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Sika Hunting Tips & Info: Southern Kaimanawas, Desert Rd, Sep 2019

By Nik Maxwell

It was on the 12th of April 1989 that my hunting career truly solidified and I can recall the events of that day almost as if it had just happened.


On a clear and calm autumn afternoon, Dad and I were positioned at the top of a steep open face looking west towards Mount Ruapehu. From our vantage point we had a commanding view of the open gully below us, as well as the bush face directly opposite.


HUNT SOUTH: The Southern most part of the Kaimanawas.


In my hands was Dad’s Mauser-actioned Parker Hale chambered in 6mm Remington. An accurate and mild shooting rifle. On the bush face across from us were a couple of small gaps in the bush. I vividly remember looking at them through what can only be described at the time as New Zealand’s ‘bread & butter’ scope, you guessed it, a Tasco 4x40!


“Even with my lack of experience, I immediately knew that it was on and this was my chance at my first deer.”


At that time, thoughts of the rifle set-up weren’t at the forefront of a 13-year old’s mind and there was absolutely no time for those thoughts to enter when through the scope a mature 8-point sika stag seemingly materialised into view! Even with my lack of experience, I immediately knew that it was on and this was my chance at my first deer.


I went into autopilot I guess and quickly and smoothly lined up for the shot while simultaneously uttering, “Don’t move Dad.” He hadn’t seen the deer and was looking the other way. I placed the reticle on the stag’s shoulder, steadied myself and squeezed off. Boom! The shot echoed, the stag took off downhill and I blurted out to Dad that I had just shot at a sika stag.


After a quick discussion, we took off down to the creek below and made our way up to where the stag had been standing at the time of the shot. As we neared the small clearing, I spotted a patch of fur in the scrub and moments later I was holding onto the antlers of my first deer – a true representation of a mature sika. It was the catalyst event that has culminated in a lifelong obsession with this magnificent species.


Moving forward 30 years, and despite many more trips along the Poled Route, it only recently dawned on me that I have never been back to that exact spot. I didn’t need to consider it one bit, my next trip simply had to be a return to where it all began.


Breakfast with the family and then on the road. A quick stop in Taupo to grab some Back Country meals and a BP coffee, next stop, the Southern Kaimanawas, Southern Access Route. Aptly named the ‘Poled Route’, this gentle track winds its way in between the Defence Force lands to the south and the private blocks to  the North.
In between these two areas there’s a small finger of public land that tapers down to just the track, which travels all the way to the Rangitikei River.


Vast tracts of scrub, tussock and blocks of bush make up the area and it is home to a small population of both sika and red deer. It is heavily hunted and the animals there are very wary. Unfortunately, quad bike riders have created a track right through to the end of the public land and the area is subjected to spotlighting on a regular basis. I’ve seen lights being flicked around on several occasions.


UNDER PRESSURE: Quad bike use over the years has added even more pressure to an already heavily hunted area.


Regardless, it’s an area of real significance to me and a place I’ll continue to hunt for as long as I can. I reached the carpark at midday. It was overcast with a gentle breeze. The first nudge over the hill takes just over an hour and is a pretty easy stroll.


The track was very well used with both quad and trail bike marks and ruts prevalent. Throw in some push bike wheel marks as well as some footprints and it had all the makings to be the most popular spot in sika country! By the time I had reached the first main valley, the cloud had begun to roll in. No matter, the weather forecast was supposed to be bang on...


I checked out the main campsite where both Scotty and I have spent many a night. Back then, it was just a small site with room for a couple of small tents. These days it is quite the camping area, with space for a dozen tents. Eager to move on, I began the small uphill track section through the bush towards the tops/tussock lands. It only takes about 15 minutes to get up onto the open stuff and from there it’s open all the way to the Rangitikei River.

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It was mid-afternoon by now and the sky had become much darker, no way! A short walk from the bush edge is a very cool little rocky high point that I’ve stopped at many times before. Time for a brew and a spell. As I looked further along the route, I spotted a couple of mountain bikers (carrying their bikes) making their way towards me. I packed up and pressed on, keen for a chat. They told me they had headed in during the morning and found the route to be about 50/50 between riding their bikes and carrying them. They’d enjoyed the scenery but were clear about it being a one-time trip! Bidding them farewell, I watched  as they shouldered their bikes.


At this point, I had less than a kilometre to travel to my predetermined camping spot. Unbelievably, it had begun to rain lightly, and I reluctantly chucked on my raincoat, this is ‘BS’ I thought to myself. Haha! It was short-lived however, easing off as quickly as it started.


My campsite put me right next to a sweet little gully that simply begged to hold a deer or two. There are no guarantees in hunting but sometimes, you just know... I set up the tent, had an early tea and dropped off over the side of the hill to glass the gully until dark.


With me was a Ruger American Hunter chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor which shoots Hornady Precision Hunter 143gr ELD-X factory ammo extremely accurately. Combine this with a Swarovski Z8 2-16x50 and I was well-equipped to bowl over an animal should the opportunity arise. And opportunity arise it did, well kind of. As the light faded a young sika stag emerged from cover at a touch over 210m away, sniffed the air, pawed the ground, stood proud for a second and then vanished.


All good, I was rapt just to have seen a deer to be honest. This trip was about acknowledging Dad’s efforts in my introduction into hunting. Anything else was a bonus. I wandered the 100m back to my tent, watched a movie (what can I say, I like tech!), and hit the sack.


