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Gainful Unemployment in Chamois Country

By Cam Stokman

As I left my third job interview for the week my thoughts were on anything other than the potential job offers coming my way.

 

Being gainfully unemployed since returning from a guiding season in North America, the reality was starting to emerge that I needed a full-time job. Knowing this might well be my last opportunity for a bigger trip, I emailed my potential employers and told them I would be uncontactable for the next five days - I had red stags and chammy to hunt.

 

I hurried home, said my goodbyes, threw my pre-packed gear into the ute, grabbed enough Radix meals and muesli bars for five days, and hit the highway. After a few hours I arrived at the road-end, meeting a father and son heading out for a midweek stroll. After a few yarns and a bit of advice given about where they might find a handy meat animal, a nap in the ute was in order.

 

Premium chamois country.

 

The alarm woke me at 5am and after a quick breakfast I was on my way along the trail. This was my first solo trip since returning to New Zealand and I was looking forward to really challenging myself with a big loop planned at around 70kms.

 

The first day was supposed to be one of the hardest with a decent haul on the flats before a 1400m climb onto a nice set of tops. I finally broke the tops around 11am. The clouds were out to meet me with a slight drizzle to cool me off after the steep climb. I glassed deer almost straight away, a few hinds on the ridge I was climbing. They hung around, delaying the climb while I watched them feed over the ridge blocking my intended route.

 

“The alarm woke me at 5am and after a quick breakfast I was on my way along the trail. This was my first solo trip since returning to New Zealand and I was looking forward to really challenging myself with a big loop planned at around 70kms.”

 

While the path was blocked I noticed a brown spot behind some snow grass about 30 yards to my right and sure enough lifting my Leica’s to my face a yearling materialised. I watched these deer for about half an hour, spotting a few more on the far ridge.

 

Once my path cleared I continued up the ridge glassing a few more animals in the thin clag. Nothing of note with only one spiker among the hinds and their offspring.

 

This young red spiker unaware he was being watched from above.

 

After consulting the Topo on my phone and determining the prevailing wind direction I picked a likely looking face with a mix of scrub and slips. This would provide a good camping spot with a hanging basin and tarns on the lee side of the ridge.

 

At the camp site non-essential gear was dumped and a quick scramble up the face gave me a few hours of glassing. Disappointingly the first creature I glassed was another hunter sitting on the ridge I had intended heading down the next day.

 

Then as the light dimmed to my shock I spotted two stags hanging out 50 yards below the hunter. After a hasty inspection through the spotting scope I determined one to be a very promising young 12-pointer in velvet.

 

About half an hour later I made out the headlight of the hunter returning to camp without having fired a shot. I was a little relieved and wondered whether he had chosen to leave the stag or whether it had been out of his field of view?

 

Shelter is hard to find on the tops but at least the weather stayed calm.

 

First thing the following morning I packed up my fly, bivvy bag and sleeping bag and put boots to ground. I passed the hunter's camp which happened to be on the ridge I was planning on travelling up. A quick discussion with him as he made his breakfast led me to believe he had not seen the stags.

  

He complained about the lack of animals and that WARO must have been through recently. Not sure if this was just his poker face or not, I headed on my way. I stopped where he had been the night before, realizing that the ridge was so steep that he couldn’t have seen down the face through the scrub.

 

After a quick glass to no avail I continued, chuffed that the young stags had made it through another close call. Hopefully they would gain a few years on them. I set my sights on the far point where I could get into the kind of country I thought might hold a mature stag.

 

While the region had been hit recently by 1080 I hoped it would still be alright due to the large amount of food present at the time of the drop. Along the ridge I did notice an obvious decrease in deer numbers, however this is common when you're heading into mature stag country.

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Three deer carcasses - two stags and a hind on the ridgeline - told me a few deer had been taken out by poison but there was still plenty of fresh sign too.

 

With only two hinds spotted by the end of the day and feeling a bit disheartened, I made camp. The head of the valley still beckoned and the bonus of it being a chamois hot spot cheered me up. I ate a Radix and checked the forecast on the InReach.

 

“Hopefully they would gain a few years on them. I set my sights on the far point where I could get into the kind of country I thought might hold a mature stag.”

 

It was now supposed to rain the next two days and my five-day window had turned to three. Finding this out I re-pitched my fly to make it a bit more weather-tight and flipped my bivvy bag so my head was under the most cover.

 

After a poor sleep due to the light of the full moon shining through the fly, I woke to drizzle. As I looked out I saw nothing but the tops hunters’ enemy, thick clag. Damn I thought to myself. I cooked a quick breakfast and had a hot coffee before deciding it was time to explore.

 

The clag moved in, limiting long range visibility.

 

After an hour of trying to get below the clag and checking both sides of the divide I returned to camp as the rain worsened. With visibility down to around 30 yards I settled back into my sleeping bag, then realised that my old phone (containing my notes on hunting in this area) must have fallen out of my pocket while I was glassing.

 

It had to be residing somewhere on a ridge. The rain and clag continued until mid-morning the next day but as soon as it started to clear I was all packed up and heading towards the head of the valley.

 

Having been trapped under the fly for nearly 30 hours with minimal time out I was determined to get hunting and find some animals. Crossing the first peak I was rewarded with seven chamois, six does, and a kid. I watched them for half an hour before moving up the ridge and pushing them on ahead.

