The stag, the bow and the boy from Texas..
Cullen Moeller's New Zealand Red Stag Bow Hunt with Alpine Hunting Adventures
Gear: Tactical Archery Systems S.A.B.O Sight and Delta Rail Stabilizer
To come to New Zealand and hunt Red Stag had been a dream of mine for a LONG time. I’m not sure what it was that gave me the itch. I remember a commercial from when I was a kid that had a Red Stag at the end. I think it was Hartford Financial. I recall always thinking that was the coolest looking animal. After spending some time in Alaska and then later doing some elk hunting, it just seemed like a perfect fit for me: big deer, with lots of inches of antlers, that roar, and in the mountains. How could it get any better than that?
No question this trip took a lot of sacrifice from my wife so it could happen. She really pushed me to go on this trip and was actually the one that found Alpine Hunting Adventures. It would be crazy not to thank her for this. Holding down a job and taking care of two energetic kids is way more than I could manage by myself. She leaves me for an evening and I think I've done something; I can't imagine 9 days. I have no idea how a single parent does it. Once again, big thanks hon. I'll probably be broke for a while, but I'll make it up to you someday.
Now to the trip: My dad (who was nice enough to accompany me) and I headed out of Austin to LA. Luckily the Austin Airport allowed me to continue on my trip after finding my knife/saw stored in my back pack. Moral of the story: if you take a hunting back pack as your carry-on, check, check, and check it again for anything you may have forgotten that you put in it. It could save you from the possibility of a full-body cavity search. From LA we took about a 12 1/2 hour flight to Auckland, NZ. I have to say if you have to fly that far, Air New Zealand is really good way to go. My cheap self flew coach and it really was pretty freaking nice. I had my own TV with tons of movies and shows. Not sure how the people around me took to several episodes of The Walking Dead, but man, that show is awesome.
From Auckland we grabbed a small plane and took it to Palmerston North. Palmerston North would remind you of maybe Flagstaff or Colorado Springs. It’s a nice, clean, quiet city with mountains surrounding it. We spent the night there and ventured out to a steak place called Lone Star. While the name is familiar the food was different from our steak places, but really good.
Pretty good difference in time, so the next morning we both were up at about 4:00am. Our ride came around 8:00 and we were off on a 2-hour ride to the Alpine Hunting Ranch on the North Island. The scenery was amazing. Our driver Dennis, who is in charge of Marketing for Alpine Hunting, could also double as a stand-up comedian. He would remind you a lot of one of my good friends. He’s a never-a-dull-moment and life-of-the-party kind of guy.
We arrived at camp and met everyone. There were several other hunters in camp. One ex-African PH that now resides in Colorado, a couple other father & son duos from Canada and Pennsylvania, a family from South Dakota, and some more from California. All walks of life were represented. Most of the guides and staff were from New Zealand, but one was from Michigan and the other part of the year he guides at the famous Sanctuary Ranch. All of the staff and guides were great and they make sure that it's relaxed and you feel at home. It felt like any other hunting camp I’ve experienced. Shane Quinn is the owner, and, in my mind at least, is a celebrity after seeing him on many different hunting shows. But he was down-to-earth and just like one of the guys. The Lodge is amazing. It’s really top notch with about a good a view as you can have. There’s a mountain view off the back porch that usually has all kinds of game scattered on it. This was the first week of Alpine Hunting's season so the animals hadn't been shot at too much at this point. The terrain is mountainous with thick and open areas, scattered with pine trees and some kind of shrub that would somewhat remind you of our cedars. The really nice part is the elevation varies from about 2500 feet to 4500 feet. It sure is easier to hike around when you have some air, compared to the 10,000 plus feet in Colorado.
I met my guide Mike Moss. I shot my bow with him and somehow lucked out and actually shot pretty decently. I had him fooled. Mike is from New Zealand and, as time went on, I realized he is obviously an accomplished hunter and also told a great trapper and fly fisherman. He’s full of great stories and knowledge about New Zealand. He’s a down-to-earth guy, who loves to hunt, and likes to go to bed early. It was a match made in heaven. (He traps New Zealand Possum--which is much different than our possum--plucks them and sells them. I had no idea you could pluck anything but a bird??? They use the possum fur to mix with merino wool for clothing.)
