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The story of this hunt began back in 2014 with Steph and I (recently engaged) discussing wedding plans. We’d agreed on a high country wedding and after some debate on the subject of the honeymoon, we’d decided New Caledonia was a fair compromise (Steph had wanted to holiday on a tropical island and I wanted to do a hunt). Now the only thing left was to work out was the date. To do a Rusa hunt in New Caledonia it would be best to time the trip to line up with the roar (i.e. July/August), which could mean the potential of a wedding in the high country requiring the bride to be married in an oilskin. Eventually another compromise was struck whereby we agreed to have the wedding in December 2015 and postpone the honeymoon to the following August.
After 9 months of waiting we finally arrived in New Caledonia. We spent the first week touring around the Island, doing a bit of fishing and site seeing before meeting up with John Clark of Coral Seas Safaris in La Foa for our week long hunt.
he first afternoon following our arrival found us out on the side of a hill glassing a big basin with scrub covered sides and an open bottom. It looked a perfect location for deer and within minutes of our arrival we began seeing evidence to support this. Everything I had heard and read about hunting in New Caledonia suggested that deer numbers were unlike anything to be experienced elsewhere, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer volume of animals. From the time we took up our position on the hill there were deer insight everywhere. All afternoon we watched deer coming in and out of the bush including a number of pretty handy looking stags, but John had been out scouting prior to our arrival and had seen a big stag with a wide shape and suggested that we hold out to see if we could find him.
The next morning we hunted a property further to the south which apparently didn’t hold a huge number of deer but had some really good ones including a stag that John had seen a few weeks earlier that he estimate would likely make the 40inch mark. Driving into the property we saw a few deer and a big spotted boar that was making his way around a steep hillside above us. We proceed to put in a solid morning glassing the lightly timbered farmland from a high hilltop however we saw no sign of the big stag we were looking for so the decision was made to return to the property we’d hunted on the previous day.
Returned to our glassing location above the basin, there were already a number of deer out on the face opposite us including a very long narrow stag with strong tines, but John was still confident that the big fella he’d had seen the previous week would have to come out at some stage so we settled in to wait for him. After several hours of watching deer all around us John suddenly whispered, “what’s that bloke down there”? I quickly trained my binoculars on a stag that had broken cover down in the bottom of a gully about 500m away. While all the stags we had been watching looked big to me, this bloke was clearly in a class above anything we had seen to that point. “That’s him said John, let’s go”. Leaving Steph to keep an eye on things John and I quickly dropped in behind the hill and made our way towards the stag. We used a creek running along the bottom of the valley for some cover to get below the stag, and with the wind in our face we started to move along an old fence towards where the deer were feeding. With only 100 left to cover, we felt the wind shift onto the back of our necks. It was just a brief gust but it was enough, the deer move up out of the paddock on mass. We quickly got into position hoping to perhaps get a shot as the stag moved off but he never materialised. We found out later that Steph had watched him for a short time moving around in the gully and then before we had gotten close he had just headed back into the bush on his own.
The next day John suggested that we try another location closer to where we were staying. Steph elected to have a sleep in this morning so on first light John and I headed out on our own. Arriving at this new property we were immediately amongst the deer. Taking our time and glassing as we went we moved up on to a vantage point which overlooked a series of semi open benches. This location was apparently a prime rutting station for the stags and as we sat down to glass we could already hear several roaring in the bush down below us. John reckoned that there tended to be a quiet time after the deer had made it back to cover, but that they got going again about mid morning so we settled down to wait. While sitting there John pointed out some bluffs opposite us in the distance, and told me that a real big stag lived up there. “He’s a light colour with long antlers” said John, “looks like an elk”. He had tried several different approaches on him with clients but without success as the location was almost impossible to approach without being observed.
