What would you pick out of paper, scissors or rock? And how careful would you be about your decision if you knew it meant possibly shooting the biggest chamois buck you’ll ever have a chance at hunting? Here’s another question: have you thought of pretending to be gay to make it to a girls sleep over party? Well that’s kind of what I did…
Moana Robb, Kate Bryant, Kim Lawson, Ashlee Strange and Sammi Holland have all just landed on a long, steep, expanding ridge in the notorious West Coast mountains, all wearing smiles a mile wide. There aren’t a lot of flat spots to set up tents, but there is a big catchment that looks like a chamois haven and kilometres of tussock faces and scrub covered bluffs that would keep anyone glued to the glass for days. Excitement levels are through the roof!
Much like swiss cheese, there are a bunch of things that need to line up for a hunt to be successful, but a big one is location. We were lucky to have Moana pick our spot, which she kept under wraps right up until the week before, finally relenting with a pin on a topo after being harassed in the group chat. Moana’s experience working for DOC means she’s been lucky enough to see more backcountry than most, particularly areas that other hunters might overlook. But I think she was definitely starting to feel the burden after not one animal had been spotted the evening we arrived. Although with three chopper loads spooking the valley it was little wonder. For the rest of the group, we were just happy to feel the fresh mountain air again. With last light fading and the tents pitched, all we could do was finish our lamb chops and catch some sleep before we could see what the new day would bring.
What the new day brought didn’t seem to be a lot to start with. Only two chamois had been seen at first light, on the other side of the catchment. With camp in a prime location, it justified spending the morning in gumboots and slippers and drinking coffee because of the amount of terrain we could glass. Even with only two chamois being spotted, one really stood out to Moana through the spotter after waiting patiently for the buck to show all angles of his head gear. Although he was over a kilometre away, the girls decided he was worth going after. But with a group of five hunters, how do you decide who gets to pull the trigger? This is where you see the supportive attitude that these hunters bring because Moana pulled out of the race to give everyone else the opportunity and so did Sammi because she recognised that living down south meant she has more opportunities to hunt chamois than the others. And then there were three … it would involve an exhausting stalk, dropping almost 800 metres vert down steep snow tussock ridges and rocky jumble creeks. So, to decide who would be losing gravy that day, a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors would be played. Kim had an early elimination but still decided to join the action. Kate threw rock, Ashlee threw scissors, and that was that. Kate and Kim would target the first buck of the trip. Meanwhile Moana, Sammi and Ashlee would wander the main ridge.
How would this stalk play out knowing that we would be in plain sight of the chamois pretty much the whole time? With the day heating up, the wind would soon start drifting up, shutting down the option of approaching the buck from below. Bluffs protected the buck from an approach from above, so we were left with basically one option. As we know, the west coast is full of broken terrain, guts, creeks and slips that chamois (or humans) can slip into and vanish.
Kate wasn’t mucking around, she was straight over the side and heading down the only obvious route to the buck. We spent the next couple of hours carefully dropping into the bottom of the basin, then climbed up a creek on the other side that would give us cover till we reached the same elevation as the bucks. We still had another 300 metres of distance to cut before we had a comfortable shot for Kate, so as the bucks had their heads down feeding, we stealthed through the tussock to reach the next creek and slipped out of sight. Here we could set up the rifle, leaving Kate with a cosy 250 yard shot. Once we climbed out of the final creek, we caught a glimpse of the bucks moving towards us as they traversed through another creek but, as they typically do in this country, they didn’t reappear. We didn’t want to rush in and blow it, so we sat patiently with Kate getting set up for the moment they would walk back out of the creek.
Hours went by, I can’t recall how long we sat waiting because all three of us were falling in and out of naps. You know that bliss feeling of lying in the tussock with the sun beaming down? It’s almost impossible not to have a nap in those conditions. But after a while you can start to get a bit impatient, so I decided to climb up into the bluffs above us to see if I could look into the creek for the bucks. But I saw nothing so I dropped back to the girls. Once I got impatient again, I decided to drop back into one of the creeks we had crossed and get down low to try and look up into the creek the bucks had disappeared into. Once I was down there I found a really comfortable spot to glass from and before I knew it, I was out cold sleeping; I don’t actually know long for but when I woke up, I had a look into the creek and thought I saw some chamois horns, so I stepped back to get some elevation and there he was, bedded up on a patch of snow in the dried creek! With all of my excitement back, I charged back to where Kim and Kate were sitting but half way there, I saw Kate getting the rifle ready for a shot. I knew that they couldn’t see the buck in the creek so that meant they were lining up the other buck. The other buck had stood up as I was making way to the girls and moved over another ridge out sight before Kate could get a shot. And lucky that was the case because I got back to them with the news that the buck we were targeting was still in the creek. Just like the rest of the stalk, we really didn’t have any good options to get in position for a shot so all we could do was move towards him while he was out of sight and hope we could get a glimpse of him at some point. But with the wind now blowing straight up our arse there was really no surprise when we saw the buck take off out of the creek and onto a small scrubby face on the other side. He made the mistake of stopping at 200 yards to work out what we were and within that time Kate was quick to put a round through him. The shot was a tad far back but enough to stun him and with no time wasted Kate put the final shot straight into his shoulder and that had him dropping on the spot.
