The Digital Journalist
I Got the Gotcha Gun Blues
October 2003

by Steven Trent Smith

Ever have one of those days when you thought you should have stayed in bed? I remember one especially. It was a Tuesday in late June, a miserably wet, cold winter's morning in Masterton, New Zealand. We were headed into the mountains to hunt deer, from a helicopter. It's not a method most hunters would use, but in the Antipodes it's the way they did it every day, for our hunters were not out to kill the deer, but to capture them alive.

Deer are not indigenous to New Zealand. They were introduced from Britain in the middle of the nineteenth century to provide quarry for eager hunters. Their numbers grew so rapidly that by the middle of the last century deer were considered "noxious creatures," eligible for mass extermination. Prodded by sheep farmers whose rich grazing lands were being picked clean by the feral beasts, the government hired "cullers" to reduce the deer population. This the hunters did with a vengeance. Soon, deer became something of an endangered species.

In the 1970's word reached New Zealand that Asians would pay a high price for deer "velvet" new growth antlers with unique medicinal properties (and, some believed, aphrodisiacal qualities as well). Because velvet is a renewable resource that must be harvested every year, the Kiwis realized that killing off stags would kill off a lucrative business. And thus began the deer framing industry in New Zealand

The velvet market proved fickle, but the resourceful islanders began to market venison worldwide, with growing success and ever increasing profits. Red deer are now raised on four-thousand New Zealand farms.

In the minds of our superiors at CBS News these elements would make an interesting television story certainly an unusual one. So there we were, standing in a downpour, ready to climb aboard a Hughes 500 jet helicopter. I was not thrilled to hear she was second hand, a recent arrival from the Arabian Peninsula. A weathered emblem on the fuselage read "Sultan of Oman's Air Force."

Peter, our pilot, was tall, thin and bearded. He had earned his wings in the RNZAF and had said he had considerable experience at this sort of flying. Our shooter, Jim, had been catching deer for three years. He was about five-eight, strongly built, with sandy hair, blue eyes, and a pronounced limp. Peter told us Jim was still on the mend from the crash. "What crash?" I asked timorously. "He was up shooting in a Bell 47, got her in a bit of a tangle and down she went. Total write-off, Jim crawled out of that one, lucky bloke. Yessir, real lucky. This'll be his first hunt since." We weren't even off the ground and already I dreaded this assignment.

We had been down in the capital, Wellington, working on another piece, when our producer, a nervous but well meaning chap we called Breathless, discovered this story. "It'll be great," he told us, "especially with footage of actually catching the deer." We winced when he said that. It meant he wanted pictures. It meant Martha and I would be going aloft to make them. It also meant that the producer, the correspondent, the government press aide, and the farm agent were all staying warm, dry and safe on the ground. The thrill of the hunt would be ours alone. We were not thrilled by the honor. Jim hobbled out of a nearby shed, heading towards the Hughes with all the catching gear. Over his shoulders was a weapon the likes of which I'd never seen. It was the "gotcha gun."

The gotcha gun is the humane way of catching deer. As early deer hunters in New Zealand discovered, the creatures are very difficult to trap alive. They live in the mountains, they're quick and they're wary. Somebody thought up the idea of using a helicopter to chase the deer across the rugged hillsides, and lassoing them, like cattle. That technique didn't work out very well, so somebody else tried tranquilizer darts. Still not satisfactory. Finally, a clever hunter created the gotcha gun. He developed a way to attach a weighted net to a high-powered rifle to which four bent barrels had been afixed. When the gun was fired from a helicopter, gases from the blank cartridges propelled the net earthward at amazing speed, ensnaring the animal. Once the deer was trapped it was hoisted aloft and carried to a pen. In concept it's a brilliantly simple idea. In use it actually works pretty well. Most of the time. The technique has led to the capture of thousands of wild deer, now used as breeding stock to create ever growing captive herds. Catching them with the gotcha gun can be lucrative. Especially prized are the hinds, fetching up to a thousand dollars apiece. At one time seventy helicopters worked regularly at trapping New Zealand deer.

Jim climbed aboard with the bulky weapon. Peter wound up the turbine of the Sultan's machine and we were soon airborne. As we headed toward the misty hills Rod Serling's voice rang in my ears, intoning that famous line, "You are now about to enter the Twilight Zone." That's sure what it felt like. Oh, to have been left behind in the comfort of the James Cook Hotel.

