I spent the next week trying to catch up at home, and getting packed for my next hunt. Earlier this summer, my good friend, Randy Newberg, had called and left a message saying that we had drawn our first choice elk hunt in New Mexico. That hunt opened on September 15th, so the plan was for me to fly down on opening day and meet Randy, who was driving down the day before season. I arrived in Albuquerque on the 15th and rented a truck, then drove to our designated meeting place.
Contrasted to my expectations for our first hunt of the season, my anticipation for this hunt was off the charts. I had never hunted New Mexico before, but I knew there were big bulls and the rutting activity was insane. I had visions of multiple monster bulls bugling throughout my mind as I pulled into off the main road to meet Randy.
For the next seven days, those dreams were dashed as we hiked mile after mile in unforgiving country, only to bump into other hunters and watch as white-antlered bulls made their way into the thick junipers right at first light every morning. The few bugles we heard were timid and at long distances, and my anticipation turned to determination, and then began to border on desperation. Daily temperatures were in the upper 80’s, and the high humidity made hiking incredibly uncomfortable. It was also likely contributing to the lack of rutting action as well. In addition to the masses of hunters that we encountered and the heat, we were also dealing with a full moon. Finally, on the last day, we knew we needed to do something different.
Randy suggested we head out to the grasslands and try our hand at spot and stalk elk hunting. It was wide open with very few areas to hide, but the elk hung out there and other hunters were unlikely to be hunting there due to the difficulty of getting close to the elk. 30 minutes after daylight, we spotted a large group of rutting elk at the bottom of the canyon. Unfortunately, they were on private land and moving away from us. At least the rut was starting, but it was our last day to hunt and those elk were off limits. As we continued working the optics, we spotted another group of elk making their way up the ridge behind us. We watched as a nice 6X6 bull pushed the cows through a saddle and disappeared over the ridge. The thermals were moving up, so we quickly dropped any gear we didn’t need from our packs, and headed up the ridge to get above the elk.
We had already hiked about a mile to get to the point we had been glassing from, and it would take another 3 miles of hiking to get around in front of the elk so we could drop down into the drainage where they had disappeared into. The wind was gusting up to 30 mph, which was actually a good thing. It kept the wind direction very consistent, and it also made enough noise that we might have a chance of stalking close to a bedded bull. We made our way around the last knob and knew the elk had to be bedded somewhere close by. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize how close. A calf jumped up from 40 yards below us and ran across the open hillside, then up the draw to the saddle where we had last seen the elk. As I was watching the calf run into the saddle, my binoculars caught a glimpse of antlers sticking up in the grass. The big bull had bedded down right below the saddle, and was staring intently in our direction. We quickly dropped down out of sight, and backed up around the knob. The wind was perfect for our location, but the bull was bedded facing down in our direction. The only option was to circle the knob and try to keep the wind in our favor as we approached the bull from above.
Randy stayed down below to watch, and I moved back around the knob and slowly made my way to the saddle. 30 minutes later, I spotted the bull bedded under one of the only cedar trees on the mountain. There was another cedar shrub about 70 yards from the bull, and two other small shrubs off to the side of the bull. Other than that, it was pretty much wide open. I slipped in to the first cedar and ranged the bull. 72 yards. Definitely too far to shoot, especially with this 30 mph cross winds. The bull was bedded and facing quartering away from me, with his head looking away. I decided to back up to the ridge and get a line on one of the smaller shrubs to the bull’s left, and see if I could get in closer and possibly get a shot at the bull in his bed.
I removed my boots, and spent the next 90 minutes inching my way down the hill, either on my hands and knees, or crab-walking with my bow in my lap. I made it to the shrub, and slowly peered around the left side of the bush to range the bull. To my shock, the calf that we had jumped earlier was bedded right up next to the bull, covering his vitals and looking right at me. I was 40 yards away, and had no shot. I sat there for a few minutes considering my options, and decided to crawl back out, and try to get a line of the only other shrub on the hillside, hoping it would put me at a decent angle where I could get a shot at the bull without getting busted by the calf.
An hour later, I was tucked up against the closest shrub, 26 yards from the bull. The calf was still bedded there, and I still had no shot. Within a few minutes though, the bull stood up. The calf also stood up, and I knew something was going to happen. I had tension on my bowstring, and the wind was still howling and covering any noise. The calf was standing there looking in my direction as the bull stretched and looked straight away from me. I was afraid to make the movements necessary to draw my bow due to the calf, and before I could decide what to do, the bull turned and looked right at the bush I was hiding behind. Keep in mind, this bush was only about 48″ wide and 30″ tall. After staring in my direction for what seemed like an eternity, the bull bedded back down, now laying perfectly broadside. The calf moved off to the side and bedded as well. The only problem was that the bull was now bedded down with his head looking right in my direction.
I sat behind the bush, unable to move, for nearly an hour. Over 4 hours had passed since I started the stalk, and I was exhausted. The 85-degree sun was baking the side of my face and neck, and every joint and muscle in my body was burning and cramping. I was watching out of one eye through a small gap in the bush as the bull would lay his head down and doze off, then lift it suddenly to look around. Every time he turned his head, I contemplated standing and drawing, but I knew I had to be patient. However, I was blessed with a minimal supply of patience, and 4+ hours of sitting on sharp rocks in the blazing sun had exhausted the last of my supply. I decided to take action.
I worked my feet into a position that would allow me to roll into a hunkering position, then laid back on the rocks and drew my bow. I maneuvered – at full draw – into a hunkering position, then sprang up at full draw. I fully expected the bull to bolt and was ready for a quick shot as I swung to my left. However, the bull was half asleep, and was slow getting to his feet. I dropped down on him just as he pushed to stand. The shot was low and the bull darted straight away. However, I think he was shocked and stopped to see what was standing behind the bush. I shot again at 35 yards, and the arrow hit right off the point of his elbow. He ran another 20 yards and stopped quartering away, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I shot a third arrow and he ran 30 more yards before piling up.
I’m not sure what emotions I felt at that time. I was physically and mentally exhausted. We had hiked over 80 miles in the previous 6 days, and my body had taken a beating like never before. I was relieved. The adrenaline of the previous 4 hours came trembling out. It had happened, finally, on the last evening of the last day, and in a very unorthodox-ed way (for me). I have used my calls to occupy or locate a bull in the past, then slipped in and shadowed the bull until I got a shot, but I had never before solely spot and stalked a bull in his bed, especially in wide open country. I think I still prefer calling… 🙂
We made it back to the truck around 1 a.m. with the meat and antlers, and headed back to camp. We packed up the next morning, and drove in to Albuquerque and flew out the next morning. I was exhausted, but it had turned out successful. I learned a lot on this hunt, and was excited to get back home to Idaho to hunt with my son for the last 2 days of the season.