Big Stag for the Little Lady
By Larry Hatter
As featured in October 2015 edition of
Hunting Worldwide Magazine…..
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of life is that a single, seemingly insignificant, event can change its course in the blink of an eye. One chance meeting can send you down a path you never dreamed you’d follow. By some strange twist of fate, today was the culmination of one such occurrence for me. As I stepped off the Spirit of Queenstown, a fifty-foot vessel that sails the tranquil waters of Lake Wakatipu on New Zealand’s south island, the full measure of this phenomenon was apparent. Life had taken one of its unexpected detours and the culprit was busy hoisting her luggage onto the weathered, wooden-planked dock which led us across the beach to our cabin where we would be staying for the duration of our hunt.
On a good day Jessica stands five feet two inches. Her blonde hair, soft, hazel eyes and unassuming nature have a way of putting you immediately at ease. My wife has one great talent, however; she gets what she wants and somehow you think it’s your idea! As we unpacked, I watched as she donned a light camo jacket and tucked her camera beneath her arm. She tried to mask a triumphant grin as she scurried out the door into the cool autumn air that drifted off the lake, but it was unmistakable. At that moment I knew I had been outwitted once again!
I thought back six months when plans for this trip, halfway around the world, were in their infancy. Wait a minute, I do believe it was Jessica who first mentioned how good a red stag would look on the living room wall. She also seemed suspiciously intent on pointing out New Zealand’s close proximity to her best friend’s home in Townsville, Australia. The more I puzzled over it, the more I realized that this whole scheme had been concocted by the master planner and travel enthusiast herself! I have to admit I was suspect, but surprised, not remotely.
Throughout the afternoon we explored the ranch or “station”, as they are called down under, which lay quietly in the shadow of watchful Mount Nicholas. New Zealand is a land of transcendent beauty. Great, sprawling lakes wind their way through the Southern Alps, whose rugged peaks mystically shelter the land from the outside world. In many ways this isn’t far from reality. As distant and inaccessible as much of the country remains, its fertile soil and favorable grazing conditions make it perfect for sheep and cattle ranchers. Stations operate much the same today as they did more than a hundred years ago. Horses are still the main mode of transportation when bringing in the cattle herd. A typical muster, retrieving the cattle in from the high mountain pasture, can take as many as ten days to complete on the back of a surefooted mountain steed. A good working sheep dog holds an air of distinction in this land and rightfully so. Without them, work on the station would be infinitely harder. When you step onto a working ranch in the backcountry of New Zealand, it feels as if you’re taking a step back in time. Later, that evening, found us already fast asleep in our beds before darkness had completely enveloped the countryside. We were weary from thirty-six hours of travel.
Morning arrived with the smell of fresh ham and biscuits and while waiting for my guide, I was asked the most astonishing question. “May I come along today?” Jessica asked unassumingly. This was a shock to me; to my knowledge she had never hunted a day in her life. Of course I agreed, though I didn’t figure it to last much longer than the morning’s hunt anyway. After that, most assuredly, her days would be spent reading in the cabin or by the lake shore. She quickly laced up her hiking boots and with a spare pair of binoculars, donated by our guide Taz, we were soon headed up the mountain where we would spend the morning glassing for red deer.
A brisk half-hour walk up the slope of Mount Nicholas offered us a commanding view of the brush-choked valley floor. We settled into our perches and began the chore of scanning the grassy openings for any signs of life. I expected Jess to act more like a fish out of water, but she followed my example well and was soon combing the countryside for deer. It didn’t take long to find our first subject. A deep, bellowing roar rose from the darkest ravine and our first red stag walked into view. He was obviously engrossed in the throws of the mating season as was evident by his gaunt flanks and mud-stained hide. He was a very respectable stag, but being the first day, we elected to pass. The image of him proudly displaying his headgear in the bright morning sun would not be lost on us anytime soon and made a for a very special memory on Jessica’s first day afield.
Before long, lunch time was approaching and it was back to the cabin for a hot meal and a little rest before the evening hunt. The afternoon passed quickly and soon it was time to head for our mountain lookout once again. You can imagine my astonishment when I found my normally contented wife waiting anxiously at the cabin door. “So you think you’re going along tonight, do you?” I sarcastically asked. “Of course I am!” she replied with a confident smile. And so it was, from that moment on, she didn’t leave my side the rest of the hunt. Rain or shine she remained, vigilantly glassing for deer, stealthily sneaking through the thick brush and quietly listening for the telltail roar of our quarry. I didn’t want to tell her she was a natural; that would only make her that much harder to live with after this trip. I merely nodded my head in approval every time she would spot a stag moving through the thicket or fallow buck lazily strolling across the face of the ever-vigilant mountain.
As is usually the case, when sojourning in a mystical place without the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the brilliant southern sun was already beginning to set on our fourth evening of hunting. The shadow of Mount Nicholas had begun, once again, its march across the valley towards the slumbering lake. We had seen numerous red deer as well as fallow and even tahr on the distant alpine ridges, but had not connected with the stag that suited our fancy. Spotting game is not so much the challenge in New Zealand, it’s the incredibly dense stands of beech trees and thick brush that pose the greatest hurdle. Putting a good stalk on an animal through several hundred yards of tangled growth while keeping the wind in your favor results in failure more often than success.
I was busy was scanning a distant ravine that meandered up to an open knob when I spotted movement, so I alerted Taz and Jess. We all fixed our glasses on the form of a stag silhouetted in the thicket and waited patiently. As he stepped from his concealment we all took a collective gasp; this was the beast we had traveled so far for! It was apparent, even at a distance of well over eight hundred yards, that he was an exceptional animal. He was extremely heavy and carried multiple points on his crown; the only discussion necessary was how to make our stalk undetected.
The wind was in our favor, so it was decided we take a direct route to the stag’s position. A small berm, approximately 150 yards from his current position could afford us a shot opportunity and we could use the natural undergrowth to obscure our movements. Once we began our descent, the stalk progressed quickly. The wind was steadily in our faces and the brush did an admirable job of concealing mine and Taz’s movements and even did a better job hiding my petite hunting partner who was glued to my hip. Our only concern at this point was would the stag still be there when we arrived or will he have vanished?
The last thirty yards of our trek up the small embankment would be accomplished on our hands and knees. As we neared the crest, I first placed my pack and then rifle atop, daring not to show our faces before the moment of truth arrived. As we eased into view I was met squarely by the intense stare of the monarch; he had already pinpointed our position. There was no time for nerves, fortunately instinct took over. My cheek found its place on the comb of the 7mm Winchester Short Magnum and without a breath I cut loose a round, worked the bolt and sent a follow-up in hot pursuit. There was no need however, the old-timer took a few valiant steps forward before buckling and slumping to the ground.
I’ve spent many a speechless moment kneeling by trophies I didn’t deserve, but have been fortunate enough to take. It’s always a surreal experience, but this one took on a whole new meaning. As I looked on, my exuberant little wife marveling over four hundred and two inches of New Zealand red stag antlers, I realized our lives are an unmarked scroll and rarely do we control the stroke of the pen. Just like the seemingly innocent girl who cooked up a scheme that would become this great adventure.
If I hadn’t met her, I may never have seen this enchanted land halfway around the world.