After waiting some time and watching numerous deer moving around on the benches, John drew my attention back to the bluffs. Training my binoculars on the tops I saw a magnificent stag moving in and around his hinds. The distance was so great that I could see him roaring but could not hear the sound. “He looks amazing” I said to John. “It’s not the same stag” he replied “he’s darker and wider, might even be bigger too, we can’t get to him though”. I watched this stag on and off for the next hour or so and eventually he beaded down on the tops and just sat there in the sunshine. He was a deep chocolate colour and his wide, heavy set of antlers were fuel for the imagination.
By now we were starting to see more activity on the benches opposite us with a number of stags roaring and moving in and around the feeding does. I had been watching a stag opposite me for some time when I suddenly spotted another stag lying down in an open clearing. To my eye he looked big so I pointed him out to John who took one look and said “yeah shoot him”. Setting up the bipod on the borrowed 7mm Magnum I quickly found the stag in the scope and John ranged him at 270m. “Wait for him to stand up” said John and as if on cue the stag stood up. “I’ll wait for him to turn side on” I said and then again very obligingly the stag turned side on. With a perfect rest and moderate range I felt as comfortable with the shot as any I could hope for, so as soon as the cross hairs settled I touched the trigger. At the shot the stag showed no reaction at all, I think I missed I thought as I cycled the bolt. The stag started to move off, but I following him through the scope and as he paused amongst some trees on the far side of the clearing I fired again. This time the stag just disappeared from site without any indication of the results. On reaching the spot where the stag had been a close investigation seemed to confirm what we had feared, no sign of the deer and no blood either. Refusing to give up we split up and spent some time searching the surrounding bush but to no avail it seemed as though it must have just been a clean miss. I was so disappointed in myself and I couldn’t understand what had gone wrong when I had such a perfect set up.
Meeting back up with John we discussed our finding and both concluded that the incident had to be chalked up to a miss and that we should get on with the hunt. It was then John pointed out to me that the big wide stag up on the bluff still hadn’t moved. He said at the shot he hadn’t even stood up and that since we were half way there we might as well have a go at him. With this in mind we set off on what would be the first of many attempts at this monarch of the mount. We made our way across to his spur and managed to arrive undetected at a vantage point about 350m below where we had last seen him. The hinds were all still out in the open but (in what would become a pattern over the coming days) despite another couple of hours of waiting the stag did not re-emerge.
After a quick lunch back at the hotel we decided that we better check the rifle before going out again. Setting up a target in a vacant paddock we shot a group and discovered that it was shooting a mile to the left. A quick calculation suggested that over the distance I had shot at that morning the rifle would have been off by at least a foot and a half! Relieved to have an explanation for the miss we made the necessary adjustments and returned to same property for another go at the big stag on the bluff.
Arriving back at the property this time with Steph and local guide John France’s, we straight away trained our glasses on the bluff. Sure enough there was the big wide chocolate coloured stag in more or less the same spot we had seen him earlier in the day. Again we moved up the spur and took up a position below where we had just seen the stag, however as with our early attempt we had the hinds and subordinate stags out in the open, but again the big fella disappeared and did not re-emerge.
The next morning we were back out at the property on first light, our plan was too have one last try at one of the big fellas that we’d seen over the last few days and then failing that we would head up north after lunch to try another property. This time rather than moving straight up the ridge below the bluffs John and I climbed a gully on the opposite face and found ourselves a grassy knoll to glass from. “That’s that one that looks like an elk said John”. I quickly found the stag he was talking about standing next to a tree on the steep slope below the bluff and it did indeed look like an elk, light in colour and with long light coloured antlers that looked to come all the way back past his rump when he lifted his head to roar. Moments later we spotted the big wide chocolate coloured stag that we’d been chasing the previous day standing on the same face only just above the first stag, and then incredibly a third big stag with a long and heavy set of antlers also moved out onto the slope.
Quickly we moved down our side of the valley, all three stags remained in the open moving in and out of site as we closed the gap. This time we had three excellent trophy stags in the open below the bluff in a much better location to approach and it was really starting to feel like we might be in with a chance. Once again however it was not to be. Skirting the edge of a small clearing we disturbed a flock of some sort of black birds which immediately set up a distress call that must have been audible to every deer on the valley. John grimaced, and explained that the deer took notice of the warning call of this species of bird and suggested that we’d probably been busted. Sure enough when we again got the face in site again none of the three stags were present. We made our way up to our glassing spot and through we waited several hours and we could hear the stags roaring just inside the bush line we didn’t get so much as another glimpse of any of them.
