The Meat Hunt

A HUNTING STORY BY Jamie howden

Setting the scene: Lyall, one of the Senior Warrant Officers (reservist) at work, got the tip off I was quite into hunting and had just bought himself some new thermal imagery kit.

“Hey bro, know any spots we can sight my rifle in with its new thermal scope?”
“I do, mate, but you’re going to have a hard time shooting that on public land. On the off chance we can’t book a range or go to a private block you’re out of luck.”
“Bro, I know just the place… Bit of a walk in, but all private Maori land. No one goes there anymore and we can stay at the Marae.”

Without hesitation I said I was in, and secured a weekend leave pass from the Mrs. We did our homework, got scouting the maps, got another mate named Sam involved (who is a bit of a guru and with hunting rifles) and set about hatching a plan. This was a scouting trip where we’d hunt in daylight if we could – but the main aim was to dial in Lyall’s new Thermal on his Tikka .243 and secure him a meat animal with that.

The spot was close to Te Urewera’s North Island in NZ, which is a huge area. To maintain the integrity of it I won’t include the GPS cords; you tend do that when deer walk out on the lawn behind the Marae. We drive down to Rotoroa and head further into the sticks where we leave our car and begin the walk in. I know some of you familiar with the area are thinking risky biscuits here, having a Volkswagen Touareg Jaffamobile – but rest assured we left it with Lyall’s family and it’s actually been used for 4×4 driving and not just trips to the mall and dropping the kids of at Takapuna Grammar.

The walk in was picturesque. In terms of weaponry, we went in heavy. In hindsight this went well into overkill territory, with 1 x 308 steyr, suppressed by with a vortex viper pst II scope and bipod running Sako 165 Gr game heads. Lyall carried his thermal scope eq plus a .22 mag for culling magpies, rabbits and the like to keep the area more pristine, and Sam carried a shortened suppressed .243 Marlin with a 2-7 vortex diamond back optic on it – his preferred bush gun. I also carried several knives for the hopeful butchering process, and my 300 BLK shortened Ruger Ranch.

This thing had been plaguing me with its different factory supersonic and subsonic rounds capability, so I wanted to put matters to bed with it and find out if the Hornady rounds were worth the hype. This, again, was just surplus weight. All of us carried the standard hunting accessories of Binos and belt with knives GPS and safety equipment as well. Continuing the slog in, thankfully, there were no major hills involved. It was golden hour and the resting heart rates were already in red, making the frequent cooling river crossings a welcome sight.

This is where having those walking sticks come in handy, believe it or not. I didn’t actually carry them, but a good bit of Manuka or redundant 300 BLK would suffice if I needed it in the river. Sam had a hand carved Manuka pole, which he’d admittedly done a very good job on, as his walking river crossing aide. After one knee operation, and another one on the way, I couldn’t recommend them enough.

“Sam’s last words of advice were, “just don’t shoot a f***ing horse”

After about five small river crossings and some fantastic clearings walked blatantly through – with potential “deery” slips for glassing late afternoon passed up for getting to the hut and plenty of wild horses spooked – we had reached the last climb. Lyall had point, Sam middle, and I was tail end Charlie: ie, the slow and overweighted buffoon.

My job in the scenario was just to put one foot in front of the other and focus on not rolling my ankle or ruining my other knee. I became quite interested in Sam’s dog’s clear indicating into a certain clearing down by the river bed as we gained elevation up to the Marae and final top clearing. Daylight was fading and any long distance (300m+) target identification was getting off the cards. I was also “blowing date carrying all the kit” so personal patrol focus was at 25. Lyall’s and Sam’s must have been at 10%, or they just weren’t looking hard enough, because in that final clearing Lyall walked through head down arse up onto the last rise, and Sam began to walk through musing at the wild horses – in particular, a foal with its mum.

Then it was my turn. I stopped immediately as I spotting something non-horse-like move cautiously at the Western edge of the clearing. Spidey senses now tingling, I focussed in and tried to ID the movement. DEER. I hissed at Sam. Lyall was still plodding up the hill, not a care in the world. This now at a safe 90-degree angle, and to the left of that was in a total safe shooting direction. I moved slow and deliberate as I hissed “Sam! Deer!” again. Positive ID as the hind now walked out on clearing edge, possibly confused by the horses’ scent.