We had several spot and stalks during the trip. The first evening we sat back and watched a lot of stags in a valley, one of which was a 7x7 and really stood out to me. Mike asked me if I liked the looks of him. Of course I did…heck, I liked all of them. He then said we would “slot him” if given the chance. I picked up that “slot him” is about the same as me saying “let the air out of him.” For the most part, all stags are very different. This one stag in particular had longer tines and long main beams. From the get go I really did like the looks of him. Now even with that said, the first one I got the go-ahead to shoot, no question I was doing it. We tried to get in on him and some others he was running with by sliding down the side of a mountain and crawling through some grass into the bottom of a creek, but they eventually just didn't come in our direction. Later that evening we came on another stag in the thick. I learned on this stag that Sika deer pose a big problem. They are very smart, hard to see, and apparently when alarmed, they whistle. When they whistle the gig is up and everything in the area heads the other way, including Red Deer. This happened on this stalk and I never got closer than 50 yards to the stag.
We found a stag roaring (which is like an elk bugle but really sounds like a roar). We were in the process of cutting him off when another larger stag started our direction. He ended up coming about 8 feet from us. Unfortunately he was out of my price range, but he still got the heart racing. Mike ended up placing me in a spot he thought the roaring stag was coming. It would have been about a 25 yard shot. Unfortunately, he zigged when we zagged and came in right behind us. I learned at that time they have a very keen nose, like an elk. When they smell you they are out of the country. He's probably still running.
We left my dad on top of mountain. That morning there was a great view and he was able to see several stag, fallow deer, and Sika. He said it was a blast to watch and he got some great pictures.
Later that day we watched the 7x7 running with a group of stags from several hundred yards away. While we were planning a stalk, another guide radioed us that he had seen 3 stags fitting the description I was after, and in a possible place to stalk. So we moved on them. We ended up working through some thick brush to close the distance and Mike had me take off my boots as we closed in to keep from crunching any sticks and to make less noise. We were around 30 yards and just waiting for a shot opportunity. Unfortunately, again a Sika came in behind us and whistled. The 3 stags moved off and I never had a shot. I also got to see a Sambar during this stalk. That’s a very unique deer: horns somewhat like an Axis but thicker, looks black from a distance and a big thick body that almost resembles the shape of a pig. I believe they usually weigh more than a Red Deer.
We went back to where the 7x7 and some of his running buddies were and attempted a stalk as daylight was fading. We got ahead of them but lost light before we could seal the deal. They moved into range, but I just couldn't tell what was what.
It was a rain-soaked foggy morning. Right off the bat we could see some big antlers moving our direction as we were slowly walking up a road. We got ready but it turned out to be a nice bull elk. He came within about 10 yards, then I heard some kind of grunting, and the elk looked like he was in a full charge on my guide Mike. I later found out that a big Red Stag had run the elk off and just happened to push him towards us. I just couldn't see what was happening because of my angle and the fog. We later found a shooter stag feeding in a small opening on the ridge facing us. Once again we made our stalk and closed the distance to about 25 yards. At that point all we had to do was wait until he hit a small opening so I could make a shot. In just typical fashion, a Sika deer came in feeding behind us. Of course she whistled and all I could hear next was the stag’s antlers breaking the brush as he headed out of the area. After we left that area we just did some still hunting, working our way back to camp. We ended up right above two really big stag that were bedded about 10 yards below us. Unfortunately for me, they were just way too big. We also came across another stag bedded about a 100 yards from us. We could just see the tops of the antlers. Mike decided we should move in for a better look. At some point he caught our wind or got alerted and got up to see what was coming. Wow! Mike told me he is some kind of potential world record and may have antlers of over 600 inches. Impressive animal. We headed back to camp to shed our rain-drenched clothes, grab a bite to eat and head out again for the day. I guess Mike mentioned to the owner that I was pretty hacked at the Sika deer. Shane then gave me permission to “slot” one of his Sika females, as they needed it for camp meat and it might make me feel better. Had it happened again I probably would have taken him up on it, but those dang Sika deer are pretty smart. I doubt I would have ever gotten close. Anyone that has taken a Sika with a bow should get a medal. That is an amazing feat. So we