Darrel Wong and Steve Palmer have enjoyed hunting sika for several decades. They have put together some thoughts on hunting these crafty little deer during the roar.

Detailed descriptions of the sika deer can be found in various hunting books. However the key points to note are they are much smaller than red deer, have a distinctive white rump patch, are more vocal with smaller antlers characterised by four points a side. Sika survive on plant feed red deer would find unpalatable.

WHERE DO YOU HUNT SIKA?
Sika deer are found in the Kaimaniwa, Kaweka and Ahimaniwa forests in the central North Island. Much of this is public land administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC), but there is private land spread within the area as well. Check where you can hunt on the DOC website or with the local DOC office.

There are numerous road access points and the more central huts can be accessed on foot or by helicopter. To access areas that receive less hunting pressure might require walking three hours or more before setting up camp.

Helicopters provide easier access and save your legs, but hunting pressure might be intense during the roar. Increased hunting pressure doesn’t mean you won’t shoot any deer, but deer are probably warier.

When looking for a trophy stag, search for an area with an excellent year round food supply (eg. grass) coupled with excellent shelter (eg. manuka), preferably somewhere not easily hunted by others.

PREPARATION
One of the keys to success when hunting sika is good preparation. It pays to do your research. Ask questions of other hunters, read hunting magazines, look closely at relevant maps, talk to experienced hunters (try the local NZDA), helicopter operators, hunting retailers, DOC and anyone else who might be able to give you a few pointers.

Obviously if you are hunting sika deer, one of the most important tools is the rifle. There are many campfire debates about the best brands and calibres for hunting. Get good advice before purchasing a rifle.

Any high-powered rifle with a calibre from 243 upwards will do the job. Bullet construction is probably more important than calibre. The 243 is a good choice due to its lower recoil.

Make sure you get a quality scope. Most of us use vari-power scopes. A 3-10×40 should do the job, either in the bush or on the open tops. Your local hunting retailer should be able to point you in the right direction.

An often neglected task (we’ve been guilty of this too) is sighting in your rifle with the ammo you intend to use. It is best to sight-in rifles at maximum point-blank range, which for most high-calibre cartridges is two to three inches high at 100 metres. The approximate effective target size of a sika shoulder is eight inches.

If you are hunting in the bush, zeroing-in your rifle at 100m should be fine. You don’t want to blow the trophy of a lifetime by not sighting-in your rifle! It really pays to get fit well before you go hunting in the roar. It allows you to survive the walk in (if you are walking in), stalk more carefully and concentrate for longer. Also, if you are lucky enough to get an animal, it will prepare you for the carry out.

Organise your gear: make lists, check food (weight and calorific value), clothing, deer bags, sharp knives, raincoat, GPS, PLB, camera, tripod, binoculars, boots, roaring horns and deer callers. Sometimes wet suit booties or quiet running shoes are useful. If you are walking in, weight becomes a factor, so pack carefully.

Practice your sika calls by watching YouTube. Learn a sika stag’s single call and maybe the spiker mew. If you are using an electronic caller – and there are some very good ones – make sure you are familiar with the calls and the nuances of the particular caller. You don’t want to press the wrong button at the wrong time!

If you have time, scout out the hunting area before the roar: find access tracks and look for old wallows, scrapes and areas of high deer usage. Trail cameras are very useful to determine deer numbers and quality. If you don’t have time to scout an area, it might pay to spend your first day familiarising yourself with the hunting block.

SIKA STAG BEHAVIOUR
As the roar approaches in late March, stags migrate start to mark out territories. The peak roar times seem to be between April 10 and April 28, depending on the year, the weather and the menstrual cycling of the hinds. Sika hinds stay in relatively small territories which become stag magnets: find the hinds and the stags will be close by.

Hinds like north-facing basins and faces that catch the sun for most of the day, as well as areas with good feed. East-facing slopes might be warmer in the mornings and west-facing ones in the afternoon.

Hinds often seek out good feed in the creek heads (broadleaf and grasses), clearings, terraces and manuka- beech boundaries. We try to find aspects that are warm, sheltered from the wind and provide good feed.

Rubbing on a sapling.
Rubbing on a sapling.

Stags waiting for hinds to cycle often frequent the saddles and spurs off the side of ridges, but also hole up in ‘dirty’ and ‘tight’ country, perhaps due to hunting pressure. Sika stags also seem to be more active in the morning or late afternoon, especially in areas of higher hunting pressure.

Stags leave sign (other than prints and droppings) like rubs on bushes, trees and saplings. They also leave scrapes on the ground, made with their front feet and sometimes their antlers. Fresh scrapes are one of the better indicators of recent stag activity. Rubs are often found in close proximity to a scrape.

