Locked Down on Otago Red Stags – Part 1

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Locked Down on Otago Red Stags

Part 1 of an article by outfitter Chris McCarthy about hunting free range Otago red stags within Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris exclusive, free range, Otago red stag hunting area.

Roaring 12 point Otago red stag

Roaring Otago Red Stag, photograph: by Steve Couper Photography on Safari with Chris McCarthy, Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris April 2021.

The writing was on the wall, my Otago red stag season was looking extremely shaky, the outlook for international visitors did not look good! There were murmurings from the New Zealand Government about a trans-Tasman travel bubble opening on April 1st 2021. My 2020 hunting season had been decimated by the Covid pandemic, with just two and a half weeks of hunting completed (from a booked up five-month season of back-to-back hunts) before our border was closed as New Zealand tried to isolate itself from the virus.

I needed to ‘pivot’ towards more local, kiwi hunters if I was to have any 2021 season at all. This I did, attracting four kiwi clients to hunt first class Otago red stags and a further two clients hunting second-class stags. I’d booked all these hunts into the first half of the roar (mid-March to early April), leaving the second half of the roar free to hopefully guide some of the many Australian hunters I had booked, with the opening of the travel bubble, many of them were carry over clients from the 2020 season.

Well, April 1st came and went, the New Zealand border remained closed, apart from some later season tahr and chamois hunts with kiwi clients, it looked to be another disastrous year for my hunting business, down over 80% on normal turnover. Covid looked to be rampant in the USA (81% of the hunting market to NZ), the only glimmer of hope was the trans-Tasman bubble.

I’d been in constant contact with all my Australian clients throughout the pandemic, three of them, David Reid, Greg Allen and Mark Pittock, were extremely positive about making it to New Zealand to catch the end of the Otago red stag roar, I wasn’t getting my hopes up, the unpredictable nature of the virus and the even more unpredictable reactions from Governments on both sides of the Tasman had taught me otherwise.

Mark had hunted tahr in 2016 and returned in 2017 for a summer chamois. David had hunted tahr in 2017 and returned in 2019 for an Otago red stag. Greg, I’d never met before, but from our phone conversations it seemed he was a good genuine guy, upon his arrival, my estimations were proved correct. Greg had missed his Otago red stag hunt in 2020 due to Covid and was really keen to make it in 2021, as were David and Mark.

A miracle happened, the Government announced the trans-Tasman bubble would float, travel was to open on the 18th of April. We managed to align some flights, all three hunters arrived on the 20th of April, the roar was just starting to tail off, but still going reasonably strong, what a week we were in for.

Mark with his 2016 Summer Chamois buck, measuring 9 ½ inches in horn length. Photo: Chris McCarthy.

None of the Australian hunters knew each other, I did make it known that they would all be in camp at the same time, that was just how it had to be under the circumstances. There would also be three kiwi hunters in camp, I figured this was either going to go really, really well, or not so well, I didn’t really think about the ‘not so’ too much, we just had to make it work. I just hoped the inevitable kiwi and aussie banter, stayed as banter…

I’d pulled together a capable team to ensure this would be a week to remember, perhaps the highlight of the roar, a way to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Otago red deer herd in style! We’d already taken five incredible Otago red stags with Kiwi clients, Charlie (real name Sarah Schwandt) had assisted me on all of these hunts, she now had a really good grasp of our hunting area and operation and was more than capable of judging stags.

For the coming week I’d added another four people to the guiding / support team. My good friend Fred Madsen (aka the Great Dane) as another assistant guide, Fred also knew my area really well having helped over previous seasons, he’d jumped at the chance to hang up his tool belt and get amongst some roaring Otago reds for the week. I also added local and international guide Sam Beaufill to guide and look after the kiwi group, Ryan Mawdsley as an assistant guide and Cam Stobie as a helper when he could get away from work over the weekend.

Professional photographer Steve Couper had accompanied us for a week earlier in roar, Steve’s always great to work and spend time with, this week we had another professional photographer, Brent Hollow in camp, I’d met Brent 2-3 times prior, but had never hunted with him, Brent also had a medical background which included epidemiology, I was really keen to hear his thoughts on the Covid pandemic when the hunting boots were pulled off for the day. With such a large group my mother Yeverley and wife Bronwyn would take turns running the camp kitchen, which over some of the nights would see up to 14 people seated around the dinner table.

Charlie with her own 12-point Otago red stag taken earlier in the roar, Photo: Chris McCarthy.

I’d discussed with all hunters that it was an advantage to have a number of hunt groups out within our hunting area, it’s simply too vast to be covered by one hunting party, different hunters had different ideals of what sort of a stag they were looking for, we would have an informal debrief each evening about which stags the different hunt groups were seeing and the trophies they were carrying. David had shot a beautiful royal in 2019, so he was looking for a stag with more points. Mark had only one criteria, he wanted a stag with heavy beams (which is not that common with the Otago herd), Greg was happy to hunt and see what we could turn up.

