Stag Party!

Stag Party!

Bowhunters who travel to New Zealand in March are guaranteed a roaring good time.

It sounded like rutting male lions roaring into the African night.

Intense. Powerful. Foreign.

I wondered if maybe we were too close.

Lots of smiles to go around. (Left to right) Matt Willis, founder/editor of New Zealand Bowhunting Magazine, Larry, myself, and guide Paul Rennie pose with my beautiful 14-point free-range stag.

Hunting buddy Larry D. Jones and I were getting roared on in full high-definition color and sound. The big New Zealand red stag stopped short of cresting the knoll above Larry and me. Only his antlers broke the skyline less than 10 yards away!

Watching through the viewfinder of the video camera, I was able to focus on the antlers but couldn't stop shaking. Then the stag belted out an ear-splitting roar, and after hearing something — probably our heartbeats — the stag took two cautious steps uphill until his big brown eyes cleared the bracken ferns.

It was over. He bolted, leaving us both trembling. It was one of the most exciting wildlife encounters of my life. And I wasn't even carrying a bow!

With almost a quarter century of elk hunting in my rearview mirror, I'd always dreamed of hunting roaring red stags. A trip to New Zealand became inevitable, and I started researching with two requirements in mind:

One, I did not want to hunt on high-fenced land, partly because larger stags command higher trophy fees. The concept of getting penalized financially for shooting something big doesn't set well with me.

Two, I preferred a small, family operation. I have nothing against big operations -- after all, they get big by doing a good job -- but, still, I wanted a more personal hunt.

My search led me to Gerald and Sue Telford's Fishing and Hunting Services. Everything about their operation sounded good, and their references were exemplary. So I booked the hunt for two bowhunters for late March, hopefully the peak of the roar. We hit it perfectly.

Larry and I would be videotaping the hunt for Bowhunter Magazine TV, trading off on camera and bow. Larry from Oregon, and I from North Dakota, met in San Francisco, where we boarded Air New Zealand for the 14-hour, 11,000-mile flight to Auckland, and from there we flew to picturesque Queens-town, on New Zealand's South Island.

Queenstown is a favorite destination for adventure junkies who ride jet boats, parasail over the town, bungee jump, skydive, kayak, mountain climb, ride dirt bikes in the mountains, and ski in the winter. The streets are lined with sidewalk cafes and quaint shops, and crime seems to be nonexistent. It's the perfect place to bring a spouse.

From there we took a shuttle to the village of Wanaka, where Gerald Telford met us. Our hunt would be headquartered at a beautiful bed-and-breakfast lodge, where we enjoyed some of the finest dining I've experienced on a hunting trip.

Our guides would be Paul Rennie, a Scotsman who knew the New Zealand terrain well, and Matt Willis, the founder and editor of Bowhunting New Zealand Magazine, a fledgling publication working to promote bowhunting.

The next morning, we loaded our gear and drove on the wrong side of the road (and wrong side of the car) past Lake Hawea and up a mountain trail. Although we would be hunting free-range stags, we had to drive through high-fenced deer farms along the main roads. Once beyond the fences, we found nothing but craggy wilderness. The elevation was only around 5,000 feet, but it was steep.

A craggy outcropping became our favorite glassing location. From this peak, Larry and I could see three bedded stags in three separate valleys. The only question was which one to stalk first

The red deer farms were valuable to our hunt. The farmed cows, or hinds, generally go into estrus a week or so ahead of the wild hinds. This drives the free-ranging stags crazy, and they spend the night pacing the fences. As the sun rises, the stags give up their futile pursuit and slip back into the wilderness to bed. That's where Larry and I hoped to arrange a meeting.

That first morning was spectacular. A warm sun bathed the steep mountains, carpeted with bright green bracken ferns and dotted with alder-like manuka trees. As we crept to the lip of the first canyon, I was stunned to see two stags — a big one and a monster — bolt for the distant mountains. I'd assumed free-range stags would be just average, but that assumption proved wrong.

