The Kiwi connection: on the trail of fallow deer and red deer in the wilds of New Zealand.
But we didn't need to hear them to know they were there. With elk we call it bugling, with red stags, we call it roaring. Earlier in the day, we had searched for the right word for the sound these deer make, and finally John remembered the traditional term: groaning.
These were tallow deer, and the term is correct. Fallow deer in rut make a low, moaning, groan that sounds a whole lot like a hoarse bullfrog. I didn't know fallow deer made such a sound, nor did I know that they make scrapes that would frighten most whitetail bucks.
Although I've killed fallow deer in both North America and Europe, I haven't spent much time thinking about them. They are a particularly beautiful deer, about the size of a hefty whitetail, and they occur in dark, spotted and white color phases.
The bucks grow wonderful antlers that are distinctively palmated and extremely impressive, so it's no surprise that the fallow is probably the most-introduced and relocated game animal in the world. Fallow deer have been moved around at least since the days of the Roman Empire--to the extent that it is no longer clear exactly what their original range actually was (likely Asia Minor).
Our very own George Washington had some fallow deer on his Mount Vernon estate more than 200 years ago. Today fallow deer are standard fare on game ranches in many parts of the world, from Texas to Tasmania, from South Africa to Spain.
Unfortunately, they are almost always behind game fences. This was different. We were hunting New Zealand's South Island, where scattered populations of free-ranging fallow deer have roamed the hills for a century and more, sometimes coexisting with the much larger and more widespread red deer.
In this particular area there were almost no red deer, but fallow deer were the rancher's special passion. He looked after them, managed them and once in a while allowed someone to harvest one.
Despite low hunting pressure, the deer we had seen so far had seemed extremely spooky. We had covered quite a lot of ground, glassing from high points, and we had seen a lot of deer--does, spikes, young bucks. The two mature bucks we had seen gave us just a quick glimpse before dashing into a deep canyon a half-mile away. Rancher Rit Shenley had saved this valley for last light, knowing it held several mature bucks.
Man, was he right. As it grew dark, we were surrounded by perhaps a dozen bucks, groaning from all directions. We didn't see them all, hut we spotted several drifting through the thick brush and watched two nice bucks fighting just 100 yards off to our left.
Then we got a glimpse of what seemed a genuine monster with incredible palmation. I fingered the rifle for just a moment, but by then it was too dark for a certain shot. This evening was mostly for looking anyway, and I didn't want to end it too soon; it was the most exciting evening I have ever spent hunting deer.
The next morning was cool and damp; low clouds hung over the hills. Our "groaning valley" was clearly the right place, so our goal was to work it carefully and gently and try to get a better look at the resident bucks. We started at our same lookout and quickly glassed several deer far up the valley. We dropped around to the back side of the ridge and hiked up it, then crossed back over at the head of the valley.
This was a different view altogether, and we quickly spotted several deer. A couple of bucks looked pretty good, but not as good as we'd seen the night before. Then I saw him.
He was standing in a patch of heavy cover far down and across the valley, his coat so dark that he appeared black. His antlers were exceptionally heavy, forming a box from the front and, from the side, showing tremendous and almost perfect palmation.
New Zealand fallow deer are rarely exceptional; this one was. John Berry, a native New Zealander who has hunted there all his life, was impressed. Rit, who knew what he had on his ranch, agreed that this was one of his older bucks--although maybe not his best. I figured he was plenty good enough.
We could see that he was tending a scrape and had thrashed several of the bushes in his little grove, so he would probably be stationary. The trick was how to get close enough without spooking him, and given the surrounding cover, our only option was to work closer and shoot across.
Unfortunately, our hillside fell off into low heather, not nearly enough cover for a stalk. We debated for quite a while, completely stuck, and then nature intervened. One of the low clouds moved up the valley, hiding first the buck and then us in a thick, white blanket.
John and i quickly left the hill, moving as directly as we could toward the buck. We knew that if we moved too low, the brush would hide the buck, but if we stayed too high, we would still have a long shot--and, once the fog lifted, repositioning would be almost impossible. We moved down a bit more and found a little bench with some bushes stout enough to offer a rest Then we waited.
About an hour passed before the clouds began to lift, and we began to gather details of the scene. I could see the black earth at the scrape and the yellow of rubbed branches, but the buck had seemingly vanished.
John found him before I did; he was bedded behind a thick bush. His body was completely shielded, but we could see parts of his antlers and, occasionally, his nose came clear when he turned his head to the side. The shot was perhaps a bit short of 300 yards, and sooner or later he would have to stand up.
Another hour passed, along with a few more scudding clouds. Mist turned to cold rain, and the buck finally stood up. He moved to the scrape, as we thought he would, and stood facing us.
"Wait until he turns broadside," John said. I agreed.
