The Dirtbag's Guide to Hunting New Zealand: Planning an Unguided Trip to the South Island

P1050068-600x451 The Tasman Glacier in Aoraki/Mt. Cook National Park.

New Zealand is an incredible hunting destination: spectacular mountain scenery, endless public land and a pantheon of exotic species to hunt all without tags, licenses, trophy fees or the necessity of hiring a guide. If you can get down there and have the gear and experience to strike out in the backcountry you can go on the DIY hunt of a lifetime. With careful planning, the whole endeavor can be pulled off for a couple thousand dollars, a lump of cash to be sure but far less than one would pay for nearly any other international hunt and many in North America. Beyond being one of the few places one can hunt without an outfitter, New Zealand is also one of the few foreign destinations where you can bring home game meat. All in all, hunting the country represents a unique and fantastic opportunity for reasonably priced, self-driven, adventure. That said, pulling off this sort of trip without the help of an outfitter requires substantial planning. Below we try and comprehensively lay out the the logistics of hunting in New Zealand based on our own trip so that others might enjoy this spectacular opportunity.

OVERVIEW

 Planning

-Buying tickets
-Apply for NZ visitor’s firearm license
-Check varying airline regulations, both domestic and international
-Notify airline of intention to bring firearm if necessary
-Fill our US Customs form 4457 for firearm
-Find a place to hunt
-Clean backcountry gear beforehand for NZ customs’ biosecurity checks

In New Zealand 

-Rent a car
-Pick up NZ visitor’s firearm permit at airport from NZPD before customs
-Pick up Department of Conservation (DOC) public land hunting permit
-Stock up on (readily available) supplies
-Find an official “homekill” butcher with vacuum sealer

Getting Home

 -Bring butcher’s receipt
-Obtain Certificate to Export (trophies and meat) from DOC central office
-Prepare trophies and package meat professionally
-Fill out US Fish and Wildlife Service Form 13-77, “Importing Fish and Wildlife” online
-Call USFWS at airport to which you will be arriving to notify them
-Clean gear

P1050125-600x451 Laundry and logistics between hunts.

Planning Your Trip

When To Go

The first question to ask when planning a DIY hunt to New Zealand is the simplest: when should we go? You can hunt almost any big game animal at any time of year. We chose to go in March before the weather got too chilly and before the “roar.”

The roar is the red stag rut and seemed to be one of the more popular times to hunt in New Zealand. It’s perhaps roughly equivalent to general rifle deer season in the United States. The roar generally begins around the middle of March. Around then, the government actually cordons off some portions of popular public land as “roar blocks.” Though we didn’t really get the specifics of how these work, these blocks appear to limit access to reduce the number of hunters in certain areas. We chose to skip it altogether, though, and go before the 21st.

The second question of a DIY trip to New Zealand is more complicated: what kind of weather do I want to deal with? The first half of March in the Southern Alps seemed roughly analogous to September at higher elevations in the mountain west. The nights were cool -- one morning we woke up to frost -- and the afternoons warm (60s or 70s F). These conditions obviously vary with elevation and location on the island.

Airport-3 Airfare was more than half of the total cost of the trip but the experience was well worth the long flight.

Buy Tickets

Airline tickets to New Zealand aren’t cheap and accounted for more than half the trip’s total costs. We booked our tickets well in advance, though we’ve also heard buying close to departure can work since airlines are then desperate to sell the tickets. Ultimately, we used domestic carriers and airline points to get to Los Angles and then rechecked our gear there on to New Zealand Air. Some travel sites suggested flying to Australia but we decided against it. We had read that traveling through Australia can be difficult with firearms, so we chose an itinerary that went from the US to NZ directly. We also saw somewhere that it is illegal to fly with guns and change airlines internationally (e.g. in Sydney)  so we limited ourselves to trips with a single carrier. We flew with Air New Zealand (an awesome airline) from LA to Auckland and then on to Queenstown.

Apply for Visitors Firearm License

This process is really quite simple. You head over to the NZPD website and find they section pertaining to visitors and firearms. You can then apply online and will get a confirmation from officer who will meet you upon your arrival in New Zealand. Basically, you grab bags and then head over to the NZPD kiosk and phone the officer who issues you a permit. At this point you will need to prove you can legally carry a firearm in your home country. This is a little nebulous in the United States where we don’t have an explicit license to have a weapon. One of us brought an old Maryland hunting license, a current Idaho license and a hunter safety card while the other brought a Washington DC gun registration card and a hunter safety card. That said, the officers didn’t seem very concerned with the specifics of these documents. Additionally, there is a fee, which as of March 2016 was $25 NZ. This must be payed in cash. Check Varying Airline Regulations Read the fine print. Different airlines have different requirements when it comes to checking a firearm.

