The Nelson Deerstalkers Branch recently hosted the annual New Zealand Deerstalkers Association conference, with delegates attending from around the country. It was a time when wonderful tales of long ago were recalled and the future of hunting was spoken of glowingly.
The Trophy: Zane Mirfin holds Jonathan Young's NZDA winning red stag antlers
On target: Graeme Smith lining up a shot at Packers Creek Rifle Range
The Nelson Branch of the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association has a proud reputation of hunting and outdoor advocacy within our province.
The club is still a force to reckon with, having a current membership of over 400 locals, and a nationwide membership consisting of 51 branches and more than 9500 hunters.
The Nelson Branch was founded in 1948 by Nelson hunters to represent the interests of recreational hunters, and by any measure has been very successful both socially and in environmental advocacy. Along the way even accumulating assets such as the Red Deer Lodge at Rotoiti, and the Packers Creek Rifle range up the Maitai Valley.
The Nelson Deerstalkers Branch, of which I’m a long term member, recently hosted the National New Zealand Deerstalkers Association Conference, with delegates attending from around the country. The NZDA even elected a new National president, our very own Bill O’Leary from Nelson City.
Why I was invited along as one of the guest speakers at the formal dinner I haven’t figured out yet, but the other speakers were certainly interesting. Leader of the United Future Party, and Minister, the Hon. Peter Dunne, spoke of the future of hunting, while Chairman of the Game Animal Council, Don Hammond, spoke glowingly of a new era of game management.
Dunne is widely heralded as the ‘hunter’s friend’ in parliament and has achieved much for outdoor people since the days of the Outdoor Party started here in Nelson in 2002.
As a boy I can always remember the ceremony associated with annual branch dinners, the freshly cut ferns, the trophy heads shot that year by members, and getting to rub shoulders with local hunting legends with surnames like Max, Livingston, Curtis, Stratford, Cummings, Shuttleworth, Atkinson, Ching, Horner, McConochie, Spiers, Gibbs, among others.
It’s probably always been a who’s who of local deerstalking identities and almost a brotherhood of (largely) men whose goals and aspirations align. I can still remember winning the Tex Stratford Memorial Cup for the first time in 1982 as a 14 year old, with early success propelling me onwards and upwards on my own personal hunting journey.
Looking at all the phenomenal trophy heads shot in the past year from around the country really impressed me and I did note to the audience that “these are the good old days”.
There were some truly outstanding heads present representing species such as sika, sambar, rusa, red, fallow, thar, chamois, pig, goat, and wild ram. But alas no whitetail or wapiti trophies were entered this year.
Winner of the Mel Larritt Trophy for best red stag, and overall winner of the Orbell Trophy for best NZ deer head (all species) went to Jonathan Young of South Canterbury with his massive 18 point red stag head that scored 387 1/8 Douglas Score (DS). After dinner Jonathan and I got talking in the trophy head storage area with Jonathan offering to take my photo. Naturally I chose his mighty stag head, a mass of bone and flashing tines, to hold. Dreams are free, but there’s always hope out there stalking the hills that one day I might be so fortunate to secure such a stag.
It was a great night out which Aimee and I enjoyed immensely and it got me excited about getting out hunting again. First step was to go out and test my rifles were zeroed-in and shooting well. I’d just recently purchased a rifle scope from Richmond Stirling Sports and needed to sight in the new Leupold VX-3 1.5-5x scope on my single shot .223. Fortunately long time member and range shooting guru, Graeme Smith of Richmond, suggested I come up the Packers Creek rifle range the following Saturday.
When I arrived Graeme and Don Harris were hard at work behind the clubrooms, clearing old target frames and fixing the water supply. I offered to help but Graeme insisted I make hay while the sun shone, and get shooting while the range was quiet and the sun was high in the sky.
Packer’s Creek is a dark cold valley, much like parts of the Maitai Valley itself, and on the drive up the road was covered in shadow, frost and ice. It was exciting too, on the drive from the central city, to contemplate recent welcome news that Nelson City Council is allocating resources to rejuvenate the Maitai river - a silver vein flowing through the heart of Nelson City.
