By Brian Barton – First Published Rod&Rifle Vol. 5 No.1
The story of an experienced hunter taking out a young boy deerstalking in and perhaps instilling a lifelong interest in the sport of hunting.
For the last nine years I’ve always had a week’s chamois hunting in the Nelson Lakes National Park during January.
In the past I have hunted with members of the old firm from Nelson but for various reasons it wasn’t practical for me to hunt with my two friends this year.
My nephew, Doug, is a very fit 11 year old and for some time he had been asking me to take him into the mountains to hunt. This seemed to be the ideal time.
I left Nelson early Sunday morning and drove out to Hope. It was a very excited boy that greeted me upon my arrival and after a brief inspection of his pack and a farewell to his mother we were off to St Arnaud.
On arrival at St Arnaud we confirmed our booking on the water taxi and picked up our permit from Park Headquarters.
The slight chop of the lake heightened Doug’s excitement as the spray flew over the stern, in which he sat.
After our farewells to Tony, the water taxi skipper, it was boots and packs on and up the Travers. It was a fantastic day with the blue, fast-flowing river combining well with the snow capped peaks of the Spenser and St Arnaud Ranges.
Thirty minutes up the valley we came across a hunter, sitting on the track waiting for his friend who was hunting the bush in that area. These two had been in for the weekend and although they had seen deer they hadn’t fired a shot.
It took us approximately four and a half hours to tramp from the Coldwater Hut at the head of the lake to the John Tait Hut where we rested for some time before heading up to the Cupola Hut. It was two very tired guys who arrived at Cupola that night and after a brief meal it was early to bed.
Next morning dawned foggy, which in this area is a sign of a good day, but it was futile to leave the hut early as visibility was limited to about 25 metres. The fog lifted at 9 o’clock so Doug and I headed off and climbed out of the head of the valley. From this position we could glass well down into the Sabine and Hopeless Valleys for chamois but no animals were sighted.
Later that afternoon when we arrived back at the hut we found we were sharing it with a family from Auckland, who come to the South Island every Christmas to tramp our picturesque national parks.
The next morning dawned overcast with a light drizzle falling and I was busily working the bluff system opposite the hut with my binoculars when I spied a chamois feeding low down in the bluffs. We watched the animal for some time and as it appeared to be fairly calm we decided to stalk it. After packing out day bag and entering our intentions in the hut log book we started moving down through the bush. We had gone about 200 metres from the hut when we surprised a young hind feeding in a clearing in the bush. It was startled faces all around as she moved off into the bush before I had time to work around into the chamber. We cautiously moved on down the hill testing the wind all the time until we finally hit the valley floor, crossed the river and quietly moved up into a gut on the other side and then on into the first clearing. We moved very quietly along the base of the bluff system but found little fresh sign. I left Doug in a small clearing and climber up into the bluff system, although I found one chamois bed there wasn’t a lot of sign of chamois habitation.
We decided to gain height, so we would have a better view of the area but no further animals were sighted that day. It was a long hard climb back to the hut.
The next morning I awoke at 6 a.m. and coaxed a reluctant boy out of his sleeping bag. We had a quick breakfast of porridge and as the fog was lifting rapidly we left the hut at 6.30 intending to climb high and hunt the basins behind the hut. It was during one of our numerous stops when I was glassing the head of the creek that I noticed a hind, feeding well out from the protection of the bush at 9 a.m. Doug was very keen to abandon our planned hunt of the basins and to drop the two thousand feet to enable us to stalk this deer, but after I pointed out that perhaps chamois were just over the ridge he was keen to resume our planned hunt. Eventually we reached the basins which were unseasonably filled with deep snow and my concentration on the hunting of chamois was diverted as I sunk to my chest in the soft powder. To make matters worse my right foot had become trapped between two rocks. Doug showed great maturity for his age as I awkwardly dug a hole around my trapped leg, by offering me his surplus clothing to wrap around my legs and body to slow down my heat loss since I was wearing only shorts, shirt and jersey. What seemed like an eternity to me eventually passed and I was finally able to free my leg, fortunate that no serious damage had been incurred, just a few abrasions and some bruising.
Once we were off the snow we lunched, then headed back to the hut where I had to seriously rethink our hunting programme as the animal numbers weren’t high enough for us to stay here on the off chance of a kill, as we had only two day’s hunting left.
