer still in velvet stared straight at me. I watched for a brief moment before deciding to let him live and hopefully reach his prime.

I was thinking I’d probably just ruined my chances of seeing the other stag for the rest of the day. While still looking through the scope, I checked where I’d previously seen him – incredibly, he walked out exactly where I’d last seen him, but this time facing the right way with all the goods on display! He was staring straight at me, wondering what all the noise was about. No time was wasted as I knew he could be gone in an instant; a calm inhale of breath before a slow exhale … and I squeezed the trigger. BOOMFA!!

With no spotter, it was hard to see him go down, but it was a very reassuring noise that returned from the stag – a solid thwap that my ears were waiting for; he dropped on the spot, not moving an inch. I was probably more excited than normal, cheering out loud; having no one to celebrate with me at the time didn’t matter, because I’d just knocked over my first 8-point sika stag of the year!

The Big Boy

Three months down the track, Todd and I were discussing our weekend plans over a few beers; he’d been invited to chase some pigs around for the weekend with a mate of his. Both he and I’d been doing a lot of hunting together and had managed some very nice stags over the Roar. While out hunting about ten weeks earlier, Todd, my partner Coralie and I had spotted a monster 9-point sika stag a long distance away. Knowing this deer was nothing like we’d ever seen before, we didn’t muck around; there was no way to close the gap on him, and he was positioned in thick native bush showing his entire body – but we knew it wouldn’t be for long. I managed to get a shot away at him, but it flew high, straight over his shoulder. Standing there, not knowing what had happened, the stag gave me the chance to fire a second shot, but the bullet found the same spot! I was in disbelief and my stomach felt sick; the big one that got away!

After sighting my rifle in at the range, I found it was clearly out of sight, and yes, it had to be on the day I saw the biggest stag to date!

For the next few months, Todd and I searched relentlessly for this beast, returning at least 15 times with no sight of him. We saw plenty of other deer that some of us would certainly have been happy to shoot, but we were careful not to disturb the area as we knew it may decrease our chances of seeing him in the future.

Coralie had been hassling me to take her out for a hunt, hoping she’d one day be able to bag herself a sika; she’s shot reds and fallow deer before and was keen on another challenge. Although I’d almost given up on the monster stag I’d missed a few months earlier, I thought I’d go back into the area we’d seen him as there were a few younger animals that would be perfect for Coralie. However, she knew there was a pecking order, and on the off chance we happened to see this stag, there was no way in hell I was going to let her shoot the big beast I’d missed! Joking around over a few beers with Todd about how I’d probably crack some luck while he was away chasing pigs, Coralie and I made a plan to set off in the early hours of the following morning.

Given the perfect weather forecast, Coralie and I set out on foot in the dark, hoping to reach our hunting area before the sun was up. Once again, we spooked a big stag on the track; not being able to fully identify how good he was, we pushed on, sidling around under him.

After reaching our destination, we glassed a nice open face catching the sun for a good three hours, seeing nothing but the arse end of a hind for only a few seconds before it disappeared. Opting to move on, I thought we’d push higher up and then sidle back to the ridge where we’d spooked a stag earlier; I was hoping he or something would feed out onto an old slip or open areas around it that I’d found on prior hunting trips.

I squinted as I looked through my binoculars; the sunlight was bright which made it hard to see into the dark, shaded face, but it was only a matter of minutes before I saw the white-flared rump of a sika hind as if she was in distress. I wasted no time finding her in the scope, hoping to set the rifle ready for Coralie to shoot. But what happen next was something that made my heart race and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

My scope was filled with a massive set of antlers; the big boy was looking straight at me with that evil look sika have. His body was so dark and his face almost black … it was hard to see his body. The crosshairs found his shoulder as I told Coralie to hold her ears; the valley erupted with a defining BOOM! followed by complete silence.

“It’s him! I’m sure of it!” I said to Coralie. Once the smoke had cleared, my eye was glued to the scope. I could see the unmistakable 9th-point sticking up out of the crown fern.

Coralie knew how much time and effort I’d put into finding this animal, but she probably didn’t expect to see the amount of excitement I showed after seeing it hit the deck; there was no shortage of noise as I erupted in laughter, cheering and chahooing. This stag had me running in circles for months and certainly played his game right, but not this time; a hunt I’ll never forget … can’t wait to get him back from the taxidermy!

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