New Zealand hunting legend Percy Lyes starting learning bushcraft in the forests near Hokitika during the depression. He started trapping rabbits and possums for the pot before getting his first rifle, a Winchester single shot .22 which he used to good effect, even managing to score the odd small deer.
During WW2 Percy enlisted in the Army but was discharged, before he could deploy, so he could help his elderly father on the farm, as farming was considered essential to the war effort. By the end of the war deer skins were in hot demand so Percy and his brother David did the obvious thing and started hunting professionally. When Percy upgraded his trusty .303 with a German Ajax scope, he soon put the scope to work and was able to make back the cost of it in a single afternoon by bagging three deer. Between the venison and skins the brothers were making good money as hunters. So when the price of skins dropped they sent in applications to the Internal Affairs Department (IAD) to become government deer cullers.
When they reported to IAD in Christchurch they were sent to a block in the Ben Oahu range of Mt Cook/ Aoraki National Park with Jim Ollerenshaw as the field officer in charge. Jim was known as an accomplished stalker and a crack shot, with 20,000 head of deer to his name, he had been a culler since the 1930’s. Another culler on the team was Rex Forrester who went on to become a hunting legend in his own right. The men's main focus was tahr with chamois and red deer also on their hit list.
At the time cullers were still required to bring back their deer skins to get paid. Even though they were there to cull the huge numbers of animals the government wanted to recover some of their expenses. The cullers would prepare the skins so they could be graded and sold, this took a lot of time and energy. To get around this the men would collect the skins of hinds and yearlings in preference to stags as they were quicker to skin and easier to carry. The government paid the same rate regardless of the size or weight of the skin so unless they were caught (leaving the stags was against policy) there was no downside. Once the skins were ready they would have to be carried out to the road head, usually in 100lb loads. Where the terrain was exceptionally difficult only the tails were recovered. With no time wasted on skins, tallies in these areas were a lot higher and eventually the practice of collecting skins was abandoned.
Percy would often work with another shooter named Max Curtis. Max was an excellent hunter and the first to take over a hundred tails in a single day on foot with his tally of 101. The two got on well and together broke the record for highest combined tally in a single day with 141, Max with 75 and Percy 66. Percy’s total for the 1948-9 season was 1558 deer and 150 other kills. Their rifles were sporterized .303 SMLE’s. These ex military rifles were well suited to the job of culling rugged and accurate with a ten shot magazine. Max and Percy put them to good use dropping many deer.
On one trip;
“The two hunters split up and while Percy remained in the main valley, Max headed up the spur that separated Vincent Creek’s left and right branch and was soon on to a mob of deer, of which he got twenty. While giving his rifle barrel a spell to cool down, he proceeded to fill his two 10-shot magazines and while he was at it, heard Percy opening up.
In his minds eye, Max could see Percy inserting his spare magazine.
Another 10 shots.
Silence again; then another eight shots, and once more silence.
But not for long as Percy once again opened up on another mob of hapless animals”.
Percy was working in the Taharoa area shooting for skins, when he got caught out one night far from camp in heavy rain with minimal kit this was to be a true test of his bushman skills and he was lucky to shoot a stag which he promptly skinned. He used the skin as a blanket/ poncho and it worked well enough until it froze after getting waterlogged. Percy had no option but to fight off hypothermia by running on the spot and doing other exercises until the morning came and he could make his way back to camp. He had no time to rest as he had arranged for someone to collect his load of skins from the road end and was running out of time to get them there. He split them into three piles and started the arduous journey carrying them out, he would shuttle each pile to halfway and then again until just short of the road. In a bad way, running out of time and desperate to get it over with he threw all three lots on his back and made his way down the last short stretch of track. Just in time for his contact to turn up, the truck driver saw Percy coming down the road with a massive pile of skins on his back. Percy collapsed completely exhausted and the driver was so impressed that he told everyone the story which grew with each telling. In no time Percy had acquired the nickname ‘Superman’.
Photo credit Hans Willems, NZ Outdoor Magazine.
Percy built his reputation with huge tallies, amassed as a government culler in the West Coast’s remote and unforgiving Hokitika and Whitcombe river valleys shooting red deer from 1947 to 1957. But perhaps he is most well known for shooting the third and NZ’s last bull moose on a hunting trip in Fiordland with his mate Max Curtis at Herrick creek in 1952. Some of his other notable trophies include a 14 point red deer stag with a Douglas Score of 374 1/4, spread of 38 1/2 inches and length of 50 3/4 inches taken with an off-hand shot in the Cropp valley during the roar of 1949. This deer still holds New Zealand’s record for antler length. He shot another famous trophy in 1951, a massive 14 point Wapiti-Red hybrid in Caswell Sound which some consider the best taken in NZ.
Percy Lyes's bull moose.
If you want to learn more of Percy’s legendary exploits you can read Hans Willems’ book “The Hunting Tales of Percy Lyes” The book was written with input from Percy, his family, friends and colleagues. This biography is as close as we can get to a first hand account. Unfortunately Percy developed Parkinson’s disease in his sixties so never got to write his own book.