Two Tararua Royals One year apart

Two Tararua Royals – One year apart!

Hunting and Wildlife Magazine - Spring Issue 222


Ever since I started hunting in the Wellington Region, I have dreamed of having a big Tararua red stag in the crosshairs and squeezing the trigger. Last year, late in the 2022 roar, that dream came true! On a solo mission into the Tararua, I successfully harvested a majestic 12-point royal bush stag, a true monarch of the glen – although no Central Otago record breaker, owing to the distinct bloodlines. Securing such a magnificent red stag was both an exhilarating and profoundly emotional experience, a culmination of countless hours of dedication and personal sacrifice.

ROAR 2022

The hunt took me into one of my favourite Tararua river valleys and couldn't have unfolded more perfectly for a trip that was never meant to happen. It was a last-minute decision to venture solo into the Tararua, as my planned Kaimanawa hunt, chasing sika, was thwarted by an impending cyclone.

The river valley is a relatively tight system with multiple gorge sections intersected with small river terrace clearings with a scattering of slips. Over the years, I'd spotted, spooked, and secured several meat animals in this catchment, but a big stag had always eluded me. Apart from holding an abundance of hinds and being picturesque, the valley's true allure was its accessibility – a mere hour's walk from the road end. Well, that was until a couple of years ago when a major slip blocked the access road and added an additional hour to the walk-in. The inconvenience had likely kept the area less frequented, a silver lining I couldn't complain about.

On this day, I should've sensed that fortune was on my side. No sooner had I veered off the main trail, descended a steep hunter's track to the river below, which was the start of the hunting area, when I spotted three deer, including a young 6-point stag, at the base of the first slip and no more than 25 metres away. After about 20 seconds or so, the deer caught my scent and bolted. I managed to capture some footage on my phone as they headed up the slip and into cover. Although it would have been easy to pull the trigger, my aim was set higher – a mature stag was my coveted prize.

My intended hunting destination was a pair of wallows situated on a bench elevated above the river. I had marked this promising location on my GPS a couple of years prior, but circumstances had prevented me from hunting that roar due to the government's COVID-19 lockdowns. My plan was to gain some elevation, ascending above the bench containing the wallows, and let out a few roars. The elevation wasn't just to approach the wallows from above; it also served to position me above the noise of the river, allowing me to detect any distant roars. The bench lay an hour upstream from where I'd startled the trio of deer on the walk in, whereas my campsite was only 30 minutes away. Given it was late afternoon, I hastened on to my campsite, swiftly assembled my bivvy, and made a beeline for my vantage point near the wallows, eager to capitalize on the last hour or two of daylight.

No sooner had I let out my first roar on a steep slope above the bench than I received a spine-tingling reply from no more than 50 metres below me! As I crested a small ridge, I could hear the stag grunting away but could not lock eyes on him. I quickly determined that he was most likely on the other side of the river – not on the bench containing the wallows. I stealthily descended to the riverside terrace and onto a game trail that ran parallel to the river. There, I managed to get my first glimpse of the stag through the dense vegetation. He was crossing the river heading towards me and was awe-inspiring; the vegetation blurred my vision which meant I couldn’t get a complete view of his head or a clean shot. However, I could see enough to know he was a mature animal and most definitely a shooter.

Watching out for the stag as he came in and out of view, I almost missed seeing two hinds that were also crossing the river. They were in front of the stag and heading my way, it appeared that the stag was ushering them away. As the first hind climbed the riverbank and crossed the game trail a mere 10m in front of where I was standing, my heart skipped a beat, but she passed without detecting my presence. The second hind followed, and as she reached the game trail she stopped, turned, and her eyes locked onto me. I remember thinking, “I've blown this.”

Panic gripped me, but luckily, just at that moment, the still grunting stag stepped out onto the game trail, just in front of the hind, exposing his shoulder just in time for a clean shot. I squeezed the trigger, and within moments, he dropped dead, no more than 10 metres from me, the .308 and Sako 165 grain projectile fulfilling their deadly purpose. As the reverberation of the shot dissipated in the valley, I heard another deer crashing through the bush; a spiker I had not seen was racing up the steep valley slope.

As I approached the fallen stag, I marvelled at his size and antlers; I could instantly see he had great tines and reasonable tops. On closer inspection, I counted 12 points – a 12-point Tararua thumper. After several photos, meat processing, and a strenuous carry back to camp l was still floating on cloud nine, my euphoria extending well into the evening.

At camp later that evening, wrapped up in my sleeping bag, I messaged Jamie, a hunting mate who had intended to join me but pulled out last minute to do a solo trip. I wanted to share the news of my successful hunt, especially the big stag, using my Garmin InReach. Jamie was a regular hunting companion in this area, and while I celebrated with my cup of soup in solitude, I couldn't help but wish he could have been there, not just for the hunting banter, but also to share in the joy of a successful hunt.

To my surprise, the next morning, as I strained myself carrying out the head and back legs, Jamie passed me on his way out, eager to hear the details of the action. He had spent two days in there, but luck wasn't on his side - the bragging rights were all mine.

2023 ROAR

A year later, I found myself once again in the same river valley, this time joined by Jamie. It was the first weekend of April, and I couldn't help but wonder if lightning could strike twice. Jamie and I were in a hurry, eager to fit in a hunt that evening. I had lost some of Friday morning wrapping up a work project. Time was limited, and I had to be out by Sunday to travel to Taupo for work on Monday – something that couldn't be postponed.

