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Lockdown blues

Updated: May 24, 2020

Well this will be the start of, Around the Campfire with Sika stopper. What this morphs into is anyone's guess, but the best way to do anything it seems is to start with a basic plan and go from there. No plan is without flaw and if we expect a perfect plan we never start, so start we will.

Like most hunters and outdoor enthusiasts I'm never ready for when I leave on a hunt. The weeks before are usually spent catching up on work, chores around the house and family time. So when the night before inevitably arrives you are never ready, you have a plan, well I usually do, of where I'm going but I'm not actually ready. Arrows need re-fletching, broadheads need to be re sharpened, pack needs to be filled, food needs to be prepared, the list just seems to go on and on. So if you are anything like me, you end up staying up till 1-2am the night before getting everything sorted. This trip was no different, only this time we had been in Covid-19 lock down for 7 weeks. That's right our country was in full lock down, no going to work, no going hiking, no hunting, nothing. Now the lock down is a story for another time and of what I think of it and how it has affected things, but for now suffice to say I had had time to get ready but had not done so.

It is also well worth a mention that I was coming off the back of quite major shoulder surgery and had not been able to get into the mountains for well over a year. I had not pulled the string back on an animal with the recurve, well ever. Unless you count small game, I have only hunted large game with a compound and had never taken the full plunge into the stick bow world. I had finally made the decision to go "full trad" a year or so back but the surgery had come as a surprise and to be honest without little milestones that had occurred along the way I very much doubt I would have ever got to where I am now... still another story for another day.

So skipping forward for the sake of speed, the time had finally come, public land was open again. We were free to roam what we call home, the mountain ranges of New Zealand. Finishing work for the day I got home and finished packing the last of my gear, the kids were out with my wife at the beach for a walk so I had time to sort the last few items of gear. Josiah and Malachi arrived home with Mary, they were excited to see me leave mainly because I had brought them some LEGO, which built in seconds. But also because when I'm not home it usually means treats with Mum. We do the evening routine and then I am out the door into the loaded truck and off into the darkness and the trail head.

I had decided to head in late and get in to base camp around 1 am which meant around 6-7 hours of continuous hiking. But as always seems to be the case the Lord had other plans and I never made it to base my intended base camp instead holding up in a hut an hour or so's hike from where I wanted to be. You see from the hut its a trek down through a saddle up and across a ridge line before descending down into an area that I know in the past has seen good red deer numbers. Somehow upon descending into the saddle I had become so disorientated in the complete darkness that I ended up back at the hut!!! Not to be deterred I promptly headed right back down to the same point I figured I got turned around in last time and stood there for a full ten minutes contemplating my next move. Cursing myself for leaving the compass at home I decided that digression was the better part of valour and bailed back to the hut for another crack at it when the sun came up, it would be a wasted morning hunt and I went to sleep less than impressed with myself.

As it turned out, when I arrived at my intended destination the following morning around nine am, I had been forced into a decision the ultimately was the correct one. You see from the moment the sun had gone down I had been hearing gun shots, all through the night and then again during the hike into base camp in the morning. It seemed as if I had gone to sleep and indeed woken, to the sound of a civil war raging in the mountains.

When I arrived I ditched my gear in the general area I had intended to pitch and heard loud voices from a saddle to my right, on investigating I found three startled hunters who had zero idea where I had come from. I found the reason for there concern, they had shot some five to eight animals ( I was only able to locate five bodies on my excursions) and 100% of the shots had indeed been in my direction.

It had been very fortuitous that I had become turned around during the night as they had been spotlighting deer (Not legal on public land) and then proceeded to bomb up the south face the following morning from an adjacent ridge. Feeling like I had dodged a literal bullet I bid them farewell and headed back to setup camp for the next day or so.

The following hours as many a hunter will know were a mix of setting up camp, getting camp water in other words hiking to the bottom of the current valley and filling up camel backs and water bottles and sleeping. By the time I had awoken again in the early afternoon the weather which had been threatening all morning had finally decided that enough was enough and had well and truly closed in, limiting visibility to around two to three hundred meters. Still I was in the mountains solo and I could think of no where else I would rather be.

I did a full gear check and then went out into a clearing behind where I had pitched out and proceeded to make sure my bow and myself were still dialled in, shooting ranges from ten right out to forty five yards. While I had no plan of shooting out to forty five, its nice to know if I need a follow up shot that I would be able to take it.

