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First Lite's Ford Van Fossan travels to New Zealand's South Island to hunt tahr, chamois, and red Stag for the next two weeks. You can follow the adventure on our campfire blog and on instagram with the hashtag #expeditionNZ.
First, the trip was just an idea. It was born after I watched an episode of MeatEater in which Steve hunts tahr and chamois in a painfully picturesque glacial valley in Southern Alps.
Then the idea became possibility. After I talked with a few Kiwis at the 2015 SHOT show, it no longer seemed so outlandish. I heard tales of rugged terrain, vast expanses of public land and plentiful exotic critters.
Finally, the possibility of a trip transformed into an obsession. Scott and Kenton, First Lite’s fearless leaders, traveled to the country to visit Merino sheep ranches (and hunt). They brought back some pretty pictures, a couple good stories and what was apparently and exemplary shoulder mount of a creature that looked like the product of a pronghorn, a mountain goat and a weird night in Jackpot, Nevada.
No tags, no licenses. Just get yourself down there and you can hunt like you drew one of North America’s best mountain units.
It was settled.
Good. Now to plan it. International DIY mountain hunts are not known for the logistical simplicity but at least it wasn’t hard to find a willing buddy.
It would have been easier to hire an outfitter for the hunt. It would have been easier but that’s not what we are doing. First, we don’t have the cash. As young guys not far out of school, we aren’t exactly rolling in the dough required to contract a PH. Fortunately, we aren’t much interested in doing so anyway.
I’ve never been on a guided hunt; it's not that I am against the concept. I’d just generally rather shoot a spike on my own than a six by six that someone whom I’ll soon be tipping put me on. However, I also fully realize that it is not always possible to hunt on a strange land without guidance. As far as I know, Tanzania will not be a destination for DIY hunters anytime soon.
But herein lies much of the appeal of New Zealand as a destination. There were several tales on rokslide and others blogs across the Internet of plucky folks heading down to the country and pulling off totally unguided mountain hunts. It seems that maybe, with a bit of beta, we might be able to get after some neat critters in absolute trophy high country.
Fortunately, we haven’t been flying blind on logistics. As I mentioned, Scott and Kenton had hunted down there the previous springs and had some contacts on a sheep station in the center of the South Island. In addition to answering my constant stream of logistical question emails, they very kindly have offered to put us up for a few days and point us towards a few places where we might find some game.
Slowly a plan emerged: fly into Queenstown. Stock up on supplies, see the city and spend our first night there. Then, drive up to our new friends ranch. Check the rifles, head into the mountains and find some tahr and chamois. Come out with heavy packs, regroup and maybe take a shower. Next go look up some red stags, ideally some that are hot on hinds (females) and “roaring” away. Repeat the heavy pack-shower scenario and call it a trip. Along the way we hope to see some gorgeous country, meet some interesting folks and learn about a culture of hunting a bit different from our own.
Physical preparation was another consideration in planning this expedition. I’ve never quite been a #Mtnstrong type guy but hunting the Southern Alps would not be a roll-out-of-bed-and-go type experience. In March, pounding the hills for game is a memory several months in the past. It seemed a bit of intentional training was in order for a hunt in rugged country during the peak of the North American offseason.
Luckily, I live in a mountain town. The Bald Mountain Ski Area rises 3,400 vertical feet from the valley floor a rifle shot from my front door. Climbing the ski mountain after the lifts shut down is one of my favorite after work activities in the winter. The snow cats groom the runs at night and so generally after getting to the top you get to ski freshly courdoroyed runs as a reward for the hike.
Using climbing skins on touring skis, I tried to get to the top (or as high as my schedule would allow) at least twice a week. As the trip got closer, I began to snowshoe up in my hunting boots with a weighted pack that also held my ski boots and downhill skis to better simulate the impact and motion of warm season hiking.
Most weekends, I supplemented this scheme with backcountry ski tours, another favorite winter pastime. This allowed me to put in a bit more vertical to prepare for the climbing, climbing and, more likely than not, more climbing that will be involved in the hunt. Finally, I rounded out my training for the Southern Alps with five-mile runs.
I have been fortunate to be able to do all of these activities at relatively high elevation. Our town sits at 5800 feet and is surrounded by mountains up to 12,000 feet tall. All things considered I was feeling physically prepared for the hunt. Would it still kick my ass? Definitely, but hopefully less so than if I hadn’t done anything at all.
