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If you’re going to climb a mountain with a pack full of gear you might as well make the most of the day light while you’re up there. We reckoned that doing most of our hiking through the boring bits in the dark would give us more “prime time” in the better locations. We know the lay of the land up there so head lamps and a little help from the satellites would get us around OK.

Climbing the big spur with a heavy pack in the dark was surprisingly pleasant, being nice and cool and also blinding our ability to see how much further it was to the top. There was plenty of enthusiasm in the legs, because we were heading into some fantastic Canterbury red stag country in what should be the peak of the rut, late March.

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Our team of four hit the top saddle just as daylight poked through, we sidled around to a vantage point dropped our packs and pulled out the bino’s. We hadn’t been there 3 minutes when we heard the first stag roar for the season! A huge bellow floated up from the big gully below; if this was an advertisement then we were sure buying into it!

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Jonny and myself won the rock, paper, scissors and planned a direct line approach while TJ and Gareth checked another gully. The area we’d heard the stag roar was a mix of open tussock and scree with beech forest down below intertwined with low scrub on the sunny faces and grassy clearings in the creek bed. Wild pig country would be the best description. Jonny and I left our packs up high and dropped down a clear face to get low fast because the downhill breeze wasn’t that good for us and we hoped to cut around under the stag if possible. It kind of worked out OK, although I thought we’d spooked them and made a hash of it! A small mob of hinds appeared on the face opposite us running up the valley looking all freaked out. I gave out a roar and got an instant reply from just behind the hinds. We saw him pop out of the bush and trot along the same trail the girls had taken. His throat was swollen and he’d been wallowing, this stag was in rut mode and looked like he had just one thing in mind. He galloped across in front of us only 100 meters away and when I gave another roar he skidded to a halt, looked over and let out another bellow. The stag then proceeded to scrap the ground with his antlers while dousing his own belly and neck with pizel squirts. He made an easy target but was just a young 8 pointer with missing bay tines, it was great just to watch him getting all worked up. The hinds had settled down and tried to grab a quick bite to eat, but as the stag caught up to them they moved off into the beech forest with him eventually following.

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The day was moving on to non-prime time so we climbed back up to the packs and tramped around to another leading ridge where we had pre-decided to set up a fly camp. The other blokes turned up having spotted a couple of stags that they didn’t consider worth further investigation. The camp site was well chosen with some flat ground under big trees for tying off our flies. We were well sheltered from the nor-west but if a southerly hit we were going to feel the bite. There was a southerly in the forecast in a couple of days’ time and if it started to get nasty we were going to up sticks and bail out.

After lunch we did some hunting partner swapping and Gareth dragged me up a big ridge and into another spot up higher. By the time we got into a prominent spot for glassing it was getting into that prime time again. Down below us was a grassy clearing surrounded by beech forest and scrub, there were obvious dark muddy wallow patches and the binoculars confirmed there was a stag nearby. He was lying down right out in the open and there were a few hinds scattered about him happily grazing. The super zoom canon camera is a great tool to use in place of a spotting scope and by taking a photo and then zooming in digitally on the LCD screen it was easy to count the points and judge the length of a stag several hundred meters away. The sitting stag wasn’t what we were after in terms of a big trophy so we continued glassing elsewhere. The westerly wind was strong but I thought I could hear a faint roar from further up, so I focused my search in that area. It took a good half an hour but eventually we found the source of the noise. This stag was well above the bush line in a cold gully head that was sheltered from the wind. He was hard on the tail end of a hind that wasn’t totally keen so he was very occupied by the situation. It looked like he was just a 10 pointer but he sported strong tops and was a very fine looking beast. We hadn’t seen much else so I decided to launch a video attack on this stag before we ran out of light. I used a steep gut and a few hebe bushes to hide my approach and soon had climbed to within 170 meters. I rolled off some pics and video then decided to venture into open territory to see if I could get closer still. I was soon spotted and this put the deer on edge, so I gave out a roar. The stag wasn’t keen to reply but it held him around long enough to get some more good sequences on the camera. I reckon he was a stag I had filmed the previous roar and it is possible that he is an old boy and probably not getting any better in the antler department. Still we had no desire to take him out and he would make a good first stag for some lucky young hunter.

