Check out the photos from Mehall's epic hunt.
At dawn John spotted a big bedded stag and rushed into camp to get Phil and his videographer. Forty minutes later, John returned to report, “stag down,” and I grabbed my camera to follow him to the field. During the photo session, I marveled at the heavy-beamed 22-pointer. When I expressed how different the palmated stag looked from some of the more elk-like antlers I’d been seeing, John reminded me, “They’re like snowflakes. No two are alike.”
After another one of my target practice sessions, a few hunters in camp challenged Phil to a long-distance bow-shooting contest. I admit even I was surprised when he hit the target at 100 yards, considering some hunters miss with rifles at that range. Of course, Phil would never take a bow shot at game at such a distance; he shot his stag at only 30 yards. But he never said much, preferring instead to talk up the joys of archery.
The next day was Easter. Hoping for holiday luck, Phil and I set out for a blind in an area “covered up with pigs.” We weren’t 20 yards from the compost pile of camp scraps John set out every day, but the only thing that showed was the Easter Bunny—at 20 yards. “I can get it,” I said sarcastically. I spent the next minute squabbling with Phil, who refused to help me pull back my bow. “You don’t shoot a bunny on Easter,” he said. “It’s bad luck.”
This place had some nice fallow bucks. Three in particular hung together regularly—a ghost-like white one and two brownies. We saw them from the blind at 200 yards, and I secretly wished for one less zero to appear in the rangefinder. A plan for fallow deer had failed. And now a chance for pigs at a compost pile within my short, though deadly, range seemed out of my reach as a new bowhunter.
That evening we returned to the pig blind. Just before dark, little pigs scurried everywhere—then came two larger pigs and a big white one.
“You’ll shoot that big boar,” Phil said, as he helped me draw the bow.
Big pigs darted and piglets dodged at the food source. Finally on target, I let the arrow fly and listened for the thwack. Instead, all the pigs scattered.
“What happened?” I asked.
“You won’t believe it,” Phil said. “You shot just as it lunged forward to chase the little ones. Could have happened to anyone. You’ll see it on camera.”
Then Phil noticed something on the ground, and stooped to pick up a 5-inch-long, yellow-white-stringy thing: “You shot off its tail!” he exclaimed.
“Don’t think I’m not framing that,” I replied. (Actually, I did bring it home, but I have no proof because my mom’s dog ate it. Honest.)
An aspiring bowhunter has to start somewhere, I figured. Even so, I admitted my stag hunt would likely be powered by Winchester, not Mathews.
Rebecca and her father, Mike, arrived that evening. With her condition in check, she was eager for adventure. I commented on her energetic personality as she “be-bopped” around camp, and Mike said,
“You guessed her nickname.”
The next day “Be-Bop,” Mike, John, Wyatt and my “bow-puller” left to hunt, so I grabbed my camera and bow and headed for a nearby blind on the off chance the bachelor group of fallow bucks returned. I figured I could at least take photos while contemplating pulling the bow by myself, continuing to ignore my knowledge of the fact that I knew where the Winchester rifle was stowed. But I also had to acknowledge something: While I would be proud to take a red stag—or any game—with a bow, I was foremost a hunter at heart, regardless of the tool.
Within minutes a big stag approached the blind from the right and stopped right in front of me—broadside at 20 yards. Almost without realizing it, I drew the bow without pain and put the sight pin behind its left shoulder. (It’s funny how you can tap into your last bit of strength when the adrenaline pumps.)
Oh, no … this stag seems big, I thought. At Spey Creek, as in most of New Zealand, trophy fees are based on the class of stag you shoot. I was covered to take something in the silver medal class. What if this is a gold? Or larger? I tended to under-score these things, and this one was heavy and palmated with double brow tines.
I let down the bow and that’s when it hurt—physically and emotionally. I knew my shoulder was done, and perhaps my hunt, too. Some would have shot and literally paid the consequences. Instead, I shot it with my camera before it trotted across the creek not 60 yards from camp. I followed, closing to within 30 yards as it thrashed the brush with its long, sweeping antlers. It was the most beautiful big-game animal I’d ever seen, and I wondered whether I could ever get one, with bow or rifle.
I was under the impression red deer favored open land, but these animals were certainly at home in the steep, wooded areas that surrounded camp. The stag moved straight up and I followed, partly because I’d wanted to climb to the peak above camp since I’d arrived. From my vantage point atop the hill I watched Be-Bop and Crew pull up to the lodge. I was “Queen of the Hill,” and I waved and yelled, but they couldn’t hear or see me.
God can see me, I thought, as I stood as close to Heaven as I could get. I said a prayer of thanks. Yes, I’d missed Mass on Easter Sunday, but I couldn’t have had a more spiritual moment in church. I thought about Rebecca and her wonderful attitude. Who knows how long any of us really has on Earth? With the stag long gone, I gazed down at the blind where I’d sat moments before and there trotted the Three Musketeers, the three fallow bucks we’d seen earlier. I just smiled.
The next afternoon I joined Rebecca, Mike, Wyatt and Phil, toting my mixed bag of hunting tools. Wyatt eyed a silver stag for Rebecca now out of range, but there were two golds in the valley. After my solo encounter with the stag the day before, which the outfitters had confirmed was indeed a gold based on my photos, I’d decided to upgrade from silver status. Now, I fixated on the more palmated stag with massive beams in the valley before us. Yes, it was time for the rifle. I looked at the camera and said, “I’m the NRA,” then I fired. I had my stag.
As Wyatt and I approached it, I scanned the double brow tines and the distinct hook-shaped point on the left beam: It was him, the beautiful 24-pointer I’d “shot” with my camera only a day before. The full circle seemed fitting.
The next morning Mike upgraded Rebecca to gold. I sat with the young hunter and her father, Wyatt and Phil on a hillside as Wyatt judged the stag 300 yards below us in the trees.
“It’s a nice gold,” Wyatt said.
When it stepped out, Wyatt told Rebecca to fire, and she dropped it amid tears of joy. There was no ground shrinkage as we trekked toward the stag. It only got bigger the closer we got. Wyatt grew quiet. He realized he’d told Rebecca to shoot a different stag. This one scored in the 420s. (For perspective, my “gold” stag was big, but scored a mere 380.) But I’m not sure anyone was more excited for Rebecca than the outfitters themselves.