New Zealand has so much opportunity for the DIY, public land hunter, its amazing that it doesn't get more attention from American hunters.
Consider this: travel to the country is relatively easy, NZ's hunting regulations are minimal and the number of game species and amount of game is high -- all of this in a beautiful country full of very friendly people and with an exchange rate that makes hunting out of country very economical for the adventurous US hunter.
Here are some of the important things to know about when getting started:
Tahr, chamois, red deer and fallow deer seem to be the most commonly hunted species by international hunters. There is good reason for this.
Tahr and chamois are the most common and accessible mountain game in New Zealand - and some of the finest mountain species in the world. Similarly, red deer and fallow deer are the most common and accessible deer species, especially on public land, in New Zealand. They typically occupy the low to mid elevations whereas the tahr and chamois are often found in the tops.
NOTE: When traveling to NZ for the first time, I recommend focusing on one species exclusively and only considering taking an additional species as an incidental opportunity during your hunt.
Here is a list of most of the popular big game species that can be hunted in New Zealand:
NOTE: The wild, free-ranging red deer (red stag) and fallow deer are probably not what you have in mind if you have seen pictures, TV shows or YouTube videos. New Zealand has a thriving industry of turning farm raised animals out onto private lands (of varying sizes) for hunting. This is very similar to hunting high fence whitetails in Texas.
I'll let you determine how you feel about this practice and whether or not you want to participate in it, but if you want huge red stag, you will have to pay a guide to get one. If you want a wild red deer, expect an average stag's antlers to look like a rag horn Roosevelt elk, with a trophy wild stag looking similar to a 280"-300" Roosevelt elk. A 300" red stag is a very large trophy for a wild stag.
Here are some pictures for comparison:
Big Game Introduction
All of New Zealand's big game species have been introduced. There were no large mammals living in New Zealand before travelers and settlers began releasing animals for hunting, farming and subsistence.
Goats were some of the first ungulates released in New Zealand. Mariners sailing the seas on released goats on the islands sometime during the late 1700s with the hopes of returning to a stable population of animals for meat and trade with the New Zealand natives.
Other big game animals such as tahr, chamois and red deer were released during the late 1800s or early 1900s. Some were released as gifts from the leaders or dignitaries of other countries, and some by settlers, with the goal of establishing hunt-able populations for meat and recreation.
Even Teddy Roosevelt makes a brief appearance in New Zealand's history when he gifted 20 elk to the country back in 1905 that were introduced into the Fiordlands on the southern end of the South Island.
Historically New Zealand’s wildlife was made up almost entirely of native bird species, many of them flightless. The introduction of mammals, especially rats, opposums, cats and stoats, have been detrimental to the native bird populations.
DOC Poison and Culling
Currently, New Zealand’s government sees all large mammals as invasive species and a threat to the country’s native wildlife. The DOC has proposed the goal to rid the country of all mammal predators by 2050 (called Predator Free 2050). Under this plan, the government intends to increase its aerial application of the poison 1080 across the islands.
Although this is a very ambitious plan, once you see the thick scrub jungle and gnarly mountains of the South Island’s West Coast, you’ll understand how remote the chances of this plan actually succeeding seem to be. This is obviously open to debate, but note that the deer species such as red deer and fallow deer will likely be impacted by the increased 1080 application.
The DOC has been actively culling its non-native wildlife since the 1930s when it was observed that the deer species were overgrazing their new habitat and were becoming overpopulated. Remember, there are no large predators on New Zealand at all, to help control mammal populations. The use of poison to help control large and small mammal populations began in the 1950s.
Although the use of poison and helicopter culling may seem slightly insane from an American perspective, it's important to realize that there is no current alternative to control these populations. New Zealand has vast stretches of very remote and rugged habitat for these species to thrive in, thus making it very difficult to manage the populations through recreational hunting alone.
It is commonly believed among hunters that if recreational hunters killed more females of basically all of the big game species, the New Zealand government would not have to be as aggressive in its helicopter culling programs.
