1995 was a big year! I got married to Little Red in January, then she left me in April for police college! The year before, I had scored access to a massive block of native bush that was home to Sika deer. We had started to explore the block that summer. Because of tree milling years before, the regrowth and bush lawyer were on another level. The place really was a jungle with the only tracks almost overgrown. The skid sites were covered with old piles of hand-split batons that had been left to rot. Many weekends spent with hand saws and secateurs became the norm, as Emma and I cut in towards the middle of the block where I imagined the deer died of old age!
I had purchased a large black and white photo from Aerial Mapping (based at Bridge Pa) that cost me plenty. I’d hoped it would pay dividends, showing us where some of the better gullies might be, while indicating some long overgrown logging tracks. Our spirits were severely tested in the summer heat. Very little breeze penetrated the walls of scrub as we cut through. Often, we would return to camp with blistered hands and scratched legs, feeling like we weren’t getting anywhere fast.
Finally, the hard yards started to pay off. In early March we had a few kilometres of track cut deep into the block. We’d reached some more open red beech, south-facing gullies that promised much. Over time I hauled in a couple of small barrels and slowly filled these with supplies for a fly camp during the coming roar. On one such weekend, while climbing out of a small muddy gut and concentrating on my footing, I spooked a large stag who bolted away around the face through the pepperwoods! He was too fast for a shot, and I was left disbelieving at the glimpse of his long white antlers!!
Being early March he must have been right at the stage of stripping his velvet and hadn’t had time to stain them up before I rudely disturbed him. I now believe they go from velvet to stripping in a day and then colour up over the next week on the local vegetation. He was close enough, as he crashed away, to show me the biggest Sika rack I had ever seen! I didn’t get much sleep the following nights thinking about him.
The Sika rut really kicks off around mid-April so I set off for a week of solo hunting back into my favourite red beech gullies, while Emma worked hard towards graduation at Police college. I set up my fly camp high above the red beech gullies on a flat bench nestled in amongst the mountain beech. For the first couple of days, I battled the westerly gale that blew nonstop, testing the strength of my Huntech fly to the max! I purposely kept away from the hot spot, not wanting to scent it up, and proceeded to hunt further to the north. Dejected, I returned each day having only spooked the odd deer and getting squealed at in the near gale winds! The third morning rolled around and to my delight, it was cold, still, and frosty!
After a couple of hot brews made from the warmth of my sleeping bag, I gathered the gear I required and jammed it all into my polar fleece Huntech day bag. This gear was relatively new to the market back then, and was the bee’s knees!! Polar fleece was changing the hunting world at the time and my mother was very handy with the sewing machine, running up home-crafted jackets! It was the beginning of the end for the old wool Swanndri that had served me so well for over ten years. I had purchased it from one of the local farm outlets for the huge price of $50.00 while still a butcher’s apprentice! That was a lot of money for a lad starting out on $82.50 a week!!
I was soon pushing down my simple hand-cut hunting track in my rubber Bullers towards the hotspot, always hopeful the stags might start roaring! After sneaking down, I had a simple plan. I aimed to sit quietly for as long as it took (all day if necessary) in the hope a stag might pass my way. My previous Sika roars hadn’t produced much luck. I had covered many miles chasing my tail, as the stags would “he-haw” but never where I was. And I couldn’t call a stag in with my red stag imitations. I was seriously limited in experience, and to make matters worse, had missed a lovely 6 pointer the year before (another story).
I sat under the bush canopy peering down the pepperwood-dotted ridge while listening to the sounds of the birds, and the trickle of the creek far below. I was waiting for the sun to poke over the ridge above me and warm up the cold gullies. The odd “he-haw” away in the distance kept my focus and finally, around 9am, something caught my attention across the dark gut to my right!!
A movement amongst the pepperwoods transformed into the shape of a solid deer walking purposefully uphill!! I could see he was a stag from his steady gait, while his dark-stained antlers mostly blended in with the bush… I slowly closed the bolt of the vintage Swedish Mauser that I was cradling, before swinging it towards the moving deer. I found the centre of mass in my little Tasco bush scope and took up the slack on the trigger!
The boom in the gullies must have been very loud, but I don’t remember it as he went down in a heap. In a flash, much to my horror, he began rising to his feet again! I had worked the bolt without realising, and sent round number two his way, again dropping him a second time. He wasn’t quite done yet, so round number 3 was fired for insurance – all in under twenty seconds!
Up until this point, I hadn’t many notches on my belt, with my best Sika being a scrubby little six, along with a handful of hinds, and a spiker thrown in for good measure. I sat there looking across the gut trying to take in what I had just done, with round number 4 locked and loaded just in case… (I think my Carl Gustav Swedish Mauser held about four 139g bullets in the mag).
Although the adrenaline had run its course, my mind was still racing at this turn of events! I had just shot my first rutting stag and had a lot to process! I couldn’t take my eyes off the spot in case he vanished. I finally stood up, grabbed my pack and dropped down a game trail into the gut, crossing through some mud and ferns, before climbing up another steep trail on the other side.
Once you smell a rutting Sika stag it will be with your senses forever – a powerful mixture of bush and wild animal musk. I located him easily enough and just stood there for a moment taking it all in, not yet believing I had finally knocked one over. I had put in years of bush hunting to arrive at this point, with the rutting stags always making a fool of me, as I learned my craft.
His body looked well-conditioned with a glossy coat but his head was slightly twisted, with his rack only showing one side. I mentally counted down from the top, noting 4 strong tines! Just the fact that he had a top was amazing as I hadn’t been able to see that when he was striding up the ridge! I finally grabbed some bone and carefully untwisted his antlers that were stuck in the rich earth to reveal matching tines on the other side! I was truly stunned at this point, not really believing I had finally shot an 8 point Sika stag! This after deer stalking for ten long years, bashing around in the Ruahine bush. Red deer were low in numbers thanks to the helicopter pressure being applied at the time.
This was my holy grail… Sika deer in the bush are the masters of the universe, and I had struggled like crazy, roar after roar, trying to locate them, let alone shoot one. They really were ghosts that I couldn’t locate in their environment. Most trips I would return dejected after being squealed at time and time again…
I remember just sitting down and admiring the stag for quite some time before I realised I had to make some choices! I eventually set up the camera – propped up on the day pack for a little extra height, and clicked off a few lucky shots using the timer before deciding to half cape him out.
Max Motley, our local taxidermist and my mentor, had drummed into me about taking enough cape off an animal if I ever got lucky on a good stag, so I set to skinning him out with my butchery skills, up to his last joint in his neck. Backsteaks and hindquarters were accounted for, giving me a decent load to take across to my track.
I raced back up to camp, piling everything under the tent fly in my hurry to get going, as I knew I would return for it in 24 hours. I took my empty 90L pack back down to my prize! By now it was around lunchtime and I slogged out under a heavy load before driving like crazy back to Havelock North to Max’s place. Here Max cast his eyes on my trophy and declared him worth mounting, much to my delight. My continual harassment of this master taxidermist had this achieved only a few months later, and he was finally hung with pride on my wall!
Not much later, a wise, old deerstalker expressed to me that I should enjoy the stag for what he was, as I was unlikely to get a better one. Eight point Sika stags are few and far between, and for those interested in the Douglas Score, he measured a respectable 160 (NZ record book standard is 170DS).