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Sika Hunting Tips – Winter

As the roar has come to a close we now look at hunting Sika through the months of winter. Winter is in my opinion the hardest time of the year to hunt Sika, not only are animals hard to find, it is hard on the hunter too. I have found over the last decade that the best and most productive approach during winter is bush stalking, although other methods can be productive in certain habitats. Using a hut as a base for winter hunting can be luxurious and warm but will often mean more walking and with shorter days makes for less time hunting. The shortest day of the year falls on 21st of June for 2015, with the months of June, July and August arguably the hardest hunting of the year. It is for this reason I like to rough it camping where the animals are, therefore making the most of my time in the hills. If you are not into fly camping then day hunting from road ends, such as Clements Mill road in the Kaimanawas and Makahu road in the Kawekas can also produce results.

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With severe frosts and limited growth grass becomes scarce forcing Sika to move into the cover of the bush for both warmth and food. Like the rest of the year when spending time in the bush low altitude north facing slopes will generally have nutrient rich soils and receive the most sun, in turn creating greater levels of plant production and a supply of food to keep Sika going through the winter months. Studies have shown that the violet pouch fungus is a common part of the winter diet for Sika deer living in beech forest. It is no coincidence these areas are highly productive as generally the cold low pressure systems which are common in New Zealand winters tend to come from the South West, this will force animals onto the north facing slopes where they will shelter in small gullies often well below the ridgeline.  These small sheltered gullies tend to become the main wintering habitat for Sika. In saying this sika are a grazing animal, therefore periods of mild weather will see them venturing from the beech forest and Manuka thickets to feed on grass species such as Holcus lanatus (Yorkshire fog) and Poa cita (Silver tussock) found on river flats. If you have never ventured into a Manuka thicket I suggest you do, you will find they are riddled with sign, yet virtually impossible to stalk. This will help give an understanding as to where and how Sika live, these thickets will hold Sika year round as they provide warmth, shelter and food as well as being a safe haven from hunters due to the density of the vegetation. In areas such as the Kaweka front country, Manuka can be hunted year round as it occupies steeper terrain than that of the Kaimanawas This allows the hunter to gain elevation and glass into the scrub, this method is not all that productive as deer seem to sit tight sunning themselves which makes spotting them difficult. It also often requires the hunter to sit on the cold south facing terrain as to allow glassing of the north facing slopes, which is not always very  pleasant. 

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Sika are not fond of cold wind and will move around depending on weather patterns, they are more likely to be out and about with a northerly or easterly front in comparison to a Southerly or Westerly system. This is because a northerly fronts drag in warm air from the tropics, whereas a front from the south or west bring cold flows from the Sub-Antarctic causing the deer to hunker down in shelter. The nose and ears are the main defense mechanisms exhibited by deer and I believe the noise of wind and rain dulls these senses to a point that they no longer feel safe and therefore move off to either thick scrub or sheltered areas of terrain.

Wintering habitats are generally small and fairly obvious. Often there will be next to no sign in one area then all of a sudden you will bump into droppings and prints for Africa. Any area encountered during the winter months with vast amounts of fresh sign including beds, droppings and prints is worth focusing on and remembering for future hunts. These areas are usually not a band of sign like other times of the year instead they are small pockets that may take a lot of time to find. Slow right down when you do find them and if possible get the wind in your favor. Sika don’t move far during winter therefore chances are they will still be nearby. Local knowledge can be invaluable when it comes to hunting winter although a little time in the hills and knowledge on where and why Sika live in certain areas can help to avoid time spent in areas that are unproductive. I tend to spend my days hunting small side creeks rather than larger river systems and terraces as these areas are often shaded by the surrounding hills, while the side creeks are slightly steeper allowing sunlight to penetrate the canopy, I have often encountered animals in small patches of pepperwoods in these side creeks where they can sit in the sun and not be seen easily. Sunlight equals warmth and food. After periods of strong wind fresh leaves will drop to the forest floor. The deer will visit regular spots under palatable trees such as broadleaf and karaka to scoop up anything they can and you will often see many prints under such trees. A freshly fallen tree is a beacon for hungry deer, not only will they eat the younger beech leaves they will also find edible vines such as bush lawyer that have been pulled down. These hot spots are well worth a visit each time the weather calms down after a storm.

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Animals seem to be active within their chosen wintering grounds through the majority of the day, although movement peaks in the evening. I believe the shorter days result in animals feeding for longer, as food is scarce and harder to come by but needed in greater quantities to maintain health. Sika are a deer of relatively small stature and are prone to harsh environmental conditions. This is due to the surface area to volume ratio as discussed in earlier articles, in short this results in smaller animals needing more energy to keep warm. Sika actively exhibit behavioral adaptations to counter this heat lose, this includes seeking shelter, moving to lower areas of altitude as well as minimizing exposed surface areas. This is done by placing as much of the body as possible close to the ground. I have had many encounters where deer will be out of view bedded down, they hear you and stand up to assess the situation often providing an easy chance at a shot. This emphasizes the reasoning for moving very slow when bush stalking. 

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Sika stags can be vocal right through into the winter months and will still be well and truly in hard antler, I have personally heard them roaring in late June. Roaring is however usually sporadic and generally they won’t reply or engage in a roaring battle, therefore if you hear a stag during the winter months it is better to sneak in quickly and quietly using his roars to identify the location, although you may only hear him once or twice, but its worth a go.

I hope the series has been of some value. If you missed any of the articles flick back through the online magazine the first article was in Nov/Dec issue 2014 focusing on hunting in the spring, followed by an article in the Jan/Feb issue 2015 focusing on summer hunting. In the Mar/Apr issue 2015 there is an article focusing on the roar and now finally the last article focusing on arguably the hardest time of the year to hunt sika, thus being Winter.

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Summary:

Sheltered, low lying north facing gulley’s generally provide wintering habitat for Sika.

Sika don’t move around a lot during winter therefore if you find fresh sign focus on these areas.

Areas where sunlight penetrates the canopy equals warmth and food.

Sika can still be heard roaring into the winter months.

During periods of harsh weather sika will exhibit behavioral adaptations to counter heat loss, such as decreasing exposed surface area by bedding down.

Fly camping might be cold and harsh on the hunter but it also allows you to spend more time in optimal areas, given the low number of hours in the day.