The 2020 Otago Red Stag Roaring Season

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The 2020 Otago Red Stag roaring season

Photographer: Steve Couper

I had 10 hunters booked, on 5-6 day hunts, all in search of their own Monarch of the Glen, a genuine wild Otago Red Stag. The red stags had recovered quickly from their hyper rut period of activity, battle scars had healed and they’d stacked on weight through a mild winter and an unseasonably wet spring / early summer to arrive fat, strong and as healthy as possible for the 6-8 weeks of the 2020 “roar”.

Was it possible for Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris to live up to their record breaking, free range Otago stag season of 2019? Time would tell.

Chris McCarthy and Gus Karr with Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris incredible free range Otago Red Stag trophies of 2019, five of them being over 40 inches in beam length.

Beautiful 3 year old, 12 point, free range Otago Red Stag in great condition at the start of the roar, at least 4 seasons away from being trophy class. Photo: Chris McCarthy

Gary Innis arrived From Cairns Australia, as he had done for the past 6 roaring seasons to hunt, photograph and immerse himself amongst these unique highland stags in a way that true lovers of red deer dream of and few will ever experience in reality.

Fears of a virus named Covid -19 reaching New Zealand’s shores had become real with the first cases being confirmed in early March, the virus was infecting humans and had reportedly jumped from an animal hosted virus to one which infected humans by a Chinese national eating a Pangolin (small armadillo like animal). It looked inevitable that New Zealand’s borders would be closed, my Canadian client and his wife who had hunted the previous week were anxious to get home and aware they would have to self quarantine for 2 weeks upon arrival. I’d spoken to Gary on the phone and he would have to do the same on his return to Australia, Gary was still keen to come and I was keen to have him, the prospects for the rest of my season, which was just beginning, did not look good.

Our island nation was awash with words such as self isolation, bubbles, alert levels, lockdown – all Gary and I wanted to do was get our own bubble boiling away from Queenstown airport and rising toward the Otago Mountains as quickly as possible.

Gary advised me not to come in to the airport and was already testing my spotting senses as he sat motionless on a bench beside a rock garden outside, he did spot me before I spotted him and we made a joke about it as we walked off toward the parking area. My assistant guide, Dave Hall from Oregon USA and Gary became acquainted on the drive to our hunt area. Dave was a friend of Bill Metivier who assisted in the 2018 season; a fellow American, they had met working for a large fishing charter operation on the Alaskan coast, Dave had dreamed of hunting NZ and as they say – one thing had led to another. Dave’s Fiance Shannon had also made the trip with him, she had already made a great shot on a fallow deer and was keen to keep visiting the hunt camp as much as her main job of looking after our 4 daughters at Hawea Flat allowed.

Dave and Shannon from Oregon with a nice young boar that Shannon also shot. Photo: Chris McCarthy

Welcoming Gary back is always like welcoming back an old friend, we only see each other once a year for our annual roar hunt, which is always much anticipated and looked forward to by professional hunter and client alike. To bridge the time between hunts Gary has been prolific at writing articles about his Otago red stag hunts and helping me promote our major point of difference as a hunting operation which also happens to be his passion – free range red stags. But not just any free range red stag genetically unique Otago red stags, stags with a history, a story and an ability to produce classical trophies of unrivaled beauty. Gary has become a sounding board and in some respects a test case for me to help conceive new ideas and implement them as Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris continually improve what is already a proven, exceptional, world class, experience and hunt for the highest quality of Otago stag trophy.

Gary had booked 10 full hunting days; the hunts are usually 5 full days to provide a balance for clients between cost and the ability to take a great trophy, not just a good trophy. In the case of Gary we were looking for a freak trophy, not just a great trophy and certainly not a good trophy. The first 2 days of the hunt unfolded in a usual manner, scouring known locations of our hunt area for stags, covering the country, finding that right balance between looking properly at country and looking over enough country. Using available 4×4 tracks, foot tracks, the sun, the wind and the weather in general to hunt and glass the right area’s at their optimum times.

