The New Zealand Fishing and Shooting Gazette: “Deer Stalking in New Zealand”

Deer Stalking in New Zealand
by V. E. Donald
Volume 1, No. 2, December 1, 1927, Wellington, N.Z., pp 4-6

In the memory of every sportsman, certain trips and incidents stand out from among all others in bold relief, and images from them flash across one’s mind at some familiar sound or sight. At times, in idle moments, with no apparent reason, one visualises a mountain lake—a fallen deer—a splendid head—a snow-capped peak—memories that are graven ineradicably with wondrous tools upon the mind itself.

Of the many sporting trips which I have made, I shall, in these lines, only mention some of those made to the southern districts of New Zealand. As my letter to T. E. Donne, author of “Deer Stalking in New Zealand,” is printed in that work, I give it as it stands as [an] account of a trip to Manapouri in 1922.


Mr and Mrs V. E. Donald in their dining room, Lansdowne, Masterton. The wall above them is decorated with hunting trophies in the form of deer and wapiti heads. Photographed by Evening Post, 8 November 1958. Note: this image is not in the original Gazette article.

The following interesting letter, which I received from Mr. Vivian Donald, indicates the class of stalking and antlers that are obtainable in new country. The deer to which he refers had in all probability never before seen or smelt any specimen of mankind:-
Masterton, N.Z.,
29th April, 1922

“Dear Captain Donne,

“I have just received your letter after returning from our second trip to Manapouri. This year my daughter Margaret took out a license, and was lucky enough to land two 13-pointers and a 10. This was not bad for a girl of fourteen. Leslie Murrell was with us, and he got a very fine 14. My bag consisted of a 17, a 14, and an 11. Richard Barton, the fourth member of our party, got two 12’s and an 11. The 11 was a very fine head, measuring over forty inches each was length and spread, with well developed tines. There are, I should say, ten thousand acres or more of flat bush land running south from the Monument interspersed with lagoon, lakes, and swamps; some of these are marked on the map and some are not. One lake, about eight miles south, is of considerable size, and is teeming with duck and teal, and is not even named. On the right of this country there are mountain tops covered with snow grass. The whole of it, both flats and tops, afford the finest possible stalking. We secured about equal sport, either on the tops or on the flats. After a fortnight on the Monument, Murrell and I took a flying camp into the back country for a six days’ trek. We had been asked by the Southland Acclimatisation Society to explore this, as no one has ever been there. We had the luck to strike some most beautiful country; the first night out, after we had crossed the Range, we came to a large tussock flat hundreds of acres in extent, with birch trees dotted about on it, and the river running through the middle just like a huge park, all surrounded with bush-clad mountains. This was at the head of the Garnockburn River, behind Titiroa Mountain. It must have at one time been a lake, as the river has cut out through a gorge, and in one place it goes underground and comes out through a big hole in the face of the rock. Our first sight of this flat was from the top of a tree on a spur about three miles away. We could see through our telescopes stags wandering about on the river beaches, roaring. It was one of the finest sights I have ever seen. The first stag we came across on this valley gave us a surprise. He was only an 11-pointer, and we had to get around him so that he would no spread an alarm farther up, Well, just as we were getting past him, he threw up his head and spotted us, and instead of making off for his life he trotted up to us, and I actually had to wave my arm and ‘shoo’ him off! (Murrell accused me of being scared.) The next two stags were a 10 and 11. These saw us, and both came trotting up, so we sat down and waited to see how close they would come. They came and stared at us, then circled round us, and eventually quietly trotted out into the tussocks instead of making for the bush. We stepped the distance at which they stood from us; it was eight paces. Unfortunately, we had been unable to carry our camera. It was an extraordinary thing that in this back-country, where the deer had never seen a man, we could stalk with the wind and did not have to bother much about cover. Even the hinds would stand and stare at us. We eventually follow up the Garnockburn until we reached the snow grass on the tops. Starting back, we got one good 14-pointer, which we had to carry through the bush for three days. We could have easily shot a dozen stags with from 12 to 14 points, but of course could not have carried them out. We had one funny experience. A stag roared in a swamp about three chains from us, so we both dropped our packs and I roared in return. I then suggested that Murrell should mount the 14 which we were carrying about his head, and we would advance toward the stag. Well, Murrell did so, and I came close behind him and roared. It was the funniest sight I have even seen to see the 12-point stag watch the large 14-point antlers approach him through the swamp grass. He didn’t seem to like to show cowardice, and yet he did not like to face it. Well, he twisted and turned and roared until we got within about fifteen paces of him, and then Murrell tried to roar and the stag when for his life. I believe Murrell was afraid to go any closer. We finished our flying trip on the sixth day, just about done up, as we had only been able to carry one loaf of bread, one pound of butter, and twelve ship’s biscuits for food. The rest we had to get with our rifles. Although we were done up, and had struck some wet weather, we both felt that we had been through a stalker’s paradise, and, in fact, had and the finest trip of our lives.

