My heart rocketed into my throat as the beautiful 6x6 strode from behind the brush, broadside at just 25 yards. Something had to happen quickly because the breeze tickling my left ear would be swirling around where the cows would be; but for the moment, there were too many unobstructed eyes for me to lift my bow and come to full draw. I’d had this dream thousands of times over the years, but on September 3, 1999, it wasn’t a dream. It was reality.
This was my first trip to New Mexico to hunt elk with Ray Milligan and Milligan Brand Outfitters. Our plan was to hunt the first week of the 1999 archery elk season, thinking that the weather would be warm and dry. Instead, we arrived to mid-40-degree temperatures and a pouring rain that turned to sleet as the day progressed. Rain was predicted as far as the forecast extended. Needless to say, Ray informed us that sitting over a waterhole would be a waste of time. As we sat around the dinner table that first night, I tried to be the optimist.
“Elk are smart, but they’re not whitetails,” I told my hunting partners. “This country is conducive to stalking and it’ll be just like hunting exotics back home in Texas. If we can find them, we can kill them.”
Topping a ridge at about 5 p.m. on the second day, I spotted a really nice bull herding two cows down the mountain. This trio was eventually joined by about 20 additional elk on the edge of a meadow. I glassed the bull as the elk began feeding in my direction. The oak brush-covered ridge I was on ran perpendicular to the mountain that the elk came from and bordered the meadow where they were feeding.
With more than two hours of legal hunting time left, and the elk oblivious to my presence, I already had my tag on this bull and my fork in one of his juicy steaks. However, as is often the case, it wasn’t meant to be. A lone black bear emerged from the brush between us, and the elk herd soon hoofed it back up the mountain, destination unknown.
Not quite sure what to do, I stayed put, cursing the bear until the sun fell behind the mountain. Then, remembering the huge open valley that lay behind the ridge to my right, I thought maybe the elk had dropped off into it to feed. As I eased quietly around the ridge glassing the draws and headers for brown fur and calcium, I finally reached the edge of the valley. Sure enough, the elk were there, feeding away from me at about 250 yards. With sunset (New Mexico’s end of legal hunting time) only five minutes away, I decided not to risk pushing the herd out of the area.
The next morning, I spotted my herd and they had already returned to the security of the oak brush-covered mountainside and were browsing their way up toward the dark timber, where they would likely spend the day. Knowing the elk were gone until evening, I used the opportunity to familiarize myself with the terrain on the side of the ridge where the herd had been feeding at sunset the day before.
Bear or no bear, this time I had a plan.
That afternoon, the sky was clear and temperatures had warmed a bit. I arrived at my perch atop the brushy ridge to see if I could spot the herd. Around 4:30 p.m., I heard a bugle. Though I couldn’t see them, over the next hour or so, I could tell from the cow calls and bugles that the herd was moving down the other side of the ridge again. I knew where the herd was headed, and because I knew the lay of the land, I had time to get between them and where they were going.
I gathered my gear and began slipping around the ridge. I spotted a mule deer doe and had to wait for her to feed into the brush so I could get by without spooking her. Once I was past, the bull bugled again, and I spotted a cow less than 100 yards away. Just as I had hoped, they were feeding on the ridge above the big valley, and the wind was quartering from them to me.
When I figured out where the rest of the herd was, I dropped off into the draw and inched forward until I could just peek over the edge of the ridge. As I did so, I saw a cow, a calf, another cow, and the 6x6 bull come by at 25 yards. There was no time to retrieve my rangefinder. The cows fed off the side of the ridge and the bull was about to follow. His head went behind a ponderosa stump and I came to full draw. He was quartering slightly away when a cow called from behind him. As he paused to look back, my subconscious shouted “50!” while my pin hit the crease of his front shoulder. My Mathews bow sent the Easton A/C/C 371 streaking down a collision course with the bull’s heart.
At impact, the bull bucked and kicked with both back feet as he bolted 15 yards before piling up near a downed pine. The rest of the herd never had a clue, and I had to wait for them to feed off of the ridge. When they were gone, I ran over to put my hands on the bull’s massive beams. I sat in awe of his beauty as I looked through his tines at the sun setting behind the mountains.
Next: Pre-Rut Tactics, Bears Again