So, back a few years ago, I drew an elk permit for a unit in New Mexico that has an area that borders, in significant part, a couple of large chunks of private property. I had learned about this piece of public land from my father and had first hunted it some twenty years before. Dad had learned of it from a guy at the gun club that had a son who worked for the BLM some and who'd seen a survey that showed a bunch of elk up there. Both the guy and my father had hunted it before I ever got involved.
The hunt that introduced me to the area, my first for elk, saw my dad kill a five point bull that was too big for three of us to load in the back of the truck even after we'd dressed him out and cut the carcass in half. Heck. the truck was on a slope so the tailgate wasn't more than eighteen inches off the ground and it was still to much for us. It also saw us watching and shooting at one of the biggest bulls I've ever seen, with a rack so large that when he laid his head back, the end tines of his antlers scratched his butt as he stood way off uphill through the mist and rain. For that matter, callow youth that I was, I saw my first legal bull in the dark timber, some twenty yards off. Appropriately, he was a rag horn four point. I saw his butt first, sticking out from behind the giant spruce he was bedded against before he'd stood up. Once his head came out the other side and I'd counted tines to make sure he was legal, I filled the scope with hair and, despite the long smooth trigger (original military) on the sporterized Springfield that I carried, I managed to lose the crosshairs and shoot right over his back. Three jumps, one other shot, and he was gone. I was convinced I must have hit such a large target until we'd tracked him a couple of hundred yards, as he went from sprint, to trot, to walk, with never a cut hair nor drop of blood to mark the encounter. By now, that rag horn has gone from herd boss to old bull to mulch, but I'll never forget the sight of him.
So, I was back. A couple of big fires, more people, and some road closures had changed the usage of the land by animals and by hunters. A couple of days hard hunting and on my last available day I finally found the elk, hanging out around the heads of some truly intimidating canyons. An elk 800 yards off might be half a day's walk away. For that matter, I could sit high up and count a dozen bulls, some so far off that their racks were mere suggestions, but could get to none.
The next year, I put in and drew a tag for the same area. The first day, I hunted a big meadow that was an easy mile and a half walk off the road. No elk, no dice. The next day, I drove and tracked lower country leading right up to the private land. Other hunters, but not much in the way of elk sign. So, bowing to the inevitable, I headed over to the broken country. I hunted up a ridge bordering one of the big canyons (to my left) with a burnt-over draw to my right. Elk had been using it and browsing the young aspen and wild rose in the draw, but none were there now. I'd sit overlooking the big canyon and glass elk by the dozens, including several nice six-point bulls. They were all a couple of thousand vertical feet away. The down isn't so bad, but the loaded uphill trip is a killer, especially as steep as those canyon walls are. In addition, the slopes below me were south-facing and inadequate cover. So, I worked up my ridge, eventually heading one canyon (elk-less at the top) and getting to a high meadow above another. There below me were a dozen cows and two small bulls. I waited for them, and perhaps some others, to walk out toward me and graze on the grass exposed by the wind, closing the distance between us, without any success. As time was getting on, I began a long slow crawl through the knee-deep snow, shortening the distance to the elk. At four hundred yards, I ran out of cover. I guessed the distance at three fifty and leaned against a wind-tortured pine to aim at the four point bull bedded in a slight swale. At the shot, he and the other elk stood, then trotted off for the timber, my bull obviously hit. I shot again, then lost him to the trees and sprinted down the hill, entering the timber and following the blood trail to see him staggering some fifty yards in front of me. A quick shot to the back of his head and I'd accomplished what I intended with the first round.
It was now three in the afternoon. I dressed, skinned and quartered my bull, then loaded a quarter and the loins and headed over the mountain. Nearly a thousand vertical feet and an hour and a half later, I had a two thousand foot descent to the truck. I got to my vehicle at eight in the evening and drove home. That night, a snowstorm blew in, shutting down highways and dropping substantial snow. I bought a plastic toboggan in town and headed back up to my elk once I could get on the road. Parking a bit closer, I headed up slope with two liters of water, two power bars, my pack frame, the toboggan, and quite a lot of line. I started at noon and reached the elk, feeling a bit blown, by three in the afternoon. I loaded two quarters, the miscellaneous cuts, and the rack on the sled and the third quarter on my back. Then I started up the hill. The snow ranged from knee deep to mid-thigh and, even following my trail down, each twenty yards of gain required a rest. By five, it was dark. About ten at night, I reached the crest of the mountain. From that point, I rigged a second rope to the back of the sled and let it precede me down the mountain. The main trick was to keep control and not build up too much speed to avoid having a hundred and fifty pounds of meat go shooting down the hillside to land well up some spruce. By midnight I was in the truck and, still in the early morning, home. Blessed by the red gods once again.
No brag, and I still believe in shooting them where you find them. At the same time, every now and then they might be so far back you better be pretty hungry before you pull the trigger.
Never look an easy, that is to say easily packed, elk in the mouth.
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