Gila Miracle – By Eddie Claypool

September 2005

http://www.bowandarrowhunting.com

Every twist and turn haunts this bowhunter as he makes his way through the New Mexico wilderness.

Bow & Arrow Hunting September 2005

For the past twenty years I’ve been an impassioned, do-it-yourself elk bowhunter. Over this time, I’ve been involved in about every kind of situation imaginable – both good and bad. It seems that the bad memories stick in my mind indefinitely, while the good memories migrate to the back recesses of my mind. I think this is only a natural process since it’s the bad experiences that leave big scars, while the good memories are constantly being shuffled to the back of our memory by new, good times afield.

A few seasons ago, I went on a solo bowhunt for elk in the Gila country of southwestern New Mexico and made memories from both ends of the spectrum – incredible misfortune, followed by seemingly impossible. In the end, simple perseverance was the key to pulling something out of nothing. Let’s take a look at an outing that was one of the most bittersweet elk hunts I’ve ever been on.

High Hopes

I’d been coming to the Gila for a lot of years; I knew the resource and how to take advantage of it. I’d come alone for a reason – to hunt long, hard and effectively. Since I was on a mission to harvest an exceptional bull, I was willing to sacrifice the benefits of companionship in order to better focus on my self-centered goal…sometimes a guy has just gotta do what a guy has just gotta do.

Two days before the bow opener found me at a remote trailhead packing my mule(Runt) for a trip deep into the wilderness. Past Experience in the area had shown me a couple of remote ridges where groups of “bachelor” bulls liked to spend their summer while growing their massive crowns. I knew that if I could get into an area where such a situation existed, I could very possibly get a bull to respond to my calling. The element of surprise, coupled with the “virginity” of such unbothered bulls, could put a big bull in my lap fast – it had happened before.

As I headed down the trail, I was excited and my hopes were high. A long six hours later – with 14 miles behind me and almost 4,000 feet below me – I was dragging. Picking a spot for my camp, I began to get situated. After unsaddling Runt, I led my long-eared helper to a nearby creek so that he could get a drink. Hurrying along, in a split-second, I somehow manged to let a tree limb rake across my left eye. Knowing that I’d scratched my eye rather badly, I figured that I’d simply have to put up with some serious discomfort for a day or two…little did I know.

Sometime during the early morning hours, I awoke to a burning pain in my eye – I knew that something was seriously wrong. Now what? It was the day before the season opened, I was 14 miles from the truck (90 more to the nearest town of any size) and I couldn’t function! There was a battle going on inside me – the hunter side of me wanted to tough it out and go hunting, while the common sense side said that my eye needed immediate medical attention. By the time that day-light had finally arrived, I’d rolled around in my sleeping bag for long enough to know that I had to get to town and find out what the problem was- what a nightmare!

Deciding to leave my camp where it was at, I snapped a lead rope onto Runt as a new day dawned around me and began the long walk out. Seriously unhappy about the mess that I’d gotten myself into, I mulled the situation around in my mind. My eye was swelled so much that I could hardly see from it; it was six hours to the truck and another three hours to town! The question was, could even I get to town in time to get in to see a doctor today? Man, oh man, I sure needed too.

The Twilight Zone
Rolling into Silver City, New Mexico, at 3:30 p.m., one of the first places I saw was an optometrist’s office. It was open! Wheeling into a parking space, I jumped out and ran inside. Yes, they’d see me. The prognosis was this: I had an eye ulcer, probably caused by some type of bacteria that had gotten into the cut on my eye, and the condition was serious. I would be treated with antibiotic drops and pills, and if the condition hadn’t shown signs of improvement within 24 hours, I’d be sent to an ophthalmologist for further treatment. I would have to get a motel for the night, then come back for another check-up the following evening. This was more than I’d planned for. After all, I had a mule unattended, elk that needed to be hunted and a hunting trip budget that hadn’t allowed for all this extra expense. Could it get any better than this? Oh, yeah.
The following evening (the second day of bow season) I plodded back to the doc, praying for a release-it wasn’t to be. Things weren’t worse, but they weren’t noticeably better either. Doc said, “You need to come back the next day.” My head was spinning…could I leave Runt unattended another day? What if he’d knocked his water tub over the first day? Almost certainly, he had. I couldn’t believe it-what a nightmare! Finally-on my third day in town-the Doc finally saw what he was looking for-improvement in the eye. He would release me for three days, then I had to be checked again. Unbelievable, what a nightmare! How was I ever going to hunt elk under these circumstances? There was no way I had time to get back to my wilderness camp and get any hunting done! Well, maybe I could at least get back to my camp and pack it out to the truck. Maybe I could at least hunt from the road somewhere? So much for my original high hopes and dreams. What a nightmare.

And The Beat Goes On
Dashing back to the trailhead, I arrived at sunset on the third day of my “hunt.” Heading to the spot where I’d left Runt staked out, what should I find? No mule-only a rope, one end tied to a tree, the other end loose. Could it get any better than this? Oh, yeah.

After a mostly sleepless night, I set about searching for Runt the next day. I wanted to be mad at the mule, but the truth was, if one jackass had tied the other one up better, neither jackass would be in the situation that they were now in. After a full day of fruitless searching, I was in a mood, fit to be tied.