Terrain within our hunt area varies from rolling lower country with scrub choked gullies, to large expanses of high country with beech forested river valleys and open tussock grass tops. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful or more ideal habitat and environment for these Otago red deer to roam live and thrive in.

Dave judging an Otago red stag at long range. Photo: Steve Couper

We have divided the area into 10 different regions for management purposes by natural boundaries such as creeks, rivers and ridgelines. On a typical 5 day hunt (5 mornings and 5 evenings weather permitting) it is possible to hunt a different, large tract of land every outing. Generally this is not what we do, as we are targeting ‘great’ stags that we have located, but this is possible.

When mature stags worthy of hunting are located they are recorded on a whiteboard inventory with their rough location and number of points, over the evening meal back at the cabin there is great discussion between outfitter, guides, assistant guides and clients as to whether the located stag is a good stag, great stag or a freak stag.

Red stags will usually return to rut in the same area from year to year and will follow a feeding pattern with their hinds, when a stag has been observed holding a pattern with his hinds plans can be made depending on terrain and client for a high percentage hunt.

Professional photographer and videographer Steve Couper arrived on day 3, the roar of 2020 was still not fully underway but it was definitely heating up, most stags were now roaring and beginning to fall in with hind groups, the rut was on and we were out there, looking, listening, changing angles, evaluating trophies, loosing some sweat and eluding those hinds to work to positions we needed to glass from. One bark from an alarmed hind was enough to turn a valley hosting a constant roaring chorus to a valley of silence within seconds.

Steve Couper – Professional Photographer and Videographer in action capturing free range Otago red stags on camera. Photo: Chris McCarthy

The evening of day 3 saw the four of us (along with Cook the dog) climbing to a favoured glassing point which allowed a great view of the upper bush line on the opposite side of the valley. A well used wallow hole on a terrace out from the lower bush line, just up off the river could also be watched over. We’d killed a huge Otago stag with 18 points, a beam length of over 42 inches, spread of 39 inches and an incredible trophy weight of 8 kilograms / 17.6 pounds, on this terrace on an evening hunt at absolute last light the previous season with another client (George Petrakis). The stag itself was a giant and estimated at well over 200 kilograms in body weight or 450 pounds. The upper bush line and wallow hole were truly hotspots for big stags, Dave and I had seen a beautiful, big, classical looking 14 pointer at the wallow the week before while scouting. The 3rd advantage of this particular glassing point was that deer moved out of the beech forest in the evenings on the valley side we were situated and into the open country between fingers of beech towards our ridgeline location. Also in previous seasons we’d observed stags on the upper bush line across the valley an hour before dark, only to find they’d dropped right down through the timber and appeared on the terrace, roaring and fighting other stags in the minutes before darkness.

In this instance another tactic could be employed to move quite some distance down the mountain for a shot across the river, a tactic which is well known by many of our repeat hunters – The Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris “dash for cash”.

Within 5 minutes of sitting down we’d already located a good 13 point stag and a good 12 point royal on the upper bush line, there were further stags roaring which we were beginning to pin point when a great noise erupted not 400 yards away, the roar sounded to be at about our level further up the valley side. Everyone including Cook quickly forgot about the far side of the valley and turned their heads toward the noise explosion. Gary was first to pick up the stag, bedded in the open, facing away from us, I quickly zoomed my spotting scope in, attached my phone with phone scope attachment and hit record, I knew we were looking at a great stag, but would he tip the scales into that freak category?

Exceptional free range Otago red stag, 12 point royal stag with incredible back tines. Photo: Steve Couper

The stag was an exceptional 12 point royal, but he needed further evaluation. A 12 point Otago stag needs to be around the 40 inch mark or better within our area to be of trophy class, stags with more points especially 15 points and above can be forgiven for shorter beam lengths, every now and then you will get a freak stag such as the one described 3 paragraphs earlier which has it all, in terms of length, width, number of points and mass. Generally a stag cannot put antler growth into all of these areas, for example take a typically set up 16 point stag that is 38 inches in beam length, a great stag. Lets say his 15th and 16th points are 5 inches long, cut them off (only in theory of course) and add them to his main beam, you now have a 14 point imperial, 43 inches in beam length, another great stag, and in both cases possibly freak stags, depending on other measurements and how the trophy looks to the eye.

