West Coast Free Range Tahr, By Michael Gibson

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New Zeland tahr hunting really gets into your veins. It is a hunt that demands you prepare for months in advance. This includes both physical fitness and careful gear preparation. It is a hunt you will yearn for year in and year out once you have gotten a taste.

My initial goal for New Zealand was to experience hunts for each of the available game species, self guided, over a ten year period. The rationale behind the ten-year timeline was to capitalize on my legs being young and fresh… but now I want 20 years to achieve my goal! Five years in, I’m right where I started, hung up on chasing tahr in the West Coast mountains of New Zealand. It is a hunt that always satisfies and is always enjoyed, between mates, with long lasting memories and friendships being the true trophies we always manage to come home with.

Tahr Hunt

We’ve had some brutal trips with the kind of weather that makes hunting the mountains of NZ not for the inexperienced. But we’ve always come out smiling, with or without a trophy animal. Nasty weather and tough conditions are part and parcel on a trip into the West Coast mountains of New Zealand and a reality that you have to accept. We all dream of those perfect weeks with perfect glassing weather, but even then you have to watch what you wish for, a bit of dirty weather may be just what you need to secure that trophy bull tahr.

The stage on which these wilderness tahr hunts take place is one of the most scenic and breathtaking backdrops you could ever wish for. Jagged mountain peaks, deep mountain valleys and clear streams and glaciers form what is the untamed West Coast wilderness at the bottom of the Earth.

Preparation for my yearly pilgrimage starts not long after the New Year celebrations. The Christmas cheer is put to the side and preparation starts with an intensive fitness regime and replacement gear purchases. Fine tuning your gear and body is essential to giving yourself the best opportunity to have a safe and memorable hunt. To this day, I have never met anyone that was disappointed with the experience, as long they went in prepared.

On this trip, our mountain adventure was going to be particularly special as we had two hunters that had not hunted overseas or chased Tahr before, two good mates that were about to experience the hunt and time of their lives.

Tahr Hunt

The start of the balloted winter tahr hunting in 2014 was met with particularly severe weather and many of the popular haunts of the ballot blocks and huts were not huntable due to endless wet weeks and filthy weather. The forecast for our trip looked grim. There were big landslides and many passes were being cut off due to the sheer ferocity of Mother Nature. It was disheartening to see other people’s hunts go down the drain but this is the reality of New Zealand tahr hunting. It is simply something you must prepare yourself for.

I was lucky enough to draw my second preference in the tahr ballot for 2014. It was later than my previous hunts, however in the end that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This year the earlier periods saw almost no hunting due to the impenetrable weather systems pounding the mountains.

As the weeks grew to days, we were finally at the airport. Hannes and Aaron, the first timers, were well-prepared fitness and gear wise. They had a good mental picture of what to expect. After what seemed like a million phone calls and questions, they were ready. Hannes had spent many a night in the (New Zealand) Alps in the past so he was heading back for a reunion. Only this time it would be all the more exciting with the addition of a firearm, optics and gear.

The flight over from Sydney, Australia seemed to take only minutes. We did not stop talking the whole way. I am sure we sounded like school kids on an excursion. Mike had flown out the day before and hence took care of all the fun jobs like picking up the car, shopping for food, getting our mountain radio squared away and verifying our stash of gear was ready for the task ahead.

Upon arriving we had the interesting task of fitting 4 guys and all their gear in the hire car but with the precision of a tetris master we were away. We headed out of Queenstown to our backpacker accommodation at Wanaka. This is where we had to spend the night due to a landslide that saw the pass closed at night for safety reasons.

That night we nervously checked the weather and spoke with the helicopter pilot about the week ahead. The weather was looking sensational for the beginning of the week and this was unfamiliar territory. Something Mike and I were definitely not used to. It would be a dream start and significantly increase our chances of securing some early bulls. It looked like we were going to get at least four good days of clear weather before another system rolled in to turn things filthy again.

Tahr ballot blocks are not accessible by foot so you ballot for the opportunity to land in these remote wilderness blocks. Once there you can chose your own adventure and fly camp as far away as your legs will carry you.

The next day we weren’t at the helipad more than 20 minutes before we were told we were next to go in. The fun was about to start. Clear skies were a welcome sight for our flight into the ballot block. Our bodies and gear were jammed into the chopper like sardines in a can. In no time at all we were off, crossing the first pass, which always gives you a very real and up close feeling for the enormity of the country you are about to step into. It’s a feeling I long for every year before our hunt.

