9 October 2023
Hunting and Wildlife Magazine - Autumn Issue 220
Words By: Callum Sheridan
Reuben’s first decent 8-pointer was a ripper scoring 177 ¼ DS, a record book head.
I got talking to a mate Brent at the Auckland NZDA branch about plans for the upcoming roar season. We got onto the subject of sika. After hearing of my roar exploits in years gone by, missions into the back blocks of the Kaweka and Kaimanawa (mostly fly in trips) and after hearing the odd comment about small deer and below average heads I was invited to tag along to a spot in the front country. So, the scene was set to visit an area in the Kaimanawa about three hours walk in from the roadside.
As per any worthwhile roar trip - preparation is key, so in late January/early Feb 2022, we embarked on my first trip into the area, firstly to get a feel for the lay of the land and to stash a tin of baked beans or two under a log for our upcoming couple of weeks in the scrub.
When mid-April came around myself and Brent left Auckland early one morning. On the way through we picked up a mate and regular hunting buddy of mine Reuben.
Reuben and I are used to walking for miles, long punishing days on the hill and inclement weather, with the occasional sprinkling of success. The walk into this spot is fairly straight forward which was nice for a change.
As we made our way to the campsite the odd single call and hee haw could be heard in the distance, spirits where high and the excitement and anticipation of the coming days was building.
After setting up camp we all headed off in different directions for an evening hunt, and upon our return shared stories of the evening’s events.
Day 1. Early morning boots off to cross the creek, wet boots on the first day would not be ideal! I had planned to do a loop around a hill side and back to camp taking the entire day. The plan was to get the wind right move slowly and roar as I went. The plan was good in theory, but the day was uneventful for me. The others had come close but seen nothing worth shooting or the ones that would have been were too quick.
Day 2. All of us headed off in our own directions again, my plan was similar to day one, but in different country, patience will pay off I told myself, but it didn’t. Again, the story of the one that got away went round the camp that night. After some deliberation and a change of tack I decided to head up higher to an area Brent had shown us back in February, but still no luck.
Day 3. I was up early and crossing the creek at first light, I had been on this side of the creek both other days but today my loop was going to be bigger and at a quicker pace. Crossing the creek had become easy now as at a certain point there was a log and a rock, I could across without taking my boots off and avoid wet feet. As I climbed the hill, I started going at a medium pace with the idea of just moving until I heard something.
As I started to gain elevation on a new spur I hadn’t yet investigated, I heard a faint single call up ahead. Head down I moved quickly across the ground as the sun peaked through the trees, reaching a fairly open area I stopped and waited to see if I could hear him again. 10 minutes passed and sure enough he went again, off to my left on a 45-degree angle. The wind wasn’t quite right so I carried on in a straight line for 5 to 10 minutes, moving with purpose to loop back directly into the wind.
As I stopped, I heard him again and the wind was great, he was maybe 150 metres away. I moved in and as the side of the spur dropped off, I stopped and crouched down with my back against a tree, sitting and waiting, silence. After 15 minutes I let out a half-hearted little mew and within five seconds a sika stag was crashing towards me, I was right on top of him - within 30 metres. He stopped broadside 10 or 15 metres away, a couple of punga fronds between me and him.
As he stood dead still, I evaluated. I could see he had length, good brows, but the tops where hard to pick as he was side on, he was a heavy-set animal which looked in good condition and by far the best sika stag I had ever had a chance at. The Kimber .308 let rip with the 165 gr Federal Fusion. The stag charged off and after the first few bounds the silence of the bush crept back in.
I sat and waited for around 10 minutes and moved toward to where the animal had been standing, keeping a keen eye out for blood and hair. Nothing! I searched the hillside in the thick crown fern, back and forward, returning to where the animal was shot, back and forward up and down; not one bit of blood and the tracks had just disappeared. I sat against a big fallen log and had a bite to eat, a squashed orange and soggy muesli bar to be exact.
After an hour and a half, I had convinced myself I had missed it, not happy I thought best carry on, I moved off and charged up the hill to get into some new country.
Reaching a high point, I sat down to check out the GPS and map to figure out my next move, I quickly realised the next port of call was water. There was a creek within 200 metres on the GPS so I headed for it. As I went down it got steep and thick, but I eventually found a muddy little hole with a trickle coming out of some moss to fill up the water bladder.
As I crawled on all fours back up the bank through what I thought was a pig tunnel a couple of single calls echoed out about five seconds apart, one on my left and one on my right. They may well have been 100km away in this thick stuff, there was nothing I could do. I carried on slowly just in case an opportunity presented itself. While crawling up a particularly steep bit, all of a sudden, I was face to face with a stag coming down, both of us where as surprised as each other. I asked no questions and didn’t hesitate, the bolt was slammed down and the rifle thrust forward with one arm within millimetres of the stags left eye, it dropped on the spot sliding into me in the thick stuff and pushing me back down the steep bank a couple of metres.
