The screaming bull elk was so close the high-pitched bugle actually hurt my brain. Unfortunately, the bull was just over a steep rise; he couldn’t see me kneeling beside a tree, and I couldn’t see him. As the seconds turned to minutes, my lips and throat became chalk-dry, and no amount of licking or swallowing seemed to help.
Anticipation is one thing, but this was too much to bear. Dead bull or spooked bull, one way or the other, I wanted this encounter resolved—fast.
Kneeling 10 feet behind me and slightly to my left was NAH-TV Producer Lonnie Garland, who had been spending the better part of a week lugging a 50-pound video camera in one hand and a 30-pound tripod in the other. It wasn’t exactly a Jesus-with-the-cross scene, but you get the idea.
Suddenly, just 15 yards away, Lonnie and I both saw antler tips arise from the ground at the same time. The bull was coming to our guide’s cow calls, and the rack was larger than either of us would’ve ever imagined.
I found myself on this excellent adventure thanks to Tack Robinson, who handles public relations for Mossy Oak. Some 7 months earlier, Tack had invited me to join him in the mountains of far western New Mexico, on the famed Gila National Forest, home to some of the biggest bull elk in North America.
Our host, hostess really, for this hunt was eight-time world champion elk caller Audrey McQueen, who has lived in New Mexico all of her life. She grew up hunting in this area and knows it as well as anyone. After years of working as a guide for her father, she decided to start her own business, Trophy Ridge Outfitters, with help of her husband, Roger.
After I arrived at elk camp, Audrey made me feel like the boy who just found Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. “Dave, your elk tag is for an area that’s difficult to draw,” she said. “The unit is designated as ‘primitive weapons only’ —bows early and muzzleloaders late—so it’s a high-quality hunt to be sure. During bow season in early September, right now, you’ll get in on the elk rut and encounter bugling bulls each day. It’s awesome … just wait and see.”
Unlike my experience during two other previous elk hunts (Colorado and Wyoming), Audrey said my New Mexico hunt wouldn’t require a long, pre-dawn ride on horseback each day.
“Our ranch is located in the heart of elk heaven,” she said, shortly after meeting her in front of the picturesque mountain cabin. “The terrain is moderate, and the area has a good road system, too. Believe it or not, trophy elk are often only a short hike from the truck. Of course, your chance of success goes up the more you can hike, but don’t be surprised if you get on a bugling bull right off the bat in the morning, possibly within sight of a gravel road. And you shouldn’t encounter other elk hunters because your hunting unit is huge and elk tags are very limited.”
Lights, Camera, Action!
Guide Jeff Anderson smiled as we crept down the two-track, the first light of morning beginning to fill the eastern sky. Jeff had been guiding another bowhunter prior to being assigned to Lonnie and me, and while our first guide was certainly capable, he wasn’t as experienced as Jeff in dealing with a film crew.
It was the third morning of my 5-day hunt, and although I’d seen elk each day, we hadn’t had a close call. But Jeff was confident he could change our luck, just as he had the day before when he called a big bull into bow range—7 yards!—for another Trophy Ridge client.
“Dave, sit beside that pine,” Jeff said, pointing across the football field-sized forest opening. “Lonnie, nestle into the branches of the pine 10 yards farther back. I’ll call the bull to me; I’ll be sitting 50 yards uphill from your spot. He should travel past your left side. Be ready, it could happen fast.
”Yeah, right … I thought, nocking a narrow and settling in to my ambush. Yes, the bull had answered Jeff’s cow calls with regularity as we hiked to close the distance, but my guess was the bull was still at least 300 yards away.
Silence. The bull hadn’t bugled for several minutes, and my mind drifted off a bit. It was 11 a.m., and it didn’t look like we’d see a bull at close range this morning, even with the Gila’s best guide.
Branches breaking! The bull ran up the steep slope, passing within clear sight below me at 50 yards. He was charging toward Jeff’s cow calls. Stop, bull! Stop! My mind raced as I traced his path with my bowsight. When he hit the brakes in an opening 30 yards to my left, a 6-inch-diameter tree trunk blocked my view of his chest. Even though I was at full draw, I had no shot, and he was gone seconds later.