After lunch Steph, John, John France’s and I all piled in the Hilux to drive to the new block. John and John France’s had recently regained access to this property which adjoined some of their other hunting locations and while they were confident that it would hold plenty of deer, we didn’t really know what to expect stag wise.
As we drove into the property deer were everywhere. On pulling up on a high saddle John France’s almost immediately spotted a good stag across on the other side of a wide valley. The decision was quickly taken to attempt a stalk, so we made our way around to the ridge above where we had spotted him. The ridge was very narrow and by moving along just over the brow of the hill we thought that we were a good chance on being able to reach his position undetected and drop down more or less on top of him. We had not gone more that 300m when all of a sudden John dropped to the ground and indicated down the hill. Below us on our side of the ridge a good stag moved out of cover and was strutting around amongst a group of hinds who were feeding on the edge of the timber. Seconds later a second stag wider than the first came out and began chasing the first stag. I had dropped to the ground and was setting the rifle up on the bipod while John and John France’s were assessing the two stags. “The wide blokes bigger but I think he’s got a broken top” said John. Looking through the scope and I could see that his right main beam finished not far above his outer top and sort of hooked inwards. “I think he’s a malform I said, what about the other bloke”? While we were accessing the wide stag, the first one was moving up the face towards us. He looked pretty good to me, and after a long look at him John confirmed it, “yep shoot he whispered”.
The stag was moving up towards us, most likely planning on crossing the saddle below us into the other gully. I tracked his progress through the scope and as he paused at about 180m I settled the cross hairs on his shoulder, touched off the trigger and missed. How or why I don’t know but I quickly worked the bolt and swung onto him again for a running shot. As he quartered up the hill I tracked his progress in the scope and was just about to take the shot when he paused to look around, this time no mistakes the 7mm roared and the stag went straight down.
Approaching my stag an immediate sense of relief flooded over me, here in front of me was the trophy stag we had been working so hard for. “Well good things come to those who wait said John” as we admired the stag. He had a beautifully symmetrical set of antlers with long tops and strong tines and a really attractive typical Rusa style. He also had a perfect cape without a scar on him and was overall a great looking deer. I couldn’t have been happier with him and I was pleased to have had Steph with me when I took our honeymoon stag. We set him up on top of the ridge taking advantage of the view for the photo session, then John and John France’s left to get the vehicle so as to recover the whole animal.
That night after caping the stag we returned to the hotel for dinner. I had promised Steph that if we got done with the hunting early enough we’d find some horses and do a bit of a ride somewhere so before joining John for tea we made some arrangements for the next day. However there was still something nagging at me. I had booked the hunt only planning on attempting to take one trophy but I was enjoying the hunting here so much that the idea of not continuing for the last couple of days seemed like a real shame. In addition while exceedingly happy with the stag I had taken, I couldn’t get that big wide fella we’d been seeing out of my head. I discussing this with Steph and it was she who suggested that we should keep hunting.
So the next day after doing our horse ride the 4 of us again piled into the Hilux for the trip to the northern properties. John knew of a particular stag on one of his blocks that had eluded them over a few years that he reckoned was the sort of animal that we were looking for. After braving strong winds from the top of the ridge for an hour or two I spotted a big wide stag making his way over a low open rise in the middle of the basin. I pointed him out to John, and he confirmed that this was the deer we were chasing. This stag was something else big in the body like a bull and with a rack long, wide and heavy.
After making sure that he looked like staying where he was we quickly made our way around the rim of the basin before moving down to take up a position on the opposite face. Over the next few hours we watched a number of stags and hinds too numerous to count going about their business on the face opposite us.
