While at the SCI Convention in 2016, we set out to find an outfitter who would make our New Zealand experience over the top. We were looking for a completely free-range hunt that would push our hunting and physical abilities to the test. We always do our best to find an outfitter whose personality closely matching ours, as I believe that is important for any successful hunt. Success to us is not only the size or quantity of the game we are after, but the whole experience and the outfitter is key to that scenario. At the end of day hunting, if you have been beaten by the terrain and the animals you’re after, it's nice to have a good laugh, a cold beverage (when available) and reflect over any mishaps that day (and with us, there are usually quite a few!).
When we were introduced to Gus Bisset, the owner of Awatere Safaris New Zealand, at Convention, we knew that we had found exactly who we were looking for. His company sets out to be the most customized hunting and touring adventures in New Zealand. He laid out all the options and a date was set.
When we arrived in Queenstown, NZ, Gus was there personally waiting to start our adventure and, within three hours of landing, were close to the town of Twizel hunting ducks. We set up off a point of Lake Benmore’s crystal blue water with an unbelievable view of the white capped mountains in the background. The first group of mallards came in and five seconds later we were laughing at each other because we didn’t hit a single bird. We blamed it on our long day of traveling, although that excuse did not wavier Gus’s laughter.
The next wave of ducks came in and that time we ended up with some greenheads and a grey duck. Next came black swans — three down that round. The shooting continued until Gus started duck calling from his mouth, without an actual duck call. It was one of the weirdest sounds. It was quite comical. Laughing, we asked what that was about and before we knew it paradise ducks were within range. We ended up with a couple and several more as they continued coming to Gus’s “call.” It was the frist evening and already had three new species of waterfowl added to our overall list.
The next morning, we set out into the mountains after tahr. In the thirty-plus years Gus has worked and hunted the South Island, he has gathered several very large, privately-owned stations that he hunts and took us to one of his favorites. We were north of Twizel headed up a valley with Mount Cook at the end of it. After a short walk from Gus’s “go anywhere and through anything” Nissan Safari truck, we set the spotting scope up and began glassing.
Blake and I couldn’t believe how breathtakingly beautiful and rugged New Zealand truly was. After about 45 minutes of glassing, we started packing our stuff to start our hike into the mountains. As we were putting the guns on our shoulders, Gus spotted a tahr in the thick cover of matagouri bushes on the face of the next hill. When you see the look of pure excitement in your outfitters face when he sees an animal, you now it’s a good one. I had lost the coin toss that we do every trip to see who takes the first shot, so Blake was up. Gus ranged the tahr at 540 yards, went to his gun and dialed it in, handed it to Blake and said, “Get ready Blake, take the shot!”
At that range Blake and I both must have had a puzzled look on our face, so Gus said, “Hold exactly where you want the shot to go. The rifle is dead on. Don’t worry!” Blake squeezed the trigger and down went the tahr. The excitement in Gus’s eyes turned into him telling Blake he had just shot a giant! High fives and congratulations were issued all round.
After finally taking a deep breath and relaxing a bit, and just as we started planning our best route to get to him, Gus spotted another bull tahr! Both of us said at the same time, “No way!” Gus told me to get down and get ready to shoot. Again, Gus ranged it about 20 yards farther than the last. He turned the turret and said, “Shoot when you're ready but you will need to hurry.” Our second tahr was down within 20 minutes of the first. Lady luck was definitely on our side that morning. We are again shaking hands and laughing in astonishment that we had two tahr on the ground. Blake’s tahr is now top 25 in the SCI record book for free range. Mine ended up being very nice but not close to the 45 2/8 benchmark Blake had set.
The custom rifles we used for the tahr hunt (and all our hunts in NZ) are made by East Coast Arms NZ, which is owned by Gus and his business partner, Dave Buick. The 6.5-06 carbon fiber-stocked and barrelled rifle we mainly used was lightweight and superbly accurate. With the lifetime of hunting and shooting experience from both Gus and Dave, coupled with the talents and knowledge of their gunsmith, Mark Mcfarlane, they have accomplished the ultimate lightweight long-range hunting rifle. Both Blake and I will attest after the shots we took and the time these rifles spent slung over our shoulders, that they are remarkable pieces of equipment. Gus repeatedly tested our marksmanship throughout the trip out to 650 yards and no shots were missed.
The third day started early with us arriving in Wanaka with our guide, Sam Manson. The scenery was amazing! We were now in chamois country — cold, snow and extremely icy. We hiked a while to find a good vantage point to glass from and, after glassing for most of the day, Sam spotted a chamois. We got in position and he asked Blake if he was comfortable shooting at that distance. He had plenty of confidence in Gus’s custom rifles from the day before, so replied, “Absolutely!”