The first thing I wanted to confirm was, was this the 12 point royal which we’d hunted unsuccessfully in 2019, a stag we’d glassed a number of times and deemed a great stag, we had just never been able to get the drop on him? It didn’t take long to work out, yes, it was this stag and Gary had indicated he was happy to shoot him last season should we get the opportunity. No two stag trophies are the same, this particular trophy carried trey (trez) tines that curled in at the tips, the following season we’d named him Curly for this reason. We’d never looked at Curly from this close of a range and this revealed his brow and bey (bez) tines also curled at their ends. Secondly was he better than last season? Was he as good as we thought he was? And yes, yes he was. Gary whispered “let’s go and take his photograph”.

From our hunts over the years I knew these we Gary’s code words for “I’m thinking seriously about shooting this stag.”

It was time to move from our glassing point on a steep ridge amongst scattered scrub to a better shooting position; we backed out slowly on our knees, leaving Dave hidden where he was. Once on the backside of the ridge we could stand up and climb freely, higher to a barren knob which I knew Garry could shoot prone from at a distance of just over 300 yards. A ‘chip shot’ for some these days, but the shot still had to be made and made right.

Steve brought up the rear, using his professional experience not to impede the stalk, but also have that uncanny knack of being there in position for those money shots and film when the time came.

Gary favoured my .270 Browning A-bolt, he’d killed all his previous Otago stags with this rifle, I had it shooting a 130gn Hornady SST bullet, an adequate set up for a big stag, but we were not over gunned. The long native grasses of the barren knob did not allow for a clear barrel. The stag was still bedded and facing away from us, one lone matagouri bush stood about 700mm (2 feet) high just over the top of the knob, I whispered to Gary to line the bush up with the stag and belly crawl toward it, he did so and my face was literally on his heals as we inched forward. Steve again used his judgement and stayed on the backside of the knob.

Gary wriggled himself into a prone position right beside the matagouri bush, I lay on my side with the seed heads of the grass not quite tall enough to conceal all of me as I spread out my tripod legs as low as they would go and attached my spotting scope and zoomed in on our target. I slid the rifle in beside Gary; he was already shooting with his camera.

Gary was still not totally convinced, I just about was, I kept trying to judge the stags length. One quantifiable measurement you can use to help judge Otago stag trophies (or any stag trophy if you know the measurement) is the length from the front side of the coronet (burr) to the tip of the nose. In the case of Otago stags this is always around 12 inches. You can run this measurement around the main beam in the field, if you have 3 of these measurements you have around 36 inches of main beam and obviously if you have four you have 48 inches, the Otago record for length is 49 inches.

The royal tines and the back tine will come off the main beam at the 20-24 inch mark (this is generally consistent, although on the Bedell trophy of 2019 with length of 44 6/8ths this occurs at the 30 inch mark), so another trick I use is to compare the nose to coronet measurement with the back tine. A big royal may have back tines of around 20 inches. I kept looking at those giant back tines, the back tine of the left antler appeared to be exceptional, not only did it curl inwards, it also hooked back and waved in its mid section, it looked to be nearing twice the measurement of nose to coronet, everything about it looked extremely long, the back tine on the right I could see was not as long but was still exceptional,

I clutched the rifle and pressed it against Gary’s side. “You need to shoot him” I whispered, as I looked back to Steve and made eye contact, his eyes just peaking over the crest of the ridge. Gary turned his head and gave me an astonished look, my nerves were holding but just, this was an incredible opportunity to be lying prone off a stag of this quality, bedded, facing the opposite direction, totally unawares of our presence.

In 7 seasons of hunting together I had never once told my current client to shoot a stag, in fact on some occasions I’d advised him not to shoot and Gary had used his own judgement to override my advice. Gary seemed somewhat stunned, I know this is one of the reasons why hunters return and return again to hunt with me, I’ve never pushed anyone into a shot, but simply offered advice, I was 99% confident my advice was good on this occasion.

