A Quest for Tahr and Free-Range Red Stag From a Wilderness Camp in New Zealand’s South Island
Written by: James Reed
New Zealand had long been on my list of destinations I wanted to hunt and visit. I was especially interested in a wilderness hunt for Tahr and Stag and booked one with Zion Pilgrim of Wilderness Quest New Zealand, timing it so that I would be early enough to catch the Red Stag Roar and yet late enough that the Tahr had their beautiful long winter coats.
I flew into Christchurch and was met by a driver arranged by Esplanade Travel and Tours. He gave me a tour of Christchurch and the surrounding hills and the area damaged by the recent earthquake, then delivered me to my hotel. The following morning, he picked me up again and took me to the train station to board the TranzAlpine train to Greymouth.
The train is fabulous with very nice luxury cars and an open air car for taking photos and enjoying the mountain air while traveling through stunning scenery and up over Arthur's Pass. The train ride takes about four hours and ends in Greymouth. There, Zion picked me up at the train station.
It was still midday when we reached Wilderness Quest’s comfortable lodge, so we grabbed some lunch and headed out for an afternoon hunt for Red Stag. There was Red Deer sign everywhere, but we didn’t spot any. A great Fallow Deer buck made an appearance and we saw several goats and wild sheep, but no stags. Toward dusk, we started back to the lodge and just after dark we did spot some Red Deer in our headlamps in a large clearing.
Back at the lodge, we enjoyed an excellent meal and checked the forecast. Rain was supposed to come during the night but the next few days looked very nice. We decided we should go up into the mountains for Tahr as soon as the weather cleared. The forecast was correct and we awoke to pouring rain, which lasted until about noon.
After lunch, Zion and I donned our rain gear and headed up the valley to where we had seen the Red Deer the evening before. We still-hunted up through some surrounding pines then settled in to watch the clearing until dark, but the deer never made an appearance.
The following morning, we gathered our gear and set out early to make the four-hour drive to meet our helicopter pilot, who would shuttle us up to our high-country Tahr camp. We arrived in late morning and were met by our pilot in short order. After a short but spectacular flight up into a remote mountain valley, we landed and unloaded our gear. With the chopper gone, we were able to enjoy the sheer beauty and solitude of this mountain paradise.
We scouted out a place to set up our tents, choosing a spot at the confluence of two streams. With the afternoon still ahead of us, we quickly set up camp, geared up, and headed out to glass. It wasn’t long before I spotted my first Tahr, a few females and kids. Not long afterward, Zion spotted a beautiful bull Tahr as it scaled a nearly vertical wall a mile distant and climbed out of the valley. Just before dark, we spotted a group of four bulls about a mile up at the head of the valley. Two of the bulls were obviously young but two looked very large and mature. We made a plan to strike out early and be in place at first light, overlooking the head of the valley where we last saw the bulls.
We cooked supper on a backpack stove under the brilliant stars with the Southern Cross hanging in the southern sky and Orion visible in the west. After a hot meal, we settled in for the evening to get ample rest for our push to the head of the valley in the early morning darkness.
Up at 4:30am, we ate a quick breakfast and headed out for our climb to the head of the valley where we hoped the four bulls had remained since we last saw them the night before. The going was tough, with only headlamps guiding the way through the dense, wet vegetation on the steep and aggravating climb. We finally broke, or more accurately fell, out of the thick tangle two hours later and just before daybreak. Zion had somehow expertly put us exactly where we hoped to be, overlooking the valley.
We began glassing at first light, but much to our disappointment there were no Tahr in sight. After checking all the hidden crevices and folds in the valley, we began our descent back to camp. Just as we reached the brush line, we heard a commotion and I looked up, only to see a big bull Tahr at fifteen yards, airborne and going straight away from us as he took one lead and disappeared into the dense brush. We stood and watched in every direction, hoping to catch another glimpse of him, but he was gone, swallowed up by the dense tangle of brush and ferns.
After making our way back to camp and with no other Tahr in sight, we decided to move camp over the ridge to an adjacent drainage. We got camp set up in late afternoon and set out to glass for the evening. In the fading light of dusk, a couple young bulls appeared from the brush and began feeding but as much as we glassed, no bigger bulls made an appearance. We were out again at dawn, but only the same two younger bulls were spotted.