Yours sincerely,

This deer-stalking “Arcadia” is within the confines of Fiordland National Park. It is accessible from Dunedin or Invercargill, via Lumsden or Otautau.

My third trip (April, 1923), in company with Leslie Murrell, had Manapouri also as its base, but the actual scene of this—a unique trip, for it was the first Wapiti hunt in the Southern Hemisphere—was via Murrell’s Track to Deep Cove, at the head of Smith’s Sound, 20 miles inland from the open sea. Here we picked up Murrell’s launch, a 30-foot oil burner, and ran to George Sound, where we hoped to get Wapiti stalking. We reached the head of the sound about 4 p.m., and after catching a couple of blue cod for tea, we went ashore and erected our camp. By nightfall, we had our tent up and bunks fixed, and after tea we turned in. At daylight, we started for Lake Catherine, and soon came on Wapiti tracks, at which we realised fully that we had fairly started on this unique trip. Arriving at the lake at 10 a.m., we were overjoyed to “spot” a Wapiti bull through the telescope. He was laying down on a sandy beach, away at the head of this beautiful lake, and about a mile and a half away. The stalk was a most difficult one, for although the edge of the lake looked alright, it proved to be otherwise. There were several big bluffs to circumvent. On our way round, we heard our first Wapiti bugle, from a bull in the bush above. In two hours we had arrived within 350 yards, and then decided on a long shot. It was here that I blessed the 280 Ross rifle, which has a very high velocity, and is dead in up to 400 yards, and unaffected by the breeze which was blowing. Luck was with us, and the first shot was successful. Our kill proved to be a fine, well-grown bull with 14 points, length 53 inches, spread 49, weight 34lb—a great conditioned animal, showing how suitable the food is. We lunched, took some snaps, and then commenced one of the heaviest carries we have ever had. At times we had to go into the lake with our trophy; at others we had to pass it from one to the other round the bluffs, and it was just after dark when we made camp.


The first [legal] wapiti killed in Fiordland National Park, New Zealand. Page 179, The Game Animals of New Zealand, 1924, T. E. Donne.

Lake Alice. Next day we decided to explore Lake Alice. Here, although we found fewer traces of Wapiti, we were rewarded with sights of the most glorious scenery I have ever seen. The lake is about 300 feet above sea level, and falls into the Sound by means of a most beautiful waterfall—full a hundred feet fall. It is easily accessible, and could be stocked with rainbow trout, for it is simply alive with minnows. Its sides were too precipitous to get round, so we returned to the launch and made for the South Arm, for we were curious to know how far the herd had spread. We reached the conclusion that, although they were there in limited numbers, they were too few to afford us the chance for a head. It appeared that we were too late in the season, for the bugling was over, which made our chances small among that dense bush.


V. E. Donald admires his second trophy, shot Katherine Stream, 1923. Photo taken on the shores of Lake Marchant where the party later hunted the same season. Page 65, Wapiti in New Zealand, 1966 D. Bruce Banwell.