Leaning forward through the grass I helped adjust the bipod legs to create a rock solid shooting platform and dialled the scope up 8 clicks to allow for a zero of just over 300 yards, Gary looked good and ready. With cupped hands I imitated a stag roar, the stag leapt from his bed and turned to face our direction, down valley and slightly elevated, he squared around half a step further and BOOM, Gary took him perfectly on the point of left front shoulder, the stag galloped over the ridge visibly hit and in big trouble.

Chris McCarthy and Gary Innis with Gary’s 12 point royal stag measuring 46 inches and 2/8ths in beam length on its longest antler. Photo: Steve Couper

Steve gave the thumbs up to signify he’d captured it all on film, he moved down towards us, where quiet congratulations were offered between hunter, guide and cameraman. We sat for 15 minutes, as the evening began to close in, still allowing a little time for ‘something stupid to happen’ as experience will attest to, but the video confirmed what we all knew was a good shot.

Dave appeared and offered his congratulations, we began to make our way through the matagouri and briar choked basin towards the stags last position, passing a large hidden wallow that ‘Curly’ was almost certainly about to visit when he rose from his bed to meet his hinds which were feeding higher up the mountain.

Cook the dog and Chris walk past Curly’s wallow. Photo: Steve Couper

Curly hadn’t gone far, about 20 paces, as Cook began to lick the blood from the stag’s mouth my stomach cramped as I looked at the stags antlers and the size of his body. Was this a smaller bodied stag? They are out there, had a smaller body made his antlers appear larger than they really were? As I rounded the last cluster of matagouri bushes to reveal the whole stag a smile began to form on my face, this was truly a great stag, possibly a freak stag, and possibly the longest set of Otago red stag antlers that I had ever laid my hands on.

For the next 5 minutes we sat and soaked in the scene, a walk off the mountain in the dark was inevitable so why rush. Free range hunting offers big high’s and big low’s, taking Curly was definitely a big high and a moment to be enjoyed, the true hunter, appreciates and in some cases loves their quarry and there was definitely some lovers of red deer amongst this group of men. Without the animals what do we have? Nothing, no sport, no challenge, no reason to explore the mountains and back country and no experiences of those big high’s and bog low’s which help to shape us and build character and strength as human beings.

Curly is a magnificent trophy; character in his lower tines with their curly tips, great purling all over and back tines that seem to stretch on forever, the longest being 24  inches. There are of course some weaknesses, that’s one of the reasons we keep hunting, keep searching for perfection; Curly is the highest scoring 12 point royal we have ever taken scoring 325 Douglas Score, 46 2/8ths long on his longest antler which is right up their with the best antler lengths of all time for an Otago stag.

Steve took plenty photos, as did Dave and myself battling with evading light, distant stags could still be herd roaring and as we progressed further into our work the knives came out (in a working sense) and a number of not so distant stags also began to open up, bellowing their war cries which once again filled the valley.

The Otago Acclimatisation Society was established in the early 1860’s. By 1869, it was receiving $500 per year from the Otago provincial government to import familiar British species; one of these species was red deer. The 1871 liberation of 6 yearlings at Morven Hills is well documented; this liberation was the foundation of the Otago herd.

Tags were allocated by the Otago Acclimatisation Society as part of the management of the Otago herd early last century, these tags were originally made of cloth and then of metal, the metal tags being attached by tie wire to the stags antlers, but as management was lost so were the tags. Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris re-created history in our 2020 season, re-introducing tags to our herd management plan in our private free range area. Gary Innis created history on this particular evening as he cut our first ever Otago red stag tag.

With the reality of the Covid -19 pandemic setting in, it was looking like my season would be over before it started, Gary was well aware of this and on our rather ‘interesting’ walk back down the mountain he said, “Lets see if we can photograph another one Chris.”

Gary with his trophy up on top of the mountain long after sunset. Photo: Steve Couper Photography.