When we reached the canyon edge, we saw another stag emerging from the shadows on the opposite slope. We'd been hunting less than 10 minutes and already had seen three trophy stags.

Our optimism swelled as the third stag bedded in a somewhat vulnerable spot. Matt and I took off on a stalk, Larry close behind with the camera. When I reached the last bit of cover, the fickle mountain wind backwashed into the draw, and the stag was up. I ranged the opposite bank at 35 yards and came to full draw, but the stag kept walking on stiff legs, and I could not risk a shot as he continued over the ridge. In my first hour of hunting I'd already had a close call on a big stag. Life was good!

We spent the rest of the day glassing and exploring. The valleys echoed with the roaring of stags, and as the sun settled on a mountain, three great stags climbed out of a deep canyon and walked single file on a ridgetop — a magnificent scene. We dubbed those stags The Three Kings. As we drove back through the deer farm and crested a hill, we could see The Three Kings on the horizon, silhouetted against a rising moon. It seemed ironic that we were inside the fence, and they were outside.

Back in "King" territorythe next morning, we hiked a wee bit — that's the Scottish influence — deeper into the wilderness and quickly bumped three stags. "We'd better be careful or we're going to blow these stags out of the area," Larry cautioned.

We all agreed, so we retreated to a vantage point to glass and shortly spotted a roaring stag coming out of a bottom. Unfortunately, he spotted us too and ran back toward the area we'd just come from. We tailed him carefully and watched as he bedded in a thick patch of ferns. The stalk was on.

Paul stayed high to keep an eye on the stag while the three of us circled a half-k

ilometer downwind to get level with the stag. A narrow deer trail through some noisy, burned-out manuka trees led us right to the edge of the bedding area.

With my hunt over, I spent a morning trying to get more photos of stags and was rewarded for my efforts as two big stags came within 50 yards.

The stag's antler tips were not visible in the tall ferns. Fortunately, I had taken time to study the scene and had noted a burned, black stick, 10 yards from the bedded stag. That stick told me we were 25 yards from the hidden trophy.

The strong wind was swirling unpredictably, and it took only about 15 minutes for the stag to get a snootful of us. Quickly he stood and nervously tried to determine the source of the odor. His crown of antlers began to glide above the ferns toward us.

I ranged an opening at 27 yards and nocked an arrow. Just a couple more steps...

Nope. The suspicious stag climbed out of the draw, getting his antlers tangled in the dead brush twice but never stopping. Consciously, I added yardage as the stag hurdled a downed branch and stopped broadside, looking directly at me.

A limb blocked most of his vitals, so I aimed tight behind his shoulder, straight up from the leg. The 10 yards I hurriedly added to my ranged distance was too much, and my arrow flew harmlessly over his shoulder.

With antlers clacking against manuka branches like a playing card on bicycle spokes, the stag crashed over the hill. I was despondent. This was an excellent free-range stag, and I'd blown my chance. Still, I was proud of that animal. He got himself out of a tight situation with cunning and nerve. He was, indeed, a wild red stag.

Over a lakeside lunch, we lamented my failure and then climbed back to our favorite vantage point to glass and listen. We had no time for pity. Before long, we spotted a good stag bedded on a dirt bank across a deep draw, and we heard another roaring from a hilltop above.

Apparently, the roaring stag got under the skin of the bedded one, because the bedded stag got up and wandered uphill to confront his tormentor. Partway up, however, he changed course and side-hilled toward the deer-farm fence, where a herd of 30 hinds stood seductively on the other side. They were his focus.

Just then, the hilltop stag roared and came running down the hill, chasing two wild hinds. He was considerably smaller, so we slipped up the hill to cut off the bigger stag. As we neared the fence, the captive hinds spooked, alerting the stag. He came looking for us, and when our eyes met, he bolted for the wilderness.