That’s especially true for international versus domestic flights. For example, United Airlines allowed us to fly with up to 11 pounds of ammunition, and we could keep it  in our hard-case alongside the gun. Air New Zealand, however, demanded that the ammunition be in a separate bag and in its original packaging.

While United Airlines let us fly with the bolt in the gun, Air New Zealand made us take it out. Be sure to check the firearm requirements of every airline that you fly, and keep in mind that different airline officials will enforce these rules to different degrees.

As a side note, many outdoors stores in New Zealand do carry common brands like Federal and Winchester, so consider leaving your ammo at home if you use a common round.

If you do fly AIr New Zealand, be sure to call them to let them know you plan to travel with a firearm. Even though the NZ Police will already have your application for a visitor’s firearm license, the airline still needs to call ahead to the airport in New Zealand to get approval for your gun.

Additionally, be sure to tell Air New Zealand that you’ll be taking your gun into the country and out. That may sound obvious, but the official we spoke with didn’t assume that and the airline needs to make preparations both ways. Have your booking reference number for both flights when you call them.

Do this at least two weeks before you take off, as it takes them a few days to complete this transaction. Be sure to follow up 4-5 days after your first phone call to confirm it went through.

Traveling Internationally with a Firearm

Just because you brought your gun out of the United States, don’t assume U.S. Customs will let you back in with it. They need proof that you didn’t just buy that guy while you were abroad.

To do so, fill out U.S. Customs Form 4457, which essentially assures customs that you left the United States with your rifle. We were repeatedly told this form could be filled out online. However, the instruction were far from clear and we read at times that the system was not yet up and running.

In the end, we discovered that Form 4457 could be filled out at the airport and ended up doing this at the Los Angeles Airport. Though we heard the process could take two to three hours, it took about ten minutes.

Clean Gear

New Zealand has an incredibly unique set of native ecosystems and an economy largely based in agriculture and tourism. As a result, the island nation is understandably concerned about invasive species entering its borders. Customs’ biosecurity will inspect and clean anything they think might harbor exotic hitchhikers. To shorten your time in customs, clean all your gear of dirt, seeds and anything else that might transport invasives before you travel to New Zealand.

ONCE YOU’RE IN NEW ZEALAND

Find a Place to Hunt

This element of the trip was somewhat daunting. Luckily, we had contacts in the country that pointed us toward places to go. They also linked us up with a helicopter pilot who flew us into the backcountry.

DSC01667-600x451 Though not exactly dirt baggy, helicopters are relatively inexpensive in New Zealand and pilots may be able to put you in a spot that holds game, an important plus when hunting a foreign place without a guide.

A helicopter is a great way for the overseas hunter to find a place to hunt. The pilot chose the valley he dropped us in based on a couple stags he had seen flying over several days before. Chartering a whirlybird, therefore, seem to provide that little bit of local knowledge on where game might be without actually hiring a guide.

As an aside, we do want to mention the distinction between helicopter access and helicopter hunting. Many outfitters do use them to locate an animal and then put clients down not far off to shoot them. This is not what we were interested in. We still put in plenty of miles and vertical, spiking out and hunting drainages away from our put-in spot. However, we did have the distinct advantage of starting out right in country we wanted to hunt.

Another option for finding specific hunting location might include asking around at DOC offices in the region you want to hunt. DOC employees were consistently helpful and one might even let you in on a spot, or put you in contact with someone.

Rent a Car

New Zealand’s South Island is a relatively small and sparsely populated place. Cars are by far the easiest way to get around and are not super expensive to rent if you can figure out how to drive on the wrong side of the road. We rented a 4 door Hundai sudan, which fit all our gear comfortable and got us everywhere we needed to go. As a note if you do plan on driving to trailheads you may want to consider renting 4WD vehicle. As in the US, some access roads are less than well maintained. 

P1050085-600x451 Aoraki/Mt. Cook, the tallest peak in New Zealand through the side window of the trusty Hyundai. Rental cars are by far the easiest way to get around the South Island.

GETTING HOME

Bringing Meat Home - Documentation

If you want to bring your meat home, get ready for some paperwork. In a nutshell, you’ll want to get as much documentation as possible to prove to officials from both New Zealand and the United States that you killed your meat legally and butchered it safely.

To satisfy these requirements, we used three things:

1) a butcher’s receipt

2) a New Zealand Department of Conservation certificate to export meat and trophies

3) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Form 3-177

We don’t claim that this list is exhaustive -- there may be more or fewer items that can help you successfully bring meat back. But after hours of combing the websites of various U.S. and New Zealand government agencies, we found these items worked.

