HOW TO HUNT RED STAGS DURING MARCH/APRIL
Put simply, timing of the roar revolves around when hinds are cycling (i.e. when they’re ovulating and ready to mate). At least that’s the gist of it anyway. Stags scent out cycling hinds and essentially spend their time marking out their territory, roaring, mating, and defending their harem against other stags. And it is without doubt one of the most exciting times to hunt stags.
By way of summary, I will firstly outline the most important variables which influence when red hinds are in cycle, and then move onto discuss the WHERE, HOW and WHAT of hunting red stags in the roar later. Typically the following variables that influence when hinds cycle, and thus when the roar kicks in, are:
- Time of year – generally red hinds ovulate between late March and mid April.
- Shorter days – shortening days are a natural phenomena during the seasonal transition from Summer to Autumn. This helps with a quick transition from daylight to dark and dark to daylight, acting as a trigger for hinds to begin cycling.
- Full moon - Also a full moon is thought to help bring hinds into cycle, hence the roar tends to kick off on or near-aboutsaround Easter (the equinox), and hinds have been known to cycle again on the next full moon after the equinox.
- Cold sharp changes in weather – A brisk, bitterly cold change in weather (i.e. Southerlies) can often help kick start the roar, as it exaggerates the change in season.
- Age and population of hinds – mature hinds (i.e. 3 years plus), are more likely to ovulate earlier than yearlings and 2 year old females. And you can only imagine how keen stags are when they scent a catchment full of estrogen from a healthy hind population. Stags will literally shift entire catchments to seek out the ladies.
- Stag activity in the area – from the moment a stag’s velvet hardens, they begin to rub their velvet off, scrape trees, and stain their antlers in anticipation for the challenges that come with mating. The location of these scrapes, rubs, and/or wallows will tend to be within the vicinity of hinds. By late February / early March you will begin to notice stags separating from their bachelor groups as they search for hinds. So, focusing your attentions in areas that typically hold hinds is equally important.
Ideally, if nature plays her part and all these seasonal variables are all thrown in and mixed at the same time; then hinds will begin cycling and stags will start roaring. It’s as simple as that.
Now, if we can agree on the above, the next most important things to consider are WHERE do we want to hunt, HOW do we find a descent stag, and WHAT do we do once we’ve found one?
First of all, let’s look at where you prefer to hunt. Are you predominantly a bush stalker, or do you prefer to hunt the open tops? For those that enjoy hunting in both environs equally as much, you can probably pick and choose what information/suggestions can be applied to your hunting grounds. But when reading this, be mindful of the fact that we are talking about your roar spot. You’re primary objective is to bring home a rack of antlers - and the following can be applied to both North and South Island hunters.
Select WHERE this year’s roar will be based on:
- previous experience (or other people’s experience) in the area
- availability and location of hinds (typically hinds will be found at the lower to mid slope contour, and therefore stags will be in this band also)
- quality of heads in the area
- availability of feed (hinds will still nibble during the roar, so focus on food pockets)
- availability of sign (prints, wallows, rubbings, game trails, droppings etc)
- what the bush canopy is like (for bush hunting, red deer generally prefer pockets of podocarp as opposed to beech forest)
- availability of leading spurs and ridges (stags love to gather their harem onto spurs, bush terraces and particularly at the toe of slopes)
- topography (deer prefer gentler sloping faces / terraces that catch the morning & evening sun)
- accessibility and proximity from tracks, huts, wild animal recovery operations (WARO), or other hunting parties (deer are less spooky in less disturbed areas
- weather (immediately after a cold, wet front is an excellent time to head bush – so if you were planning to hunt the Tongariro National Park but you knew a cold, wet front was about to clip the Eastern Kawekas, then try your luck in the Eastern Kawekas for a couple of days). The key here is to be flexible – have at least two or three roar spots up your sleeve
In fact, much of what is mentioned above applies to hunting reds in the open tops as well – (with only a few slight differences to consider which will be covered later)
For bush hunters in the South Island, generally stags will have moved down off of the tops after velveting (if they managed to survive WARO) to attend the hinds which predominantly occupy the lower sections of the catchment. This isn't to say you won't find them in the tops, but more often than not, during the build up to the roar, stags will mark out their territory, gather their hinds and push them onto prominent bush spurs or terraces where they can hideaway, cast their roars and defend their harem. Patches of ribbonwood and lancewoods located at the head of gullies and basins (in that belt of alpine scrub) can be a good spot to find fresh rubbings. This is a good starting point.
