Red Stag Down Under

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New Zealand Offers Unrivaled
Scenery And Big-Game Adventure.

By Dave Anderson

In the movie The Ghost and the Darkness a character says, “Africa is the last good place.” Well, I yield to no one in my love of Africa. But all things considered, a strong case can be made for New Zealand as the “last good place.”

This is presumptuous from one who has been in the country less than a month. But during a month touring the country with my wife, Simone, we’ve never had an unhappy moment, never met a person we wouldn’t want as a friend, all this and scenery ranging from spectacular to breathtaking.

Although this was primarily a sightseeing tour, I was interested in the hunting and rifle scene. The popularity of rifle models, cartridges, optics and custom features depends on the type of game hunted and environmental conditions. I’d like to provide a bit of insight into big-game hunting opportunities and conditions. We’ll go into details about the rifles in the future.

I had arranged to hunt red stag with Jeremy Hanaray, owner of Rivers to Ranges, a very well stocked hunting and fishing gear store. Jeremy also guides hunting and fishing clients. If this sounds like more than enough work, it is, but Jeremy is young, tough, tireless and, apparently, gets by without sleep,
Jeremy recently engaged Ben Munford, a young fellow with similar qualities of endurance, to guide red stag hunts on a recently leased property. Normally, clients go out with one or the other as a guide. As it happened, Jeremy had a cancellation so both Ben and Jeremy accompanied me, along with Simone, who took most of the photos.

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Ben Munford allowed Dave to use his stainless Remington 700 .300 WSM Leupold
VX-3 4.5-14×40 in Talley lightweight 1-piece rings and bases and McMillan
lightweight stock with a Harris bipod. The scope is protected from the
weather by Butler Creek scope caps. The one shot used was a handload
with 168-grain Barnes TTSX bullet. Through his gun store, Jeremy Hanaray
had the barrel fluted and shortened to 20 inches with a Hardy suppressor fitted.

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Dave set up the Remington 700 after stalking to a bit over 300 yards.
There was enough cover to get considerably closer, but this was a great
spot from which to shoot. Far enough away they wouldn’t alarm the stag
in the course of adjusting the Harris bipod legs, lasering the range,
dialing in the scope adjustment and chambering a cartridge. When Dave
was ready, Ben gave a call with his “roaring horn” to get the stag up.

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Dave shot this magnificent red stag, about 8 or 9 years old, with dark
antlers with one shot at a little more than 300 yards. When skinning him,
they found a badly bruised area on the ribcage from a fight with another
stag. Dave’s shot hit a bit lower than intended but since it went through
the heart, all was well. The hunting party consisted of Ben Mumford (left),
Jeremy Hanaray (center) and Dave.

Right At Home

We were out early and by dawn had climbed to an overlook to glass for game. The rolling wooded hills, similar to my favorite mule deer country, had me feeling at home. As did the rifle Ben kindly allowed me to use, which an American hunter would find familiar: a stainless Remington 700 in .300 WSM with a Leupold VX-3 4.5-14×40 scope in Talley lightweight 1-piece bases and rings in a McMillan lightweight synthetic stock ending in a Harris bipod. The cartridges in the magazine were handloads with 168-grain Barnes TTSX bullets.

Jeremy had put together the rifle for Ben, tuning the trigger to a beautifully crisp pull of about 2 pounds. The only unusual feature was the Hardy suppressor fitted to the fluted barrel. Suppressors in NZ are readily available without permits or fees, and their use is encouraged both to protect the shooter’s hearing and as a courtesy to the public.

A bit of backstory is called for here. When Europeans first arrived in New Zealand, there were virtually no mammalian species on the islands. Many species were introduced, including seven species of deer: red deer, sika, whitetail, elk (wapiti), sambar, rusa and fallow deer. Other species include chamois, tahr, feral goats and sheep.