The unloading from the chopper is always a fast one. It is a very well oiled machine James Scott has running. It has served the hunters very well at a very reasonable price. As the chopper took off, I laid on our gear in the rotor wash and had the familiar great feeling of reality setting in. The adventure was finally upon us, and the temptation to grab my binos and spotter before the last of the rotor wash escaped camp kicked in.

Mike and I couldn’t believe our luck with the weather as we removed layers of clothing and started setting up base camp for the week. I don’t know how many times we must have said, “It has never been like this before”. There was next to no snow visible, a first for our trips into these wild mountains, and the conditions were actually quite warm for the location.

Tahr Hunt

This year base camp consisted of three tents, a tarp (set up over the kitchen), and an old dome tent erected to keep the gear dry and free up space in the sleeping tents. After base camp was secured we made a plan to head up higher to start glassing the first bulls of the trip. In just over an hour the bulls started to move and we were all excited. A few potential hunts were planned for the coming days but our main priority was to make a fly camp early whilst the weather conditions were favorable. This needed to be the following day as the forecast was suggesting that Wednesday was going to be the last of the good weather so we had to take advantage of our window of opportunity.

With a few bulls spotted there was plenty of excited chitchat over dinner spent under a sea of stars. The view was spectacular that night. A few extra Captain Morgan’s were enjoyed as two full SLR batteries were used up photographing the clear starry night. We each mentally prepared for a big walk in the morning to a high fly camping spot.

Tahr Hunt

The next morning we awoke to another fine day. Not long after dragging ourselves out of bed we were glassing the high spots and watching tahr. They were already in the highest crags, retreating to their daytime caves and high bedding areas. It was clear that we needed to move higher to have any chance of catching one of these better bulls out in the open. With no snow the bulls were still living in the absolute highest bluffs. Most were sighted 1700m and above so we were going to have our work cut out for us.

After a quick breakfast Aaron spotted a bull well within hunting range from base camp. The bull was moving fast and heading for the high stuff so Aaron had to get a hunt started immediately, but that’s his story to tell. Needless to say, after an eventful morning with the first bull getting rolled, it was time to gear up and head for a flat spot up high, one we had identified in the past. It was about 500m higher than base camp requiring a two-hour walk to get there with the backpacking gear.

The walk seemed easier than in previous years. I am not sure if it was the lack of snow or better preparation for the hunt but either way it felt good to set up a high camp that opened up a vast area of remote country. It gave us a better shot at these mature bulls inhabiting the skyline above us. They are renowned for slipping away at first light and coming out at last light.

As we were setting up fly camp a nice bull crested the hill and started staring at us. I’m sure he was wondering what the hell had just invaded his space. There were people diving all over the place for cameras, rifles and binoculars. The tahr watched us for a short while then shot off over the ridge never to be seen again.

That afternoon as we watched several bulls working a very high tussock bench, one in particular caught our eyes. It was clear that we were looking at a very mature animal, with plenty of age rings present and weight that went all the way back. We estimated him at 12.5 inches (minimum), but it’s very hard to rate these bulls down to the inch, particularly at such distances.

As the sun disappeared and the moon rose the sky went pink and gave us one of the best panoramic views I’ve seen in the mountains to date. The clear skies and natural colours were remarkable and very hard to leave for our descent back to fly camp.

The morning light takes forever to enter these deep valleys so the next day most of us were well awake and waiting in anticipation for the day ahead when it was light enough to start hiking. We started the climb that would allow us to see into the next catchment and shortly had bulls climbing out all around us, some old and some young. It was confirmed that we had made the right decision to move higher.

We started glassing a 360 degree radius of peaks, crags and bluffs and soon spotted a few bulls in the distance. There were a few nannies close and a few bull tahr in iced up unreachable areas but nothing that was screaming for a stalk to take place.

Tahr Hunt

Aaron and I decided to try and climb to skyline and have a look where we’d seen a few nannies bed down. We hoped to find an old bull with them but I also wanted to have a look into the back of a bluff where I’d had watched a decent bull disappear the previous day.

As we climbed it became very apparent that crampons would have been of real value this year. Big zigzags across the faces were required to avoid the incredibly dangerous snow faces that had turned rock solid. These chutes always seemed to funnel you off a cliff, and they were avoided at all costs. This was the kind of terrain that made hunting in NZ unguided an adventure but one that should not be undertaken lightly. After a maze of navigation we finally started to make some elevation and an hour or so later we reached the 1750m mark.

