Tuesday, December 16, 2014

2014 New Mexico Elk and Deer

New Mexico Elk and Deer – 2014

After what seemed like 2 epic hunts for me in Wyoming for my mountain goat and elk, I thought I had a few weeks at home to hang out and get caught back up on the things I needed to do at work and around the house and just decompress.  Somehow I had it in my head that the season was the 25th to the 29th of October and that’s what I had told my wife and also the guy that was going to go hunting with me this year.  So I was a little surprised when I actually got online to print out my hunting licenses and they were for the 18th through the 22nd instead!

Not sure if I have mentioned it or not, but I made a mistake applying for my New Mexico licenses this year and ended up drawing 2 different hunts the same season in 2 different units.  They were both my 3rd choice options and I just didn’t look over everything as carefully as I should have and ended up drawing both tags for the same season.  This wouldn’t be as bad in most states, but New Mexico’s hunting seasons are very short (5 days for deer and elk) so this was going to be tough to do either tag justice.  In addition the deer hunt was a muzzleloader tag (my first ever) so I needed to bring everything I would need for that as well.

To make everything even better I had a last second work trip that I had to make on the 17th to San Antonio so this was going to be a madhouse getting things turned around and headed out.  My friend Angel was going with me for his first ever elk hunting experience.  He didn’t have a tag, but really wanted to go just to be out in the mountains and kind of get a feel for what elk hunting was like.

Finally we got loaded up and were headed out a little late, but since I had hunted the unit the previous year I felt like I had a good idea of where I wanted to be opening morning and hopefully it wouldn’t make much of a difference.  It was about a 7 hour drive from my house to where we were staying and we ended up getting there in time to get settled in and get to bed at a pretty decent time.  Last year I had planned on staying in my tent, but ended up staying at a cheap hotel for several nights instead so this year that was the plan from the start.  The hotel was only about a 10 minute drive from the trail head where I had stumbled on a nice herd of elk last year so I didn’t really see the need to mess with camping out if we didn’t have too.  We brought our camping gear though so we would have it if we needed to switch spots.  

One little note here, I didn’t do a very good job of taking pictures on these hunts.  Part of that is that these are some of the easier to draw tags in New Mexico and I don’t really want to give away too much information on exactly where these spots are.  The other part of that is that I guess my picture taking finger must have been sore from taking so many pictures on my Wyoming mountain goat and elk hunts.  Either way, I don’t have near as many pictures of these hunts to share as I normally would.

Day 1.

We started early, I wanted to get to a spot I had marked on my GPS from last year an hour or so before shooting light so we would give everything plenty of time to get settled down after we hiked in.  We made the hike in pretty uneventfully and got setup in the dark just in time for it to start raining.  Not a hard rain, but enough that we were getting our rain gear out.

We sat there in the rain for a while and I had high hopes as it started to get light.  This was the area that I had been in elk so thick last year that it was actually a problem because there were too many elk and it was hard to avoid detection.  Last year they were also very vocal and that was really neat too.  Not so much this year.  We sat for about an hour after shooting light and I threw out a few bugles and cow calls but nothing responded.  After about 30 more minutes of that my high hopes weren’t so high any more.  My honey hole from last year was not this year.

Here's a picture of what we were looking at that first morning.

The rain had pretty much stopped as we gathered our gear up and decided to scout up along the ridge we were on.  We moved slowly and tried to be quiet, but Angel’s rain gear was pretty loud.  We kept at it moving a ways and then I would cow call or bugle, moving slowly and trying to hear something.  This area is pretty thick and not the kind of spot where you can glass out in front of you or anything.  Generally you have 50 – 100 yards for you maximum visibility in the trees.

We’d moved up the ridge about ¾ of a mile from the original spot and I was getting pretty dejected.  This wasn’t turning out at all like I had expected.  About that time I threw out a cow call and bam, a bull bugled back about ¼ mile ahead of us!  It is amazing how quickly things can turn when you see or hear a bull with a tag in your pocket.  It was Angel’s first time to hear a bull bugle in the wild and that was pretty neat.  We started moving toward him trying to stay off the ridgeline and being as quiet as possible.  Angel dropped back a bit since his rain gear was making so much noise.

The bull bugled on his own a couple times and then got quiet so I cow called back and he responded right away.  We were closing in on him and the wind seemed to be good and this was looking like a great opportunity.  The unit I was hunting is not a trophy unit so a legal bull was all I was looking for and this guy sure sounded like he would qualify.
We kept closing the distance and I quit calling so he couldn’t pinpoint me and thought I was getting really close.  I setup in a little ravine that I thought he was in and waited a bit hoping he would talk again but he had gotten quiet.  I cow called a couple times and he didn’t respond.  About that time I hear some branches breaking down in the bottom of the ravine about 100 yards away, but it was so thick I couldn’t see anything.  I cow called again and then I heard him busting out of there.  I never did see him but evidently he saw or smelled us and the gig was up.