got dried off and headed back out after a quick bite to eat. I should note that I have no problem going out all day to hunt, but missing a lunch or dinner at Alpine Hunting is not anyone’s favorite thing to do. The cook, Jo, and her assistants are amazing. I also should point out that everyone in camp that was after a stag had already tagged one… except me. Poor Mike, he really drew the short end of the stick when he got me. Everyone else was back at camp out of the rain, eating a great lunch, and he had to drag some dang Texan around. That said, he never complained a bit and just kept us going. We ended up watching two stags soon after we left camp, and moved into where Mike thought they would cross. They had a “hide” set up at this point (what we call a blind). It looks onto the side of a mountain. There is about 30 yards until the steep ridge of the mountain. So the stag either come into shooting range or they traverse the side of the mountain. In all the country and all the routes they could go, he actually got us on them. Unfortunately they of course took the harder route and went along the hillside. They bedded down but there was no way to put a stalk on them as the wind was completely wrong. We decided to move areas and saw several stag in the distance. Mike said since it was the middle of the day they would probably bed down pretty soon. The 7x7 we had seen a couple times earlier was in the group with a few others that looked pretty good too. Luckily it had been a really rainy summer for this part of New Zealand, and the ranch had tons of tall grass. It was probably 3 feet high in a lot of areas. Mike decided we would get closer to the stags and then slowly crawl through the grass until we hopefully could glass the tops of the stags’ antlers, which we eventually did. They had all bedded down just like he said. So little by little we worked our way closer towards them. In some ways we got lucky and the sky really opened up and rained hard on us for about 10-15 minutes. We were able to really make some distance sliding on our backs down the hill during this time. It did cross my mind that between the rain, wind, and whistling Sika this may not work out. (Mike kept asking me if I had really pissed someone off before I came.) Eventually, he veered us off to this small bowl area above them. We were probably 70-80 yards from the stag at this point. He whispered to me that he felt our best option was to wait them out and they would feed up towards us. Obviously experience had taught him this and man, does it pay to have a good guide and listen to him. If it would have been me, I would have worked in as close as I could on the group of stag and hoped for a shot that would have never had happened. As Mike later told me, he could tell by the tops of some of the antlers that some of the stag were facing us. We would have been busted before we even had a chance. So we waited in the spot for at least a good hour to an hour and a half. Finally, one of the stags did exactly what he said and fed towards us. Unfortunately it was a stag I could shoot and would have if I got the go-ahead, but Mike wanted me to pass. He had probably damaged one antler in velvet and there’s no other way to describe him other than he was ugly. Of course he moved within about 20 yards. But another really nice stag was moving up toward us. Mike gave me the go -but wanted to wait until he was within 30 yards. Before he closed the distance the "ugly" stag didn't like what he saw and for whatever reason, he got nervous. He slowly worked back down and pushed the shooter stag down with him. We could still see the "ugly" stag and eventually he worked his way back toward us. We had no choice but to wait; finally, after some time I caught a glimpse of antlers slowly moving our direction and could tell it was feeding. It was pretty clear to see by the height of the antlers that it was the 7x7. It took him a while but he finally pushed the "ugly" stag on and presented a quartering away shot at 30 yards. Mike gave me the wink to go ahead. I would like to say I slowly got to a sitting position while drawing my bow and it was as smooth transition. Ha, after lying down for so long and at that angle, it took everything I had to get drawn. I eventually got there and somehow didn't spook the stag as he was faced the other way. I put the 30 yard S.A.B.O dot behind his shoulder and let it go. The shot looked good, but I think my first reaction was to ask Mike if he thought it looked good. He just told me to watch, and we could see the top of his antlers start bobbing as he started to go down about 30 yards on the other side of the mountain. I wanted to go nuts, but figured it was best to keep it in at this point until we knew he was down for sure. Mike got us headed in that direction and I soon figured out why: the stag was about to take a 300-foot tumble down the side of the ridge. That probably wouldn't have turned out too good for the antlers. He kicked one last time and we grabbed hold and pulled him up a little. I can’t say that I did much good when I pulled, it was more for show on my part. After taking a few minutes to relive the hunt, Mike radioed in that we got one. This is where the cool part