Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Only in New Mexico!

In my post on my New Mexico Elk hunt, I mentioned that something went down on the night before the opening day of the season that I would expand on later. Well, I’m finally getting back to that.

After scouting that afternoon I was tired and we decided on a 3:30 AM wake up call so we tried to go to bed around 9:00 PM that night. Of course my head was filled with thoughts of the 350 class bull we had seen and the key thing for me was that I “tried” to sleep. I just couldn’t get my mind to quit racing so for the most part I was just lying there hoping to maybe get some sleep before the alarm rang.

Somewhere around 10:00 or so I heard some folks in one of the other campsites arguing. I didn’t think much of it other than I wished they would be quiet and go to bed so I might be able to get some sleep. A little while later they fire up a generator and I can hear them arguing again, but after a little while they shut the generator off and seemed to quiet down. I didn’t look at my clock so my timeline is probably off, but around midnight they started shooting off fireworks! Insanity!

I got out of bed and looked out the window of the trailer and was surprised to see flames about 20 feet in the air over at their campsite! The first thing I thought of was whether or not I needed to get the truck hooked up to the trailer and get it moving out of there, but the wind was fairly calm and actually blowing away from us so it looked like we were pretty safe. Ben got up (I think he had actually been asleep unlike me) and we watched the fire for a while and tried to figure it out. Somewhere in there we heard an explosion and the flames were even higher. A few more small explosions and the fireworks are still going off and I decided that some of the juniper trees must have caught on fire and the popping noise was knots in the wood as it burned. About that time the campground manager got over there with his forest service truck with a tank of water and started spraying it all down. He didn’t seem to be very aggressive in getting in close with the hose and we figured out why when we heard even a bigger explosion that had to have been a propane tank. Then we figured out that it was a travel trailer that was on fire, not a juniper tree!

We watched for a while longer, but I was tired and the alarm was less than 4 hours away so I went back to bed. I heard the campground manager make a trip for a second tank of water but it seemed that things were pretty much under control. An hour or so after the fire started a couple fire trucks arrived, but the fire was already out by then thanks to the campground manager and his forest service truck. Somewhere in there I finally did get some sleep, but it sure didn’t feel like it when the alarm went off at 3:30 AM.

We left camp in the dark and got back to camp in the dark for the next couple days so we didn’t know what had actually happened. I hadn’t ever worried about our trailer burning down before, but it got me thinking about the propane heater, propane fridge, propane water heater, stove, oven, etc. and wondered how the fire could have started. I came up with about a dozen different ways the fire could have started but never had a chance to find out.

After I shot my bull and we were waiting around camp for the packers to come back with it, we had a chance to talk to the campground manager and find out the story. It is so unbelievable that I had a hard time believing it, but there is a saying that I’ve used many times that seems to apply here. “Only in New Mexico.”

The folks at the campsite next to us were two brothers and two of their friends. The campground manager knew them and said they were a pretty rough crowd. Evidently when they got to arguing, he snuck over in the trees around their campsite to see what they were up to and make sure they didn’t get too far out of hand. I have no idea how much alcohol they consumed, but I’m guessing it was a lot!

This is the story that the campground manager told us. I have no reason to not believe what he said, there may be a few holes in the story, but that could be as much of my recollection of the story as anything else. I’ve been checking the Ruidoso News website to see if there is a story on this, but the website is a bit out of date and so far nothing similar has been posted.

Evidently the two brothers ended up getting into a heated argument. From what the campground manager said, this wasn’t anything new. What was new was that this time the argument escalated out of control. At one point in the argument one of the brothers pulls a gun to shoot his brother. One of the friends sees this and knocks the pistol out of his hand. The brother that pulled the gun then reaches down and pulls a knife and swings out and cuts his brother’s throat! Thankfully the cut wasn’t deep enough to cut the jugular, but according to the camp manager it required 28 stitches to close.

So the friends come to the brother’s aide that just had his throat cut and proceed to beat the brother that did the throat cutting senseless. Evidently the brother that had his throat cut was still okay enough to get in some punches and kicks and the brother that did the throat cutting ended up in worse shape than the one that got his throat cut. Missing teeth, etc. After beating him senseless, the friends and the brother with the throat cut jumped in a truck and headed down the mountain and ended up at the hospital to get medical attention for the cut throat.

The brother that was left who did the throat cutting, evidently wasn’t down for too long because according to the campground manager he proceeded to get up, grab a 5 gallon can of gasoline, soak the travel trailer with it and light it on fire! I’m not sure exactly what the campground manager was doing here and didn’t think to ask him, but I’m assuming that the gun was still around there somewhere and I’m not sure I would want to confront someone who had just pulled a gun on his brother and then cut his throat.

The brother then jumped in his truck and headed down the mountain leaving a travel trailer ablaze behind him.

The rest of the night unfolded as we had seen, the big difference was that the fire was by no means and accident. The fireworks that we had heard was ammo exploding in the fire. It must have been several hundred rounds popping off over the course of the fire.

Talking with a few different folks, we really weren’t in that much danger from the ammo exploding as the bullet needs the barrel to really gather enough pressure to go somewhere and do some damage. Without the chamber of the barrel it might hurt you if you are within a few feet of it, but we were probably 50 yards away and not in too much danger. We couldn’t find any evidence that the trailer or the pickup were hit by any flying debris.

Still nothing in the news, but talking to the campground manager, even if the brother who got his throat cut and his trailer burned down won’t press charges against his brother they are going to pursue charges against him for reckless endangerment for starting a huge fire in the middle of a national forest service campground were 30 or more people were staying that night. If things had gone differently and the wind had picked up it could have gotten out of hand really quickly and put everyone in the campsite at risk.

We took a couple pictures of the burned up trailer. It was a really nice 5th wheel trailer and I had actually thought about going over and talking with those guys that afternoon before we headed off to get some scouting in. In retrospect I’m pretty happy I kept my distance. Not much left of the trailer.