Scrapes are scent and possibly visual markers. Stags urinate to re-mark their scrapes, but usually only once, since stags only stay in a ‘territory’ until they have mated with the hinds living there and then move on. The lesson here is: if you hear a roar (and have time) it is good idea to go after the stag as it may be gone the next day.

Wallows are another sign of stags in an area. They are often located in slow running or stagnant creek beds or natural pooled water. Stags like to lie in wallows, urinate in them and generally mark them. Wallows are often used by multiple stags.

The sika roar usually peaks mid- to late April. Sika stags have two types of roar. The first is thought to be an intermittent territorial ‘hee-haw’ call, which sounds like a donkey braying. This occurs every half an hour or so during a good roar and can be heard from a distance. It is generally thought to advertise a stag’s presence to the hinds.

The second is the ‘single call’ which is considered a challenge call. This is the call most hunters use to roar-in sika stags. Stags also make other much quieter sounds, like mews, cats etc. Don’t be surprised by what you hear!

SIKA SENSES
Sika have an acute sense of smell. Generally if they smell you they will depart the scene, either with a tell-tale whistle, or by just ghosting away.

Your scent may travel a long way on the wind, so always try to hunt INTO the wind. The wind is the biggest factor affecting the success of a stalk, so adjust your stalking to take it into account.

Sika ears are large and rotate constantly listening for danger. They have excellent hearing, but by using the terrain – streams, bushes, little hollows and spurs etc. – intelligently, it is possible to get close to them before they detect you.

Hunt slowly and quietly. How slow is slow? In good sign areas, or when you are getting close, 200 metres an hour might be too fast!

Be prepared to hunt in bare feet, socks or dive booties, especially in very dry conditions. Still hunting and waiting for the stag to come to you is probably the best strategy when you are close to an animal. Sometimes you need to be very patient.

While sika have sharp eyesight, it is arguably the least acute sense in the sika’s repertoire for detecting danger. Sika quickly pick up on movement or unnatural sights (eg ‘barrel flash’) but are often unsure if you remain still.

Wearing clothing that breaks up your outline in the forest can help. Deer eyes have only two colour cones, so they see their environment in shades of green/yellow.

They will not pick up any colours in the orange/red parts of the spectrum. Blaze-orange camouflage clothing is our preference: it will NOT affect hunting success but it might save your life.

HUNTING STRATEGIES
When hunting sika during the roar, look for flattish or gently sloping places with some cover. Saddles, spurs off ridges and beech-manuka margins are also excellent places to look. Try to approach from above, as you generally have better visibility.

Sika stag scrapes.
Sika stag scrapes.

You may find fresh scrapes or rubs along ridges, saddles and spurs. These can be great places to stop and roar. Check you have a clear line of sight from your roaring position.

Where possible select hunt terrain that is in your favour. Try and draw out stags that are holed up in ‘dirty’ or ‘tight’ bush. We prefer at least 20 metres or more of visibility in the bush as it’s very hard to shoot something when you are tangled in bush lawyer and making a racket!

Try moving down a spur, stopping to roar at intervals with your rifle at the ready. Look and listen carefully. Don’t be afraid to roar frequently and loudly. Hunting the roar demands a lot of patience so don’t be discouraged by a lack of response, just keep trying!

Always wait 10 to 20 minutes before moving on – sometimes the stags are stalking you! Listen for changes in bush noises (eg snapping sticks, rustling vegetation, bird alarm calls). If you don’t have any joy, move quietly back up the spur onto the ridge and go down the next one, or carefully sidle across the gut to the next spur.

If you do hear a stag roar, pinpoint his position as best you can before moving towards him. Once you decide to move in on the stag (as opposed to waiting for him to come to you), carefully cover half the estimated distance and reassess your next move. You might find the stag has moved – usually trying to cut your wind!

When we get close to an animal, we prefer to use a ‘mew’ imitating a spiker, as it’s less intimidating to the stag. Don’t over-roar.

Sika readily come in to a roar during the rut and often more quickly than you anticipated, so make sure you have your rifle ready! Whenever possible, try to get the stag to come to you not the other way around. Wait as long as it takes – sika often stand like statues waiting for the hunter to make a mistake.

Watch out for the stags coming in to you on your contour line, trying to cut your wind. They don’t usually like approaching directly from below.

Steve Palmer with a good sika stag.
Steve Palmer with a good sika stag.

Where possible, utilise lookouts and try still hunting. When moving, go slowly and carefully, watching for your quarry all the while. If you hear or see a stag approaching, make sure you have your rifle already up and preferably rested against the nearest tree in case a big 8-pointer appears before you!

The chest shot is recommended (approximately bottom third of chest roughly in line with a front leg), which should
take out the lungs.

Identify your target beyond all doubt before closing the bolt – it’s better to be safe than sorry…
Good luck, enjoy the roar and stay safe.