Zion decided we should pack up camp and move a few drainages down the ridge. The bulls move to this higher country for the rut, but he felt they just hadn’t made it that high yet. Once camp was set again, we headed out for the late afternoon hunt. We made our way to a very steep drainage with a few rock outcroppings jutting out from the steep face, giving a good vantage point into the creek far below. Carefully making our way down onto one of the outcroppings, we sat down to glass. It was still afternoon when the shadows started darkening the bottom of the drainage. Not long afterward, Zion motioned me over to his position on the next rock point. He informed me he had just spotted a good bull Tahr in the creek below. I readied my rifle and crawled out onto the point. There was a very narrow V-shaped window through the brush on the edge of the cliff where we thought I might be able to rest the rifle and make a shot from.
I reached my narrow window and glassed the bull far below. My rangefinding binocular told me the distance to the bull was 346 yards, but to compensate for the steep downward angle to aim for 308. I placed a pack under my right arm and slid the rifle through the small opening in the brush. I dialed the turret on my scope appropriately and steadied for the shot. I had to shoot one-handed and hang onto the bush with my left hand. It was very solid, though, and I placed the cross hairs on the bull. He was facing away but due to the steep angle, I put the cross hair on his back, just right of his spine and just in front of his hindquarter. At the shot, the bull crumpled and slid into the creek below. I was completely oblivious to this fact, as the recoil had knocked my hat off and it fell directly over my eyes, obscuring whatever had happened below.
Zion exclaimed, “You got him! Great shot!”
We were elated that our hard work and persistence had paid off. The Tahr was a beautiful, mature bull with a nice full mane—a truly majestic mountain monarch.
After recovering the bull and getting back to camp, we decided it was still early enough that if our pilot could come, we would still be able to break camp and make it back to the lodge in time to hunt Red Stag in the morning. Zion called the pilot via satellite phone and was informed he was on his way. Camp was hurriedly broken down and we had everything ready when the chopper arrived. We reached the truck just before sunset and the lodge about midnight.
There was now only a day and a half to hunt for my stag. In the morning, we worked our way up the river valley. We hadn’t gone far when we spotted a stag. Putting the glasses on him, it was easy to see it was a young 3x3 stag, just not what we were looking for. Unfortunately, this young fellow was the only stag we spotted.
On the last morning of my hunt, Zion had to head up to Christchurch to pick up his next group of clients, so I went out with Josiah, one of his guides. We worked our way around the edge of the valley and soon spotted some hinds. There were five hinds we could see and two small stags. Josiah said, “There has to be a big stag there somewhere. Come on, big boy.” The words had hardly left his mouth when a big stag came charging out of the brush and chased off the small stags. He stopped, seemingly pleased with himself, and began raking a bush to display his dominance. I ranged him at 406 yards and realized there was no good way to close the distance.
Josiah said “Are you comfortable with that shot?”
This was my first hunt with my new Nosler Model 48 Patriot in 28 Nosler, and with the shooting I’d done prior to the hunt and with the rifle’s performance on the Tahr, I felt confident. I set up carefully for the shot and the report of the rifle was followed by the telltale whack of a hit. The stag entered the thick brush.
We reached the spot where the stag had been standing and found—nothing. No hair, no blood. Josiah went to where he thought the bull entered the brush and I kept circling, looking for any indication of a hit. There were so many tracks there was no way to distinguish one from another. After at least half an hour of circling the area and convincing myself I had missed, Josiah emerged from the brush. He motioned me over and said he had just heard something. We crept up a trail into the thick undergrowth. Nothing. We moved a few yards toward a drop-off where he thought he had heard the noise. Slowly peeking over, I saw hair.
Inching closer, I could see the stag was dead. He had expired but was hung up in brush, and I think what Josiah had heard was just some brush giving way from the weight of the dead stag.
After pulling him out of the tangle of brush and up onto a more level spot, we could see he was a really nice, mature stag. His rack was heavy with nice crowns on top of each antler. We were thrilled—we had managed to find an excellent free-range stag in the very last hours of my hunt.
The 175-grain Nosler Accubond LR had entered just in front of the stag’s hindquarter and was lodged just under the skin in his opposite front chest. He had gone less than seventy yards.
I spent the next few days traveling throughout the South Island, visiting beautiful spots. I hiked the Franz Josef Glacier, sat in hot pools, heli-hiked part of the Lord of the Rings Trail, took a 4x4 trip up into the mountains outside the picturesque town of Wanaka, and napped on the shores of the beautiful lake there. It was the perfect finish to a perfect first visit to New Zealand. I guarantee it won’t be my last.