It was late May and we were standing in a cold and frosty Lewis Pass valley. My hunting companion John and I were there to stalk rutting buck chamois.
It was peaceful and quiet but for the birds singing their dawn chorus. The frost made our breath visible as we talked and slow moving clouds turned a pretty pink hue as the sun’s rays peeked over the horizon. Hoisting on our packs laden with a week’s supplies, John and I turned our gaze towards the ridgeline and set off.
The last week of May is the middle of the annual chamois rut. At this time of year winter’s icy grip can come early and take hold of the mountains and valleys. Early snowfall then makes such places less appealing to visit. Usually by now most casual stalkers have oiled their rifles and stored their hunting equipment until spring – sensible, really.
European hunters highly prize chamois as first-rate trophies and there is a rich culture of targeting them during their rut but most New Zealand hunters do not actively hunt the rut. For one reason or another, chamois hunting is not something they plan as their primary reason to head into the mountains – and you certainly do not often hear about hunting parties planning for an epic chamois rut mission.
I suppose the reason is obvious – the chamois rut is overshadowed by the Fiordland Wapiti bugle, the roar, and in recent times, the tahr ballot. A busy stalking calendar means most hunters have committed their available time and resources in pursuit of more revered big game animals and so they give little thought or energy to chamois. This means there’s a lack of hunter competition and pressure, which is great for dedicated chamois hunters – these enthusiasts have the herds, huts, hills, and heli-landing sites all to themselves.
As is always the case at the beginning of any adventure, John and I set off in good spirits with high hopes. Being North Islanders, we were particularly keen to get into the mountains after our long journey by ferry and road from Wellington.
The terrain we were stalking is ideal chamois habitat. Altitude ranges from 1000-1800 metres above sea level. The mountains are scarred and eroded, offering plentiful slips, creeks and bluffs which are adjacent to lush alpine meadows and beech forests. Unlike the Southern Alps to the south, there are no permanent snow and ice fields around Lewis Pass. Importantly, owing to the fact there are no DOC huts in the area, you do not bump into the casual hunter often and so animals encounter fewer people than in more popular accessible areas.
The first day was a typical uphill grind to get into the best stalking country. Overnight it snowed lightly and although our tent was pitched below where the snow had settled, it was bitterly cold. Still keen and not having our spirits dashed, we rushed to get from our warm sleeping bags into our hunting kit.
We were hunting as soon as the tent's zipper was opened because the surrounding area was prime chamois country. Walking towards the headwaters of the creek system, we stopped and glassed regularly and with care. Soon we picked up a lone chamois moving from the top of a bluff down towards a flatter scree slope below.
The animal’s dark winter coat was easily spotted against the snow backdrop but it was suitably camouflaged against bare rock. One chamois soon turned into two. We tried to identify their sex and after a long wait we determined we were looking at a doe and a young buck. As we watched, a third chamois joined the pair from up the valley. This turned out to be a decent mature buck.
I decided it was worth a closer look and so moved into shooting range using the cover of the treeline. By now the buck had seen the other two chamois and was walking with intent across the scree face to join them. The animals met up, greeted, and meandered about. Eventually they decided to move back towards the bluffs.
The buck stopped at 250 metres away, offering us a chance to look at his hooks. I decided he was a mature buck and squeezed off what felt like a solid shot from a rest on my pack. The shot went left, clear past the buck by a couple of inches as he quartered towards me. Incredulous – I saw the shot hit the ground – a miss! The buck ran directly downhill towards our concealed location, passing us a mere 15 metres away in full flight. Seeing that chamois run down the creek is something I won’t easily forget. The last time we saw him he was running due north and not looking like stopping. He sported a trophy set of hooks too. It later transpired that my scope was not sighted in because the dial had been bumped, and we fixed that with a handy target I keep on hand for such situations.
As an aside, I have observed that more and more animals I encounter – deer, chamois or tahr – run downhill to escape rather than uphill which offers the chance of a follow-up shot. I wonder if natural selection from helicopter pressure over the decades has meant that animals with an instinct to descend have passed on their genes. Or is it a learned survival tactic? Something to ponder.
Having blown my shooting opportunity, John was the next cab off the rank. Always the optimist, I convinced him it was worth continuing on our hunt in spite of disturbing the area with my shot. So off we went, heading towards a low saddle, mainly out of curiosity to see the new country on the other side. It was a hard slog as the ground was icy and frozen.
We rested for lunch by huddling under a lone mountain beech tree on the steep slope. As we sat and ate, the weather closed in around us and deteriorated quickly. When our joints stiffened, we decided to push on to warm up. However, the chilling alpine wind made progress not that enjoyable. It felt like we were on a desolate artic ice sheet, as ice crystals and snow lashed our exposed faces. We pushed on stubbornly.
As we made it to the top of the ridge, the wind was in full gale. We looked to the left and not more than 30 metres distant, I saw a buck chamois rise to its feet. It had been lying on the cold side of the mountain, exposed to the harsh elements. I wasn’t sure who was more surprised to see whom.
We couldn’t talk over the gale so I threw a small stone to get John’s attention, pointed to the buck, and motioned for him to take the shot. It all happened quickly and he secured the animal with a clean, off-hand shot from his Tikka T3 7mm Rem Mag. He’d delivered an accurate and humane shot in difficult conditions.
The head was even and well proportioned. It looked bigger than the 9 inches shown on the measuring tape. It sported 3¼ inch bases for a Douglas Score of 24½.
