I woke at 6am to a text message alert from Dave (NZRod&Rifle editor) which read, “We good to go mate?” That was a good question … I didn’t have an answer. “Going to leave soon,” he added.
Since Dave was travelling from Tauranga to Taupo, I didn’t want him to make a wasted trip. Rubbing sleep out of my eyes, I struggled to find the right number as I scrambled to call Helisika and check our scheduled 9:30am flight was still all on – I’d booked us a Helisika block for an early spring, meat-hunting trip. Given the forecast looked average to say the least, I wasn’t that hopeful; when I’d gone to bed the night before, the wind had been howling outside.
However, once I got hold of the Helisika guys, their answer came back: “Yep, we’ll get you in. We’ll be in the Squirrel today, so head on over as planned.” Sweet!
Meeting Dave at the hangar, we checked in and went through all the pre-flight paperwork. Ben was our pilot and suggested a back-up hut option to our first choice of Mangamaire Saddle Hut … just in case.
The flight in through a snowstorm and high winds went well with only a few stomach jumps – thanks to some good piloting by Ben – and we landed at Mangamaire Saddle in snow and wind.
There’s nothing like that feeling you get when the sound of the chopper leaves the catchment and the silence of the hills settles back in; you know you’ve left all the work stresses and life’s distraction behind and have an entire area all to yourselves for the next few days. Although we hadn’t ordered the 80kph wind gusts, snow or -2°C temperature, we’d made it – and it felt good.
Both Dave and I really needed this trip, being post-Lockdown 2.0; this one felt much harder than the first lockdown for some reason. It was mid-September, and our Issue 6 was all but uploaded to the printers, so we could relax a bit and take some time out. Granted, we knew this trip was purely an early spring meat hunt as most of the bigger stags would’ve dropped their antlers by now, but that was okay by us.
Mangamaire Saddle Hut is located west of the Northarm Hut and southeast of the Cascade Hut; the Mangamaire River flows north to south through the middle of the block. There’s a good mix of open tussock and tops hunting with plenty of promising basins to explore.
The forecast was for nasty weather for the first day, and then it was supposed to ease somewhat for the reminder of the weekend. Not being in a hurry, due to the current conditions, we settled in, unpacked and enjoyed a coffee and some home baking.
We then came up with a plan to check out the river south of the hut and some gullies we’d both spied on the map in the lead-up to the trip. To that end, we geared up and headed out into the south-westerly that was blowing a constant 50-60kph.
After reaching the top of the first little rise only 30m from the hut, it was obvious we were being overly optimistic … it was bloody miserable out! Acknowledging this, we retreated to the hut and figured we’d wait an hour or so and see if there was any change in conditions. The bottle of single malt was pulled from its box but not opened – neither of us wanted to be the first to crack the cork and admit the day might be a bust!
After some discussion, we decided we really should earn a ‘wee dram’, and so with the bottle still untouched, we headed out during a lull in the weather. Splitting up, we found a couple of sheltered gullies to glass and see if any animals were as mad as we were and wanted to get out for some fresh air.
After a good hour and half of glassing, it was clear the sika were tucked up for the night. Looking down the valley, I could see the weather was closing in again, so I pulled the pin. Meeting back up with Dave close to the river, he’d had the same idea; together, we headed back to the comforts of the hut.
The next morning dawned cold and crisp with a gentle wind and a bit of sunshine; the forecast was for the wind to come up again though. After a quick brew, we went separate ways having decided the night prior to each explore different parts of the block. We’d discussed the fact that in this weather, the hunting was going to be tough, so we needed to seek some sunny sheltered faces out of the wind. This being our first trip to the Mangamaire Saddle Block, we wanted to try to cover a bit of ground and get an idea of what we had to work with.
Dave headed up the track that skirted the patch of beech to the east opposite the hut, while I headed back down the river in the same direction as the night before.
I was doing my best not to plunge a foot into a cold wet hole as I negotiated the snow-covered swamp area not far from the hut, stopping every few minutes for a quick scan with the binos. Then 500m from the hut, I heard a loud MEH!
I froze immediately. Where did that come from …? This was followed by a short, deep cough-like roar. I slowly brought the binos up and started scanning the area … only to see nothing. Bugger!
Then another roar … and another! I couldn’t believe my ears; I was in shock – we were so close to the hut! This went on for what seemed like 40-60 seconds.
Each time, it sounded like it came from another direction; either the stag was moving around, or the valley was making it echo somehow. I knew I had to find this stag quick, otherwise he’d be gone. Scanning with and without binos, I still couldn’t see him – frustration was starting to set in.
I heard Dave call out a roar. A couple more responses came from the stag, and then silence.
I knew I’d blown an opportunity. To not even glimpse him or at least have a chance to assess him, plus the fact I’d yet to shoot my first decent sika stag – I was gutted. I’d missed out on a stag earlier this year on the Central Plateau during the Roar due to fading light, and now this.
I sat in the snow for a moment to gather myself, giving myself a bit of a talking to and replaying the events in my head several times – I was determined to learn from this and keep building my knowledge. I knew the morning’s events would be in the debrief that night back at the hut, and I was keen to hear from Dave’s perspective how he thought the events had unfolded that morning.
