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Reds of the Rotoaira

Overlooking the ancient native forests of Rotoaira.

A new year meant we made new resolutions, and one of those resolutions was to hunt a new area in a new forest. With that in mind and April fast approaching, we started to plan a trip near National Park in the Central North Island. I was going in with little to no knowledge at all of the pine plantation forest, though I did know a large part of it was closed due to the significant impacts of Cyclone Gabrielle – total devastation. This threw a huge spanner in the works for us hunters, having major implications for access restrictions and safety, but rightfully so, as the destruction left behind was absolute chaos and carnage.

I was counting down the days, and despite gathering as much information as I could from various sources – contacting a couple of people through social media and questioning my mate Google – still virtually nothing was known other than “it’s a funny forest that’s split up into different locations …” and there are red deer in it. I guess we’ll just follow our noses; finding where the access gate is will be a good start!

Into the Forest

The night prior, anticipation and hopes were quite low, which is kind of the way I like things to be when going into any hunt or fishing scenario, as knowledge will be gained regardless and anything else will be a bonus. Safety induction – check; permit – check; fob key – check. Lights out, and roll on the morning!

I blinked, and 3am came around. An early start, but the drive down was two hours on the nose, and I wanted to get there at first light. I rounded up Jax, my dog, and we hit the road. I felt like a tourist with Google Maps on full display and pulling over every so often trying to find an access gate. What I did find was a dirt road that lined up to what my map showed. As Jax and I made our way down the road of uncertainty, we drove over a brow and, lo and behold, there were half a dozen vehicles waiting in line at the gate. I figured I must be in the right place, surely, so parked in behind them and waited patiently for the gate to be opened.

I had absolutely no idea where I was going and hoped to keep some distance between myself and other parties; heading in, each ute in front seemed to be either turning down the side roads or shooting to the back roads. All I knew was the forest boundary was quite small, so with that in mind, I drove down the main stretch and just looked for sign, jumping out for a listen from time to time as the odd ute whistled by.

Following the Roars

I came to an area on a bend in the road that had a freshly trampled dirt bank; it looked ideal as there was a native gully with a stream running through it. “Bugger it,” I decided. “Let’s pull over up ahead and go for a walk”.

With Jax wagging his tail, excited as usual, I got out to get my gear ready and was greeted by the chorus of stags in full roar mode! “Well, that’s promising,” I said to Jax. “Let’s go!”

The roars sounded like they were coming from somewhere up in the large, thinned block, though looking at the GPS, it was all hillside for miles. I decided to walk back to the corner where the fresh sign was. Cutting up into the hill was what looked like a predominant animal trail between the pine and native. Walking was fairly easy, and with the odd roar keeping senses heightened and making things interesting, we were soon at a high altitude – we’d made it up as high as the pine block went. Following some decent deer sign, it appeared the trail hooked into the native and kept climbing. We were still hearing the odd roar; the reds seemed like they were above the pine block.

Closing In

Before long, they sounded close and within range. We pushed on into the native stand – a mix of nice open beech – with the high elevated levels making it easier to pick up sound. I deliberately decided to not let out any roars, as they were roaring well enough on their own for me to be able to pinpoint and stalk in on them. It appeared that the closest stag I wanted to target was walking and giving out the odd moan here and there. Trying to cut the distance between him and us was like that scenario when you’re having a dream and running away from being chased but not moving at all!

Eventually, we managed to get close enough that a roar was starting to sound like the bass on a subwoofer – but still no visual. It got to a point where I thought, “Bugger it! I’m going to charge in for a look!”

As we moved in, it went silent. Senses heightened, I figured I’d better look around carefully, and sure enough, a huge imposing figure suddenly barrelled through the native like a bulldozer. The bugger had been half hidden behind a native tree watching the dog and me. I noticed his back half out the other side of the tree, but it was too late. It’d felt like an eternity to get up to that point only for it to be over in a few seconds.

Morale was a bit on the low side after missing that opportunity, and time was getting on. We pushed on a little farther to where we found a nice, freshly used wallow not too far away. Hearing multiple roars in the distance and already a good kilometre up the side of the mountain from the truck, we started to slowly make our way back when a low groan appeared from somewhere just below us. It was game on again!

Majestic Animal

This time, it was an easier task, as we were on top of the animal that groaned every so often; we sidled along quite easily. It got to a point where we tracked across to a stand of pepperwood. Gazing down through the bush, some movement caught my eye. I’d finally got a visual on a stag! He was getting stuck into a rub post around 20 metres away. I could count one side of his antlers, which had six points. The only area of the beast that was visible was from the base of its neck upwards, and there was a shooting window of about 6-12 inches wide through the pepperwood. It’d be a calculated shot with minimal margin for error.

I sat down ever so slowly for a more stable base, guiding my dog down with my hand. Calmly, I locked the bolt into position, raised the rifle, and at that very moment, the stag looked directly at us. Without hesitation, crosshairs on the target, I squeezed the trigger and sent the Sako 150-grain big-game round through his neck. He tipped over on the spot.

We immediately rushed over; job done! A beautiful, large-bodied stag. The weight just instantly rolled off my shoulders – I felt a welcome release, pure elation and gratitude towards this majestic animal. Jax was as excited as I was that we had an animal on the deck after having to be told to be quiet and motionless for most of the day.

Now the fun begins! It was mid-afternoon, and we were at an elevation of around 700m; we left the animal where it was and hiked my gear out to the truck for the carry out. By the time we made it to the truck, there was probably only three or so hours of daylight left; I realised there was no way I was going to be able to get the animal out in time. Since there’s a time limit before the gates lock electronically, I made the call to come back the next day.

Generous Strangers

Packing my gear away, already planning the next day in my head, I heard a vehicle coming down the road. It was another hunter, Royal and his son Andre, and after a brief chat on how one another’s day had gone, I mentioned I’d be coming back up tomorrow morning to retrieve my stag.

“How far is it?” he asked. When I told him about 700m that way, he replied, “We’ll come up and give you a hand; we need the exercise!”

I couldn’t believe it. You don’t often meet complete strangers who’d change the course of their day to help you out. Immensely grateful, I left Jax in the truck, and we powered back up to the stag.

Call me old school, but I’m the kind of hunter who doesn’t like to waste anything, and carrying out this entire stag was hard work. I could barely walk 20m without resting; my body was pretty much expired by that time of the day, and without a doubt, in need of a proper rest. However, with the help of these good buggers, we managed to get the stag well over halfway back down before it got dark. We weren’t going to make the gate in time, so we left it in a safe place for retrieval the next day. Royal and his son even offered to come back up the next morning to help finish off the job! I was blown away by their generosity.

After a good night’s sleep, we came back out the following day fresh and ready. Though there were other stags starting back up again, the focus was on getting this big boy out and home to the butcher, which we did successfully.

After dropping the boys off and upon reflection, I thought about how the tide can turn in an instant from a blown chance to almost immediate success; from planning a carry out on my own to randomly bumping into a couple of willing hunters who were prepared to help me.

The ride home was bittersweet; it was all over, but I’d had a great victory. Once the whole process was complete, the celebratory beers tasted excellent … though the body paid the price for a few weeks!

A big thanks must go out to Otakiri Game Butchery  who took on the stag at a days notice but not only that, but the superb job from skinning and clean up to the awesome craftsmanship of cuts and flavours that was poured into the meat. Which gave the beast the well deserved justice and I thought it was only fitting to offer the boys 2 bags of venison from the beast that they had helped with.

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