The next morning we went up Lake Katherine again, and going up the river about the lake and a bull must have heard us in the bush, for he bugled and fell to our rifle within three minutes. He proved to be a 15-pointer, spread 53, length 49, weight 27lb.. He was not so heavy as the other, but a beautifully even specimen. This bull was quite young, probably not more than 5 years, and wonderfully well grown and vigorous. The following day we decided for “the tops”—4,300 feet up—where we expected to get open stalking. We arrived at 11 a.m. after a most strenuous climb, and were rewarded with the most wonderful view that it is possible to imagine. Away to the north were thousands of snow peaks standing up with the full clear sun shining on them, and in cases, glaciers running down them for miles. To the west we could see away down the Sound to the open sea, and close south were some of the finest basins for stalking I have ever seen. Strangely enough, there were no Wapiti in them, although they were full of snow grass, which is fine feed for deer. We are not fully familiar with the feeding habits of the Wapiti yet, but I think they will take to the snow grass when they have cleared up the bush feed. We took a few snaps, and again returned to camp after another hard, but very pleasant, day. Breaking camp next day, we started in the launch for Caswell Sound, and reached its head just at dusk, and decided to sleep aboard the launch and get an early start for Lake Marchant. On the way we caught a kakapo (our great mountain parrot, which is very rare), and arrived at the lake about 9 o’clock. We sat down at the outlet and admired another glorious view, a bush-clad island right in front of us and the lake running away back into the mountains. Round this island we noted the following waterfowl, black swans, grey duck, paradise duck, black teal, red teal, blue mountain duck, and crested grebe and dabchick, which are very rare.


The second head shot under licence in New Zealand. V. E. Donald–Lake Katherine, 1923. L. 49, S 53. Page 48, Wapiti in New Zealand, 1966 D. Bruce Banwell.

After much discussion we decided to try the left-hand side of the lake, and this proved that our luck was in. A bull bugled, which we should certainly have missed in the bush, and we landed him within a few minutes. Our bush stalking experience with red deer had stood to us with these last two bulls, and we had taken our number, one each for ourselves, and one for the Government with this one. He proved to be another young animal with exceptionally heavy antlers. His points were 11, weight 35lb., length 48 inches, spread 40 inches. Although hit behind the shoulder and breathing through the wound, he managed to get into the river, which was about a chain a half wide, and about 8 feet deep, and finished up against a log on the opposite side. I suggested to Murrell that I should hunt for a vine to reach him, and he took the hunt and stripped off. The water was icy and the sandflies troublesome, and when I arrived with the vine he was standing on the log holding up the antlers, calling for me to throw the vine. I chaffed him, and got the camera and snapped him first, and then we hauled him ashore with the vine. We had to skin the head and go back for it next day, as we could not have carried it that night. From Caswell Sound we returned to Deep Cove, made fresh bread, and then started off for Dusky Sound to see if we could bag a moose. Arriving there just at dusk, we had to stay on the launch, and landed next morning. We soon found that the moose had multiplied, and their tracks were plentiful. Unfortunately, we were too late for the rut, and after four or five days’ solid hunting we decided that in that dense bush with such a limited number that could be there (there were only three cows and four bull liberated thirteen years before), that we had no chance of getting a head, although we were satisfied that they had increased quite up to expectations, and had spread over a considerable area. We left the head of Dusky about 9 o’clock , and had a most glorious view of this magnificent sound. Towards the entrance there appeared to be dozens of small islands all bush-clad, making the most beautiful reflections on the water, which is almost invariably smooth in these sounds. At four o’clock we arrived at Pusegur Point Lighthouse, at the head of Preservation Inlet, and anchored for the night. We went up to the lighthouse and took their mails, as they are only called on four times a year. Next morning, at half-past three, we started for Riverton, about a seventy-mile run in the open sea, starting on again at four the next morning of Invercargill, where we arrived safely after three hundred mile trip in our small launch, with the first Wapiti heads secured in the Southern Hemisphere.


Carrying in the first Wapiti Head from Lake Catherine. [Leslie Murrell rests during the carry-in of the first bull shot under licence, Apirl 11, 1923.] Page 165, Great New Zealand Deer Heads, 1986, D. Bruce Banwell.