According to Jeff, this bull wasn’t the same one that had been answering the cow calls. This bull’s rack didn’t carry much mass, indicating he was young. He was simply trying to run in and steal a hot cow before the big boy arrived. Unfortunately, he ran off in the direction of the larger bull, which probably ended our chance at the big boy, too.
“How’d you like that?” Jeff asked, walking up to me with a sly, I-told-you-so smirk on his face. Because this wasn’t Jeff’s first rodeo, he really didn’t need to listen to my answer. And as I rambled like a crazy man, you could already see the wheels turning in his head, planning our next move.
Rocky Mountain Rematch
“Kneel in that blowdown,” Jeff said to me. It was morning No. 4, and if the big, bugling bull from yesterday was still using the same side of the mountain, we’d give him another try. If my mental compass was correct, we were about a half-mile from yesterday’s calling setup. “I’ll pull him up this clearing to your right. Lonnie: Find a place to hide in those pines 15 yards behind the blowdown.”
Soon, Jeff’s seductive cow calls floated down the mountain, and I clipped the release on my bowstring in case things happened as fast as yesterday. And as if written in a script, the same, deep bugle ripped up the mountain in response.
In fact, each time Jeff sent an invite, it was answered with enthusiasm. I could tell the bull was coming closer—albeit slowly—but he was definitely coming. Finally, the bugles were so close that I strained to make out the bull’s body through tiny gaps in the trees. He’s got to be right there, I thought, looking some 150 yards down the mountain.
Then he stepped into a clearing. Oh my God! He’s huge!
The bull was coming on a straight line, slowly, with occasional stops to bugle and drool over himself. It was as if Jeff was dragging him to the heavens with a manual winch.
Eighty yards … 70 … 60 … stopped to bugle. Twenty more yards, and clear those scrub oaks, and I’m drawing—I was trying to keep my concentration in the adrenaline-charged atmosphere.
Then the bull slowly turned and walked away. Either he didn’t like something about our setup, or the wind changed, or the elk gods just decided this wasn’t his day to die. “OK, Jeff, be honest with me. Let’s play back this entire encounter. If you’d been bowhunting here solo, what would you have done differently?”
He smiled and said, “Well, when it was clear the bull was coming up the mountain, I would’ve run downhill to cut the distance. He was in super-thick cover for several minutes, so he wouldn’t have seen me move. I would’ve checked the wind after hitting the bottom edge of this clearing, then slipped 25 yards off his probable line of travel on the downwind side and hid beside a tree.” Jeff was so confident in his assessment that I knew he’d been mentally playing the scenario out well before I spotted the bull.
“Jeff, give me your best guess: What are the chances you would’ve killed that bull?”
“Good. Actually, very good.”
I knew it: Being anchored to a single spot to capture this hunt on tape was reducing my chances of punching a tag. Lonnie and I both understood the challenge we were facing, it didn’t require any discussion whatsoever—so after exchanging looks of determination, we packed our gear and followed Jeff across the mountain.
Saving The Best For Last
Shooting an animal on the last day of a hunt makes for an exciting TV show (or magazine article), but take it from me, it’s stressful when the clock is ticking and you don’t “have a show in the can.”
Yet, here we were on afternoon No.5, kneeling in the shadows, when the antler tips of a giant bull arose from the ground like a submarine’s periscope breaking the water’s surface. Soon, I could see the entire rack, then the bull’s ears, eyes, nose and mouth.
The setup was far from ideal because we’d unknowingly walked into an entire elk herd while ascending the mountain. I was kneeling beside a tree, but Lonnie-and his huge camera lens—were largely in the open. To compound the problem, both of us had removed our Mossy Oak Brush camo jackets for the hike and were wearing short-sleeved T-shirts.
The mass … oh man, the mass. Dark main beams, thicker than my forearms, and too many points to count under the circumstances.
But Lonnie was busted. The bull stared into the camera lens—as if to say, “Did you get the shot?”—then wheeled to his left. I quickly crested the rise for the one-in-a-million chance he was hanging around within bow range, but as expected, he’d vanished down the mountain. Strike three—game over.
Someday I hope to return to the gorgeous, game-rich Gila. And if you book a trip with Trophy Ridge, maybe you’ll have the chance of hunting with elk expert Jeff Anderson. Just leave the video camera back at camp until after you’ve killed a big bull.