One thing that experience has taught me is that when you have a large group of hunters, if possible, you want to get an animal on the ground early, free range hunting doesn’t always allow for this…you need back up plans and to be able to think on your feet to maximise chances for your clients, you also need to remember there is only so much you can control and sometimes, ‘don’t over think it’ as Charlie heard me say many times over the roar, can be the best approach.

Arrival day, day zero, the Aussie hunters were all in camp and seemed to be getting along well, they’d filled up the bunk room at the main cabin. The kiwis were due to arrive the following afternoon and would take up another bunk room. That left another room for guides and assistants, with Brent in his camper trailer and Yeverley / Bronwyn and myself in a caravan, we were definitely at capacity!

We’d been watching and hunting one particular stag for 6 weeks, all our previous clients had taken exceptional free-range trophies, but we never could quite get the drop on a beautiful 14-point Imperial we’d nicknamed ‘Pretty Boy’. I thought why not target this 14-point stag on day zero with David.

So, with this little plan in mind, we loaded up two 4×4’s and side by side buggy and our convoy of hunters, guides, assistants, helpers, cooks and one very excited dog (he’d never had so many people to make friends with) started to bounce their way out the back to a beautiful bush clad valley, supreme Otago red stag country, in the heart of our hunting area.

An hour later we left the vehicles and made our way to a pre-determined glassing point which we’d used many times over the roar to overlook the upper reaches of the valley. Worst case, the whole group would get to see a number of stags, hear a lot of noise and enjoy a wonderful evening in the Otago high country, best case, a hunt group of 2-3 might get a crack at Pretty Boy.

A nonstop, roaring chorus, filled the valley as stags with their hind groups began to emerge from the beech forest on the far side of the valley; under the cover of darkness most would come down off the far side, cross the main river, which was little more than knee deep at this time of year and feed back up the north facing, more fertile side of the valley, where we were sitting. Because of this pattern, this valley was often successfully hunted in the mornings by manoeuvring into position in the dark, (which meant an early start) once a target stag and his pattern had been identified. Chances were that Pretty Boy would be on this near side in the morning, but he held such a large group of hinds (sometimes up to 40, when some of the hind groups mixed together, if you were to include the spikers and satellite stags as well) that he was extremely difficult to stalk within range of.

An hour before dark we’d located a number of good stags, but not the stag we wanted. He tended to stay high on the bush edge of the far side of the valley, although once or twice we’d seen him drop to the valley floor to wallow in a series of mud holes beside the river.

It was nearly past the point of commencing any stalk when a hind popped out of the beech forest and started to walk down a ridgeline game trail towards the direction of the river, further hinds followed, at the rear was a stag, Pretty Boy had appeared. Through my binoculars I was uncertain as to whether it was him, daylight was departing, fast, but yes it was him, 1000 yards across the valley: the tempo through the whole group went up, this was a tremendous looking stag. The stag looked as though he would continue his pattern of staying high, one particular hind was cycling and piquing his interest, she didn’t look like she was moving anywhere.

I encouraged (with a few short, purposeful words) Dave and Mark to get their gear together, the hind had begun to move towards the game trail that led to the river and of course the stag followed, we had half a chance; We set off downhill aiming to close the gap with the hope of a shot across the valley from around 350-400 yards right on dark.

I pushed the pace, David and Mark did well to keep up (almost keep up, this was a balancing act) we were going to need every second of daylight. A little, tussock filled bowl lay below with a lip that dropped away to the valley floor, we could shoot from there.

The stag and his harem were still moving down, we peered over the lip all puffing, regaining our breath, our quarry had disappeared into the bottom of a beech filled side valley, I had a good idea of where they would pop out again, with their rough line of travel heading to the wallows below us.

David was just getting a steady breathing pattern when the stag stepped out into the clearing on the valley floor, we were ahead of time, perhaps 3 minutes of daylight left, David, with my 7mm Rem Mag looked steady, with bipod legs down and butt end cushioned over a pack.

‘250 straight at him’ was all I said and Dave did the rest, 2 shots into the killing zone and the stag was down, the first shot was enough, the second for insurance, I didn’t want us floundering around in the dark.

14 point Imperial Otago Red Stag

David, Holding his stag with Mark behind, a classic, traditional, Otago red stag, 14-point imperial. In this photo the stag’s inner royal on his right antler is lined up with his back tine, giving the false effect of a 13-pointer. Photo: Chris McCarthy.

My mother Yeverley along with the rest of the group, was able to witness most of the hunt from the crows’ nest up high until the light became too bad. She nicknamed David ‘bang bang’ for the rest of the hunt after his 2 quick shots. After a short radio conversation with the main group, headlights became visible, piercing the night sky, as we watched two vehicles climb their way up and out of the valley in the direction of camp; we would follow once our work was done.

