Chasing Wapiti in Fiordland

Breakfast was interrupted by the shrill sound of a wapiti bugle. We were camped on the valley floor and the bull had cast its call out from above us. I had heard that sound hundreds maybe thousands of times from youtube videos and how-to-bugle CDs but this was the first time it had emanated from a bull’s lungs.  And all of the recordings I had ever heard combined couldn’t come close to matching the sheer power of the raw sound the bull was making.     

I grabbed my bull horn and diaphram elk call and went out into the stream bed to gain a better vantage point.  I bugled back to him and his response intensified. His reply was a full growl-bugle-chuckle.  The sound was echoing off the steep valley walls and rocky stream bed.  

We were in block 16 Mt Tanilba Period 1.  Our basecamp was about two thirds up the two thumb river. We had heard that in the head of the two thumb on the true-right side there was a bull that could be 50+ inches.  Our plan was to have Lance and Sam set up in the riverbed glassing for him, while Jamie and I would ascend a side spur to the tussock where, after another 7km, we’d be in the bull’s area.  The spur we would go up is on the true right of the second hanging basin on the true right of Two Thumb.  

The bull that was calling that morning was positioned somewhere up in the hanging basin that we were planning on skirting along that day.  From the Two Thumb stream bed it wasn’t possible to get a very exact location on the bugling bull.  

It took us six hours to make it from the stream bed to the tussock.  The bush was fairly open but it was steep.  A couple of times we had to sidle back and forth a bit to manage our way up steep areas.  Occasionally the Bull let out a locator bugle.  As the climb wore on we could tell that he was on the opposite side of the hanging basin that we were heading up.  

Only a few hundred meters from the top we came across fresh Bull manure on the spur.  It was glistening and the mucus was still slimy.  The size was incredible.  Roughly five orange-sized clumps.  Jamie snuck forward a couple hundred meters and I then let out a couple of cow calls, but nothing stirred.  

Once on the tops, although an incredible view, we were a bit let down by the lack of deer activity.  We decided to camp in the tussock hoping that we might be able to see the animal that had left the sign on the spur we had come up.  We made contact with Sam and Lance via radio, and they had yet to see a bull as well.  Although they had seen some cows.  They had also seen a handful of red deer.  

After a dismal evening of glassing Jamie and I decided that if we could spot any animal on the tops in the morning, we’d continue along the tops, but if not we would head back down.  

It was a beautiful morning similar to the peaceful evening prior,  but nothing stirred.  Jamie and I glassed for a couple hours on day break and then decided to pull the pin on the hunting-the-tops idea. Any deer sign we did find was weathered and ancient.  We didn’t see one deer on the tops.  

As we headed back down the spur towards camp, I hoped to get the Bull bugling we had heard the day previously.  Every 20 minutes or so I’d let out a locator bugle.  A distant red deer was groaning a bit but besides that nothing was making any noise. 

Jamie was all for the suggestion that we go after the red that was roaring.  The deer was on the opposite side of the valley and it was answering back quickly with aggressive roars. However, the afternoon was waning and I knew that the sinking down draft would put us at a disadvantage if the deer made it to the stream before we did.  We hatched a plan to climb down to the stream 300m below us.  The stag sounded to be on our same level, so we deduced he must be about 300m up the other side of the valley.  From the stream floor I thought I could see which spur he would likely come down. Jamie would be slightly further down stream and down wind than me.  I’d do the roaring and the stag would walk down the spur and Jamie would intercept the stag before it winded us.  

We made it to the stream bed and I told Jamie I’d head 50 meters upstream and give him time to cross the stream and get into position before I let off a roar.

I worked my way up the stream and crept out to the stream edge.  The stream was twenty to thirty meters wide.  I could see up and down the stream for a hundred meters as well.  What then commenced was the shortest roaring sequence I have ever experienced.  I let out a roar and was suddenly cut off by an explosion of a roar from across the stream.  The pungas violently shook as antler tore through them.  The deer was livid and was thrashing about raking its antlers through the undergrowth. Ferns and twigs were flying as he threw his head back and forth. It was an enormous animal.  At first all I could see were the tips of its antlers ripping through punga leaves and then I caught a glimpse of the cream-coloured torso.  It was a Wapiti!

The entire afternoon it had not made one bugle but instead had roared like a red.  From its antlers dangled moss and bits of punga. It finished its show of aggression by snapping its head upright and staring directly at me.  I shot it in the chest. At most it was 40 meters from me.  From the time I roared to the time I pulled the trigger all of five seconds past.  It expired less than 20 meters from where I shot it.  

At this point we were about a kilometer away from camp.  We managed to get back to camp by headlamp that night to the news that the chopper was coming in to get us in the morning because of a storm that was on its way.  The 10 day wapiti hunt had been shortened to only 4 days.  Hell of a good time though!

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