Kaimanawa Ranges: Thunderbolt Stream

31st March – 2nd April 2017

At last! Work was out of the way, there was a clear weather window (well, for the first couple of days anyway...) and I was finally able to head down to the Southern Kaimanawas for a jaunt over to Thunderbolt Stream. After having to postpone this trip a couple of times, it was third time lucky and I couldn’t wait to get there.

It was the end of March now and the stags would be in hard antler and just beginning to kick into gear for the rut. Not a bad time of the year to be heading into the hills as the peak of hunter traffic was still a couple of weeks away.

Day 1
Breakfast with the kids and then off. At Taupo I made a quick detour to the local NZDA range to fire a couple of shots prior. This has become more of a ritual than an actual check of my rifle’s zero, a little bit of a confidence booster before a hunt.

Through Turangi and onto Kaimanawa Road, reaching the Urchin Track Carpark at midday. Apart from my last hunt to Waipakihi Hut and around Te Hiwiokaituri Ridge back in June 2015, I hadn’t hunted the Thunderbolt since 1992.

As soon as you leave the car park it’s uphill for about an hour and a half until you reach the bush line. The summit and trig take another five minutes to reach. Up on top I was rewarded with some fantastic views of the Southern Kaimanawas, an area that I have spent much of my hunting career in.

Eager to keep moving I continued towards the Urchin to Umukarikari Loop junction from which you can either continue to the Umukarikari Track and then onto Waipakihi Hut, or drop down into the Waipakihi River, which is what I did.

The Urchin Track and a view down towards the Waipakihi River and Thunderbolt Stream.

It’s a pretty straightforward descent down to the river and once there I stopped for a late lunch and rest, and to soak up just being in the valley. The Waipakihi River is such a great hunting spot with wide open grass and tussock river flats, plus bush stalking and open tops; it is one of my favourite areas.

Anyway, enough with the nostalgia, it was time to put on the pack and start heading up through the beech towards Motutere, which at 1646m is the second highest point along Middle Range.

No sooner had I reached the main terrace above the river, I spooked a young sika stag. He had a beautiful coat with prominent white spots and a dark chestnut colouring. A good omen I thought!

Antler rubbings – a clear indicator of rutting activity and a welcome sight for any hunter.

Typically, it took me a bit longer to reach the bush edge and with only about an hour of light left I found a great little spot to spend the night, I even managed to get some glassing done. With the stars out and clear skies above I opted to sleep under them, so after some dinner it was time to get some rest.

Day 2
I woke with the sunrise and a sika squealing not more than 100 metres or so from my campsite. After about 40 or so chirps another one chimed in and they both continued to call for the next 20 minutes. Another quick glassing session and then I was off up the hill.

It was cracker day and knowing I had time up my sleeve I was in no hurry to get anywhere except up onto Motutere before slowly making my way along the range.

There is an unofficial track that continues up the hill from the Thunderbolt Track (which provides a direct route out of the Waipakihi River and up onto the tops) and winds itself up to the top of Motutere and beyond.

Near the top I heard a faint red stag roar from across the other side of the Thunderbolt, awesome! I sat up on Motutere, had a coffee and enjoyed the sound of a red stag echoing forth his challenge. Shortly after another stag joined in, OK, now we are talking! At that moment, sika hunting took backstage and it was the reds that became the focus – hunting is all about adapting!

Surveying the terrain further along the range I picked out a great vantage point for a look and listen. Upon reaching that I found a small watercourse nearby so water was on hand now. For the next couple of hours, I sat back and listened to the roars while working out possible spots for the stags to be holed up at.

By midday, the hunger pangs had set in so it was out with the cooker and Backcountry Cuisine. Just as I poured the water into the sachets I spotted four other hunters walking back from along Middle Range.

Always keen to meet other hunters I cruised over to the track and waited for them to turn up. As they neared I instantly recognised the figure out in front, it was Peter Kinane who was a co-host in Allan Foote’s sika hunting videos. With Peter was his brother-in-law and two other mates. They had spent the last couple of days in and around the Thunderbolt headwaters and had some success with Peter’s brother-in-law bow stalking a young sika stag. They had also heard the red stag roars coming from across the stream, as well as some sika roars.

After a good chat about all things hunting, the guys headed off for a night down at Waipakihi River before heading back to their truck the following day.

After bumping into 4 other hunters and with red stags roaring, Nik ponders his next move within the valley...

I was left with a decision to make – continue to where they had just spent the last couple of days hunting, or focus on the reds. I am normally pretty stubborn in completing my objectives for a trip, but the sound of those stags was too much to pass up and I wasn’t all that keen on hunting country that had just seen some pressure.

With the decision made I opted to head down the ridge I was on and find a place to make camp. As it happened there was an ideal little flat spot that was perfect to base myself at.

It was now 2pm and the stags were still going, although the amount of the roars had lessened. The stag across the valley was the one that sparked my interest, he was putting out some of those real guttural roars that make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up!

At around 2.30pm I spotted a stag on my side of the valley and out in the open. Through the Canon SX60 I could see he was a small antlered animal and certainly not a shooter. Although there have been a few impressive heads taken over the years (not by me!) the red stags in the Southern Kaimanawas have in general, average heads.

A young red stag who clearly thought he was the ‘master stag’ of the valley!

This stag clearly thought he was a leading contender as he strutted around thrashing the odd bit of scrub and letting out roars. It was great to watch. He hung around for about 15 minutes before disappearing back into the beech.