We reached a very loose steep section when suddenly a tahr whistled at us from less than 50m away. Three nannies and some yearling bulls were watching us make our way up the whole time and we’d managed to get too close. A few snaps were taken and we let them walk off fairly unalarmed. Unfortunately, this call would also have alarmed anything else close by, so we stopped for ten minutes to glass and have a drink.

As I glassed back down the next valley I spotted what seemed to be two big bulls more than two kilometers away. Due to the climb, I’d decided not to take my spotter on this stalk, but I quickly became impatient to have a better look. They were out feeding with nannies on a very remote and quiet face and both bulls were very heavy set with big manes. My gut said I was looking at two mature bulls but I needed a closer look. Due to the distance, no horns could be identified, let alone a true evaluation of just how mature they were. I needed to get into much closer range.

Tahr Hunt

We pressed on higher for a short period, but were soon bluffed out. This turn of events was enough to motivate me to get back down in record time to my spotter. I wanted to see if there was a chance of hunting one of these big boys down the valley.

After powering down to my spotting scope, I realized that I was blocked from seeing into the remote bench where I last saw the bulls. I informed Mike and Hannes of what I had seen and we changed position to try and get a better look at these promising but elusive tahr.

After a short climb up the opposite side, we had a clear look at where they were last seen and we weren’t disappointed. They were bedded in direct sunshine, just lapping up some daytime warmth in their remote hideaway. With three Swarovski spotters fixed hard on the bulls, I was certain that I was looking at the class of bull I wanted to hunt and take home. He had excellent body mass, a mane that hung past his knees, clear weight in his horns that carried all the way back. But he was living in a prick of a spot to get to.

We were a 1.5 km’s from the face the bull was bedded on and there looked to be three deep creeks and several sections of impassable ice to cross just to get to a half decent shooting position. One thing we have learned about these mountains is sometimes you just have to suck it and see if you can make it, but at the same time no tahr is worth risking your life for. Mike and I geared down to the minimum weight possible, taking only the bare essentials for the stalk and our own safety. We started the GPS plotting right away as we predicted it was going to be a maze of ice, bluffs, creeks and cliffs to make it to the bench they were on and coming back on the same route without a GPS would have been nearly impossible.

As we started the journey and planned a route there was little to no optimism that we would make it into range but we gradually plugged away at it and found ourselves slowly closing the gap as the hunt went on. I was getting more and more optimistic as we reached what looked like the halfway point and crossed a jagged creek.

We were forced to make many a new plan on the fly in order to get past the sketchy points. Safety and a return route were the priority, and we were getting stretched to our limits, just shy of being past the point of comfort. In the end, slow and steady saw us through and we reached the second creek. We were rewarded with a nice bull jumping from its bed and staring at us from just a short distance away. I contemplated taking this bull as he was quite a solid bull and mature. However my eyes were set hard on the bull we’d set out to find. I had a good feeling that he was an old boy and was willing to roll the dice on him. We pressed on.

By this point, we were starting to break the back of the stalk and we’d managed to navigate some hairy spots safely. We found a way down to the last creek and had a quick drink before we headed up the last frozen spur. We had one more hill to climb and then we’d be on them. Climbing cautiously we peered over and Mike ranged the face. We were only 300m away but we couldn’t see the bull!

Given how long the stalk had taken us, I’d had a bad feeling that the bull might have walked off and this nagging doubt had turned into reality. Just then I spotted a big mature bull cresting the ridge, he was blown up and following a nanny. I quickly checked him out and was certain that he was the one I was after.

He was completely unaware of our presence. I started setting up a good rest as the shot was going to be one of the longer shots for me at 280m. My Kimber Montana 300WSM was sighted for a zero of 250m with a 150gr Barnes TTSX so I knew I could hold on the shoulder without the use of the ballistic turret. I was only going to be 2.3 inches low at 280m.

I waited for the big bull tahr to present a broadside shot and turned on the daytime illumination in my reticle to better aim against the tahr’s dark coat. I have found it helps me hold and concentrate on the point I am aiming at more effectively than a standard crosshair.