Spending the afternoon watching several big trophy stags roaring, chasing and fighting with each other, all completely oblivious to our presence made the decision to keep hunting seam more than justified in itself. However, despite waiting until it was almost dark we caught not so much as another glimpse of the big stag. On the way home there was a good deal of discussion as to what happened to the big fella but as John pointed out they had known of this stag for a number of years and there had been more than one attempt on him so he was obviously pretty switched on.
The next day was the last of my hunt and as John Clark had to pick up the next client from the airport John France’s took us out. Over the course of the morning hunt we looked over probably close to 2000 deer as we watched them moving out of some low scrub covered hills and across the river flats. Amongst these were some very nice stags and at one stage we had 4 of them (any one of which would have made an excellent first trophy) feeding unaware of our presence in a gully just below us.
That evening we once more returned to where I had missed the big stag earlier in the week. Again we were able to look over some very fine stags but still not quite what I was looking for a second trophy. About an hour before dark, looking across to the bluffs I spotted one of the big fellas step out of cover this time below the cliff. I knew exactly where he was standing on the opposite face; he was on a bare spot which we had ranged at only 180m from the tree that we had spent so much of the week sitting under. With only an hour of light remaining and hinds already spread all over the face all we could do was move down the hill opposite and hope that he fed down towards the gully before dark. Setting ourselves up opposite and below the big stag we settled down to wait and soon had hinds and subordinate stages moving down the face towards us, but the big fella just stood there rooted to the spot. It was incredible, we watched him for what must have been almost an hour and he literally did not move more than a few steps. It was a unique situation, the 11th hour of the hunt and we had a magnificent trophy stag in site but we were totally reliant on him to make the next move.
With only 15 minutes of light left and with all hope of the stag moving into range having faded, suddenly the “elk” appeared through a gap in the timber on the face opposite. Unlike the other stag he was on the move feeding his way down into the gully. I spotted him first at about 300 then he moved straight through a clearing at about 220 but without pausing to give me a shot. This was now serious, the last few minutes on the last day of the hunt and I had one of the best stags we had seen for the trip rapidly moving into range. Picking the next gap that he would have to move into I settled in behind the rifle to watch through the scope, but he didn’t reappear. Within a few minutes of having last seen him John France’s signalled that the light was done and it was time to go. As we stood up and started moving off, a final check with the glasses showed him to have moved out amongst the hinds but only just discernible in the gloom as a large light coloured deer.
That night back at the hotel the reality that the hunt was over started setting in. I was more than happy with the stag that I had taken and the experience as a whole but still didn’t want it to end, especially after having come so close to one of the big fellas at the 11th hour. Anyway that’s hunting so we enjoyed our last dinner at the Banu Hotel and headed off to bed ready to pack up the next morning for the flight out.
We were almost back at our room when we herd John call out to us. “What time is your flight tomorrow” he said? Replying that we didn’t fly out until lunch time, John offered to take me out for one final quick go at the stag on the bluff first thing in the morning. I replied that I was always up for one more hunt so it was settled; we’d again attempt the impossible in the morning.
First light found John and I positioned back under our tree on the ridge below the bluff. We’d managed to get into position with minimum disturbance and now we had deer all around us. We were sitting there glassing the bottoms of the bluffs and the gully opposite when John turned to me and whispered one of the roaring stags was coming up below us. The stag had moved up onto the ridge only 80m away from us and had no idea that we were there. He was long and fairly narrow but with strong tines. John took a long and considered look at him through his glasses; “he’s maybe 33” he said. I raised the rifle and found him in the scope but lowered it again. He was too close to the stag I’d taken earlier in the week. All the same it was a tough call letting him go knowing surely this was my last chance. Another hour passed, we checked the time and as it was getting on we thought we’d have a quick look over the other side of the ridge and then we’d better head off.
Now I’m sure that every hunter that has ever looked upon a bluff while hunting has at some point imagined a magnificent stag standing on the edge looking out over his domain, I know on many occasions in Sambar country I’ve had that exact picture in my mind. So as incredible as this sounds just as we were standing up to move off I looked up once again to the top of the bluff and unbelievably there he was! The big wide chocolate coloured stag that we had been chasing all week was standing almost on the edge of the bluff and as I watched through the glasses he tilted his head back and roared.