After taking the shot, an hour and a half of searching produced nothing so I convinced myself I’d missed. A nagging doubt saw me return a week later and I found him only metres from where I had stopped searching.
As I crawled on all fours through what I thought was a pig tunnel, I came face to face with a sika stag coming the opposite way, both of us were as surprised as each other.
Gathering my thoughts, I sat there slurping on the earthy tasting water wondering what had just happened. I gutted the deer in the confined space and spent 15 or 20 minutes dragging it up to the more open bush, where I took the meat off and loaded my pack up. The stag certainly wasn’t a trophy, a broken antler on what would have been six-point scrubby sika. It certainly didn’t make up for the earlier catastrophe.
On the way back, I detoured slightly to walk back though the area where I had missed the stag earlier in the day, a few zig zags and a loop or two provided nothing. Although I had a pack full of meat, I was still fairly sour and disappointed with myself.
As I made my way back the thought of fresh heart cooked in garlic and onion lifted the spirits somewhat. As I neared camp I came into a little clearing where I spooked a family group of reds - I was a bit too slow to add to the camp meat tally. A seat and a large single malt were taking up most of my thought process at this point.
As I arrived back in camp the stories of the day where relayed, the others hadn’t managed to get in on a stag so the camp meat was a welcome addition.
Day 4. Reuben and I started the day off hunting together and after a pretty quiet morning, we split up in the afternoon and met back at camp with little to report.
Brent on the other hand had been in the thick of it with a couple of stags going bananas but they got the slip on him at the last minute.
That night I woke to a large centipede about 15 or 20 centimetres long firmly gripping my beard with its sharp little legs and its nippers getting stuck into my bottom lip on the inside of my mouth, an odd and painful experience, the centipede was quickly dispatched. This was something I have never experienced before, Reuben had mentioned something biting him on the lip the night before, maybe it was the same creature, one of the disadvantages of sleeping under a fly I guess!
Day 5. In the morning we were all relatively slow to rise, probably due to the average banter carrying on well past midnight and an above average bottle of scotch being shared around the table.
Reuben and I decided we would head into some different country and hunt the day together, Brent came along for the first 20 minutes, to show us an easy route to get into some good country.
We started off and soon spooked a stag bedded down in a sheltered sunny spot. As the day wore on, we encountered a couple of vocal stags but nothing silly enough to get in the way of a bit of lead. By around 5pm we had done a big loop on a relatively flat area, covering quite a few km’s, just moving at a moderate pace roaring occasionally and hoping to hear something we could move in on, but no such luck.
As we headed back along a high terrace above a stream, the bush was quiet and the ground was crunchy, our day was almost done with the sun setting behind us, creating mottled shadows though the bush.
Although noisy underfoot the wind was good, so we removed our boots and split up. I took the edge of the terrace looking down on to various smaller benches below while Reuben was around 30 - 40 metres towards the base of the hill. We moved through keeping an eye on each other’s blaze clothing. As I moved along, I came across a nice view of the river below and stopped to take a photo. I mucked around for too long and lost sight of Reuben.
Looking at my GPS I was only 300 metres in a straight line from camp, so it was back on with the boots and off I went moving along the terrace edge before coming across a game trail that led down a steep bank onto a lower terrace which showed on the GPS to lead back to camp. I dropped down into some great open bush, I was hyper aware Reuben could pop up at any moment so was keeping an eye out.
Not long after wandering along the lower terrace, a shrieking single call echoed out in front of me within 50 metres in some thick pepperwood, then almost immediately, another one off the side of the terrace in a swampy punga covered gut. I crouched down next to a tree, the wind was almost nil, both stags made all sorts of weird noises over the next five or so minutes as I gathered my thoughts on the best approach, both animals were absolutely losing it.
I decided to let out a little mew, upon doing this there was an ear-piercing single call from my right almost immediately. I let out a couple of mews in quick succession, then began to hear sticks breaking, I could see the tops of his antlers moving along the edge of the terrace and coming up in front of me, good strong even tops. I lifted the rifle, waiting for the stag to present a shot as it climbed up out of the gut.
BOOOM! But I hadn’t touched the trigger, the shot was a hundred metres away on the terrace above where I’d left Reuben. The stag I had a bead on was still obscured apart from its antlers which were now in full view and bloody magnificent. The stag paused for what seemed like an eternity (probably only three seconds) with only its antlers in view. I stood still not wanting to move, hoping the animal would present a shot, but he turned and disappeared in the opposite direction.
I called out in the direction of the shot, “did you get it.” A voice replied, “yeah over here.”
It was just about time for a headlight, I made my rifle safe and pulled my headlight out of my bag, eventually I could see another light though the pepperwoods. As I got closer Reuben said, “what do you reckon, is it a good one?”
