By Joe Schaffer
People tell me I am lucky. I tell them that may be true, but it is either really, really good luck or the worst luck you could imagine. This yo-yo has continued ever since I started applying for coveted big game tags across the nation. Sure, I was lucky and drew a Desert sheep tag in Nevada after just five years of applying and a Maine moose permit this year. However, I also burned more than a decade of mule deer points in Colorado being holed up in a tent at 11,000 feet because of freak rainstorms and I spent a week straight in some of the best whitetail country during the rut in Iowa, never seeing a single shooter buck. I have also had a long run of bad luck in my home state of Wyoming, having never drawn a single quality limited quota tag in the seven years I have lived here.
One state has been pretty good to me, though, over the past few years, and that’s New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. I was extremely lucky to draw a bull elk tag for the Valles Caldera in 2015 in their lottery drawing. That hunt ended at noon on opening day with the first 6x6 bull of my life. This year, after just three years of applying in the guide draw with San Juan River Outfitters, my friend, Jacques, and I drew exceptional elk muzzleloader tags for one of the best units in central New Mexico.
After a nine-hour drive from Wyoming, we got to the lodge around midnight. Having driven most of the way in the dark, we didn’t get a sense for the country until we woke up the next morning. This was our scouting day before the season opened on the following day. People had told us to get in shape for this hunt, and they weren’t joking. The unit wasn’t huge, but the mountains were all straight up and down.
Fortunately, we were able to speak with numerous Huntin’ Fool members who had hunted this unit in the past. Their assistance was incredibly helpful. One piece of advice was to use a road to gain elevation and go to a lookout that was recommended for scouting day glassing. Not more than a few moments after setting up the spotter, we had elk in the lens and bugles ringing out all around us. This was going to be a special hunt.
The first morning of the hunt had us climbing and gaining elevation the old fashioned way – with boot leather. We saw plenty of elk, including a really good bull with a harem of cows. They couldn’t have been more than 1,000 yards away as the crow flies, but between us was a ravine steeper and deeper than anything I would have ever dared to navigate. Our guide, Leo, took us on a trek deep into the country. We chased bugles, glassed bulls, and even stalked in close on a small group of cows and one young bull.
That afternoon, we put on a long stalk to the other side of the canyon on a group of elk that had a good bull in it. He was bugling consistently and guided us in through the entirety of the two-hour stalk. As we got into position where we thought we would have a shot when the herd got up to feed, things went very quiet. Just as we were thinking of moving in closer, we noticed another hunter slide in and sit down where the elk should have been. We walked up to talk to the hunter, and two things stood out. First, he was an older guy who couldn’t hear as we had to walk right up to him and tap him on the shoulder to get his attention. Second, it was muzzleloader season and he was carrying a bow and arrow. Miles into the mountains and we run into a single man with a stick and string who happened to just hike in and spook the elk without him ever knowing they were there. Remember what I said about my luck?
We hiked out that evening and turned up many other elk. Unfortunately, all were too far away to put a stalk on before we lost shooting light. The day left us tired but excited about what the next few days would bring.
The second day started even better than the first. Leo took us up another canyon, and we weren’t 10 minutes into our hike when we first saw elk. They seemed to be around every corner, and the further in we went, the crazier the bugling frenzy became. As we crested a ridge, we got the first glimpse of the origins of the bugles. A large section of burnt timber faced us, and it was covered up with elk participating in a true rut fest. There were at least two great bulls in the herd.
We did our best to stalk closer to the elk to see if we could get within muzzleloader range and find one of the good bulls. It was slow going, traversing the burnt deadfall and doing our best to keep quiet. Unfortunately, by the time we stalked within range, most of the elk had eased into the dark timber, heading for their beds.
As the morning wore on, the time between bugles became longer and longer. Leo suggested we ease up closer to the timber, set up, and see if we could get the herds fired up again with some calling. He proceeded to masterfully imitate a herd of elk with intermittent bugles mixed with cow and calf calls. In mere minutes, we saw a tan body moving through the dark timber at the head of the draw we were sitting in. It was a small bull that had poked his head out to see what all of the commotion was. Suddenly, an entire herd of elk busted out of the timber, clearly riled up from Leo’s calling. I got the muzzleloader on the Vanguard tripod and got ready.
Jacques started looking over the bulls in the herd and calling out the range, “That’s a good bull, 172 yards. There is a better one, 150 yards. That’s the herd bull, and he is at 163 yards!”
I found the bull in the scope just as he was running a satellite bull away from his harem of cows. I settled the crosshairs on his front and waited for him to turn broadside. He finally turned and gave me my shot. The smoke pole barked, and I became lost in a cloud of Blackhorn 209 smoke. The bull ran uphill and then slowed to a milling pace. We saw him stumble a bit before he moved off into the timber. “Did I hit him?” I asked Leo and Jacques. Both of them confirmed that they thought it was a great shot, looking like it hit right in the heart. My spirits soared until we got up to where we last saw the bull and couldn’t find a drop of blood anywhere. Could it be that my bad luck was going to continue?
For the next half hour, we scoured the hillside, never turning up a single spot of blood. On a whim, I dove off the backside of the ridge into some thick oak brush and began walking elk trails. On the third trail I walked, going down it about 50 yards, I came upon the bull piled up. In all, he couldn’t have gone more than 75 yards from where we had last seen him, but it was just plain, dumb luck that we stumbled upon him. Sure enough, it was a perfect heart shot but without an exit wound. He was a magnificent bull.
We spent the rest of the morning quartering the bull up and getting him in game bags. We took most of the elk out in one trip, leaving just a front shoulder and the rack for me to go back in and pick up that afternoon. On my way out that evening with the glory load, I had yet another experience I would never forget. Near dusk, a mountain thunderstorm opened up and it began to pour. I found shelter under a cluster of pine trees and thought I would wait it out. It seemed that the storm also got elk on their feet, and soon, the entire mountain valley around me was filled with the sounds of bugling bulls, mewing cows, and elk running in all directions. I don’t think I will ever forget that.
Although we hunted hard for the remainder of the season and even passed on a solid bull, Jacques went home without punching his tag. We both admitted it was truly a hunt-of-a-lifetime, and if good luck decides to bless us in the draws in the future, we’ll definitely be back.