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The prime time was over for the day as darkness crept in so we made our way back over to the camp by head lamp. There was a bit of overnight rain from the west and there weren’t many stars out when the early alarm clock set off. Jonny and I planned a big day with lunches in our day packs and thoughts of big stags in faraway places. We were climbing again before day break and dropped over into a gully the other boys had already hunted. As day light kicked in we wasted no time in this area sidling down through the beech forest across the creek and around the other face to get into fresh country right on morning prime time. It took us a while to find anything and it seemed the rain had dulled down the rutting activity, but we did eventually spot some hinds and then heard a distant moan. This fella wasn’t that interested in roaring making it hard for us to pin point. We moved closer and eventually got our bino’s on him. Again out with the camera zoom spotting system and we soon figured that this was another 10 pointer in no danger from us.

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There seemed to be little else around so we climbed again to shift to the next gully head. As we hit the ridgeline fog rolled over us and completed hindered any spotting. We sat down out of the wind behind some rocks planning to wait it out and hope the fog would lift. That plan got too boring and the cold got the better of us so we risked spooking up the unseen gully by dropping through the fog. It was very rocky and bluffy in this area so it was no surprise that the next animals we saw were chamois. We watched a mob of does and kids wander around above us and then found a lone buck in some tall tussock. We spent plenty of time trying to judge his horns but he never gave us much of a peek and the glimpses we got didn’t seem like he was a monster, so it was back to the stag search.

It was a slow morning for the deer and all we found was a hind, yearling and a spiker. We flagged it and decided to climb back over the top ridge and drop well down into the creek near camp for the evening hunt.

The spot where we ended up was in the same big gully that we’d seen the first stag of the trip, just slightly further down and it started to feel like we were recycling the same ground. The evening prime time was soon upon us but not much had been seen or heard. Just a couple of hinds wandering through the occasional clearing and a scrubby stag and that was about it. There was a well-used small wallow just below us so we stayed put and hoped something might pop out eventually.

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In the last 45 minutes of light a mighty bellow erupted from the beech forest below! That sure woke us up and now the bino’s were scanning frantically trying to locate the beast. A few hundred meters away I saw a hind step out of the bush so kept my eye on her, but she only ventured out a few steps. Several minutes past before I realised that some of the branches were moving on the bush edge. Hang on, that’s not a branch, it’s the tips of some antlers! I got the camera on the spot and caught just a glimpse as the hind walked back into the cover taking her boyfriend with her. A glimpse was all we needed to get the blood pumping; this stag had a lot of points!

The afternoon breeze was still rising and the deer were out of view so we had a perfect opportunity to quickly close the gap and that’s exactly what we did. We could hear the stag roaring regularly as we raced down the open ground on the spur and took cover behind a fallen tree to set up an ambush. Our plan was that the deer would climb up through the beech and pop out just below us, but after 10 minutes of not even hearing the stag we started to think that might not happen. Then some funny noises from beside us in the long grass caught our attention. Had the stag got around below us and was he now walking right on top of us about to catch our scent? We focused on the sound of the grasses moving and suddenly a mob of little wild pigs popped out. They kept coming towards our dead tree until they were only a few meters away, then caught our scent and bolted in a mad dash back around the spur. We hoped the scoffing spooked pigs wouldn’t upset the deer and blow our stalk and it seemed like it was a now or never situation for us.

We broke away from the hide and followed the pig path around the face. As we moved around we started to hear the stag again. Yes he was still there! It was amazing how we couldn’t hear anything around the ridge considering he was only 200 meters away. We had no cover now, completely exposed so we walked forward very slowly with eyes scanning for any movement. The hind popped up 50 meters below, she was half pie on to us and started stomping around looking agitated. We stood dead still which was enough to hold her in confusion for several minutes. We knew the stag would be right on her tail so we just had to be patient and stay calm.

