At first glance the country looked all wrong, but in hunting big bulls, things are not always as they seem.
I debated the wisdom of sitting by water for days on end, but this end result--- my biggest elk ever -- clearly justified the means.
As we bounced down a two-track, my first evening near Pie Town, New Mexico, seemed like a dream as the old truck's headlights barely cut through the fog-like dust kicked up by the truckload of happy hunters just ahead. Through the dim light and cloud of dirt, I made out flat, sandy terrain interspersed with scattered grama grass and occasional juniper, pinion, and red cedar trees. The desolate land and sweltering heat certainly didn't promise great elk hunting.
Suddenly, the truck ahead swung to the right, and its headlights illuminated a tremendous 6x6 elk lying in the sand. Landowner Doug Adams had arrowed the 350-class bull just before dark, and we had come to retrieve his prize. As we backslapped and admired Doug's bull, I thought, Hmm, this elk hunt might turn out all right, after all!
We finished up with Doug's bull well after midnight, but we were still up at 4:45 a.m. for a "meet and greet" with the rest of the hunters and crew. Bobby Covington was assigned to "baby sit" me. Bobby has been a government trapper for more than two decades, and he's a lifelong hunter and guide. Imagine a cross between actor Sam Elliot and Yosemite Sam, right down to the drawl and walrus mustache, and you have Bobby Covington.
That first morning, Bobby and I drove and hiked parts of the 49,000-acre Southern Cross Ranch to familiarize me with my hunting territory. We didn't see or hear any elk, and the barren land hardly instilled confidence in me. Still, Bobby's knowledge of the property and his easy-going assurance that I would see bulls at the many manmade water sources on the ranch gave me the solid sense that things would be all right if I just remained patient.
That evening, I took a stand at the Upper Drinker, a galvanized water tank plopped down in the sand. One nearby bush that almost qualified as a tree held a homemade platform barely 12 feet off the ground. I was skeptical, but within a short time, a calf and a spike bull literally ran in to drink the precious water, and soon afterward two cows and calves came in. My optimism was rising.
The next evening, videographer Mike Cox and I went to a dirt stock pond called Flat Tank. This spot had no trees big enough for a stand, so we settled into an Ameristep ground blind. Mike was there to document the hunt for Outdoor Expeditions International TV. Just before 7 p.m. a lone, 280-class 6x6 came in and put on quite a display as he pawed and splashed in the pond. Three times he lay in the water with only his nose and part of his rack showing above the surface! He offered me plenty of good shots, but with several days to hunt, and knowing huge bulls roamed this ranch, I decided to let him grow a little more. Mike got fantastic video.
That same evening, another bull was not so fortunate. Back at camp we learned that Joel Maxfield from Mathews Archery had made a great shot on a 4x6 bull.
The next morning, before I could even settle into the Upper Drinker stand, a bull bugled several times, getting closer with each bugle, and soon a cow approached with a big 6x6 bull right behind her. Suddenly, a mere 16 yards from my stand, the cow stopped and smelled my fresh boot tracks. Her sudden stop put the bull on edge, and he hung up just behind a pinion bush. Then the two elk walked away, offering no shot and leaving my heart pounding.
Bobby Covington, a cross between actor Sam Elliot and Yosemite Sam, was my guide for the hunt.
Over the next couple of days, Mike and I alternated between Upper Drinker and Flat Tank. One evening, eight cows and a really nice 7x7 bull sprinted out of the junipers and raced toward the water, setting my heart to pounding as wildly as their hooves. Then, about 100 yards from the pond, the elk stopped abruptly, spun in unison, and thundered away. I don't know what happened.
At times I questioned the strategy of sitting for long hours, half baked, in a treestand or ground blind. Some of the other hunters would start out sitting on water, but if they heard a bull, they would get anxious and pursue the elk on foot. As a foot hunter by nature, I was tempted to do the same.
However, with the extremely dry conditions, elk had to come to water, and to judge the level of activity, I used a cedar branch to sweep the sand smooth around the Upper and Lower Drinkers. Maybe that's a poor substitute for a trail camera, but fresh tracks in the sand every day confirmed that plenty of elk -- and some very big ones -- were hitting the water hard.
During my sits, cow elk and even a huge pronghorn buck kept my interest up. And, of course, I'd seen evidence of the size of the bulls on this ranch. All of this bolstered my confidence that waiting at water was the right approach for arrowing a really big bull.
On september 15, the mercury rose well above 90 degrees F., miserable for hunting but perfect for making elk thirsty. Mike, my cameraman, had had to leave, so I would be hunting alone. To help keep my scent down from days of sweating, the ranch foreman's wife was kind enough to wash my hunting clothes with Wildlife Research Center's Scent Killer products.
