Dream Hunt or Nightmare?
What sounded like a dream hunt of a lifetime for elk in Northern New Mexico began over a year ago at a family function. I always knew I had relatives in the state but never considered hunting there till I was regaled this particular evening with tales of giant bull elk and mulies. I followed up the next morning with some computer searches and decided that this Dream Hunt could actually take place. What a fantastic opportunity had been placed at my feet. After months of planning and tags for elk secured we headed West. Prior to heading there we were even fortunate to acquire the services of a local that we figured would certainly turn the tables in our favor. This should make it lock to score big time, after all, we only needed three bulls. Boy, were we wrong. What follows are some of the events, occurrences, and situations we found ourselves in. Good luck reading further, it ain't for the squeamish!
BATTLING THE ELEMENTS
The most prominent, resounding thought in my mind is, Thank God for the whitetail! Never again will I hold any disdain for this wonderful critter that has been the blessing of the flatlander for ages. You just gotta love an animal that can make itself at home near civilization, or at least civilization the way I've come to know it, where a good meal and hot shower is only moments away. A far cry from where I was now. We aren't in Indiana any more Toto.
Never before had that thought crossed my mind till I was standinding, with lungs burning at about 10,700 feet, gasping for breath. I had just spent the last hour and a half chasing, rather foolishly in hind sight, a group of about 50 elk up one ravine and down the next trying to get within bow range. My reward for this effort was being pelted with rain and hail that worked its way straight to the bones. The exterior of my rain gear was soaked from the steady downpour and the interior was soaked with sweat, absolutely soaked. Not so bad the guide says, the next mountain is getting snow. What? This is early September, it doesn't snow in September at home where I hunt whitetail.
But I get ahead of my self. Buddy Partin of Indiana and John Bond of Michigan, are my hunting partners in this quest for a bull in the breathtaking beauty of Northern New Mexico. The Carson National forest to be exact. We've been camped at about 10,000 feet for several days now. The daily 8-4 grind of the everyday back home is a world away. It takes a moment to recall the exact day of the week. A vehicle will pass along the gravel road we're camped on every now and again, and a friendly wave from another hunter is always anticipated, and we are never disappointed. Yeah, it's early in the trip and we're all still intoxicated with the beauty of the surroundings and the excitement of the hunt. As time passes, we come to realize that the passing hunters in their 4x4's only come by to snicker at the out-of-towners that can't manage to shoot a single miserable elk.
Twice daily, in the beginning of our adventure anyways, we gather our hunting gear and hoof it, actually more like grunt and groan to 11,000 feet and beyond searching the high meadows, pined mountain tops, and aspen groves, for our bull elk.
Our tags for this hunt are for either sex, but in the beginning, there's is no talk of shooting a cow, only how we'll get our bull packed out of the rockiest and steepest terrain I've ever known. As the days pass, I find that shooting a cow is becoming a more popular idea as just locating non bugling elk is quite a task in its own right.
GUIDING THE WAY
As mentioned, we've hired a local gentleman to show us around, John Cisneros, of Questa, New Mexico. Doesn't take us long to figure out he's a part of the conspiracy that will keep us from killing our three bulls in the first day or two. At least that's how our master plan had it happening. At first he seems happy to see us and can't wait to get us up in the hills and jeep trails. After several days we begin to see through his thinly veiled disguise and notice that he too is enjoying our failures a bit too much. What originally sounds like, Are you guys ready to go get them today?, begins to sound more like, You losers couldn't kill an elk if you drove the meadows at night with the lights off in my jeep! One of our first observations of this man is that it's amazing how a man can drive a narrow, rather extremely narrow dirt road that winds its way to the top of a mountain, with his head hung out the window of his jeep, looking for elk over the edge of the cliff we're on, or their tracks crossing this glorified bicycle path. We're anxious, I'm not sure that's the right word, maybe concerned is a better word, that he rarely bothers to see where he is on the road, or if it might turn ahead, as it always does. He manages this while being completely unaware or unconcerned of the various gasps and clutchings of his passengers, as rock tumbles from beneath the tire. Three wheels on Terra Not So Firma seems sufficient, if only to our guide. We've jokingly nicknamed him "Three Wheel'n Johnny". Another bit of local knowledge we've acquired is that any vehicle in these parts with 4-wheel drive is a jeep. Whether it's the Chevy Blazer of the guide, that I thoughtlessly corrected him on, or our enormous Ford Excursion, it's a jeep son. Don't need to tell me a third time.
