Ever been hunting and wondered who the hunter and who the hunted was?
The red stag hunt out their hinds in mid February. The red stag’s throat swells to twice its’ normal size and the velvet strips off to expose harden calcified antler. As the last of the velvet strips the red stag rubs the remaining velvet on trees and bush. This has two purposes, to strip the stag’s antler and mark their rutting patch. The vegetation that the red stag rubs on gives the red stag antler the brown stained look.
Any time from late February onwards the stag will begin to roar with early to mid-April being the most vocal period. The Red Stag roar or rut will go till as late May early June. On one trip two days hiking into the back of the Te Urewera National Park, in mid-May we had two occasions where a red stag roared at us and marched into see what we were.
I remember my first New Zealand red stag hunting experience. It was the first weekend in April and I was hunting in the Te Urewera National Park on the North Island of New Zealand. I was hunting with a dear old friend, Trevor
Hughes, who is no longer with us. He had spent many of his younger years living it rough trapping opossums for their fur and shooting red deer for the meat market, both of which were very lucrative and financially rewarding in the late 70′s early 80′s. Trappers were averaging $15 a skin and their was no tax and a trap line would average between 40-100 skins.
Together with his working colleague Roger Damm, the pair would travel in from Gisborne for their 7-10 tour of duty, living under tent fly laying trap lines one day and skinning out the next. No plucking fur in those days, it was a sharp knife and technique that saw the marsupial stripped in less that two minutes.
Trevor knew this land like the back of his hand, where the hot spots were, where not to waste time, what to listen for, smell and habits of the deer. All the traits of an experienced New Zealand hunter. Some of the stories he would tell me from those early days were very interesting and worth recalling, but that’s for another day.
On this particular hunt we had just reached the hunting area after walking 45 minutes along farm land and only 10 minutes in from the Forest Park boundary. Showing my inexperience and thinking that it would be some time before we had any encounter I was surprised to hear a low moan come from a nearby red stag. Trevor replied with a quiet moan. Almost spontaneously, the worked up Red Stag let out a blood curdling roar that sounded like he was right behind me in the corridor of our house.
All the hairs on the back of my neck stood up on end as we heard the challenger crash through the thick vegetation making a b-line towards us. Trevor gave me an excited quick glance and we froze waiting for our visitor to turn up. We didn’t have to wait long till the red stag stopped within 10 metres of us, head down with the white tips of his polished dark stained antlers poised ready to engage. Confusion struck both Trevor and I as we both waited for the other to shoot the red stag.
Trevor was slightly in front of me so being safety aware I thought it was his shot. Trevor wanted this young hunter to shoot his first stag so he waited. So there we were two politely confused hunters and an even more confused red stag standing there waiting for one of the hunters to make a move. Trevor couldn’t handle this and up with his Remington 308 semi-auto and fired.
Why he missed is still a mystery to me today. Trevor had shot literally hundreds of red deer with that rifle and was no novice by any stretch of your imagination. The red stag promptly decided that standing there any further was likely to be bad for his health and decamped crashing through the bush like a bulldozer. That missed shot was to turn out to be a blessing!
After a few puzzled looks and debrief we carried on with our hunt. It was still early and a light misty rain was falling. Despite missing an easy stag, the encounter just heightened my excitement for the hunt.
We continued our stalk up the valley following a small creek inland. This is New Zealand bush hunting with visibility limited at times to only a few metres. Every sound or movement detected was followed by a pause, look and listen approach. Trevor would put up the occasional roar followed by another pause and listen.
If Trevor had bagged the stag we would have been back home for lunch. It was another 2 hours into the hunt before we had our next encounter. As we had done so many times earlier, Trevor cupped his hands and imitated a red stag roar. Standing still for a few minutes at last the noise of a red stag roaring reply. It was some distance off up on a ridge above us and we had to strain our ears to hear but it was definitely a stag.
Trevor put up another roar. Again waiting listening, straining to hear anything that possibly resembled a red stag roaring. What seemed like a few minutes passed until the stag replied and this time closer. The red stag was hunting us. How dare another stag come into my pad.