A wallaby came bouncing down the far side of the canyon, spooking some deer. Our buck streaked out of his cover and headed up the far hill. My heart sank, but then Ire stopped a little way up the ridge.
I shot him as carefully as I could, knew I'd rushed the shot, but we heard the bullet hit. He ran down the hill and stopped, and I shot him again--much more carefully this time. Then we walked down to admire him, and he was every bit as beautiful as we'd thought.
I guess you could say that wonderful fallow deer was sort of a bonus. I had actually come to New Zealand to hunt free-range red stags. That little tag line "free range" is an important distinction.
Red stag and several other animals were introduced into New Zealand generations ago. With perfect habitat and an absence of parasites and predators, red stags flourished. By the end of World War II, several of New Zealand's introduced animals--especially the red deer--had increased to plague numbers. There was a ready market for venison, especially in Europe, so market hunting got underway, encouraged by a government concerned about the long-term damage the non-native animals were doing to the habitat.
In the 1960s and '70s, helicopter gunning became the method of choice and, before long, free-range red deer numbers were greatly reduced. At the same time, many ranchers turned to deer farming as a more efficient means of producing venison (and antler velvet) for a ready market.
These two circumstances meant that not only were free-ranging deer scarce, there was a lot less unfenced ground to hunt them on. There is a whole lot of really great hunting on big, rough pieces of ground that just happen to be fenced--and, after many years of selective breeding, antler quality is far better on fenced estates than on what remains of open deer range. I have done this kind of hunting on other trips to New Zealand and will again--but this time I wanted to hunt what South Pacific hunters call "wild and free" deer.
John Berry (WWW.HUNTNZSAFARIS.COM) assured me that a decent wild and free stag could be obtained around the end of March or early April--but only then, when the stags were roaring.
Hunting red deer during the rut is an awesome experience on New Zealand's well-managed, fenced estates. In the early mornings and late evenings (and sometimes all day), stags are roaring everywhere, and it's just a matter of time before the right one shows. It is not the same with free-ranging red deer. They are less plentiful, spookier and much more nocturnal.
John took me to a system of high ridges, deep canyons and broad valleys in the central part of the South Island, as good a place as he knew. We finished up the day's hunt on a ridge overlooking a huge alfalfa field. After a little while, a stray eddy carried our scent into a brushy draw right below us, and a half-dozen deer boiled out, including one spike stag (the Kiwis call them "spikers").
I figured this was a terrible thing, but they weren't spooked badly. They stamped and milled for a bit, then drifted across the field and joined some other hinds in the far corner.
By sunset we had watched more than 20 deer drift out of the hills and onto the alfalfa, but that one spiker was still the only male. With very little light remaining, another small stag came over a saddle above the far comet and yet another stag followed him, silhouetted for just a moment. This one looked good. He was clearly bigger in the body, and although it was far too dark to count points, he had thick beams and an exceptionally wide spread.
He was also clearly dominant, stopping often to roar his challenge as he worked his way toward the field. It was just too late; shooting light would be long gone before we could close the gap, and even if we could, it was too late to be certain of his antlers. We listened to him for a while, then slipped back the way we had come.
With that enticing alfalfa and plenty of hinds (females), just maybe he would be there in the morning.
It was still dark when we resumed our position on the ridge. Gray light came slowly, impeded by a thin fog that reminded me of hunting these same deer in the hills of Scotland. As visibility slowly increased, things didn't look good; we had left more than 25 deer in the field the night before, and now it appeared empty. It sounded empty, too--no roaring.
Then, finally, we made out just a few dark forms in the farthest corner of the field. As the light grew, we made out wide, thick antlers on one of them, but we had to move fast because the females were going to disappear into the hills soon, and the stag would surely follow them.
We backed off and circled quickly into a low draw that led into the field. Our first look was at about 350 yards. The stag was still there, maybe 20 yards from the edge of the field. I was tempted to take the shot there, but now John had plenty of confidence that the stag would stand.
We wriggled forward another hundred yards or so. The stag was still there, and he looked good--not great but good, with long beams and points and a lovely wide spread.
John nodded, saying, "We might do better, but I doubt it."
I eased my daypack onto a slight rise, rested the rifle over it, and was almost set when John whispered, "He's going--better take the shot."
The stag had turned, and in moments would be headed for high country. But in turning he had offered a good broadside presentation. The crosshairs centered on his shoulder, and the rifle went off, the sound of the bullet hitting carrying back clearly.
The heavy stag rocked with the impact, then ran a few yards farther into the field and stood. I was sure of the first shot, but not sure enough. The .300 H&H roared once more, and the stag dropped.
It was a perfect morning in those perfect New Zealand hills, and part of what made it so good was that several mornings remained before I would have to leave them.