17 January 2023

Hunting and Wildlife Magazine - Winter Issue 221

Words By: Lucas Hamilton

I had been searching for a mature public land stag in the Wellington region for over six years.

The Hunt

It had just ticked over from morning to afternoon as I sat watching a large rat from the living room window scurry around the chicken coop. The original idea had been to get up early and head out for a deer hunt to restock the dwindling venison supplies, but a few to many pinot noirs over dinner the night before had the plan waylaid.

As the rat continued to gain confidence, spending longer and longer out in the open filling his cheeks with stolen chook pellets, my hunting instincts began to take over and I swiftly fetched the air rifle from the spare room. I didn’t have to wait long for the pesky rodent to re-appear and I quickly found him in the iron sights and dispatched it with a well-placed shot. This was all the excitement I needed to motivate me; I threw my hunting gear in the truck to try find something a little bit bigger.

It was just after 5pm when I finally reached the trail head, the forecast rain was now falling quite steadily. The weather was meant to be clearing the following day and my strategy was to suck-it-up, walk through the rain to set up camp close to my chosen hunting grounds. This way I would be in prime location for the morning. Deer will often feed out on the open clearings longer after a disrupted night of heavy rain therefore increasing my chances.

I reached my chosen campsite just before dark, well and truly saturated from rain and sweat. Questioning my sanity, I quickly set about getting my little tent up to provide some shelter from the storm. It was a cold and damp night in the sleeping bag, but my hopes were high for the morning. I dreamt of big stags as the sound of raindrops sent me to sleep.

I was awake well before my alarm and started the joyous task of putting on wet hunting clothing for the day ahead as the birds started chirping. I convinced myself that it was all character building as I crawled out of my tent like a newborn baby into the new day.

The weather had cleared some hours before dawn and not far from where I had camped I found the encouragement I was after. Fresh stag rubs. It was now late February and I expected most stags to be stripping their velvet in preparation for the upcoming roar. The freshly thrashed wilding pine at my feet confirmed my suspicions and had me on high alert. I continued onto a clearing that was visible through the trees. A quick check of the wind direction informed me that I needed to change my approach to avoid startling any unsuspecting critters with my ‘wet dog’ like stench. I headed back into the bush and continued to circle my approach to the clearing from downwind.

Now with the wind in my face I crested a rise and was met with some terrific looking deer habitat, I slowed down and began scanning likely looking areas for protruding deer parts. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for. A hind and yearling were feeding 350 yards away oblivious to my presence. Perfect! I hatched a plan and started to close the distance hoping to find a flat spot to take a shot from. I managed to get within 250 yards and started to get organized.

I (like many others) have recently been playing around with a YouTube channel (AlpineKind NZ for anyone interested!) and I thought that his would be a fine opportunity to get some footage of a deer hunt on camera. Unfortunately, as I as messing around trying to get the camera set up, the deer ended up feeding back into the bush and the chance of an easy deer was lost. I was unhappy with myself and as I waited, hoping that the animals would reappear I swore not to make the same mistake again.

The hind and yearling did not reappear and as the morning was now vanishing, I made the decision to head over the hill further to the north and check out some virgin country…

The remainder of the morning hadn’t revealed any more animals, so I made the decision to head back and pull camp with my tail between my legs. Before leaving, I thought I had better pop over the hill and make sure the deer I had seen earlier hadn’t re-emerged.   

As I sidled the last hillside that was separating me from the clearing my expectations were low, the day had gotten away from me and I wasn’t expecting any deer to be out feeding this late in the morning. I raised by binoculars and immediately spotted the rear end of an animal protruding from behind a gorse bush. Bingo! I wasted no time hastily getting the rifle ready as I didn’t want to make the same mistake I had made earlier.  I assumed it was the same animals I had previously seen so I raised the binoculars again to try locate the second deer. As the optics came back into focus I nearly fell over as I was greeted by the sight the largest set of antlers I have ever seen on public land! He was massive and almost looked out of place on the little clearing. I shakily unclipped my range finder and confirmed he was just within my comfortable shooting range at 309 yards.

I checked my scope dial, made the necessary adjustments and found the giant in my scope. He looked bigger every time I caught sight of his antlers, and I was starting to get painfully nervous. I focused on the shoulder and waited for him to take one more step to clear some branches covering his vitals. I only had to wait seconds for the target zone to be clear. I squeezed the trigger, and he vanished instantly out of sight. I cycled another round and waited to see if he would re appear…

Minutes passed as I replayed the sequence of events in my head. I thought I would have seen the stag exiting the scene if the shot hadn’t connected well but all was quiet and still on the hillside apart from a mild breeze ruffling the trees. I felt confident that the stag was in his final resting place, but I have learnt over the years not to count your chickens before they hatch.

I closed the distance until I was opposite the spot I had last seen the stag, and decided to wait twenty minutes before trying to locate him for fear of ‘pushing him’ if the shot wasn’t perfect. I had a couple of bars of reception on my phone and sent out a couple of excited messages to my hunting buddies explaining what had just happened as I waited.

The 20 minutes finally passed and I made my way through the horrible choked creek that separated me from the last sighting of the stag. I then climbed up above the clearing to a clump of yellow wildflowers I was using as a marker directly above where he had last stood. I nervously peered over the last patch of scrub and saw the fallen king lying on his side, large antlers protruding from the undergrowth. I couldn’t believe my eyes; on this rare occasion these antlers weren’t suffering from any ground shrinkage.

I had been searching for a mature public land stag in the Wellington region now for over six years since moving here from Victoria and to have my quarry finally lying on the ground in front of me was a surreal moment and one I won’t forget anytime soon. I took a moment to sit with the stag and take it all in before starting the mammoth task of butchering and hauling him back to the road end.

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