After tea that night we left that hut deciding to fly camp in the valley which would enable us to have a chance at the hind we had seen the previous morning.
Six o’clock next morning found us well away from our camp and by 7 a.m. we were in a situation that gave us a good view of the area the hind had been in the previous morning and we still had the advantage of the breeze gently fanning our faces. Patiently we waited for two hours for the hind to show herself, which is an exceptionally long wait for a boy. Came 9.30 a.m. and I indicated to Doug that we would move slowly down through the undulating tussock. We were just approaching the edge of another small bank when we heard pounding hooves; scratch another opportunity for a shot at an animal, and I think I was rapidly losing ‘mana’ as a hunter with Doug.
As we walked back to our campsite I decided that we would leave the Cupola area as tomorrow was the last opportunity we had to hunt.
Another gruelling three hour tramp found us at a suitable campsite in a relatively new country for me. We busied ourselves erecting the fly, building a fireplace and gathering wood. When we had finished these tasks, Doug wanted to know if he could go eeling in a small sidecreek. While I was lying on my back casting my eyes over the bush edge, to which we were fairly close, I saw another deer feeding well out on a slip. Quietly I informed Doug that a deer wasn’t too far away and he easily picked it out without the aid of binoculars. We gently eased ourselves out of sight and moved hastily back to camp to pick up the rifle and knife.
Upon leaving camp Doug gave me instructions. He told me to “take your time, Brian” which I found very amusing. We moved quietly through the bush until we emerged at the foot of the slip and with the breeze cooling the perspiration on our faces we slowly moved our way up through the bush on the edge of the slip. Then, panic. Isn’t that breeze now cooling the back of my neck and aren’t those flax bushes moving more vigorously than the breeze would move them. You guessed right. Another opportunity lost.
By now I had just about accepted the fact that my run of animals for the last nine years in January was about over when I awoke at 5.45 a.m. next morning and I was tempted to just roll over, but no, this was the last day to salvage my reputation as a hunter. We emerged above the bushline at 8 a.m. and patiently waited for the fog to lift, as the down valley breeze gained in strength and fog rolled back out of the basin. My roving binoculars picked up two animals feeding approximately 500 metres away and closer inspection showed that it was a large hind with a spiker. Quietly I showed Doug our planned stalk though the alpine scrub which would bring us within 200 metres of the feeding animals. We slithered like snakes through the alpine scrub and cautiously I raised my head to locate the animals. Damn! I couldn’t see them now and the fog was coming back up the valley which indicated a wind change. The panic was welling up inside me as I told Doug to stay on the fringe of the scrub and I rapidly gained height trying to put myself on the same level as the deer. I moved on to a slight knob on the shingle and wound the Weaver varipower down to 6 and scanned the tussock in front. The large hind easily filled my reticle as centred the cross hair on her shoulder and gently stroked my light trigger. My .243 belched its deadly 90 grain projectile. The hind shuddered, then started an awkward run towards me accompanied by two other deer.
The deer were now 100 metres away and still unsure as to where I was. My rifle spoke again and down went the hind. The spiker now stopped and looked at me; a well placed shot in the boiler room put him down. I let the third deer go as we had more choice meat than we could carry and we were many hours from the water taxi.
I stood up and called to Doug to come over and join me and he told me that a further two deer had sneaked up into the bluffs. It was a very exciting boy who helped me cut up the meat and take photographs.
The time was 9.30 a.m. so we had a leisurely day moving down to John Tait hut where we dined on back steak that night. After a week without meat it was a pure treat.
The following morning we left the John Tait hut and once again I’ll pay tribute to Doug’s maturity as we both had very heavy packs. I told Doug that if he struggled he would have to throw his meat away but the little man had plenty of determination to take the meat home to his family.
During the walk down the valley I reflected on the past week, whereas in the pat chamois had been plentiful I had seen only one and the surprise had been to see eight deer so far away from the bush so late in the morning, and so early in the afternoon.
While I’m not advocating that everyone should take an 11 year old boy and head into the mountains, Doug was very keen and eager and also has a high degree of physical and mental fitness. One thing is for sure, Doug made his debut and if he wants to go hunting next January then I’ll certainly be willing to take him.