The next few minutes had the valley silence broken by a volley of red stag roars. Each response from the stag had him coming closer, and fast. Eventually Trevor signaled me to go ahead and get into a position to shoot the stag. By moving some distance from Trevor it meant that the stag was more focused on Trevor as he roared and allowing me to get closer using Trevor as a distraction.
Alone some 20 metres ahead of Trevor I waited as roar and moan was responded and replied to as the stag came in closer. I could hear the stag now moving in the dense bush above me, knocking of antler on timber and then a flash of brown as his carcass passed by an opening in the vegetation. And then, there he was. A large bodied red stag cutting down the ridge directly towards me pausing briefly by a dead ponga tree to take out his aggression and sharpen his antlers on it in a frenzy of thrashing antlers.
Now if you can imagine my first red stag roar hunt, away from my hunting buddy with an aggressive wound up roaring red stag only 15-20 metres away. Was I nervous? You bet I was. Aware that I didn’t have much cover should the red stag decide to charge I moved slightly to cover and a rest to take the shot. The stag spotted the movement and stood motionless looking directly at me.
I slowly raised my 6.5×55 and placed the cross hairs on the stag s shoulder and squeezed. Well I thought it was a squeeze, but in hindsight, more like a jerk. As the sound of my shot broke the silence I watched in despair as the red stag wheeled around and fled, but not with the haste I would have expected.
I defended my poor shooting to Trevor believing that I couldn’t have missed. Trevor had taught me on previous hunts not to tear off after a shot animal as this can cause the wounded red stag to run more. So I waited staying put and listening. While waiting patiently I could hear the distinctive noise of red deer walking over loose forest floor leaf and litter. As I examined where the red stag had stood I was relieved to find blood, not much, but enough to restore this young hunters confidence.
By this time Trevor had joined me and together we started tracking looking for any sign. My suspicions were confirmed of hearing the red stag move off, as not far away we discovered a small pool of blood where the stag had stood, waiting, listening and then moving on.
What followed was 5 hours of tracking following the red stag’s hoof marks, broken vegetation and droplets of blood. The red stag was shot but not mortally and if left would survive. During our stalk we jumped the red stag on two occasions. On both occasions the red stag was no more than 20 metres away. The difficulty of hunting red stag in the New Zealand bush. On one of the occasions the red stag had led us to his harem of red deer hinds. When we stumbled on him this time the bush just erupted with animals running in all directions.
After spooking the red stag a second time we realized that we were chasing the red stag and that our best option was to rest and hopefully the red stag would bleed out a little and get weaker. Our plan worked. After an hour-long snooze we continued for 10 minutes coming onto the red stag sitting down. The red stag startled by the hunters stag geared to his feet. I quickly closed the bolt, raised the rifle, cross hairs on shoulder and “squeezed”. A hit, but still standing. Reloaded and another to the shoulder, this time causing the red stag to fall to the forest floor.
As I walked up to the trophy lying motionless on the ground I was delighted to count 14 points. My second New Zealand red stag and a real trophy red stag. Upon examination I discovered that I had severely pulled my first shot missing the animals shoulder and glancing the red stags right hind leg just above the knee joint. There was a reasonably wound but one that would have healed over time.
Being the young dumb bullet proof hunter I “had to” carry this animal out whole, that is the whole carcass. After gutting it and removing the head I put the 70+ kilogram stag onto my shoulders. With the help of Trevor I staggered to my feet, managed a few wobbly steps, lost my balance on some loose sticks and head dived down hill. It didn’t take much for Trevor to convince me that we take off the hind legs and back straps and head home. The last two hours were spent walking by torch-light in darkness arriving home at midnight.
Now Te Urewera has a large red deer population but is not known for its’ trophy potential. My trophy by New Zealand or world standards wouldn’t make any record books. It’s a “pencil head”. I european mounted it, placed it above the fire in the lounge, used it to dry washing on and I still have it today. I’ve shot far bigger New Zealand red stags since, but it’s still a trophy and a great memory of my first “New Zealand Red Stag Roar Hunt”.
Nothing beats hunting red stag in New Zealand during the roar!
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