The spot I was hunting was right on the edge of some private property and I was afraid if we went after him that we might push him onto private for the duration so we just backed out and moved on around the ridge.  It was pretty exciting for me and Angel thought it was really cool being that close to a bugling bull.  We were so close to making it happen but that’s just the way it goes sometimes.

We kept moving up to the top of the ridge calling occasionally but not getting any responses.  We were seeing some sign, but nothing like I had seen the year before and nothing was really that fresh.  We sat around a while up on top and ate some lunch but didn’t really see any reason for sticking around.  

Here's the view from where we were eating lunch.

The year before I had stumbled on this spot and was surprised to find that there was a legal ATV trail down in the bottom of the canyon.  Even more surprising was that I never saw anyone using it.  I was prepared this time and we had hauled a couple ATV’s in and were going to use them.  We hiked back down to the trailhead and unloaded the ATV’s and headed up the canyon a little after lunch.

What seemed like a great trail when I had hiked it the previous year didn’t seem quite so great trying to ride the ATV’s up it.  Lot’s of big rocks and fallen trees and not much trail maintenance.  The little trail maintenance that had been done seemed to be by someone who liked motorcycles but not ATV’s because they would saw about a 24” gap out of the fallen logs which was perfect to get a motorcycle through but didn’t work at all for an ATV.  We kept after it though, it was better than walking, but not by a lot.  It was pretty rough on the ATV’s though.

We got about 2 miles up the trail and ran into 2 hunters sitting in a clearing.  We were surprised to see them as we were the only ones parked at the trailhead and I didn’t know of any other way to get in here without going a long way around.  Turns out there is a road that goes up on one of the ridges and they were able to drop in off that road and were only about ½ mile in from where they had started.  We chatted a while but they weren’t exactly thrilled to see us running ATV’s up the trail and decided they would held back up a side canyon and we went ahead and kept going up the main canyon.

We got another ½ mile up the trail or so and ran into 2 more hunters walking down the trail.  These guys were obviously locals and weren’t even carrying a backpack or anything.  They seemed very unprepared, no rain gear, I’m assuming they had a knife and a gun and that was about it.  They weren’t even carrying a water bottle or anything.  We talked to them a while and they didn’t really seem to even know where they were, but didn’t seem too concerned about it.  We later figured out that they did know where they were but they were looking for a trail that didn’t show up on the map and actually ran down into the clearing where the first 2 hunters had been.

We kept going up the trail and it didn’t get any easier on the ATV’s.  Up and over logs, around logs, over big rocks, etc.  Not exactly fun.  About ½ mile farther and we decided to give up on the ATV trail.  We had crossed over or around at least a dozen fallen trees and a couple pretty bad spots with some big rocks.  None of it was really scary as we were running the bottom of the canyon, but it was rough on the machines and rough on us.

We decided to go ahead and head up a side ridge in an area that looked pretty good and see what we could turn up.  It looked like a really good spot, but we hung around until right about sunset and didn’t see or hear anything.  We headed back and got on the ATV’s and headed back toward the trailhead and got back to the clearing right at the end of shooting light but didn’t see or hear anything there either.  I did some calling there and a few more times in the dark thinking that something might respond but nothing ever did. 
The ride back down was just as rough as the ride up was but even more fun now that it was dark.  Somehow I had knocked one of the skid plates off the a-arm of ATV I was riding so I kept looking for it as we went back over logs and rocks but never did find it.  It really wasn’t that bad riding in the dark, the headlights do a pretty good job and again, we were riding in the bottom of the canyon so it wasn’t really that scary like it would have been if we had been up on the edge of the mountain or something.

We got back to the trailhead about an hour after dark, loaded up the ATV’s and were back at the hotel pretty early.  I was disappointed that the original spot that I had picked out had been a bust, but we did have a good opportunity on the one bull although it didn’t pan out but at least we had an opportunity.

Totals for the day were 5.56 miles and 1,540’ elevation gain on foot per the GPS and 6 miles on the ATV’s.  A quick supper and we had the alarm set for 4:45 the next morning, ready to go.

Day 2. 

We discovered that one big drawback to staying at a hotel is that there are other people that stay there that don’t get up and get going at 4:45 in the morning.  The people in the room next to us had been having a great time and were not very quiet about it.  It was very tempting to make a lot of noise while we were getting ready to go that morning, but we didn’t.

