By: Taygen Hughes
I awaken from my sleep in the run-down cabin on my friend’s sheep farm just as the natural light of the dawn sneaks through the cracks in the wall, gradually making out the spider’s webs and rat feces on the aged wooden panels and rusted corrugated iron. Below my bunk bed the choir (slightly off-key) of snoring men seek warmth in their sleeping bags as they fight to keep daylight at bay. Peering out the doorless doorway I make out the last moments of the Southern Cross, stars waning in a sky turning from black to deep azure. A crisp morning air touches my exposed face and I can smell its freshness. Just a few minutes more I decide, a few minutes before I unzip my bag and face the cold. That’s when I hear it; the powerful deep throated roar of a stag in the distance. I’m not alone, for suddenly all snoring stops and the room goes quiet. The morning roar of a red stag, known as the hunters’ alarm clock, has woken the cabin. Excitement grips the room as my companions look around, smiling in unison at the omen. This is hunting. This is New Zealand.
MADE IN NEW ZEALAND
My introduction into the hunting world dates back to when I was a young girl growing up in New Zealand. My dad, a possum trapper in the mountains behind my small town, was fed up of being wet and cold in the bush and decided to take matters into his own hands. So, as any innovative, do-it-yourself Kiwi would, he and my mother converted our tiny, one-car garage into a sewing and cutting room and hired a machinist. That was the beginning of my family’s hunting and farming apparel business known as Swazi Apparel, clothing designed by hunters, for hunters, all still to this day PROUDLY made in New Zealand.
Growing up with your parents’ running a clothing company meant weekends and holidays spent at the factory trying to entertain yourself. The mountains of fabric rolls became my brother’s and I’s jungle gym, running on top of the 20-foot cutting tables became the perfect place to play tag and the photos which hunters from all around the world sent in of themselves wearing our gear became our replacement for cartoons.
The latter always fascinated me as a child, I would lay on a pile of polar fleece jackets and flick through these photos, totally in awe of these men – and few women, who hunted.
They would be standing beside exotic animals I had only seen on TV, in remote locations half a world away from my small country, always smiling, always standing proud.
I wanted to be just like these people; to go on great adventures, exploring the forests and mountains of far off lands. I wanted to hunt animals and supply meat for my family. I wanted to be a hunter.
My dad was extremely busy throughout my childhood, fighting tooth and nail to keep our small company afloat, determined not to send our manufacturing to China. This meant dad missing swimming meets, hockey games and school plays, none of which mattered as he made up for this and more by taking me on our father-daughter hunting trips.
These hunts were so instructive for me growing up, for not only would dad teach me how hunt, skin and dress animals, he also went to great lengths to share with me his outdoors knowledge, the value of hunting ethically and his love of travelling the world. I learned respect and gratitude for the environment I was exploring and for the animals I was hunting. I experienced extreme pride in having gone out and used my senses and wits to stalk and shoot an animal. And I felt the incredible joy of being able to provide my family and community with meat from my hunt. Not once did my dad mention the fact that I was a female or take it easy on me because I was ‘just a girl.’ I was treated as an equal and expected to do everything that a male hunter could do.
BEERS FOR DEER
There are many differences between hunting in New Zealand and hunting in the rest of the world. The one that sticks out the most to me is how accessible it is to game, for once you have your firearms license you’re good to go. In my travels around the world people are surprised to learn that New Zealand actually has no hunting season (with the exception of waterfowl). We’re truly lucky with this as there’s no waiting around counting the days until the season starts, you can get up and go as you please.
Another difference is we have no tags, you’re able to hunt on public land as you please and if you decide to hunt on private land you can show up at a farmer’s door with a box of beers or the promise to share your meat and be welcomed onto the property. The fact we have no predators in New Zealand means animals are plentiful, in fact, our government has declared deer and tahr pests in some areas and operate kill and destroy missions to keep populations down to a minimum.
Something that also fascinates foreigners when they come to New Zealand is how we pack out our meat. We find turning the entire animal into a backpack the easiest method, especially when there is no 4WD vehicle access to the area where the animal has fallen. After gutting and removing the head, holes are then cut in the back legs, with the front legs made into a “T” shape by separating the tendon from the shinbone. You thread the front legs through these holes, lay yourself onto the body and put your arms through the straps like a backpack, use your stomach and thigh muscles to stand up and then you’re set.
PINEAPPLE LUMP STAG
My most memorable hunt was in the roar (rut) of 2009. It was Easter break and I flew home for the week to hunt my favorite hunt with my dad – red stag in the roar. We’d had an eventful start to our morning, having seen plenty sign of deer, while in the distance also hearing a few stags roar back to our calls, but as noon approached it had grown quiet and we decided to stop for a break and listen. Sitting back-to-back on he crest of a small ridge, we delved into our day-bags and began lunch.
After a few marmite sandwiches we started chowing down a packet of pineapple lumps (candy-like chewy chunks of pineapple dipped in chocolate – yum!) a long-time favorite candy for Dad and I.
I must have been really hungry, as I soon found myself trying to stuff as many lumps into my mouth as I could, with Dad laughing (quietly of course!) as he tried to keep up with his ravenous daughter. Suddenly, I heard the sound of leaves being trampled, then a twig snapping – and again! An animal was working its way up on my side of the ridge. I froze as some antler tips slowly appeared beneath me. Dad was watching me, puzzled at first, he quickly read my body language and knew I’d seen something. From his angle he couldn’t tell what, whereas I’d seen antlers and knew it was a stag.
Quietly I reached for my Remington .308. As slowly as I could manage I fed a round into the chamber. Knowing I couldn’t stand up fully, well not without falling over or being noticed, I raised myself on my heels into a somewhat uncomfortable squatting position. Leftover bits of sandwich adorned my legs while a very gooey and incredibly sticky pineapple lump juice ran down my chin.
Then he was there; a beautiful red stag a mere five yards from the tip of my barrel. I remember thinking to myself, “easy, easy now, no sudden movements” – he was so close! It seemed to take an eternity to raise the rifle to my shoulder, but once there I did not hesitate. The shot rang out and we both jumped up, mouths full of pineapple lumps. Dad has always taught me not to admire my first shot and to chamber another round as quickly as I possibly could. I held on the stag, which now lay at my feet.
Still Dad couldn’t see past me to the stag where he now lay at my feet. “Didugddit?” he spluttered out, chocolate drooling down the sides of his mouth. I turned to him and through my candy filled mouth grinned like a crazy village idiot “Eee-Igoddit!” We laughed and laughed. Then we laughed some more for good measure. Hugs all around, high fives, star jumps… you get my drift!
This hunt really was extra special to me. I think that’s because it was the first time I’d shot an animal without being told when to shoot. Something as simple as that gave me such a feeling of independence and pride that I’ll never forget. I’d come of age as a hunter. My Pineapple Lump Stag was not the biggest stag I’ve shot, but being out there having fun with my dad and learning new things simply made it the best and most memorable hunt.