The only time we had actually got a good look at this buck was through the spotting scope at camp. So when we approached the buck for the first time and Kate lifted his head, we were almost in disbelief. The buck went 10 ⅛” on the left horn and 11” on the right. This would obviously be the best buck Kate had ever shot, and for me also the best buck I’ve been a part of hunting. We took the time to soak in the moment and enjoy the last of the sun’s rays before Kate got stuck-in caping the buck. The climb back to camp was a little intimidating, especially with the heat, but our morale was through the roof and gave us the energy to get back to camp in time to watch the sun set into the Tasman sea while sipping on Do-Bros. When Moana, Ashlee and Sammi saw the impressive buck, everyone’s spirits were at an all time high. Not only was Moana relieved that Kate had taken an awesome buck, she was also happy to share that she and Ashlee had spotted a few more mature bucks, with one getting lucky as Ashlee had apparently missed one due to being unfamiliar with Moana’s stiff trigger on her rifle. So that meant tomorrow was set up to try to get Ashlee and Kim a buck each, with Moana setting off by herself into the new country and Sammi, well she had some blown out boots so she had the task of relaxing in camp for the day.
Not 10 minutes into the walk along the ridge, Kim, Ashlee, Kate and myself had spooked a family of chamois out of the bluffs near camp. What we saw in the heat of the moment were three does and two kids but one of the does really caught our eye. The evening before, Sammi had told us that she caught a glimpse of a huge chamois but didn’t have the time to see if it was a buck or doe, all she knew was it was big and in a similar spot to where we had just spooked these five out of. As they moved over the ridge I managed to get a photo of the last doe and she seemed to be old and barren. When I zoomed in on the photo I couldn’t believe the length and spread of her horns. We chatted about the situation and decided we needed another game of Paper, Scissors, Rock to choose who would shoot the next chamois out of Ashlee and Kim. It seems that Ashley needs to work on her strategies because she lost again, but Kim had a very quick reply: “No you can shoot next”, and I don’t think there was a single argument from Ashlee. We carried along the ridge staying a couple of metres off the skyline to avoid an easy silhouette to spot, and after no more than a 300 metre cruise, the girls spotted the family under a shelter rock. I really perked up when I saw the old doe had a kid with her that we didn’t originally see because it meant she was no longer Ashlee’s target – she was now mine with my camera.
Long story short, the stalk went perfectly. The other three carried on along the ridge while I doubled back and dropped down the ridge on top of them. The wind was consistently blowing in my favour and they were out of sight covered from the rock. As I crept down using small scrubs as cover I noticed a cute small face looking at me: I had been caught out by one of the kids. But to the point where it couldn’t make me out because I was still covered by a scrub bush that was between myself and the chamois. I slowly lowered my head and crept a little further till I was within about 20 metres. I was sitting so still that the kid eventually gave up its interest, but I still couldn’t see the doe because she was bedded down. I sat still for about 10 minutes before she stood up to stretch her legs so I took my opportunity and got some pictures. After I had the essential shots, I slowly stood up for some more photos without any grass in the foreground for a cleaner shot. I got my photos before they caught a glimpse of me and took off. I couldn’t be any happier to photograph a doe of that calibre on public land.
As for the girls, they hadn’t seen much action along the ridge. They were casually snacking away and enjoying the company and sun, so once I caught back up I also joined in on the vibe. But after sometime we were interrupted by Kim spotting a buck just 500 yards along the ridge, so we had to move closer for another look through the spotter. With the broken country we would catch a glimpse of the buck before he was gone again. But then another popped out and disappeared, and again another buck popped out and disappeared making it all more difficult to judge and target a single buck. At first we didn’t think much of the animals, but then a new buck stood up that looked to be a good calibre for Ashlee as she’s never shot a chamois buck before. I guessed the buck would be around the 9 – 9 ½” mark so Ashlee got settled behind a new rifle that Nick Harrison had lent us – the same 270 that Kate used to shoot her buck. I wish I recorded the audio from this section because it made us laugh eventually. There was now clag rolling through which meant when Ashlee got close to settling her crosshairs, we would lose visibility. Then a new buck would appear that looked even better, but when I got in my spotter the clag would move through again. But enough of that, Ashley finally settled in on the biggest buck of the group. Then we saw another buck appear and had to check him out! But we finally settled back on the biggest buck of the group, Ashley calmed her nerves and squeezed off the trigger to execute a perfect shot at 375 yards. The buck dropped on the spot.