Here's when it came in real handy to be hunting with a call inventor. While watching through the viewfinder of the camera, Larry had the presence of mind to roar loudly with his mouth. His roar stopped the fleeing bull cold. With no time for ranging, I quickly put my 40-yard pin behind his shoulder and touched off an arrow. The animal dropped and rolled down the hill.

This beautiful 7x7 red stag culminated my longtime dream of hunting these magnificent animals. He was not huge, especially when compared to stags on high-fenced lands where careful breeding and supplemental feed produce true monsters. But he was larger than I had hoped for, and he was truly a wild, free-ranging stag. And this was only the second day of the hunt!

Now it was Larry's turn in front of the camera, mine behind. Larry hunts with a recurve bow and would need to get within 30 yards, which would be a challenge. Not only did the open terrain make stalking difficult, but the stags did not respond well to calling. Matt was an excellent caller, and Larry had it down pretty well, too, but the stags merely answered their roaring and stood their ground. Although the hinds mewed like cow elk, the bulls would not come to our mewing either. Stalking seemed the only option.

These stags became known as The Three Kings. At the conclusion of our first day, these stags stood on the outside of the high-fence farm while we drove through it. I cursed the presence of the fence — from a photographer's perspective!

Over the next two days, we glassed a number of quality stags and carried out numerous stalks. On some the stags smelled us, on others they chased after hinds, on still others we ran out of daylight. No matter where we went, we found roaring and bedded stags.

Sitting at our favorite glassing spot on the fifth day, we could see three separate stags bedded in the bracken ferns. Our only dilemma was which one to stalk first to avoid blowing out the others.

"We need to hatch a plan," Paul said. "You guys are far more experienced than any bowhunters we've had, so tell me how you want to do this."

"You guys keep glassing — Curt and I will go stalk," Larry promptly replied.

With that, we departed in hot pursuit and managed to stalk all three stags. Swirling winds blew our cover on two. The third stag stood for the shot, but at about 40 yards, he was outside Larry's shooting comfort zone. We ended the day watching several stags take turns flopping around in an unapproachable mountainside wallow. The sixth morning we hiked into a valley where Gerald had placed a Primos Double Bull blind 20 yards from a fresh wallow. The incessant roaring of a stag on a small knoll not 40 yards above the blind interrupted our walk in, which led to the close-range encounter at the beginning of this story. Another close call.

During two evenings we sat in a Primos Double Bull blind we'd placed along a wing fence. Two really good stags were bedded above us, and they came out both evenings and worked their way down to the fence. Unfortunately, they never came within recurve range of the blind, and Larry did not take a stag.

Once I had my stag, I became the cameraman for Larry. You'd better pack a lunch if you plan to keep up with Mr. Jones. He'll walk you into the dirt with very little effort, even at 65 years old!

Still, we'd had a great hunt. New Zealand is a gorgeous country with friendly people and endless potential for outdoor activities. Best of all, in places where the red stags run free and the roar is on, New Zealand throws a stag party no bowhunter would want to miss. Author's Notes: I used a Hoyt Vectrix at 70 lbs., FUSE Accessories, Carbon Express Maxima Hunter s

hafts with Bohning Blazer vanes, Rocky Mountain Blitz broadheads, Tru-Fire release, Nikon 10x42 Premier LX binoculars and Monarch 800 rangefinder, and Cabela's Microtex clothing in Advantage Timber.

Gerald and Sue Telford are great hosts with fabulous accommodations. Like most Kiwi outfitters, the Telfords charge trophy fees for the animals you kill. The Telfords also offer stag hunts on high-fenced lands, as well as high-country hunts for tahr and chamois. Gerald is an expert fly fishing guide. The nearby village of Wanaka offers plenty of activities for a nonhunting spouse or friend. Contact: Gerald and Sue Telford, Fishing and Hunting Services, PO Box 312, 79 Riverbank Road, Wanaka, New Zealand, 9343; 64-3-4439257; www.flyfishhunt.co.nz/.

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