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Back into the Valley of Stags

A familiar sight: the head of the valley.

In 2021, I went on a Roar hunt that exceeded all expectations. It was a trip into a new area that involved everything from helicopters, monster roaring stags and physical challenges beyond measure. You can read about that trip, Into the Valley of Stags, in Vol 43, Issue 2. Fast forward 12 months and good mate Anto and I were heading back to see if we could top that previous trip.

As the chopper disappeared over the hills and silence descended, we gave each other a knowing look – we were going to enjoy this trip. With a good weather forecast, we dumped most of our gear and made our way up the nearest hill to look back into the valley of stags.

Picking up the binos for the first time, I instinctively started looking straight down to the valley floor expecting to see a mob of hinds being chased around by a young stag before a big beast came strutting down the hill to take over and start roaring. Yeah, nah! It was never going to be exactly like last year; I just had to tell my brain to focus.

After an internal telling off, I settled down, and it wasn’t long before I picked up a couple of hinds and spikers a few hundred metres off to our right enjoying the last of the day’s sun. Although not exactly what we were looking for, it was a great relief to find animals, especially so early in the trip.

As the light was fading, we made our way back to the gear dump and settled in for the night. Over dinner, we discussed our plan for the following day: the short version was to pack up and follow a ridgeline that we could glass over both sides into some promising new country.

As I lay in my tent that night, I thought

I could hear a stag roaring not far away. Then I realised it was just my hunting partner snoring his head off … and he was a good 20m away! At that point, I put my ear plugs in and felt sorry for his wife.

The Second Day

After packing up, we trudged back uphill to our glassing point from the previous evening and began to search. As the light increased, we started to spot deer throughout the catchment but nothing quite like what we were expecting to find. It was about now that I started to feel concerned that this trip might potentially turn into a damp squib.

After glassing for an hour, I made the call to start moving. We had plenty of ground to cover and we hadn’t even made a dent so far.

Making our way along our planned course was not easy. What looked like an innocuous route on the map turned into steep scree faces littered with rockfall that sapped energy and time as we navigated our way across them.

Eventually, we cleared the rubbish, and seeing as it was now well past noon,

I dumped my pack and had an extremely late breakfast. As the hunger pangs disappeared, we surveyed our surroundings. We’d ended up in a bowl only 100m from the ridgeline that we wanted to hunt for the evening. There was a trickle of water running through it – an ideal camp site. Anto said what we were both thinking: “Tent up?”

Twenty minutes later, we had camp ready and, with light packs, headed out in search of something worth shooting.

The rest of the day proved rather frustrating. Although we spent several hours glassing and moving through what can only be described as prime deer country, all we seemed to find were hinds, spikers and young stags. There was no shortage of these, but this hunt was about finding big old boys, and so far, nothing to fit that description could be seen.

To increase our chances, we split up for the last couple of hours of light. I’d carry on further down the ridge, checking both sides, while Anto would stay back and cover the main face and bottom of the valley that had proved fruitful in the past.

“Yeah, come in Alex.” The crackle of the radio gave me a fright in the silence. “I’m looking at a bloody good stag here.” Anto had finally found something promising. The only issues were, I was a couple of kilometres downvalley, we were losing light, and the stag was moving. If Anto left his position, we’d surely lose him.

Following Anto’s directions, I hurriedly made my way back up the valley. I was almost on the floor when he contacted me again, and we decided that because we hadn’t seen anything else in here, I’d just leg it upstream on the flat stuff. This was a strange situation for me – I was following radio calls directing me to a deer I was yet to see.

“Stop there and cut up the hill,” the instructions came through the radio.

“Yeah. Roger that, mate – just direct me if needed.”

It was starting to get darker as I climbed. I gained as much elevation as I could as quickly as I could until the radio crackled twice – no words, just static. I knew this meant stop. I dropped to the ground, sweat pouring off me and lifted my binos. The light was all but gone, and surveying the hillside in front of me, I couldn’t see a thing. I was too late.

Defeated, I dropped the 400 vertical metres I’d just climbed, crossed the river and climbed back up another 600 metres to where we’d made camp.

It was a late night. “How was that?” Anto greeted me with a smile as I walked back into camp. He got a one-finger salute in reply.