Late afternoon of the next day (the fifth of my hunt), I finally found Runt at an outfitters’ camp, about 5 miles down a trail into the wilderness. He seemed to be perfectly content socializing with his newfound horse friends. As a matter of fact, he didn’t seem very glad to see me at all- guess I was giving out bad vibes. I rounded him up and we headed back down the trail. Getting back to the truck at sunset. I picketed Runt, whipped up a meal on my Coleman stove then fell into the sack. Tomorrow was my doctor’s appointment-in that town 100 miles away-oh, joy! What a nightmare!
Noon of the sixth day of my hunt found me reading about elk hunting while sitting in the waiting room of the doctor’s office-man, was I ever praying. I needed a permanent release from civilization so that I could get into the woods-my shorts were getting in a permanent wad. Luckily, a short hour later, I was out of the doctor’s care for good. I headed back for the trailhead, Runt, and some wilderness elk hunting as fast as my old Ford could go-sadly, that wasn’t very fast.

When It Rains, It Pours
On the way back to camp that evening, I had two flats on my truck-simultaneously-and I only had one spare. I was starting to think that this elk hunting thing just wasn’t meant to be. Never had I been involved in such a non-ending nightmare-would this endless procession of pit-falls ever come to an end? And if it did, what kind of an end was that going to be? Feeling cursed, I wondered if I should just load up and head for home? Having never been a quitter, I reached deep inside for the perseverance to keep up the fight. If
nothing else, I’d go down while screaming defiance at the demons of defeat.

The following day, I finally got back on the road again, headed for camp and and Runt (I hoped). I’d long since forgotten what day of the season it was, but I knew one thing for sure – I didn’t have many more days left to work with. What should I do? Did I have the time to pack into the wilderness and start over, or should I simply day hunt into much more accessible areas? I felt the tug of my original dreams pulling at my inner being, so the matter was settled.

Going For Broke
Bright and early the next morning, Runt and I were to be found plodding submissively down an old, familiar trail.
This would be the third time that we’d hiked back and forth on this trail in the past 10 days. As of yet, the only positive to have come from all this hiking was that I was becoming much more mentally and physically tough. Now, if I could just combine this with some actual time spent hunting, maybe something good would come from all the fuss. After all, things had to go my way soon, didn’t they? Right….

Reaching my old campsite, things fell into place quickly. Grabbing my Mathews bow, I headed for the hills. Ah, it sure felt good to finally have the monkey off my back for a while. As I hiked for a distant ridge, I was finally at peace-things seemed to finally be going my way. Huh, those dark clouds coming in from the west surely weren’t a threat, were they? Wow, that one cloud sure looks like a monkey….

By the time I reached the 2-mile-from-camp point, I knew I was in for trouble. Boiling, black clouds were pouring in and distant thunder was starting to roll down the valley toward me. It just so happened that I’d forgotten to throw my rain suit in my daypack and I knew that my Scent-Lok camo would provide little protection from the rain. Since it was clear what was about to happen, I turned around and hurried back to camp. I’d no more than dove into my dome tent when the downpour and wind hit. For
the rest of the night-and well on into the morning-the storm of the century raged. I’ve never seen it rain harder or
longer-it was a genuine life-threatening flood. Everything was running water, including the higher flatter ground that I was camped on. Water in my tent, in my bag, water down the crack of my…well, you know what. I never thought the next morning was going to come. The next day was spent recuperating from the storm-everything I had was wet. Luckily, the sun came out midday and I was able to get almost everything dried out by sundown. To top it all off, it was a fact that I wasn’t going to be able to hunt the next day either because all the valleys and ravines were raging torrents’–I wouldn’t be able to get across any of them.

Going Out In Style
After another day spent doing nothing-with only two days of the season left-I was about to go blind-staggering wild. I was nearly two weeks into this trip, and as of yet, hadn’t spent a single day hunting! Loading up my backpack
on the morning of the next-to-last day of season, I finally headed out to do some hunting…I hoped.

By evening, I was in a vast trailless area that I knew for certain held elk. Toward sunset, a distant bugle drifted to my ears; Hurrying that direction, I closed the distance-but not before dark caught up with me. Throwing up my spike camp, I hit the sack, drifting off to the sound of near-by bugles. I hoped that tomorrow would be a good day.

At first light, I was within 200 yards of the belligerent bull-he’d sounded off all night, never getting out of earshot. Pulling our my bugle, I sent a challenge toward the hot-to-trot. A piercing scream came back immediately, shortly followed by the sound of breaking brush. Clipping my release on my bowstring, I slowly slid an arrow across the prongs of my rest. As my hand touched my face, big antlers came bobbing into view. As the big bull stepped briskly into an opening at 40 yards, I stopped him with a cow mew from the diaphragm
in my mouth. He’d do just fine-thump…the arrow left my bow. Center-punched, the big bull darted out of sight.

Later, as I knelt over the trophy, I had to marvel-this trip had been unbelievable! I’d endured everything that the
anti-hunting demons could throw at me, yet, after having hunted for less than 24 hours, I was tagged-out with a whopper 7×6 bull-I’ll take luck anytime! —

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