Making my way down the mountain in the direction of a clearing near a river, I intended on following the tree line down to act as cover as I stalked and glassed my way down it was now late afternoon and the ground was very wet underfoot from the constant misty rain. It really was quite beautiful watching the mist roll into the valley I was in from parts unknown as the wind steadily made its way up towards me. The native birds were in full swing making for quite a serine setting and had it not been bitterly cold I could have quite happily sat down on the side of the mountain and just taken it all in. Pushing forward to a game trail near the entrance of an area of native, I could see that this area was frequented by deer as all of the available food had been stripped away and deer scat was plentiful. I heard a faint snapping of branches and slowed my pace, I could not tell if there was something ahead of me but I was pretty sure that I had heard a noise in the native ahead in the end as I got closer it did sound like something broke from cover and made its way further down hill but I was never able to see with my eyes if it had been a deer. Moving on I was rewarded when down in the valley floor near the river almost exactly where I expected to see deer I saw movement. Taking a seat I began to glass up the valley floor from my vantage point and was rewarded for doing so by not one but two good stags.

I estimated that they were around three hundred yards down into the valley floor near the tree line, one was a young stag, a beautiful bright vibrant red colour with what I estimated was around 6-8 points he certainly not massive but with a stick bow and on public land would be very respectable. The other stag was a much bigger, old battler, much lighter in colour and with a much larger body. I guessed that he was around 8-12 points but at the range and with how he was holding his head I could not make out his rack very well. A spotter would have been good and in the future could be a great option. I sat watching the two stags feed and formulated a plan of attack. They were in a good position with favourable wind. From past failures I knew that the chances of being intercepted by a group of hinds was high on the cards. I made sure I picked the valley apart not only to pick a route to take but also to see if there were any hinds or young deer near the stags.

Happy that I could see no deer down in the valley I started down slowly making sure not to dislodge any of the rocky sides, trying to make my way from cover to cover. I had made it about 90 yards further down towards the valley floor when I was finally intercepted by the breakup party coming from a connecting valley. A mother and her yearling fawn feeding on a straight intercept path with my intended route. I made the decision to forgo the stags and concentrate on the deer at hand as they were considerably closer and would make it all but impossible to put a stalk on the stags at any rate. The hinds were making their way towards a large section of scrubby stuff that I had intended on getting to. Cover was very sparse between me and that section of mountain, the going would be slow from here on out.

From this point in the story, it can only really be described as part good and ill fortune. The river below was making quite a din, serving as a great way to muffle some of my noise as I made my way down the mountain, sitting on my but and sliding a few centimetres at a time making sure not to dislodge any rocks or small stones in the process. It was a long and arduous process and twenty minutes later I was only some fifteen yards closer. Knowing it was going to be a long wet stalk, I pushed further down with the goal of making it to a section of scrub that looked like a small car. I distinctly remember when I messed up, as a stone had become lodged between a piece of tussock and my leg. As I reached forward to move it my elbow I bumped another smaller rock and it rolled. Not much but enough. Anyone who has heard a hind bark knows that dreaded sound, it usually means the end of the stalk at this range. Her head snapped up and she was on full alert. Staying completely still and watching for the turn and run reaction I was surprised when she went back to feeding within a very short time. Waiting a little longer before continuing my downward decent I had got into a good rhythm, a super slow reverse crawl down hill, scanning left and right at a slow pace to make sure I wasn't bumping another animal. It was this that ended up getting me the shot. While in one of my stop and scan patterns I noticed movement to my right, coming in on an angle to see what the bark had been about was a young spike making his way through the tussock. He had been coming from almost my level and was making his way down hill. This calmed the hinds down to no end as I suspect they saw him as the reason for the noise. While he was moving in I was able to use the sound of the river and him knocking over rocks as he made his way down, masking the sound of my movement, making it to within 35 yards.

The time had come to wait, the deer had now all linked up and were feeding up and to my left. If I could be patient they should have fed right up to my location. They however got to around thirty yards and started to feed down and away again. With all the practice I had been doing I was confident that provided I got the range right I could make the shot count. Now was the hard part I had to get myself into a good shooting position. I know the shots that I am no good at so I did not want to take a shot with the bow lying flat from a seated position. I really wanted to get the bow as vertical as possible. Time stretched into the great beyond as I slowly managed to find my feet and get into a more vertical shooting stance and began to draw my bow. I couldn't draw though, my bottom limb due to the massive angle of the hill kept impacting on my leg and if I drew my bow between my legs, the bino harness got in the way. So I started the process with one hand of taking off my bino harness. Let me tell you this is a far from ideal thing to try and do with a bow in one hand, deer feeding some thirty yards below and feet struggling to find purchase on the wet, steep ground. Somehow I managed to get it off.