With its mild climate and abundant rainfall, New Zealand produces a tremendous amount of grass. There are no natural predators. Introduced species thrive in this near-perfect environment. Far too well; in fact, keeping game populations down to a level where they don’t damage the environment is a daunting task.
The Kiwi hunter has free access to almost 21 million acres of public land. A license is required but it is free from the Dept. of Conservation. Hunters are encouraged to provide data to the DOC on game taken to help game biologists keep track of game numbers.

Night hunting is not allowed but otherwise there are no closed seasons and no bag limits (something to think about as you’re earning preference points for an elk hunt!). A New Zealander can legally hunt elk every day of the year and shoot 5 or 50 elk a day. Elk aren’t found everywhere so such numbers might be a bit unrealistic, just not illegal.

It isn’t all gravy. On public land, popular game animals such as red deer stag seldom live long enough to reach full potential. Imagine how rare big whitetail deer would be in North America if there were no closed seasons or bag limits. Big stags on public land are usually found only in the most rugged, hard-to-hunt land.

Realistically, for the non-resident, even for the resident hunter, the best chance of taking a trophy red stag is on private land. With controlled access and selective shooting, the landowner can give stags the chance to reach their potential. I was told stags generally reach their peak in terms of body and antler size at about age 8 or 9.

By then they have fought many battles, sired many offspring and passed on their good genetics. As they decline physically, younger and stronger stags displace them and they end up as cranky loners, living to maybe 13 years of age.

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On the hunt opener, the party parked the truck just inside a ranch gate and
proceeded on foot. Glassing from a high point, Jeremy Hanaray used a spotting
scope, and Dave used his beloved old Swarovski 8×30 SLC binocular, which has
now searched for game on four continents.

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Hunting fenced-in game raises some hackles, including my own. I prefer hunting animals having a chance to hide or escape. One look at the ranch set those concerns to rest. The Kyle ranch is several thousand acres of hills, ravines and tree cover. In such terrain, deer can run circles around you. Fortunately the “roar” (rut) was on, the stags were roaring, fighting, and gathering harems. Otherwise, we likely would never have even seen them.

The roar of red stags is one of the more thrilling sounds in nature. It really is a roar, not at all like the bugle of elk. We left the truck at the entrance to the ranch and hunted on foot by spot-and-stalk. Moving from one vantage point to another we saw two or three mature but young bulls, the kind best left alone to sire the next generation and grow to their full potential.

As the day progressed it brought a steady light rain. This didn’t affect visibility too much but it made for tricky footing while moving up or down, which means when moving at all. Level land is unusual in New Zealand, and it seems you are constantly either climbing or descending.

I thought the young 12-pointers would be pretty impressive animals and they were. But when the guides located a big old-timer, the difference was instantly apparent. Not only was he bigger in body but also had much heavier and darker antlers. He was about a 1/2-mile away. We watched until he decided to lie down, giving us an opportunity to slip down the hill and cut the range.

We likely could have gotten closer but a knoll gave a perfect shooting point at a bit over 300 yards. I had all the time in the world to deploy and adjust the bipod legs, set the scope’s elevation dial and chamber a round. When all was ready, Ben gave a roar on his “roaring horn,” bringing the stag to his feet for a perfect broadside shot. The crisp 2-pound trigger broke cleanly and the Barnes bullet, as we later found, went through the heart.

I’m no “tape measure” hunter. I’m happy to take an old animal, one who has made his contribution to the species, collecting memories, not trophy heads. But this one will have to go on the wall. I guessed his weight at about 350+ pounds. I was surprised when the guides estimated weight at 150 to 160, until I remembered they use kilograms (a kilogram is just over 2.2 pounds).

A New Zealand hunting rifle will almost inevitably be used in the rain, often in salt air. It will most likely be carried on foot over challenging terrain, used on game to the size of elk and called upon to handle both close and extended range shots. We’ll look at popular rifle choices next month.

Jeremy Hanaray
106 Nelson Street
Hastings, New Zealand
Phone: +64 6 8787177
www.jeremyhanarays.co.nz

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