13 point red taken on 31st March 2005
Once we’ve identified WHERE we’re going, the next question is HOW do we approach and hunt our area and HOW do we find a descent red stag in the bush? Without going into too much detail, John Bissell covered some fundamental principles of HOW to hunt in NZ Hunter Issues 4 & 5, of his series “So you want to be a hunter?”
Here, John highlights the importance of:
- knowing where, when and what to look for (concentrate in areas that meet some of the criteria – also outlined in my article from Issue 1 – Hunting Red Stags in the Alpine Environment);
- understanding deer preferences (also covered in my Issue 1 article);
- finding fresh sign (prints, rubs, scrapes, game trails, browsing, wallows, hair, bedding areas, droppings etc);
- using the wind (ALWAYS hunt into the wind and use catabatic air currents to your advantage); and
- establishing your stalking technique(s)
Again, these HOW principles (above) can be applied to hunting deer in the open tops as well.
If you can put these HOW’s to practice, you are well on your way to locating a stag. Just remember, if you come across some hinds during the roar and there’s no stag in sight; just sit back for a few minutes and watch what they do. More often than not there’s a stag nearby that keeps them on their toes and gathered close, so he won’t be far away. If you can’t pin point the stag’s whereabouts, give a low groan through whatever you use for a roar horn (or simply cup your hands) and see what happens. Make sure you’re well concealed though as you’ll soon notice the hinds staring in your direction. If you can grab the attention of the females, then the chances are, you’ll be able to get the attention of the dominant stag and fingers crossed he’ll either roar back to let you know his whereabouts, or he’ll quietly come in to check you out. Be mindful that he may try and cut your wind.
Wade (right) and I with a stag each on 9th April 2004
WHAT do you do in the likely event that you hear a stag roaring in the distance? As a suggestion, a good way to work out his whereabouts is to cup your ears (like Dumbo) and try to triangulate his position on the hill by listening. This is difficult when you’re already in the bush on the same side of the hill as him, but if he’s roaring from the opposite face it’s a lot easier to catch his roar (most times I purposefully hunt the opposite face, moaning and keeping an ear out for faint roars that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard if I were on the same side of the valley). Another helpful pointer is to sidle for elevation and remain out of earshot from major rivers and creeks as they will drown out most sounds. Keep the stag interested by casting out the odd roar while you begin to hatch a plan of attack. Personally, I prefer to hunt in a pair with one guy given the task of roaring while the other sneaks in for the kill. Personally I have found this to be a very effective method.
Now, this is probably a good time to remind everyone of the importance of wearing blaze orange and identifying your target because this time of the year poses the highest risk for deer shooting accidents in New Zealand. How you approach the stag is entirely up to you as the pair hunting, but essentially the method I refer to involves the guy who has the task of roaring to hold back slightly, while the other sneaks in for the shot. And you should only be hunting with someone you’ve hunted with before, understand, and trust with your life. The roar has the ability to excite people and get their adrenalin pumping; and the last thing you want is an unfamiliar person with a firearm to lose focus. Another thing I recommend during the roar are two-way radios (set on the lowest volume) so I can remain in communications with my hunting mate if we ever split up. Knowing what your hunting mate is doing is vital.
Another scenario that many of us are faced with during the roar is when a stag is roaring but he won’t budge from the thickest, shittiest piece of bush in the valley. You have been roaring back and forth at each other for a while and you can tell the stag is well worked up, but he’s still not coming out of that thicket! And the bush is miles too thick to sneak in without making any inconspicuous noises… You’ve even shaken branches and made a hell of a racket to let him know you are just as fired up as he is and raring for a battle… but still he refuses to budge.
