Starting to huff and sweat, I was ready for my first break of the climb when we saw a tremendous stag effortlessly gliding up the ridge high above us. We only had a brief look, but it was enough. My hunting partner Brett Flaugher, guide Marcus Eccles, and I quickly bailed around the edge of the ridge and rushed for the valley on the other side to try and cut the stag off.
When we got there, the stag wasn’t in any of the open areas of ferns and tussocks, so keeping the wind in our favor, we poked into the gullies and ravines lining the drainage, glassing into the many fingers of timber and head-high brush. After about an hour of slow and methodical hunting, we decided to climb back over the ridge, thinking that perhaps the stag had never climbed over the top. But first, we paused to glass one more time.
“There he is,” Eccles said. We all sank to the ground and zeroed in on the stag, 300 yards across the valley, walking through a thick tangle of brush, his massive spread of antlers busting through the vegetation.
We had stopped on a rocky point with good cover and a superb view of the valley. I rested my rifle solidly on my pack and lay prone, and found the stag in my scope just as he bedded down and disappeared. Only the dark tines of his massive crown were visible over the brush.
There was nothing to do but look at one another and shrug. Trying to get the stag to stand would probably send him crashing away with no chance for a shot. And when a big-game animal beds, it can be up again in a few minutes—or hours. We knew we were probably in for a long wait, but what we didn’t know was that this hunt would end in a way none of us expected.
We were hunting New Zealand’s steep, wild, and utterly spectacular South Island. I had been here for four days, and I had already seen enough to know that the country is a hunter’s dream.
Besides sea mammals and a few species of bat that somehow winged their way over, there were no mammals on the islands that make up New Zealand until the first Polynesian settlers showed up in the 1200s and brought with them dogs and rats. Centuries later, European settlers took one look at the mountainous country, decided it was like the highlands back home, and imported red deer and fallow deer. With perfect habitat and an absence of natural predators, the populations exploded. Two other imported alpine animals, the chamois and Himalayan mountain tahr, a tough and beautiful mountain goat, also thrive in New Zealand’s high country.
This unique situation has created a strange hunting culture, where red deer are both vermin and prized big game. To lessen their impact on the native flora, the government of New Zealand has long sponsored population-control measures that include shooting stags from helicopters and paying commercial shooters a bounty for every stag they kill. But the abundant game and vast public lands have also fostered a thriving scene of enthusiastic hunters. For the most part there are no seasons or bag limits, and hunting is a big part of life for New Zealand residents on both the North and the South Island. There is also a healthy outfitting industry, and hunters from around the world travel here for some of the best big-game hunting on earth. That’s what brought me to Cardrona Safaris, located near the mountain town of Wanaka, in the foothills of New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
Wanaka and nearby Queenstown are classic mountain resort towns, familiar to anyone who has ever been to a place like Telluride, Colo. Both were filled with climbing shops and ski shops, hunting and fishing stores, guides and outfitters, and plenty of young, outdoorsy types either planning or recovering from adventures, usually over pints of microbrews or some of the local New Zealand wine and oysters. One bit of Kiwi flavor was that all the outfitters offered bungee jumping; the sport was invented in this very region.
Flaugher, Eccles, and I waited on that rocky point, me lying prone on the cold stone, hoping for the stag to make a move. He was a jaw-dropper—wide, heavy antlers, with huge crowns—and we were prepared to stay as long as it took. But after two hours, we got a little antsy. Eccles decided to climb to a higher vantage on the ridge to see if he could get a better look—or any look—at the stag. Flaugher and I stayed put, trying to remain focused.
Suddenly Flaugher’s eyes grew wide, and he pointed downward with a gentle move of one finger. Right below us, under the edge of the ridge, were two stags, working their way up the drainage. We saw them for just a few seconds before they were hidden by the rocks, but it was enough to tell that one was small and immature, but the other sported a huge mass of antlers. I twisted to get into position, and shortly they appeared on the steep slope across the valley, heading toward a flat bench.
As the outfits in New Zealand do, Cardrona Safaris books hunts based on the size of the animal. When you pick your hunt, you decide what class of stag you’re after—similar to some trophy whitetail hunts in the States. To an American hunter, almost all the stags at first look huge, like something out of the Ice Age. That’s why it’s critical to get the blessing of your guide before you pull the trigger. But Eccles was out of sight, somewhere far up the ridge.
The two stags popped out level with us, 240 yards away across the canyon. They were standing on a wet, muddy flat, and the bigger stag put his head down and started flinging mud, wallowing like an elk. Through the scope, I could see his thick mane getting coated with mud as he thrashed about. It was an impressive sight. He was a beautiful stag, one I’d be very happy to take. I had a solid rest and a clear shot. I craned my neck, looking for Eccles, but he was nowhere in sight. I had a decision to make.
I’d come to New Zealand with Flaugher, who works for Winchester, and Travis Hall, from Browning, to test Browning’s new line of BXC big-game ammunition. Planning the trip, we were looking for a place that had terrific hunting for big, tough animals, and we were not disappointed with our choice.