Although it felt like eternity, it was not long before the tahr presented the shot I was looking for. By this time I knew I was looking at a good bull and as he propped and turned broadside to look at his nanny up the hill I squeezed gently and sent the pill on its way. I saw what I thought was a good hard hit. Mike also called hit but to my dismay he took off in my direction like he hadn’t been hit at all. He was running full tilt towards me so I took a running shot missing him cleanly at 260m. He started heading for the deep gouged out creek and I was going to have one last chance to slow him up before there was a better than even chance of losing him.

I had one round left in the chamber and needed it to count. If he fell down the creek, off the bench or basically went any further he was going to be extremely hard to retrieve. He made his way to the creek pass where he propped one last time. He was now at 250m and I just held on the centre of his chest and squeezed gently. He was stoned! He slid to the bottom of the creek where he disappeared. I knew that he was down and dead. I just wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to retrieve him, something that is a real possibility in these areas the tahr call home.

A few brief celebratory moments were shared and a quick call on the radio was made to let the boys know that the bull was down. Daylight hours were getting away on us so we quickly packed up our gear and headed over towards the edge where the bull was last seen.

Here we were faced with two final hurdles, a frozen face and a deep gutted creek that we had to assume the bull was laying somewhere in. We headed over to the frozen face and started cutting steps in it so we had good footholds through a 5m section of rock solid compressed snow. Once we were past that we could slip as far as we liked to the tussock below with no risk of going anywhere.

After navigating this section we made our way to the steep creek where I started my descent to see if I could see my bull. Half way down I spotted his long puffed up mane in the running creek. Light was fading fast so I quickly had a look at him and pulled him out of the water so he’d be easier to cape the following day.

I could tell he was a real beauty and my best to date. Time was of the essence now and we had a big walk back through some dodgy country. We certainly did not want to be doing that in the dark. I propped him up out of the water and left him for the night.

The walk back was very memorable for Mike and I. We had achieved one of the goals we’d set a year ago. Since last year’s hunt we’d talked about setting a fly camp to try and get one of these old bulls and our plan had worked. It was a year in the making. Hannes and Aaron captured our return perfectly with pictures and film as we celebrated a successful hunt.

The following day we were up early in the gloom trying to get high enough to catch a bull for one my other mates. There was one in particular we’d been watching for days but he always climbed and disappeared into the skyline at first light and disappeared. He was old for a reason. We managed to get good film of him, but he wasn’t going to go that easily, as he was well out of reach by the time we could make a stalk on him. This bull lived on the very top and until the snow pushed him down he was safe from any foot hunter. There was nothing close to a way up without full climbing gear.

After glassing until after daybreak we decided to part ways with Aaron. He headed back to base camp to have a go at a second bull he’d spotted closer to camp. Mike, Hannes and I needed to head back over to cape and photograph my bull. We took the trip back to the downed bull slow. We had time on our side and this time actually knew the route. We spotted a few juvenile tahr on the way over but nothing mature enough to sidetrack our plans. It was good for Hannes to get an up-close look at the country Mike and I covered the previous day. It was certainly a different place from how it looked through a spotting scope! In one spot Hannes let go of a stick that instantly disappeared into the abyss below, never to be seen again.

Arriving back at the Tahr I was stoked to see how big a bull he was, both in the body and the horns. We did an official measurement and he was 13 inches with 9 ¼ inch bases, which I later confirmed at home to be 44 ½ Douglas points. He was a nice heavy bull all the way to his tips and approximately 7.5 years old.

After some photos in front of a perfect mountain backdrop, I caped him out for a shoulder mount and loaded him up for the long trip back to base camp. The plan was for Hannes and I to head back to base camp to meet Aaron while Mike stayed up for one more night in the hopes of getting a shot at Mr. Big that had been eluding us in the high bluffs.

Tahr Hunt

The journey back to our fly camp was uneventful and once I loaded up my gear with my rifles, camp and optics I was loaded to the hilt. The only spot for the cape was around my neck. This made for a sweet smelling sleeping bag the rest of the hunt!

Half way back to camp Aaron spotted us descending and gave us a tip from the other side of the valley via radio that some tahr had dropped out of a section of country I knew well. Unfortunately we had already dropped about 500m of elevation below where he’d spotted them.

Fairly tired and well loaded we weren’t deterred and decided it was well worth a go. But we had to move fast. There was no way we were going to make the climb fully loaded and still get off the dangerous stuff with the last of the daylight. We quickly dumped our packs on a very identifiable landmark and went up with one rifle and one small camera. This is where the hard yards in training paid off. We pressed extremely hard and tested our fitness to the limit, climbing very quickly.