The Otago Red Stag Roaring Season of 2020 – Part Two

We had identified one ‘freak’ stag for the season, our inventory of good stags and great stags continued to grow with every day, but just the one stag had made the freak category. How does a stag make this category you may ask? Simple, as soon as you put glass on a freak stag you simply drop your binoculars and think to yourself, that stag is in a class of his own. We’d given this stag the name ‘The Big Chief’ the name that Archie Kitto gave to his huge Otago stag taken 99 years previous.

Our Big Chief lived in the mid section of a large bush clad valley, late evening he would move from his bedding area in the beech forest with a large group of hinds, cross the river in the valley bottom and begin to follow his hinds up the near side of the valley and into the open as they feed on an array of grasses and shrubbery. He would spend the night in the open and as the sky began to lighten the first hinds would work their way up valley, around a defining ridge, through two small side gullies and back to the safety of the bush on this side. The missing link of the cycle was completed under the forest canopy as the deer dropped down, crossed the main river and climbed up the other side to bed. The big Chief would gather up the stragglers of his group, which were constantly being cut out by younger stags, this would of course infuriate the Big Chief and he would have to dispatch the younger stag and rescue his hind. The Big Chief was a very busy Chief indeed.

So there we were, Gary, Steve, Dave and myself, sitting down valley at a well established glassing point on small, flat, protruding plateau that afforded a nice view of the Big Chief’s domain. After an early start and a half hour of four wheel driving we made the final stages of our journey on foot, multiple stags were roaring and their was noise coming from the Big Chief’s area around 1500 yards away; dawn would reveal if he was adhering to his pattern.

An hour after daylight the Big Chief was still a no show, but the morning had been fruitful, we had located more good stags across the valley in the various tussock openings and open faces of tussock grass between densely forested side gullies. We could see a long, long way up and down the valley. We’d located 2 nice royals and 2 14 point imperials, one of the imperials I recognised from previous seasons, an old stag I’d named Elusive, he was aptly named. Elusive was a great stag, I knew that, he was not a typical 7 x 7 imperial, rather he carried 6 strong points on his left antler and 8 on his right, with a beam length estimated at around 40 inches.

Elusive rutted in and on the bush edge of a nasty beech filled side gully on the opposite side of the main valley, seldom had I seen him more than 100 yards from the bush edge and never for very long. About mid way up this bush edge, before it bluffed out into an alpine basin was his favoured area, very difficult for a hunter to approach from the bottom and also the top and way too far to shoot across the valley from our side. This was the first time I’d seen Elusive this season, he looked to be carrying a similar trophy as 2019, possibly not as good, possibly this old stag was on his way back. It was a real thrill for me to see him again.

I can’t remember who spotted him, he just appeared out of a fold in the ground, but there he was, the Big Chief, roaring and doing his best to gather the last of his group. He was a freak stag, he carried 17 points that we could discern but possibly more, one of those points was a forked trey (trez) tine on his right antler, I’d never seen that before in an Otago stag, he certainly had wow factor and was a nice wide style of trophy. He was soon heading for the beech forest, that was okay, we’d seen enough to hatch a plan for the morning.

Fifteen minutes before daylight the next morning we were sitting under two lone beech trees around 500 yards from where the Big Chief liked to be at first light. The nor Westerly wind which is so often written about in the early days of Otago stag hunting was not his constant self and although I’d tried to position our ambush higher up the slope I had to pick a balance between being in too close and out too far. Being in to close or inside the comfort zone meant sound, sight and a swirly breeze could be our downfall; being out too far meant having to sight the Big Chief and stalk in through a lot of open country and a lot of deer to reach our target. Whether I had it wrong or the wind would have skunked us either way I’m not sure, daylight revealed a beautiful piece of deer habitat almost totally devoid of deer.