We decided to start out at the same trailhead that we had the day before, but hunt the other side of the canyon since we hadn’t seen much sign on the side we had hunted the first day.  First we sat on a heavily used game trail thinking we might be able to ambush something coming up it, but that plan didn’t work and with nothing talking we decided we would just put some miles on the boots and see what we could see.  
We hiked up to the top of the ridge on that side and pretty much side hilled the rest of the day.  We saw some decent sign and busted a lone cow out in front of us about 50 yards away early in the morning, but that was pretty much it.  

Here's a view from the top of the ridge we started out on.

Saw a lot of pretty country and some good rubs that were fresh this year, but no super fresh sign.  Again, it was pretty thick and at most you were able to see about 100 yards in front of you.  The rain was holding off and we were moving pretty slowly and trying to be quiet, but we were at a big disadvantage to be the ones moving while any wildlife were more than likely bedded down in a prime location.  I cow called periodically as we were moving through and bugled a couple times but nothing ever responded.  We busted a couple other animals that we never got a look at, but I’m pretty sure they were deer based on the sound they made when they were running off.

Saw several spots that really looked great, a few wallows and lots of rubs, but nothing super fresh.  We ended up all the way up where we had ridden the ATV’s the day before and sat a few spots where we actually could see farther than 100 yards but again, no luck.  Somewhere in here Angel found a nice chalky white mule deer shed, but I never did get a picture of it.

Here’s some pictures of some of the rubs.

Not sure why I took this picture, but it is about as open as it got for the area we were hunting.

There were several areas with lots of Aspens like this that had already lost their leaves.

We started to head back and the rain came hard this time.  Since his rain gear was so loud the day before, Angel decided he would just wear his rain jacket and not his pants so I did the same.  It was a mistake.  The rain got even harder and what I was thinking would be a 10 or 15 minute rain shower ended up going on for over an hour.  It was raining so hard you couldn’t have heard a freight train 100 yards away so it wouldn’t have mattered how loud Angels rain pants were this time.  Of course instead of being smart and putting them on, we kept thinking that the rain would let up but it went on and on.
It finally quit raining right about sunset but by then we were both pretty well soaked.  The rain would run down between our packs and our rain jackets and run right down the back of our pants.  The rain that started out on our legs ended up running down into our boots and so our feet were wet as well.  No idea why we were so stupid to not put our rain pants on when we had them in our pack but we didn’t.

The hike back down the trail wasn’t bad and we were back at the trailhead about 30 minutes after dark.  Pretty long day with 9.62 miles and 2,195’ elevation gain logged per the GPS.  Pretty dejected as we headed back to the hotel.

When we got back to the hotel we discovered that the Eberlestock backpack that Angel was using wasn’t very waterproof.  The guy he was borrowing it from had a rain cover, but we had left that back at home and probably would have been too stupid to put it on even if we did have it.  Everything in his pack was soaked, he actually even ended up pouring some water out of the bottom of the pack when he was unloading things to try to get them to dry out.  Our boots were soaked as well so we tried to hang everything around the hotel room in good spots to let them dry out.  My Stone Glacier backpack didn’t seem to leak even in the pretty hard rain.  Some water did get into one pocket that I didn’t have zipped all the way but everything else actually stayed dry.  Pretty impressed with that.

Day 3.  

Thankfully the next door neighbors from the night before were gone and we both got some pretty good sleep that night.  We had discussed our options on where to go and decided to try out the original spot that we were at the first day one more time and maybe go up the ridge again where we had the chance at the bull on the first day.  

We got in there in the dark and were setup where we wanted to be in plenty of time.  It was a perfect morning and I was really hoping that today would be the day.  Again, sunrise came and went without any signs or sounds of elk though.  

I think this is my favorite picture of the trip.

I cow called and bugled a few times and we both thought we heard a cow call back once, but we weren’t ever able to get a fix on exactly where she was and we never did see her. 

This was my view when we her the cow call just down on the other side of this small opening.

We ended up hiking back up around where we had been on the bull on day 1, but didn’t ever get a response to a call or see anything.  We hiked back down into the main canyon and then across to the area we had been the day before that looked the most promising, but never did see or hear anything.  A few more calls and some more silence and we decided we should probably try and check out a different spot.  Ended up back at the truck about 12:30 with 6.23 miles and 1,410’ of elevation gain on our boots that morning.