In addition to physical training I knew I also needed to get in some time at the range. I had decided against the bow early with the argument that I have the distinct pleasure of chasing Idaho’s mountain critters with arrows for a month or two each fall. Up till now this experience has been extremely rewarding but entirely devoid of harvested animal protein. If we were going to fly all the way down to New Zealand I figure it might be nice to bring the artillery and maximize our chances, especially in light of the whole hunting-species-I’d-never-seen-before-in-a-country-I’d-never-stepped-foot-in-without-a-guide, thing.
I’ll admit it freely; my rifle almost always takes a back seat to the Charger. But with the impending boomstick hunt, the Tikka had emerged sooner than usual in 2016. I shot cardboard once or twice a week, focusing on building confidence at somewhat unsettled shooting conditions of mountain hunting.
This was easier said than done. Deep snows limited the standard drive-out-a-canyon routine for longer distance practice. Ultimately, I resorted to using my touring skis to get out to deserted places to shoot over 100 yards. I told the occasional passerby I was training for a biathlon. The extra effort aside, I was feeling quite confident with my .308.
Gear gathering and preparation was another process. Working for an apparel company, the clothing kit wasn’t too difficult to figure out. It was more or less the same setup I bring along for all my backcountry hunts with a couple of additions from the 2016 line.
|Core Lower Base||Red Desert Boxer|
|Med Lower Base||Allegheny Bottom|
|Pant||Corrugate Guide Pant|
|Core Top||Wilikin Aerowool Crew Top|
|Med Top||Chama Hoody|
|Med Top||Halstead Tech Fleece|
|Insulation||Umcompahgre Puffy Jacket|
|Hard Shell Jacket||Vapor Stormlight Jacket|
|Hard Shell Bottom||Boundary Stormtight Pant|
|Light Headwear||5 Panel Tech Cap|
|Warm Headwear||Cuff Beanie|
|Gaiter||Traverse Boot Gaiters|
|Base Glove||Aerowool Glove Liner|
|Insulating Glove||Talus Fingerless Gloves|
More difficult decisions were made in the equipment department. I viewed this trip as an opportunity/sufficient excuse to upgrade my backcountry setup. I became a regular in our local backcountry gear shop and spent far too much time trolling the likes of rokslide, outdoorgearlab.com and backpacker.com. Ultimately, I bought trekking poles, a new stove, a new pad and new boots. I have also resealed the seams on my aging tent and borrowed a shiny new First Lite Fusion Kifaru pack from the venerable Ryan Callahan.
|Spotting Scope||Vortex Razor|
|Binocular||Olympus Trooper 8x40|
|Tent||MSR Hubba Hubba|
|Bag||EMS Boreal 20°|
|Pad||Big Agnes Q Core|
|GPS||Garmin Rhino 610|
|Headlamp||Black Diamond Revolt|
|Stove||MSR WL International|
|Trekking Poles||Black Diamond Distance Z|
|Rifle||Tikka T3 Lite in .308|
|Pack||Kifaru Mountain Warrior|
Despite some teeth pulling moments, we finally got this expedition sorted out. If all goes according to plan, we’ll be in the Southern Alps in no time. The International Date Line, NZ Customs and 16 hours of flying is all that separatedsus from our long anticipated Kiwi adventure.
Ford Van Fossan is the Consumer Sales and Content Manager at FLHQ. He will not be answering his phone for the next two weeks.
Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be an in depth or definitive discussion of which rifle caliber is most versatile for Western game. I also fully realize that, for many, this topic is about as controversial as universal healthcare, legalized marijuana or Canis lupis. Understanding this reality, I want to emphasize that I do not mean to claim that my conclusions are absolutely correct. This essay merely chronicles one novice’s attempt to find the most versatile rifle for the West.
I work for a hunting apparel brand and yet, until very recently, had never owned, or even shot a high caliber rifle. Growing up in southeastern Maryland, I used the same Fab Arm Gold Lion 12 gauge for doves, ducks and deer. In my pancake flat county it was illegal to hunt whitetails with a rifle. Some of the more serious deer hunters did have shotguns with rifled barrels and scopes but most folks just seemed to use their goose guns.
Then I moved to Idaho, which, to say the least, is not so flat. After bow season, I borrowed a rifle from a coworker and set about figuring out just how the thing worked. It was more than a bit different than firing a pumpkin ball out of a twelve gauge. Even, though the bang was a hell of a lot louder than my Fab Arm, I was quickly setting up decent groups at distances that seemed absurd in comparison to those at which I was comfortable slinging an arrow or deer slug.