I was laying down, upclipping my pack and rolling over to get into a stable shooting position. At this distance, which we measured after the fact 70 yards, a standing shot would have been fine. But I wanted it to count, and silently put my bipod up and took my soft scope cover off. I was at 4x magnification and no adjustments necessary. Gun unloaded, so cycled the bolt and chucked a sako 165 grain up the spout.

The deer knew something was up so made a 180 degree turn and began to step of into the forest edge. Sam’s last words of advice were,

“just don’t shoot a f****ing horse” as I squeezed the trigger off and dropped the poor thing on the spot like a sack of spuds. 165 grains of 308 at terminal velocity will do that to ‘ya. The forest’s evening noises were broken by the suppressed crack, and then silence took over the valley as the wild horses scarpered. Lyle came to check out the damage saying, “I told you bro – deer everywhere”.

He wasn’t wrong with what we would see in half an hour by the Marae, but now the real work had begun and we had to gut and string the poor thing up in a shady spot, with Sam providing the “meat safe” to keep the flies off. That was the one benefit of shooting at absolute last light, as the meat would rapidly get a chance to cool and it wouldn’t likely spoil. As for shot placement, there was a tad back clipping the back of the lungs and obliterating the liver (which, admittedly, is not text book) but gave it what appeared to be an instant ethical death and no meat wastage whatsoever.

After hanging the deer from a sturdy Manuka tree and getting the meat safe up and sealed, we proceeded to don headlamps in the fast-fading light and walk up the hill to the camp hut and Marae.

The Marae had several cleared fields in a 200m radius of it, and I thought it would be rude not to test out the thermal and new torch/spot light gear. I shone my P7 Led Lenser on the bush edge of the first clearing and boom! Four deer eyes were starring bright green back at us. We decided to get to our accommodation, off load the gears and leave those deer alone for another hunt. They were definitely the ‘low hanging fruit’.

The hut was well set up with all the creature comforts, including a fire which had piping through it for water heating. Not standard issue on your average DOC hut (and probably not to building code) but a very nice addition.

Dinner was served, somewhat justifying the huge loads in the packs, and we began our wind down for the evening. We got settled in the Wharenui for a brief few hours kip before up at first light for a stalk along the top clearing – checking to see if what was out the previous night was foolish enough to be out again in the AM.

The morning had small veil of fog across the valley and ideal wind. Lyle and I stalked the Southern top clearing behind the Marae whilst Sam pushed North East along the clearings and bush edge down towards the river. A bit of a scouting mission, to be fair. No deer seen, but a bit of sign and one not-long-dead carcass was found at the head of the clearing, indicating that either it had died in a fight with another stag or succumbed to another hunter’s poorly placed round and ran for a bit before it fell.

Midday occupied us with a late big breakfast while zeroing Lyle’s rifle with his new thermal scope, followed by a swim in the river (probably my personal highlight). Here we are, swimming in this ideal deeper pool of the river, where Sam’s casting flies at trout less than 50m upstream. The jammy bugger hooks and lands one, so that was wrapped in tinfoil with herbs and spices for dinner. The evening was spent glassing, prepping for the night hunt with Lyle’s thermal scope with my hand held thermal and spotlight for backup.

Just as the last light faded across the valley, I took one final look at very “deery” clearing across the river… which I’d been willing them to walk out on all day. They did: the only problem being the buggers were 800m away, and I don’t have a 300 WSM or much sniper training, so the decision was made to leave that side of the river for the roar.

Night fell and with it total darkness and a slight wind coming from the North. Not ideal for hunting the top clearing evening with all our night vision aides. Thankfully, Sam also returned to camp and regaled us with tales how he got “sooo close” to deer but they’d given him and the pooch the slip and he’d had a bit of an interesting walk back to camp with only one small, severely underpowered headlamp.

Lyle and I gathered our gears and made our way out onto the Northern edge of the clearings behind the Marae. One slight issue here was that the wind was definitely dropping, but still coming from behind us, and every time we took a glance into the thermal eq. we would completely loose our night vision.

I spotted two deer early on and we had to be very sure of our targets, as there were also wild horses and cattle beginning to feed in the clearing. Thankfully these animals masked some of our scent. Unfortunately this was not enough, off the clearing – avoiding a certain doom from a supersonic crack and flash out of the darkness.

We needed to change tactic, and fast, if we were to be successful. Having identified the field’s potential to hold animals, we skirted round the south eastern edge trying to get some slightly higher ground and sit and wait them out. I also let Lyle do the “thermaling” and I would now only operate mine with one eye closed to confirm deer ID, so as to not ruin my night vision and guide him into a shooting spot.

