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High Country Red Stag

Anto’s big red in one of the most impressive backdrops one can find.

As February comes to an end and the days begin to shorten it’s a clear signal to me that it’s time to put down the fly rod, hang up the Goose Caller and begin thinking about big game – in particular, red stags.

Once the antlers are fully grown, stripped off and prepped for the Roar I really begin searching harder and harder for what could become a good holding ground for a Roar trip, always in the hope of finding a big stag worth shooting.

For me there is no such thing as a wasted trip however; just more lessons learnt, more credit earned – I’m a firm believer that if you keep looking, eventually you will find.   But regardless, any time in the mountains makes me feel content, and if I’m sharing it with good mates I’m even more fulfilled.

What I’m always looking for are signals of a hot spot; by March I generally find that deer in general are beginning to favour areas providing safety and feed – if you find a spot with these features you can often see both stags and hinds in the same area, even if not necessarily living as a collective group.  To me this is a Hot Spot.

This year I’ve been able to really cover plenty of country well before the traditional Roar period of April, and I’ve spent almost all my time in the alpine environment, seeing an array of red stags of all shapes and sizes – and plenty of chamois, too – although I’ve certainly struggled to find a Big Boy of either species.

Despite being based in the deeper South of New Zealand, in Queenstown, I’ve not  been restricted to the southern region, and have made the most of the lower half of the South Island, even getting up to Mid-Canterbury for the best part of a week, mid-March.

Most of my trips have been over extended weekends and, upon the return from each trip, I get the same old question at home and at work: Did you get anything?  I’ve been like a record on repeat, explaining myself again and again, advising that I’ve had a fantastic trip away, seen plenty of animals – but nothing that really caught my eye. The whole discussion of why you hunt can get deep and can even make you question yourself as to why you do what you do.

Unfortunately despite the many discussions I’ve had with people about what hunting means to me, certainly this year I’ve been repeating myself more than usual. The reality has been that leading up to this Roar I’ve been out more than usual, chasing big game.

Now, with March nearing its end, I was once again checking the weather maps mid-week, touching base with mates to see what commitments they had, and beginning to shape a plan.  Mike Walker had confirmed he was in for a mission, and with clear weather the options were endless.

What got us still more excited was a mid-week dump of snow, lowering the general temperature and making us believe this could trigger some rutting action by stags.

We decided to head back to a wee hot spot where I had seen some stags and hinds on a trip a month earlier; maybe a Big Boy had moved into the area to take control.  Where I had in mind was not a big area; more of a gut in some huge country. While the scenario in my head was set, the reality was that I thought we may find a Big Stag on our way to the gut, or further back in the catchment we were aiming to hunt.  Regardless, I was looking forward to the weekend and was hopeful of hearing my first roar of 2018.

It took some time to make our way up into the fresh snowline but by mid afternoon on Saturday we were finally getting close to the gut that I’d been visualising in my head for the past few days.   As we travelled we were glassing hard and seeing deer – but all hinds and no stags.  The roar had certainly not kicked in, which was disappointing.

Pushing further along we continued glassing and began to pick up the odd wallow in wet depressions, complete with hallmark tracking leading in and out of them, demonstrating that there certainly were stags in the area, and that they were marking their territory.

Getting near the gut and with only a few hours left in the day we set up camp with only a small ridge to climb over which would give us a good view into what I was hoping would be Spot X and over into the country beyond.

Cresting the ridge we were soon settled and glassing the country that previously held a mixture of stags and hinds – where now, to my surprise, we couldn’t even see a deer.  I began feeling a little on edge; maybe we should move position in order to look over more country.  Dropping down or climbing higher would open up a better view of the gut I was sure must be holding an animal.  Mike was relaxed though, and opined that we had plenty of time; let’s continue glassing.

Big Boy

And then, almost at the same instant he spoke, his Geovids picked up a stag, down below.  After he explained to me where the stag was it took only a quick look though the binos to reveal an impressive specimen.  I immediately pulled the Leica Televid spotter from my pack and connected it to the tripod, aiming at the stag.  Winding up the zoom, I was soon assessing him.