I quickly pointed him out to John, who immediately ranged him. “420m” he said, “too far”. I agreed and almost laughed to myself, there was no way of getting closer except for walking straight up the ridge in the open. It was almost like the big fella knew the hunt was over and was just showing himself one last time. “We might as well try getting closer” said John, “we’ve got nothing to lose now”. I agreed but thought the chances of getting into range without pushing him out of site were fairly slim. None the less we set off up the middle of the open ridge with not a blade of cover between us and the deer.
Despite the odds, the big stag held on the top of the bluff as meter by meter the distance closed. When we were as close as we could get without being too far under him to take the shot John ranged him again. “He’s side on at 320” he said, without another word I dropped down unfolded the bipod on the 7mm and nestled into the stock. From the prone position he was right on the edge of my field of view and I knew if he started moving it would only take a couple of steps and he’d be out of sight so as soon as the crosshairs settled I touched the trigger.
At the shot he moved forward and immediately disappeared. “I’m not sure what happened then” I said. The shot had felt good but I wasn’t sure whether I had hit him or not. With no time to wait we set off to investigate reasoning that by the time we had picked our way up to the top of the bluff he would have had time to stiffen up if hit.
Upon reaching the top of the bluff we made our way to where he had stood, only to find no sign of the stag and no blood. Not looking good! There was a small amount of dead ground on the far side of the bluff; perhaps 30m of short grass before it met thick jungle growing in the gully on the far side. Knowing we didn’t have very long to search I found myself imagining coming over the rise and seeing him lying in the open on the other side of the bluff. It was therefor with a sense of amazement that as we rounded a low rocky outcrop, for the second time that day I watched the mental image I had created transform into reality. There he was lying in the middle of the clearing not 15m away. An instant feeling of relief started to wash over me followed by a massive surge of adrenalin as I realised that while obviously hard hit he was not only not dead but sitting up. I was standing directly behind him and not game to move another step, I threw up the rifle centred the cross hairs in the middle of his back and angled a shot forward into his chest and then followed it with a second as fast as I could work the bolt (I was taking no chances).
It was only then that the reality hit me of what we had just accomplished. Against all the odds after a solid week of hard hunting we had managed to secure this magnificent stag at the last possible moment of the hunt under circumstances that you couldn’t have made up if you were writing a novel. The antlers he carried were long and heavy with the incredible spread that had made him stand out from the moment we saw him. This deer struck me as being old and despite being comparatively small in the body he had bark off him everywhere to attest to the battles he’d had to fight to gain his position on the bluff. The care with which it seemed this stag had chosen his territory and the obvious skill with which he had eluded us all week made him a most remarkable trophy. Words could not describe how pleased I was with him and the hunt in which we had all just participated.
After taking a little time to soak in the events of the morning the reality of a rapidly looming departure began to set in, so we set about taking photos and caping the stag. Coming down off the bluff with head and cape over my shoulders, I thought to myself that I couldn’t have imagined better circumstances to have wrapped up my long dreamed of New Caledonia hunt. The thing about hunting is that it is the uncertainty and the lack of ultimate control over the outcome that makes our sport such a worthwhile pastime, but in this case one could not have imagined more of a fairly tail ending to the trip.
I must put out a huge thanks to John Clark of Coral Seas Safaris for the effort he put into our hunt, and especially for taking me out again on that final morning after the hunt had officially ended. John was under no obligation to do this and I will forever be grateful for it. Also to John France’s and Sylvie Naillett both for John’s guiding services and for their hospitality at the Banu Hotel. We could not have asked for better food or accommodation on our hunt. For anyone interested in hunting Rusa in New Caledonia I’d highly recommend Coral Seas Safaris, and for any deer hunters out there who are about to tie the knot why not line up a honeymoon/hunt.