Over dinner, Anto showed me the photos he’d taken of the stag while I did all the legwork. He was definitely the one I wanted: a good 10 that was rather uneven but with loads of character. His antlers almost came full circle – something I really like.

Big, Old and Uneven

Come morning, we were a little more relaxed. We were able to get up, have breakfast and break camp while glassing for today’s quarry.

“Bingo, bro! Same spot.” Anto pointed and described where he was looking, and I quickly had the beast in my sights. Those antlers were destined for my garage wall.

I started to make my way down the hill again. The climb up wasn’t as easy as the previous evening. I had to dodge a couple of groups of hinds and my pack was now full, but I finally made it to within shooting distance.

Now I had a close view of him, I could see he was pretty awesome – big, old and uneven. As I dropped my pack and set up my gear, he simply stood in front of a rock, oblivious to me. With all the time in the world, I made sure I had everything right, checking the range and dial-up before getting settled and finding him in the crosshairs. Only when I was calm enough did I squeeze the trigger.

Hearing the hit, I looked up to see a big body rolling down the hill towards me. Victorious, I turned towards Anto and fist-pumped the air so he’d know.

The radio crackled. “Good stuff mate! I’ll be over in a bit.”

I trekked up to the beast and found him in a heap. As I untangled all the body parts, I couldn’t stop smiling. It turned out he was an 11 – there was a tiny bez tine we couldn’t see in the spotter, but I wasn’t complaining.

When Anto arrived, we did the customary photo and butchery session before carrying on. We still had two nights and a lot more ground to cover.

A Cracking 10-Pointer

The afternoon turned out to be a scorcher. Not what you want when carrying a pack full of meat and antler up and over a hill, but it had to be done. A couple of hours and a few kilograms of sweat later, we reached the crest.

Taking a break, we had a feed while looking at familiar surroundings. Memories of the previous year came flooding back but were suddenly interrupted by a roar. It was a long way off, but we were both taken by surprise. We’d been in the area for a couple of days and hadn’t heard anything – and this was the middle of the day! It gave us both renewed vigour for the remainder of the trip.

Knowing this part of the area well, we headed to our campsite – a flat grassy area with water running through it. Let’s be honest, quite a luxury in the high country, and after a hard day in the hills, a welcome sight.

With the evening approaching, we made our way along a ridge that gave us great visibility. We couldn’t help focusing on the area where I’d shot a big stag the year before – a place we’d named ‘Big Stag Rock’. However, it was never going to be that easy.

We set about surveying the surrounding area, and suddenly, the valley came alive. A stag’s groan reverberated across the valley sending shivers down my spine. The difference between this and the other valley was night and day. With heart rates rising, Anto and I sat in the tussock scanning for signs of life. It didn’t take long.

“Three over there,” Anto said.

“I’ll raise you five,” I replied, looking at a mob. The only issue was none of them were worthy of a shot. More and more roars were heard. We could see plenty of animals – just not the one we wanted. He had to be around somewhere.

I wanted to change views so scrambled up a rocky outcrop next to us. As another roar rang out, I finally laid eyes on the biggest stag we’d seen so far. He was in a hurry, strutting across the opposite face to us roaring as he went. I watched him cover 300-odd metres in no time before I headed back down to Anto. When I arrived at the place I’d left him, he was nowhere to be seen. I found his gear, but no human!

With another roar being let out, I got behind the spotter for a closer look. While I was looking at a cracking 10-pointer, the missing human returned. Turns out, Anto had gone looking for me when he saw the stag, and we’d missed each other by walking on different sides of a rock.

There was very little discussion involved; Anto wanted to have a go at him. By now, his target had stopped moving across the face and was standing in the middle of five smaller stags. He was too far away to shoot across the valley, so I sat back on the radio while Anto headed downhill as quickly as he could. Again, we were racing the daylight.

He was just about at the bottom of the hill when I had to give him the bad news. “Gonna have to flag it, mate. They’ve all just moved off back down the valley.” With little light left, there’d be no chance that night. We slowly made our way back to camp, defeated once more.

Ambush Plan

Come morning, we headed under torchlight to the spot where we’d been beaten the previous evening, and as the darkness faded, we started the search. We had one day left to find and shoot this stag and didn’t want to lose any time. We glassed the opposing face intensively, looking for any sign of life. As had become the norm in this area, it didn’t take long to find deer, but again only hinds and younger stags.

