New Mexico Youth Elk Story
Team Tennis Shoe Scores
Like all of you, we await the results of the western big game draws with great anticipation. Until 2009, we had never drawn one of the premier tags. After checking the New Mexico draw results, we learned that my 16 year old nephew was soon to hold a very special elk tag in his hands. My younger brother has some experience hunting elk in Wyoming; however neither my nephew Carter nor I had hunted elk and we have extremely limited hunting experience outside the Midwest. Soon after drawing the tag my younger brother was forced to bail on us due to work commitments.
At this point many of you stepped in to provide varying levels of assistance and I want to start by saying thank you to each of you.
My nephew lost his dad to both divorce and drug addiction many years ago. He is such a great kid that my brothers and I have enjoyed stepping up our roles as uncles. I talked with my sister about this hunt briefly before applying, but I now had to go back and provide more details. He was going to have to miss as many as eight school days. We sat down with Carter and all agreed that he had to have his grades and school work in order before he could go on the trip. We had to talk to coaches, teachers, employers, and others. Everyone was excited to work with us and Carter met his end of the bargain, so now after months of preparation, it was time to hunt.
We arrived at our camp site Wednesday afternoon in time to get camp set up, make some food, and head out for an evening scout. It did not take long to confirm the advice we had been getting was excellent. We saw three nice bulls and were awakened hundreds of times that night by bugles. It even managed to drown out the snoring from the tent next door most of the time.
Thursday morning brought rain and fog that allowed the elk to delay their ascent into the rim rock and mountains by as much as two hours. We saw two raghorns fighting, another great bull in the meadow with his herd, and many more bugles in the fog. We were not able to see much beyond 500 yards, but it was still even more evidence we were in the right area. Mid-day entertainment was provided by a pair of antelope bucks that were not very good at sharing. These bucks chased each other right by our camp for hours.
After a quick lunch, we hiked to a high point to glass. Within a couple minutes a truck pulled up about a mile away to begin cutting fire wood. About 10 minutes later an incredible bull walked beneath us at about 200 yards. It appeared to have been pushed out of some timber by the lumberjack. This took our excitement to a new height. As light faded, we started our descent and walk back to camp. As we walked down the path into a small park, my nephew stopped dead in his tracks and gestured toward the park. The big bull mentioned above was now between us and camp at about 300 yards. I am going to resist the temptation to say he was XXX” because I am too new to this – he was really big. We had to wait for him to walk off to allow us to pass without spooking him off. This resulted in us getting back to camp very late in the evening. We were not scared but I can not say we were really comfortable being a couple miles from camp in the pitch black. Shortly after the bull moved out of the way, the wolves started to sound off. We made it back to camp pretty quick.
Friday brought more of the same, except that the morning was crystal clear and we finally had a chance to put our optics to work. We heard as many as a dozen bulls vocalizing and saw two bulls close and another couple herds off in the distance. By this time, we were really getting anxious to take a gun on the next walk, but we had one more scouting opportunity that evening. During the day, we drove to an area where we could get cell phone service to let a friend who would be joining us for the hunt know what he had been seeing and confirm the location of our camp site. We also took this opportunity to do some shooting away from our hunt site. Friday night we decided to stay close to camp and get ready for the next morning. There were a couple really good glassing spots near camp. After selecting our spots that were about 100 yards apart we settled in only to be interrupted by a wolf running right between us at full speed. We do not know what he was doing or where he came from but he was moving out. That night we saw a couple bulls working cows in their staging area and the bugling was again almost non-stop that night.
After a quick soup supper, we put our heads down but it was difficult to sleep because of the elk singing and the anticipation for the hunt. Once we finally got to sleep we were awakened by headlights from our friend. We showed him his tent and cot and we all crashed.
The alarm rang at 3:00 a.m. and we climbed out of our warm beds into the freezing air. We could hear elk bugling as we got dressed. Our plan was to get after some of these elk in the dark and position ourselves so that we could intercept them as they raced from their feeding areas to their bedding areas. Sounded simple enough. The short version of the morning hunt is that I learned that elk live in big country and can move really fast. We had some great action but never guessed correctly. There were as many as eight to ten bulls in the vicinity that morning. Each time we went out we learned a little more about the area and the elk.