Our headlamps revealed a classic looking Otago red stag, he looked to be over 40 inches in length, with long points and bladed back tines, not a wide head, but by no means narrow, no question he was over 300 Douglas Score, David was a happy man. We snapped some photos in the dark then gutted the stag and arranged him so he would set with the cool of the night in a position which would be photogenic in daylight.

The stag was only 30 mins walk from the vehicle track; it was worth making the trip back tomorrow for better photos. David and Mark lost a fair bit of sweat climbing out of the valley; reflections from the truck were a welcome sight in the light of our headlamps. We arrived back at camp to a wonderful meal and congratulations from the rest of the group, yes, we were off to a cracking start.

It may have been earlier that day, or perhaps it was around the dinner table that evening, that Fred told us about his great adventures in North Queensland working as a professional fisherman, long lining for Spanish Mackerel, Nannygai, Coral Trout and other species. Fred (Danish national, fast becoming a Kiwi) ended his tales by telling the group that everyone up there in North Queensland had an O added to the end of their name. ‘Yeah, those Aussies, they’ve all got to put an O on the end of their names, so, like, I would be Freddo’ and pointing at me ‘You would be Chrisso.’ Fred then pointed at Mark across the table and said, ‘you would be Marko’ Marko stole the conversation and said he would be Grego, he’d be Davo and she would be Charlieo’ and so it went on.

The tradition of everyone in camp having an O on the end of their names (when we had Australian clients in camp) had stuck since the 2019 season and had definitely manifested itself once again. So, by the evening of day zero we had a happy, cheerful, atmosphere in camp.

Day two – Locked Down on Otago Red Stags

A 4.45am start saw the guide and support team preparing breakfast, equipment and vehicles. The norm was a quick, light breakfast of toast and cereal with a hot cuppa, out the door and into the vehicles by 5.45am. Generally, we would return back to camp around 11am when the rising temperature had put the animals to bed for the day, but we always took a lunch or bite to eat with us, things could change, quickly.

Charlie and Mark were happy to hunt together, I added Ryan to this hunt group and off they went in the Hilux, heading for the southern end of our hunting area. Charlie and I had seen numerous good stags in this vast open country, which was interlinked by a labyrinth of Manuka choked gullies which stretched right out to the far skyline as far as the eye could see. Looking back at my records now as I write this, this area was holding at least 10 mature Otago red stags of trophy class, ranging from 12-15 points. One was a 15-pointer, heavy in his main beams, but perhaps slightly short in length, I wanted Mark to see this stag and also a very stylish 14-pointer which I’d watched grow out and rut in this area for the last 3 years. I estimated this stag to be 7-8 years of age, I was still on the fence about if he should be left for another year.

The Kiwis were not due until late afternoon, too late for an evening hunt, so with Greg now as my primary hunter the rest of us piled into two 4×4’s and headed for the northern country which was also holding a number of good stags including a nice royal with big tops. Half an hour later we stopped the vehicles in the pre-dawn, stepped out and listened…. stags were roaring from all directions, some distant and faint, barely audible through the soft morning breeze, others deep and clear and not far off at all.

Daylight revealed a timeless scene, a large, flat, tussock filled, river flood plain, bordered by hills to the east and mountains to the west, thorny matagouri bushes stretched out in torn sheets, in isolated pockets of better soil. The main river headed south, while to the west a major bush clad valley led back to the mountaintops, its waters wishing to join the main flow at a right angle but forced into a serpent like pattern as they slowed upon reaching the main flood plain.

Daylight also revealed a deerstalkers paradise, we sighted numerous good stags, including another nice 14-pointer working his way up a tussock face to our right, he was heading home to the beech forest with his hinds, I’d seen this stag before and knew he wasn’t quite up to the mark, a stag for the future, easily identified by his bey tines which dropped down lower than normal, quite an attractive trait, one of our 2018 Australian hunters, Wayne Parry, took a good 13-point stag with this trait.

It was nearly time to change glassing points; David saw him first, a large stag walked out of a depression on the far side of the river flood plain and began to slowly climb and sidle toward his bedding area for the day. He was on his own, which was a little unusual, upon assessing him through the spotter we recognised the stag as the 12-point royal with the big tops, we picked him at around 40 inches in length, a great looking stag.

As I write this the reader may think, how do you know all these Otago red stags. The answer is that we live, breath, record, analyse, study, respect and have a great passion for these wild Otago deer, every morning and every evening for nearly 2 months, we’re out glassing, evaluating, photographing and enjoying the sight of these stags and the environment they live in.

