I was finally able to schedule time to go to Hokkaido this year for another Ezo-Jika (Sika) stag hunt. Hokkaido is the northernmost inhabited island in Japan and ius know for it's giant brown bears "Hi-Guma", and huge Ezo-Jika (called Sika in the US and NZ). We went very late this year, missing the rut & post-rut by more than a month. I still was successful in taking two nice stags, one around 130kg and then the monster pictured here, at about 150kg!!!
Picture below is the SK-1 with my new friend and top quality guide, Eric Rose. I had the pleasure of hunting with Eric for 2 days and he took me to some of the land that he has negotiated access and hunting rights to. If it were not for his very well established network of land owners and ranchers, I would have never been able to get anywhere near this area which turned out to be some of the wildest country I have been to in all of Japan, and by the way, home to some massive stags!
The Trip: Imagine the opening scene from the Beverly Hillbillies...that was me with three members of my hunting club, loading our gear into a Pajero for the long haul to Hokkaido. One of my buddies, MW, has been with me on all of my previous Hokkaido hunts and we hunt together almost every weekend. He has killed more deer in our area that anyone I know, averaging over a hundred a year! The other two guys, TK and MK were both on a hunt with me for the first time, and only one had ever been to Hokkaido. As it turns out I was 17 years younger than then next youngest guy, and 28 years younger than the oldest...you can do the math and see who would be doing all the work!
A four hour highway ride got us to the ferry terminal in Oarai where we boarded and were off to Hokkaido. 19 1/2 hours later we made it to Hokkaido Tomokamai port, then had a 6 hour drive to Hiroo to check into our Ryokan (a small hotel that caters to hunters and timber workers).
Day one was pretty much uneventful due to the fact that there was almost no game in our planned area due to the heavier snow that we predicted. Mid afternoon saw us traveling down to Erimo Misaki where the snow was gone but the cold (-12C.) and high winds made scouting tough. Late in the afternoon we stumbled across 3 deer feeding in a deep ravine. A closer look revealed 2 small stags and one large stag. One shot later and the large one was down, but it took an hour to dress him and carry him out of the ravine. Picture the scene with the first-timer snapping photos and the oldest member struggling with his over sized pants, and me elbow deep field dressing. I knew it! He turned out to be the biggest stag I have ever taken so I was quite excited!
The next day we got completely skunked, seeing but a handful of hinds, and no significant stags. MW took a nice Ezo-Kitsune though (Hokkaido Fox). That night my buddy Eric drove down from Kushiro and picked me up and took me back up to Kushiro. (Thank you again to Eric and his family for letting me crash at their place!!!!). Morning came way too soon and at was a 'brisk' -13C. when we loaded up the truck and headed for the hills. We drove to some of the ranches he has rights to and glassed a whole lot of terrain. We saw some very big stags, but were unable to get into a suitable location for a stalk. The day was filled with some amazing animals in some awe-inspiring terrain, but no deer on the meat hook that night. I also got to meet some of Eric's rancher buddies, and helped out with preparing antlers from a previous hunt, and I even learned a few new tricks in skull preparation.
Day 2 of Kushiro hunting has us setting out on foot to hike, glass, and stalk. The plan was to hike into a deep winding river valley and work our way up the river bottom and on the highland pastures from the bottom corner of a block of land to the opposite corner where we would end up at another ranch for a ride back. Little did I know that this would be a 7+ hour effort, and the block of land looks to be about 10km x 12 km on Google Earth, with no roads in it! We hiked up and down frozen slopes, scrambled across slippery banks along the river, rappelled slopes using Kuma-Zasa as improvised rope, trudged through 2 foot deep Kuma-Zasa grass bent down by the weight of a few inches of snow, crunched through snow and ice that cracked so loudly that we were sure every deer in the county had heard us, had only one boot go through the ice (knee deep only!).. We spotted some very nice stags sunning but were unable to get close enough for a shot. At one field we unexpectedly jumped three huge stags and I missed 2 snap-shots. This was enough to get me down, but Eric kept pushing through, confident we would be successful! We also stumbled on a nice stag that had expired overnight. A close examination showed no injury from hunters, but rather a poorly healed broken rear leg, and clear signs of a horrific wild dog attack overnight. That certainly did not help our hunting either!
We ended up at the other ranch, exhausted but totally satisfied with such an amazing hike, the sight of some great stags, and the beauty of Hokkaido at it's wildest. Eric still had a few more rabbits up his sleeve though-When talking to the rancher, he recalled seeing a great stag coming to one of his remote fields "every afternoon at 3:00pm"..."sure" I thought, but it was certainly worth a try.
We carpooled back to Eric's hunting rig and drove toward the area the rancher recommended. We 'decided' that the deer lived in the mountains to the west and would come down from them to the field so we would need to hurry to get in place to ambush them as they got near the fields. Not a good plan...as we approached three stags were a few km to the south working their way north (coming from the exact opposite way they were 'supposed' to). Change of plans: We regrouped and 'decided' they would travel north, cross a public road into a pasture, continue on across that pasture then a set of railroad tracks, then to the field they were supposedly going to. We ran 800m down the tracks to set up an ambush when they made it over the tracks. The deer decided otherwise and traveled west with no intention of crossing the road, pasture, or tracks! We ran back, drove a few km further west to get ahead of them and finally picked out a single track dirt trail that was not in use that we might be able to swiftly stalk down toward the deer. A very quick but stealth stalk ensued, crouching, duck walking, and then crawling toward where the deer were likely to head, then there was nothing! I looked everywhere and could not see the deer! Miles of open terrain and I lost them in just a few minutes! "Wait! That looks like antlers!" They were right in front of me in a depression in the land that was not visible from a distance, slowly and cautiously grazing westward at about 50 meters from me. Every time I saw their antlers all drop to graze, I slinked along trying to be invisible behind just a thin strip of uncut meadow grass. I stopped and took a good USMC kneeling firing position and held fast. The next minute seemed like 10 minutes but they traveled the next 3 meters westward and began to emerge from the depression. The biggest stag was a little spooked, sniffing the air, and I decided I could wait no further. I squeezed off one round and he crumpled. He tired to stand once and fell back down for good. This monster was down! My Savage Arms single-shot, bolt action 12 gauge, with Federal Premium Vital-Shok 3 inch magnums with Barnes Expander bullets was certainly worth the 680 Yen (over $8.00)!
Eric and I took some time to marvel at the magnificent stag, took a round of pictures to preserve the memory of this fine animal and this fantastic hunting experience, and then got to work dressing him out and ready for transport.
That night I had to return to Hiroo and we departed the following morning for Gotemba once again. That 19 hour ferry ride and 9 hours of driving that I dreaded, was barely enough to help me recover from the extreme effort that Eric and I went through on the trail, but was a great way to end a hunt, with time to re-live every aspect and detail of the entire hunt. This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
I wish I was a better writer and could explain better how memorable this entire hunt was!
I am already dreaming of Hokkaido next year!!!!
See you in the Yama!