I think some of the smaller explosions were heard were the tires and maybe the generator. It really is amazing that none of the trees around the campsite caught on fire, the flames were at least 20 feet tall.

Not much that was even identifiable let alone salvageable.

So that was our first night in camp! You can’t say that it was uneventful that’s for sure!


Monday, November 8, 2010

2010 New Mexico Mule Deer.

Well I’m back from New Mexico with a nice mature mule deer. This was an interesting hunt because I really wasn’t sure what my expectations were on what kind of deer I was willing to shoot. I usually go into a hunt with an idea of what size of animal it is going to take to get me to pull the trigger, but after putting all my focus on my elk hunt this year, I really hadn’t had much time to think about my mule deer hunt.

I stayed at my friend’s farm like I did last year, but this year since I had a public land tag and they were going to be hunting there place I decided to hunt on the neighbor’s state land instead of hunting on their place. I logged a lot of miles on my gps and saw lots of deer, but no real monsters. There should be some pretty good hunting for several years to come based on the number of good young bucks that I saw though.

Opening day was Saturday and I spent most of it walking. I hadn’t scouted out the area I was going to hunt and based on my interpretation of the hunting regulations I’m not sure I really could scout that area because it is state leased lands, so I slept in until 6:00 AM and started walking just a few minutes before shooting light. I was a little worried about my feet because of the blisters from the elk hunt, but I bought some new inserts for my boots that seem like they are really going to help and I had the bottom of my feet nearly covered in moleskin and they held up really well. It really was amazing how much easier it was to hike at 4,000 feet elevation instead of 8,000 feet and on some nice up and down sand hills instead of loose steep mountains. I put in more miles that day than any day on my elk hunt and I never felt out of breath or like I needed to stop and rest to keep from having a heart attack! I ended up putting in 16 miles in 2 days per my gps, but it wasn't anything compared to the elk hunt last week.

Saw one nice shooter buck on Saturday, but didn't get the deal closed on him. Saw 30+ does and fawns that morning along with 12 bucks and saw 13 does and fawns and 2 bucks in a different area that evening. A couple of the bucks were tempting in the 150" maybe 160" class that I could have shot, but they were pretty easy to pass on opening day. The buck I wanted to shoot, but couldn't close the deal on was probably pushing 180" as a clean mainframe 5x5 with good deep forks and around 28" wide. Not super tall, but a real nice deer.

The daughter of the people who are letting me park my travel trailer on their farm killed a crazy looking buck with a massive spike on one side that measured 9" circumference at the base today. I helped them quarter it up and get it iced down in a cooler. I'm going to use my beetles to clean the skull for her so she can do a European mount on it.

On Sunday I decided that I needed to leave out earlier so I could have the sun come up to my back instead of hunting into the sun so I set my alarm for 5:00 AM which was 4:00 AM with the daylight savings change. I was out walking in the dark at about 4:30 and got a little over 2 miles in before it started getting close to shooting light. I got to the top of the nearest sandhill and watched for a while. I saw some bucks about 600 yards off and a couple of them were fighting pretty good, not just your normal sparring match. I decided to move in on them and get a closer look. A few route changes here and there and I was less than 200 yards and watching them. Turned out they were the same 3 bucks that I had seen the day before in almost the same location. One of them was a really nice 5x5 that was tall, but not very wide yet. He will be a really nice buck next year if he makes it. The other two were wider but one was a 3x4 and the other was a 3x3. I watched them for a while and decided to try my luck elsewhere.

Since those bucks were in the same spot as the day before I decided to go back where I had seen the shooter buck the day before. I saw a few does on the way and another nice 5x5 that needed another year. I happened to watch him going into some brush to bed down and even though I saw him go in there it took me a while to find him again once he bedded down. I was around 100 yards away from him and he ended up bedding down with his back to me and his face into the wind which I thought was odd.

I altered my route to go around where he was bedded so I didn’t blow him out and spook anything else and instead blew out 5 does that were on the other side of the hill. Some of the does and fawns seem to just stop and stare at you from 50 yards away and then slowly move off, but these didn’t like something and one blew pretty hard even though I was downwind from them. They moved off 400 yards or so and stopped then slowly moved off. As I was watching them I saw a nice buck with deep forks. I backed up to the other side of the hill and started moving around it. I had to go closer to the buck that had bedded down, but if I blew him out he would go away from where the nice buck I saw was. He stayed put and I moved around and found that there wasn’t just one buck where the does had gone by, but two. Both looked pretty good.

I watched for a while and ranged them and they were 286 yards off. The first one I had seen had nice deep forks and was a very pretty 5x5. A few of his tines almost looked like they were webbed together at the bottom of the forks. He was right at his ears on his inside spread and overall a pretty nice buck. Probably right at 160”. The other buck was noticeably bigger and older and looked crazy tall. His fronts weren’t much, and I never did get to see him turn his head enough to get an idea of his spread, but I was going to struggle to decide which of these bucks deserved a bullet.

After watching a while I decided that I could back out and get closer to them. I went back around the hill and ended up walking within 30 yards of where the first buck was bedded down. I kept expecting him to bust out of there like a freight train, but he never did. The brush he was bedded in was really thick and I never did actually see him in the brush as I walked by, but I sure never saw him leave and am pretty sure he was in there the entire time.

I ended up on another hill and this time I was right at 200 yards away from the 2 bucks. I probably watched them for 15 minutes this time and still had no clue which one I wanted to shoot. The younger 5x5 was dozing hard and his head would droop down as he dozed off into la la land. One thing I thought was interested was how close together they were bedded. They couldn’t have been more than a couple feet apart from each other using the same piece of sagebrush for shade. I debated on blowing a cow call or something to see if I could get them to stand up for a shot and ended up deciding that I was going to try to move in closer. They were bedded down for the duration and weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

I backed out and went around the side of the hill and started moving in on them. When I was up on the hill I made sure I had the spot they were at identified so I would be able to get about 100 yards away and decide what I wanted to do once I was there, but as I moved over toward them, the sandhill ridges started looking all alike. I started to second guess myself and which ridge they should be on when the younger 5x5 stood up about 25 yards away from me. After a split second, he turned and ran straight away and then the older buck stood and ran all in one smooth motion without offering me a shot when he first stood up. Somewhere in there I decided I wanted to shoot the older buck even if he wasn’t going to score as well as the younger one.