We decided to leave the Big Chief for a day or two and let him settle down; meantime we would see what else we could uncover. That evening we glassed the lower reaches of the same valley, one side gully down from where Elusive was rutting. The evening was a success, we located a great looking stag, whether he carried 15 or 16 points we were not 100% sure, but he was certainly worthy of a closer look. The following morning we positioned ourselves on the same side of the valley as this new stag, perhaps 2 kilometres down valley from him, yes he was a 16 pointer and yes he was a great stag. We had an incredible morning watching roaring stags and locating 2 new stags, a big solid looking 13 pointer and a great looking 12 pointer with big tops.

Back at the cabin we had visitors, Shannon (Dave’s Fiance) and Freddy (the Great Dane) had arrived, it was the weekend and they were eager to join the hunt. Fred had been a great help in previous seasons and had been on a number of stag kills, a great man to have in camp, he’d just taken a job with my cousin Patrick as a builder. Hunter, spear fisherman, diver, builder, boat builder and, lover of young ladies all over the world were just a few claims to fame of this 26 year old, the latter not being a claim of his own, but more of a title bestowed upon him. Freddy had become a great friend, we’d met at the Condon’s Hereford bull sale on the west coast. The west coast had become a favoured hunting ground of Fred’s, he was hunting the same Otago stags we were, just on the opposite side of the Southern Alps in a totally different climate (a lot wetter), different vegetation (rain forest) and generally rougher, tougher terrain. We’d first hunted together 4 years previous when I’d helped Fred secure his first trophy bull tahr.

I’d spotted the 16 pointer so I had the naming rights, ‘Top of the Greats’ I called him, not a freak stag but as his named suggests the top of the great stags we’d located. After a team meeting it was agreed we would try for him and at least try and take his photo? He was not an easy stag to target, living midway up a mountainside that extended 800m (roughly 2600 ft) in vertical altitude from valley floor to mountain top. We’d also chosen an evening hunt which meant we’d be racing daylight.

Fortunately we could get a 4×4 to the top of the mountain by following a vehicle track, that was a big plus and one of the reasons this hunting area is so good for guiding clients, we can move hunters around without breaking them and in doing so we can create multiple opportunities. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my fair share of wilderness hunting, more than most and relish the challenges this style of hunting presents (well most of the time anyway). Having vehicle access around some of the different regions of our hunt area is a huge help.

The plan was simple, Chris, Gary, Steve and Fred would take one 4×4 to the top of the mountain, the 4×4 would be no further use and collected the following day. Once off the main ridge and onto the mountainside itself things would get a little wild; large, bluff filled alpine basins with snow tussock and alpine scrub led down to the beech forest below. By following a leading, open ridge down that split two major basins we could avoid the beech forest and position ourselves with a view of the beech edge of the side gully we’d last seen the stag walk into.

The stag would then hopefully walk out some time between us arriving and dark, Gary would shoot him and the four of us would pack the stag out under headlamp to the bottom, cross the river which was a knee wetting sort of exercise and climb up (this was the bad bit) the other side of the valley to Dave and Shannon, waiting with a 2nd vehicle on a track 300m (1000ft) in elevation above the river. The hunt team arriving at the extraction team 2-4 hrs after darkness depending on quite a few variables, so much for a relaxing Friday night, well who would want to miss this anyway? Certainly not Fred. Cook the dog was possibly one variable we could do without so he would stay with the extraction team.

3.00pm saw the hunt team at their drop off zone, on a very, very exposed ridge with sideways rain, mixed with small pieces of hail and the whole valley below engulfed in a mist. We pulled on our rain gear, taped the rifle barrels (Fred carrying my Sako 7mm rem Mag as a back up) and walked off into the mist. Conditions would need to improve; we had some nasty bluff country to negotiate and could see no more than 100 yards.

Fortunately they did, shortly into our hour of decent we dropped in under the layer of mist and could see most of the valley below and that Dave and Shannon were in position a long, long way below. I turned on my two way radio (legal in NZ) and received a copy from Dave; he would be our long range set of eyes from a different angle.