Up till now, we've only encountered elk three times. We located two cows in a meadow that headed back to the tree line immediately upon discovering our presence, a group of about 9 cows and a few calves that held their ground at about 50-60 yards from us, and the 50+ elk on one of our last treks to the top of Flag Mountain. At this point in the trip, those cows at 50 yards may have had some arrows flung at them since the word "Cow" is becoming almost synonymous with acceptable trophy. Unfortunately, I was unable to get closer than 75 yards from the group of 50 elk I chased, but there were at least 2 very respectable bulls in the herd.
HERE A RIDGE, THERE A RIDGE
John Bond is the cook of the group, and an excellent one at that. He is also probably the most experienced big game hunter in camp having made many trips out west in search of trophies. Till now, our diet has consisted of hotdogs, fantastic burgers, and MRE's for those rainy days. Come to find, there's a lot of those rainy days. Beans also play a large part in the menu and despite the thin air at altitude; the air in the tent always seems a bit thicker come nightfall. There has also been several trips to town about 15 miles away for a meal at one of the local joints that are full of character, characters, and good food. Unfortunately that Southwestern style of cooking doesn't stay with a fellow very long, if you know what I mean.
Buddy is my brother in law, an ex Marine and an incredible whitetail hunter in the Midwest, which I think he was wishing for on more than one occasion on this trip. He seems excited to be here but that is tempered by his fear of heights which tis obviously exaggerated here. Hmmm, let's combine fear of heights, and mountains? Why didn't we see this challenge a mile away? If facing your fears is the best way to rid yourself of them, then ole' Three Wheel'n Johnny figured it was up to him to break Buddy of his phobia. A fact that John and I will both testify to after our first ride up the mountain with the guide and Buddy in the backseat sucking wind and water. Buddy is quite satisfied lately to just sit back against a tree in a meadow and wait for the elk to come down and feed in the evening. A great plan when it works. After all, Buddy explains, I didn't come here to be no mountain climber! On the other hand, John and I always feel the need to see what's on the other side of each damned ridge, and there's always a next ridge. So daily, John and I, the over weight, out of shape, smoker set out to crest each new ridge, only to find where the elk were yesterday.
BACK AT CAMP
Our camp is set next to a pristine mountain creek which provides us with crystal clear drinking, cooking and washing water, not to mention, a refrigerator for our cold beverages. The melodic chatter as it flows downstream past riffles and boulders is so relaxing it becomes mesmerizing, but becomes as annoying as fingernails on a chalkboard after a few short days. It can't however take the place of the increasingly more important trip to town for hot running water and a hot shower.
Having rarely hunted outside the rolling farmlands and small wooded lots in the Midwest, elk hunting these mountains is a totally foreign experience. The elk here move from the tops of the peaks in the evening to feed in the high meadows through the night. At day break, the trip is reversed. The trick to hunting them now in the pre-rut is to try and locate a herd and anticipate where they will come down in the evening, or which route to the top they will take after the overnight eating binge. Unlike whitetails, they have no set pattern what so ever, and if spooked, will likely not be found again in the same meadow, opting for one that could be, and usually is several miles away.
Nearly daily downpours in an area that as recently as last year was in the critical stages of a draught was certainly not considered when we first made our plans. Despite three tarps, either in, over, or under the tent, the rain still seeps in and soaks everything in its way, including us. An important bit of advice at this point, regardless how bright the sun is, never, ever, leave your wet clothes drying on a line outside, because it WILL rain as soon as you leave camp. Oh sure, it may be sunny and cheery in town, but it's raining buckets on everything you own back at camp. Count on it!
Fortunately, our sentence for crimes unknown having been satisfactorily served in the wet rocks of New Mexico, has finally drawn to a close and we head back east toward home and all the comforts that it will bring. The forecast for New Mexico? Sunny and bright the rest of the year. Forecast for where we'll be traveling? Yep, you guessed it, rain.
Editor's Note: This story will be followed up next week with some tips and ideas on how to better prepare for a trip of this sort. Although some things can never be anticipated, some can. And as they say, fore warned is fore armed.