They were both running almost dead away from me, but then they angled just a little bit to the left and I thought I had an opening to squeeze a shot in. It was about a 100 yard shot and I took the shot offhand. I recovered from the shot and cycled the bolt and looked down a split second for my brass, and when I looked up I didn’t see him. The younger buck was still out ahead and I cow called with my diaphragm and he stopped and turned broadside at 150 yards and stared at me. I kept scanning for the older buck, but he had disappeared. After what seemed like a minute the younger buck started off again and I headed after them. I saw a white patch in the sagebrush, but it didn’t look like a deer so I was still thinking I must have missed and the older buck must have cleared on out before the younger one somehow. As I got closer, the white spot looked like a deer’s nose and sure enough, it was the older buck, piled up in the sagebrush. He was down for the count.

The bullet had entered his left side just in front of his hindquarter. I looked for an exit in his front but couldn’t find one. When I caped him out I found my bullet right under the skin in front of his right shoulder. It turned out to be a perfect (lucky) shot and he must have dropped so fast that I never saw it happen. You could see that he had plowed up some sagebrush as he fell, and actually ended up almost on his back with his nose up in the air and his antler caught in one last clump of sage.

I wasn’t disappointed when I got to him. He was for sure a mature buck and although he wasn’t going to score very well, I was happy with him. His backs go almost straight up and look even taller than they really are. His is missing an eye guard and a fork on his right side, but I can live with that. I’m curious to pull his jawbone and see what it looks like. I’m guessing he is a 5 ½ year old or older.

Here are the glory pics. I learned my lesson last year on the self timed pictures and actually made sure the camera was focusing on the deer and not on a clump of grass in front of the camera this time.

Here he is by himself.
And a timed shot using my backpack as a tripod.

I caped him out and am going to give the cape to my taxidermist and do a european mount on him myself. The deer in that area are the fattest game animals I’ve ever seen. This guy had about 2” of fat on his back and you basically had to skin the fat off to get to his backstraps to cut them out. They are big bodied animals as well. I’m guessing this guy was pushing 250lbs live weight.

I had right at 1 ¼ miles to pack him out and instead of killing myself I went ahead and did it in 2 loads. First load was ½ the meat plus my gun and everything I had in my pack (including a spotting scope), and then on the second trip I emptied out my pack and carried out the head and the other ½ of the meat. My friend came with me on the 2nd trip and although she didn’t help carry anything she was there for moral support and took some pictures of my packing out.

Here's a farther off shot showing some of the terrain.

That country doesn’t look like much, but it sure is packed with deer.

Here’s a tailgate shot with the results of the weekend. The buck on the right is the crazy buck that the daughter of my friend shot on the first day. I nicknamed him “Igor”. The one on the left was shot by my friend’s brother. Real nice mainframe 5x5 with a kicker coming off his right G3. It scored right at 164”. My buck is in the middle and rough scored only 144”, but you can see that he looks to be the biggest of the bunch at first glance. I’m happy with him and I guess that’s the important thing.

This morning we took our traditional glory shots at the house with Eli. He thought it was a big one. I can’t wait for the days when he can go out with me on these hunts!

I was going to dress him in jeans this morning to take the pictures, but he was adamant that he wanted to be in all camo.

Overall a very successful hunt in my opinion. If I can close the deal on a nice whitetail on my hunting property here in Texas it will be pretty hard to top this year’s hunting season even with striking out on antelope.

That's it for now. Nathan

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Successful New Mexico Elk Hunt!! (Novel)

Well, I’m been thinking about how I’m going to post this for a few days now and still really haven’t figured it out. Lots of stories to tell and not sure if I should put it all in one huge post or try to break it up into several different ones. I guess once I got it written it ended up mainly as one huge post. Believe it or not I still have a few stories to add to this, but I’ll do that later.

The area we were hunting is a limited entry area like all of New Mexico for elk. Only a certain number of tags are drawn each year and I was lucky enough to draw one of those tags this year. The first thing that you notice in the area we were hunting was that there were elk everywhere. I think the fewest elk we counted on any day that we were out hunting or scouting was 30. On the day that I shot my bull we saw 6 other bulls that were 5x5 or better. Amazing how many elk were in the area.

The other noticeable feature about the area we were hunting was that it was ROUGH. The day I shot my bull we were a little over 4 miles back and that might not sound like much, but trust me, it was! The terrain was very steep, but it was also loose and you were constantly slipping and trying not to fall down. There was also cactus of every type imaginable up there and you were getting poked by some cactus somewhere on your body about every 3rd step it seemed. My shins, hands and forearms look like I tangled up with a wild cat there are so many cuts, scratches and bruises on them. Even with my fancy new boots I struggled with blisters and ended up with blisters the size of silver dollars on the balls of both of my feet. Both heels had visible white hot spots about the size of a silver dollar that never ended up turning all the way into blisters and one of my big toes had a blister on it as well when it was all said and done. I sure hope I can get these boots figured out and that they will last a long time once I do get them figured out.

I was nervous and apprehensive about this hunt, mainly because of the tremendous numbers of unknowns involved. The first step that we had to deal with was finding a good camping spot. I had found a nice forest service campground right where I wanted to be, but most of the sites were setup for tent camping and not a travel trailer. There are something like 18 total campsites, but only 4 or 5 of them are big enough to park even our small travel trailer in. I left the house at 6:30 AM Friday morning and picked up my friend Ben who had actually volunteered to go with me. I was hoping to get to the campsite early enough to get a decent spot and when we pulled it at just after noon, we were happy to find out that there was still a few nice spots left and the one we were assigned to was actually the one that I would have chosen if all the other spots in the campsite were available. The first step on the journey was a success.