Most importantly, though, be sure to call the US FIsh and Wildlife Office at the airport you’re flying into. The agency needs to have an official ready to inspect your baggage when you fly in. This will save you time.

1) Butchers Receipt  

Here’s what not to do: wrap poorly cut meat in newspaper and write “chamois” on the outside.

Essentially, you’re trying to get the U.S. government to believe you when you say “I legally killed an Alpine Chamois in the backcountry of New Zealand and not a white rhino in Zimbabwe.” The best way to do that is through a trustworthy messenger: a butcher.

First, you’ll need to find one. Not all butchers can legally process game -- or what the Kiwis call “homekill” -- so you’ll have to ask around. Once you find one, tell them what kind of meat you want and that you plan to bring this meat back to the United States. You’ll want them to vacuum seal the meat and, if possible, label each pieces of meat with the price, weight, and kind of meat. These labels make the finished product look very official. Most importantly, be sure to keep the final receipt from the butcher of the whole order.

The butcher we spoke with let us keep the meat in his freezer until the day we left for the States. We then swung by his shop, grabbed the meat, placed it into small coolers that we then stuffed inside our checked luggage.

P1050022-600x451 We got something. Actually, a couple somethings. The ability to hunt without a guide, tags or a license for awesome critters in spectacular country makes New Zealand  a unique hunting destination.

2) New Zealand Department of Conservation certificate to export

Several New Zealand officials told us that this form wasn’t necessary to get meat out of New Zealand but was necessary to get it into the United States. Confusingly, some U.S. officials we spoke with said the exact opposite: that the form was necessary for leaving NZ but not entering the United States.

In any event, we got the certificate to be on the safe side. It bears the official seal of the New Zealand Department of Conservation, thereby confirming again the origin and kind of our meat to U.S. officials.

You’ll need to email [email protected] to request the form. Check out this site for more information.

The paperwork can take a few days to process, and you then have to go to the DOC office in Christchurch to pick it up. However, you can pay an extra $40 NZ for the certificate to be delivered to wherever you are. This was immensely helpful for us as Christchurch would have been a full day’s trip.

IMG_3289-600x451 Being able to bring home game is another unique part of hunting in New Zealand. Though ultimately our meat was never inspected closely upon our return to the U.S., getting game professionally butchered, vaccum sealed and labelled seemed like a good strategy.

3) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Form 3-177, “Importing Fish and Wildlife”

How to complete this form was perhaps the hardest lesson learned from our trip.

 You want to fill out 3-177 online before you arrive in the States. By filling out this form online ahead of time, U.S. Fish and Wildlife can green light your meat and trophies without even having to look at them. You can then submit your “supporting documentation” -- aka proof that this meat was purchased legally -- online late.

The USFW recognizes that a chamois, for example, is not an endangered animal listed by CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- and therefore doesn’t need to be inspected.

NZcamp Campgrounds and hostels are all over the place in tourist towns like Queenstown and Wanaka and are generally inexpensive.

We failed to fill out this form online, however, and instead completed the form on paper. Since we weren’t yet in the system, the USFS office at LAX flagged us in the Customs’ system. We then had to go to a separate staging area and take out the trophies and meat for inspection. An USFW officer said that  if we had done this online, we wouldn’t have been flagged.

A final note: we flew into Los Angeles on a Saturday, and it turns out that the USFW does not work on the weekends. So we had to pay a $150 overtime fee for the USFW official to inspect our meat and trophies. Had we flown in on a Friday, the process would have been free.

A Note on Skulls

Be sure to also clean your skulls professionally. We boiled and bleached them ourselves in New Zealand (on a grill) but grease smudges unerved the US Custom and USFW officials at Los Angeles Airport. They then made us send them to a USFW-approved taxidermist, who charged us $250 a head. Given this additional cost and difficulty of pulling together a proper boiling setup, we’ll probably consider simply having a Kiwi taxidermist do skulls and send them back to the US.

DSC01521-600x451 Doug looks out over the high country of the Southern Alps.

CONCLUSION

Hunting in New Zealand is the trip of a lifetime. The Kiwis were amazingly kind, the landscape was jaw-dropping, and the hunts were unforgettable. This country is truly a hunter’s paradise.

Doug Stuart and Ford Van Fossan are old high school buddies that hunted on the South Island for two weeks in March. Doug is a freelance writer. Ford is the Consumer Sales and Content Manager at FLHQ . Both are planning on returning to New Zealand as soon as possible. 

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