So far in three days of hunting, we had seen plenty of fine stags. We had also hiked our butts off, covering some gorgeous country. Each day we would ride a UTV out of the valley, but we’d soon leave the vehicle behind to cover the terrain on foot. At one point, as we crossed a fence, the hillside was so steep that when Flaugher set down his pack it promptly tumbled 150 yards down the slope. I had a nice 20-minute break while he retrieved it.
We were hunting “the roar,” an apt name for the red deer rut, when the stags make a call that sounds something like a cross between a lion’s roar and the bellowing of a deranged bull. Every morning the roars of stags echoed across the mountains, and we found plenty of sign of rutting deer: thrashed bushes and rank, muddy wallows. We had successfully stalked a few stags, but each time Eccles had thought we could do a little better, so we passed.
Some of the “small” stags were bigger than anything I’d ever seen wearing antlers. On the second morning of the hunt, Eccles led Flaugher and me on a long march traversing several drainages. Around midmorning we eased up over the lip of a steep ridge. We had just passed a bush that had been trounced by a red deer, as well as several muddy wallows. The place just felt gamy, and sure enough, when we peeked down the slope there were two stags directly below us.
One seemed huge to me, with very wide antlers and long tines. Eccles, however, shook his head. So I traded my rifle for my video camera, and watched the two deer slowly feed down the slope and up over the side. My last view of them was of the pair standing on the horizon, their antlers silhouetted against the sky, a rainbow arcing behind them. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.
Days spent climbing up and down in this steep country were tough, but at Cardrona, there was certainly nothing hard about the nights. Outfitter Duncan Fraser comes from a family of hunters, and he knows how to make you comfortable after a long day in the mountains. The lodge was beautiful; the meals of venison and lamb, delicious. But it was the company of the staff that made the place feel like home. Kiwis were some of the friendliest, most fun-loving people I’ve ever met, and talking to them about hunting and life in New Zealand was a highlight of the trip. Would Eccles be all smiles, however, if I decided to take this stag when he wasn’t there to give his blessing?
Calling the Shots
The stag was in my scope, a clean broadside shot. I had seen enough stags over the last few days to be reasonably good at judging them, I thought. This one was not as big as the bull we’d been waiting for, but it was bigger than anything else we’d seen. He was a dandy stag. It had been an exciting hunt, and I could see the perfect end in my mind. I pulled the trigger.
At the shot, the stag fell and I could see him lying in a tangle of brush. My hands were shaking and my heart was pounding, but Flaugher and I didn’t have long to celebrate. We looked back up the valley—and there was the original one we were after, standing now but still not offering a great shot. We could hear Eccles scrambling to get back to us. Meanwhile, Flaugher lay down and got behind his gun. Eccles arrived and casually asked me to describe the size of my stag, trying to hide his concern. I hoped that when he saw it, he’d be as happy as I was, but for now we still had unfinished business.
The stag up the valley stood as still as a statue, staring right at us, most of his body hidden by the brush. Ten minutes turned into 20, and before long another hour had gone by, and we were right back to our original vigil, this time with Flaugher patiently lying on the point, waiting for the animal to make a mistake.
When it happened, it only took a few seconds. The stag shifted just enough to give Flaugher an opening. I had him in my binoculars when Flaugher shot, and the stag instantly dropped straight down.
The first order of business was to hike over and find mine. When we reached him, Eccles smiled broadly and relaxed. I guess I had learned a thing or two about judging red deer, and he started to joke about me doing his job.
Our elation over doubling on two trophy stags quickly soured when we hiked up to where Flaugher’s had been standing and found nothing. No stag. No hair. No blood. All of us were sure the stag had been hit hard and gone down, so with mounting confusion and concern we searched the brush-choked drainage methodically. In desperation, Eccles called in a helicopter to search for the downed bull from above. Helicopters are commonly used in New Zealand to get hunters and hikers in and out of the backcountry. The pilot hovered and swooped and covered the entire valley but saw no sign of the stag. Before he left, however, he hovered over the steep slope where my bull lay, the tips of the skids almost touching the ground, while Eccles wrapped a strap around the antlers and fastened it to the bird. Then it lifted off, a 500-pound red stag slowly twirling below it as it zipped down the trailhead. It was the easiest pack out that I’d ever seen.
Despite the mystifying lack of sign, none of us were ready to give up on Flaugher’s stag. Several of the guides and hunters went back the next morning, and the big deer was quickly spotted, standing a couple hundred yards from where we last saw him.
We rushed to get into position but were wary of spooking the clearly injured bull. From 300 yards, Flaugher made a perfect shot, putting the bull down for good. The first shot had been just a little high, not much, but red deer are the third-largest member of the deer family after moose and elk, and they’re extremely tough.
As happy as I’d been the previous day, the mystery of what had happened with this stag had been bothering us all. Everyone had awoken subdued and focused and intent on ending the hunt the right way, by finding this deer.
There’d be no helicopter this time. After many photos and handshakes and talk about the hunt, we started the hard work of butchering and packing the stag. It was a long way back, up out of the canyon and down into the low country. But no one minded.
Lead photograph by Kaleb White.