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Pyke River Roar

By James Passmore

This is real deer country, right from the start of the bush edge. The walk is soft, the direction is constant, and you’re just looking and tuning in to being in the bush and carrying a rifle. The roar is here, and anything can happen.

 

I am carrying a Winchester 70 Featherweight in .30-06 which is a favourite of mine. I have not had it all that long but it’s quickly become a trusted friend and I take pleasure in its weight and balance as I walk. I lean under pepperwood branches and bush lawyer, and step over clutches of crown fern. This is not sneaking exactly, just moving through the trees. It’s thick in places, but I am following deer trails.

 

When I lose one I pick up another as they skirt windfall or thicker areas of bush. I am going the same place they are going and the trails mostly lead in one direction, from the clearing behind me to the hills ahead. Within this flat area that is crossed with game trails old and new, there will be a stag patrolling his territory.

 

The Pyke River is a favourite for jetboat hunters and helicopter fly-in trips and despite its remoteness can get crowded in April. It is one of the most beautiful of our hunting destinations - if you can catch the weather right.

 

Up the Pyke the hunting competition can be fierce. The jetboat hunters love it up here if they can get past the portage on the nearby Hollyford River. Apart from the jetboat brigade there are the parties who are dropped in by chopper, with their pallet loads of beer slung in nets underneath and even on one occasion, a generator.

 

Nearly every clearing will have a shooting party set up in it, and remote though it might be on the map, it is classic South Westland hunting territory, and to hunters in April as popular as New Year’s Eve.

 

I was lamenting this situation to Old Norman the possum trapper who spends weeks at a time bivvied up out this way. He gave me his take on it.

 

You have to beat them,” he told me. Norman already has a twelve-pointer down, shot late in March. A man who knows the value of a dollar, he’d already sold his antlers to a knife maker for $50 and was content.

 

“Up the Pyke the hunting competition can be fierce... remote though it might be on the map, it is classic South Westland hunting territory, and to hunters in April as popular as New Year’s Eve.”

 

I stop and decide to give a roar with my cow horn. A friend polished it up and it looks fine and I keep it on a leather strap which is fitting for a hunting tool. I have called in many stags with this horn and it is a talisman of some power to me. I wind up with a big breath and give a roar. It sounds whiney.

 

It does not sound like a big stag. I cringe and am about to follow it up with another effort when I get a blustering guttural roar from straight ahead of me and on my left. There is no breeze and the forest is still and his roar seems to ring in between the trees. I know he cannot be very far away.

 

The roar comes from over where I know there is a fine wallow. Every year it is a big mud pool with stagnant urinated-in water, stomped and churned up with deep slotted prints, raked with strokes of antler in the thick mud and imprinted with hair from a rolling rutting stag. The stink of wild stag will be as thick as a brewery. Right now he will be standing next to it, listening for me.

 

Norman Andrews demonstrates how he shot his twelve-pointer this year. Norman has trapped possums up the valley for years. His rifle is a Rossi break-action in .223 and the barrel has been cut down short. He’s taken many deer with it, including large-bodied stags.

 

I give another roar, shorter this time, and seem to have found my voice. I get a straight answer, a blasting challenge, and I am very heartened to hear he is coming in!

 

I let the horn drop off my shoulder out of the way of the rifle, crank the bolt half open, and without looking feel for the slick touch of brass with my finger. I slide the bolt home and close it, snicking the Winchester’s safety back halfway and leaving my thumb on it.

 

From a crouching position, I hold the barrel over the undergrowth and support the rifle with my elbow on my knee. But I have made a mistake - I don’t have a clear field of fire. You have to see him to shoot him and with the thick layers of pepperwood, punga and interlaced beech saplings surrounding me there’s a fair chance I’m not going to get a shot at all. This is a dumb mistake.

 

He roars again and I move straight towards him as quickly as I can, trying to make ground on him while he can’t hear me moving because of his own roar. He stops and I stop. I look around and see my position is not much improved.

 

Some rotten beech logs in front with sprouting secondary growth are covering the direction the stag is coming from. To the left is more thick beech that I can’t see through.

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To the right is a thicket of saplings, all straight boles, like a tiger’s stripes in dappled sunlight. I decide to go right. I try and insinuate myself into the thicket where visibility is marginally better, but I still can’t see very far. I can’t crouch down here, the bushes are too thick.

 

I give a roar, with the horn pointing behind me, hoping to deceive the stag into thinking I am further away than I am and at the same time giving him my new bearing.

 

I get no answer. I sit tight, wondering if I should move again. I hope the stag has big ears and gets my direction. I am preparing for a close encounter. I check the wind again and the world is utterly still.

 

“That night he roared again at midnight. I listen to him roar every half hour or so. He’s working the same circular beat around the clearing.”

 

A twig snaps in front of me. I knew he was closer than he sounded. I have a 150 grain Interlock bullet in the chamber and four more in the mag. I am looking for movement between the trees. I don’t like to roar too much more with the stag in so close.

 

I hear it now. Not really a sound, more of a feeling - the touch of leaves on hair as he passes under the forest. He is very close. I move the rifle and put my eye behind the Nitrex 1.5-5x scope. Even on three power the field of view is too narrow. I wind it back.

 

The bush is too thick, but there is nothing I can do about it now. I wait then bend slowly and pick up a beech twig. I deliberately crack it in two, and then snap another piece off with my fingers.

 

The stag was caught out in the open, roaring too late after dawn on a misty morning. The 150 grain Hornady Interlock bullet took him high in the shoulder and dropped him in his tracks.