After that experience I was hoping that the stag opposite me would come out into the open as well, I was keen to get a look at him. My plan to hunt him would be to drop down to the Thunderbolt Stream the next morning and then head up parallel near to where his roars were coming from.

As I glassed the opposite faces another stag started up and this one was close, directly below where I was positioned. Moments later he appeared from out of the beech and began making his way up the ridge I was on. After a quick evaluation, I decided to put the shot on him. He was an 8-pointer with a nicely shaped set of antlers. Not fully mature, but a good stag none-the-less and one I would be proud of.

The red stag that came out of the forest interior and into the open to investigate the roars...

As he edged closer I quickly set up for the shot. The .260 Sako M591 was with me and on the last couple of hunts I had opted to fit my Harris Bi-pod to the rifle. At 120m the stag stopped on a small rocky outcrop, let out a roar and then stood motionless. Lining up on his neck I sent a Barnes 130 grain TSX on its way. The shot was just slightly forward of the spine and he didn’t drop instantly the way a spine-shot animal typically does. Instead, he ran about 30 metres back along the face before coming to a standstill and then dropping. By the time I reached him, it was all over.

I was stoked, a tidy red stag on the deck and only about 200m from my camp, mint! After a photo session and a tidy up of the stag, it was back to camp, all of 5 mins away. Ironically, this was the first time I had pulled the trigger on a deer since the “Sika Hunting Tips & Info” series began, and it happened to be a red!

Just moments later! Nik was well pleased with his Southern Kaimanawa 8pt red.

With a couple of hours of light remaining, I settled into some more glassing in the hope I might still get to see the stag across the stream, unfortunately he never showed. Interestingly, throughout the shooting of the stag, the other two kept on roaring and continued until dark.

A hunters camp...

Day 3
​Sunday morning started off reasonably clear but over towards Mount Ruapehu things were looking a little bleak with some pretty serious thunderclouds beginning to form. By 9am the mist had rolled in and visibility was down to about 100m, the stags had also shut up shop for the day.

Knowing that the weather was forecasted to deteriorate on Sunday afternoon I had already opted to head back closer to the truck and spend the night up on the Urchin tops. This would leave me with an easy decent down the Urchin Track and back to the carpark.

Wasting no time, I packed up and headed back to the Waipakihi River, this time dropping down to the river by way of the Thunderbolt track. A bite to eat and then a nasty little climb out of the river and up onto the Urchin tops.

Heading home after a fantastic few days hunting in some equally fantastic country.

By this time, the weather had really closed in and I decided to cut the trip short by a day. With an animal harvested and the weather closing in, there wasn’t much point hanging around. It would be a nice surprise for the kids for me to be home when they woke up in the morning! An awesome trip into a one of my favourite hunting areas, not quite sika hunting per se, but sometimes you just have to play the cards you’re dealt!

ACCESS:
The most direct approach to Thunderbolt Stream and Middle Range is over the Urchin Track. From the carpark, you head directly uphill through the beech for about 1.5-2hrs, until you hit the bush edge. Once there it is a leisurely 2km stroll along the tops until you reach the Urchin to Umukarikari Loop junction. A short, steep descent takes you down to the Waipakihi River. From there you can either head straight across and up through the beech, which gives you an opportunity for a hunt or, head upstream for about 1km until you reach the Thunderbolt Track. Another hour of climbing and you reach the bush edge and from then on, it’s an easy walk along the open tops until you reach the upper section of the Rangitikei River. There are plenty of hunting opportunities in this area.

HUNTING PRESSURE:
Like many areas of the park, this area receives a fair amount of hunting pressure. However, since access is mostly gained by walking, generally only the keener hunters will venture into the back blocks. You can expect higher numbers during the roar period, that is a given. In saying that, if you are prepared to hunt from your pack and push on a little further than the masses, you should be able to enjoy some solitude. Also, with the Waipakihi Hut the only one on offer and involving a decent slog to get to, it means that most hunters will be fly camping which will also keep the numbers down.

WEATHER:
In general, during late March and into April we can expect some settled weather with April often treating us to some sunny days, cool nights and clear skies. We are just on the cusp on daylight savings so there is still a few extra hours of light to get a bit more hunting done. Temperatures will only just be beginning to drop and there will be still be plenty of sun and heat during the day. You’ll often find that the winds tend to drop off around this time also, which is ideal when you’re listening out for some stag calls.

HUNTING TIPS:
The rut will be just beginning to kick off in the Central Plateau. Now is the time to beat the feet and start considering those likely areas where you would expect a stag to create his territory. Stags will almost always pick an area that features either a terrace or an open ridge, a nearby water source, and some elevation to vocalise from. Combined with that will be an area of open ground to confront any challengers, including some nearby thick stuff to retreat into if things start to get a bit heavy – either from a challenger or a hunter. While that sounds obvious, with time and practice you’ll be able to look at an area (this also works with Google Earth and Topo Maps) and narrow down the possible locations where a stag might take up residence. When you locate a stag’s territory, carefully and without disturbing or scenting up the area too much, search for any entry points that will allow you to sneak in as discreetly as possible. The best chance you have of securing that stag will be your first encounter with him, so execute some patience and take your time.

NEXT ISSUE:
It’s time for some 100% bush action, the Northern Kaimanawas and in another spot that has special meaning for me – Tiki Tiki Stream.

Cheers,

Nik

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