They say that timing is everything. Maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but it’s hard to deny that timing in hunting, as well as almost every other aspect of life, is critical if you are trying to stack the odds of success in your favor.
If you are trying to figure out when to go to New Zealand, there are three basic criteria that I suggest considering in order to make your decision -- the seasons, the weather and the rut. Let's take a quick look at each one and I'll offer my recommendations on how to prioritize each one.
One of the most exciting aspects of hunting in New Zealand for the Northern Hemisphere (American) hunter is the ability to hunt prime fall hunting seasons during the off season.
In case you didn’t know...March, April and May are fall in New Zealand, while September, October and November are New Zealand’s springtime.
To add to the list of opposites, in New Zealand the sun rotates across the northern sky. Those Southern Hemisphere / Northern Hemisphere differences are a trip!
Consider this...if you are a diehard elk hunter and you love calling elk during the rut AND you feel like September is just too short to get in all of the prime time elk hunting that you want to do...well April is New Zealand’s “September." That's right, you can hunt elk and red deer on public land during the rut in New Zealand and all you have to give up is the turkey season opener.
If you go, you'll have to do a little homework. The elk bugle like elk (unless they are hybrids with red deer) but the red deer stags roar a deep guttural growl. They are both in peak rut during the month of April and they live in some jaw-dropping beautiful mountain habitat. Some areas require a draw tag (ballot block) while others have no closed seasons and no bag limit.
This means that with a bit of planning and saving, you could literally double your opportunity to hunt elk (or elk’s cousin the red deer) during the rut by simply skipping town in spring and heading south of the equator.
If you are a diehard western mountain hunter (whether for sheep, goats, or alpine mule deer) and you are looking for either a new adventure or a way to extend your time in the mountains, Tahr and Chamois hunting in New Zealand is a world class hunt.
If you ever feel like winter is lingering in February and March and spring just cant come fast enough, why don't you blitz down to the Southern Alps for a bit of alpine hunting? Since the seasons are reversed, New Zealand's mountains don't typically have any snow (aside from its glaciers) from January through April.
Even an alpine Red deer hunt has all of the makings of a classic mountain hunting experience. Hunt them in the alpine high country during the rut and you can combine the excitement of roaring in an elk-sized critter with the amazing experience of living above the clouds.
Ok, the sales pitch is over. Lets say that you are convinced...you're going to start planning your own trip to New Zealand. How do you choose when to go?
There are a couple of ways to look at this.
First, go when you can go. Except for a few exceptions, there are no closed hunting seasons for big game in New Zealand.
If your time is limited and it is difficult to carve out a couple of weeks to make a break for the Southern Hemisphere, then just go when you can. Remember, in most cases you can hunt year round in New Zealand. It's far better to go sooner than to put it off a year or two or three in hopes of optimizing your timing.
Second, clarify your goals. If you know that you want to hunt red deer during the roar, then you need to plan your trip within a four to six week window, right around the month of April.
If you want to shoot a tahr with a big mane and a full winter coat, you won’t find one in March, you’ll need to go in late May or later to get the best hair. Or if you want to shoot a bull tahr with your bow, it would stack the odds in your favor to hunt during the early season when the bulls are hanging solo or in bachelor groups instead of during the rut when they are busy chasing tail and constantly surrounded by nannies.
If you want a chamois with a handsome tan coat, you will need to hunt sometime between the Holidays and Valentines Day, since chamois are tan in the summer and all black in winter.
Third, consider your limitations. If you aren’t a skilled alpinist, or at least comfortable when there is snow and ice on the hills, you will want to hunt the early season in New Zealand. East Coast or West Coast, you can get into some nasty situations in the mountains when the snow flies and the temps drop. Since snow is possible in the mountains from May through September, you would definitely want to plan your hunt outside of those dates.
Fourth, if you are concerned about hunting pressure from local hunters, consider either applying for a ballot block ahead of time or planning your hunt outside what is probably the most popular time of year for kiwis to take to the field en force, the red deer roar.
However, unless you are planning on hunting easily accessible areas, especially areas accessible by 4-wheel-drive and with huts to stay in, hunting pressure shouldn’t really be a major problem. It's far more important to check in with the DOC and find out where recent 1080 drops and helicopter culling has been conducted.
The coolest thing about hunting New Zealand is that because its seasons are reversed from North America’s, there is a solid seven month window of prime hunting opportunity that is completely outside most of the hunting seasons in North American, with the exception of spring turkey and spring bear.
Hunting the rut can be advantageous for most animals in most situations it will increase your odds of success. Plus, its just plain fun to see mature bucks, bulls and stags running around chasing tail, throwing caution to the wind.