The river will never be the fishery that it was when I was a boy, too many factors have changed, but any remediation is good progress and it is pleasing news that one day the Maitai will flow clearer and cleaner than it is today.
On the range, I fired away, sighting-in three rifles, .223, 7x57, and .243. It was fun trying out different batches and brands of ammo, at different ranges between 25 and 200 metres, on variable scope magnifications.
Practice makes perfect and firing lots of shots on the range wasn’t something I’d done for a very long time. Range shooting won’t make you a great hunter but it will teach you skills such as safety, accuracy, and understanding your firearm - skills that are essential in the hills.
I also experimented with my handheld rangefinder, which ranges the distance to a target or animal. By understanding the distance, inclination, and ballistic characteristics of your rifle cartridge, it is possible to make precise killing shots at short and long range, whatever the angle. My rangefinder can be set to show the true ballistic range of a deer, even telling whether to aim low or high, and by how much, in either inches or centimetres.
However you have to practice your target shooting to get the best results, and I’m always learning as I go. Often the skill of hunting is knowing when to take the shot, something that a rangefinder will never be able to do
It was a social time on the range, talking with a number of members who came and went. Safety was paramount with all members signing in with their name and membership number and abiding by the range standing orders. Red flags flew high, signalling live firing was in progress, and all earmuffs were on. It was great to catch up on the range with Lawson Davey of Fish & Game, and National President Bill O’Leary, both teaching a HUNTS Course to a band of aspiring hunters. I took a few photos but learnt plenty listening in on the sage advice given by the instructors.
Graeme Smith, one of the finest range shooters in the region and country, with world-level competition experience, including Commonwealth and Olympic Games shooting team management, gave me some excellent advice about shooting and it was fun to see his benchrest shooting gear in action.
His 45x rifle scope and shooting supports certainly made the target look a lot steadier than through my 5x scope with rifle rested over a bunch of clothing. It made me resolve to invest in some sandbag shooting rests and to take up reloading my own ammunition in the near future. Improving shooting and accuracy will always benefit hunting results, especially if a stag like Jonathan Young’s should ever materialise in front of you.
Graeme also taught me about the history of the range which dates back to the mid-1970’s under the leadership of then President Don Cummings. There have been many issues along the way, including recreational conflict with walkers, mountain bikers, and motocross riders.
Land tenure has also changed over time from Crown land to private forestry company stewardship to transfer to Ngati Koata as part of the treaty settlement process which NZDA welcomes. Graeme wisely said “looking forward is more important than looking back”. Fortunately the lease over the range has been guaranteed until the NZDA hosts the 2017 World Benchrest Shooting Championship. The Packers Creek range is currently in great shape with 20 fully weather-covered concrete benchrest shooting stations, although this will have to be extended to 25 to host the world champs.
Years ago, Graeme can remember acrimony among club members when the need for 5 sitting bench rests was first mooted because “deerstalkers prefer to lie on the ground”. No one shoots on the ground now and the range is a unique asset for the Nelson region, being 10 minutes from the centre of a city, and highly valued as a facility for practice, competition, police and military training.
Indelible memory: Izaak Mirfin, 12, with his first deer.
The mid-winter months of June, July, and August have always been difficult months for deerstalking. For a start, it’s cold, wet, and bleak. Then there are the logistical issues involved in actually finding animals to hunt too. Deer hunker down over the winter, slowing down their metabolism, eating and moving less often, making them more difficult to locate.
Spring, summer, and autumn are always the easiest times to hunt deer as they become more active and their metabolic rate increases. Deer are more easily found when they are actively searching for fresh spring grass growth on river flats, or up high in alpine summer meadows, or even during the autumn mating season – reverently known by stalkers as “the roar”. During winter, the deer just seem to disappear from their usual haunts, tucking up in some nice warm secluded corner and waiting out the winter.
With school holidays in full swing, we had decided to spend a few days up at the family lakehouse in St. Arnaud, and the boys were keen to do some hunting with their Dad. Winter isn’t a great time to take youngsters hunting because it is literally hit or miss in terms of finding animals and it’s definitely not much fun camping out in the season of snow and ice.