As my eyes adjusted to focus on the animal I was in disbelief, his first proper 8-point sika was a ripper. I’m not sure who was more excited. A couple of yahoos, some congratulations and I made a big call on the spot after a few moments saying, “I think that’s a record book head.” We then had a photo shoot and gutted the animal.
Because we were only 200 metres from camp, I said, “let’s get it back whole, Brent is an accomplished taxidermist, and we could pop it on the camp table and have a bit of a tutorial, just whack it over your shoulders Reub’s.” Well, it was heavier than it looked and awkward being very chest, neck and head heavy. The first attempt to get up failed and we ended up floundering around in the discarded gut bag underneath the carcase, Reuben finally got up, I grabbed both rifles and we were off, fumbling our way back through the thick scrub to camp.
As we rolled into camp Brent was there with his feet up enjoying the evening. The stag was dumped on the ground in front of him and more congratulations ensued. Brent was also fairly astounded at the day’s effort.
After we cooled down, the camp table was cleared, and the animal was positioned for caping and head skinning. We even managed to talk Brent into doing it while Reuben and I watched on with whiskey in hand with Brent giving expert tips and pointers along the way.
With Brent being a NZDA Judge/Tutor level Douglas scorer, he was able to measure the head with an old rusty tape and scrape the score into the table, it was 177 ¼ DS, a record book head. It measured the exact same when scored at our branch and in the national competition, not bad! A fairly handy bloke to have around camp, thanks Brent!
The next morning saw us packing up camp for the walk out, heavy packs and a bit of bone. All signs of a good week in the bush.
Brent is an accomplished taxidermist. We took Reuben’s stag back whole so an expert job could be undertaken removing the head-skin.
Brent taking the head-skin off.
On the walk out and with some time to think, I couldn’t get the stag I had missed the shot on out of my head, would he still be hanging around? Before we had reached the car, I had decided I would return in a few days.
After clearing emails and tying up a few loose ends, I was heading south again, solo this time. I arrived around 9am at the road end.
Arriving at camp around lunch time I went about setting up and headed off for an afternoon hunt. I had no luck chasing a couple of stags around which eventually went quiet with the swirling wind.
As I went to go to bed that night, I opened my sleeping bag to find a hoard of unwelcome blowflies which had laid eggs all though my bag, the next hour was spent scraping them all off, the bones down the bank by camp from the previous weeks’ efforts hadn’t done me any favours!
The next day I had planned to head back to where I had missed the stag the week prior. Was it still hanging around a good smelling hind? I would loop around and come back down through the same area.
Before leaving I stuffed my sleeping bag into my big pack, drew the draw string and flipped the lid over, no more blow flies tonight I thought.
It was a cold morning with a light frost, and I was off before the sun hit the riverbed. Crossing the creek, as I picked up a bit of pace to get over the river with dry feet, the log I had used the week prior was a wee bit slippery with a thin coating of frost. I was quickly upside down in a foot of fairly cold water, great way to start the day!
I pulled myself out the other side and up onto a terrace where the sun was just hitting, a good spot to ring a few pieces of clothing out.
Once ready to head off I was side tracked by a single calling stag on a river terrace about 300m away. I snuck in for a look and 2.5 hours later the stag had gone quiet. I had got within 30 or 40 metres of the animal, but the swirling morning air coupled with the noisy boggy ground gave my presence away. No matter how slow you go and how hard you try, a boot sucking out of mud is a dead giveaway to a wily sika stag.
I had now lost a fair bit of time, so decided to head straight for the spot I had intended to go, although a couple of distractions along the way where hard to avoid.
Getting close to where I wanted to be, I sat down and single called three or four times in a 15-minute period…silence. After an hour I headed further along, there wasn’t a breath of wind, it was slow going.
I got to the point where I had sat and taken my shot a few days earlier, I sat and single called a couple of times, waiting, but there was only silence. After 45 minutes, I headed down the hill veering right, I started to hear a buzzing noise, blow flies?
I moved towards it and scanned the area as there must be something dead, I thought. Simultaneously to my thoughts I spotted the tip of an antler poking out from under a log in front of me, I couldn’t believe it, tucked under a log covered in dead punga fronds - a sika stag.
I was in disbelief, I dragged the animal out, it was shot right through the crease in the shoulder. Although the head skin could not be saved, and the meat was well off, I felt a sense of relief in finding my trophy, a really nice nine-pointer.
Taking the moment in, I wandered around the other side of the log, to find my orange peels from the week before laying on the ground. I had been that close!
I headed back to camp with a grin on my face.
Once in camp I found half a dozen blow flies had still manged to penetrate my pack, maybe they were trying to keep warm in the cold weather or maybe my sleeping bag just needed a wash!
Once I had got rid of the unwanted fly eggs, I was straight to sleep.
I spent the next day cleaning up the head, removing the skin and meat, a few cups of tea and a swim in the river, then one more night in paradise.
My 9-pointer on the left and Reuben’s record book head.