Upon reaching the road end, we wasted no time in hitting the track and after an hour or so,  we had veered off the well-trodden path and took short breaks every 20 minutes or so to let out a few roars. During our walk-in, we received no responses, but we were relieved to find no human footprints marring the riverbank gravel.

Our campsite sits on the terrace of an oxbow and looks across a clearing on the other side of the river. While setting up my Huntech Bivvy, our chosen shelter, Jamie noticed a hind had wandered out onto the grass flat approximately 60 metres across the river. We sat and watched her for 10 minutes, hoping a stag might follow her out of the bush. However, she was on high alert, undoubtedly picking up our scent, as she was downwind of us. After taking a couple of photos through the scope (no easy task without a scope holder/adapter), she took off, barking all the way up the ridge behind the clearing. Despite our best efforts, a couple of hopeful roars failed to change the situation. With only an hour of daylight left, we decided to venture slightly upstream, about 300 metres, to a grass clearing at the end of a slip. In short, our efforts yielded no deer sightings or roar responses before darkness descended upon us.

That evening back at camp Jamie and I discussed the plan for the morning. I gave him the first pick of where he wanted to go. He chose to hunt downstream. His plan was to gain some elevation, sidle until he hit an old track, travel a few kilometres down the valley, and then hunt upstream but downwind. That left me to hunt upstream, in the same area where I shot the big stag last year. That night, we turned in early. No roars were heard which was a little discouraging. Perhaps we were a little early this year.

As dawn began to break, I quickly got dressed and worked my way upstream. My plan was to slowly move upstream, passing where I had shot last year's stag, and eventually to a wallow and fresh rubbings I had come across a month or so earlier in a clearing further up the river. After an hour or so of making my way upstream and letting out a few moans, believing the stags may not have quite got going yet, I came across the bone pile of my stag from last year. For whatever reason, I stopped, took a photo, sat down, and reminisced for a moment while I ate a muesli bar. While sitting there I let out a couple of moans before moving on.

A further 50 metres upstream, I let out another moan, and not long after that, I could hear breaking branches in front of me. Initially, I thought I must have spooked a deer, and it was running away from me. However, I quickly realised the sound of braking branches was getting louder, and the deer was getting closer. Suddenly, I could see a deer running almost at a sprint down a steep slope on the side of the valley just before it flattens onto the thin strip of forested river terrace which I was walking along.

I quickly raised the trusty .308, closed the bolt, and took off the safety. At that moment I caught a glimpse of the deer’s antlers, which I assessed in a fraction of a second to be spectacular and of trophy potential – there appeared to be plenty going on up top. In that same instance the stag had reached the river terrace, turned in my direction and was running directly towards me on the animal trail I was standing on, no more than 20m away.

A pair of tree trunks about 10 metres away were blocking a clear view of the stag and a clean shot. I reminded myself to be patient and wait for the right moment – it was likely the shot would have to be straight on, targeting the neck or brisket area. I could feel my heart pounding as the stag approached closer and closer. Just as he closed to within about 10 metres, he had to veer sideways to navigate around those very trees that had thwarted my earlier opportunity for a shot. This movement exposed just enough of his shoulder, giving me the opportunity for a clean shot.

Without a moment to lose, I took the shot and quickly reloaded. Thankfully, the .308 had accomplished its mission without me having to take a second shot or evasive action. The stag dropped on the spot, a mere 5 metres away from where I stood. I was taken aback when I took my eye off the scope to realize just how close he was.

While regathering myself from the shock of how close the stag had come to running over the top of me, I quickly turned my attention to him. First and foremost, to ensure he was dead, but then to assess his quality. I could instantly see that he had nice, even tops with three points on each side. As I got a little closer, I could see that he was another impressive and even 12-point stag – unbelievable!

After taking a moment to admire this magnificent creature, expressing my gratitude, and making a promise to carry out as much of the meat as possible, I set about the challenge of capturing the perfect photo and butchering the stag.

After a heavy carry, I made it back to camp just before lunch and boiled myself a hot brew. Jamie arrived shortly after, clearly amazed that luck had favoured me two years in a row but also genuinely thrilled for me. As I scrolled through the photos on my phone, recounting the details of the successful hunt to Jamie, something intriguing caught our attention. The photo I had taken of last year’s stag's bone pile was snapped only 8 minutes before the first photo of this year’s stag. Both 12-point bush stags, taken a year apart, were shot less than 100 metres from each other. Delving even further into the photos from last year’s stag, we couldn’t help but notice the striking similarities in antlers – both stags were evidently from the same bloodline.A few months later, after I had cleaned up the second head and scored it, I was amazed to find that both heads had identical Douglas scores of 215. The first stag was longer, thicker and had better tines. On the other hand, the second stag was more even and boasted superior tops. While I'm the first to recognize that both stags might not be world-beaters and pale in comparison to heads elsewhere in the country, they are true Tararua trophies. Together, they represent two great hunts and make for one heck of a story. I’ll be back next year, venturing into the same valley to see if lightning can strike for a third year in a row. Ever the optimist, I hope that there might be a 250+ Douglas score wall-hanger out there somewhere for me or my hunting buddy Jamie, who is due some luck.

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