I thought we’d do a few afternoon excursions to check out some new places and try to make it fun. Lord Baden Powell famously stated that “Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted” and there is much truth in this well-worn cliché. From an outdoor perspective, you need to test out new places and see them at different times of year.
Everything looks good in summer and only by going fishing and hunting throughout the calendar year do you learn about the locations and the habits of the recreational species that you seek. Many times, the first trip will only show you the potential of an area, and it is on later and subsequent visits that you will be most successful by building upon the knowledge you gained on previous exploratory trips.
The weather at the Lake was pretty ordinary, with cooler temperatures, wind, and not too much sun. Rugging the boys up, and keeping their feet dry was the key to a more enjoyable hunting experience and by only going bush for a few hours each day kept their enthusiasm up.
Jake and I found some interesting new spots with a mixture of old pig rooting and an occasional deer mark, but many areas were cold, damp, and frozen and not particularly appealing places for an animal to over-winter.
The day I took Ike and his school friend Blake Brown of Richmond was a lot of fun and we walked a long way through mixed native and exotic forest without any joy.
The best part of the day was finding a frozen waterhole that the boys amused themselves by skating and pummelling with rocks and sticks. Boys will be boys and it was great fun watching them run around the pond behaving like the 12 year old boys that they were.
Next day, it was just me and Ike but he was keen to go despite being tired from the day before. We took it easy and stalked quietly, with me explaining technique and hunting lore along the way. Ike looked quite the hunter, dressed in his green camo gear and hat, complete with a XXL blaze orange fleece vest over the top. Ike reckoned the blaze top “looked more like a skirt” but conceded that being able to be safely seen while bush stalking probably made sense. I wore a blaze orange cap on my head just to reinforce the safety message too.
We practised dry-sighting the gun, freehand and over the forked shooting stick we carried with us. Virtually any centre-fire hunting rifle is a significant weight for a youngster and the shooting stick is very handy for any shot where a rest is not available. Deer are fast and alert animals and sometimes you just have to take the shot that is presented to you.
Fortunately the kids have a quality rifle to shoot. The Mossberg youth model in .243 caliber, purchased by their grandfather Stuart to teach his male and female grandchildren, is specifically designed for younger shooters with a scaled-down rifle stock to suit a smaller frame and shorter arms.
Complete with an over-barrel suppressor to balance the gun, reduce recoil, and limit noise, it is a rifle that the kids shoot well.
Sneaking around all afternoon. Ike began to get tired. We sat down for a rest to watch a small clearing and to share a muesli bar together. I explained to Ike that this area felt like a place a deer could be and that we should keep trying as we stalked inside another piece of bush.
Suddenly deer were crashing away through the undergrowth, too fast for Ike to get a shot. Maybe I could have had a shot with his rifle, but shooting at the rear-end of fleeing deer with a light calibre rifle wasn’t going to teach him anything about the ethics of deerstalking. At least we were making progress even if it was deer 1, Ike nil.
We kept on going, with renewed enthusiasm from finally seeing animals, but eventually Ike tired again. Heading for home, I told Ike that perseverance was the key to success in any endeavour and suggested we try one last promising side trail. We’d just turned the corner, when I saw the dark brown form with the characteristic shape of an alert red deer above us in the forest. A quick look through the scope confirmed it was indeed a deer, with erect ears and nervous posture. There was nowhere for Ike to get a rifle rest, it was a challenging 60-70 meter shot, and the deer knew we were there but I had to let Ike have a go.
Resting the rifle over the shooting stick, I whispered to Ike, asking if he could see the deer, which he couldn’t. “Look through the scope” I urged the boy as he saw the beast. “Do you think you can hit the shoulder” I asked. Yes, came the reply. “Close the bolt and have a go” I said.
Ike steadied the gun, and at the shot the deer pitched sideways.
“I think I missed Dad” Ike said as he saw another deer flee the scene.
“I think, you got it” I said “Quick, reload and we’ll go up the bank and look”.
Twenty metres away from behind a tree a mortally-hit young red stag appeared.
