Published by archerchick on 21 Feb 2011
High Country Elk ~ By Jim Dougherty
New Mexico Offers Ideal Elk Habitat – But the Bowhunter Must Do His Part!
IT WAS NOT should we push, but how hard’? We were mulling it over.
Actually I was leaving it up to Dirk Neal. The bull bawled again, blasting a
classic double-octave screech that banged at us through the timber, daring
us to come on. He had reached his limit, moved as near as he was going to; his
defiant screams were ebbing, farther away.
It had felt so good at the beginning. We had perfect wind, perfect terrain, the
right bull, or so it seemed then. I just knew he was coming. Now it was
falling apart; we were losing him. It was crunch time, the last day. Neal
motioned that we would push; no more waiting. Waiting wasn’t going to get the
elk. I had been thinking about it all year, thinking about another go at elk in a
remote spot on some faraway mountain; thinking about country I had never seen;
thinking, maybe, it would change my luck. I spent the summer dreaming
about yellow aspens turning golden, of clean alpine ridges above the deep, dark
timbered canyons, where, right then, while I was dreaming, a big bull was
putting the finishing touches on his antlers. We were together then, the bull
and I, last summer, getting ready for fall.
Though she admits to being facetious — she knows how important a good bull
is — my wife considers any elk a good elk, a perspective difficult to argue. Dis-
playing the practical side of her heritage — ancestors who tamed Utah and Idaho
when an elk equated to the urgent expediency of retarding hunger — she
claims antlers make poor soup. In her book, elk are the best big game for the
able. And, though she knows full well that collecting an elk at today’s excursion
prices is not a cost-saver, it is still a far better deal than most of my
escapades. So, when l strike out in search, she is inclined to add, ” get one”
is her “good luck” goodbye kiss.
No fat cow would turn my head. No mediocre bull would do. It was an all-
out catch-a-good-bull or come-home- empty-handed effort. If the bottom of
the freezer glared, let it. I could always catch a whitetail or two to help us
through the winter.
None of us seriously considered record-breaking bulls as we spent the
day crossing Oklahoma and Texas to New Mexico. Sure, you can dabble in
dreams; we all have the right to hope. It was not up to me to dash cold water on
the hopes of my friend, George Bennett, or my son, Holt, on the eve of their first
elk bowhunt. Certainly, I agreed, a huge bull was possible, but as a practical matter,
based on some experience hunting and killing elk, I was not about to pass
up three-hundred inches in hopes something bigger was over the next ridge. I’ve
done that, not within the exact dimensions outlined, but the scenario was the
same. I will always regret it.
We were not in a position to play the passing game, a game that requires
plenty of time, good elk savvy, lots of elk and a generous sprinkling of luck.
We had six days to hunt elk; time enough for a great experience, time
enough to get lucky, not enough to be silly. I watched the country roll by,
hoping luck was on our side.
New Mexico has been good to me over the years. I collected my first lion
and bear there, as well as my first turkey. I hunted mule deer in some
prime spots in the late ’60s, when there were still lots of mule deer. I like New
Mexico, “The Land Of Enchantment.” My previous three elk hunts there had
produced two bulls. Statistically, I was ahead of the game. I would need some
Dirk Neal is a full-blown professional. He guides and outfits for bear,
lion and elk primarily, with an excellent, well deserved reputation as a guy who
knows where some big mule deer hang out, too. I had a spontaneous, positive
reaction when we first spoke on the phone. It just felt right. Neal was real,
offering no pie-in-the-sky promises, just honest effort in what he felt was class
country with a respectable ratio of good bulls. He didn’t try to pound me with
pipe dream illusions of 3 50-plus point critters at the head of every canyon.
Good bulls would be in the three-hundred-inch range. There are some bigger,
quite a few are smaller. We try to let the smaller ones grow up,” he
Maybe we got along well at the onset, because I wasn’t hammering him about
monsters and he wasn’t telling me he had lots of them. There were nice bulls
there, that was enough. Our philosophical gears meshed smoothly and we made a
date for mid-September. Neal runs his elk operation on the Mundy Ranch outside
Chama in northern New Mexico. The elevation tops out around 11,000 thin-air feet,
pushing up from scrub oak low-country hills to timberline meadows and rimrock tops.
There are elk scattered throughout, as well as a ridiculous number of black
bear, a medium summer range population of mule deer and a bunch of lions,
based on sightings and sign. His base camp is a fine two-story log
lodge with plenty of room to kick back. Hot and cold running water, along with
an excellent cook, are complemented by a wood-stove hot-tub fueled by thick
slabs of pitch-rich pine. He keeps his hunters in controllable minimums, well
fed, properly outfitted with guides who know the country intimately, equipment
that doesn’t break down and a dedication to showing everyone an honest good
time based on the up-and-at-’em-before- the-crack, stay-out-’til-after-dark regimen.
Neal doesn’t believe in the free lunch. It’s a work-your-butt-off deal. If you get an
easy one, that’s okay, but he really likes it the old-fashioned way: when you
earn it. He’s not a big guy, this Dirk Neal, but he’s tough, extremely competent
and ethical. He shoes horses, fixes flats, coordinates the guides and works
with the cook, personally detailing the myriad necessities of an involved operation.
He always is the first up and the last to bed. In another world, he`d be a
“This,” he told me, “is what I have always wanted to do.” It was tough doing; mid-September
hot weather with a full moon. The herd bulls had done their thing. With their ladies
gathered up, they pushed them into the deep cool canyons for the day, staying ahead of
challengers, real or otherwise. They didn’t want to fight, they wanted to play house. At first light,
everyone could get a bull or two to talk – a little bit.