We opted to climb down the back side of the ridge to stay totally hidden from where we believed the stag to be, it was now time to belly crawl up through the tussock grass and onto the ridge itself to look and listen for any sign of the stag. I didn’t need to look twice; there he was out in the open, feeding below a small isolated patch of beech trees. I had my rangefinder clipped to my binocular harness, it read a TBR (true ballistic range) of 410 yards, I didn’t muck around and take a line of sight range, but looking at the moderate downhill angle it had to be getting out towards 500 yards.

I like to talk about percentage hunting or more to the point, ‘high percentage hunting’, (see article 4 of my series titled ‘Alpine Hunting Tips’, this article is dedicated to this subject). all I could think about here was de ja vu. Gary and I had found ourselves in a strikingly similar position 2 years previous, only on that occasion the downhill angle was substantially more acute. At the time I didn’t have an angle compensating range finder, so I had to guess the angle to coincide with my bullet data. I didn’t allow enough for the angle and the shot went high, the result, a very large unscathed stag charging for the bush.

Otago red deer hinds. Photo: Steve Couper Photography

Second time around there was no way we were going to do that! Asking that light 130gn projectile to stay straight and true over that distance on a windy evening near the mountain tops was not a high percentage option. Just as I’d made that decision disaster struck, a hind and fawn burst out below us, they’d picked up our wind and they picked up their speed galloping around the rim of the basin, the hind delivered a short, shattering explosive series of barks as she went. The stag looked up and immediately turned and entered the small patch of beech trees; he emerged out the far side at a trot, heading up the basin wall, following a group of 5 made up of hinds and fawns. All we could do was sit and watch the opportunity deteriorate, the hinds slowed before the main bush edge of the side creek and stopped to feed, they were obviously not in panic mode, but they did all eventually head into the beech forest.

The big 16 point Otago red stag heading into the patch of beech. Photo: Steve Couper.

Just when the game seemed up we were back in it, the stag (which looked magnificent I might add) stopped and bedded, quartering away from us, 10 yards from the bush edge, at just over 500 yards.

I advised Gary to get ready to move, the stags neck was turned on more of an angle than his body which tilted his head not towards our direction, but a lot more towards it than I would have liked. I’ve always been a reasonably aggressive hunter; I turned to Steve and asked, “what would you do?”

“I’d sit and wait,” he said, “we still have time.”

“Fred, what about you?” I asked

“I’d sit and wait Chrisso, see what happens?”

I checked my bullet data and dialled the 7mm in for a 500 yard shot, advising Fred of a mid range and if the stag came back this way a zero range.

The stag was bellowing sporadic roars from his bed which we could just hear above the howling wind, there was no sign of any hinds, I looked at Fred he was glassing and thinking the same, are there any further hinds that can spoil this. I ranged the stag and ranged a small ridge halfway across the basin out in the open tussock grass which would elevate us just a little and allow for a clear, prone shot of 330 yards. Could we get there undetected? The stag roared again, then laid his head down facing nearly directly away.

The big stag bedded, before he turned his head fully away. Photo: Steve Couper

“We’re off,” I said and belly sliding, not crawling, Gary and I went over the top and into the basin almost totally exposed, using ankle to knee high snow tussock for cover as best we could. We developed a rhythm of sliding the steeper pieces and crawling if we absolutely had to, the slippery tussocks assisting our downhill approach, although we did try to slide between the tussocks for maximum cover. Every now and then I’d stick my head up and check the stag hadn’t moved.

On an exposed stalk as this you can hear the numbers slowly turning over and the percentages slowly tracking in your favour, the closer you move toward your identified shooting point. I would say the percentages were better than 50/50 when we started our approach, otherwise we simply wouldn’t have started, now the percentages we steadily climbing in our favour. I motioned for Gary to slide ahead of me and pointed where he needed to get to for a shot, I re-checked the range and yes he was dialled correctly. It was not an easy shooting position Gary was quartering downhill, digging his knees and elbows in to hold his body weight steady, prone behind the rifle, with the downhill bipod leg extended quite some way to level the scope.

The stag was now up on his feet, he knew something wasn’t quite right, it was now or never. Boom went the .270, it sounded like a hit, but the stags reaction didn’t indicate so, he took off downhill, I lost him in my bino’s and Gary shot again before the stag was out of view. Immediately we both moved to a sitting position to try and locate the stag, I fully extended the bipod legs to 700mm (2 feet) for a sitting shot if needed.

