Anglers are noted for tales of the “one that got away”, but it happens in hunting too, and one of the best tales I ever heard happened back in the 1930s. It concerned three well-known Murchison deerstalkers, brothers Newton and Alex McConochie and Bert Spiers.
Newton was probably better known in the deerstalking world then as a good hunter. However, Alex, probably more reserved, was an exceptional hunter. While all have departed, it was Bert in his later years, in the 1990s, who recounted to me the tale of a stag that was just too smart for hunters.
It was late one day in 1936 in the headwaters of the Haupiri River when Alex and Bert first sighted the big stag. With mist and dusk closing in, they decided to leave stalking for the next morning.
At dawn, they left their camp and found the big tracks of the stag. They followed the great hoof prints for several kilometres but did not sight him with their binoculars or telescopes.
They decided to return to camp but just before they turned to retrace their steps, Newton swung his telescope onto a distant conical hill and there was the great stag.
The big animal held several hinds and as they watched spellbound, the monster stag disappeared from sight around the mountainside. There was just time to stalk him but wind and fog curling up over the ridge presented potential obstacles.
The hunters hurried to the ridge and peered over to be confronted by a dense wall of fog. Then came a brief break and they spotted a hind just below them. The stag must be a short distance away.
Bert and Alex persuaded Newton to make the stalk. He discarded his boots and inched his way in his socks and on his back. Incredibly, he came to within a metre of a hind without disturbing her but could not find any sign of the stag.
Newton rejoined Bert and Alex, and with the fog closing in, they agreed it was best to head back to camp and return in the morning.
Mystified at the vanishing of the big stag, they turned to retrace their steps, and that’s when the the trio spotted slots of the great stag hooves imprinted on their upward path.
The cunning of the animal was now obvious. He seemingly had been alerted or sensed Newton’s stealthy approach and had made his way around to the rear of the waiting Bert and Alex, stopped, looked them over and then quietly retraced his steps. Then he had back-trailed the hunters for a kilometre before turning off into the cover of a patch of bush.
The three hunters could not deny their admiration. The next morning, Bert and Alex returned but the big stag had vanished. They never saw the stag again on that trip.
The following year, Bert and Newton headed back. They camped on the Hurunui Saddle and the following morning headed towards the territory of the big stag.
A serrated gash in the ridge took time to negotiate before the Westland fog began to flood in. Just as they reached their area, they glimpsed a fine stag carrying many points through the descending mist.
Was this the big stag? They unshouldered their rifles but the fog flooded in, obliterating their chances.
Out on their hunt again the next morning, Newton spotted a large stag with several hinds. It was the big fellow. He set off, until the big stag and its harem of hinds were below him about 600 metres away.
Two spikers just 100 metres away barred progress. Newton paused and studied the stag while waiting with infinite patience for the two young stags to move.
Through the telescope, Newton was in awe as he counted 20 points and took in the great spread, length and heavy beam of antler.
For a full two hours, Newton waited, and at last, the spikers fed away from his path to the big stag. The wind drift was perfect, as he edged down and slowly peeped over the spur. There was not a deer to be seen, but then Newton spotted a movement.
There, 600 metres away, was the herd and the greatest stag he had ever seen, looking back and then fading into the bush.
The stag had won again. The great trophy stag was never to fall, although Alex and Bert did see him a few years later. By then, the animal was ageing. The once-grand stag was going back in condition and had one antler broken. The two sat there full of admiration for the old fellow who had outwitted the stalkers time and time again.
Neither said it, but both felt that the stag deserved to be left to enjoy the autumn of his years.
The late afternoon was ebbing. It was time to head back to camp. Quietly, they eased back out of sight and left the stag in peace.