As a hunter, I’ve been blessed to be able to hunt elk in the Rocky Mountains for the last 30+ years with my bow. The elk rut in September is one of the most magical times of the year. The cool, crisp mornings, the high mountain peaks, the dark timber that holds the bugling bulls, it’s something very special. As I’ve hunted them over the years, I’ve always wondered what hunting red stag in New Zealand would be like. In my mind, it would be very similar. But I had never had the chance to experience it. That is, until May of 2016.
Our 12 hour overnight flight from San Francisco had us in Auckland the next morning. A short layover, a short 45 minute flight, and we arrived in Taupo. We were met at the airport by Mark McGlashan, head guide at Pornoui Hunting. As we took our short one hour ride to camp through the beautiful country side, Mark and I spoke about hunting these red stag with a bow. The roar was pretty much over by the time we had gotten to the north island, so he said that our hunt would be a little more challenging, but he felt good about our chances. Having the guide say this raised my confidence as well. After getting settled in, having a great dinner and meeting everyone, we got our gear ready for our hunt the next day. Tomorrow, we would be hunting red stag!
We started our hunt that following morning by finding a number of red stags in different parts of the ranch. As we glassed these animals, I was in awe of their size and agility. They moved across these steep hillsides with ease and grace. Reminded me of their cousins in the Rocky Mountains. With the rutting activity about over, my mind let some doubt creep in, and I knew this would be one challenging hunt. I could not call them in. The country side was rather open with scattered patches of timber. They definitely had the advantage.
That afternoon, we found 2 lone stags, both giants in my eyes. They were feeding down into a deep canyon, and Mark advised me to go around and get in front of them. I crept down the steep hill and set myself up by a dead log, trying to conceal myself as good as I possibly could. They started to feed up the other side, right towards me. The stags were getting closer, could see the tips of the antlers of one of the stags below me, at 80 yards. Seeing that giant regal crown on their heads, getting closer and closer, had my heart rate up. But they had a different plan, and decided to head lower than my ambush position. They crossed below me, out of bow range.
We found them an hour later, together, in the bottom of these deep canyon. I worked toward them and tried to cut the distance when they would look the other way. It was getting dark, so I really had nothing to lose. I suddenly (in my mind anyway), found myself at 50 yards from these 2 giants. They were calm, and feeding. I raised up, pulled my bow back and settled my pin on the stag that was broadside. My movement had caused them to notice my position and they were now alert. As I settle my pin and my breathing, I squeezed my release, and watched as my arrow made its way to this stag…..only to watch it sail over his back. As the stags took off, I stood there is disbelief, watching them crest the mountain and out of sight. A perfect chance blown by a poor shoot. Mark and my wife Joey were very encouraging, trying to boost my spirits on the way back to camp. I put on a good face, but inside, wondered if I had blown my one good chance.
The following morning, we found one of these stags an hour into our hunt. He had already bedded down in a small coulee towards the bottom of a big canyon. He was over a mile away, but we had the wind in our favor, so we elected to go in after him. We found a trail a little lower than his bedded position, and headed toward him, slowly and methodically. With the rolling hills, we were out of sight of him. Mark said he felt this stag would stay close to this spot if not spooked. Each step, my heart seemed to beat a little harder. On these long, slow stalks, focus is one thing that every hunter needs to control. Focus on the hunt, the stalk, your breathing, the wind, everything. When we got to the coulee where we hoped he still was, I started up after him alone. Mark thought this would give me the best chance, so I headed up slowly. I crept up, step at a time, trying not to make a sound. The wind was still in my face, so I knew he wouldn’t wind me. As I got to a spot where I thought I could see him, I knelt down and crawled. I got closer, inch at a time, and tried to control my breathing. I crept closer, and finally saw the points of the smaller stag through the tall grass. He was facing me, but hadn’t seen me yet. The bigger stag was bedded next to him, looking the other way. Again, I tried to control my breathing. My heart was beating as I slowly raised my range finder. 30 yards. Now, it was a waiting game. As I knelt there with the wind in my face, the tall grass concealing my, position, I waited. In these situations, a hunter never knows how long this wait will be. But I had worked hard to get to this spot, so I would wait all day if I had to. Waiting can either be a blessing or a curse. It give you time to get your emotions under control. It also gives you time to let your mind wander. Would the big stag present me with a shot? Would the wind switch and blow my cover? Would I be able to make the shot? I pushed these thoughts out of my mind, and waited.
