Photos by Steven Drake
Eight bull tahr grazed down a steep grade in the foothills of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Carson Wentz, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles and his brother Zach, had been in the country just a few hours. After two days of flights, layovers and delays, they had made it into the mountains and already looked worn out, exhausted even by NFL standards. With the bull tahr in their binos, they formulated an approach with their guide Zion Pilgrim. “Two of those bulls,” Zion said, “are stomping giants.” Less than an hour of shooting light remained.
This playing field was far longer than 100 yards, littered with boulders and deep-cut canyons. Carson and Zion moved slowly from cover to cover, carefully choosing each step in the loose gravel. They whittled several hundred yards down to 75, then 50. At 35 yards, a good bull stepped out from behind a rock spire. Carson drew back, took a breath and let the arrow fly.
As far as franchise quarterbacks go, Carson Wentz seemed to come from nowhere. He played for North Dakota State, a small school by NCAA standards, but quickly earned a star-caliber reputation on and off the field. In the run-up to the 2016 NFL draft, celebrated NFL talent scout Gil Brandt traveled to Fargo to watch Wentz play, declaring, “He’s off the charts.”
Wentz went No. 2 overall to the Philadelphia Eagles. The thinking was he’d study the game under veteran Sam Bradford. Then in September, as Carson sat in a goose blind, his phone rang. Bradford was traded to Minneapolis and Wentz would be the starting quarterback, the new face of the franchise. Later that day, at a press conference to break the news, a reporter asked him how his morning went. “Not good,” Carson said. “The geese weren’t flying.”
In person and in the media, Carson has never wavered on his love for the outdoors. He gifted his offensive line shotguns and took many of them shooting for the first time earlier this year. He grew up gun hunting whitetail around his hometown of Bismarck. His innate talent for sports translated early to fast reactionary shooting on bumped deer. “He’s good,” Zach said. “I’ve never seen him miss with a rifle.”
Through college and his first year in the NFL, hunting became Carson’s main off-season passion, second only to his faith.
With so much game to chase year-round, New Zealand might be the ultimate reset button. The Wentz brothers were after tahr, chamois and red stag on their first big game adventure outside the Midwest. But after that first arrow flew, only a single bull tahr was on Carson’s mind. The shot looked solid, but there was no blood. No arrow. No track. The tahr seemed to have vanished into the mountain air.
“I thought it was a good shot,” Carson said, his face pale. “I know I hit him. I know it.”
Despite the lack of blood, SITKA photographer Steven Drake stumbled on the downed tahr in a hidden gully early the next morning. Carson had made a good shot, but the tahr’s heavy coat mopped and matted the blood sign. Zach went on to take a good tahr that afternoon, too, with a 250-yard rifle shot.
With both bulls recovered, butchered and caped, the team made for chamois country, flying high into the Southern Alps near Fox Glacier. “The helicopter ride into the mountains, seeing all of God’s creation, that alone was a high point for me,” Carson said.
The diminutive chamois makes mountain goats look scared of heights. They live on the edge, the literal ends of the earth where falls are measured in thousands of meters. After closing in on another group of animals and an uncharacteristic clean miss with his rifle, Carson made a good shot on a fine chamois only to watch it slide off into the abyss. After much sketchy hiking, the SITKA crew recovered the chamois in the dead of night.
The next morning, Zach picked up something special in the spotting scope. Zion pointed out the extra dark horns and uncommonly light face – a sharp contrast not usually seen in chamois. A deep valley separated predators from prey and as they watched, high mountain clouds rolled into the valley and eclipsed the world in a white cotton fog.
“Time to go,” Zion said, “fast, fast, fast,” and the two scampered to the valley floor. The clouds rolled out and the hunters took cover again. The alpine haze crept back in, and they cut the distance to 800 yards, then 400, then 200. When the clouds cleared a last time, Zach had the unique chamois in the scope, and a shot rang through the mountains.
“That is the chamois of my guiding career!” Zion said standing next to the white-faced buck. It wasn’t albino but an exceedingly rare white-color phase chamois, something the guides had all heard of but never seen in person.
“When the guide says you better get a full body mount, you know it’s a good one,” Zach laughed.
On their last three days in NZ, the Wentz Brothers switched to stag. Word had spread around a little village on Cook’s Saddle that an especially good one was skirting the edge of town. For Carson, the whole situation reminded him of hunting deer in North Dakota, bumping them out of the corn and shooting fast. It was even a farmer who first spotted the stag while out milking cows.
“My favorite part of hunting is definitely not the killing,” Carson said. “It’s the whole experience. The setup. The time watching the sun come up and experiencing God’s creation, noticing what we don’t always notice.”
New Zealand commands notice – from rolling foothills covered with tahr to craggy mountainsides that hold chamois and deep, dense forests crawling with stag. The Wentz brothers were hunting in the middle of the rut, and stags were locked down with four or five hinds. They responded to calls but weren’t moving. After several attempts to get on a shooter, nothing panned out.
Carson and Zion sat on a wide clearing in the jungle. The bulls weren’t working, so it was time to call it a hunt. Two great tahr and two great chamois weren’t a bad take, and by leaving a stag behind, the Wentz brothers had good reason to return soon.
As the hunters collected themselves, a commotion opened up in the brush. Carson and Zion just looked at each other as the sound grew louder. Then the stag appeared, a good one, running full hilt, four legs off the ground, head down, sprinting for the opposite tree line.
Carson scrambled, found and shouldered his rifle, ran the bolt. The stag was nearly back in the jungle when Wentz touched off the trigger, the shot cutting through the chaos as the red deer fell.
Zion looked stunned.
“How long did that take you, mate? From hearing that stag to shooting it? What was that, six seconds?”
“Maybe,” Carson smiled sheepishly. “I’m better in the chaos.”