We moved 10m, stopped for 10 mins and “thermalled”, and repeated this a few times when two smaller heat signatures appeared near some old bee hives at the back of the clearing, feeding and sneaking their way out. We were too close to positively ID target, so I whispered to Lyle we’ll move 10m or so and stop thermal, wait and see what the animals were doing and move again.

When we would get close, nothing would be said. Just one squeeze on the shoulder to stop, two squeezes to move. This way we could cover ground silently and positively ID whilst getting the slight height we needed over the long grass to get that shooting angle.

Again, this process repeated: move, squeeze, stop, thermal, double squeeze, move again and so on. Lyle gave me the positive ID. I used mine to confirm. He very quietly said, “a hind and a yearling”. I confirmed it was likely, as didn’t initially see a velvet antler in the thermal, so it was the obvious conclusion. Lyle said he was ready to take the shot. I pinged a range at an area close to the beehives which gave me less than 150 yds. We were on.

“Take you time bro. As soon as you take the shot, I’ll shoot on white light and take out the yearling.”

This is a good time to mention that there were no other hunters or people in the area beyond or near our target, and we had 100% confirmed ID via two separate thermals. So in the interest of safety, we were good. Lyle lay pronate, extending his bipod as quietly as he could. I did the same and stood by with Led lenser to illuminate the scene.

“I’m ready.
“Okay, take the shot when ready.”
BOOM!

Instantly I turned on the spot light to see where and if then animal fell. Lyle mentioned it had run a bit behind a tree and said the yearling was still there. We waited. The yearling waited, and appeared increasing nervous about its predicament as we observed through thermal. The lights had been turned back off and we wanted to see if another shot was required – not fully being able to confirm from where we were if the deer had run.

Sam, now behind us, clearly heard the shot from the hut and proceeded to walk in our direction from behind us with his little red light head lamp on, with the dog to track the shot deer. Noise was heard up ahead and Lyle said he wanted to take the yearling. I was all for that, but wanted to confirm what had actually happened.

We stood, moved, stopped and heard movement ahead. I knelt and turned on the P7. One thing for sure: it was a bloody big Stag-like looking yearling, so this dispelled that myth.I let that one run off for another day, as it now raised suspicion that we had indeed been looking at two young stags.

“One thing’s for sure: it was a bloody big Stag-like looking yearling.”

Sam and Lucy the pooch made their way over to us and we briefly explained what had happened, and where we thought the deer was. Lyle was quite confident he had aimed well, but perhaps not so confident in his gear, yet reckoned it was a hit.

Sam confirmed he had heard the impact from back at the hut. We made the weapons safe and let the dog do the work. She immediately proceeded to the direction the deer were in, tracked around and I began to think it was a fruitless search. Sam reassured me and said “trust the dog, let it do the work” and we did – shifting left and towards the beehive area. Then… a spot of blood. Lucy was onto it alright, and at that moment – as we pushed into the Manuka thicket – I got a good whiff of strong deer scent.

“Yep boys, there’s a deer around here somewhere!”

As if we were in any doubt, Sam found the young stag 20m into the bush, well expired with a through-and-through double lung shot. We gutted and dragged the animal back across the fields, past the Marae and hung from the local designated animal carcass hanging tree: acknowledging we had our work cut out for us tomorrow, with a pack up and skinning, meat sorting and dreading the carry out.

Sleep came very quickly that night, as well as a sleep in. I proceeded down to my deer shot on the first night to do the butchery breaking down, with my full pack and gear good to go.

After being bitten by dozens of sand-flies and doing an alright job of the skinning (not my best work but will make a good tanning job when I get it done) one of the locals, Tom, who was the caretaker of the land, came down with two horses and told me to place the meat in evenly weighted bags and then into the saddle bags on his pack horses.

I was over the moon with this offer. He had to go to town and said it would make our collective walkout all the move pleasant. It was, after all, a meat hunting trip – so we wanted to get maximum meat back to the car. Having just picked up the 51 bags of mince and 48 bags of sausages between us from the butcher, I’d say old Tom was right. Good on ‘ya mate.

As for heading back there again, I received message with a photo of Lyle’s son holding a 9-point velvety stag shot on the clearing he sighted his rifle in, on that Tuesday night after we’d hunted the weekend prior. Needless to say, I’ll be going back to the Ureweras in April.

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