The 1/4 mile sprint had left me gasping for air, but the gamble had paid off. Sliding in beside a giant, old pine tree I had no more than slipped an arrow out of the quiver and was actually still in the process of getting it nocked when the first cow's head popped up over the rise. Forty-five minutes earlier the raucous crescendo that is a rutting bull had led me to this very spot, guiding me through the mist of yet another pre-dawn morning, stoking the fire that every other bow-hunter knows. And now, after days with all the time in the world, I seemingly had no time to spare, my opportunity seemed imminent, almost surreal. But let's back up, I can't ruin a good story this soon; not when the path that led to this moment had been so enjoyable; though at times trying.
This past August found me eagerly preparing for an Alaskan caribou hunt. It was on my mind and it was what so much preseason preparation had been suffered through to prepare me for. Unfortunately my hunting partner let me know the second week of August that he would be unable to go, seems a coveted Arizona Strip mule deer tag had been plucked from the pile and had his name on it. Congratulating him on his good fortune I hung up the phone somewhat dumbfounded about what my next move should be. The good thing is though, when you've got the bow-hunting bug bad, when one door closes it doesn't take long for another to open. Within several days time I found myself holding a New Mexico landowner elk voucher, not for one of the famed southwest units, but for a northern unit that I had been told had plenty of elk, perhaps not the giant bulls of the Gila, but lots of good public land elk.
The next few weeks went by fairly quickly, with a bunch of phone calls to people seemingly in the know, and a Colorado mule deer hunt thrown in for good measure. In due time I found myself headed west down I-40, leaving the incessant heat that is an Oklahoma welding shop, swallowing up the miles trying to make it to Raton where I would be able to turn the voucher in my pocket into an actual elk tag. I had wanted to be in the unit two days before the season opened, unfortunately commitments at work had squashed any hope of that so as I left the Division of Wildlife office (tag in hand) I was pressed for time and just barely going to make it to my unit before sunset. Turning off the highway onto the 17 mile stretch of gravel that would lead to my jumping-out spot I was pumped about the prospects of chasing bugling bulls again. It had been three years since my last elk hunt so I was pretty psyched about getting the hunt underway.
That night I slept in the truck and every couple of hours would roll out hoping to hear a bull's bugle bouncing off the canyon walls. That never happened so at daylight the next morning I spent a few more hours driving the roads and surveying the countryside. It was good to be in elk country, but it was somewhat disconcerting to see all the additional vehicles. However, toward the north end of the unit was a wilderness area that seemed like as good a place as any to start, so, pointing my truck that way I kicked up some dust and hoped for the best. Arriving at the trailhead it was evident that a few other hunters were doing the same thing I intended on, but undeterred and needing to make some tracks I gathered my gear and headed for parts unknown. My map showed a gnarly canyon a few miles away that I figured might hold some elk since it seemed that there was a fair bit of pressure, so away I went.
Returning to the truck after dark that night I knew I had found a good spot. I had followed a bugling bull that afternoon through some nasty dark timber but had backed out when I realized my opportunity was not going to come. A small spike had presented a shot, but at this stage of the game he was too small and the killer in me wasn't quite ready to unleash the Hoyt. In the dim lights of the truck that night I hashed out a plan for the next morning. I had found ample elk sign in a drainage to the northwest and had actually jumped a small bull from his bed. I decided I would be back at the rim of that drainage at daylight in the morning and see how things played out.
Long before daylight the next morning found me striding through the aspens, the beam of my headlamp illuminating the trail at my feet. As darkness began to give way to the light of a new day the drainage I had targeted began to awake to greet the morning's glow. There were three bulls bouncing insults off the canyon walls, so with pep in my step I headed to the nearest bull to see what kind of dance him and I would partake in. Topping a rise, I immediately fell face down to the ground. Somehow I had walked up directly behind a feeding herd and when I spotted the tan rumps of the rearmost animals I was only 40 yards behind them. A few tense moments passed with me eating some prime New Mexico dirt but in due time the small bull that had somehow managed to corral a couple of cows showed himself. I simply smiled and continued to lay there as they fed on north, content to watch without flinging an arrow; I wanted something better.