The tips of the antlers rose out behind a matagouri bush and Jonny was ready with the rifle, here we go! But the stag stopped and roared giving us no view of anything but the numerous antler tips. He stayed there for some time tantalising us with roars and flashing points. We didn’t dare to give a roar in case it had the opposite of the desired effect, which often does happen. We were stuck until the hind cleared off and she was looking more spooky by the second. Then she let out a bark and made her break trotting down under the stag and crossing out through a gut, she was out of here! I honestly thought that would be game over but the stag seemed to hang around still teasing us. Finally the big head turned and the antlers disappeared behind a huge boulder. This was our chance to close in again. We saw the stag briefly as he sidled along below us into thick low scrub, but he was on the move now so we just kept walking around above him hoping for a clear patch to get a shot away. We kept back so that we could only see the stags antler tops occasionally and followed along adjacent to the track he was taking, which to our surprize was a different route to that that the hind had gone.

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This was one of the most intense stalks I’d ever done and it was a great feeling to have the camera recording the events as they unfolded. We soon had a clear view down onto all the exits the stag could take if he continued in the same direction and a car sized boulder presented a decent rest for Jonny’s rifle. Only moments later the impressive stag walked into the clear moving away from us presenting a back on shot. Jonny wasted no time, but the hit was low and the stag jumped downhill! Luckily he was hit hard enough to stop and Jonny got a quick finisher in and the stag went down into some very thick scrub.

It was now very close to dark as we pushed our way down through the prickly matagouri to check out this stag up close. Jonny is not much of a “wahoo” type of bloke, but I did notice a bit of a grin as he pulled the 15 point rack free of the bush lawyer. A couple of pics, off with the head, a quick butcher of the best meat and the headlamps were back on to climb back up to camp for a well-earned raro and Kaweka stew.

TJ and Gareth had covered a lot of ground and seen several stags but none they wanted to shoot. That southerly was forecast for the next evening preceded by a strong nor-west, so we made a call to pack up camp very early to carry our packs back over the top ridge and hunt our way out through some fresh ground.

An hour by headlamp and we were back up on the high ridge. Jonny and I swapped our packs for day bags and headed for some steep gnarly rock and scree country, while the others dropped into separate gut taking their packs along with them. We used the darkness to sneak over the top and drop into the head of a likely basin then sat on a prominent outcrop while the sun came up. We soon heard a roar from way down below and the binoculars were into gear in the hope that the stag would be in the open above the forest cover. We eventually spotted him several hundred meters away and got half a look as he crossed over a saddle then dropped into some scrub. Plenty of length we thought so worth dropping down for closer inspection.

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We chose a rocky spur that jutted out in the basin just above the direction the stag was walking; the plan was to cut him off before our scent dropped into his path. It was a risky plan at best and things didn’t improve when half way down we spooked a mob of chamois who started running around scattering gravel and whistling at us! We sat and waited for them to move on, which took about half an hour. Some of them dropped down into the exact area the stag should have been which made us cringe a bit. The only good thing about the delay was that the nor-west wind started to kick in and rise up the face improving our approach on the stag.

Once on the outcrop we peered over looking and listening, but nothing seemed to be about. No surprise after all the changing scent and chamois running through, we conceded defeat and sat down for a break. Then Jonny reckoned he heard some rustling noises below us under the beech trees. A bit of loose gravel rolled from the same area and confirmed that there was something in there. We moved to a vantage point where we could watch the area but all went quiet. A movement and a hint of red/brown caught my eye 80 meters away so I zoomed in with camera and there was the stag lying down just inside the cover of the trees. We could only make out bits of the antlers as they swayed back and the stag let out a low moan. It was a real tease just watching the antler tips moving around and waiting for him to stand up. After about 20 minutes the stag quietly rose to his feet, paused and then stepped out into the open. What a well-conditioned stunning animal he was with massive brow and trey tines. Fortunately for him the antlers lacked tops and bay tines so we satisfied ourselves with some photos and video until he finally caught our scent and trotted away.

The morning prime time had worn out by now and that wind was really starting to get into gear so we climbed back out of the steep basin and enjoyed the fantastic view of the alps while crossing the top peaks. We spotted a few more chamois down in the rocks as we ate our lunch then dropped back down the scree slopes to the packs.

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The only work left to do was to trudge back down the spur and out to the ute. The rest of our team had chosen not to pull the trigger on anything and plenty of encounters with young stags promised a great future for the area. We had certainly hit the peak of the rut, bumped into plenty of animals and taken out a prime red stag. We’d put a lot of time into getting up early and covering the country in the dark. It was well worth the effort to make the most of some great mountain hunting during the prime time.