Again, some turns on the turrets and another great shot later, we had a chamois down more than 500 yards away. After retrieving the animal, we were off again looking for one for myself. On our downward descent, Blake decided by accident that he wanted to go down the hill quicker than recommended. He was behind me a way when all of a sudden I heard some very explicit words, turned, and saw him sliding down right at me. I grabbed the gun out of this hand as he passed. He finally caught his footing about 80 yards down the mountain. Sam and I both caught our breath after thinking we were going to have a big problem.
Luckily, ripped pants and a sore ass were all that Blake suffered on his fast route down, though after getting down to the valley floor he realized that during the fall he had lost his jacket and a vest. We were too short on time to climb back up the mountain, so left the items for the kea parrots to tear apart.
After some more time glassing, Sam spotted another shooter chamois. I set up, squeezed the trigger and chamois Number two for the day was down. This time, I had the bragging rights!
In three days we had four big game animals down and turned our attention back to bird hunting for the next couple of days. We duck hunted from Wanaka to Kurow and back to Twizel. We took many more ducks and swans until it was jetboat time, Gus has customized aluminum jetboat to accommodate his hunting and need for speed. That turned out to be one of my highlights of the trip. Going up and down the rapid-filled rivers was a very new and exciting way for us to cover a lot of ground.
While using the jetboat, we were joined by Gus’s fiancé, Kelly, who we had previously met at Convention. Kelly is an avid outdoorswoman and was a fun and helpful addition to our adventures.
After a morning of hunting, we stopped on an island to have some lunch. One of Gus’s cheese and charcuterie plates followed by a wood-fired Argentine-style lamb rack and crispy skin pork belly had me coming to the realization that Gus’s meals were always going to be over the top! He loves preparing and presenting his culinary creations made from locally grown meats, cheeses and vegetables, and you will never be hungry or thirsty!
While checking out one of the many islands after lunch, we came upon a flock of feral goats with some big old billys among them. After a short stalk, Blake took aim and another animal was down — a big old billy with hardly a tooth remaining.
Next we were off to Moeraki , North Otago, right on the coastline. This is a place not only famous for its unusual spherical boulders but also for the blue cod fishing and big game hunting. There, we met up with Tony Schofield, one of Gus’s many friends who we met while traveling the country. We switched our gear over to Tony’s truck and headed into the Wainakarua River area for a chance at a very rare sub-species of feral sheep, the Wainakarua sheep.
There are five recognized wild sheep flocks in New Zealand and this is one of them. Tony grew up in this area and was our best chance at getting close to one. After getting to the area Tony and Gus had scouted prior to our arrival, Gus, Kelly and I were dropped off to glass one area of the river valley. Tony and Blake headed farther in to try their luck and it didn’t take long before we spotted a small group down in a clearing on one of the many razorback ridges amongst the thick manuka scrub.
After watching them for a while, a nice ram stepped out of the brush. Like before, Gus ranged it and after = a few clicks and I was able to take the 380 yard shot and bag a very nice ram. After a steep downhill descent, we got photos, did the skinning, then turned the spotting scope to see if we could locate Tony and Blake. We spotted them walking down a distant ridge with Tony packing out an entire ram over his shoulders!
After meeting back up back at the truck for a couple of celebratory refreshments, we headed back to Tony’s house for a very nice dinner with his family. The next morning, Blake and Tony headed out to see if they could find any stags. They saw dozens of females and young stags, but only one mature stag that they passed up.
Gus, Kelly and I headed out off the coast in the boat to do some off-shore fishing for the famous (and delicious) blue cod and had great success. After filling up the cooler, watching dolphins, penguins, sharks and the beautiful coastline, we headed in to see how Gus was going to prepare the fresh fish. He decided on blue cod Ceviche then hot smoked cod wings for an appetizer, followed by tempura battered cod strips, homemade tartar sauce, lemon wedges and crunchy oven roasted duck fat potatoes! It was a remarkable fish and chip platter!
The next morning, we were off again up the Hakataramea valley to hunt fallow deer and I was successful again taking a dark, chocolate-colored buck, which is exactly what I told Gus I would love to take on this trip. Sadly, the trip was down to the last day. At the end of the season for stags, they tend to drift back into bachelor groups and, if you’re lucky enough to find a group, you usually have the chance to take a nice one. We wore our boots down trying to find them, but our luck had run out this trip. There were absolutely no complaints from either Blake or me — this was an action-packed, never-slow-down adventure that Gus made happen for us and we can’t wait for the next one!
On our last day before our departure, we sat in Queenstown having lunch and some cocktails at a lakeside outdoor restaurant and planned our next adventure with Gus for early 2020. Our goals would be to try and finish a quest to take all free-range sub-species of feral sheep available in NZ along with big, free-range red stag, sambar deer, sika deer and the rusa deer. We will start in the South Island and finish in North Island and I am sure it will be another very memorable, action-packed trip with all the same camaraderie and laughter along with great hunting and opportunities to take world class animals.--Brett Eavenson