I don’t think the trip could have gotten any better. The weather was perfect, the group clicked perfectly, Kate shot a massive buck, I got close ups of a huge doe and Ashlee had shot her first chamois buck. But little did we know, it would get better. And that’s not including the pink gin we smashed back later that night after Kate crushed the cap. We moved our way siddling down to where the buck had dropped. Ashlee respectively laid her hands on the buck and lifted his head to reveal some heavy bases on the buck and big hooks. I’m still not surprised that we thought this buck was only about 9” when we shot, because the mass of the bases hid the fact that this was actually a 10” buck with 4” bases. And to be fair, it didn’t really matter at this point but it was just a bonus on an already epic adventure. Moana did have to explain that shooting animals like this doesn’t normally happen … at all. Khan’s reply to our Inreach summed it up pretty well: “What the F&*%”.
Hunting is hunting, and that means that nothing is for sure. You never expect to set out on public land and shoot animals of this calibre, no matter the amount of planning you put in. So how do you walk away from a hunt feeling satisfied with what you’ve got? Does it really just come down to a game of Paper, Scissors, Rock? I think what this trip proved is that you just simply treat every hunt as a blessing. Go into a hunt with only the expectation of enjoying your friends company, of the rough uncomfortable life of the mountains, and anything else is just a bonus – some bigger than others. There were only two animals shot this trip and does that mean only the two hunters were left satisfied? Hell na. The attitude these ladies brought into this hunt meant that these highlights kind of merged into one great memory for all of them. And I’m sure when Kate and Ashlee look at these animals on the wall, they’ll be reminded of the trip as whole – myself having to pay for an extra heli flight because I turned up to the wrong place, Sammi’s boots blowing apart, Moana forgetting her bolt at camp, or the sweaty climb back to camp. That’s what trophy hunting offers.
A side note or something
I can imagine it was a little strange for the other customers in the supermarket to see five ladies all dressed in hunting clothes preparing for a weekend away. I mean, no one bats an eye when they see a bloke walking through the streets dressed head to toe in camo but even for most hunters, before this story was even printed I was flooded with messages from guys wanting to know how this trip went. And it gets you thinking about why there’s so much interest? Why would they plan a girls only trip? And surely the girls feel like they have something to prove, considering that most of the hunting we see on TV shows that feature a female are always assisted by men.
It actually didn’t take long to answer these questions once I was on this trip, and the answers were actually pretty blunt and obvious. For these five ladies, they can only answer those questions with one question back: why is there a difference in us hunting compared to men? This trip actually felt like any other I’ve been on with each hunter holding their own. There’s no such thing as a ‘huntress’, only a hunter. We all have the same instincts, tactics and morals. Not to mention,they all had me sweating and panting climbing back to camp like every other hunt I’m on.
I’m just as guilty as anyone else when I wonder how these girls only trips will pan out. To see if they’ve hunted hard and secured good animals. Heck, that’s why I was so keen to get amongst this trip to share it with everyone. I’m bloody glad I did even though the trip was never organised to be featured in the Journal. But my motives have changed. I’m not including this story in the journal to show that these girls hunt as well as anyone, but to include it as just another epic hunting story and continue to normalise females hunting so that we get to a point that it’s just standard to read a female’s hunt without the questions like: “What? You’re hunting solo?”, or, “I can’t believe you managed to hunt that trophy!”.
To still answer what most of you were thinking, what I took away from the girls is that first and foremost, the trip was about hunting, a good time away and making new friendships while solidifying old ones. But at this point in time, they do want to prove that they can hunt as hard as the lads, and in my opinion, harder than most! They want to show that having a Taco makes no difference in their abilities.
And I’m not sure if it’s because of the perspective I’ve seen online but it looks like the female hunting community is really growing. And for these ladies, there haven’t actually been a lot of female hunters in the past to look up to in terms of big mountain trophy hunting.
So what I’ll take away from this trip is probably the fact that I don’t need to touch on the subject again. I don’t need to touch on why women can hunt as well as men, why the word ‘huntress’ is bullshit or why it’s impressive to see a lady hunting solo.
We’ll carry on with the journal simply telling stories of real hunters on real hunts.