I continued down the river valley, but my day didn’t improve much; the cold wind came back along with some hail, and despite plenty of kilometres walked and glassing hours put in, it was a bust.
Once back at the hut, over a brew, we had a chat about the day’s events. Dave had shot a nice meat animal in a gully over the ridge and had a hell of a retrieval, but otherwise things were quiet animal-wise.
He then gave me the news that the stag I couldn’t locate was a massive-bodied, nice, even 6-point sika! Apparently the stag, along with a spiker, were just hanging out on a bench above me when they roared approximately 200m away. Dave told me that when he’d spotted them, he’d done a double take, as he couldn’t believe where they were standing and wondered exactly what they were doing. We later decided they must’ve just been warming up in the sun after a cold night in the bush.
Anyhow, Dave continued to explain that he’d tried to get my attention as I approached them, but failed, and I’d completely missed them when I stopped to for my ‘quick scan’ with the binos a mere 200m from the hut!
A Lesson Learnt
There’s an old fishing saying, “Fish your feet first.” I.e., check your immediate area thoroughly before setting off as you never know what might be right at your feet! I think it’s safe to say that adage easily applies to hunting also.
Failing to take my time – instead, just having a quick scan with the binos – proved to be my biggest mistake that morning. It’s easy to get complacent and not consider the obvious. Did I expect the stag to be where he was? No, but I’d learnt a valuable lesson: expect the unexpected. And be systematic in your approach to glassing no matter where you are!
Sunday was a slightly later start, and we decided to explore some gullies together downriver from the hut. We found a nice, sheltered gully that had what Dave described as a ‘deer highway’ at its base with some nice open patches and bits of cover scattered around; most importantly, it was well sheltered from the wind, which had shifted 180° and was now on our backs. We climbed up a razor ridge thinking we’d be on the cold side of the gully and would have the wind in our faces; but in the end, we set up in individual positions with me looking downwind into the gully on the leeward side of the ridge. This valley was also sheltered and seemingly, wasn’t affected by the wind. We’d set ourselves up so we could get eyes on both sides of the ridge and increase our chances of seeing something.
After a couple of hours glassing and waiting with zero activity spotted, I headed over to Dave’s location – his being the prime position with the wind on his face.
And whaddayaknow … he was sitting watching a hind and yearling out feeding quite happily some 500m away across from our ridge. I wasn’t surprised in the least – at times, Dave seems to have the ability to manifest deer at will! The reality being, it’s his years of hunting experience at work.
We sat and observed them for a good 30 mins. As they weren’t going anywhere in a hurry, I went back to my little possie as stealthily as I could and retrieved my pack, etc. Once back in position with Dave, I learnt that the yearling must’ve seen some movement from me and appeared to be agitated. The hind didn’t seem bothered, but in the end, she took the initiative and started heading down the ridge with the yearling in tow straight into cover. Dave suspected they’d head for the ‘deer highway’ and then bed down or hopefully stop and feed.
The day was getting on by now; deciding we needed to do our part for conservation and the freezer, we thought we’d have a crack at them.
Sure enough, they popped out on the gully floor into a small clearing to feed again close to a small patch of beech cover. We decided to close the gap a bit so shimmied down the steep slope in thick cover. Once there, I had trouble getting set up in the steep terrain; I’d forgotten the BOG tripod that morning, which would’ve been perfect – finding a shooting position that provided enough rifle elevation proved difficult.
Just as I finally got comfortable with a half-decent rest, both animals turned tail on and fed into the beech cover … typical!
We waited them out for a further 45 mins, but they must’ve bedded down in the beech. Dave’s idea was to get closer, and right opposite their position was a rocky outcrop that should provide a line of sight into the beech where we suspected they’d bedded down.
A cunning plan entailed us relaying one by one to a spot on the rocky outcrop; as one moved, the other would stand overwatch in case the animals spooked as we jockeyed into position. “Then we’ll throw some rocks to get their attention,” Dave said.
We moved into place without any issues, and Dave started throwing rocks into the gully – I’d thought he was joking! Twenty seconds later, he looks over expectantly at me; I couldn’t see anything from my position and raised my hands in the universal shrug sign. Next, I saw him line up a shot! Boom! The hind came running out and went down hard.
Seconds later, I spotted movement; the yearling was running full steam uphill out into the open. When Dave called out, “Meh!” it stopped and turned; I lined up, squeezed off a shot and it dropped on the spot.
We looked at each other with a grin; that’d worked out well – not exactly a textbook hunt but a successful one. Employing some sound knowledge and finding the sheltered areas were key to filling the freezer on this meat hunt.
Learning from mistakes is all part of the process. While it certainly can be frustrating at times, it’s often the best way to learn, as I’ll sure remember that morning for a long time!
Once home, I entered the kills on the Sika Foundation app; I feel it’s important I do my part by providing data, where possible, on the herd. The Central North Island Sika Foundation do a fantastic job of advocating for the sika herds and hunters – the least we can do is be part of the solution.