After 30 minutes, they stood to begin their mid-morning feed. I was still on my knees, arrow knocked and raised up slowly and pulled my bow back. The big stag saw me, but I already had the pin on his chest…only to realize my arrow had somehow slipped under my rest. Yes, under! I let up, fixed the arrow and pulled back again, but by this time they were headed up over the hill without looking back. Two great opportunities blown! As an archery hunter, you know that shot opportunities are sometimes few and far between. I had two great opportunities in two days, and didn’t capitalize on either. I began to wonder if this would ever come together.
That afternoon, Mark said we should try and different part of the ranch. I was putting on a good face, being positive on the outside, but I think he knew my spirits were down. He thought a change of scenery would help and get my mind off the last two opportunities. We decided to head up to a higher vantage point and glass and see what we could find. It didn’t take long until we glassed up an incredible stag. He was by a clear cut, on the edge of the eucalyptus forest. He was only ¼ mile away, but the wind was all wrong. The only way to get to him would be to back track, head down the canyon and up through this trees.
My spirits and heart rate picked up and we hurried back down the hill and around the bottom of this canyon. We had a lot more cover than our previous stalks, but the walking was incredibly loud. But with the wind in our face, we had a fighting chance. As we headed up this steep, dark forest, every step sounded like we were stepping on rice crispies. The downed branches from the eucalyptus trees had us trying to avoid them with every step. I was sure the noise in each step would have the stag running for the next mountain. As we took this stalk step and a time, we hoped that he would still be there by the time we arrived. These stalks always seem to take forever. You want to get there as quickly as possible, but you can’t make mistakes that will blow it for you. Again, this is the time you have to maintain focus. This was growing more challenging, based on the 2 blown stalks earlier this hunt.
As we got closer to the top of the ridge, we scoured the trees for any sign of this stag. Seeing nothing, we kept moving up, one step at a time. The wind was still in our face, the walking was not nearly as loud, so we crept up this steep hill as slowly and stealthy as possible. After another 5 minutes, Mark and I saw him at the same time. He was up and feeding, 50 yards from us. I slowly knocked an arrow, and got in position. He was facing away, but he was relaxed. It was only a matter of time. He slowly moved from patch of green grass to patch of green grass, but never would offer an ethical shot. We waited. He fed to our left, but I couldn’t shoot through all the branches. He then started back towards us, when suddenly he fed directly away, over the ridge. He didn’t smell us, he didn’t see us, he just didn’t cooperate. I stood there in utter disbelief. We had executed this stalk to perfection. The wind stayed in our face, we never gave up our position to his ever roaming ears, and he never laid eyes on use. But yet, we came up empty handed.
We suddenly saw 2 smaller stags feeding through the trees right above us. These 2 stags passed above us at 25 yards, but I elected to pass, as they were immature animals and had years to grow. I came for an old monarch, and wanted to wait. As they fed to our right, we watched them until they were out of sight. As we watched them crest the ridge, we were shocked to see an enormous stag stand up from his bedding area. This was an absolute giant that had concealed himself this entire time. He was 45 yards away, broadside and I knew it was now or never. Once again, I settle my pin and my breathing, I squeezed my release, and watched as my arrow made its way to this stag. Time stood still. I thought of the missed shot, the blown stalks, the opportunities squandered. But this time, my arrow buried in his chest behind his front shoulder. As the stag ran off into the dark timber, Mark slapped me on the shoulder and said “great shot!” I felt it was as well.
We gave the stag 30 minutes and headed towards the last place we saw him in the dark timber. Again, we walked very slowly and methodically. The last thing we wanted to do was jump him and have him run off. After 5 minutes, I saw something I never thought I would…a fantastic red stag on the ground. As I made my way toward him, I couldn’t believe this was my stag. This was something I had dreamt about for years, and now, it was over. I put my hand on his regal crowns on the top of his rack, and felt sense of relief and humbleness. This had been an incredible hunt. It was more than I could ever imagine. All the blown stalks, the missed shots, the opportunities lost, it was all worth it. The stars aligned at just the right time.
This hunt with Poronui Hunting on the north island of New Zealand was more than I could have ever imagined. The lush rolling countryside, the majestic red stags roaming the hills, the beautiful eucalyptus forests, everything was incredible. Red stag hunting is a lot like hunting bull elk in the Rocky Mountains. A lot of close encounters, a lot of blown opportunities, but a hunt that will keep you coming back time and time again.