“Quick, lean against this tree” I said to Ike “Shoot it again”.
Boom, another hit, as the stag reared up and came downhill towards us. At less than 15 metres, it must have filled the scope as Ike flattened it with his third shot.
“You’ve done it Ikey, you’ve done it” I said excitedly as I shared the moment with an ecstatic 12 year old.
With a high five and a hug, we checked out his deer which was bigger than I had first thought. Taking a few photos where the deer lay, we gutted the animal, before deciding to cut it up there and then before darkness set in. It was soon apparent that the three 100 grain Norma bullets had turned the front end of the animal into a lead mine so we ended up with backsteaks and two hind legs to carry.
The load felt good but it was enough for a guy on the wrong side of mid-forties to carry out.
Ike wanted to carry his ‘stag’ head home to show Grandad. It was no ‘Monarch of the Glen’ like Sir Edwin Landseer’s famous 1851 painting but it was Ike’s first deer head.
With pride I watched as Ike put the head over his shoulder for the walk back to the truck. There would be bigger and better trophies in the years ahead but a boy’s first deer is always the memory of a lifetime.
Ancient and primitive cultures have always had initiation ceremonies along the road to manhood. But as Ike proudly carried his antlers home, the thought did cross my mind that you don’t become a man in the Mirfin family until you carry your first stag head off the hill.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a hunter to make a hunter.
Billy Goat Gruff: English hunters, Steve and Andy Black, with a Marlborough Goat shot with Zane's single shot .223 rifle.
Hunting is a wonderful sport rich in history and tradition. While wild animals and the environment are why we enjoy it, the firearms we carry with us also have meaning and value.
Some are heirloom items, like my Husqvarna 7mm, which belonged to my Rob Mirfin, my late uncle who died of a brain aneurysm at age 26 in 1970. There must be thousands of rifles and shotguns like this filling gun safes throughout New Zealand and it is always a special moment when treasured firearms are handed on to the next generation.
My eldest son Jake (13) has been given his first heirloom firearm and not by a relative. Terry Richardson, 77, of Richmond has always been a keen hunter and enjoys seeing the next generation succeed.
Being a friend of my father Stuart, he has been the president of the Richmond RSA for close to a decade, and is a man who likes to make a difference. Luckily, he has also taken a shine to my boy Jake and was instrumental in helping Jake shoot his first fallow buck.
Stuart and Jake hung and cut the beast up at Terry's and terry even presented Jake with his well loved hunting knife and sheath. Just recently he asked if he could give Jake a shotgun, a specail shotgun that had once belonged to his friend Jim, a World War II veteran, keen duckshooter and Tapawera farmer.
Terry, an upholsterer by trade, presented the gun to Jake in a handmade felt case he had made himself, complete with a World War II Air Force tunic button that fastened the gun case closed.
The shotgun itself is beautiful, a single-barrel 12-gauge gun, complete with Martini-Henry style falling block action made in classic British style. Terry doesn't have grandchildren and wanted the shotgun to go to a good home, and to a hunter.
Just the other night we picked Terry up enroute to our family forestry block to take the shotgun for a few test shots. Jake jumped out of the car to get Terry, and I felt pride as I witnessed the interaction of respect between the older man and boy.
Terry enthusiastically shook Jake's hand and introduced jake to another man, who also shook Jake's hand, while Stuart and I watched from the car. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a hunter to make a hunter.
In our modern societyof internet, TV, iPods, texting, video games, obesity, drugs, and Facebook, many youths just don't have the benefit of older mentors to teach them old-world values, ethics, and how to be a man. In action the gun fired beautifully and Jake shot well as we tested it out a bit with Terry. I'd done a bit of research on Google and we talked about the history of the W.W.Greener brand.
The British sporting shotgun and rifle manufacturer produced its first firearm in 1829 and is still in business. The original Greener elder (W. Greener) was quite a gunsmith, being the first company to discard vent holes in the breeches of muzzleloader firearms.
He was also instrumental in improving the hardness and quality of barrels, by using more steel in their manufacture. Perhaps Greener's greatest innovation was the invention of the expanding rifle bullet.
