With a dozen big game species and a variety of habitats from glaciated mountains to coastal plains to thick, dark forests, New Zealand has a huge amount of variety for the keen hunter. You would be hard pressed to hunt every game animal in every habitat, even if you stayed hard after it for a couple of months.
In addition to the dizzying variety, every hunter has to choose for his or herself what weapon they will hunt with and what hunting strategy or strategies they will utilize on their hunt. For some this will be easy, for others it might be a bit more of a difficult decision. Here are a few tips to help you choose.
Unless you are a diehard muzzleloader hunter like good ol’ Jim Shockey, the choice of what weapon to take will generally come down to and decision between rifle vs bow.
Bowhunting is (unfortunately) not a very popular pastime in New Zealand. When I landed in Christchurch on my first trip to New Zealand, I went straight to the largest and most popular sporting goods store in town to buy an archery target -- and I couldn't find one.
I ended up making a target out of a large plastic bag used for storing wool (similar to a feed bag) that I bought at a farm supply store. I stuffed the bag with plastic wrap that I pulled out of the dumpster out back (the heavy duty stuff that they wrap pallets with before shipping) and duct taped it closed. It worked great.
But the point is that you won’t find much of a bowhunting community in New Zealand. Most kiwi hunters will raise an eyebrow when they see your bow, maybe make a good natured joke at your expense, and then happily tramp into the mountains with their trusty rifle slung over their pack or shoulder.
This doesn’t mean that you can't take your bow to NZ and have a great hunt. I’ve started to see quite a few folks who are packing their compounds into the mountains for Tahr and Chamois just for the challenge and adventure that it adds to any hunt.
If you do choose to take your bow, don't forget that the mountains and the weather will provide more than enough challenge for the first time hunter, no matter what species you are hunting. Restricting yourself to archery equipment in the Southern Alps is akin to hunting mountain goats and sheep in North America with a bow. It's just plain tough and any success is hard-earned and well deserved.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from taking a bow to New Zealand, because that is exactly what I did on my first hunt, and a longbow at that! Honestly, I’m addicted to the idea of killing a mature bull Tahr with a longbow and I’m currently laying out a three year plan to get it done on a very specific type of hunt.
Killing a Tahr with a bow is not necessarily super challenging. Killing a mature bull with a longbow adds to the challenge for sure. Killing a mature bull with a longbow on the West Coast of New Zealand in winter on a walk-in hunt (which is the ultimate goal) is an insanely difficult challenge similar to killing a full curl Dall or Stone sheep with a longbow. Not many people have pulled that off, and fewer have done it without a guide.
If you are thinking of taking your compound and hunting Tahr on the East Coast or Red Deer during the roar, I’d say go for it!
Just to give you some perspective, during that first hunt in New Zealand, I stalked four different bull Tahr. Of the four, I got to within less than 100 yards (didn’t have line of sight when the wind swirled and he busted), 47 yards, 75 yards and 40 yards respectively. Three of the four bulls were relatively mature, I’d say four-years-old or older. The bull that I got to within 40 yards of was a curious three-year-old on the West Coast that looked the part with a big shaggy mane, but his horns were definitely on the small side.
In my limited experience, I found that Tahr could be a bit jumpy but if spooked they did not run far. In talking with more experienced Tahr hunters, they have generally come to the same opinion. Tahr are very similar to North American mountain goats in that they feel safety by staying around cliffs. Also, the nannies were often more alert than the bulls, but that could have been because we were hunting during the rut and the bulls were quite distracted.
Overall, I think that Tahr are very bowhuntable. Chamois as well, as long as you can get them to come to you since they are very curious by nature. Red, Fallow and Sika deer can all be called in during the rut.
If you are on the fence between archery and rifle, I’d say just take the rifle. Obviously if you are not a bowhunter, then it's a no-brainer.
If you do take a rifle to New Zealand, there are a couple things to consider. First, you will have a bit of paperwork to take care of before you travel so you will have to plan ahead. This is really only a minor inconvenience.
Second, there is a $25 fee and some extra checking when you go through customs in New Zealand upon arrival. Other than that, traveling with a rifle and getting through customs on both ends of our journey was simple and straightforward.
When choosing a rifle to take to New Zealand, any cartridge suitable for deer-sized game is adequate for Tahr, Chamois and Red Deer. My recommendation is something .243 caliber or larger. Of course if you hunt Wapiti, you will want to take something suitable for elk, at least .270 caliber or larger.