 

“After dropping down through a hanging basin on the offside of the ridge and spooking countless hares from the rockpiles I glanced up and saw an odd shape on the horizon.”

 

Not completely sure of me they sidled around the next peak. I decided to cut around the other side which required a somewhat more difficult climb but at least I wouldn’t be herding them through my new hunting country.

 

After dropping down through a hanging basin on the offside of the ridge and spooking countless hares from the rockpiles I glanced up and saw an odd shape on the horizon.

  

Pulling out the Leicas I was met by the image of a huge chamois buck. He was agitated, stomping his feet and turning his head, giving me a great view of his deep hooks and tall horns. His horns swept out wide which I've noticed on a few 10-inch plus bucks from this area.

 

Buck fever set in hard as I ranged him and tried to find a rest to take the shot from. He had run down the ridge and was standing in front of a rock 180 yards above me. Struggling to get settled with my Kimber 7mm-08 on its maiden voyage, I panicked.

 

Glassing the tops after a good climb up from the river flats.

 

Doing all the things you shouldn’t do I found a half-arsed rest as the buck moved closer to the ridge. I yanked the trigger and the rifle barked, the basin amplifying the noise.

 

The buck ran as the rocks below his hoofs exploded. He paused at 300 yards but realizing my rest was too poor I had to let him go and hoped he wouldn’t go too far. I kicked myself, knowing that if I had stayed still he likely would have come towards me as chamois are very curious. I knew I had blown what I now know would easily have been a 10.5 or 11-inch buck - the buck of my hunting career.

 

I realised he was long gone and the chances of finding him were slim. A bit dejected I continued around the peak to investigate the final basin before the head of the catchment. Coming around I ran into the does from earlier in the day and attempted to get as close as possible but I was clumsy crossing the boulders and the group took off across the open tussock tops.

 

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I sat and had lunch in view of the clearly disturbed chammy family watching me from around 400 yards. Once lunch was finished, I snuck over the final peak to check the head basin. Looking down into the pass to the West Coast I saw another solid buck.

 

He had a more typical horn shape, tall with deep hooks and fairly girthy. Looking at his coat he seemed in poor condition and of significant age but after about 30 minutes of glassing I decided he was the right animal to take. This time I set up a solid rest with the recent mishap fresh in my mind. I adjusted the zoom on the Swarovski Z5 to its fullest at 18x and dialled for 350 yards.

 

With an empty chamber the firing pin clicked as the reticle floated on the buck’s shoulder. After repeating this exercise five times I chambered a factory Norma 140 grain Ballistic Tip - the ammo I was using in my new rifle until velocities settled down and I could work up a handload.

 

Gaining some some height when hunting the tops gives the hunter the advantage.

 

The buck turned straight towards me, feeding with his head down. Comfortable with the shot I centered the reticle on his neck knowing the projectile would pass through his spine and into his chest. My finger snugged up on the trigger and I felt the Kimber recoil with a beautiful break from its trigger, like snapping a glass rod. The buck crumbled dead on the spot and rolled down the scree.

 

A few deep breaths later I gathered my gear, packed everything away and headed into the basin to collect my buck. Upon inspection he was a nice mature main divide buck with a small amount of horn rot starting on one side. Seeing this I figured he must have spent a lot more time of the Coast than here.

 

“Once lunch was finished, I snuck over the final peak to check the head basin. Looking down into the pass to the West Coast I saw another solid buck.”

 

Pulling a tape still in my pack from the guiding season I measured him up finding he went 10 ¼“ on his rotted side and a hair under 10” on his weak side. Absolutely stoked I set about getting a few photos of the him and the country he was taken in.

 

I took all the meat excluding his heart as it had taken the direct impact of the Nosler BT and wasn’t in an edible state. Setting back up to the ridge I made a quick stop to bone out the quarters to save some weight as I still had a lot more climbing to do.

 

Cam's large-bodied and mature chamois buck.

 

I had more than scented up the area and having a full pack I decided to bail off the tops and try to make it to a hut back down in the main valley. This ended up being a poor decision as the climb down proved nearly vertical and involved hanging on tight to the monkey scrub.

 

Once the bushline was reached things improved although the dry tops didn’t let on how wet and soft the bush still was. I took a few good slips and slides, but cursing the slope and wanting to ensure I was off it before dark, I pressed on.

 

On the way I found signs of a mature stag that had been living in the bush the last few months. Once I reached the bottom the hut was a mere 20-minute stroll through some nice open bush.

 

“In the morning and out of curiosity I decided to check how much distance I had covered on the trip. All up I had completed 84kms, including 2500m of elevation, with the final day racking up 32kms loaded with meat.”

 

At the hut I decided I had a few more hours of light left and I could make it back to the main river and hit a hiking track that would allow me to make it out in the dark easy enough. After a quick look at the hut and the hut book I hit the trail.

 

With half an hour to midnight I finally made it to the truck, cursing my underestimation of the distance. I went straight to sleep in the front seat. In the morning and out of curiosity I decided to check how much distance I had covered on the trip. All up I had completed 84kms, including 2500m of elevation, with the final day racking up 32kms loaded with meat.

 

As I drove home, I reflected on what had been a great trip with ups, downs, and a great physical challenge. It was one for the books - now I could go back happily to the realities of life and full time work.

 

Cam

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