We crafted a plan that afternoon that involved us climbing up a rim rock that I believed required ropes or aviation equipment. It was not as bad as it looked but there was a shear wall at the top that I am glad was not any taller. It was no doubt one of the best vantage points in the area. As we walked slowly into the wind, we started to note some really significant elk sign. After another couple hundred yards, our footsteps caused a bull to send out a warning to the intruders to keep their distance. Carter and my friend crept forward and I stayed back to reduce the noise and movement. I was the pack mule and I moved with limited stealth. Again, I can only tell you this bull was big. The bull presented a couple shots that were questionable and I am really proud that Cater elected not to shoot even though the bull was within 70 yards for a couple minutes. Finally, the cows got downwind of us and spooked. We tried to reposition ourselves for a clear shot as the herd moved out but I was again reminded that elk live in big country and can move really fast.
By this time, we were near the area we wanted to set up to glass for our evening hunt. The elk encounter on the way to this spot had chewed up a lot of time and we now only had 30 to 45 minutes of legal shooting light. As it turns out that is all we would need. We had only been glassing for a few minutes when I spotted a cow in a clearing. This elk was approximately two miles from our location. Moments later several other cows and a nice bull would join her. I pointed the elk out to Carter and very little discussion followed. My friend asked us both "Can you guys keep up?" My response was just as quick, "No I can’t but if you guys leave all the gear with me you can get there in time." All non-essential gear was dumped at my feet and they dove off that shear wall and raced down the rim rock. All I said to Carter as they descended was to be safe.
At this point I assumed it would be nearly dark before they got in position for a shot and as I mentioned above I was not afraid to be out there in the dark, but I was a little concerned about climbing down without daylight. I elected to head down shortly after they departed something I would regret later for a number of reasons. As I reached the flat ground, I heard the shot ring through the valley. There was no doubt that Carter had taken the shot. We would soon find out if all that time practicing had paid off, I was optimistic.
It was dark at camp when I arrived and the anticipation was literally making me pace in circles. I finally walked down the path they would be using to get to camp. After what seemed like hours, I heard them coming. The first thing they asked me was "Did you see where he went?" and I then had to tell them I had left the rim rock prior to the shot. This of course did not sound promising. They explained that they had positioned themselves within 125 yards of the bull and Carter had made the shot from the prone position. My buddy was concerned that he did not hear the report from the bullet striking the bull and Carter said the bull did not look hit after he shot. This had us all concerned but I have been taking Carter muzzleloader hunting for six years and he had not missed a shot to that point. I told Tony that I have a lot of confidence in Carter, but I could not discount elk fever. By now, it was also settling in that I could have watched the entire hunt unfold in the spotting scope if I had just stayed on the rim rock, not to mention I might have been able to see him go down. All we could do now was sleep on it and start our search in the morning.
We decided to watch elk in the morning and wait for good light before we started our search. By 8:00 o’clock in the morning, we were at the site of the shot reconstructing the events from the previous night. Carter showed me where they were when they fired, we marked the spot where the bull would have been standing, we discussed what direction the bull ran after the shot, there was discussion about what the cows did after the shot, and finally they mentioned that they had heard a low grunt come from the timber shortly after the shot. This mention of the low grunt was music to my ears as I was pretty confident it was the final breathes of that bull elk. Right before we left that spot my friend also made a comment that he could still smell the bull. Even though we could find no blood near where the bull would have been hit, I was feeling pretty good about things at this point.
There was not a lot of ground cover in the area we planned to search so we spread out about 70 yards apart and started our linear search of the forest working south from where the bull was last seen. We traveled about 300 yards with no sign of the bull. We then moved deeper into the timber and traveled back north 300 yards. After regrouping briefly, we continued our search to the north. I had only been searching a couple minutes after we had regrouped when I crested a small rise and discovered the bull not 50 yards from where we initially started the search. He was simply in an area that we could not see from where we started. Even though the bull was down right in front of me, I had to blink and take a second look before calling out to the other guys. Carter came bounding over the hill and I can say he was the happiest I have seen him since we was a young child. After some congratulations and quick photos, we knew we had to get the hide of this bull as he had now been down for almost 14 hours. Unfortunately, some of the meat did spoil later; however we hauled it all out and salvaged what we could.
I may not have had a weapon in my hands, but I can assure you this was a great hunt for me and I know our hunting partner felt the same way. I have to also thank the staff at the New Mexico Game and Fish for creating such a great opportunity for all hunters. These hunts are not just for youth hunters. Remember there are adults with these youth hunters that get as much if not more of an experience from these opportunities than the kids. My nephew may argue with me on that point.
Again, a special thank you to all those that helped in many ways with this hunt. By the way, we did not hunt in our tennis shoes but we have taken more crap for having our photos taken wearing tennis shoes than you can imagine.