It was hard not to notice the impressive width of the antlers and after counting up six strong points on one side and seven on the other I now knew this was the stag I’d been looking for – I informed Mike that I really wanted this one. Then, with a quick range at just over a kilometre, it was game time.

We were well above our quarry but had the wind against us, pushing up the main valley in his direction; it was now a matter of making good decisions.  It was clear we had to drop some way down to close the gap, but too far would risk our scent floating straight over to him.  We couldn’t see the full lie of the land so began dropping height quickly; it was not too long before we were in position about 700 yards from the stag, contentedly feeding on a terrace on the side of the gut we’d been looking into.  We now had a split decision: do we push further down the ridge we were on, locating us approximately 500 yards away –  or do we drop down into the gut and climb up above our quarry on the other side, likely resulting in a 150-yard shot?

Initially the stalking option seemed to be the obvious tactic – but then Mike suggested that I should simply drop down the ridge and take the shot at 500 yards.  And he was right: on re-examination this was by far the best way to get a good shot at this very contented stag.

We pulled back over the ridge to drop down the remaining 200 yards, to a wee spur opposite him.  I took off my pack, pulled out a jacket to assist with settling the rifle and crawled into a position.  After settling in and getting the rifle ready I had my first look though the scope.

Instantly my heart sank: the stag was not what I was expecting to see. It was much smaller than I’d imagined!

It took brief minute before I realised that I was looking at a different stag that held only 10 points.  I soon saw the Big Boy, not far from where I was looking.  Getting re-settled I then set up a camera and began to record the scene, anticipating that it would not be long before I took the opportunity presented to me. Then, right before my eyes, the stag began to pull his head back and let out a couple of moans: what a magnificent sight in the high country!

I ranged the stag at 539 yards straight line; 475 yards Equivalent Horizontal Range.Checking my chart I dialled the Leica Magnus 2.4-16 scope for range and put the zoom on the full 16 power. I calculated I had a light breeze from a little behind my right side, that would result in maybe five inches of drift; not enough to push the bullet off-course, but enough to mean I would slightly adjust where I held the crosshair.

The stag was facing uphill, with the wind drifting the bullet toward his head, so I lined up on the crest of his shoulder; to me this meant that if the wind was stronger than expected the worst-case scenario would be a centre-of-the-shoulder shot.  I knew the 7mm Blaser Magnum had more than enough energy to drop the stag on the spot; it was now a matter of making it happen.

I squeezed the trigger.

The stag dropped on the spot, a true pole-axing, before rolling over and down into the tussock.  I was rapt and a little shocked; it all happened so fast.  We sat back and enjoyed the moment, reflecting on the last 20 or 30 minutes since we’d first seen the animal.

Dropping down even more towards him, it was becoming clear that although we had just taken an awesome stag, we were going to have a serious climb ahead of us to get him back to camp!

When we got to him we discovered he was as good as we’d believed: an awesome high country stag, with wide antlers and 13 points to match.   A photo session preceded the butchering, and then we were ready for the big carry back to camp.  Checking the Garmin watch for altitude showed we had a good 400m of altitude to gain: not easy at the best of times, let alone struggling under a stag’s head and a load of venison.  So it wasn’t long before the sun was well gone and it was time for head torches to be pulled from the pack to guide us the rest of the way.

What a feeling … buggered, but with the reward of a well-earned stag strapped to the pack!

We were up sharp the next morning to further check out the area, with particular focus on the hinds we’d seen the previous day, in the hope that a stag had joined them overnight – but unfortunately nothing had moved in, so we set a course for home, thinking now about the Roar that was about to get into full swing.

With a bit of luck I’ll have some more adventures over the Roar to write about. I can’t promise anything, but I know there’s only one way to make it happen, and that is to get out there and earn some credit.

It must pay off eventually!

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