First Stag

I was winded but trying not to show weakness, having just climbed a near 40 degree slope up the back face of the mountain, Cerro de los Pinos, in northern Patagonia. We were searching for the Argentina Red Stag that had fallen to a young hunter’s rifle shot. It was a hard hunt for grown men, and double tough for a lad of just 11; but it should be tough. A boy’s first big game hunt should set the stage for challenge and achievement that will last a lifetime. It should make him feel…Worthy.
Becoming a world traveling sportsman requires a lifetime of learning, growing, and taking first steps. Most of our journeys began by learning to fish and hunt along side our fathers; and progressing through years of training and advancement from BB guns and paper targets, to stalking larger game. But hunting Red Stag in Argentina is a serious challenge; and to take on The Stag as a boy’s first big game hunt demands a very special combination of skill, determination, and trust between a father and son. David and Henry Bruce proved to be worthy of such a challenge.

Estancia Cerro de los Pinos is the home of Tipiliuke Lodge in Northern Patagonia Argentina, and the mountains and valleys in this area are rich with game; big Red Stag among them. Hunting during the Roar is favored by most, because the stags leave their natural wariness and swift instinct for flight behind for a few weeks each year to engage in fighting and mingling with the ladies. But the men of the Bruce family chose a late season hunt, after the stags had migrated back to a bachelor lifestyle high in the mountains; and would require considerable more grit to find and stalk. It would be Henry’s first big deer, and that rates something more memorable than sipping hot cocoa in a tree-stand for 4 hours and waiting for your quarry to come to you. It should be tough.

After a filling breakfast, our hunting party loaded up with veteran guide, Adrian Cataldi, and began the track into the hill country towards the eastern side of Cerro de los Pinos where the previous afternoon David had seen numerous Red Stags just as the evening light was fading into a flaming sunset. We made our way up to the crest of one ridge after another for a vantage point, using binoculars to look for the telltale signs of antlers glinting in the morning sunlight. The first hour of glassing revealed a number of Argentine Guanacos, but no sight of the stags; so Adrian led the hunters around the base of the mountain to the southern face, parked the four-wheel drive vehicle, turned to the group and said, “Fin del fiesta” (End of the Party). Not meaning that we were giving up, but rather that it was about to get tough from here; we were going to stalk up the face of the mountain, to where he knew the big bachelors like to hold up during the daylight hours.  This side of the mountain is densely forested with Pine trees that thin out as the altitude increases up the face; good cover for a small band of hunters, but also full of eyes and ears that detect even the most faint misstep over dry branches.

One by one, we would carefully slip across openings in the tree line to the next cluster; find a good vantage point, and spend some time glassing ahead to the mountain that loomed in front of us. This was the true spirit of hunting; searching the wind, seeking the faintest game trails and sign, and using instinct and experience to lead us forward. Adrian was the first to see their ivory tips moving through the brush; it was a small group of red stags grazing in the high grass. The stags were fully three-quarters of the distance up the mountain face in a small grassy pasture on near vertical slopes, and close to three hundred meters above the tree line. We would have to navigate at least that same distance through scattered pine forest just to get to the upper edge of the tree line, and our final bastion of cover. The next few hours would be a test of patience and strategy.
It was shortly before midday when we found ourselves lying prone around the last three pine trees at the base of the mountain, staring high above for a glimpse of tall antlers. Its amazing such large animals with massive racks on their heads can nearly vanish in fairly open ground. This is how men learn to communicate with each other through visual imagery; David whispered to Henry, “See the cluster of rock on the left side of the mountain; now follow the grass line to the right until you see the crack in the wall, and look straight up the length of a football field. His antlers are between the two small pines.” With a little guidance from Adrian and David, Henry found his quarry, and never let it slip from his view for the next hour. David used a range-finding device to get the distance, 280 meters; but with such a steep angle it would shoot as if it were 260. Henry was well-practiced with his rifle, but had never attempted a shot at this distance; and the vertical angle was intimidating for all of us.

Knowing this would be the only place to make a shot, the discussion began between Adrian, David, and Henry. Is it a makeable shot? Yes. Can we secure a stable shooting position from here with a backpack? Yes. Will the stags ever move and provide a clear shot, or will we be here for days waiting? Who knows? Best to just concentrate on the important things first, like making sure Henry feels confident about making a clean, precise shot; so father and son huddled in the shooting position and prepared themselves mentally for the moment.

Adrian had his doubts that the stags would move anytime soon; they were quite comfortable where they were, and obviously felt safe in their vantage point. They likely were fully aware of our presence, which may have prompted their mistake; stepping out into the open for a look down the mountain.

Henry was prepared, and as he tucked his rifle in tight to the shoulder, he whispered, “Dad, I’m so nervous.” With a little calming encouragement from his father, he gathered himself for the shot; took two deep breaths, and fired his Kimber 7mm-08. Before the muzzle blast had even faded from our ears, he knew he had pulled his shot to the right, and missed. It was a defining moment for the young hunter, but remarkably, the stags hadn’t moved an inch; they continued to stand in the open and stare at the tree line. David calmly reassured him that he could succeed with a second attempt, and they rotated the bolt of his rifle to chamber another cartridge. David whispered, “Take your time; focus on the spot, and gently squeeze the trigger when you’re ready.” I was staring straight up the mountain through the 200 millimeter lens of my camera when the rifle bellowed, and witnessed the instant collapse of the stag, and subsequent tumble down the rocky face. The second shot was perfect.
It seemed like nearly another half hour to make the careful climb up to the fallen stag. The excitement of the moment had everyone moving with quickness in our steps, but the reality of the steep slope and tricky footing gave way to a more deliberate pace. It was a moment of bonding and accomplishment for father, son, and trusted friend in the high mountain air of the Andes.

There were lessons learned this day; like patience, persistence, confidence and trust; traits that shape a young man’s character. When the excitement had subsided, Henry sat for a moment of quiet reflection and burned the memory deeply into his brain. He will remember this forever; his first Argentina Red Stag, his father’s calm support and faith in his abilities, and the remarkable view from atop Cerro de los Pinos, these things will never leave him.  As we arrived back at the lodge, his mother, Liz, and his brother and sister were all waiting to share in his achievement; and listen to numerous recounts of the day’s events. Perhaps it was most well described by his father, “Some days everything just comes together, and that’s what this day was for us. The conditions were spectacular, the hunt a challenge and the look on my son’s face when he knew he made the shot is something I will not soon forget. I could not have scripted it any better.” – David Bruce
As for me, it was a privilege to be part of Henry’s journey; my thanks go out to the Bruce family for their kind invitation to tag along and document the moment. And also thanks to Kevin and Mary Jo at Tipiliuke Lodge for their endless hospitality.

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