I was about 8 when I first learned about red deer, when I curiously pointed to the regal, reddish-brown animal Dad was admiring in his hunting magazine.“Where do you hunt that?” I asked, in awe of a creature that sprouted 20-plus points in every direction. The answer: halfway around the world. “For the ultimate red stag adventure you go to New Zealand,” he said.
Last spring I recalled that conversation while scanning my vacation itinerary on the computer one last time before clicking “submit”: Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to Auckland to Christchurch—New Zealand red stags, here I come, I thought. My version of spring break would have nothing to do with beaches, bathing suits or flip-flops. Instead, I would venture to the South Pacific to roam the hills in camouflage clothing and insulated boots.
Opportunity had knocked days earlier when friend, archery pro-staffer and outdoor TV host Phil Phillips called to say he was traveling to New Zealand to bowhunt red stag and to film an episode of “High Places” for The Outdoor Channel. The outfitter had an opening for one more hunter: Was I interested? The invitation looked like the perfect opportunity to jump into bowhunting, something I’d become interested in only months earlier. I’d have time to continue practice sessions at the range before we departed, and Phil, an excellent bowhunter with firsthand knowledge of New Zealand, would be alongside me every step of the way.
Per Phil’s suggestion, I shot Mathews’ new Z-7 bow and Easton’s aluminum-alloy/carbon (A/C) arrows. Phil said to practice as much as possible—so I did. But he never said I should overdo it. To prepare myself for the hunt, I launched 100 arrows a week. Satisfied with my progress, I cranked up the pull weight of my bow—necessary to ensure I could down game as big as a stag—and continued my range practice sessions. And I pulled the bow 25 times a night while watching television. All that work took a toll, and before leaving the States, I knew I’d done in my shoulder. I’d pulled a muscle, or worse. In phone conversations leading up to our departure, I explained my predicament to Phil, then tried to downplay the fact I was worried about my hunt. “Give it a rest until we leave,” he said, encouraging me. “And don’t worry, this is an unbelievable hunt no matter what you use. If you can’t pull back the bow, the outfitters have rifles you can use.” Of course I refused to admit defeat, to myself or anyone else. I took Phil’s advice and rested, certain I’d be fine.
Two weeks later, after crossing the international date line, we were greeted in New Zealand by outfitters John and Wyatt McBride of Spey Creek Trophy Hunting. Their lodge is two hours from Christchurch, and just 45 minutes from the noted whale-watching seaside town of Kaikoura.
It was easy to forget we were on an island as the drive inland took us toward beautiful mountains. Eager to get started when we arrived at the lodge, I unpacked my bow and headed for the practice target. Phil launched a few arrows, too, then stood behind me, anticipating a nice, smooth draw back to my anchor point. Instead, all I could muster was, “Ow!” In panic, I let down my half-drawn bow. The rest had done me little good. Now, here I was in the land of the red stag, and I couldn’t shoot.
Plan A included grabbing an Allen wrench and turning down the pull weight of the bow. No luck. So we turned it down more ... and then some more. I still couldn’t pull it. Plan B? “Let’s see how you do if I help you pull your bow,” said Phil.
I could hold steady on target, but now my arrows were “over-spined” (too stiff and heavy). While arrows flex in flight before stabilizing, I saw how erratically they can fly if you don’t have the correct spine. I had to be spot-on with yardage to shoot a good group and I was now effective only to 20 yards. But I refused to turn to a rifle just yet. Instead, I’d rest my shoulder for a day and try again.
It was March, New Zealand’s fall, and the rut. Though the season runs through August, the rut is when the stags roar, just as bull elk bugle, to issue a challenge or demonstrate dominance. Nevertheless, I was caught off guard that night when I awoke to guttural, growling noises outside my window and realized it couldn’t be bears or lions.
The next morning I tried to be positive about things as Phil and other hunters in camp went stalking for stags. I snapped my first of more than 700 photos, starting with the lodge’s unique mounts that showcased life in this land—red stag, Himalayan thar, chamois, wild goats, sheep and pigs and what I could only peg as an unusual waterfowl species. As I photographed fallow deer behind camp, I knew things could be worse. I could be Phil. He had to film his hunt, somehow help me to hunt on camera, film hunting-tip segments and interview John and Wyatt McBride. And he had to accomplish all this within days, then turn his attention to filming the very special hunt of a 17-year-old young lady. Within a week, he was to greet Rebecca Billiel and her dad, Mike, from Michigan. Rebecca suffers from cystic fibrosis, and she would travel here to realize a dream sponsored by the Hunt of a Lifetime Foundation.
John took me out to get a lay of the land, and I was amazed by the quality and quantity of game. Within minutes, we were glassing a good stag at 70 yards. It stood there mightily and magnificently before trotting for the hills. What a challenge it was to judge these animals. Unlike elk and other deer species that typically sport antlers with distinguishable points, what you see is not always what you get with red deer. Typically, you get even more. The degree of palmation on red stag antlers prevents many trained eyes from catching every point, even with quality optics. “That’s because they’re like snowflakes,” explained John McBride. “No two are alike.”
That evening after checking out the new critters in the skinning shed, everyone gathered for the evening firepit ritual and shared the day’s events. Our background music was the roaring of the stags—and croaking bull frogs, which John explained were fallow bucks. Dinner was an elaborate spread of delicious local flavors and mouth-watering homemade desserts prepared by lodge manager and cook Neroli, all of which we’d surely burn off in the hill country.
The next day I put serious effort into archery as Phil monitored my practice at 20 yards—my new massively effective but super-limited range. It was sad to let go of the not-so-distant memory of launching the same good groups out to 30 and 40 yards. At least I felt confident I could get anything that stood at exactly 60 feet (based on my “higher math” conversion). Wyatt knew of a crossing where we might get within 20 yards of fallow deer.
An hour later, four bucks pranced out—at 30 yards. I’m not used to judging fallow antlers, so I would have shot any of them if possible. But the way Phil said, “the second one, the second one,” I knew No. 2 was good. While I never drew, I felt an adrenaline rush like never before. I was hooked, convinced I could be successful with my bow. Success would simply require endless patience, dedication and skill. I could always grab that camp rifle, but not just yet.