The culling and poisoning of New Zealand’s wild mammals does pose a threat to the recreational hunter’s odds of success when planning a remote hunt. However, the DOC posts its planned poison drops and helicopter culls on its website so the hunter can check in and ensure that no poison or culling has occurred in areas that he or she is planning to hunt.
Seasons / Bag Limits
Because the New Zealand government regards all of its large mammals as invasive species, there are currently no closed hunting seasons and no bag limits for the species listed above.
This seems, on the one hand, like this incredible free-for-all to an American hunter, and yet when you consider how rugged the landscape is, it becomes clear that unless you are using helicopters to actually hunt and retrieve game, meat and trophy retrieval becomes the biggest limiting factor to killing multiple animals per hunt.
However, because the government requires no meat or trophy salvage of mammal game species, a hunter could technically kill as many animals as they wished without being bothered by the additional hindrance of packing out meat. The government is doing it every day.
This is totally up to the individual hunter and his or her personal code of ethics.
Its interesting that what you might have been taught to be rock-solid, black-and-white ethics can be put to the challenge in a very logical, rational manner when you travel to another country and discover an ecosystem that is not dominated by its native wildlife. It also reveals how strongly our "ethics" are rooted in cultural relativity. I digress.
On our 2019 hunt, we did salvage meat from our bull tahr and although they were stinky, rutted up bulls, the meat was mild and incredibly delicious! I highly recommend that hunters salvage as much meat as they can from these animals.
You are required to obtain a hunting permit from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC, or DoC) in order to legally hunt big game in New Zealand. This hunting permit can be filled out online and printed out before you travel to New Zealand.
The hunting permit is free, but is supposed to remain on your person while you are in the field hunting.
The DOC manages large tracts of public land that recreational hunters are free to access and hunt, fish or hike on. Most of these lands are hilly or mountainous.
Public lands and their boundaries can be found on various maps and mobile apps for your convenience.
Not only does New Zealand have a large list of quality game animals, some incredible habitat and very liberal (almost non-existent) hunting regulations, it also has the key component to making it all work as a top quality DIY hunting destination -- excellent public access.
Whether you hike in from a road, drive in on a 'track' or fly in by helicopter, access to New Zealand's public lands is easy, widely available and relatively inexpensive.
The Ballot System
During specific times of the year, typically during the rut, the DOC limits helicopter access to specific wilderness areas. These areas are referred to as “Ballot Blocks” and the ballots themselves are awarded through a lottery draw, much like draw tags in the US.
One major difference between NZ’s ballot system and draw tags in the US is that the ballot has nothing to do with the type of game that can be hunted or the number of animals that can be harvested, it simply limits helicopter access to one party per hunting area, or ‘block’, per week (typically Saturday to Saturday).
If one person draws a block they are welcome to invite a couple of mates along to join them on the hunt, as long as they register their hunting buddies with the DOC under their ballot application.
There is a fee to put in for a ballot application. Although there is tons of public land that is open and accessible for hunting year round, the ballot block program does offer some high quality opportunities for the hunter interested in planning ahead and throwing their name in the hat.
Travel to New Zealand With Firearms
Although this is often a concern of traveling hunters (especially first timers) we found that getting a firearm into and out of New Zealand was quite easy and straightforward.
Getting the firearm into New Zealand required filling out an online form approximately one month before our arrival in NZ, getting the firearm checked into NZ customs, and paying a $25 fee (in NZ dollars). Not only was checking the firearm into customs easy, the customs agents were remarkably friendly and pleasant. NOTE: This occurred just a few months after the terrorist shooting in Christchurch, so we weren't sure what to expect.
Getting firearms back into the US consisted of filling out an additional piece of paperwork before leaving the US, proving that the firearm was not obtained overseas, and checking back in through US customs (although sadly US customs agents are not as friendly as their NZ counterparts)
Nothing to worry about at all.