We ate lunch and the plan was to go up to where I was planning on being on opening morning and getting some waypoints set on my GPS so we would be able to get back where I wanted to be in the dark the next morning. Up the mountain we went and although I was in a little better shape than the last time I went up that particular slope in August, it still kicked my butt. We didn’t see any really fresh sign, but when we got to where I wanted, we saw our first elk of the trip. 5 different spikes and a raghorn were bedded on the north facing slope right where they were supposed to be, the problem is that none of their dads or older brothers had read the books and had decided they should be somewhere else. We got our spot marked on the GPS and went on up the mountain a bit and looked over on the reservation and saw the dads and older brothers. I didn’t keep a count of elk that we saw on the reservation side of the boundary, but it was a lot. Dozens. Saw one really nice bull and he was intent on one thing and one thing only, feeding. I bugled and cow called a few times and got immediate responses from bulls on the reservation each time. Either I got them riled up or they got themselves riled up, because even after I quit bugling, they kept on going. Except the big bull. He never looked up from feeding when I bugled or when one of the bulls over on the reservation with him bugled. He had more important things on his mind, like feeding.

After watching and listening to the elk on the reservation for a while and realizing that they were not going to even think about coming our way, we decided we should head back to camp. It had gotten a little bit later than we thought and we were going to have to hoof it to get back before dark. We started down the mountain and were marking a few more spots on the GPS on the way down and after seeing a few elk that turned into rocks after looking at them with binoculars I spotted a really nice bull about 700 yards on the other side of finger ridge we were on. We setup and looked him over pretty good and there was no doubt he was the bull I wanted to shoot if I could. We had plenty of distance between us and the reservation boundary and he was the bull of my dreams, literally. I’m a sucker for the big whale tails and that’s exactly what this guy had. Looking through the spotting scope I couldn’t keep my eyes off his 12” 5’s and his main beams ran probably 18” past his 5’s and downward toward his back. We watched him for 15 or 20 minutes and he was all by himself feeding hard. Light was fading and I tried to get a few pictures of him but didn’t get any that turned out very well at all. We hadn’t planned on being on the mountain at dark and I didn’t bring my headlamp or much else and we decided we better get moving. We didn’t beat the dark getting off the mountain and stumbling back into camp after dark ended up becoming a recurring theme for the rest of the hunt.

Here’s the best picture I got of him through the binoculars as light was fading. Not much of a picture, but it’s all I have.

We ate a quick supper and went to bed around 9:00 with our alarms set to 3:30 AM and planned to be headed up the mountain in the dark at 4:00. That would get us on a vantage point where we should be able to see the bull and make a move on him as he came back up the mountain to his bed the next morning. Needless to say I couldn’t sleep. I was tired for sure after getting up at before 6:00 AM and driving 5 ½ hours and then hiking up and down the mountain, but that bull was in my head. His 4’s were really nice as well, but I realized I never even looked at his fronts I was so focused on his backs. I decided that he was for sure a 340”er and realistically could be up around 360” or maybe even a little bigger. I replayed everything in my head dozens of times trying to decide exactly what the best way to go after him in the morning.

After a sleepless and eventful night (I’ll save that for another post), I might have gotten an hour of sleep before the alarm went off at 3:30. We were headed up the mountain at 4:00 as planned and did pretty well hiking the steep loose slope in the dark. We were at the spot we had decided on the night before a full hour before shooting light. We ditched the spot I had planned on being on opening morning for the last 3 months the second we saw the big bull in a different spot. The next hour crawled by and we ate some breakfast that we had thrown in our packs before we headed up. Shooting light was just around the corner and we repositioned a little to get the best vantage point of the area we had seen the bull the night before and get as close as possible without giving up the wind or our elevation. Shooting light came and went and then sunrise came and went and there was no bull to be found. No elk to be found. We had heard some other hunters on horseback moving up the trail at the bottom of the canyon and originally thought that would work to our advantage and that they might push them up to us, but it didn’t appear that was going to happen.
After waiting around a while longer we decided to head up to another spot and see what else was going on. We moved over near the spot I had originally planned on being on opening morning and saw some elk. Saw a small bull and either a cow or a spike way down in the bottom moving up and then saw a group of 6 bulls right on the reservation boundary. They were on our side of the boundary but just barely and it would have been really tricky too keep them on the right side of the boundary once the shooting started. They were about 600 yards off and the best bull of the bunch was a 6x5 that would probably go 270ish. After watching them for a while and trying to figure out where they were going to go we decided to push on.

As we were moving we heard a real low growly bugle maybe a couple hundred yards off on the reservation side of the ridge. We hunkered in and setup and waited to see what was going to happen. A few minutes later a spike comes through a saddle at 65 yards and a minute or so later a raghorn moves through in the same exact spot. After a few minutes I got impatient and make a few cow calls and the bull did the growly bugle again in about the same spot we had heard him originally. 30 minutes later and still no bull and I cow called again and didn’t get a response. 15 minutes later I heard some of the wild horses neigh in close to the same spot and they didn’t come over the saddle either. I thought we were okay on the wind, but up on the top of the ridge it was swirling around a little and in retrospect they must have been able to catch our scent at some point. After waiting a little while longer I moved around a bit and saw some wild horses a good ½ mile off on the reservation side of the boundary. I’m guessing that’s where the growly bull ended up as well. As usual there were at least a dozen elk over on the reservation. I didn’t see any huge bulls and didn’t see the bull from the night before over there but my gut feel says that’s exactly where he was.