This shot was going to be a super steep one, steep land means he was closer than I thought he was allowing for the cut of the land. I was also going to be shooting with the hill falling down to my right and in the past I know that shots made into a hill tend to drift towards the hill and shots made away from the hill tend to drift away. I think that makes more sense when I am shooting than when I am saying it out loud. I was always told with a compound to bubble into the hill and the concept to me seems the same. So keeping this in mind I settled my spot where I wanted to shoot a little back and a little high. Beginning to draw back and focusing on the spot, I drew back and settled into my anchor. Aside from the extreme angle it all felt solid the deer were still feeding and none the wiser. I steadied myself told, myself my mantra and I started to execute my shot, it broke perfectly and I mean perfectly. I distinctly remember the arrow flying out, the bow falling away and seeing the arrow as it lit up sending a green arch towards the deer. It missed. An absolutely perfect shot, the line was magic the distance was not, I had over guessed the range it was shorter than I had imagined and the arrow sailed harmlessly over his back, directly above is vitals.

This is where a stick bow is amazing, If this shot had been taken with a compound the noise would mean I was done. That was not the case here. The spike whirled, staring at the arrow that impacted on the ground some ten yards behind him, the hind barked and they trotted off into the safety of the scrub to my right, but they did not leave. I had a chance, quickly assessing the situation, they had moved down and to the right some forty yards, I moved off in their direction. That's when it happened, from the now growing shadows he appeared, majestic and regal, the old battler I had been watching came.

Its amazing the things that happen with a stick one moment you are at the lowest of the low, next the highest of the high. Like life amplified into mere minutes. I had a front row seat as the stag came in to see what all the fuss was about, thrashing anyone or anything that got in his way he was pissed. With light fast failing I knew I did not have long if it was going to happen I would need to make it happen or this opportunity would be gone and I would rue the day. I nee-dint have worried as the rain dislodged a stone above me and he heard it. He did not run instead he made a beeline right for it, slowly but deliberately he made his way right at me looking above me, through me.

Now dropping back a little bit here in the story, the night before I had left on this hunt my youngest, Malachi had prayed for me saying "Dear Jesus I pray that Dad gets a stag, a big one so we can have lots of meat, but I pray Dad does not get killed by a stag." Then upon leaving the last thing he says to me with a cheeky smile "Don't die Dad don't get mauled by a stag." Kids they crack me up. So with this line going through my head, the stag is coming right at me "don't die dad don't get mauled by a stag" hahaha. I didn't, he stopped, at around twenty five yards, the hind behind him made a noise. Its here that time slowed to a crawl again. My brain whirling, twenty five yards is close, you can see everything even in the failing light. The fog whirling around his back, making him appear to be an ethereal wraith. The steam coming from his nose reminding me of a fire breathing dragon. All these things are what bowhunting is. Its the adventure, its the challenge, its the chase. He was looking back now towards the hinds and the spike I knew he would turn given the chance at at twenty five yards I was confident. I got tension on the sting and waited for what seemed like a life time before he did indeed begin to turn. I started to draw and that when it happened, what had been so consistent suddenly changed and swirled I saw it in the fog felt it on my neck. The dreaded wind change and they were gone. At two thirds draw they trotted off back into the safety of the of the now almost black native forest and were gone.

At this point of the story it really ends from here the fog closed in around me helping me miss my base camp by some one kilometre, I was soaked through but not cold yet, the fire was still smoldering away and my wood pile ready to go as I crawled into bed that night. Tired and wet but I was not angry I felt I had learned many lessons, from the miss, to the wind blown stalk some twenty minutes later.

The following morning was spent retracing my steps with a range finder that I should have taken on the stalk. The shot I had taken on the spike I had guessed was around thirty seven yards, was closer to thirty four yards and those three yards had cost me. No deer were seen the following morning and I packed up camp in the beautiful silence of the mountains heading back the six hour hike to the trail head and to home.

The next hunt will be in a few weeks once more family chores have been completed and having spent more time with the kids. But the mountains call as they always seem to and I for one intend to heed that call.

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