We waited, we waited and we got lucky, the stag emerged at under 200 yards above the isolated patch of beech, confused, the muzzle suppressor and wind had muffled the sound of the shots. I advised Gary to hold low, the rifle was still dialled for a 330 yards with no time to readjust. The stag came up almost toward us at a trot, I roared, the stag stopped, Gary shot and the great stag cart wheeled over a boxwood covered terrace and down onto a rough scree slope. We couldn’t see the stag, he’d toppled some way down and out of view, but looking back above Steve and Fred were giving us the thumbs up.

Gary approaching his free range 16 point Otago red stag. Photo: Steve Couper

Steve had captured some incredible images right before the fatal shot, an inspection of the stag revealed Gary had just clipped his throat with his first shot. I found a route down the steep slope and waited 20 paces off to allow Gary to take the lead and be the first to approach his trophy.

This was only the 2nd 16 point stag I’d ever point my hands on, Gary had two 15 pointers to his name from previous seasons, but not a 16, the ‘Top of the Greats’ later measured just under 38 inches in antler length, looking at him on the ground he looked to me to be a 320 class stag, a very classy stag, a great stag that turned out to be our 5th best stag of all time scoring 321 2/8ths.

Chris, Fred and Gary, congratulating each other. Photo: Steve Couper

Gary now probably has the greatest collection of Otago stags taken this century.

Hunter and guide with their fine 16 point trophy Otago stag. Photo: Steve Couper.

We caped the stag, finishing in the last minutes of daylight and loaded up between us with an amount of meat that was fair and reasonable (it is not a regulatory requirement to take all edible meat in NZ, but within my operation we certainly like to make a fair effort), the question now was, to go down, a long way down as planned or head back out onto the ridge and follow it back up to the top. All agreed heading back to the top would be quicker and hopefully easier; I radioed Dave with the new plan and told him to put the beer in the fridge for the guide team and the kettle on for Gary who is an avid drinker of Tea. With plenty of rest stops and plenty of sweat lost we eventually made the mountain top some 2 hours later.

Gary had tried to stay on an extra week and provide a further week of income for me when it became evident my season was basically over before it had started due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it was not possible, the last flight back to Australia was scheduled and that would be it, he needed to be on it.

I managed one further guided hunt before total lockdown gripped the country. We did catch up with The Big Chief, I was wrong about him on two counts, the first was he didn’t carry 17 points; he carried 20, which made this trophy our record for number of points. The second thing which I was wrong about was his beam length, he was an old stag, reasonably short in the beam, shorter than I thought, still a great trophy scoring 314 before the overspread penalty (a penalty I have to say I disagree with).

Our record for points, a 20 point free range Otago red stag our ‘Big Chief.’ Photo: Chris McCarthy

My client asked me would I have asked him to take the shot had I known the beam length and I said yes, he was still a great stag, just not the freak stag I had thought. When we did get the drop on The Big Chief we were 230 yards above him with a steep downhill shot and a window of about 5 metres to take him before he was gone.

The hunter booked again for 2021, this time we will target a more classical, traditional style of trophy in the 12-16 point range. Gary of course will also be back in 2021, along with a number of other repeat hunters.

There was also one further trophy taken for the season, a big 14 point imperial over 40 inches long and just under 39 inches wide with exceptional trey tines and strong royal tines, the telling of this story is for another time.

Big 14 point imperial Otago red stag, over 40 inches in beam length and just under 39 inches in width. Photo: Chris McCarthy.

Just a baby, 2 year old stag, his 2nd head a future trophy. Photo: Steve Couper

Our 2021 season will celebrate the 150th year anniversary of the liberation of the Otago herd, we will have special anniversary tags printed and we will have one very special season to celebrate this milestone.

Visit my free-range Otago red stag page for further info about hunting one of these traditional free-range giants with Lake Hawea Hunting Safaris.

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