Island of Dreams
March 10, 2016
If bowhunters had the power to create the perfect adventure destination from scratch, I'm not sure we could improve on New Zealand's breathtaking South Island.
From its towering, rugged mountain peaks and thick, tangled forests to its rolling, emerald-green hillsides and wave-worn beaches, the South Island is a magical place that truly defies description with mere words such as majestic, pristine and awe-inspiring.
Add in a plethora of exotic game species such as red stags, fallow deer, tahr, chamois and curly-horned wild rams and it is easy to see why New Zealand has earned a reputation as an archer's paradise. And as if all that weren't enough, consider that New Zealand has no non-human predators and no big-game hunting regulations, which mean opportunities are limited only by your available time and budget.
Simply put, the South Island is a place where bowhunting fantasies become reality.
It's Worth the Trip
My March red stag hunt was several years in the making. I first met Outfitter Phil Wilson of NZ Hunt at the 2012 Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade (SHOT) Show in Las Vegas, striking up a casual conversation as I passed his booth in the exhibit hall. An accomplished hunter with more than 30 years of guiding experience, Phil is a founding member of the New Zealand Professional Hunting Guides Association and the only master guide in New Zealand recognized by Safari Club International. Phil was also a pioneer in developing New Zealand hunting adventures tailored specifically for North American bowhunters.
Of course, I didn't know all that back in 2012, but I couldn't help but be mesmerized by the gaudy antlers atop the stag mounts at Phil's booth, and I listened intently as he described the spot-and-stalk techniques that make it possible to take such amazing trophies with archery gear. By the time that first conversation was over, Phil had planted the seeds of a bowhunting dream that took root in my mind, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I'd be bound for Kiwi Country.
For a variety of logistical reasons, it took until this year before I was able to make the hunt happen with help from colleague Mike Carney, host of Bowhunter TV on Sportsman Channel, and special guest Justin Tuck, a star defensive end for the Oakland Raiders. Accompanied by a pair of cameramen, our plan was to pursue red stags and whatever other game we could find while gathering magazine and TV material.
In the weeks leading up to the hunt, I shared my excitement with many friends and family members. And virtually all of them responded with some version of, "Wow, that's a long way from home!"
Well, there's no denying it. New Zealand is far, particularly for those who live on the East Coast. It is about 9,100 miles from my Pennsylvania home to the area where I hunted. To get there, I took a six-hour flight from New York to San Francisco, where I rendezvoused with Mike and Justin. We then took a 12-hour flight from San Francisco to Auckland (New Zealand's largest city) on the North Island, where we cleared customs and took a final, 90-minute flight from Auckland to Christchurch on the South Island. After retrieving our luggage in Christchurch, we were met by Phil's daughter, Danielle, who drove us two and a half hours to our lodge, the Richlyn Park Bed & Breakfast just outside the village of Geraldine.
All told, you will devote a full, 24-hour day to travel on each end of your hunt, more or less, depending on your point of origin. In spite of the length of the trip, it is quite manageable because of the long flights between California and New Zealand are conducted overnight, allowing plenty of sleep prior to arrival. I was also impressed with the free meals, wine and extensive entertainment offerings provided by Air New Zealand, making typical U.S. airline service seem like something out of the Soviet era.
Honestly, we didn't feel very tired upon our arrival in hunting camp. And even if we had, so what? The only way to hunt New Zealand is to make the trip. Trust me, you'll be glad you did!
In All Its Glory
The flight from Auckland to Christchurch offered our first real glimpse of the expansive New Zealand landscape, and our excitement level for the hunt soared as high as our jet as we gazed down at mountain summits jutting through the clouds and miles of bucolic countryside just waiting to be explored.
Perhaps the biggest reason this island nation remains so pristine is because it's so uncrowded. The former British colony has a land area roughly equivalent to the United Kingdom, yet with a population of just 4.5 million it has roughly 16 times fewer people. And though, at 58,084 square miles, the South Island is the larger of the two main islands comprising New Zealand, it is home to just 23 percent of the population!
Not surprisingly, Kiwis demonstrate an obvious pride in their nation's natural treasures, as evidenced in large ways, such as strict environmental regulations to prevent pollution, and smaller ways, such as the conspicuous absence of roadside litter. New Zealand is among the few truly unspoiled places I have ever seen, and I must confess to feeling a bit envious of my Kiwi bowhunting brethren.
But enough about the New Zealand landscape; we were there to hunt red stags a species every bit as majestic as the land they inhabit! Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons in New Zealand are exactly opposite what they are here at home. So, although we left home at the tail end of winter, we arrived for our hunt just as autumn was getting underway, with comfortable temperatures that generally ranged from the upper 30s to low 70s. The red stags were beginning to "roar" in anticipation of the coming rut, and we couldn't have timed our arrival any better!
Upon arriving in camp, we organized our gear, shot our bows to make sure they were still on target after the long journey, met with our guides and put a plan together. Mike, Justin and their cameramen would hunt stags in one area fairly close to our lodge, while I would go solo about 45 minutes away at Ribbonwood Station, an 18,000-acre working cattle ranch near the town of Omarama.