Off we went again, up and up. We had heard a few shots by that time but not as many as I would have thought. Talking with the campground host the day before he said there were 2 other bull tags and 2 cow tags in camp but that was around noon and the campground had filled up quite a bit later that afternoon and evening. Across the canyon to the north we saw about 15 elk with one decent bull in it but they were close to a mile away and the main trail was between us and them so I figured even if we went after them someone else would get there first so we just watched them for a bit and then moved on. I was still thinking there was a chance we might see my bull somewhere. Did I mention that we were moving up? Did I mention that it was steep and loose? Well it was, and we kept going. We got right up against the reservation boundary for a while and actually had to move off the top of the ridge to stay off the reservation.

Here’s a picture I took of the only sign I saw showing the boundary. Thankfully my GPS showed a clear line where the boundary was so I didn’t have to rely on the signs.

What had looked like a good vantage point on the map and on google earth turned out to be a little too thick to see very well, but it turned into a decent place to eat lunch and take a nap. Sleep still eluded me, but Ben got some. I got antsy and moved around some. Saw a small Muley buck and heard some more wild horses but didn’t see them. Went back over to where we had eaten lunch and did see a pretty good bull somewhere around 300” maybe a little better, but he was ½ mile away with a big canyon between us and the way the reservation boundary was where we were at we would have to drop pretty much all the way down and then back up to get to him. He looked like he was heading to a north facing slope to bed, but with the distance that we would have to cover and then the uncertainty of whether we could find him once we got there as well as the fact that the wind was wrong helped us decide not to go after him. Plus I was still thinking about the big bull we had seen on Friday night and wanted to be back there when it got closer to evening.

We decided to head back that way and got to another vantage point where we could see the area the big bull had been on Friday night and settled in. I posted a quick update on my hunt adventure challenge thread from my phone and checked and saw that Texas Tech was getting beat and tried to conjur up that big bull from my dreams. The wind was pretty gusty and one minute it would be blowing up the canyon and then the next minute it would be blowing down the canyon so I’m sure that wasn’t helping anything. On the way over to where we were going to sit we found a couple decent sheds from this spring and that was surprising. I found a decent 5 point shed really close to the top of the ridgeline where anyone walking the ridge should have seen it. Ben found a nice 6 point shed a little farther off the ridgeline when he looked around a little thinking he might find the other side of my shed. The crazy thing is that I had walked the same ridge in August and didn’t see either of them.

Somehow I got mixed up on the time difference and decided we needed to start heading off the mountain an hour early. We started heading down the ridgeline again and I found 2 more nice sheds. They were laying right beside each other and I’m pretty sure they are a matched set. One of them has a really neat abnormal point that I’ve never seen on an elk before. I realized that I’d messed up on the time when sunset came and went based on what time I thought it was, and the sun was still up! We decided to hang out on the ridge a little while longer thinking we might see something come out to feed, but we didn’t see anything else. Here’s the sheds packed up and ready to head down the mountain.

At sunset we started heading off the mountain and realized we probably should have started earlier. It was less than ½ mile from where we were to the trail back to camp, but it took over an hour to make it down there. This was probably the steepest and loosest slope we were on the entire time we were out there. Mix in some deadfall and packs weighed down with sheds and tired legs and rapidly approaching darkness and we were VERY happy when we got to the trail for the last mile back into camp. It was after dark and that was the first time we had stepped on a trail the entire day. We ended up getting back to camp around 7:30 and ate a quick supper and were in bed by 9:00 again.

The sheds were a nice bonus, but I was pretty disappointed that we hadn’t seen hide or hair of the big bull from Friday. Somewhere in there we had heard a barrage of shots down in the canyon below us that seemed to go on forever, at least 8 or 9 shots over a 5 minute span, and I’m sure that didn’t help the big guy stick around if he was still anywhere near. If I had more patience and if I had been in better shape I might have decided to stick it out and keep looking for him in the same area each day, but we decided to try a different spot on Sunday a little farther away from the reservation boundary. It was pretty frustrating seeing elk only to know you couldn’t go after them. We also decided that we were going to have a hard time keeping up the same pace for 4 more days and maybe we needed to think about a less strenuous day. Since we were going to an area that we hadn’t been and didn’t have any GPS coordinates marked there was no point in getting there in the dark so we decided to sleep in and set our alarms for 4:30 AM. After a little bit chores around camp and a light breakfast we were on the trail in the dark at 5:15. Shooting light found us about 2 ½ miles down the trail right about where we had hoped to be.

There was a nice ridgeline that looked like the place to be for a good vantage point so we started up. After getting to the first knob, we looked a little and decided we needed to go higher so we started up again. We sat for a minute and ate some more breakfast and I spotted a few cows about 300 yards below us on the south facing slope. We had noticed that the day before that in the mornings the elk were on the south facing slopes feeding into the morning and then moving either down and over the north facing slopes to bed or moving over the top of the south facing slope to bed on the other side of the ridge. I hung around a little bit thinking that the 3 cows might be part of a larger group and a bull might come up after them but something below them got their attention and they moved off.

After waiting a bit the recurring theme started playing out and we headed on up the ridge. As we were heading up I happened to look behind us and saw the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen in the wild. At first glance I thought it was a grizzly with a shoulder hump and the whole works. It was a dark brown color and fully furred out for winter and about as fat as a bear can get I would think. I’m pretty sure that’s what the elk had seen and I understood their desire to move out seeing him. He was actually following the same path we had taken up the ridge so that kept our attention checking our backs for a while, but he must have decided to go another direction because we never saw him again.

So, up the ridge we went. We found a nice spot to sit and glass and the mountain was alive with elk. We saw several way down in the bottom but they all appeared to be cows or spikes, then we saw a group of about 15 above us about ½ mile and they had one decent bull in with them. Then we saw another bull on our side of the ridge and he looked pretty decent as well. We also spotted another black bear and this was a sow with 2 cubs. After watching a while, there was another bull with the larger group of elk and he was for sure worth a closer look. With a little added spring in our step we started up the ridgeline again. We hit a big rock outcropping and had to decide how to tackle it. There was a fairly established game trail going around it on the same side of the ridge that we had seen all the elk but I was worried they might see us and decide to move out so I started us around the other side of the outcropping.

