By Jeff Warren, February 2013
During one of the many hunt planning sessions that take place during the off season Garth announced to us that he and the hunting consultants, consisting of Dave Loescher, Robert Hanneman, and me, would be going on a New Mexico muzzleloader elk hunt together in 2012 with landowner tags. It didn’t take me long to voice my support for that idea!
Before we knew it we were headed to westcentral New Mexico for an exploratory elk hunt. Arriving 5 days before the opening of the hunt gave us some time to scout our units, plus look over some other units and learn about them as well. Garth and Dave hunted a separate unit than Robert and me, but we were staying at the same hotel so we could compare notes and discuss options each night. I have guided many elk hunts in New Mexico on a private ranch and helped clients take some giant bulls, but this would be a totally different situation as I was in a unit that was mostly public land with no option to access any of the private land within the unit. My hopes were high, but I was also realistic with my expectations. After 3 days of scouting hard I had located the highest glassing points in the units, along with access to these spots, two mediocre bulls, a few cows, and a lot of human predators on four-wheelers. My expectations were now firmly in check!
Opening day was a real wake up call! People were showing up literally everywhere I had planned to glass, but I pressed on. After 3 days of hunting and not much to go on I played a hunch and headed for parts of the unit that I thought people would overlook. My hopes weren’t high, but at least I wouldn’t have to look at other hunters.
As darkness turned to gray I was in position with my 15’s mounted and ready to pick the country apart. On the first sweep of the wide open “made-for-antelope flats” I picked up a dozen or so forms about 2-3 miles out. I needed more light at that distance to tell what I was looking at, but my instincts told me they were wild horses. There was not a tree or bush within miles in any direction from the forms. When morning light finally improved I could not believe my eyes — elk! I grabbed my spotting scope, zoomed in on the group, and smiled as the higher magnification revealed a herd bull with cows. I looked around and tried to determine where in the world these elk would spend the day. Previous midday temperatures had been sweltering, and these elk would need shade. Mountains with junipers were 3 miles to the west, and after about 5 minutes, the cows lined out in that direction with the bull bringing up the rear. It’s amazing how fast elk can cover ground!
When the sun broke over the horizon and caught up to the group of elk they stood out like yellow school buses. I silently pleaded for them to hurry up and reach the mountain before someone saw them. I was in a position that I thought was perfect to watch them bed, no matter where it was. I took some photos of the bull through my scope and determined that he was a keeper. The group finally made it to the steep canyons at the base of the mountain, and at around 9:00 am, cows started to plop down for the day. By 9:15 the bull picked out his bed in the shade of a big round cedar, and after staring at his cows seemingly forever, his front legs buckled and he settled into his bed. Game on!
Approaching them from my current position was not happening. I would have to come over the mountain behind them. I’m glad I didn’t know what was ahead of me. Steep mountains, rocky terrain, heat, and rattlesnakes wore me out, but after 4 hours, I was 250 yards above him, and he didn’t have a clue that I was in his bedroom. I gently built a rest out of rocks, primed my .50 caliber Encore, and waited for him to stand up. He was quartered away perfectly. After 30 minutes of boiling in the sun on the open hillside I decided to shoot him in his bed. Sitting until evening in the heat, waiting for him to stand, was not an option because I already looked like a lobster. When the crosshairs settled low behind the point of his shoulder I touched the trigger. The whap of the bullet hitting home was a relief. Two hundred and fifty yards with a muzzleloader is doable, but it’s also starting to get out there. The bull flopped over on his back, but just as quickly, he was up on his feet. Four more shots and hits later he was mine. Elk can take a lot of punishment, especially when you’re poking holes with low velocity muzzleloaders as compared to the efficiency of high velocity rifles.
Soaking in the sweetness of success after all the hard work was very gratifying. The adrenaline surge had calmed down, and it was time to start the chore of photos, caping, and quartering the bull. Knowing help was a phone call away was comforting, but the problem was that the phone was back at my truck. In my hurry to get after the bull I had left it on the seat. Four hours later the call was made and troops were on their way. Garth and Dave were a welcome sight, and as darkness arrived, my prize was in the pickup. This great New Mexico 7x8 is a very special trophy to me.
Garth and Dave saw decent bulls but not the kind they wanted to harvest. Robert, who was hunting in the same unit as me, saw some mature bulls, including a great 6x6 on the last day of the hunt. After an all out race to cross two canyons darkness robbed him of his chance at that screaming bull, but that will be his story to tell!
Thank goodness for New Mexico landowner tags!