Dan Curley with a mirror matched 10 pointer roared to within 10m in thick manuka.
Photo taken of a 10 point red taken in the Arthurs Pass National Park by Jon Astwood of Wellington, April 2006.
Photo taken of a young stag roared in close in Mt Aspiring National Park. Photo courtesy of Stephen Foote
I can only speak from experience here, but generally I do one of two things. These are either:
i) remove your shoes and sneak in ever-so quietly (which has its advantages if you’re able to execute it without making one flailing sound); or
ii) crash into the thick shit, shaking branches and making a hell of a racket (to give the impression you’re a raging bloody stag ready to fight).
In my opinion, crashing in his direction certainly gets you in on the stag as you’ll often catch him off guard as he holds his ground. But then you’ve got the issue of trying to get your bearings on where the stag is during your rip shit and bust approach - which often leaves you breathless and shaking for the shot anyway. And after all that, if the stag sees you first and realizes you’re not four-legged, then you’ll be pressed to get another chance.
Removing your shoes and making a stealthy approach in your woolen socks is probably what most conservative bush stalkers with half a brain would do. But unfortunately my inability to sneak in quietly has meant more mixed results with this method than with crashing in like an ape!! So if you ever find yourself in this predicament (and you will at some stage!) just go with your gut instinct. Do what feels most comfortable.
The only things that differ during the roar when hunting in the open tops is that you can generally see (glass) where you’re going and you’ve got more ground to cover to get there. Otherwise, the same principles apply – stags will still:
- hang out with hinds
- defend their territory (which is typically larger in area than with stags in the tighter bush)
- wallow and roar
- push their harem onto spurs, terraces, or tuck away at the toe of slopes
Canterbury watersheds have many classic examples of vast open tussock areas that were (prior to WARO) renowned for holding healthy, top quality red stags. Given the open nature of the terrain, animals would often hideaway on tussock terraces or flat benches tucked away in sheltered guts. Their elevation band generally ranged between 800m – 1300m if left undisturbed. However, with the onset of WARO and hunting activity in the area, these hot spots can be expected to vary considerably.
Tussock country in the likes of the Ruahines (again, this will largely depend on WARO activity in the area), but I think you’ll find stags more so in that bush country down off the open tussock. The stags won’t be feeding in the lush open basins like they were in late Spring – be prepared to drop down out of the open stuff and search out spurs and leading ridges.
It’s still a good idea to use the open tops for accessing and dropping down onto bush ridges and spurs, but I would tend to focus my hunting efforts in the bush itself. Camping in the open tops can have its advantages in terms of being able to hear faint roars further up/down the valley. But do bear in mind WHERE you plan to camp and hunt, and WHAT the catabatic winds are doing. Try to avoid camping in a spot where you might wind you’re hunting grounds (covered in my article on campsite selection – Issue 6).
Another thing to bear in mind during the roar is, if your intention is to hunt for a trophy, make note that the bigger, more mature stags typically roar earlier than the younger ones. From experience this has typically been in the last week of March and first few days of April. Again, this isn't always the case, but be prepared to encounter a lot of young animals the later you leave it. So if you’re motive is to simply shoot a stag of any size, then your best bet is to go when things are really cranking anywhere in the first two weeks of April (generally speaking). During this time you have more chance of getting a reply roar from stags of most ages.
For those who have internet access, this LINK (click on the blue LINK) may be of interest to you. Here you will find a handful of comments on when hunters consider the most active roar dates for red stags throughout parts of New Zealand.
In terms of hunt times, the best times of the day to hunt for stags remain to be the first couple of hours in the morning and last couple of hours in the evening. In fact, it’s quite common for stags to roar from the early hours of the morning (3.00am) until mid morning (10.30am), settle down, and then crank up again later in the afternoon (4.30pm) and roar through until late at night (11pm). If you’ve really struck it good, they may even roar all day and all night. And if that's the case, give it all you got because those days can be few and far between!! I haven't had a day like that since Fiordland in 2006.