The fallow deer, Dama dama, is the second most common deer species found in New Zealand. They are found in both the North Island and South Island, usually in isolated pockets, and can be hunted on both private and public land. They were first released here in 1860, and over a 50 year period were liberated to many corners of the country. Today they provide exciting hunting opportunities, even for the most experienced hunter.
I’ve hunted my entire life, and even grew up with fallow deer on my back doorstep, but it wasn’t until recent years that my interest in them grew and I became somewhat addicted to hunting them. I’d often seen fallow deer on hunting excursions for a different species such as red deer or chamois and normally when it was decided to shoot a fallow, they’d be destined for the freezer. Their meat is delicious.
Over time my interest in fallow deer growing with every sighting, I started hunting these graceful little deer more intensively. Then one day, while on a hunt for a nice red stag I’d seen two nights earlier, an impressive fallow buck, certainly of trophy class, leapt across a fire break in front of me and disappeared into the trees never to be seen again. That was the spark I needed to seriously start my search for an elusive trophy buck.
Following that game changing moment in my hunting career, fallow hunts took up many of my weekends during and post the fallow rut. The fallow rut is an exciting time for a hunter, the bucks are extremely aggressive, fight fierce battles and croak loudly throughout the day and night. Here in New Zealand the rut occurs around the third-fourth week in April. Every year I hunted in the rut I saw Bucks of various size and age, a couple of rippers were seen and never seen again. They can be so elusive. Ultimately it wasn’t until the rut of 2014 that I finally caught up with a buck that firstly, I thought worthy of taking, and secondly offered a clean shot!
I arrived at my hunting area late, so decided to sit back and watch for animals until dark. Methodically I glassed the steep tussock slopes and scrub filled gullies, focusing on spots I had learnt over previous years held the odd buck or two. In 2013, in this same area I had stalked a nice buck, sneaking to within easy shooting range. After watching for a while I decided it was too young and let it go. This year I was hoping he’d be back and with luck he would be sporting a larger set of antlers.
After an hour of glassing I had spotted several does and young deer, but no mature bucks. According to the calendar and my hunting diary, they should have been well into rut mode. Unfortunately even in the still evening air not a buck croak was heard. Despondently I retired to the hut with the aid of my head lamp and prepared for an early morning grunt up the hill into some new country.
The moon was still high when I hit the hill that morning, and with the frosty grass crunching under my boots I started my climb to the scrub line. My GSP, Pippa, followed behind me scenting the wind, eager to find a deer.
The bucks I’d seen in previous years often appeared at first light right on the edge of the scrub, but would not show themselves for long. My aim was to get to a vantage point where I could sit back and look into my hunting country with binoculars, and hopefully catch a mature buck when he stepped out into the open. After a good hour or so I had made it to my chosen spot and sat in the quiet, listening intently for the sound of a buck croaking.
As the sun slowly appeared behind me, turning the darkness to various shades of gold and yellow, I pulled my binos out from my pack and started glassing the hazy scrub line laid out before me.
Finally, I heard the unmistakable sound of a buck croak somewhere below me. I knew a buck had to be held up somewhere in the area! Grid searching the steep gully, I eventually made out the outline of the several deer parked up on a small ridgeline, several hundred metres away…and amongst them, a buck worth stalking to get a closer look at.
Without too much further thought, I instinctively checked the wind, planned how I could close the gap between me and the deer and took off. Three steep creeks scattered with bluffs and thick scrub separated the deer from the ridge I knew I could get a shot from. It was tough going and it took much longer than I’d hoped to get within range. Soon enough though, I’d reached the final climb of the stalk. As always before cresting a hill, I stopped for a quick rest and a drink of water.
Chambering a round in my .280, I re-checked the wind and crept up the side of the ridge. Cautiously I stalked over the top of the ridgeline, being vigilant not to ‘sky-line’ myself and ducked in beside a large rock – semi concealed. Pulling my binos from their pocket, I glassed the scrub patch where I’d seen the deer a couple of hours earlier. It took a while, but eventually I saw a three does feeding amongst the scattered scrub. They were only 150 metres from me and unaware of my presence.
The wind was steadily in my favour, so I made time to get comfortable and wait for the buck to show himself. I hadn’t heard any croaking for some time, but eventually he started up again, very close but out of sight! The adrenalin was pumping, I knew he was there but for the life of me couldn’t see him. A frustrating 20 minutes passed, and then, like magic a buck appeared directly across the gully from me.
Fortunately he was relaxed and started feeding half-heartedly, his main interest were the does around him. This gave me the chance to get a couple of photos and assess him properly. It didn’t take me long to reach the decision to take him, after all, he was one of the best bucks I’d seen over the past couple of seasons.
Settling in, and resting prone over my daypack, I found him in the crosshairs of my Swarovski scope and squeezed off. As the boom of my rifle shattered the still air, the buck leapt and dived downhill towards the scrub in the creek. Confident of a vital hit, I sat back and caught my breath, before heading down towards where I last saw the buck. Everything felt like it happened so fast, but in reality minutes had ticked by!
With Pippa hitting the blood trail, she led me straight to the scrubby gut he’d disappeared into. After crawling around in the thick scrub and bush for a while, I finally found him tucked up under a tussock. Rolling him over, I could see why he’d only run 20 metres, the shot was a perfect heart shot. I find that killing an animal like this is never easy, but knowing I’ve done it in the most humane way possible is always comforting.
The buck was right in his prime and in great condition. More so, his antlers sported strong points, good length and palms, I was stoked. I took my time to head skin the buck, then proceeded to bone out the meat and laid it out to cool, while I sat with my dog and soaked in the moment.
It only took a couple of hours to make my way back to the hut, where I decided to cut my trip short and head home. It’d taken several years to achieve the goal of taking a representative fallow buck, but the time, effort and experiences in achieving that goal has taught me a lot about fallow deer, and has only spurred the urge to hunt them more.
Thanks guys from The New Zealand Adventure Company.