Locked Down on Otago Red Stags – Part 2

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At camp we were informed that Mark, Charlie and Ryan had enjoyed a spectacular morning, they’d found the 14-pointer they were looking for and also the heavy timbered 15-pointer. The 15-pointer looked to be only mid 30’s in beam length, too short, the 14-pointer, well, they all wanted a closer look and they had a plan to make this happen, it sounded promising. I can’t quite remember where we all hunted that evening; it must have been close to camp as my group didn’t make it back from our morning hunt until after 4pm.

Charlie and Chris, evaluating Otago stags with their group of hunters, photo: Brent Hollow.

The Kiwis had arrived, James Duder and his two mates Mark Galletly and Michael Ensor. James was celebrating his 40th birthday, his wife Lisa having made the initial arrangements for his hunt, Mark and Michael being his ‘support crew’. James was targeting a second-class stag and just like our first-class stag hunts, it was our job to find him the best stag available. We had a mini celebration that night, two fine trophies sat against the wall of the cabin, the kiwi and aussie banter began and at this stage carried no sharp edges. Yeverley was in good form, James was a family friend, they knew each other well and James and I both knew that for the kiwi side of the argument we sure had a secret weapon in Yeverley.

The following morning saw three different vehicles heading in three different directions. Sam and Fred with the kiwi group, Charlie and Ryan with Mark, that left Greg, David and Brent with me. The pressure was off my hunt group, we had an enjoyable morning in the mountains, photographing deer and enjoying the spectacle that is the red stag roar.

The plan for the evening was, to head for a valley which had held a master stag for the duration of the roar. This stag was exceptionally long, possibly around the 44 / 45-inch mark, he carried long lower tines and one additional small bey tine (which was interesting) and huge royals. I’d seen this stag the year before and judged he would score round 330 Douglas Score, scoring wise he’d be within the Top 5 we’d ever taken. However, this season he’d grown the top points on his left antler in a different configuration, with a massive inner and outer royal and two little additional points coming off the back of each, making him 15 points in total, but not having a true back tine (or you depending on which way you looked at it, you may argue he was missing an inner royal). In my eyes he was still a great looking stag, but in the eyes of the record books his 2021 trophy was back about 30 points on his 2020 trophy. That aside, my group thought we should try and locate this stag as an option for Mark.

Back for lunch at camp, Sam mentioned he had taken a picture of a big stag in a valley system, in the middle country. Naturally I was keen to see it and as soon as Sam zoomed in on the photo, I recognised the remarkable tops instantly. Here was the stag we wanted to look for, in a valley some 6 kilometres away from where he’d been for the whole roar. The roar was breaking up, the stags were coming out of their patterns; all the intel we’d compiled over the last 6 weeks was about to become irrelevant until the roar of 2022. We needed to make things happen for our clients and fast.

The big 15-point stag which had shifted valleys, photographed at long range by Brent Hollow.

Charlie’s report from their morning hunt:

It was the morning when my group left camp early, to get above the 14-pointer in dark. We hoped to find the stag, which we’d seen the day before from distance, underneath us, feeding away with his hinds, but after looking for a while and not seeing a deer, I decided to move on to the next gully. I left Ryan behind knowing that there was still a lot of country that we couldn’t see from the top and deer could still walk out on their way to higher country where they would bed for the day.

Mark and I spotted other stags in the neighbouring gully, but soon enough, Ryan got our attention as he tried to tell us, he’d seen something promising. We rushed back and tried to reach him without being spotted by deer – not too easy as we were in blank tussock country. Telling Ryan to stay put panned out as his patient eyes found 14 symmetrical points moving through the rosehip bushes. We watched the stag until his hinds moved on and all three of us hurried past the next saddle where the group was expected to walk through – a beat we’d seen stags travel many times over the roar.

We had set up on a good spot and hoped to intercept the stag. Unfortunately, the wind turned sideways which made me worry the deer would catch our scent just before they reached the saddle and turn. But that all didn’t matter after 15 minutes, as they simply didn’t turn up. When we watched the stag earlier, there was the thought that he was without a doubt a very good-looking stag, but maybe not a great stag? We had decided to have a crack but actually weren’t too disappointed when it didn’t work – even if Mark really wanted to get his trophy on the deck and pull even with his new Aussie mates. As we walked back to the truck, one had the famous ‘one last look back’ and there he was: The 14-pointer, with his group, he must have tracked straight over the top of the hill, out of our sight, walked through the next creek and up again on the next face where he was now sidling along. We looked at him again and decided that he probably hadn’t reached his full potential yet and might still be one or two years away from being a great trophy. With, by now, another stag and half a plan in my mind for the evening, I hoped it was the right decision to let him live.