The following year General H. Hart and Leslie Murrell accompanied me to Caswell Sound on our second Wapiti trip. We left Deep Cove by launch on 17th March, 1924, arriving at the head of Caswell Sound the same day and erected a camp. On the 18th, we packed food and a tent up about two miles to the mouth of Lake Marchant, and erected a main camp. We then set to work hauling and carrying a boat up the Largeburn River from Caswell to Lake Marchant. This river is a succession of cataracts and waterfalls, and it took us two days to get our boat safely launched on Lake Marchant. The boat is a good, solid flat-bottomed one, capable of carrying three men and all necessary camp gear. And will be invaluable to anyone who wishes to explore round Lake Marchant and its head. The lake sides being precipitous, the boat has been left at the mouth of the lake and is not hidden. It was built by Mr. Murrell. Our first trip out from the main camp was to the head of the lake. Going out we took the right-hand side of the lake, and noted a very fine waterfall about halfway up. At the head of the lake there is a good valley, which will be most suitable for Wapiti. We found the footprints of only one stag there, and could not discover any further traces. Coming back, we took the opposite side, and about half-way we found the remains of the stag which had been to the top. It had apparently swum up the lake, stayed there some time, and had then tried to swim back, a distance of about three miles. It was a large stag and had died in the velvet, the antlers still having the velvet on them and being decayed. Having satisfied ourselves that the herd had not reached the head of the lake, we decided to explore the valley which runs in a northerly direction from Lake Marchant to the south-east of Lake Catherine. In this valley there is a large river, which about three miles is about two chains wide and very deep and has no fall. As it is not shown on the map, we called it the Stillwater. It then comes through a gorge, and then another mile or so of still water, after which it is a stream which can be fairly easily travelled for five or six miles. We erected a flying camp well above the gorge in this valley, and found numerous signs of Wapiti the whole way. It is a splendid valley, containing numerous swaps and lagoons, and for fully ten miles the herd is well established. It was in one of these swamps above the gorge that Mr. Murrell got a 13-point head. Although we were not lucky enough to fill our licenses, I am quite satisfied by the numerous signs which we found right from Caswell Sound to the top of this valley, that the herd is thoroughly well established, and that a limited number of licenses cannot injure it. It has been my experience generally that deer herds are not shot out enough, and consequently they breed beyond the limited of the feed and then deteriorate. Three years ago I had stalked the red deer herd on the Monument at Manapouri, which had been liberated about three years before the Wapiti, and got some excellent heads and found the herd in good condition. In 1924, after returning from Wapiti hunting, we spent two days on the same block and found that the heard had increased so fast that the feed was gone and the herd deteriorated to such an extent that after a close inspection of from forty to fifty stags there was not one fit for a decent trophy. This will surely apply to the Wapiti herd, as they probably breed the same, and I am certain that in the tremendous extent of rough country they are in, that all the hunting they will get will not have an adverse effect on them. We found dropped antlers from five different Wapiti stags, one of which General Hart brought back, it being a fine specimen with eight points. I should like to mention that we all concluded that Lake Marchant is not correctly placed on the map, and is misleading to anyone trying to reach it from George Sound. Also, there is only one river running into Caswell Sound, while the map compiled by W. Deverell, 1904, stamped N. Z. Survey, J. W. A. Marchant, shows two. We heard the first bugling on the 25th March, so the opening date for hunting should be about the 20th, four days later than I suggested previously. We came to the conclusion that licenses should be issued only to experienced stalkers, for it takes experienced men to hunt in such rough country, and an inexperienced stalker may do irreparable damage to the herd by mistaking cows for bulls in the bush.


First Wapiti bull trophy, shot Lake Katherine, George Valley, 1923. Length L 54 3/4 inches, R 53 3/8 inches; Spread 45 3/4 inches; Span 38 5/8 inches; Beam 7 inches; Points 8 + 6; Douglas Score 409 7/8. Page 164, Great New Zealand Deer Heads, 1986, D. Bruce Banwell.

The below image is a facsimile of page 11 of ‘New Zealand Deer Heads’, 1924, by J. (John) Forbes. These two heads were shipped to England and displayed in the New Zealand Pavilion at the 1923 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. I believe both wapiti heads were stolen by the British at the time and have never again been seen. Thankfully, Donald kept his first and best head in New Zealand, and that magnificent head, shown above, can be viewed at the Masterton Club, Masterton.


Two of the three wapiti bulls shot by V. E. Donald and Murrell in 1923.

Bibliographic information

Title: “Deer Stalking in New Zealand”, The New Zealand Fishing and Shooting Gazette
Author: V. E. Donald
Edition: Pages 4-6, Vol. 1, no. 2 (Dec. 1, 1927)

The New Zealand Fishing and Shooting Gazette