It was 18 months ago but feels like yesterday when, on the back end of a winter sika hunt, Troy vowed to me that we would be coming back to find a trophy fallow buck to add to his growing collection.
You see, Troy is one of those eccentrics who collects rabbit traps, barbed wire and whose obsessive behaviour has him wanting one or more of everything — and his fallow trophy collection was still lacking one from the Land of the Long White Cloud.
He had a previous chance of getting a nice black fallow buck with cool white feet that looked like socks, but, like most hunting experiences, that buck was never seen again.
Months later a follow-up email was sent to New Zealand to see what the upcoming rut was looking like, and the word on the ground was that it was going to be crap. With an unseasonably dry year, all the good fallow trophies had moved on and only some modest bucks (by New Zealand standard) were still around. Nothing worth the trip!
As the 2019 fallow rut came and went and the bucks found their place to hide during the winter months, we were told there were no real stand-outs — but Troy was still obsessed and keen.
Then, the jungle drums started banging.
We received word from my mate Ryan to confirm the continued drought of trophy fallow, but during the conversation there was a pause, followed by ‘But — I have a farmer mate who will let you on his place to walk around and take what you want. You might do all right there, and he owes me a favour.’
By the end of the call we were planning a pre-rut fallow deer hunt on some sheep farming bloke’s place who is a mate of a mate who has seen some nice heads.
You have got to love jungle drums.
Fast forward to February 2020 and we were in Taupo loading our gear and food into Ryan’s truck.
There was the traditional stop at the Turangi Bakery for a pepper steak pie and then onwards to our farm stay. This property is a working sheep and cattle farm with a sprinkling of wild goats and fallow deer.
Ryan is a bit particular about ‘his’ wild deer that come and go on his 1000 hectares but doesn’t mind the occasional one being taken — especially when he gets to keep the meat for his chiller and when doing a favour for a mate.
We set ourselves up in the old converted shearers’ quarters for four days of hunting. It wasn’t five-star but compared to a tent, any place without a leaking roof and some clean running water is the Hilton of hunting in my book.
Over a cup of instant, we got the local rundown about property boundaries, animals seen in recent times and where the big bucks had been seen during past years.
As this was someone’s farm and we were unknowledgeable invited guests, when Ryan made a claim of seeing two bucks in recent times that would top at least 220DS, it made good sense to pay attention and listen carefully.
I’m not sure if Ryan actually did have a couple of spare hours or he wasn’t quite sure of us, but he offered to come out with us for our first outing to show us the way around, our left and right of arcs and likely spots to focus on. From then on, we would be hunting on our own.
This place is what I would describe as your typical New Zealand farm of steep gullies with cleared ridges, patches of manuka and thick scrub. Sheep were scattered everywhere and not a high fence to be seen.
The deer have freely come and gone over the years but have recently started to stay as the pasture has improved and because of the lack of hunting pressure.
Being keen for 18 months, we wanted to hunt straight away and by midday we were geared up and on our way.
Our thoughts were that the deer would be bedded in some shade somewhere but would have to get up and feed to build condition for the upcoming rut.
It was a perfect autumn day. In fact, it was that good that Troy, who always hunts in cams, decided to go local and take on the Kiwi hunting tradition of hunting in shorts. Now, I wasn’t happy with the sight that walked out of the hut showing off his pastel white lucky legs — but as fortune would have it, he found a lost $50 in his pocket — bonus — it was costing us money not to hunt (ha ha).
We started by walking up a valley system so we could gain the advantage of height, occasionally stopping and glassing ahead and into side gullies. We were focused on the shady edge of the trees and we were easily spotting sheep, goats and some deer. One buck in particular looked really good. He was 900 m away and across the other side, and the spotting scope showed he was a potential keeper. We decided to keep climbing with the intention of hunting down onto him later in the evening when he would be out feeding.
We continued to follow an old unused four-wheel bike track up the ridgeline, which kept things nice and quiet underfoot and didn’t silhouette us against the skyline. Nearing the highest point, we left the track and took a sheep trail that offered an easier and shorter route as it cut around the last corner. Exposed to the sun but hidden by the embankment, we settled down and started to glass. This spot allowed us to look into two separate valley systems and over a lot of country.
I fixated on a spot 150 m directly below, where, with the advantage of height, I watched up to 20 fallow deer in the area the size of a Bunnings carpark. They were bedded down, they were out grazing, they appeared and they disappeared. Not moving around much in the heat, but just waiting for the evening to cool. Most were girls and yearlings although two quality three-year-olds moved between patches of manuka and another nice buck thrashed a shrub to death, getting ready for the rut.
Going off these bucks, the future trophy potential here was looking good. One thing we noticed was that although there were a lot of deer in a small area there was no dominant buck keeping them there — but it was pre-rut. We also noticed the occasional look up from most deer at a little plateau around to our left that we couldn’t see from our spot. We were curious; but on day one, on our first hunt, we were patient.
And patient we were! For more than five hours we glassed and finally when deer-o’clock arrived they started to come out and feed. Four bucks came out 500 m away that looked good through the binos, but the spotting scope said otherwise.
The shadows grew and the air cooled so it was decided to head down and see if we could get above the buck seen earlier in the day.
With our gear back on and our sneaky-sneaky-ninja-walk going on, we started our way back down.
We hadn’t gone 100 m when Ryan stopped in his tracks. He took one deliberate slow step forward, looking down the steep cutaway below. Focused below, he gestured with his finger there was a buck there. Troy moved forward, and they made out two spikers and a really good buck bedded under a tree on that plateau the deer had been glancing towards.
This buck was a keeper, one of the 220DS we were targeting, and Troy was having a crack. Glassing him for the final time, at 65 m with a steep downhill shot, he turned to Ryan and with a wide-eyed look on his face he whispered, ‘What about the one on the left?’
There was another buck in the shade but a lot further around.
Ryan nearly fell over. “*#ck I didn’t see that one; you better *#cking take that one.”
I couldn’t see that deer, but Troy crawled on his belly into a solid shooting position and gave the buck a ticket to Oz with a big 150 g hug from the suppressed .308.
The other three deer immediately stood up, looking around with confusion, but stayed loyal to the larger ‘sleeping’ buck (I love suppressors).
The buck lay there just as it did when it slept, it never moved, it never felt a thing.
We quietly watched and waited as not to let them know we were there.
They stood looking at their companion, not disturbed but just a bit unsure until finally they moved away, which gave us the all-clear to get a better look at our animal.
Yippee — Kiwi stag down!
We’d had a feeling hours before that something might have been on this plateau, and with the hunting gods smiling on Troy, that something was more than we imagined.
Zig-zagging our way down the cutaway, this buck changed from being a good one, to being an awesome buck, to being a monster. There was no ground shrinkage with this boy, he was a giant.
This 265 Douglas score pre-rut buck in prime condition put a smile on all of our faces, but none more than that of Troy.
The true success of a hunt isn’t the size of the antlers or the numbers on a form but the time and experiences you share with great mates. It’s that moment in the future when you actually stop and notice that noble creature on your wall, instead of just walking by, and in that moment you re-live those memories like they just happened.
And for us, that’s why we keep hunting.
Contributed by Dave Novak.