The idea was now, to try and find the untypical, heavy 15-pointer, in a big beech valley, he was present every other time we entered the spot. Chris and I talked about him prior to our Aussie hunters arriving and I liked the idea of targeting him straight away as the stag really appealed to me.

After the three hunt groups arrived for lunch and shared of what happened in the morning, Sam and Fred showed us a video of a big, heavy, not quite normal head as they said. Turned out: The stag that I wanted to target in the evening, had moved on already into another valley, several kilometres from where I hoped to find him.

Still focused on that stag, we started driving in late afternoon into the area he was last seen by our kiwi group – a valley with beech filled guts on the northern side. After taking a first-class trophy four weeks prior, we hadn’t seen another great stag to target in that area. My group constellation changed as Ryan had to head back to work and I had Mark and David with me. We searched through little guts along the valley, scanned with our bino’s through rosehip and matagouri and found numerous young, up-and-coming stags, but not the one we wanted to see – he’d moved on. We had some good stalks before dark and got close to many deer, which gave us nice footage.

Brent also had to depart, so I pulled Mark and Charlie into my hunt group (Charlie might argue it was vice versa), we were now a team of 5, looking for a heavy timbered stag for Mark. Charlie, Ryan and Mark had studied the 14-pointer from a closer range the previous day and passed on him, I was somewhat relieved, another year would certainly not hurt that stag.

Hunt group glassing for Otago Red Stags. Photo: Chris McCarthy.

Sam, Fred and the Kiwis were targeting a second-class stag, and in particular the dominant stag, of a prominent flat, we’d taken some superb trophies from this flat in the past, including an 18-point stag we’d named ‘Gandalf the Great’ (taken by Australian hunter George Petrakis in 2019). The stag they were targeting was missing one bey tine and had only the one royal point on each side, with little crab points off of each royal. Still, this was a nice-looking stag with a big frame, judged close to 40 inches square, he could still be considered a royal stag as he carried 12 points.

Parting ways in the pre-dawn, each wished the other group luck. My group had another great morning, seeing plenty deer and some good stags, but not the stag that Marko wanted. In the 4×4 we worked our way out of a major valley along a track, that ran the length of the valley, half way up the south side. This afforded good viewing of the tussock faces on the opposite side. These feeding slopes were bordered by tight gorgy gullies covered in beech forest, the main river sparking below as the mid-morning sun reflected off its waters.

At long distance, away down valley we picked up a stag in the bino’s, he looked good, we knew the morning hunt was all but over and made haste down the valley in the 4×4, trying to close the gap before the beech forest swallowed this stag for the day. Once we judged it too close to take the vehicle any further, we continued on foot, until eventually setting the spotter up on the stag from 800 yards. The stag was feeding on the opposite side of the valley, on his own, although his group of hinds were above and to the right, on the bush edge, not too far away. Instantly I knew this stag from my inventory as ‘Double Kicker’. He was a classic royal, but with two additional points, kicker points, coming off each of his outer royals, a fine-looking trophy carrying heavy, long tops. We’d seen this stag in 2020, although had never been within 2 kilometres of him that season when he was listed in my inventory as ‘Pitch Fork’, alluding to his big top points. He may have only thrown the two kicker points this year, but chances were we just couldn’t pick them up at long range in 2020.

So, we had a target stag, Mark liked the look of him, we all did. The only problem being the stag was across the valley and close to cover. Our window of opportunity was closing as his hinds were about to disappear into the next beech gut and he would follow. Dropping down to the river and coming up underneath him was a low percentage option, he would be difficult to see and to stalk within range of without being seen, or him catching a swirl of the breeze. Coming from above was possible, we had vehicle access to the top of the mountain on the other side, but this would have to be left for another day and would mean a long stalk down the mountain of perhaps 2 hrs or more bumping other deer along the way. The best approach was an across valley shot, at an undisturbed stag, we wished Mark and Charlie luck and they began to move in, the rest of us sat still behind the spotter with radio at the ready.