A few hundred yards of that and it was pretty easy to see why the established game trail went around the other side. Lots of rocks, lots of cactus and brush and not much in the way of an easy way anywhere around on that side of the ridge, but we pushed on. We’d made some pretty good progress and were getting fairly close to where it was time to start thinking about going back up on the top of the ridgeline when we spotted some more elk on this side of the canyon. First we saw 3 bulls and they all looked pretty decent then we spotted another bull a little closer and he was for sure a decent 6x6. They were about 1,000 yards away, but there wasn’t any real cover to help us put a sneak on them. They were very focused on feeding and seemed oblivious to us so we decided to just press on and move as quietly as we could.

We got to the top of the ridgeline and make some pretty quick progress out of sight of the group of bulls and dropped back over thinking we should be getting fairly close. We’d gotten closer, but we could only find 1 bull now and he was still 600 yards away. The side of the ridge was even rockier, steeper and had more cactus and brush than before, but we decided to just go after him. Originally I thought about leaving Ben there to keep watch on the bull so if he moved off he could tell me where he went as I put a stalk on him, but as we were trying to figure out what we wanted to do the bull started moving and went behind some trees. We decided to both move closer and try to keep an eye on the bull if he moved off.

We ended up dropping into a little trough and then back up on a finger ridge and thought that would put us right where we wanted to be. The wind was still decent, but the forecast was for it to switch from the west and that would be bad if it did so we didn’t want to give them the chance to wind us and move out if we could help it. We snuck up on the top of the finger expecting to see our bachelor group of elk waiting for us and were greeted by nothing. As the way it goes with hunting so many times, you work hard on getting where you think you want to be only to find out that the animals had a different plan than you did. Dejected we sat down and started thinking about our next move.

There were still at least 3 bulls on the other side of the big ridgeline from us that were definitely an option. They might have had a chance to bed by then, but 2 of them were with a pretty good group of cows and surely we would be able to find them if we tried. The bad part of that plan was that we had dropped several hundred feet of elevation coming down to the finger ridge thinking we were stalking the bachelor group of bulls and we had that plus several hundred feet more to climb back over the top of the ridge.

I was about to pull some comfort food out of my pack when two 5x5 bulls came out of the trees 300 yards away from us, right where they were supposed to be! We were sitting pretty much out in the open on the finger ridgeline, but they seemed oblivious to us. We looked them over pretty good and they were both decent 5x5’s, but neither were the 300” 6x6 minimum that I had set for myself. Even with the minimum I had set for myself I was thinking about shooting one of these bulls. It wasn’t like we weren’t seeing any elk, we were seeing tons of elk, and it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen any good bulls, we had seen a great bull and a couple other pretty good ones, but when it came down to it, I was tired and wondering if I could take this for another 3 days. There is also a big difference in seeing a bull 800 yards away and having one right there in shooting range. I also thought that there had been 4 bulls in the area and for sure one of them was a 6x6 so I decided to go ahead and get closer and see if I could see one of the other bulls that we had seen from back on the ridgeline.

I grabbed my shooting sticks and my rifle and headed toward them. Ben stayed put this time where he could see them and pulled the video camera out to see if he could get a good video of them. They had started sparring a little and it was pretty neat just to watch them. I debated bringing my rangefinder, but for some reason left it and started putting on a stalk. With the bulls sparring and some pretty decent cover it wasn’t a very hard stalk. I got to about 200 yards away and setup the shooting sticks and got ready to make a decision. I kept my eyes open just in case I might see one of the other bulls and about the time I got setup I saw another bull up the canyon a couple hundred yards! I could see it was a good bull with my naked eye, but through the binoculars it was a definite 6x6, the same one we had seen earlier from up on the ridge. I quickly swung my rifle around and got my shooting sticks setup and got ready. I had just been seriously considering shooting a 270”ish 5x5 so there was no doubt in my mind that a 6x6 was on the list. I felt pretty steady and amazingly calm and squeezed off the first shot. The bull didn’t seem to move a muscle. I cycled the bolt and took aim and squeezed off another shot. The bull lurched forward and then stopped. I cycled the bolt, took aim and squeezed off another shot. The bull went down and he went down hard.

I’ve always been told that on an elk you keep shooting as long as they are standing even if you feel good about the shot, and then you stay ready to shoot again if they try to get back up. It was a good thing that my bull didn’t attempt to get back up because I had been foolish enough to leave the rest of my ammo with my pack a hundred yards up the finger ridge. I’m not sure if I was just that confident in my shooting or if I had doubts in the back of my mind on whether I would be willing to shoot one of the 5x5 bulls or what, but I should have never left the rest of my ammo in my pack, plus I should have at least put another cartridge in my magazine after chambering the first round before I started my stalk. Then I would have at least had 1 more shot if I had needed it. Hopefully that will be a lesson learned and I got away with it this time at least.

I started looking around for my casings and for some reason couldn’t find a bright silver casing right at my feet. After spending what seemed to be an eternity looking for my empty cases I gave up on finding the 3rd one and started heading up to where Ben and our packs were. I looked back over to where the two 5x5 bulls had been sparring as was surprised to see them standing there looking at me! I’d shot 3 times just a couple hundred yards away from them and they hadn’t run off. I sent a text to Ben that I’d shot a bull because from where he was sitting he couldn’t see down into the canyon where the bull I had shot was and didn’t know what I was shooting at. I got back to him and the two 5x5’s were just then deciding that they should probably move out, but even then they didn’t run off, but just walked quickly over the next finger ridge. I didn’t ever see the 4th bull of the group, but Ben thought he saw it move out right when I first started shooting. We never did get a spotting scope on that 4th bull so I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I know it wasn’t a monster so I’m not that worried about whether it might have scored a few inches more or less than the bull I ended up shooting.