When I did finally cross paths with a little four pointer the effectiveness of these weapons became apparent. One second the muley was standing about 160 yards away. The next, he was on his back with his legs splayed in the air. There was no mule kick, no running off into the gloom, no waiting or worrying. In an instant, he was piled up. And to confirm this lethality, my buddy absolutely stoned another deer with the same gun the very next day.
With the season over and the utter awesomeness of these weapons firmly imprinted in my mind, it seemed about time to find one of my own. However, to someone who had moved from the East with little or no concept of calibers, the task was daunting. Fortunately for me, First Lite employees like nothing better than debating the merits of various rifle calibers and slowly I began to get a feel for the long-range universe. My co-workers threw out everything from a .270 to a .300 Win Mag. From there, I began to whittle down the field.
Because I do have vague dreams of someday shooting a Shiras Moose, I edged out the .270 and the .280. Yes, I know you could likely still kill such a critter with these lighter guns if you used a hot enough round, were not taking a long shot and were extremely precise with your placement. However, after surveying both my co-workers and the dark rabbit hole that is rifle forums, I got a sense that a .270 or .280 was less than ideal for the task.
I then scrubbed the .30-06. Though considered by many to be the quintessential versatile round, my co-workers did not bring it up. And so I moved on. Yes, I know this is not a fully logical move. Sue me.
Next up was the .300 Win Mag. With the ability to easily down pretty much any furry critter in North America, it was the most potent of the bunch. The .300 is also an exceptionally flat shooting round and an excellent choice for long-range shots. On the flip side, it is expensive to shoot. Also, depending on who you talk with, the .300 may even be a bit too much gun for a mule deer, the species that I would probably most often pursue with my future rifle.
To learn more about this popular caliber, I went to the range to shoot a co-worker's Tikka. Puny as it sounds, I was simply taken aback by how loud a bang the thing made. I honestly did not see myself enjoying shooting the thing repeatedly. So, fully acknowledging my status as a weeny, I took the .300 off the list.
And so by process of elimination, I seemed to have arrived at the humble .308. To be perfectly honest, I was already biased towards the caliber. The rifle I had borrowed for deer season had been a .308 and I was already comfortable with its handling and performance. Its ammunition is widely available and cheap. True, it is not the flattest shooting caliber under the sun. Yet, as a bow hunter and someone who enjoys the stalk, I frankly did not plan on taking many long distance shots anyhow.
Then, when I thought I had figured it all out, a local gun nerd wandered into the office and suggested the flat-shooting 7mm might be the gun for me. Crap. I hadn’t even heard of that one. My confidence in my tentative choice wavered.
Yet ultimately, I did not stray from the .308. Like the .300, the 7mm would pack more bang and be more expensive to shoot. However, what really sunk this caliber was even less scientific. Like the .30-06, it had simply not been brought up in conversation at the First Lite office. I felt I just didn’t know much about it. And so I stayed the course and settled with finality upon the .308.
Selecting a make seemed a bit easier. Everyone I had talked with recommended Tikka and Savage as brands know for their excellent value. But which one and which model? Did I want a heavier more stable gun or a lighter rifle better for schlepping up the steep slopes of central Idaho?
Eventually, I settled on the Savage 16-116 FCSS, basing this decision on the decidedly un-scientific argument that it was a bit heavier than the comparable Tikka T3 Lite but lighter than the tactical rifles of either brand. Plus, I liked the Savage accu-trigger (despite the vague feeling that I was a complete novice falling for a gimmick). Resolved at last and at least mildly confident in my choice, I went down to Sportsman’s warehouse in Twin Falls to pick up my new gun.
Just about as soon as I walked up to the counter, the wise-looking old guy behind the counter destroyed my newfound resolve. “Buy the Tikka,” he said from behind wire rimmed glasses that definitely meant he knew what he was talking about. “The Savage is not even in the same class.”
Faced with yet another decision, I stammered about this and that, trying to buy time to make a the logical choice based on all the tidbits of gun knowledge I had attempted to jam into my brain over the last couple months. What about the weight? And the trigger? And the barrel length? I just wasn’t sure. And so, ultimately, I gave up and relinquished the decision to the expert across the counter.
“I’ll take it.”
Ford Van Fossan is the customer sales and pro staff coordinator at FLHQ and originally hails from Eastern Maryland.