New Zealand is a great place for rifle hunting and if you have long range shooting capabilities, that will just create more shot opportunities for you. The mountains on the East side are open and shooting either up the mountain or across ravines at moderate to long ranges is common.
On the West Coast, an effective way to hunt Tahr and Chamois is to work up river and creek bottoms, glassing the ridges and alpine from below. Once a good animal is spotted, you can stalk up from underneath, often right through the scrub brush, before getting into range.
When all goes well, the Tahr or Chamois is shot from below and will tumble down, sometimes all the way to the bottom, before getting hung up on some rocks or brush. This makes game recovery and packing out quite a bit easier than if you were hunting from above.
Although it's not terribly difficult to get close to game in New Zealand, the mountains are big and shots can often be long, especially when targeting older age-class animals. Those critters don't get old by being dumb or hanging out in the open a lot. Shot opportunities of 300-400 yards are common and farther is always an option.
That said, I wouldn't recommend taking a heavy long range rifle. The mountains are big and steep and the brush is downright gnarly. The best purpose-built rifles that we saw while in New Zealand were semi-custom rigs that our kiwi friends built that were very similar to a North American sheep rifle -- ultralight weight, minimalistic, accurized rifles capable of holding tight groups out to 500 yards.
These rifles had shortened barrels with over-the-barrel suppressors, carbon fiber stocks and lightweight Swarovski scopes. They were quite nifty rifles and very effective for the conditions that we faced, especially on the West Coast.
Suppressors are very popular in New Zealand, so if you have one, feel free to take it with you. They are not only effective muzzle brakes, but they are incredibly easy on the ears and after using one for the first time on our Tahr hunt, I can't believe that they aren't more popular in the States.
NOTE: There is a strong movement among kiwi hunters to try and manage their game herds for older age class animals at a grassroots level without support from the government. New Zealand has a history of attracting foreign hunters who have taken advantage of its lack of closed seasons or bag limits to kill or wound large numbers of game without any consideration for the herd dynamics or conservation.
What most game herds in New Zealand need, and what a lot of local hunters are practicing and promoting, is the killing of females and only mature males. This approach will limit herd numbers which is good for the habitat, the health of the herd overall and for trophy potential. It will also allow young bulls to reach maturity, creating ideal male to female ratios and a good percentage of trophy class animals. Overall, this is a bit of a nuanced issue that I plan to address in greater detail in a later article.
For now though, I highly encourage you to learn to judge trophy quality before you go, be selective when choosing to shoot an animal and please shoot a few females while you are out hunting, even though it feels kinda wrong for most American hunters.
There are two primary hunting strategies that are used when hunting Tahr, Chamois, Red, Fallow and Sika deer, plus a third. They are spot and stalk and calling. The third strategy is really a hybrid of the two where calling is used to locate a deer during the roar and then the animal is stalked until the hunter is within range.
Spot and Stalk
New Zealand is a small country, but it’s landscape is big. Quality optics are key to finding game. But even more important than the price tag of your binos is good, fundamental spotting tactics. The mountains are big and full of rocky outcroppings, rock gardens and nasty brush -- all of which easily hides game.
Glassing tactics is a subject that could easily fill it’s own article or series of articles, but if I had to sum up the little bit that I know about glassing game into one brief sentence it's this: you ain’t hunting if you ain’t glassing.
If you are hunting in big country and spot and stalk is your primary hunting strategy, every second that you are not looking through your binos, you are not finding game. Now of course there is a whole list of activities that support your ability to stay behind your glass and that take up significant time, so the trick is to optimize the effectiveness of your time spent glassing.
Here are a few pointers from my experience:
I’m not going to even pretend to be an expert on calling game. This is going to be a short section, but I will share what little bit that I know (or think I know), what I’ve learned from talking with keen kiwi hunters plus a few resources that I’ve found to help you learn on your own.
If you are interested in calling as a hunting strategy in New Zealand, then you are probably focusing on hunting Red deer, Wapiti, Fallow deer or Sika deer.
Here are a few tips:
When it comes down to choosing your weapon and strategy, choose what you are most experienced with. Hunting a new species in a new location in a new country on the other side of the equator in rugged, mountainous terrain with notoriously sketchy weather is already a challenging adventure. You can up your odds of success, and of having a stress-free trip, by not biting off any additional challenges and going with what you are used to.