Nobody believes the myth about lucky horseshoes -- except maybe this one lucky elk hunter.
With a 330 P&Y-class bull slowly making his way toward my position, no calls were needed. In fact, my guide, Andy Valerio, never made a sound. With only 10 yards and a small tree separating the 6x6 from Andy, cameraman Mike Malley, and me, I drew my bow. The bull must have seen me draw, because he stopped and was now on full alert. With my knees firmly planted behind the tree, I waited at full draw for the bull to take one more step into the open.
What were the odds for my finding a horseshoe in the midst of 30,000 acres of prime elk habitat? Was this really the source for my change of fortune?
You guessed it -- the big 6x6 never took that step. He knew something was wrong.
As we watched the bull run off, Andy hissed, "Why in the world didn't you shoot?"
"Your viewpoint was different from mine," I explained. "I never had a clear shot at him."
For many of us, bowhunting is an emotional experience, and that seems especially true for those of us who pursue elk. When my first elk hunt concluded with my walking up to my first elk, a Colorado 5x5 I'd shot from a treestand overlooking a waterhole, I actually started to cry. Ever since that eventful day, the seed has been firmly planted in my heart to bowhunt these magnificent animals as often as possible.
My next challenge was to take a bull elk from the ground, which was what lured me to the 30,000-acre Cottonwood Ranch located near Cimarron, New Mexico. But after our initial encounters -- like the one with that 6x6 bull -- it seemed I needed a little luck to meet the challenge.
Although we dented only a small portion of the Cottonwood Ranch, my first impression was that the ranch hardly looked like good habitat. Could it even support elk? After all, in 2001, a forest fire that had destroyed nearly 100,000 acres in this region, including much of the ranch, had left little but burned-out, skeletonlike trees.
Time seemed to be running out until we heard this bull bugle across the valley. After taking this, my first Pope and Young-class bull, my smile reveals my heart.
However, a fresh carpet of lush undergrowth now flourished in the wake of the destruction from eight years ago, creating fantastic elk habitat. With a closer look on the ground at the rich vegetation, my hopes started to soar.
Our typical hunting scenario was to climb to the top of a mountain and listen for elk. If we heard a bugle, we would check the wind and then beat feet in the direction of the bull. Andy was an expert caller, and even though I pretended to know what I was doing, his patience while working with a treestand hunter from the East was nothing more than professional.
The first three days of the hunt were like all the TV hunting shows -- bulls bugling everywhere, elk within easy bow range, constant action. The only difference was that I didn't have an elk on the ground. I needed some luck to turn things my way.
And it seemed to come as the end of the hunt became a looming reality. We had stopped along a well-used elk trail to take a breather, and as I chugged down the last sip of my water, a familiar shape caught my eye -- a horseshoe that someone had hung over a branch. What are the chances of coming across something like this in the middle of nowhere? I thought.
Andy set up a Montana Decoy cow elk decoy, a smart move that got the bull's attention and brought him a little closer to me.
The author should be no stranger to Bowhunter readers as he writes our "Hunting Whitetails" column. He and his family make their home in Randallstown, Maryland.
"C.J., maybe this is what we need to change our luck?" Mike said as he took a picture of me and the horseshoe.
Without missing a beat, Andy said, "Yes, C.J., you need all the help you can get. I've seen you shoot!"
"With a comment like that, you are officially off my Christmas card list!" I declared to Andy.
Late in the afternoon of day five, we trekked down the mountain toward the truck. Although one day remained in my hunt, I felt as if I was running out of time -- and opportunities.
Then we heard a bugle. Unbelievably, directly across the valley on the adjoining mountain ridge, five cows, two calves, and a big 6x6 bull emerged.
Instantly, Andy belted out a bugle, and the bull responded. But instead of coming toward us, all the elk headed to the right side of the mountain. Andy grabbed me and Mike and told us to quickly follow the spruce trees down to the bottom of the valley.
Andy kept the elk interested with an occasional cow call as we made our way down to the valley. We were 50 yards from the bottom when the elk started to take another hard right down the mountain away from us. Andy quickly cow-called and, magically, the cows and calves started in our direction.
With less than 100 yards now separating me and the cows, I set my eyes on the bull. His tall antlers emerged from a small stream drainage and then disappeared into another shallow swale. From his bugles I could tell he was getting closer.
Then the bull started to reappear from the swale, but he stopped with only his head and the upper half of his body showing. Trying to calm myself, I struggled to estimate the distance. Fortunately, as I was trying to figure out the yardage, Andy had set up a Montana Decoy cow elk decoy, a move that got the bull's attention and brought him a little closer to me.
As the bull watched Andy move the decoy from side to side, I settled my 50-yard pin on the bull's chest and touched off the shot. The arrow hit in the spine with a loud thud, instantly dropping the bull. A quick follow-up shot finished him within seconds.
Once I knew the bull was down for good, I yelled at the top of my lungs, "Andy, I got him! And I can shoot straight!" As we all gathered around the bull, I said my customary hunter's prayer and thought abou
t that horseshoe. In an elk paradise like this, all I needed was a little luck, and the result was my first Pope and Young-class bull.