Up well before daybreak to a stunning half-moon and a frosty clear sky, mint. Coffee, OSM and then straight over to the gully for a morning glass, it really doesn’t get much better. At the risk of repeating myself, camping on the deer’s doorstep is unbeatable. Tucked away in the shadow of the hillside, I spent the next couple of hours glassing in the hope that last night’s deer, or any other for that matter, might show up.


However, as the morning wore on, I began to get the feeling that it was going to be a no show from the sika. By 10am, the sun had filled and warmed the gully. No matter, I was keen to push on to the area where I had been some 30 years ago... It was only a quick jaunt over to the bush and down onto the open face where it all happened.


The steep clearing was notably more overgrown and appeared much smaller than I remembered. I scoured around trying to find the exact position I had taken the shot from, which I think I did. Sitting down and looking over at the bush across the gully, I located where the stag had been standing. It was not quite the ‘rocky outcrop’ that I thought it was, more of an opening through the bush canopy. None of that really mattered though.


I’ll admit right now, I had a wee bit of a moment. Sitting there and recalling the events of that amazing afternoon filled me with a sense of belonging to this special place. I sat on the clearing for over an hour, soaking up the sun and enjoying the view of Mount Ruapehu. Running parallel to the ridge the stag had been on was another gentle bush covered ridge that I decided to put a stalk on.


WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: Nik standing right on the spot where 30 years ago he shot his first deer.


Although it was now midday, there’s always a chance of putting up a deer when you’re bush stalking. The wind wasn’t particularly favourable, blowing in multiple directions. Often in situations like that I’ll stalk more quickly and, depending on the terrain, push to one of side of the ridge and hunt the slope. About halfway up I heard an animal crash off, sweet, an encounter! Nearing the top, I came across a nice little open terrace with a mature broadleaf tree right in the middle. There was a decent amount of fresh sign around and the couple of windfallen branches had been stripped bare.


I hung about for 30 minutes before heading up and out and back to my tent. It was only 2pm and I had a bit of time to pass until my afternoon glassing session. I opted for some chill time in the sun followed by an early dinner. Finally, my impatience got the better of me and I couldn’t help but think that I may as well be relaxing down at the glassing spot. The afternoon and evening went slowly until once again, right on dark, a sika stag emerged from cover. This time however, he was gone almost immediately. Cheeky bugger!


Oh well, it was just great to be seeing some game.


Another cracker morning and another chance to see if the resident stag would once again show. A couple of hours later and nothing, then just as the sun began to warm the gully, there he was. It was broad daylight now and I could see that he was a young stag, probably in his third year. Still sporting a thick winter coat, he looked on good condition. His antlers were small and spindly.

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“...just as the sun began to warm the gully, there he was. It was broad daylight now and I could see that he was a young stag, probably in his third year.”


As I fluffed about with the camera, he wandered over towards the creek and disappeared, again! I had to laugh. I’d seen him on three separate occasions for a total of about 1.5 minutes. I hung around for a little while longer before packing up the tent and heading back along the Poled Route to check out another mint little area for an evening glass. With heaps of daylight left I took my time walking back along the route. It was just so good to be back here, back where it had all begun.


Considering all that had been going on with NZ Guns & Hunting and the firearms community, I felt grounded once again. The last few months had been pretty hard going as both my wife Amanda and I had to make some tough decisions on both the future of the magazine and what was best for our family.


BUSH & TUSSOCK: Don’t be fooled by the easy looking country, you’’ll need to hunt smart for your deer.


I spent several hours soaking it all in and reminiscing on all the great trips that I’d experienced in the Southern Access Corridor over the last three decades. Time marched on and the afternoon rolled in. By now I was positioned up above a nice open face with a good view into the tussock and scrub filled valley below. A more perfect spot from which to locate an animal would be hard to find. It screamed deer! I found a sweet little spot to pitch the tent that was just inside the bush and literally seconds from my glassing position.


With about three hours to go before dark, I’d taken my coffee and Back Country with me so that I could settle in for the wait. It was a fantastic evening with just a light breeze coming in from the south. From my spot I ranged the furthest distance at 280m. The Ruger was dialled to both 100m and 200m so anything up to 300m was shootable.


However, the shadows grew longer, the light faded and just like that it was dark. No deer. Unperturbed, I headed back to the tent confident that tomorrow morning it would be all on.


The last day and another stunner. Man, I can’t remember the last time I’ve gotten four days of fine weather when hunting the Desert Road. I went straight over to where I had been the evening before and waited until it was light enough to use the binos. The Bushnell Forge 10x30s I am currently reviewing are a decent optic but the 30mm objective lenses are somewhat compromised in low light conditions.


Then, just before the sun hit the face a sika stag popped out of the beech. He was almost directly below me and just on 260m away. I swung the camera onto him immediately and captured about a minute of footage before he headed back into cover. Reviewing the footage, I could see he was a young stag with plenty of years to go.


SNEAKY SNEAKY: A young sika stag seen on the last morning of the hunt.


A couple of minutes later he re-appeared for a few more seconds, sniffed the air and then moved back into the safety of the bush. I hung around for another hour before packing up my gear and heading back. Satisfied with the hunt I thought that getting back home before the kids were in bed would be a nice change.


I’ve spent countless days hunting the Poled Route and been successful on several occasions. This trip, however, was one of the most satisfying and enjoyable hunts I’ve experienced since that truly memorable hunt 30 years ago.




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