First hunts are always approached with great expectations and excitement. Scratching and saving for the “hunt of a lifetime” has special meaning for anyone who has waited for more than 20 years to walk off into the west to chase a bull elk. My first elk hunt took me to the high desert of New Mexico with a well-respected company, United States Outfitters, in Taos, New Mexico. I’ll get to the cost upfront; my hunt was about $4,500, not including my tag. In exchange you’ll receive a guide, a comfortable place to sleep, killer food, and in this case, the opportunity to hunt a quality bull on a large, 20,000-acre private ranch.
My first pre-season phone question to my guide “Gadget” was what gun should I bring? I knew I had the right guy when his answer was, “What do you shoot well?” He went on to say that most shots are usually at less than 200 yards and a fair number of shots taken close.
We settled on my ported Remington 700, .270 that sports a Trijicon Mil-Dot Crosshair amber 3x9x40, and a Timney trigger. I can confidently shoot out to 300 yards, and on a windless day up to 400. Over the years I’ve learned one steadfast rule, it’s not about bullet size, it’s about shot placement.
Before I knew it, I found myself in Gadget’s Ford with binoculars in-hand waiting for dawn to break over a hay field on the Floyd Ranch in western New Mexico. Western hunts have taught me the importance of good binoculars and diligent glassing skills, but this day would take that lesson to an entirely different level.
We glassed and then glassed some more. Except for the elk-free hay field, the high desert terrain was inhospitable, rocky and looked like it wouldn’t support much, let alone a large elk herd. The weather was cool; in the 40s in the morning, and the upper 60s in the afternoon.
After driving by petroglyphs and remarkable sandstone rock formations, we settled over a valley that looked as if it expanded into the next county. “See that group on the edge of the ditch?” asked Gadget. There were three of us in the truck including my partner, Tom Slaughter, as we gazed three bulls and five cows slowly moving through a ravine at about 1,000 yards.
This is the moment that over and again has proven to me the absolute need for top-quality optics. Tom and I had a pair of Steiner Peregrine XPs and Gadget had an additional Swarovski spotting scope on the truck window. While we looked over the bulls and watched them for nearly a half an hour, debate ensued over their respective sizes. Gadget had explained previously, that the ranch we were hunting strived to take 290 to 320 inch bulls and we knew that two of the bulls were close. It wasn’t until we had watched them for 20 more minutes that Gadget finally got the view he was looking for and said we needed to go after one of those bulls.
As we drove the truck just out of sight, he told us to get our gear together, we were going for a walk. Perched on a small reveal against a sandstone wall we watched for over an hour while the bulls walked more than three miles out sight onto a plateau. The adrenaline must have really been pumping and helped me feel robust for our hike to rim of the plateau.Gadget slowed to a creeping pace as he glassed the edge over the rocky flat outcropping that spanned several miles. He motioned us up and whispered, “That bull is close, and he is in here somewhere bedded down…we just need to find him. Let’s scoot over to the rock wall and we’ll glass.”
The rock wall was an unusual formation of vertical sandstone that stood about 20 feet high and jutted out over 100 feet perpendicular into the plateau. In the center was a hole that measured about 24 by 12 inches. Gadget tossed his pack on the shelf for a pillow and started to glass. His eyes look like the cartridge of an ink jet printer systematically going back and forth as he methodically took apart every ledge, shadow, boulder and bush. Stopping for only a two minute rest, he went back to glassing for almost a half hour.
I started to notice that he hadn’t moved for a while, and wondered what he had found when he said calmly, “Come here.” As he precisely directed me from rock, to bush, to shadow, to tree, he said, “See that limb in the top of the shadow in the V? Watch…watch really carefully.” As the limb began to turn to the right I knew he had found him. The smile must have given away my adulation. “Pretty nice eh… better than I thought, that guy has good mass, let’s go get him,” he said.
Although the bull was just 200 yards away, he had bedded down with no clear shot. Gadget stated, “We need to get up close and personal.” We all agreed that the wind was tricky. We would need to cross the plateau about two miles to the south to allow us to sneak up on the bull from above at close range.
In less than 30 minutes, we were standing 75 yards from the rim where we believed the bull had bedded down. Tom started his video camera and Gadget said, “We’re going to get to the rim. I’m going to cow call and the bull should stand. This will be just like bowhunting,” he grinned.
Just as we were on the edge he stopped and said in the most exciting tone a guy could whisper, “Can you smell him?” The fact was, I could smell him. I opened my scope to it widest setting, approached the rim and while Gadget cow called. The bushed literally shook back and forth as the bull push his antlers through the thicket. A very surprised bull stood up took a few steps and stopped. I fired instantaneously and watched him quickly move over the hill not able to get a second round off. It all happened in just about four seconds as I had fired at less than 45 yards.
Gadget followed the blood trail and I went over the hill where we both found the bull on the ground less than 60 yards away. The bull was magnificent, had great mass and measured about 310 inches.
This is the kind of hunt that we all long for. But what made it so outstanding was the impressive leadership and skill of my guide. Even with my extensive experience as a hunter, I wouldn’t have had the skill to truly know that what I was chasing was worth my first day, and there is no possibly that I would have the diligence to glass for an antler tip in the shadows non-stop for nearly a half an hour.
I may have made a good shot under a lot of pressure, but the credit for this bull belongs to my guide, Gadget.
Watch the hunt at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UQKK-tCC4Hk
USO Outfitters: http://www.huntuso.com