By Zac McKenzie
It was a long, hard rut this year on the South Coast rusa. Every opportunity I could get I was on my blocks trying to figure them out, to the point where I think the owners got a little sick of me messaging them. But their desire to get deer off their property kept them saying yes.
After my hunt on Snake Island in February I started heading out and scoping out the velvet heads getting around. There were some big boys pushing out some decent length and my hopes were high of getting an old mature stag on the ground this year. In April I spent two weeks in New Zealand hunting tahr and when I got back, they were all nearly hard and ready to go. Lots of big stags were shot quite early this year, some too early. Social media is an excellent information gathering tool and it was interesting to see how many stags were getting shot that still had some growing to do.
As the rut was approaching, I was aware of two big stags on my blocks. One in particular had caught my eye and I made him my mission. He was also a regular on the neighbour’s place, which I don’t have access to, although I know both of the hunters that do. They were also aware of his presence and would be quite happy with him in their hands instead.
Throughout May to August I had a number of run ins with this particular stag. On the first occasion I saw his antlers moving above the lantana with another stag but couldn’t see his body. I got set up and could briefly see patches of brown but could not be certain which stag was which. They were heading back into cover in the early morning and vanished into the scrub.
Then I bumped him in the thick stuff a couple times, briefly seeing a flash but nothing more.
Later I took a mate out to see if there was a representative rusa stag for him to take as his first. We heard sticks snapping and antlers ‘Clack, Clack, Clack’ against the branches and lantana. It was clear there was a stag and he was moving quickly. We were not sure on size or why he was moving so fast until a hind ran out in front of us, totally unaware of our presence. In hot pursuit with his lip curled up was the big fella jogging after her, I got the rifle up and tried to settle the crosshairs but he didn’t pull up and was moving too quickly to present an effective shot.
My best chance was on last light one evening, I could hear footsteps on crackling, dry leaves coming up the gully. I was in a prime position in a gully head that deer regularly moved through, the wind was good and he was heading straight towards me although the light was fading fast. I saw his lighter, mud-caked antlers contrasting against the dark scrub about 20 to 30 metres away from me. I couldn’t make out exactly where the vitals were in the scope, as it was too dark. I could’ve put one into him, but he was right on the fenceline and his escape route would have been straight back into the neighbour’s where I couldn’t follow. If the shot wasn’t good, he could’ve run anywhere and in the thick lantana I would never have found him. I thought it was better to wait and get a shot where I knew that he’d go down on my place.
As the rut finished, I had accepted that this stag would live on, hoping that he would be even bigger next year. I knew I would get out a few more times post-rut but decided to concentrate my efforts on sambar in Victoria.
I have also recently been putting my efforts into spearing kingfish, the benefit of not having any kids I guess, I can go from one species to the next. My mate Sean was also keen on spearing kingies so we organised an early morning dive. It was going to be a 4 am start to get to where we wanted to dive and Sean lives 90 minutes away, so he came down the day before to avoid a 2 am start. It was inevitable then that we decided to fit a hunt in that afternoon. As he had never shot a rusa stag I was keen to get him on to a reasonable stag.
Driving into the block I was explaining the boundaries and fences we could see and said we could shoot a deer in that paddock if we saw one and Sean casually said ‘Like that big stag there’. I hit the brakes and backed up and sure enough a great stag was standing out in the open feeding. ‘You’re gunna shoot that deer’ I said to Sean.
We excitedly got out and set up, but because we had just entered the property, everything was packed away, so this took longer than expected. The stag was now standing behind a shrub, and we waited for a clear shot. He didn’t look too startled and was poking his head around looking at us. I honestly thought this was a done deal at this stage. After a couple minutes of him behind cover having a good look, he suddenly broke and was gone.
We kept walking the block and came across hinds out feeding, I asked Sean if he wanted to take one for meat, but he was content just taking some video so we let them be. From here we pushed into my next block and spooked a couple deer in the lantana and could hear chirps, but nothing noteworthy.
We made sure there was enough light left to get back to the original stag and doubled back to see if he had come back out. We went via the hinds to see if anything had changed or more deer had emerged. Immediately I saw a deer amongst them in the clearing and knew it was a stag. In my head I was thinking ‘I hope it’s big enough for Sean to shoot’ and not a young boy. Bringing him into focus on my binoculars, I said ‘Sorry mate, I think I’m gunna shoot this one’. I had never seen this deer on the block before, not sure if he’d popped up on the neighbour’s place or not, but he was huge, mature, heavy and undisturbed. Dropped prone onto my pack and set up, Sean setting up the camera behind me. I was ready and the crosshairs were settled, and I heard Sean whisper ‘I’m ready, shoot!’ and the stag dropped.
My brain wasn’t keeping up with what was happening, in my head it was going to be a casual hunt, get Sean to shoot a hind or if we’re lucky a stag. I had no expectations of seeing an animal of this size. We walked straight up to him and it was a done deal, super heavy tops, massive outers and great shape, everything I had been looking for in a mature stag. His teeth had been smashed in, most likely from fighting in the rut and he was very skinny — I don’t think he would’ve made it to next year. It was quite obvious he couldn’t feed properly.
We went to look for the original stag with a bit of light remaining to see if we could get a double up, but he never showed.
Sean took some amazing photos and it was great to share such a special deer with a mate, as I normally hunt the block alone. The dive the next morning was good with clear visibility but we didn’t see any kings, still early for what is shaping up to be a cracker of a season on them.