Winter Tahr NewbiesBy Simon Gillice
- 29th Jul, 2020 Jul 29, 2020, 1:20 PM
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I paused for a breather after stumbling through the snow made softer by the sunny day and brought out the binos for a quick glass back from where I’d come. Tahr! And only 400 metres away - they had climbed out of a scrubby gut that dropped off the main spur.
The sun had already edged below the mountains and the temperature had started to drop but I was confident I could get back to the hut in the dark from where they were so the stalk was on!
I was sneaking up to my shooting position when remembered a valuable hunting lesson - animals can turn up almost anywhere in that magic hour before dark.
“My father and I had often discussed a winter South Island trip after tahr, mainly for their skins, and this was the year we made it happen..”
I glanced out to my right and was surprised to see a bull tahr looking straight at me from about 80 metres away! I slowly loaded a round into my .260 Rem and lined him up - it was a tricky shot as he was facing directly away from me, looking back over his shoulder. It needed to be a neck or head shot and from an awkward half fallen-through-the-snow position!
At the shot he dived into the scrub... a clean miss - I should have taken more time but I kept thinking he wasn’t going to stand there forever! A lost opportunity on a relatively easy bull tahr - luckily though not my only opportunity this trip.
My father and I had often discussed a winter South Island trip after tahr, mainly for their skins, and this was the year we made it happen. Some research and a few phone calls later and we had decided on a spot in South Westland.
Plans were made, ferry and helicopter rides were booked and we started looking at the gear we would need. A winter tahr trip meant snow, ice and steep hills. I invested in an ice axe and some crampons and then started practicing with them on the slopes of Mt Egmont and Mt Ruapehu.
“Advice was received and maps marked up with likely places and access routes. The weather forecast was looking great and the following morning James Scott flew us in on a beautiful, clear winter’s day.”
Unfortunately I couldn’t get onto an alpine course with the tramping club before the trip but that didn’t stop me teaching myself to walk in crampons and use the ice axe. I must admit to feeling a bit silly sliding down a snow slope practicing self-arrest techniques!
Soon enough though, Dad and I were driving south with enough gear for a week in the hills. On the way we caught up with a mate in Greymouth who had spent some time where we were going.
Advice was received and maps marked up with likely places and access routes. The weather forecast was looking great and the following morning James Scott flew us in on a beautiful, clear winter’s day.
That first afternoon when I missed my shot at the bull tahr, Dad and I had headed to separate vantage points to get the lay of the area and try and spot where the animals were this time of year. I had seen a few scattered animals but I soon learned that I wasn’t looking high enough.
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Dad however had seen a mob high up in some bluffs a bit further up the valley. The following morning we made plans to get up to them and explore the area.
We made our way up the main river early in the morning, frequently stopping to glass. I spotted a lone tahr about 800 metres up a side creek and pointed it out to Dad just as it disappeared.
The creek looked like it provided good access so we headed up it to where we’d last seen the animal. We stalked up with rifles at the ready in case we jumped him only to find nothing. Then we heard a tahr’s warning “sneeze” - obviously we’d been seen! We quickly spotted the mob on a ridge about 300 metres uphill and there was a bull with them.
I dropped my TwinNeedle Mollyme pack and using it with my ice ace got into a position to shoot. While I checked the distance with my rangefinder Dad confirmed that the bull would drop to a location we could get to.
The range was 290 metres at a 25° uphill angle - I know my .260 Rem needs 1MIL of elevation to be sighted in for 300 metres so I dialled that and came back 1 click to compensate for the angle. The bull dropped at the shot and slid down a small gut to stop about 100 metres above us.
Dad had spotted a younger bull in the mob and got set up on a rock for a shot with his .270 Win. With his 200m zero he held just above the spine and his tahr too dropped at the shot taking a spectacular free fall off the bluff to land in the snow and slide down to stop just a few metres from mine. Awesome!
What a fantastic day! Here we were in the spectacular South Westland mountains on a beautifully clear winter’s day and I had my first tahr, and on the first full day of our trip.
We took some photos, skinned the animals, and took some meat before making our way back down to the main river and the hut.
We had noticed a small group of chamois in the valley also and the next morning we spotted one up a side creek behind the hut. The creek provided reasonable access so we got our stuff together and made our way up.
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Once we got close we began stalking up the spur, stopping often to glass - tahr and chamois are pretty well camouflaged when they’re standing against rock or scrub. Dad was in front of me and just as he topped the rise he froze - chamois!
One chamois had turning into four, but at about 100 metres with all four looking right at us it was hard to get into a shooting position. I leant against the side of a rock with my forearms supported in the snow. Dad dug his feet into the snow and used his day pack to support the rifle.
Chamois are curious animals though and not having smelt us and not being sure what we were, they began making their way down the spur towards us!
We made sure to pick out a different animal each then waited for the right opportunity. “Standby... Standby... Fire”... BANG! This is a drill Dad taught me years ago and one we have used several times during our years of hunting.
At the shot Dad’s chamois dived over the side of the spur out of sight. Another one appeared and he shot that one as well which also disappeared. My first shot went over the top - in the excitement I forgot to aim low to account for the close shot and that my rifle was sighted in for 200 metres.
I cycled the bolt, aimed a little lower on the chest and squeezed. With this shot my chamois also dived out of sight but I could see snow kicking up where it fell and figured it was down for the count.
The chamois were on the spur across from us so we had to cross the gut to get to them. There had been a recent avalanche down through the gut and we weren’t keen to traverse it. We dropped below the avalanche zone, crossed over and climbed the spur to where the animals were.
It turned out to be an easier climb than we’d anticipated and we soon found our chamois. We dragged the animals together and got a few photos - another fantastic day in the mountains and I had my first chamois.
Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Although there were not high numbers of tahr there was almost always a few in sight of the hut to provide some entertainment. The weather was fantastic and the fire kept the hut warm. We’ll have to start planning next year’s trip now!
As a tahr hunting newbie, Simon learnt a few lessons for a winter trip:
- Crampons and an ice axe give you confidence on frozen snow and also on icy river beds. Take the time to learn how to use them properly though and practice the techniques before you need them in earnest.
- Glacial rivers are cold! Be careful crossing rocks you have previously walked on as any water you splash on them will soon turn to ice. Waders are an easy way to make sure you stay dry crossing rivers and they eliminate the risks of jumping from rock to rock. Leave them at your crossing point and pick them up when you’re ready to cross back.
- Learn your limits and appreciate that conditions can change quickly in our mountains. Pick your routes carefully and make sure you can get back the same way if you need to. If you think going up was scary, coming down the same way can be worse! Snow conditions can change throughout the day under the winter sun. Be careful in avalanche-prone areas particularly on sunny afternoons after fresh snow. If you can, do an alpine course with your local tramping club.
- Carry an emergency locator beacon - they aren’t too expensive these days, or hire one if you need to. I had a Garmin InReach with me which also allowed me to get weather updates and text my partner or the helicopter pilot.
- Tahr are generally up high even when you think there’s nothing for them to eat up there. Take the time to glass the scrub early in the morning however and in the late afternoon too because it’s likely there will be some animals lower down as well.
- Take the time to appreciate the scenery and enjoy your trip – let your binoculars do a lot of the walking for you. And make the effort to get your camera out often. While making a stalk you often forget the camera but chances are you won’t be going back for that photo.
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