The Ribbonwood Station (station is the Kiwi word for ranch) property is absolutely spectacular, quickly rising from gently sloping cattle pastures along the Ahuriri River to elevations exceeding 5,000 feet in the famed Southern Alps mountain range. From vast expanses of open tussock to brush-choked river bottoms and dense stands of towering pines, there was more than enough hunting ground to explore, and I felt fortunate to have property owner Eric Bennett to guide me in my search for stags.
Like elk, red deer tend to spend evenings and nighttime hours feeding in lower, open areas. And by mid-morning, they will make their way to higher ground and spend much of the day bedded, typically in thick cover or on commanding vantage points.
So, bowhunting strategy generally involves setting up in places where you can ambush stags heading to higher ground in the mornings or coming down to feed in the evenings. When the stags are roaring, as they often were during our hunt, you can use their calls to adjust your location or simply slip in for a shot. And from mid-morning until late afternoon, it's all about glassing from high ground in search of a bull bedded where the terrain and wind direction make stalking within bow range possible.
As with any new adventure, I really didn't know what to expect. But I quickly realized opportunities would not be in short supply. Within minutes of arriving for our first morning hunt, Eric and I spotted our first two stags feeding in a cattle pasture. If you've never hunted red stags before, trust me; they all look huge, and the heavy, crowned tops of their antlers are enough to make any archer drool. In bowhunting, patience is a necessary virtue, but it was all I could do not to jump out of the truck and make a beeline straight for them!
Fortunately, Eric's cooler head prevailed, and we drove on before parking the truck and hiking to a vantage point where some quick glassing revealed a large group of hinds and several more good stags on a hillside above us. Clearly, there were plenty of red deer around; we just needed to make something happen.
Dream Come True
For the first three days of the hunt, despite my best efforts and many close calls, I remained stagless. But on day four, I broke my streak of bad luck with a score that opened the floodgates of good fortune.
Truthfully, had I not blown two golden opportunities, I would have realized my red stag dream several hours before I actually did. It all started at lunchtime. Eric and I were munching sandwiches on a high, grassy ridge when he spotted a great-looking stag bedded on a tussock flat about half a mile below us. The stag was bedded in a perfect position for a stalk, with a hillside we could get behind to close the distance while keeping the wind in our favor; a gift from the bowhunting gods!
We quickly slipped in against the hillside behind the stag's location. From there, Eric told me to take the lead, and I crouched low and then went to a belly crawl as I slowly inched my way along. After about 10 minutes of this, I finally got to a place where I could see the tips of the stag's antlers sticking up above the horizon. His body â€” and thus, his vision was completely obscured by a small dip in the terrain, and he had no idea were there. This is it, I thought to myself as I prepared to make my final move.
Slowly rising to my feet, I pulled my bowstring back to full draw and cautiously approached the stag. With each step, a bit more of its massive rack became visible, and I knew I was only a few paces from exposing myself.
"Get him up," I whispered to Eric, who was following several paces behind, video camera in hand.
With that, Eric made a soft mouth grunt. Nothing. Eric made a second, louder grunt. Nothing. A third, even louder grunt elicited still no reaction from the bedded stag as I continued to stand there at full draw, staring through my peep sight.
A couple more progressively louder grunts finally got the stag to its feet, but instead of pausing for the brief moment I needed to launch an arrow, the stag immediately broke into a run and galloped across a small draw. As the stag ran, I noticed a second, similarly huge stag rise and join it. We never even knew the second stag was there!
Still at full draw, adrenaline surged through my veins as I watched the two giants cover about 100 yards before stopping and staring back at us. I don't know what I was thinking or perhaps more accurately, I wasn't thinking but I put my 60-yard pin on one of the stags and released a harmless arrow that buried itself in the dirt well short of the mark. At that, the stags galloped up out of the draw and out of sight. I was crestfallen.
Did I mention patience is a bowhunting virtue? I was in a rush to "make it happen," and I made it happen all right! In hindsight, I would have been better served to simply sit down in sight of the stag and wait for it to stand on its own. Oh well, live and learn.
Later that afternoon, after we had moved down to lower ground in anticipation of the stags' evening arrival to feed in the lush cattle pastures, I had a similar opportunity when we spotted a lone stag raking a tree down by the river. After watching the stag for a while, it bedded down below the tree, presenting an opportunity to slip through a cattle crossing on the river and use the cut bank along the river to slip up within bow range.
As I crept along the cut bank and closed to within 100 yards of the tree, it felt like dejavu all over again. Slipping out of the riverbed onto the higher, grass-covered ground above, I belly crawled toward the tree until once again I had the antler tops of a trophy red stag in sight, roughly 40 yards away. This time, I was determined not to make the same mistake. So, I simply laid there and waited for the stag to stand before slowly coming to my knees and drawing at the same time. Despite my uncharacteristic display of patience, the result was the same the stag catching my movement and making a clean escape as I let down in frustration.