We stopped only once for a quick breath whilst making sure we knew the path back to our gear. We pressed on again getting to a position where we were going to crest the last rise. We climbed up and peered over into a gloomy creek where some nannies were feeding undisturbed.

Tahr Hunt

In no time, a black blob soon joined them, after a quick ID through the scope he was deemed to be a shooter. A great first tahr if we could get our part done. Hannes turned the illumination on to have a point to aim on the bull, now black in the fading light. After some minor adjustments to the rest and scope Hannes was ready to touch off. This was not only his first chance at a tahr but his first hunt for a South Pacific animal. I was excited and sat back and watched the bull, waiting for Hannes to squeeze off. It seemed like an eternity but in reality it was probably more like ten seconds. Light was fading fast and I knew that we had no time to stuff around.

With the blink of an eye Hannes squeezed the trigger and I heard the spine snapping report you like to hear if you visually miss the result of a shot at last light. I had no doubt that he had been hit well. Unfortunately I lost sight of it the second he connected. I watched nannies run everywhere with no bull following. I was sure the bull was down but I didn’t see him roll or disappear and searched my field of view for any sign of him.

Seconds later the tahr came lifelessly rolling down the adjacent creek and it was confirmed Hannes’ first hunt was successful! Some high fives were exchanged and then the reality that we really needed to get off the hill quickly set in. We were still over an hour from camp even though we could see Aaron’s headlight flashing around down stream.

We quickly climbed up to the bull to have a quick look at him. Unfortunately we couldn’t stay and enjoy the moment any longer. I managed to get one very quick photo of Hannes so the moment would be frozen in time, but the caping and proper photos were going to have to wait until morning.

Hannes was looking for a hunt with a bit of everything and he definitely got that. Fitness got us this bull. Without it we would have never got there in time. It was awesome to be a part of such a fulfilling hunt that resulted in a quality animal for Hannes.

After the shot we could not stop talking. It was a very hurried decent. There was no way we were getting back before dark, but we got through the boulder field to the creek, just in time to punch bush for an hour in the dark back to base camp.

By this point the load was starting to get heavy and the tahr cape had turned me into a two-legged rutting bull. I was looking forward to laying the pack down and having a clean up and even more excited for a solid base camp meal and a couple of Captain Morgan’s to celebrate two first bulls and my best bull to date.

We got Mike on the UHF that night and relayed the weather and the story of Hannes’ success. It was fair to say after a good feed, and epic recounts of the hunts over a couple of drinks, we were well and truly done. The warmth of the sleeping bag called.

Unfortunately, Mike’s extra day up high did not pan out. After Mike returned and recharged we planned another big walk up the steep stuff to recover and cape Hannes’ bull. After the caping was done we headed to the big creek in our system and climbed as high as we could before hitting the foot of the slab rock faces. We set up nice and comfortable and started glassing and enjoyed the scenery for what would likely be our last day with clear weather. As the day wore on, we started getting blasted by the icy wind that had begun to roar up the valley. The forecasted low-pressure system had started to move in so we didn’t last long and made our descent. As we headed back to camp we could see the weather heading in from the coast and the mountain radio forecast confirmed we were in for a serious dose of West Coast weather.

That night, we listened to the radio and it did not sound good. The original forecast predicted Thursday rain, Friday rain, and clearing Saturday but it had turned into Thursday to Sunday rain heavy at times. Over the next 56 hours, we had over 12 inches of rain, a true dose of wet West Coast weather.

When Saturday arrived, we were not hopeful at all for our planned extraction, as it was a complete white out around camp. We got moving slowly that morning as we felt the chances of making it out were slim. About halfway through the morning a chopper peeled through the fog below camp and landed. As nice as it was to know we were going to make it out on time and as planned, we all felt a little dismayed at the prospect of leaving our mountain home.

Tahr Hunt

The trip had gone perfectly. We couldn’t have asked for more. Everyone brought something different to the hunt and we all concurred that we’d achieved everything we set out to do. The camp, hunt and final result were all top shelf. It was one of those hunts that that has you planning the return before you’ve even taken your boots off. Good preparation with gear and fitness makes these hunts world class without the big price tag and results in memories and friendships that last a lifetime.

 


 

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