After I got back to Ben I told him that I had shot a decent 6x6 and he hadn’t read my text yet so was wondering what was going on. With the first shot he had expected one of the 5x5’s we’d been watching to drop and then after the 2nd shot he figured out I was shooting at something else and then after the 3rd shot he was wondering if I was missing or what was going on. I sat and collected my thoughts for a bit and then we gathered up our packs and started over to where he had went down. I had watched him go down and he had rolled down the slope a bit but didn’t move afterwards so I didn’t think there was much of a point of waiting very long. Maybe 50 yards that direction and we could see him through a gap in the trees and he wasn’t moving so we knew everything was good.

Here’s a picture of the side of the finger ridge that he was on. If you know exactly where to look you can actually see him laying there in this picture, just a white spot about 1/3rd of the way from the left and about ¼ of the way from the bottom of the picture.

We dropped down into the little finger and climbed back up the other side and things hadn’t gotten any flatter just because we had a bull on the ground. If anything things may have gotten even steeper! Just climbing up the 50 or 60 yards out of the bottom to him was a chore, and even though he hadn’t moved an inch from where we had seen him last, it still took about 10 minutes to find him.

Here he is the way we found him. He had rolled down the slope about 10 or 15 yards and come to rest on this game trail. The large cut you see just under his right leg is from the fall, not from a bullet. He has a few scrapes on his antlers from the rocks, but it didn’t look like anything had broken off.

Anyone who has ever had an elk on the ground knows that is when the work starts. It’s hard to tell in the pictures, but where he ended up wasn’t exactly level ground. The game trail was almost like a ledge but we worked on getting him setup on the trail to take some pictures and start butchering him and it wasn’t going to work. There was another wider game trail a few yards below the one he ended up on so we ended up sliding/dragging/rolling him down to it. Even then it was still quite a chore just getting him setup to take pictures of and having a reasonably level spot to work on getting him quartered up. I’ve talked to people who have stories of having to tie the elk to a tree to keep it from sliding down the hill while they are quartering it and the only thing that kept us from having to do that was the game trail that we were able to get him on.

Here are the glory shots. You can get a feel for how steep it is by the fact that I’m a couple feet below him and Ben was several feet above us just to get the picture taken. If you look off to the right side of the picture you can see that it is nearly straight down over there.

Here he is from the front.

It quickly became evident that I had been deceiving myself when I had originally thought that I could handle this by myself. When I had shot my bull in Wyoming I had practiced moving it around a bit by myself and had done all the quartering and deboning and felt pretty good that I could handle it by myself. On a steep slope with a little larger bull it would have been a nightmare. I think I probably could have gotten him quartered up and deboned, but getting him caped out and keeping the meat clean would have been nearly impossible. Even with both of us it was work getting him moved around and flipping him over after we had the quarters and backstrap off the first side. I did struggle a little with keeping my knife sharp and that didn’t help, but I was VERY thankful to have Ben along to help! Even taking good pictures would have been difficult, we had a hard time getting a decent timed picture with both of us in there. This is the best one we were able to get.

Here’s Ben with the elk.

I had tentatively set some guidelines on whether we were going to try to pack the elk out if I got one or if we were going to hire someone to pack it out on horses for us. The guidelines I had set was that if I shot one less than a mile from camp then we were going to for sure pack it out. If I shot one between 1 and 3 miles from camp, it was going to be decided on a case by case scenario (how rough it was, how much the packer was going to charge, etc.), and if it was over 3 miles from camp then I was going to for sure hire it packed out. According to my GPS we were 4.31 miles in so one of the first things I did was start calling numbers I had of people that would pack out animals. My first call was at 10:30 AM about 1 minute after I saw my bull go down. The bad thing was that I kept getting voicemails and not actually getting a hold of anyone.

Regardless of who was going to do the packing out, the first order of business was getting him quartered up and caped out so we set to work. About 3 hours later (did I mention I was having a hard time keeping my knife sharp?) he was quartered up and caped out and pretty much ready to go. The bad thing is that I still hadn’t heard back from anyone on the pack out. In retrospect, I should have called beforehand and made arrangements for a potential pack out, but I had thought that would be presumptuous of me since the first order of business was actually getting a bull on the ground before lining up someone to pack him out, but after not connected with anyone after over 4 hours I started to get worried. I called a friend and got some more numbers and called all of them and left more voicemails with each number. I still had yet to actually talk with someone.

We needed to get the quarters up in a tree and away from the carcass so we Ben moved the quarters down in a cool shaded area about 100 yards from the carcass, while I spent the time on the phone trying to find a packer. Ben earned his keep there. A little time spent throwing rocks tied to ropes over tree branches (and then throwing rocks into trees to free up misplaced throws) and we had the quarters hung. They weren’t the best but it was as good as we could do with what we had. An item I probably need to add to my pack is a pulley. The rope over the tree limb created a lot of friction so when you tried pulling it up it wouldn’t go. I lifted then pushed them over my head while Ben pulled and we could get the quarters about 7 feet off the ground and that was going to have to do. If a bear really wanted them, it would be able to get to them, but we hoped that by moving them away from the carcass and getting them up off the ground that would at least make a bear have to work to get to them and for sure would keep any coyotes off of them. Here’s a picture of the quarters in the tree.

After still not hearing from anyone the plan became that Ben would pack out the backstraps, tenderloins and neck meat and I would pack out the head and cape that night and if we still hadn’t heard from anyone we would come back in the morning and start packing out the rest. The weather wasn’t too bad and it was supposed to get in the lower 40’s upper 30’s overnight so the meat would be fine from that perspective. I loaded up the head and cape on my pack and got ready to head out. When we got ready to hang the quarters I had to take my pack back off and to my surprise, the antlers made a pretty good pack stand.