While laying there waiting on the herd to get out of my way I noticed that the bull I had targeted had began to quiet down. By the time I was able to move again he had basically shut up, the afternoon heat had hit early and it was doing its best to silence the bulls and send them to their afternoon beds. I knew the basic area the bull was headed, so, with no other plan, I headed that direction. While creeping through the dark timber the unmistakable sounds of elk began to become audible. The herd was directly in front of me, though not yet visible. Slipping along as quietly as I possibly could I soon spotted the tan of an elk downhill and about 60 yards away. Three hundred yards later a barely noticeable bugle emanated from somewhere in the tangled mess that is an elk's bedroom. With an arrow nocked I continued to creep forward, trying to spy the opportunity to strike. This dance continued for several hours and over a half-mile. Me trying to get in position, the elk unaware that a predator was hawking their every move. During this time I had laid eyes on the bull a number of times. Always glimpses and flashes though, and never in clear shooting lanes.
With my patience beginning to wear thin I decided to go for broke. The tops of the bull's antlers were visible 45 yards away. Two cows were to my left at about the same distance. Grabbing my bugle tube I turned my head as far behind me as possible and let out a half-hearted squeal; attempting to sound like a small bull that had slipped in to steal a cow. The plan worked; if a cow is what I had wanted to shoot. The bull moved to what I guessed to be 37 yards but was still screened by brush. Two cows however decided they would walk right over the top of me. Now in hindsight I'm sure it was quite a scene; me half-crouching beside an old fallen log with a cow standing two arrow lengths away. In theory, the bull should have moved to intercept the intruder that was slipping in to steal his cows, unfortunately, this bull had apparently been to this party before. He never moved a muscle while his cows bored a hole through me. I never moved but I knew things were about to go south. The only reason I had made this tactical error was because I knew I was working on borrowed time, in that, at any minute the changing thermals were going to give my presence away. And that's exactly what happened, after enduring the head-bobbing of one of the cows for seemingly hours, the faintest hint of a breath of wind caressed the back of my neck. The look on that cow's face when the stench of human mediocrity hit her was something to behold. I expect that herd may still be running to this day.
The rest of the day was fairly uneventful. I did manage to crawl within 71 yards of a bedded bull only to have the wind betray me once again. I had spotted him lying by himself under the shade of a giant pine tree. He was a nice 5x5 that was only ½ mile from the truck. The stalk had commenced with me saying I don't want to kill him, this will just be good practice, however, at 100 yards my demeanor changed drastically and the green light was definitely on. But, it was not meant to be. That bull may still be running also!
The next morning found me at the trailhead leading into the wilderness a little later than I had wanted. While gathering my things a jeep with New Mexico tags pulled up beside me and skidded to a halt. A young man bounced out and began gathering his essentials as well, and like most people would, we began comparing notes about what we had discovered over the last several days. It was a pleasant conversation that ended with my new friend saying “when you get one down I will help you get him out.”
Those words bounced around in my head as I made my way to the previous day's drainage. There was an aura in the air that had me convinced it would be a good day. Something just felt different as the methodical noise of boots on rocks moved me ever closer to my chosen area. As if on cue the closer I got the more my heart began to beat because the noise from the previous morning had resumed and bulls were singing their September song. Coming to the edge of a small mountain meadow I spied two cows at the upper end. They were contentedly feeding north, with the south wind directly at their back! While surveying my options a tremendous guttural whistle erupted from somewhere behind them just over the rise. The bull was directly behind them!
Jumping back into cover, instinct took over and I made the aforementioned mad dash the ¼ mile to get in front of them. It's not often when you get a chance to get in front of a moving herd with the perfect wind, so I knew I needed to take full advantage of it. Hunkered on my knees in the shade of a big pine, bow at the ready, I ranged the first cow as soon as she entered the opening. The shot would be a long one, but more than doable for the Hoyt. The rangefinder had just gave me the reading when the tops of antlers crested the ridge. In one fluid motion I dropped the rangefinder and rose up on my knees, while coming to anchor. The cows had noticed me but it was too late as the fifth pin found its resting place in the crease behind the bull's right shoulder. At the shot animals went everywhere. Cows I hadn't seen as well as one smaller bull that had been hiding somewhere. I tried to keep tabs on my bull but it was pretty difficult, fortunately, the crash that we all hope to hear came less than ten seconds after the arrow had left the bow.
Slumping back down, exhausted from the adrenaline overload, I glanced east and then looked at my watch. Less than an hour had passed since my new friend Ryan Stodgell had told me he would help pack an animal out if I were lucky enough to get one. And what's even better, he did what he said and for that I will be forever grateful.