His son W.W.Greener took over the company, renaming it to what is it today. W.W.Greener (the man, not the company) caused his company to succeed beyond all expectations when he invented choke boring, which eliminated irregular shot patterns and allowed shotguns to shoot straight for the first time in history.
W.W.Greener shotguns were always in demand as high quality firearms and even appeared in Hollywood movies. in the 1971 film Big Jake, legendary cowboy actor john Wayne asks his onscreen ex-wife if she brought his"Greeners, the shotguns".
It wasn't all one-sided in real life though, as the day before Rorke's drift (January 23, 1879) Zulu warriors killed more than 1000 British redcoats at the battle of Isandlwana.
Later I used to love reading about African hunting and safari on the plains, and in the jungle. Writers like Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Peter Hathaway Capstick romanticised hunting in Africa, but all the while single and double-barrel heavy calibre rifles were the norm.
My first shotgun was a single barrel .410 gauge purchased by my parents fro my 10th birthday. Soon after I progressed on to a single barrel .16 gauge and I can still remember my first paradise duck plummeting out of the sky. Single-barrel guns are excellent firearmas to teach youngsters to shoot with for saftey reasons, as there is only one shot and you need to aim carefully. There's an old cowboy saying: "One shot means meat. Two shots means maybe. Three shots means beans for dinner."
In later years I purchased a single-shot New England Handi-rifle in .223 calibre. Based on the single-shot Harrington & Richardson hammer-gun action, it is a reliable and effective hunting tool.
Designed as a youth model rifle, it is small, compact and relatively light to carry around. I've also enjoyed great success with this rifle shooting red stags, fallow deer, pigs, and lots of goats.
Modified with a sound moderator that screws on to the barrel, it is also very quiet, with no recoil and excellent accuracy. It's also a suitable rifle toteach growing kids to shoot with because they're simple to operate, intuitive, and trouble free.
They're also very safe. one cartridge, one hot, then you've got to do it all over again. With a 1:12 twist barrel it shoots 55-grain bullets, best which can be a little on the light side for big game.
Talking with Nelson Lakes Fishing & Hunting guide Nick King the other day gave me some new ideas to try out. Nick uses a totally copper constructed .223 bullet that has no lea ensures deep penetration, and flattens animals where they stand.
When the Barnes TSX bullet expands, four-razor sharp cutting petals are created, allowing the bullet to penetrate farther through tough bone and tissue.
You can always learn new tricks and learn from the wisdom of others, so I'm looking forward to getting out and about in the bush with some new bullets come spring. With four kids to train and two young daughters to encourage into hunting success, we need all the help we can get.
I just hope my daughters like going hunting with their dad.
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Jake Mirfin's "new" firearm is a Greener "GP" shotgun, a favourite rough-shooting gun of the mid-20th century utilising the famed Martini-Henry falling block action, first invented by Henry Peabody but greatly improved by Swiss designer Friedrich von Martini. Martini's genius was placing the cocking mechanism all within the receiver, which greatly improved the operation of the action. When combined with the polygonal barrel rifling designed by Scotsman Alexander Henry, the Martini-Henry action found a place in firearms history. First entering service in 1871, the rifle action was perhaps most famously used in the Anglo-Zulu wars of 1879 especially by the company of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot, at the Battle of Rorke's Drift, where 139 British redcoats successfully defended themselves against overwhelming odds and many thousands of Zulu warriors.
MAybe I've read too many Wilbur Smith books over the years or guided too many African fly fisherman but the Dark Continent has always fascinated me. As a boy I watched the movie Zulu (1964) many times as re-runs on TV and I think that is probably where my own love of single barrel shotguns and single-shot rifles began.
It's a great movie and thrilling watching wave upon wave of Zulus armed with cowhide shields and short assegai stabbing spears force themselves at the threadbare redcoat defenders. It was actor Michael Caine's first big movie and he is there yelling orders as the troops form into three firing ranks, pouring out volley after volley of shots with single shot .577/450 Martini-Henry carbines as the attackers are annihilated in droves.