Every hunter has their animal. The one animal that fills their dreams and the one they would give up all hunting just to chase them one more time. For me, that animal is the elk. There’s just something about them. I’m not sure, but I have to assume that it’s a combination of the beautiful country they live in, the size of the animal, and the size of the antlers. Or the fact that a bugle can haunt your dreams day in and day out.
This year, I got the opportunity again to go to New Mexico and hunt the first week of rifle season. This is a hunt that I typically do every other year. The place we hunt is situated in northern New Mexico and base camp is a three-room wood cabin with no electricity – but we do have running water and propane lamps and cooking appliances. I had the chance to come up a day early and spend time working and refocusing while getting time to scout for elk. The cabin sets right at the base of a dormant volcano and the side that faces the cabin is full of lush thick grass and stringy aspen and spruce. While it looks mild it is actually a very challenging hike to the top of the mountain at over 10,000 feet elevation. Of the morning and evening, the elk like to work the thermals and move from one side to the other crossing the wide open mountain, allowing for a great view from my Vortex spotting scope.
The evening I first arrived at the camp had me a little concerned, I did see a nice 6x5 with a few cows but the bugling, even through the night, was almost non existent. That is rare for me in this area and I was concerned that the elk weren’t here this year.
The next morning before the other hunters arrived, I got up early and sat outside looking to locate elk and hear some bugles. There were a few more bugles and a solid herd of elk with one nice 6x6. I watched as the 6x6 crossed the front of the mountain stopping to bugle a few times. He had a unique high pitched bugle always ending in good growl. Later that day the other hunters arrived in camp and we picked sides where we were going to hunt then headed to bed. I had got the side of the mountain away from where the elk went but there are elk all over this country and I was looking forward to the next morning. The next morning arrived and one of the hunters decided he wanted to switch areas with me as he knew the country I had better. I actually knew the country on the side he had much better so it worked out great.
As I left the cabin right at grey light and worked my way to the mountain I heard that same bugle from the day before and I knew that elk was still in the area. The only issue was he was working his way toward me and the mountain but my thermals were dropping right off the elevation and right to where he was at. I was very familiar with the area he was in, and knew there were some long stringy openings that he had to be traveling in. Because of the thermals, I made a large loop away from the elk but moving generally in his direction. My plan was for my thermals to pass him and let him pass me until I knew he was up wind of me. As soon as I heard his bugle pass even with my location I began the stalk into position.
As I got closer to the bugle I saw 2 smaller bulls in an opening. They were actually fighting and it was a first for me to see. The smaller bull was a 3x3 and must have just got done wallowing as he was black with mud. The other bull was a smaller 4x4 but it was amazing to watch. Every time the bulls would quit fighting the big bull would bugle in the woods, but I still couldn’t see him. After about 15 minutes the bulls stopped fighting and the 3x3 moved into the brush toward the big bull and the 4x4 moved more down the mountain into the opposite brush. I made my move and crawled out into the open and set my 28 Nosler up on my Sitka pack and waited. After another 15 minutes, five cows came walking by being trailed by the 4x4 bull. As he pushed them into the brush I could see the big bull step out into the small opening. I could tell it was him just by the tails on his antlers. Two seconds later I snapped off the Timney trigger and boom the hunt was over.
Immediately elk were running everywhere so I quickly got on my cow call to calm them down. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bull run into the brush and for a moment I had that flash through my head of did I miss, what happened. But as I packed my gear and headed to where the bull was standing, there he was. Right where he had been standing. The 28 Nosler and the 175 ELDX bullets did the trick. Now the work was about to really begin – getting the elk down the mountain.
The next morning I still had elk on the brain and could not sleep, so I got on the spotting scope. There were another 30 elk with 3 nice bulls, one perhaps even bigger than the one I harvested. As I watched them move off into the dark timber I knew it meant, God willing, I would be back to that place to chase them again.
You may leave elk country, but your heart never does.