We spent the next couple of days doing some hard yards in search of another mature buck. A number of chamois were found. We had a particularly special encounter with a group of four young bucks, one of the highlights of all my chamois stalking adventures to date. We spent about two hours observing the group going about their business, all the while taking some amazing photos of them.
After scouring the area accessible from our campsite, we decided to move location. We packed up and descended from the tops, legging it down the valley. We climbed up another leading ridge in order to access virgin country. Our bodies were wrecked from the journey and we fell asleep as soon as our heads hit the hay that night. We had not reached our intended destination yet.
Overnight a snow storm rolled in. By morning the mountains were covered in the first substantial snow dump of the year. Luckily we had a set of crampons and ice axes in hand. The promise of a buck chamois lured us higher and higher and we trudged upwards. We followed a ridge overlooking a creek system that turned into a steep slip towards the top. It was sheer country. Climbing higher meant that more and more of the face became visible. All of a sudden, we caught a glimpse of movement. With binoculars deployed, we spotted a group of does. “There must be a buck not far away” we said to each other.
Sure enough, off to the side was a buck standing tall and proud. He was everything a mature animal should be – thick in the shoulders, dark in colour, and with a great set of hooks that terminated in sharp points.
We remained unseen as we glassed the herd, watching as he sniffed and rounded up the nannies. A full assessment of his trophy hooks was made and we had plenty of time to get into a solid shooting position. When the buck offered a clear side-on shot, I squeezed off at 380 metres. The 7mm Rem Mag did its job and the buck was dead on his feet.
Because of the steep country he rolled down the face, coming to rest in the creek bed. We made a slow and nerve-racking traverse across the slip to the downed buck as the route took us over an icy face. We navigated it one by one.
When we reached the buck, we saw that he was everything he’d promised to be. His hooks were 9 5/8 inches long, with strong 3¾ inch bases and he had a Douglas Score of 26¾. He was a mature animal, aged no less than seven years old, with an amazing winter skin. I decided to take the head skin.
We carefully retraced our steps across the face and made our way back to camp where we enjoyed a good dinner with extra rations of salami. That evening I sat and caped out the head skin. Overnight, another snow storm raged that continued into the next day. Other than a fruitless attempt at a hunt, we were tent-bound, forced back by strong winds and whiteout conditions. After hours and hours of lying on our backs, we got restless but filled the time with jokes, naps, yarns and eating. Days spent in a tent this way seem to drag on and on.
The storm didn’t relent until the next morning but when it cleared, we were up and at it. The snow was deep. We were camped 15 metres off the ridgeline in a flat and sheltered hollow and when we reached the ridge, we were surprised to see the fresh tracks of a chamois in the snow. It had passed right beside our tent, and not that long ago.
It was a bluebird day and the vistas were spectacular. What a great day to be in the hills and following the tracks of a chamois. We agreed that we needed to play it safe so we decided to try our luck looking into a gully that we had not yet inspected. Ploughing through the snow drifts took a bit of effort – snowshoes instead of crampons would have been the go.
The tracks we followed led to an area where we didn’t want to go so at that point we decided to stop and glass. Across the gut, a lone chamois appeared from out of the treeline. There were no tracks in the snow above its location so it must have ridden out the storm in the cover of the bush.
It was not the animal we had been tracking – this one was a long way off at around 800 metres. While looking for other animals we kept a keen eye on it as it meandered about, climbing ever higher. As we watched the animal, the temptation for a stalk waxed and waned. John was keen to have a crack but as time wore on, the chamois walked further and further away.
We decided to move from our glassing spot. That movement instantly caught the eye of the distant chamois and now instead of moving away; inquisitive, it began coming towards us. It stopped periodically to check us out, then kept on coming for a closer look. The rut can mean that animals make silly decisions in search of mates. One kilometre was reduced to 700m, then 500m. At that point John decided he would take him because it looked like this buck had a better head than what he had secured.
The ease and speed with which the buck navigated the steep, snow-covered terrain was something to behold. We were in awe. It eventually went out of sight into the creek below and at that point we knew it was now on the same face we were on. We agreed that John would shoot once a shot was on offer and we found a great rock from which he could see most angles.
It was a tense few moments, which turned into minutes. Eventually things got to that point when you think to yourself ‘has it not come over?’ or ‘it must have smelt us and done a runner.’ We held fast, with our heads on swivels and John on high alert. The buck didn’t materialise. We waited for what seemed like a reasonable amount of time. Had we been outsmarted?
Turning around to look downhill, I saw the buck staring at us from about 25 metres away, its body obscured. How long had it been watching us? The moment it made eye contact with me it leapt back, turned, and ran downhill at speed. It all happened quickly, while John was looking up the hill.
I had my rifle slung over my shoulder as I was just the spotter. On seeing a good head though, I unslung my rifle, chambered a round and fired an off-hand shot just as the chamois was about disappear out of view forever.
I knew right away the shot was good because I saw the buck flinch at the impact. John looked at me, confused and stunned. We had both expected it to approach from our height at least, or from above, but instead it had sneaked in from below.
The buck was stone dead only a few paces from where it was hit, nearly 100 metres from where I had taken the standing shot. We had another trophy down. This buck had 9½ inch hooks with bases of 3¾ inches, and a Douglas Score of 26½. He had a magnificent winter coat so I decided to take the cape, not necessarily to have him mounted, which was a decision I didn’t regret.
Our trip was epic. It was filled with storms, snow, adventure, action, and trophy bucks. Chamois hunting is certainly the sport of emperors. As the trip was so memorable and because I had taken both head skins, I decided when I got home that I would honour my two trophies and the memory of our chamois rut hunt by getting the heads mounted as a pair.
By Gwyn Thurlow