We located Mark’s stag in the lower reaches of this valley, red deer heaven. Photo: Brent Hollow.

We all knew if Mark was to get an opportunity it would be a long shot, right at the outer limits of the capability of my Browning .270. Charlie and Mark made an excellent stalk, using scattered scrub bushes and a couple of small gutters to sneak their way further down the valley, to situate themselves exactly adjacent to the stag. Charlie whispered through the radio ‘Chris we can’t get any closer than 600 yards, I don’t think this is going to work.’ ‘Try and get within 550 and ask Mark if he’s happy to shoot from there.’ I replied.  My .270 would ring the 22cm gong on the range at 500 yards every time (if dialled correctly and held steady of course), generally I didn’t like clients shooting further than 400 yards, this was Mark’s decision.

Charlie and Mark did manage to close in another 50 or so yards, the stag was still feeding up and further out of range the whole time, so the net gain was minimal. We had the PhoneSkope attachment on my spotter, recording video and also hoping to be able to call the shots from the screen and relay back the info.

A shot echoed up the valley, the stag lifted his head and stood still, he had no idea where the shot had come from, the hinds started to depart, we could not see the bullet track in the video, but thought it had gone high. A second shot connected with the stag’s spine and he tumbled down.

It was Charlie and Mark’s hunt, I especially wanted Charlie to have the fulfilment of helping Mark hunt and retrieve his trophy without my help so I left them to it. Dave opted to help with the retrieval, Greg and I pulled the tucker box off the truck, poured a brew and sat down to watch the retrieval crew in progress. It took them about 45 minutes to reach the stag and was well over 2 hours before they arrived back at the vehicles, panting and having lost a lot of sweat.

Mark with his heavy 14-point Otago stag, note the little kicker points off the outer royals. Mark had lost a fair bit of gravy and pulled off a few layers by the time he made it across the valley and up the other side to his stag. Photo: Sarah Schwandt.

Mark in the riverbed, about to make the steep climb back up to the vehicles. Photo: Sarah Schwandt.

What a trophy they laid down in front of us, around 40 inches in length and heavy, (as Mark kept pointing out) with heavy beams of 5 7/8ths, 9-inch coronets, big royals and back tines of 19 inches. Mark was one happy man! Later back at the camp we scored this stag twice, the first time at 317 1/8 the second time at 318 1/8, just sneaking in as the highest scoring stag of the season.

Sam, Fred and the Kiwi’s had a successful day, they arrived back with their target stag well after dark. Fred described an exciting stalk, which saw James connecting in the last moments of daylight.

James with his big second class, 12-point stag, just under 40 inches long by 40 inches wide. Photo: Sam Beaufill.

The following day Sam and Fred helped James take a nice fallow buck, I took the opportunity to show my aussie group some of our kiwi fallow deer, as their rut was in full swing. Mark has since booked a fallow hunt for 2022.

James with his fallow buck. Photo: Sam Beaufill.

For the final two days we were all out every morning and evening, looking at Otago red deer in their natural environment, watching, immersing ourselves, enjoying ourselves and reflecting on a great hunt. The roar hunts were now over for another season, future hunts were being planned and once again, for another year, lined up along the fence was the greatest collection of free range, Otago red stag trophies in New Zealand.

With everyone ‘tagged out’ with our 150th anniversary tags, we took the opportunity on the final day to make a road trip to the memorial, erected by the North Otago Branch of the NZDA, acknowledging the liberation of the Otago herd at Morven Hills back in 1871. A fitting way to end and a nice opportunity for Mark, Greg and David to photograph their trophies with the monument.

From left, Greg, David and Mark, with their trophies at the monument celebrating the liberation of the first deer which established the Otago herd in 1871. Photo: Chris McCarthy.

Sarah Schwandt (Charlie, assistant guide) with the Pittock trophy.

Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris Otago red stag tag. These are the only tags / licences in New Zealand for red deer (or any big game), tags are limited to 10 first class stags each season to ensure no more than 10 first class stags are shot, leaving plenty stags in the mountains and ensuring stags within our area reach maturity.

Moving around our 86,000 acre private, free range, area by 4×4 and buggy, it’s big country.

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