The Mundy Ranch is 30,000 acres of sprawling broken country that got jerked
up and down a million or so years ago when the middle of the planet wanted to
get on top for awhile. From the top to the bottom of her ridges and canyons.
she`s as big a 30,000 acres as you can find anywhere. It is superb elk habitat
with plenty of elk.
Our tactics were simple: Chase ’em. try to get close before they got too deep.
before they shut up. It wasn’t working so well. We saw elk almost every morning;
sometimes, before daylight, from the pickups as we fumbled along fighting to
keep our heads from denting the roof or the cab. We’d see them in the
headlights, cream-colored ghosts, their rump patches bobbing like bouncing
balls crossing the dusty roads, heading down to the cool, safe canyons. We saw
them through our binoculars far below us, in the deep pockets as we tried to
catch up. They were there, we were here, different places at the same time,
too far apart It is typical steep mountain elk hunting.
There were, of course, the “almosts.” If we had just gone to the right instead
of the left. If I hadjust been ten feet farther up the trail with an arrow nocked,
lf, if, if…The story of a bowhunter’s life afield breaks down so concisely to
that simple little word. Dry, hard-to-hunt, noisy terrain effectively reduces what
slim advantage a two legged predator has with elk. Taking it to them in the deep
canyons was an alluring, but impractical tactic. We tried it, some of us; it just didn’t work.
Spooked elk often go to another state, three states away. We tried stands along
major trails, established some blinds at waterholes. They produced a few elk,
cows and calves and a scrubby non- shooter bull or two. There was also a
chance of a lifetime for one hunter and guide to watch a cougar contemplate filling
its elk tag and a bear sighting here and there.
Elk hunting with a bow is usually rather tough work. I have been on an
easy elk hunt once or twice, hunts where the gentler country made it seem easier,
I suppose. When conditions are rough and the country seems tougher, you
really have only two options. You can keep pushing, or you can quit. We
pushed hard in the mornings before the clean cool of night washed away in the
rising thermals. Midday was spent in horizontal contemplation, some practice
shooting and the constant re-honing of broadheads.
Chavez Creek, near camp, was ankle-deep low at the end of a brutal summer.
yet amazingly full of gorgeous brook trout colored up for fall spawning. They
were mixed with a hearty abundance of native rainbows, deep green-backed
speckled beauties that took any fly or spinner tossed in their directions, if you
were clever enough not to spook them on the approach. It was comfortable
diversion, with palatable rewards, I like trout, minutes old, fresh from clean-
running water. George Bennett and Holt are excellent fishermen; I can catch one
on occasion and the cook handled the rest.
We all had bulls and areas picked out now. Each hunter sat in hunkered, quiet
conversations with his guide, speaking in serious tones, thinking, planning, wondering
what to do, how to do it. Everyone prayed for a weather break: for rain
to dampen the woods, for cold weather to stimulate activity, for anything to break
the ninety-degree days and popcorn woods; something that would keep the bulls
on top long enough to get to them.
We got a little break on the fifth day. Low clouds swept the higher ridges with
damp fog, thick enough for make-believe rain. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
Bennett, Neal and I were together, easing through aspen groves suddenly silent
in the damp. It was a different world now, thick cool air, quiet footing. A bull
answered Neal’s challenge. A bull we realized was coming, coming hard.
What a morning! What a fine big bull! He came close, straight below us in a
thicket of pines. We could see him, some of him, raking his antlers, grunting, all
mud-splattered and stinky. We couldn’t shoot; there was no opening.
He was so close. He tired of waiting for the challenger, finally crossing an open-
ing at forty yards. He stopped and I looked, as the arrow flashed from my
bow. It was beautiful, all over, perfect, until the last millisecond when the whisper-
ing shaft touched the ever-present intervening twig to nose dive below his chest.
I’ll be honest. I wanted to scream, to kick a tree, to hit something It was tough trying
to be cool. I just didn’t want to believe it It has happened too
There is nothing to do about it I was not about to quit. Now, here it was, the last day.
It was still damp, no fog, but cool. It was clear with a positive breeze to work through.
We struck the bull on the first call. The bull helped. He bawled, giving us direction and
distance, as best distance can be determined in timber and draws.
At the base of a tiny open finger ridge bordered on each slope by heavy timber,
we split up, Bennett to the left, me to the right. I slipped forward, surging to an
adrenalin rush, arrow nocked, ready, blessing the damp, quiet footing. Neal’s guttural
bawl ripped the stillness, punctuated by raking a ball bat sized branch along a scrubby pine.
“Press I whispered, “press him, press him. Oh, wow!” He was here. making no effort to
be subtle. He came to the pressure as huge black and tan glimpses passed through
openings in the timber. I had impressions of ivory-tipped antlers. I had no idea what
he would score and I didn’t care. There were six clean points to a side, I could see that and it
was enough. A bull elk coming in above you, forty degrees uphill and thirty
yards with a head full of antlers, looks every bit big enough He stopped, his
sides heaving with deep grunts as I stepped around a tree. I had the Hoyt
Pro Force Extreme at full draw, shooting him before I knew I was really going
to do it
I thought for awhile, sitting by the bull and the next day, while Bennett and Holt
were out running a bear with Neal, that maybe now I would hunt elk only
occasionally. I would not be so caught up in wanting a big one. It was not that
this one was really so big; he was just big enough for me. I know better, though.
I’ll have to go again. Holt still needs his chance and I want to be there when he
gets it. George Bennett wants to go back. My other sons will want to hunt elk. My
grandsons, if they are lucky, will want the chance. You can only push or quit. I
know I really won’t quit.
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