I’m going to have to buy a scale to leave in the trailer to actually weigh some of these loads. The last time I caped out an animal I almost didn’t leave enough cape for the taxidermist so this time I wanted to make sure I left plenty and probably went overboard. With the cape and the head and the antlers along with my gun and everything else that was already in my pack I was for sure carrying a HEAVY load. On top of being heavy, it was awkward and wide with the antlers catching on every tree, brush and cactus on the way. The drainage we were in was steep and loose like everywhere we had been and the main goal continued to be to keep from falling down. Here’s a picture of me starting the packout with the head and cape.

I’d looked at a few other ways that folks had the heads on their packs, and the best way looked like the way I had it, but I needed something to keep the head straight up and the antlers straight down. I didn’t want to tie anything around the nose of the elk because I was afraid it would rub so I just left it like this. If it looks awkward, believe me, it was.

I pulled the trigger at 10:30 that morning and by the time we had everything hung and were actually packing out it was a little after 4:00. The going was rough and I was tired. I gave it my best effort and about ¼ mile down the drainage in some very rough and steep stuff, I made an executive decision that we were going to have to come back in the morning for the head and figure out how to get the rest out if we couldn’t find a packer. It was going to require more than 1 trip in and out if we were going to be packing it out so I decided I would rather carry it out in the morning on fresh legs than continuing on with tired legs and heading down an unknown drainage (we came in on the ridgeline) potentially in the dark at the rate I was going.

I found a tree that looked like it would work and we put the head up in the fork of the tree. It was about 6’ off the ground and I left my vest on it thinking that it would maybe keep a bear honest with the human scent. We tied it the best we could with the parachute cord I had in my pack and divided up the rest of the meat and headed on back to camp a whole world lighter! Here’s the head in the tree where we left it.

We were making good time then, but between going at a snails pace while I had the head and cape on my pack and finding a tree and getting the head secured in it, it was getting even closer to dark. I wasn’t really happy about leaving the head as it for sure had a higher risk of being bear food than the quarters did but I was hoping it would be okay. Probably 30 minutes later I finally get a call back from one of the packers I had left a message with only to find out that he is out of the state and can’t help me. He said he would try to find someone else for me, so I felt a little better having actually talked to a person.

Another mistake I made was not having enough water with me. I have a 3 liter hydration bladder and it has always been plenty in the past, but between the difficult terrain and the effort spent quartering up the elk I was completely out by the time we were headed down the mountain toward camp. It wasn’t a huge problem because we were just 2 or 3 hours from camp, but I sure was thirsty. As we got into the main part of the drainage we saw the welcome sight of running water. Things also started to flatten out and we even hooked up with a trail that turned out to be decent! About that time I got a call from another guy who said he could come and pack the meat out in the morning! Life was good! A few iodine tablets and 30 minutes later life was really good!

Here’s a picture of the creek bottom. It really was pretty with the sun going down. The bad part was that we were still over 3 miles from camp.

A couple hours later, and lots of whining on my part, we were back at camp a little after 8:00. My body was tired, but my feet were screaming. I guess I still haven’t figured out my fancy new boots because I ended up with 2 big blisters on the ball of each foot and on one of my big toes and both heals had visible hot spots the size of a silver dollar that hadn’t quite turned into blisters yet. I actually had mole skin on the balls of both feet on the 2nd day and I still ended up with blisters. As soon as we got back to camp I heard back from another one of the packers I had left a message with and they also said they could pack the meat out in the morning, and at quite a bit cheaper price than the first guy that had called back, but since I had already made a deal with the first guy I told them thanks but I already had it taken care of.

We sprung for our best dinner option that we had available which was soft tacos and ended up in bed around 10:00 after sending out messages and calling folks telling them about our success. The only problem was that I was still a little worried about the meat and the head back up on the mountain and hoping that everything would be okay come morning. Another sleepless night was ahead of me, but I think I managed 3 or 4 hours of sleep when it was all said and done.

I met the packers the next morning there at camp and gave them my GPS with the coordinates marked where the head and the quarters were. I had thought there was going to be one guy with 3 horses but it ended up being 2 guys, 2 horses and a small mule. They reassured me that everything would be fine and we made sure we had each other’s phone numbers and they head up the mountain to get the meat around 8:00. With nothing left for us to do, we headed into town to get a hot breakfast and buy some ice to have it ready when they got back.

After a good breakfast we got back to camp and started getting ready to head home. I asked the packers how long it would take them and they said 3 or 4 hours so I wanted to be ready to go when they got back. We got the truck hitched up to the trailer, everything sorted and organized and were pretty much ready to go around noon. Noon stretched into 1:00 then 2:00 and I started to get worried again. The campground host said that he thought that it was a mistake to left it up there overnight and everyone that he had seen do that had ended up with most of it eaten by bears so that didn’t help my anxiety any. I tried calling the packer at 2:00 but he didn’t answer his cell phone. We decided to go ahead and eat lunch and there wasn’t anything else we could do but wait.

Around 3:00 I heard hoof steps and some a cowboy clicking his tongue encouraging his horse to keep moving and I was very happy to see them coming into camp! I ran over to check it out and it looked like everything was fine. Here’s a picture of them coming into camp.

One thing for sure, hiring them to pack it out for me was worth every penny! A job that took them 7 hours on horses would have taken us at least 2 days to get it out. The horses were drenched in sweat and I felt pretty sorry for that little mule. I had thought they would divided the meat up a little and carry some of it out with the horses but that little mule carried all 4 quarters plus the head and cape! Here’s a picture of him as they came into camp.

We were pretty much all packed up and ready to go so we got the meat in the coolers, got the ice on it and we were head out within 10 or 15 minutes. I never did get a good picture of the campsite we were staying, but it really was a nice place. Here’s a picture of the back of the truck as we stopped to check on things on the way home that afternoon.

With the sheds back there and the antlers from my bull sticking way up out of the truck I thought we might get some waves or comments at the gas stations on the way home, but no one seemed to notice or care from I could tell. I was sure one happy hunter on the way home though!
Believe it or not after that novel, I still have some other stories to tell and I’ll try to get them posted soon.

That’s it for now if you made it this far! Nathan