I was racking my brain trying to figure out why I had been into elk in that area so well the year before and now just wasn’t seeing anything.  It actually wasn’t too hard to figure out, I had started out the year before up high and the snow was too deep and I wasn’t seeing any tracks and that is why I went low in the first place.  This year there wasn’t any snow up high and more than likely the elk were still probably up high so it looked like we were going to have to go up high if we were going to get into them.

I had looked at a few other ATV trails on the map and one of them looked like it would get us up pretty high so we headed to the trailhead, unloaded the ATV’s and headed up the trail.  We made it a whopping ¼ mile before we realized that this was another one that was intended for motorcycles, not ATV’s.  There was a huge rock in the trail that there was no way we were going to get around on the ATV’s so back we went and loaded the ATV’s back up on the trailer where they ended up staying for the duration of the trip.

We moved over to a different trailhead where I had started out last year and had a few spots marked on my GPS and headed up that trail on foot.  We got to a spot that I had marked on the GPS from last year but it really wasn’t that great of a spot and after a little bit we started moving a bit and looking for a better spot.  We ended up sitting a small clearing with a good view of some oak brush as the sun went down which seemed like a good spot, but again, we didn’t see or hear anything.  A few calls by me with no response and we headed back to the truck in the dark. 

This is the clearing that we were setup on that evening.  I just knew some elk would feed out into that oak brush, but they never did.

Only 2.61 miles and 929’ on the GPS for the evening, for a total of 8.84 miles and 2,339’ of elevation gained for the day.  This was the first day that we didn’t see or hear an elk the entire day.  

Day 4.  Morning. 

We had spent some time looking over maps the night before in the hotel and decided that we needed to move up high if we were going to have any chance of getting into elk.  We were also going to need to switch move to the unit that I had a deer tag in if we were going to have any chance of getting a mule deer, so we were packed up and checked out and heading down the road about an hour before shooting light. 

We drove a little farther this time and started out on a trailhead that I had never been down before.  This trail was off limits to ATV’s, but it was obvious that it had seen WAY more maintenance than the ones we had been on  previously.  There was a large parking area, but when we started off in the dark ours was the only vehicle in the parking lot.  Quite a difference from the trailhead back in Wyoming where the trucks and trailers were parked back along the road because all the parking spots were full.

We started out at over 10,000’ elevation and were hoping that this was going to get us up high enough to be in elk that day.  We found a spot where there was a heavily used game path that crossed the trail and decided to sit there and see if something would be moving at shooting light.  No such luck.  A few calls and a little more time spent sitting and we decided to do the moving.  

We found several more spots that had some decent sign and looked really promising, but again it was really too thick to do any glassing and nothing was responding to any calls. 

Here's a couple pictures of the area we were checking out.

We hiked around for a while, called some more and after a few hours decided that it was time to switch to deer.  We met 2 deer hunters on our way out but they hadn’t seen anything either.  We heard some guys on horses heading down the main trail as we came up a side trail going back to the trailhead but that was about it.  Overall this spot looked better than where we had been the previous several days, but we decided that we would probably have a better chance at getting a mule deer in the other unit if we at least had 1 ½ days to hunt there so we headed back to the truck and headed out.

Total mileage that morning was 5.20 with 855’ of elevation gain.  All of those miles were above 10,000’ but we never did get up high enough to be into any snow so we may have still been too low.

End result was a lot of miles and some pretty country but only 1 cow elk seen and 1 bull that talked back to us for a little while.  Essentially a swing and a miss for elk.  Hopefully we would have better luck at deer!

Day 4 – Evening - Deer.  

It was about a 4 ½ hour drive to get over to the unit that I had my deer tag in.  This was an area that I had hunted 3 times before and I had shot a deer each time I had hunted there.  Those were all rifle hunts and I was hunting with a muzzleloader this time, but 2 of the 3 deer that I had shot with the rifle in the past were under 100 yard shots so I was feeling pretty good about this hunt.

We got to where we wanted to park and shuffled some things around to be setup for muzzleloading and headed off a hour or so before sunset.   Not a lot of pretty scenery here, just some sand hills with some crop circles that keep the deer around.  We headed out with a pretty strong breeze at our backs so I tried to plan a big circle around to where we would be headed back into the wind closer to dark when the deer should be out and moving.  

We made some pretty good time and covered some ground, saw about a dozen deer, but they were all does.  Several of the deer that we saw were well within shooting range of the muzzleloader, but some were acting pretty skittish.  The season had been going for 3 ½ days so I wasn’t sure what kind of pressure there had been so far.  In the past I hadn’t seen a lot of pressure in this particular spot, but I thought I might have seen some boot tracks in the sand a few times.  The sand burrs were really bad this year and the flies were terrible as well.  I normally hunt this unit in the rifle hunt in early November and I guess there is usually some hard freezes by then because I don’t remember the flies being so bad but they were terrible.   

