All I can hear is my heart pounding in my chest, resonating into my head. My breathing is deep and shaky as I watch this huge figure emerge from the thick, wet scrub not ten yards away. Front on and roaring hard, the giant 14 point New Zealand wild red stag belts his violent vocal challenge at this cheeky intruder who dare enter his territory. The guttural roar is so loud at this range in the still, but cold, damp air, I can feel it throughout my entire body. Still not pinpointing exactly where my mock roar came from, the stag looks around hastily but does not lock in his target. Frustrated now, he takes his aggression out on a tall matagouri shrub, rubbing and thrashing it violently. I’m lying on the wet ground, crunched up in a human ball as small as an 85kg man can shrink, with recurve in hand, arrow nocked and pointed at the stag’s chest, ready to draw yet hoping for a better shot opportunity. He abruptly stops his war display and stares into my eyes. “Uh oh, he has spotted me,” raced through my mind… Impossible, I am completely camouflaged from tip to toe with a veil covering my eyes. Did I move my bow? Wind is good…what the…? Boom! He’s gone, just like that. I sat on the wet ground trying to work out what just happened, and how it happened so fast. This wasn’t to be the last time I had such a close encounter with these 350-pound ghosts of war.
Red deer can be found in many parts of the world these days, and there are some magnificent herds that can be hunted, but if you ask any hunter across the globe where the best place to hunt red stags is, I’m sure the answer will be the high country of New Zealand’s South Island. From the arrival flight descending over the Southern Alps on a clear day, until you actually step foot into your hunting grounds, you are always looking at the terrain for animals, and if you look hard enough you will see them! This place was designed to grow animals, with never ending folds of mountainous valleys, peaks, scrub, creeks and pastures; no wonder it boasts some of the world’s most spectacular hunting, and the red deer have made themselves quite at home. I am very fortunate to have made some great friends in NZ who have access to magnificent private land holding reds, so one of the highlights of my hunting calendar is the annual red hunt with the boys. Flying in to Dunedin and driving up the east coast eventually heading inland near Kaikoura, travel time from home to hunting is around 17 hours, but this goes by rather swiftly with the anticipation of what may lie ahead for us this year in ‘red skin’ country.
Hunting reds has been part of my hunting life since inception so I was not unfamiliar with them, or their habits. Having hunted them with rifle before moving on to the compound bow over the years, it seemed only natural to chase them now with my newfound passion — the recurve bow. After hunting with a compound bow for many years now, I was under the false impression that it would be an easy progression to pick up a recurve and hunt. Talk about frustration…months and months of not really getting anywhere, I made myself a promise that if I cannot group inside a small saucer plate sized target at twenty yards, I would not take on a living creature. I started with a cheaper 55-pound curve just to get the feel for it; I had no idea about tuning or even setting up the bow for that matter at this point. Then I progressed to slightly better 60-pound bow, one that I felt would ‘do the job’. After eight months of persisting I eventually shrunk my groups enough that I thought I was ready to hunt. Long story short, after a few wounded boars and a lost chital stag I knew it was time to do everything in my favour to increase my chance of success, and a massive part of this was to acquire a decent bow — along came my Stalker Coyote Recurve. What a game changer. I could shoot consistently at thirty yards now, and I had wrapped my head around bare shaft tuning and bow set up. So now, finally, I could go into the field with confidence.
With gear packed and my new best friend ‘curve’ in hand I set off into the hills after a roaring NZ red stag. I was still a little unsure of the damage such a weapon could inflict, as I hadn’t killed much with it to date, so I kept telling myself “If it’s not a perfect shot opportunity, just walk away, there will be another.” These days with the technology of compound bows, you can afford to take “most” shots and still have a quick, clean kill. I hadn’t yet convinced myself this was so with a 60-pound recurve. I’m one of those guys who need to see, or test things for myself to have a definite answer, and this is absolutely one of those things.
Hunting the same area the previous year, we had seen quite a few decent heads, and now having the advantage of knowing where they were, I headed straight to them. Day one had me up high just listening and glassing several average heads in the 8- to 10-point range, but no monsters yet. I did however tell myself that any stag is a good stag this year with the recurve, so any decent opportunity I am presented with, I will take. Late that afternoon, while sitting over a steep, grassy face with a well used wallow in some tight scrub, below came a lazy groan of a red stag warming up the vocal chords for the evening’s activities. Out of the scrub came a huge 8-pointer and not a young stag either. After a brief discussion with my hunting mate Scotty it was agreed that we had seen the same stag here last year, and knowing he won’t ever throw a better head I decided to put in a stalk. The stag was rounding up his harem and heading into an adjacent gully to our right. I decided to gain altitude to keep an eye on things, as it happens very quickly when the roaring game commences. No sooner had the stag entered the gully, when not one but now three stags started bellowing. Hmm, which one is which!? I managed a glimpse of the other two through some thick scrub as they raced around the slopes chasing hinds: a younger promising 11-pointer and a solid 12-pointer! “That’s a ripper of a stag,” whispered Scotty. “No s*!t,” I thought to myself.
We were on the hidden side of a sharp ridge peering over into the gully, so I thought I would try to roar out the big 12 for a chance at a shot. I let out a lazy but loud roar facing away from the stag. In less than thirty seconds I could hear a challenger crashing toward me roaring, but I didn’t know which one it was. I got ready for the shot, looking and waiting, then out of nowhere came bone tops…three on one side, can’t tell on the other! Then, not five yards from me stood a shaggy red body, panting and looking uphill; the younger 11-pointer, of course! I opted not to shoot. Even though I had recurve in hand and I wanted any stag, my herd management ethics kicked in and I let it live. I knew this perfect young stag would grow into something far better given the chance, not an easy call let me tell you.