There we were in the Hughes 500, cruising around the mountains of Tararua Ra, all four doors off, rain pouring in, making the video crew quite wretched. Peter dived in and among the craggy, gorse-covered hills, looking for deer. We often spotted stray sheep, their white woolen coats standing out from the soggy earth. For two hours we dove and spun, frequently no more than ten feet off the ground, searching in vain for a deer to get. Finally Jim shouted, "Think I see one! Back behind those rocks there on the right." Peter twisted the ship around in a tight circle. I brought the video camera to my shoulder. Martha started the recorder. The hunt was on.

As we blasted over the rocks a small brown flash appeared, bounding down the steep slope. Peter wrenched the Hughes around again, with such force I could feel my breakfast thrown against the side of my ribs. I clutched the camera tightly, watching on the tiny screen as the deer popped in and out of view just below the right skid. As Peter pulled the ship through a hard left turn all I could see were the rotor blades and the gloomy sky. Another turn, to the right, brought a view of the ground slipping dizzily beneath us. Occasionally Jim would appear in frame, leaning out in the rain, trying to identify the sex of the deer. It was gonzo photography at it's worst. "She's a hind," he yelled, raising the gotcha gun to his chest. "Lower," he called to the pilot. We were nearly brushing the tree tops already, but somehow Peter complied. The small deer zig-zagged to avoid us. Peter copied her every move. At the bottom of the hill the ground leveled out and the pilot went in for the "kill." "Little closer now," said Jim, almost in a whisper.

The hind was in full stride less than ten yards ahead. The shooter leaned far out into the slipstream. As soon as he had his aim he squeezed the trigger. The gotcha gun exploded, the ship shuddered, and the net flew toward its quarry. One corner caught the right rear leg of the hind, bringing her crashing to the ground. Before we could land she had freed herself. Stunned, the hind stood there for just a moment, then broke into a gallop, disappearing into a clump of pine trees. "Shit, we lost her," cried Jim. Peter shouted back in our direction, "Sorry about that. Would have made nice pictures if we'd caught her. We're running low on fuel, we'll have to head back now." Not a moment too soon. This adventure had lost what little charm it ever had.

Our warm, dry compatriots greeted us when we landed. Breathless was heart-broken that the deer escaped. "Still," he said, "I think we can cut a nice piece from what we got." At that point Martha and I didn't give a whit. We were cold and wet and hungry, and glad the hind got away unharmed. We were happy to be back at Masterton. Happy to be out of the Sultan of Oman's torture machine. Happy at leaving behind a too-bold pilot and his nutty gunner. We felt kind of nutty ourselves, taking such risks for such a trivial story.

Before driving back to the capital we stopped at the farm agent's office to shoot an interview. When we finished I excused myself and went off to find the W.C. Among the reading matter was the Winter issue of the Deer Farmer. As I browsed through the magazine one article in particular caught my eye. It was about the dramatic increase in catch-related helicopter accidents.

At the time, New Zealand had one of the highest rotary aircraft accident rates in the world, due primarily to deer catching. I read on with interest. It seemed the accidents were often fatal and often resulted in a total write-off of the machinery. The article disclosed that the key cause of most of the crashes was gotcha gun nets fouling the main rotors, which stressed the rotor head controls, which led to the failure of various bits. The ship would then fall out of the sky, leading to impact with the ground and subsequent damage to, or destruction of, life, limb and property. All too often the shooter fired the gun upwards into the whirling blades, quite accidentally of course, but with tragic consequences. Nearly a hundred helicopters had crashed, killing or seriously injuring three dozen people.

Crikey, I'd never have gotten out of bed and into that Arabian helicopter if I'd read the Deer Farmer before we went hunting. No wonder I felt uneasy about Breathless and his crazy venture.

It had been a truly miserable and unrewarding day. As we headed back toward civilized Wellington, I looked forward to the James Cook, with its clean sheets, warm down comforters and fluffy pillows. The perfect cure for those gotcha gun blues.

© Steven Trent Smith

Steve Smith is a cameraman for CBS News and 60 Minutes. He and his wife, Martha, founded Videosmith, a Philadelphia-based company that sells and rents professional and consumer-level video equipment.