The stalk that this stag offered was not one of high percentage, we thought about letting him walk, but agreed to have a crack. The stalk would take us into the side valley, where we wanted to head anyway, the stag was only 1200 yards away, but putting distance between us, if it didn’t come off, we could carry on with our morning. We also had very limited cover to work with, the hunt would involve dropping off the floodplain down to the main river, crossing it, (knee deep thankfully) following the river to the junction where the side stream came in and crossing that separately before climbing up underneath the stag for a shot. As we looked at the mountainside the stag was moving from left to right, into the side valley and slightly higher every second we deliberated.

Greg and I moved off, the rest of the group staying put on the radio. Greg stuck to me like glue and moved well, with every 100 yards we advanced the odds ever so slightly gaining in our favour. On the far side of the river, its steep bank afforded us cover as we tucked in underneath and made good time at a fast walk / slow jog. We eased up out of the river onto a low ridge separating the main flow from the side stream and decided to set up for a long shot. Unfortunately, the stag was still moving off, through the rosehip bushes which, were in places, tightly knitted and over head height, the stag was not alarmed but moving briskly, he had somewhere to be.

We took an all or nothing approach and broke from cover, crossing the side stream and climbing the main face, we now had little angle to see the stag which was somewhere above us, 500 yards away, on a 45-degree angle to our right. What we did have was the rest of the hunt group, back across the floodplain, with a radio and much better angle to keep track of the stag.

The stag had moved into a small side gut, Fred kept us informed on the radio, Greg and I closed another 200m, just in time to see the stag disappear into a large patch of rosehips, on a terrace just under the skyline. There was a small strip of tussock country between the rosehips and the skyline, he might offer us an opportunity there, before heading out of sight. Greg set the rifle up for a really steep uphill shot, we dialled in the scope for a true ballistic range of 330 yards, the TBR range finder being essential as the line-of-sight range was closer to 400 yards.

It was a waiting game, in the last 40 mins the chances of an opportunity at this stag had swung from 80 / 20 in favour of the stag, to in favour of us. A balance of careful stalking and taking chances had us in position. The radio quietly cackled to life at the same time as we saw him, at first, just his antler tips protruding through the rosehips at the back of the terrace, then his top points, main beams and finally the body of the stag moving steadily through the open tussock toward the skyline. Greg was ready, the .270 Browning looked rock solid, I roared, the stag stopped and looked down toward us, Greg squeezed off and the stag collapsed, crashing back down the mountainside to be hidden by the rosehips.

We just sat there and soaked it in, it was now a beautiful sunny morning in the high country and we’d just taken a 40-inch royal, what more could one ask for. Congratulations came through on the radio, the vehicles headed towards our position, Greg and I sat back in the tussock and waited for the Cavalry to arrive.

A nasty climb up on foot awaited, not a tahr country sort of climb, but nasty enough. Fred led the charge, weaving through the rosehips and matagouri towards the fallen stag. Fred had somewhat of a ho-hum look on his face when we reached him, without saying a word, I knew he was referring to the broken bey tine on the stag’s left antler. I said ‘It’s alright mate, Greg knew that before he shot him.’ I’d explained to ‘Marko, Davo and Grego’ that these were late roar dates, the stags had endured a long period of rutting and fighting, broken tines were a part of it, Fred relaxed. Greg also knew before we started the stalk, that this 12-point Otago royal had a broken bey.  What had attracted us all to this stag was his great tops and great tops they were, with outer royals over 10 inches, one inner royal on his left over 12 inches and both back tines over 16 inches.

It was now late morning, with trophy and meat recovered and some nice pictures taken by amateurs and professional alike, we had a well-earned brew and hatched a new plan. David’s stag still needed to be retrieved, it was about an hour’s four wheel driving away, along mountain 4×4 tracks, the tracks were in good order, it would be a pleasant drive and although the best hunting hours of the morning were past, it would be a good chance to show the whole group some more of our hunting area.

Greg with his 12-point royal, getting ready for the walk down the hill, right above the stag’s nose tucked under the hill is where the rest of the group stayed at the vehicles and we started our stalk from, Photo: Brent Hollow.

12 point royal Otago Red Stag

Greg and Chris with Greg’s 40-inch, 12-point royal, Otago red stag, Photo: Fred Madsen.

David’s Otago red stag looked every bit as good in daylight as it had the previous evening by headlamp. The decision to leave the stag propped up for better photos paid dividends, we took some great shots, Brent Hollow also captured some great images of David climbing up out of the valley with his trophy on his back, one of these images made the cover of the New Zealand Professional Hunting Guides Assn magazine. With plenty helpers we made short work of caping and butchering the stag.

                                                                              

Cover photo of  the New Zealand Professional Hunting Guides Assn Magazine. David climbing up towards the vehicle track, he took his classic, 14-point imperial on the river flat below, Photo: Brent Hollow Photography.

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