Then, like it was some kind of mystic reward for my self-appointed good deed, a bunch of hinds trotted onto the ridge below me at around fifteen yards. I knew a stag would not be too far behind them, as the rut was in full swing right here and right now. I swung my body downhill low and slow until I had my bow pointed at the rear hind and ready to draw. Below to my right came the crashing of a stag in hot pursuit… now it was only a matter of seconds. I could see antler not twelve yards below me; three on one top, and three on the other, solid bone, yep it’s the big 12! Perhaps fate steered him, but he turned downhill away from me and reappeared twenty-five yards downhill walking head down, right to left, but broadside to me. I led him by staring at a spot at the front of his chest and released my arrow, perfect height! As I released, the stag stopped in his tracks, the arrow grazing the front of his chest. I was devastated. He didn’t jump the string; he just stopped walking and sniffed the ground. What an intro to recurve hunting reds. The next couple of days were spent playing similar cat and mouse type games with several close calls, but no decent shot opportunities (another story in itself). During one of our lunch breaks on the hill I noticed a stag pushing hinds up to a high peak to bed for the day on the far side of a valley. He was a cull or management head if you like; he had age but not a great head, something you don’t want breeding long term in such a great wild herd.
By now it was the last day of my five-day hunt, so I decided to have a crack at this stag high up in the nasty scrub where he held his harem captive. I waited until the same time of day I had spotted him previously, around 11 am. I knew it would take a good couple of hours to reach where I thought he would bed, which would put me there at prime snoozing time through that early to mid afternoon. I traveled light, knowing it would either happen quickly or not at all. The only other gear I carried was my electronic caller, in case I needed to ambush him.
I climbed, keeping the wind good, and gained a slight height advantage where I rested, waited, and listened. Not a peep. Downhill, not 100 yards away, was a perfect little grassy bench with top-of-the-world views. He must be there. I would be if I were him! Then, like a punch in the nose, that unmistakable stench of rutting red stag wafted toward me. I could almost taste it. I slowly nocked an arrow, expecting him to just pop out at any second, but nothing stirred. Raising my veil to completely conceal my face including my eyes, I inched my way toward the bedding area. Still nothing seen, and I’m only forty yards away, yet the smell was intense. I figured he must be just over the edge out of sight, but by now I expected to see a hind or at least antler tips…nothing. Twenty yards out and no visible sign of an animal…it’s getting way too tense, time for plan B.
I gave the lazy roar that had worked well so far, again pointing the roaring horn away from where I thought he might be. Then swiftly but quietly, I tucked myself into a shrub with just enough room to squat and draw perpendicular to a well used trail, his highway no doubt. I was no more than five yards from the trail. The stag erupted from nowhere inside twenty yards from me, roaring and stomping towards me. Now he was standing broadside five yards from me, panting and breathing like he was ready to fight! Holy crap… I can’t draw, he will see me for sure! He must have been bedded right under me, I just couldn’t see him.
It felt like forever holding the bow pointed at his vitals when suddenly he barked and jumped back. He saw movement, but what? I think it was the tip of the 62″ Stalker recurve at the fault of my nerves shaking like a dog. He bolted back down the trail and stopped at around thirty yards. I gave a quick hind call, he turned to look uphill…whack! I heard the reassuring sound of my 170 grain broadhead connecting with the point of his shoulder. I heard the crashing of timber and the roaring of a red stag, but amidst the confusion I wasn’t sure if it was a death groan or a fleeing roar.
I replayed the chaos that just unfolded, stood where I released, and thought hard about the shot. There was only a small shooting lane around two feet square, down through some thick growth. I remember seeing the shoulder–staring at it–and saying “anchor” for a split second before watching the pink fletching float toward my target. I sat down to regroup and wait, and listen. Nocking a second arrow, I slid on my butt toward where I had last seen the stag, and there was blood everywhere. I waited for the usual fifteen minutes on a supposed good shot, then inched toward where the crashing of timber was. It was steep, slippery ground with very thick cover, so if I didn’t make a good shot it would take a hell of a search party to locate him. But there he was, piled up in a shrub not ten yards from where he was hit, dead as can be. I was over the moon!
I seriously still cannot believe how effective the recurve was at that range: the arrow traveled through the shoulder blade, slicing both lungs before hitting a rib and completely destroying it, leaving an exit hole the size of my fist. Unbelievable damage. The Northern 170 grain Bull-Dozer was so sharp it was scary, which no doubt helped significantly, but the momentum was seriously impressive. I was using an Easton Axis 340 spine arrow cut at 29.5″ with a 75 grain brass insert to give a total arrow weight of 550 grains. Now normally I would be celebrating taking a big trophy, but this was a different celebration for me. I was solo, new recurve in hand, high up in a some thick horrible scrub, and I held it together well enough to take this stag with one clean shot, killing it almost instantly…that to me was the real trophy. I couldn’t give a rats if it was a 12- or a 2-pointer at this stage. All those months of practice and persistence had paid off. But really, it was the sheer determination to be a successful and responsible traditional hunter that made it happen. This marks the beginning of a whole new chapter in my hunting life, with so many adventures to be had with just my recurve in hand.