Elk were leaving lots of tracks, including some made by monster hooves, at the Lower Drinker, and no one had hunted there in a week. With renewed hope, that's where I took a stand that evening. Lower Drinker was much like Upper Drinker -- just a round metal tank at the end of a small finger ridge stippled with scattered junipers and pinion pines.
The stand faced west, directly into the blazing sun. When I climbed in at 4:45 p.m., the sun burned my chest and legs, and I had to lean behind a branch to shade my face. All afternoon, pinion jays, flickers, and songbirds flitted to the water. One obnoxious chipmunk chattered for more than an hour straight, and that, combined with the heat, just about drove me out of my mind.
With 45 minutes of daylight left, I stood, bow in hand, ready to shoot. To ensure against any accidental foot noises, I took off my boots, and to further control my odor, I sprayed down several times with Scent Killer. Finally, to eliminate my silhouette against the sky, I scooted to the extreme edge of the stand to blend in with the tree trunk. I was trying to do all things right. Now I just needed a thirsty bull. But none showed, and with only a few minutes of shooting light left, I sat back down to relax until da
Scarcely had I touched the seat when I heard the unmistakable sound of hooves on rocks. Slowly turning my head, I saw a tremendous, solitary bull elk, his massive rack towering skyward.
All day the wind had been blowing out of the northwest, but it had now died. Still, the bull circled south and east, which earlier was downwind of my stand, and stood there, 30 yards away, testing the wind.
With the late-afternoon sun burning my face and chest, it was about all I could do to maintain control as the big bull circled, relentlessly testing the wind for danger.
Maybe the daytime heat had created upward thermals in the dead-calm air, maybe my scent-control efforts were working, or maybe both. Whatever the case, the bull seemingly never smelled me. Showing no alarm, he slowly walked right behind my tree and around in front, stopping a measured six feet from the ladder I'd climbed up to my stand.
Deliberately, I tried to breathe through my nose to reduce the sound of my heaving chest, but the shallow breathing was depriving me of oxygen, and I nearly passed out!
Finally the bull ambled toward the water. At seven yards, he stood twitching nervously, both ears rotated back, listening. I was sure he could hear my ragged breathing and pounding heart.
At 15 yards, he stopped again, whipped his head up, and gulped the air, trying to whiff danger. Sitting motionless, I held the top limb and sight of my bow in front of my face to help break up my human form.
Finally the bull began to drink, but now he was facing almost straight away. I had no shot. With him more relaxed, I took about 10 deep breaths in through my nose and exhaled from my mouth, a trick I'd learned in my high school wrestling days to maximize oxygen to the lungs. That calmed me a bit. However, I still had concerns. In the past I'd seen elk drink and then instantly dash away. How much time would this bull give me to shoot?
To answer that question, the bull shifted just enough to offer a quartering-away shot. Still able to see his right eye, I drew my bow in super slow motion, all the while watching his right eye. It probably took me 45 seconds to reach full draw.
Holding the 20-yard sight pin midway up his body, I coached myself: Slow down and execute a good shot. Be patient and everything will be all right! Consciously I aligned the peep ring with the sight ring and double-checked the position of the sight pin just behind his rib cage to compensate for the steep body angle. I just kept aiming and aiming while applying back tension.
When the shot went off, the white fletching and nock disappeared where I'd been aiming.
The bull lunged forward into the water tank, making a huge splash. Then he slipped on the slimy bottom and made another big splash. Instantly he was up and running, but he collapsed just 66 yards from the tank.
Shakily I pulled on my boots and climbed down. Walking up to the beautiful, heavy framed 6x7, I said, All right! Thank you Lord. Thank you Southern Cross Ranch!
After a few minutes of admiring the bull and fully appreciating the intensity of this ultimate adrenaline rush, I dug the radio from my pack.
"Hey, Bobby, do you read me?" I said.
"Yeah, go ahead, Lon."
"I'm standing over him. He's the one we've been hunting for!"
Through radio static I heard Bobby shout, "All right! I'll be right there."
Bobby arrived shortly, followed by 10 more folks. It took five strong men to load the bull onto a trailer. This was the largest elk I'd ever shot, and now we were hauling him out of the field on a trailer -- whole. What a welcome contrast to my usual long, nasty backpack jobs. Rarely in my 28 years of bowhunting would I claim to have done everything perfectly, but on that special day, everything turned out all right.
The author is a regular Contributor and an accomplished outdoor writer/photographer from Spokane, Washington.
Author's Notes: A special thanks to the kind folks at Outdoor Expeditions International (OEI). Without their generosity, I would never have the opportunity to hunt places like the Southern Cross Ranch. The Southern Cross Ranch was sold recently, but OEI has many more recreational properties for sale. If you are looking to buy or sell timberland or recreational acreage, check out www.oeiproperties.com.