It might be your number one goal to call in a mature Red or Sika stag or to hear a Fallow croak, but if its not super important to you then I don’t recommend that you worry about hunting during the rut too much. Just like in North America, the rut is not the only good time to hunt for trophies in New Zealand.
If you do want to hunt the rut, then you will need to know when the rut occurs for each game animal so you can time your trip accordingly. Here is a brief rut calendar for the most popular game animals in New Zealand.
Just like in North America, the actual rut timing can vary year to year and region to region, so the dates below are just a guideline. If you want to increase your odds of hitting decent rut activity, plan your hunt near the middle of the rut window or contact local hunters who might be able to give you more nuanced insight to timing your hunt accurately.
Tahr -- Mid May through the end of June
Chamois -- Early May through mid June
Red Deer -- Late March through April
Fallow Deer -- April and May
Sika Deer -- Late March through early May
If you are hunting the North Island for the deer rut, the month of April should be right on the money for Red, Fallow and Sika deer.
If you are hunting the South Island for Tahr and Chamois, then anytime in late May right into early June would catch both ruts nicely, but you would be late for the Red and Fallow rut.
If you are more interested in hunting the Red Deer rut on the South Island, the month of April would be ideal. You could hunt the Fallow Deer rut during the same timeframe, but you would be early for the Tahr and Chamois rut.
Honestly, I was not prepared for the weather that we encountered in New Zealand. I had the appropriate clothing and gear, but I didn’t understand how bad it could really get, especially on the West Coast of the South Island.
The weather in New Zealand is not something to mess with. Some regions are worse than others, but pretty much any part of the country can experience high winds, heavy rains or deep snows and flooded creeks and river bottoms.
It might not sound very impressive when you read that last statement, but winds in New Zealand were strong enough to blow a cabled-down hut off of Barron Pass in the Southern Alps, killing the four climbers inside as it tumbled over 5,000 vertical feet to the valley floor below. This was a tragic accident and now a bit of local mountaineering lore on the South Island since it happened back in the 1970s.
Today, winds are regularly clocked at over 100 mpg in the mountains as storms slam into the West Coast, so watching those weather forecasts closely not only for precipitation, but for wind as well is super important.
The West Coast of New Zealand is known for rains that can drop as much as 50” of rainfall in a 24 hour period. That kind of rain creates instant waterfalls all over the mountains and can swell creeks and rivers into raging death traps. Seriously. Every year trampers (hikers) drown while trying to cross rivers or streams that have risen due to high rains making the water impassable.
During the late season, snow can accumulate to 5 or 6 feet overnight and leave hunters stranded in the mountains. When days heat up and then freeze overnight ice can build up on rocks or avalanches can make mountain travel treacherous. The weather and weather-created mountain conditions in New Zealand are not a joke.
The best ways to deal with the effects of weather are three-fold.
First, plan as much time for your New Zealand adventure as possible. Taking a month off, if you can swing it, to focus on one or possibly two species in one general location is not unreasonable, in fact its pretty dang smart and it would greatly increase not only your odds of success, but also your overall enjoyment of the trip.
If you can’t get away for a solid month, three weeks is satisfactory and two weeks would be the minimum, in my opinion. You might get it done in ten days if you have a good mate in New Zealand who is a keen hunter and willing to get you right onto critters, providing you have a good enough stretch of weather to get into the mountains and make it happen.
I was in New Zealand for 17 days and I didn't feel like it was near enough time. I have several friends who have gone in the past year or two who went for 10 days to two weeks and they all share the same opinion -- two weeks is not enough time.
Second, always carry a satellite device that will give you updated weather forecasts. Ten-day weather forecasts change far too frequently to be able to trust reliably. Once you head into the mountains, whether on foot or by helicopter, you will need to know what's coming at you in case you need bail off the mountain to dodge a storm.
Third, it's always a great plan to have another plan. Do good, detailed research on at least three to six potential hunting areas. It will take more work and at times it may seem unnecessary, but honestly, the more areas that you have researched in various parts of the island, the better.
Having a list of ten spots in different regions that are worth hunting is not only NOT unrealistic, but it will allow you to choose an area with fair weather during almost any weather forecast. And, if you are lucky and the weather is good during your stay, you can burn through multiple locations quickly, efficiently and decisively in case you have trouble locating game early on in the hunt.
By the time your adventure is winding to a close, having been prepared with a long list of potential hunting locations could be the difference between success and failure in the mountains.
Here it is in a nutshell:
Unless your primary goal is to hunt an animal during its rut, I'd recommend making your decision to travel based on whenever you can get as much time off as possible.
In my opinion, catching the rut is less important than spending as much time as possible hunting in New Zealand.
The bottom line is that it is pretty incredible that by taking advantage of the opposite seasons it is possible to double your hunting opportunities without taking anything away from your regular hunting season back home.
Its a win - win. The only real consideration is figuring out that time and money.