comes in at Alpine Hunting. Shane lets Mike know he'll be there in about 20 minutes. On all the larger game, Alpine Hunting uses the 2-seat helicopter to bring the animals back to camp. Man, it sure is nice. It was awesome to see the stag get “evacked” back to camp and way easier than cleaning and quartering it on the side of a mountain. I wish we had that for elk hunting. When we finally got back the stag and my excited dad were waiting for us. (My dad decided not to endure the rain that day and “roughed” it back at camp.) After inspection we found that the shot went through his heart and took out one lung. The arrow was just sticking out in front of the opposite side shoulder. The shot was a little lower than I wanted, but I’ll take it. I had really hoped to video the hunt, but as time went on it was obvious I needed to scrap that idea, because of the rain. So unfortunately there is no video of the hunt. I did get some good video of some really nice stag though. Since we had a day and a half left we decided to go after the elusive Arapawa Ram. I wanted to just keep hunting as much as possible. I thought there probably wouldn’t be much to it, but man was I wrong. We hunted these on the highest point of the ranch. The terrain almost reminded me of Big Bend. On the first stalk we actually moved right in on them, but because the grass was so tall it was hard to tell a good ram from a small one. Actually, I had no clue what was good and what wasn’t, but Mike did. Eventually, they caught on to us and once they did we never got close again. They were pretty freaking smart and liked to hang out on the rocky side of the mountain. I know my wife was really torn up that I didn’t get one after showing her a picture. While smart an--as my wife always reminds me--one of God’s creatures, beauty isn’t their strong point. It would have made a good euro mount though. Frustrating little things. It was an awesome hunt and something I'll never forget. Glad I got to share it with my dad. No way I would have ever gotten close to getting a stag without my guide Mike. He stayed positive throughout and just kept putting us into position time after time. My goal for this hunt was always to get a stag by Spot and Stalk with my bow, and never once did anyone at Alpine Hunting ask me to change my methods. We just kept plugging along. I think they are just so good at what they do that they don’t believe in failure, and are determined at accomplishing what each hunter wants to do. Alpine Hunting Adventures more than exceeded our expectations. It was a great, laid-back place that made you feel like you were at home. If you love to hunt and if you happen to be a bow hunter who loves to spot and stalk, this is a place to put on the bucket list. There are plenty of opportunities and tons of game. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t have overlooked the Sika Deer. That would be a hell of a challenge to try to pull off. We also came across lots of really nice Fallow Deer and some real beauties that were taken by some other hunters in camp. As we were making our way out of camp and new hunters were making their way into Alpine Hunting (changing of the guards, if you will) we crossed paths with some folks that had a real familiar accent I hadn’t heard since reaching New Zealand. They were some fellow Texans! It also turned out they were from Wimberley as well. What a small world it can be. We later ended the trip in Auckland. If you like a big city, with tons of people, humid rainy weather, and everything expensive as hell, then you would probably like Auckland. It did have a really good museum. But with the awesome diverse country New Zealand offers, I would probably just make that part of the trip short. That’s just my opinion. My dad and I did “happen” (we were lost) to find a restaurant called Little Mexico which had some really good traditional Mexican food. From what I am told the South Island of New Zealand is supposed to be pretty amazing and well worth a visit if you have the time. Maybe next time. I would also like to plug my Tactical Archery Systems S.A.B.O. Sight. It worked flawlessly through the rain and fog. That 30 yard red dot stood out so much on the 7x7 before I shot, it really kept me focused on picking a spot and not just throwing an arrow out there. This trip made me realize how fortunate I am to have grown up with hunting. I am so thankful my mom and dad saw to it that it was a big part of my up-bringing. I’ve also been lucky to have had grandparents, uncles, cousins, and friends help me along the way. Hopefully, I can do the same for my boys. I should also thank my step-mom Nora for taking care of all the travel plans for my dad and myself. She set up airline and hotel reservations for us. It sure makes traveling easier when you have someone helping out who is an experienced traveler and knows how to navigate the reservations systems.As great as the trip was, the best part was getting surprised at the Austin airport by my wife and jumping-up-and-down 5 year old. (My 1-year-old son was at home entertaining some grandparents.) After about 30 seconds of hugs from my son, I quickly turned back into the human punching bag he uses me for. Good to be back.