Thankfully, rutting activity was picking up and the quality of the hunting along with it. Some of the hinds in the local herd were getting close to estrous, and that was bringing what seemed like an endless stream of stags out of the high country and down into the open pasture where the hinds congregated to feed. Within minutes of the second failed stalk, Eric and I spotted a couple more stags traveling along the far side of the river, and we scrambled across some open pasture and tucked in behind a large willow tree just as the stags were crossing over to our side. The ambush worked perfectly, and I readied for a shot as the stags jumped a waist-high cattle fence and angled in our direction.
Settling in at full draw, I steadied my top pin on the chest of the larger of the two stags. Eric called out a range of 25 yards and I sent the Muzzy-tipped arrow on its way and watched as it disappeared into the stag's ruddy hide. At the hit, the stag lurched forward, spun, jumped back over the cattle fence and walked down toward the river before lying down. A couple minutes later, the stag laid its head down in the grass, allowing me to slip in and deliver a finishing arrow.
Dusk was settling in as I approached my stag and placed my hands around the thick, coffee-colored antlers that seemed fantastically large. Later, Phil would measure the 19-point rack at 373 inches SCI, easily making it the largest trophy I had ever taken.
By the time Eric made it to truck and returned with our gear, there was just enough light remaining to snap a few pictures, and I smiled as my muscles strained to hold the heavy rack upright while Eric clicked the shutter button and captured images of a dream come true.
On Top of the World
On most North American bowhunts, that would have been that. But one of the many great things about hunting in New Zealand is that taking multiple animals is more the rule than the exception. So, I headed back to Ribbonwood on the fifth day of the hunt in search of a trophy Pitt
Pitt Island Sheep are a type of Merino sheep and distant relatives of the better-known mouflon. Although their exact origin is unclear, they were known to inhabit Pitt Island some 480 miles east of the South Island since the early 1840s. By the 1970s, several thousand of them inhabited the 25 square-mile island, and flocks have since been established on the New Zealand mainland.
I had seen several bands of Pitt Island sheep while stag hunting and was intrigued by the opportunity to stalk them, as they are quite wily. Mature rams are impressive specimens indeed, with the curled horns on top trophies known to measure a full meter long. As an added bonus, I was given the opportunity to hunt solo, as Eric needed to move some of his cattle to a different pasture and Phil had to run into Christchurch on business. It's not very often you are given the run of a property during an outfitted hunt, and I definitely wanted to capitalize!
Given their preference for grazing in open areas, it didn't take long before I had located two bands of sheep along a creek at the bottom of long, narrow drainage flanked by steep hills on both sides. Dropping into the drainage from the western slope, the wind seemed steady in my favor. However, as I skirted the hillside to lower ground and approached the first band of sheep, I quickly realized there were shifting air currents in this part of the valley. By the time I reached the thick brush along the creek and attempted to slip in, I didn't realize I had already been busted. So, I was surprised to pop out of the bushes where I expected the sheep to be only to see them several hundred yards above me on the slope I had just descended.
From there, I decided to move north up the valley before ascending the eastern slope to the rim of the drainage, where I moved several hundred yards further north and glassed the other band of sheep below me. There were several rams I considered "shooters," along with a dozen or so younger rams and ewes. The wind had completely shifted directions from the other side of the valley and was blowing straight in my face. And with thick, tangled cover blanketing most of the ground between the sheep and I, I knew I had a decent chance of getting a shot if I could successfully navigate my way and pop out in the right spot.
Picking out one of the taller trees near the sheep as my landmark, I began a very steep descent through tangled vegetation, picking my way down until I reached the creek at the bottom of the valley. After boulder hopping my way across the water, I knew I was close and would have to be very careful from there on. Slowly creeping my way from bush to bush, I went another 100 yards or so when I spotted some ewes feeding just 30 yards out.
Immediately ducking back into cover, I dropped to my knees and belly crawled about 30 yards into thicker vegetation in an attempt to flank the herd. Coming to a small opening, I rose to my knees and peered out into a small, creekside meadow to my left where several mature rams were feeding. The closest of the rams were just 15 yards away and completely unaware of my presence.
I watched the rams feed for a couple minutes until one of the shooters fed into a position that presented a quartering away shot at less than 20 yards.
Crouching as low as possible behind a bush, I drew my bow before swiveling out from behind the cover and settling my top pin just behind the ram's wool-covered shoulder. The shot was perfect, and the ram's final sprint sent the entire herd racing up the far slope and out of sight.
Several minutes later, after getting my heart rate back to normal, I stepped out of the bushes and followed the ram's path around a bend in the creek only to find it laying belly up in the water, not 60 yards from where it had been shot.
After admiring the ram's impressive horns, I dragged the carcass out of the water and onto a nearby grassy knoll, where I snapped photos using my camera's self-timer.
Later, as I hiked back toward Eric's and the reality of the hunt soaked in, I couldn't help but acknowledge a certain irony in the fact that I had traveled nearly to the bottom of the globe only to find myself on top of the bowhunting world.
For more information about bowhunting New Zealand with NZ Hunt, visit www.newzealandhunting.com, call Outfitter Phil Wilson at 916-813-3006 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org