The first roar of the morning rang out – the boom from his voice was constant enabling us to pick him up through the glass relatively quickly. Again, he was strutting across the face, almost a carbon copy of the previous night.

We took a range reading of 550 yards from where we were to a point opposite us. Anto is experienced at shooting long distances, but he’s very disciplined when it comes to knowing his rifle’s limit. All we needed was the target to walk past that point.

I continued to monitor the stag while Anto got himself set up. The animal walked closer and closer to us until I thought he was going to walk right into our ambush. But no. After spending an hour or so just out of range, he turned around – just as he’d done last night – and proceeded to sod off at a decent pace.

A few choice words were spoken between us. We watched our quarry disappear into a rocky area that was dotted with tussocks. When he didn’t emerge out the other side an hour later, we were confident we knew where he was.

We faced a dilemma. Should we wait the day out here hoping he’d return that evening? Or should we carry on walking down our ridge trying to locate him and potentially make a play? We chose the latter.

Buried in the Tussock

It took us longer than expected before we were opposite his last location, and it was now almost midday. With the sun beating down and the valley now silent, we made ourselves comfortable and began another extensive search with the binos, hoping to catch a glimpse of an animal that was almost certainly bedded for the foreseeable future.

I repeatedly looked over at the spot where I’d originally seen him. On possibly the 27th look, I saw just the tips of his antlers. “Bingo!”

I jumped behind the spotter and zoomed in. He was buried in the tussock, occasionally moving his head, but he wasn’t going anywhere for a few hours.

Anto wanted to put in a stalk now, while we had the upper hand. Emptying his pack of gear, he grabbed his rifle and headed off. I sat back, put the Jetboil on and ate a relaxed lunch while keeping an eye on the target.

Once Anto was down and across the river, I had to direct him closer. This was easier said than done as the terrain looked very different for each of us. However, we soon came up with a system of drawing an imaginary line between us and this made the task a lot simpler. He struggled to get eyes on the stag – everywhere that looked good for a shot from my point of view didn’t give him a visual. He ended up doing a couple of loops around some rocks and getting close before he could finally see what he was looking for.

“I can see him … less than 100 yards from me. I’m going to shoot.”

I hit record on the camera and watched.

I saw the stag move before I heard the shot. He tried to get up but keeled over before reaching his feet – another stag down.

I found Anto on the other side of the valley 45 minutes later sitting next to a cracking set of antlers. We took our time taking photos and cutting the beast up, recounting the stalk and the issues that arise from two different viewpoints.

Neither of us realised how far we’d walked; it took the rest of the day to get home.

Spirits were high in camp that night. The valley of stags had proved fruitful once again. It wasn’t as easy as the year before. We’d been given the slip twice during the trip but turned the tables on both animals. We only had a short walk in the morning to the pick-up point, and we didn’t have to do any climbing … or so we thought.

A Cracking End

It was a relaxed atmosphere in the morning, and I was in the process of putting my boots on when all hell broke loose.

“Chamois!” I looked over and Anto was simultaneously setting up a spotting scope while pointing uphill. I grabbed my rifle and found a rock to use as a rest.

Until now, I’d not had much success with chamois. Over the past couple of years chasing them, I’d only managed to shoot one, and to be honest, I still wish I hadn’t. It suffered from ground shrinkage, and I had to take it as a big learning curve. This one was definitely big enough but was currently standing on the skyline out of harm’s way.

We watched him trundle along the ridge. If he knew we were there, he wasn’t bothered and just carried on. I could see him approaching a big rock and there wasn’t much waiting around; the cham walked along in front of it and stood still just long enough for me to let the shot off.

“Nailed it! He’s down. Good shot, bro.” It’d all happened so quickly. I only had one boot on, but I had my first decent chamois. However, we had to climb up to it – a small price to pay for a cracking end to the trip.

I put my second boot on, and we shouldered packs and headed up to find him. He’d dropped on the spot. A quick measure put him just over the 9-inch mark – no complaints from me. Thankfully, it was only a half-hour walk to the pick-up point. What a way to end the trip.

While we waited for our ride out to arrive, we soaked up the moment and decided that next year, we’d be back again.

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