Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New Mexico Elk Hunting

[Warning: Death below]

I arrived at the tent around 10pm and we all settled into bed at 11pm. We woke up at 4am with a plan to chase some elk my dad and uncles had seen the previous morning. So we took off at 5:30 and got dropped off just before 6. Five guys hunting together make a lot of noise so just my dad and I went together (my dad is the sole tag holder for this New Mexico hunt). The plan was to intercept the elk as the returned to their bedding grounds from where they were feeding at night, so we didn't use any lights as we stumbled through the rocks down into a ravine and up the other side. At daylight nothing showed up and there had been many, many cars going up the road where we thought the elk would be coming from, so we changed plans and just decided to hunt around up into the basin above. Near the top we got real close to a saddle (low point between two high points) and jumped a half-dozen elk, which we didn't see. It was starting to get hot so we headed back down to the truck (when it gets hot the elk will bed down for the day and once they are bedded they are near impossible to sneak up on).

At 3pm we headed back out to a different secret spot the guys had discovered during their preseason scouting trips. At the head of the basin we were hunting was a burn on top of a mountain. It was a long way to the burn from the bottom, but these guys found a secret game trail up the backside that weaved through what appeared to be impossibly steep cliffs. All five of us went up the trail to the top with intention of getting to the burn and just glassing (looking around with binoculars), but near to the burn we stopped for a chat and my uncle John looked beyond us and spotted a bull elk. He saw antlers flashing in the sun and tried to get my dad on it, which he did quickly. I couldn't seem to spot the elk, which is abnormal for me, but the elk tag wasn't mine so I didn't need to spot the elk (so I held still instead of forcing the issue). I did what I could, which was to pay attention to the things people forget about when an elk is in our presence: I noted that the wind was not in our favor and I mentioned to my dad that whatever he did, he better hurry. After 20 seconds I picked out the bull, which was pretty busy feeding and miraculously not smelling us. I put up my binoculars and immediately recognized the shape of his antlers and where the points were sticking out and confidently reported that he was a small 6-point. A large 6-point was what we were after, but sometimes it's hard to turn down a bird in the hand. My dad turned for a consensus, asking if he should take him. I wasn't going to pipe up because it wasn't my tag, but John surprisingly said "yes, take him!" That was the only confirmation my dad needed so he put the gun up and took the 100-yard shot through the trees at the broadside bull. The bull jumped forward and slowly turned to face us, but he looked sick. I remember saying, "you got him, but hit him again!" But then the bull's head lowered down and didn't offer a clean shot so I told him to wait. I don't know if he was listening to me, but having worked as a hunting guide before I find it natural now to narrate and offer advice. My dad didn't have a clear angle so I told him to move into my spot. He did, then took another shot and the bull jumped to our right, still looking pretty sick. He was facing right, broadside again so my dad took one more shot just for assurance. The bull went down and that was that. We walked up and he was still alive, which presents a dangerous situation. I am always very clear about ending the animal's life quickly because I think that's most ethical, but trying to cut the neck (which is most efficient) of a 400-pound animal that is still alive and has large antlers atop his head is not easy. So I pinned the antlers down as best I could while my dad cut the neck. It was all over in less than 10 seconds.

[my dad's first 6-point bull]

It was 5pm so we decided to remove all the meat and hang it from nearby trees, then come back in the morning to haul it down on pack frames (external frame backpacks with the backpack removed). We did that this morning in quick order and took the rest of the day off. Monday we are planning to pack up camp and head to Colorado a few days early. I'm a little sick from jet lag, elevation adjustment (7000') and dry air, but I seem to be doing much better today as we move northward to our Colorado destination.

[packing the elk out on our backs]

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