Ended up with 3.97 miles and 416’ elevation gain on the GPS for the evening.  Hiking in the sand hills isn’t the same and hiking up the side of a mountain, but it’s not like walking down a nice trail either.  The weeds seemed worse than normal this year and it was plenty of work going up and down the hills.

Day 5.  

We spent the night in tents that night and were ready to go the next morning before shooting light.  We got going early and did some zig sagging through the sand hills to keep  the wind right and keep from walking straight into the rising sun.  We were seeing plenty of deer, but almost all of them were does and the few bucks we were seeing were pretty small.  We jumped a few deer up at very short ranges (like 25 yards) and had others spooking and running off 700 – 800 yards before we got to them.  Probably the majority of them were spooked up at close range though.  

This is the kind of terrain we were hiking in.

There were some spots that were more just like rolling prairie like this.

Saw a couple legal bucks but they were way smaller than I was wanting to shoot.  Saw one decent buck, a 3 x 4 that I was tempted to shoot, we dogged him for a while and I could have shot him, but he was probably just a 2 ½ year old deer and again not what I was looking for although Angel said he would have been more than happy to shoot him if he had the tag.

I think it was pretty educational for Angel to see the quantity of deer that we were seeing and I tried to work with him to help him learn how to spot them better.  He has good eyesight, but had a terrible time seeing them with the naked eye.  Even with the binoculars he was having trouble.  I earned a free dinner by betting him that there was a deer in a patch of brush about 100 yards away after I have him about 10 minutes to look it over with the binoculars.  He was positive that there was not a deer in there.  After making the bet we walked toward the brush and not 1, but 4 deer popped up out of the patch of brush and took off.  He was pretty impressed that I had seen them because even when I described exactly where they were he couldn’t see them with the binoculars.  I told him to start looking for parts of deer (eye, ear, tail flick) instead of looking for the entire deer and that seemed to help him some, but spotting deer is for sure a learned skill
We covered some serious ground that day and the grass burrs were terrible.  We had a quick rain storm blow through and we spent more time picking grass burrs off our pants before putting our rain gear on and then picking grass burrs off our rain gear before taking it off than we did actually wearing the rain gear.  I’m not going to go back there without wearing gaiters to keep the sand burrs off my pant legs and am also going to look into some type of spray to keep the flies off, they were terrible as well as there are several dairies in the vicinity and the main fertilizer for the crop circles comes from the dairies as well.

I did find this old skull, but it was so far gone I just left it where I found it.  It’s against the law to collect a dead head in New Mexico anyway.

We ended up back at the truck late that afternoon and I had a spot that I wanted to try for the evening.  We got over to a set of crop circles and setup hoping to catch something coming in before shooting light was gone.  We were sitting there covered in flies and actually spotted a decent buck bedded in the crop circle.  When he was laying down you couldn’t see him at all, but he had stood up for a couple minutes and moved around when I spotted him.  We decided to go after him and made a quick plan of attack and headed down the crop circle.  We headed around walking down the wheel tracks of the center pivot, but we were making quite a bit of noise and we weren’t being too stealthy and about 300 – 400 yards before we got to where he was he busted out of there.  Not a shot I was going to attempt with a muzzleloader.

We headed back up on a last ditch effort to see if anything would still get to the circle before shooting light was over and right as it got too dark a decent buck started coming in with several does.  He wasn’t a whopper by any means, but if it had been a little bit lighter I would have been tempted to shoot him.  As it was I never could really even tell exactly what he was and shooting light slipped away before I really had any kind of a shot at him.

We walked back to the truck empty handed.  Ended up with 13.98 miles logged on the GPS with 1,264’ of elevation gain for the day.  We saw at least 40 different deer and 5 or 6 different bucks that day but no whoppers.  The buck in the crop circle would have been about a 160” buck or so.

Total mileage logged on our boots for the 5 days that we hunted was 47.17 miles and 8,609’ elevation gain. 

I mentioned to Angel that this was not a good hunt to measure what elk hunting or mule deer hunting was like as this turned out to be about the least successful elk hunt of my life.  For sure the least successful as an adult.  I’d been on 11 other elk hunts in the last 6 years and in every other one at least someone had a shot opportunity at an elk with 9 out of the 11 hunts someone in the group did end up with an elk on the ground.  It made me realize that I’ve been on some pretty successful elk hunts over the last several years!

It was a whirlwind trip and we hunted hard but ended up with nothing to show for it but memories.  You can’t win them all.

That’s it for now.  Nathan

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