 

I wait for a full minute and then I hear him again, moving from left to right in front of me, through crown fern, barely thirty metres away but still screened by the matted foliage. I catch a movement; a dark gingery body passes across a gap.

 

It is impossible to shoot through and I don’t even know which part of him I am looking at, but my heart leaps to see him finally. I settle the Winchester into my shoulder firmly and brace it against the thin trunk of a beech.

 

Suddenly he roars, a blasting thunder that nearly gives me a heart attack. Before he finishes I grab the roaring horn and give my best roar back at him, deliberately over lapping his. Silence follows. A full minute. Then two. I still haven’t moved. I have the rifle shouldered and it is getting heavy. I am forcing myself to exercise patience - the primary virtue of the hunter and something I have had to learn.

 

“Before he finishes I grab the roaring horn and give my best roar back at him, deliberately over lapping his. Silence follows. A full minute. Then two. I still haven’t moved. I have the rifle shouldered and it is getting heavy. I am forcing myself to exercise patience - the primary virtue of the hunter and something I have had to learn.”

 

A twig breaks softly away to my left. He has moved off again. I risk another roar and get nothing and somehow I know he is not as close any more. Ten minutes later I get a roar from away over towards the ridge. He has moved off two hundred metres, suspicious or wary of me. The suspense has wired me tight, and I never even got a good look at him. Except that antler I half saw.

 

That night it rains and I hope it washes my scent out of the bush. I meet some jetboaters on the sandy river edge and they have shot a small four pointer. They complain at the lack of stags roaring and I agree with them. The place has been shot to hell, I tell them, and they leave morosely. A necessary lie.

 

I leave the flat area of bush for a while and hunt other areas, losing myself in swamps, but come up with nothing for some long days of walking.

 

The next night it is clear and starry and the stag came out. He roared all night long. It was the same animal. I knew his roar. He roared till daylight, circling the clearing by my little camp. I listened to him, pin-pointing where he started from and noting that he finished in the same spot and disappeared into the bush at first light.

 

It rained again the next night after a grey, cold day and he did not make an appearance. I stalked the flat bush and saw nothing except fresh tracks, four fingers wide. I did not roar myself any more. I waited by his wallow, thick with the stink of rutting stag urine and wet hair. But nothing came by and all I achieved was to spook a hind on the walk back.

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I decided I would try for him in the clearing at dawn. If he roared all night again I would come out and wait at the spot where he entered the bush. If luck was with me and I could see him through the scope, or if he stayed out a few minutes too late and I had some shooting light, then there was a chance.

 

That night he roared again at midnight. I listen to him roar every half hour or so. He’s working the same circular beat around the clearing. A low mist has come in. Suddenly I feel alive as I realise the stag might stay out past dawn if it’s still foggy. It is the kind of mist that comes in on a still frosty night, lies over the clearings, and doesn’t burn off until the sun rises over the mountains.

 

“I decided I would try for him in the clearing at dawn. If he roared all night again I would come out and wait at the spot where he entered the bush. If luck was with me and I could see him through the scope, or if he stayed out a few minutes too late and I had some shooting light, then there was a chance.”

 

I awake an hour before it gets light and prepare myself. I make my way through the dark bush blindly and sit at the edge of the clearing for half an hour until the glow of dawn starts. The pale light seems directionless. Fog covers the long tussock grasses and visibility is down to fifty metres at best.

 

The stag has roared twice since I got there. Low aching moans. It is all I can do to stop myself from heading towards him in the dark now that I am in position and properly awake.

 

With the light I stand and begin to move towards the far bush edge where he had been roaring from two nights earlier and where I hope he will be heading again tonight. I stand surrounded by white mist on a field of tussock and listen to the stag roar again, close, no more than a hundred metres away.

 

Boiling the billy for some black tea and a break. The author handloads for his .30-06 - the rifle shoots 150 grain Hornady Interlocks or Nosler Ballistic Tips into an inch at a velocity of 2950fps with IMR4895 powder.

  

The big ears give her away; the thinner neck and slighter build. It is a hind. And there is a second one, head down in the tussock grass. The value of a good scope is apparent to me; neither animal can see me, and without the optics I couldn’t see them either, but through the Nitrex’s lenses the two hinds are dark silhouettes against the white mist.

 

Where is the stag? Another roar off to my right. The animals can’t see me I reason, and can’t scent me in the damp mist. I move through the tussock carefully, make up twenty metres and stop. I put the rifle to my eye again and scope the area where I judged the stag was roaring. Nothing. I pick up a hind again, the same one I guess, a suspicious one looking my way.

 

And then the stag walks into view, dark against the white mist. He has a thick neck and mane. I can’t make out his antlers properly but he looks majestic in the white light.

 

“Later, as the mist burnt off and another clear day began, I was far into the knife work - taking the back haunches and back steaks off that stag, trying not to cut myself with cold hands in that frosty clearing, happy in my work.”

 

I am breathing to one side of the rifle to prevent the rear scope lens fogging up in the cold. I aim straight at him offhand, and press the trigger on the Winchester. The trigger in the Model 70 is a beauty, with no creep and a clean snap as it releases - the report crashes in the still air, a shocking noise.

 

It took several minutes to find him. But then I spotted a dark antler poking up out of the tussock. Later, as the mist burnt off and another clear day began, I was far into the knife work - taking the back haunches and back steaks off that stag, trying not to cut myself with cold hands in that frosty clearing, happy in my work.

 

The stag had six tines on one side but only four on the other, making for a heavy timbered ten points. He was a good bush stag and I was not disappointed.

 

I had beaten the jetboaters at their own game, and later I decided, I would call in on Old Norm and drop him off a leg of venison.

 

James

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