I blame my hunting obsession on a man I never met. His name was J.A. Bracken.
My family has been ranching in South Texas since the mid-1930s, when J.A. (my great-great-grandfather) decided he wanted to expand his cattle operation from the eastern part of the state to the thick brush country south of San Antonio.
Back then, life was tough down here. But they made do, and our family still ranches the same country to this day. Ironically, the ranch sits in prime whitetail deer habitat, so it didn't take long for me to fall in love with hunting.
While I was in college at Texas A&M University, I began working in outdoor television, and soon after graduating I joined a show on Sportsman Channel called Southern Chaos, alongside Josh Galt and NFL kicker Garrett Hartley. The show focuses on how chaotic it is to run hunting/fishing operations, or kick in the NFL, while still making time to hunt with each other.
As September 2015 rolled around, our anticipation for elk season quickly dwindled when a New Mexico hunt we were planning on fell through. A week later, Dale Perry of No Limit Archery called about a few openings the following week for an archery elk hunt with Black Mountain Outfitters in New Mexico's famed Unit 12. Hartley was busy with football stuff, so Josh and I jumped at the opportunity, not knowing that what would happen on this trip would be etched in our minds forever.
After wrapping up an alligator hunt, we made the 20-hour drive from New Orleans to Pie Town, New Mexico. Shortly after arriving in camp, we got to see the potential of the area with a 390-inch bull killed a few days prior by BMO owner Tom McReynolds. I was already ecstatic to be there, so seeing Tom's giant bull was just icing on the cake. Bulls were starting to bugle, and we were in New Mexico. What more could we want?
The first morning started off just how I had hoped. We heard three different bulls bugling as soon as we got to where we wanted to start hunting. The brighter the sun got, the quieter the bulls got.
Guide Boney Morales finally had a bull respond to his calling, so we spent the rest of the morning trying to locate the bull in some thick country with no luck. That afternoon, we climbed up on a ridge to do some glassing and saw a few small bulls and one nice 320-class bull about a mile away.
For day two, we decided it would make more sense if Josh and I hunted together because we were filming, so we went with guide Joey Romo. We heard quite a few different bulls, and saw a few smaller ones, just nothing we were looking for. As the sun got higher it got really hot, so we climbed up to higher country to glass.
I found what looked like a 340-class bull about a mile and a half away, and I watched him bed with his cows on the side of a hill. After Joey looked at the bull, he decided we should move to another hill overlooking a valley in hopes that the bull would push his cows down that evening.
With about 45 minutes until dark, Joey whistled to me and motioned that he had found a big bull. I made my way to him, and after about a minute of looking at the bull, we knew he was the type we were after. There were a few problems though: Light was fading by the second, and the bull was almost two miles away.
It's situations like this where we are reminded how difficult filming a hunt really is — light is obviously one of the most important variables in getting good footage. After talking with our camera guys, Joey, Josh, and I agreed it would be best to back out and come back to this area the next morning.
We decided to break up that morning. Josh would sit at a waterhole, and Joey and I would hunt on foot and cover some country listening and calling. Thirty minutes after sunrise, we heard a deep, guttural bugle. Of course, you can't judge the size of a bull from his bugle. But some sound better than others, and this guy sounded like King Kong.
We dropped into some really thick brush where the bull was, and as soon as Joey made his first cow call a few other bulls started talking. After a few bugles and cow calls, we had a small bull come within five yards of us with a cow and another small bull, all the while hearing King Kong below us.
We started calling and making our way to the bigger-sounding bull, and the closer we got, the more obvious it was this was indeed a bigger bull that had his cows locked down. We just didn't know how big he was. As Joey started getting more aggressive with his calling, the bull's responses started getting louder and louder. He was coming! My cameraman and I tucked ourselves in the brush as best we could while Joey called 20 yards behind us.
Seconds later I saw a super-heavy main beam stacked with long tines coming through the brush. The bull got to 40 yards, but there was no way I could get a shot through the thick brush. He acted like he was going to make a loop around us to catch our wind, so I crawled 20 yards to my left where I had a lane to shoot. The big bull kept coming, and as soon as he got to the edge of the lane I drew. As luck would have it, he stopped one step too early and turned around to head back to his cows.
At this point we knew we were on a big, big bull. We kept pushing until the bull let out a bugle that raised the hairs on the back of our necks. "He's right here!" Joey said, so we knelt down and waited. We start looking, and soon realized he was standing over a bedded cow about 40 yards in front of us in some really thick brush.
Knowing it would be tough to pull the bull away from his cow, Joey went all in and gave one of the best calling sequences I've ever heard. It worked! As the bull came barreling towards us, I came to full draw. Unfortunately, the bull stopped with brush covering everything but his head. I held at full draw for over a minute before the bull turned and slowly walked off.
We belly-crawled a little ways to set up on him again, and I drew on the bull for a third time only to have him chase his cow into some badlands without ever offering me a shot. By this time we knew he wasn't spooked; he just wanted to push his cow off by himself. Listening to the bull get further and further away, we decided to leave and come back in the evening. It was pretty heartbreaking to have a bull that we guessed to be in the 380-class at 20 to 40 yards for two hours and not get a shot.
We backed out quite a ways and took a pretty restless nap under a tree during the hottest part of the day. At about 2 p.m., we made our way to the badlands where the bull had pushed his cow. After glassing with nothing to show for it, we decided to get back into the thick stuff in hopes the bull would return to where he'd been that morning. But we spent the better part of the afternoon without seeing or hearing a single elk.
We heard our first bugle of the evening about 45 minutes before dark. We had dropped into a little arroyo, but as we made our way to the top we spotted the big bull from that morning crossing a meadow about 500 yards away.
We ran a few hundred yards, and then stopped and called. The bull fired right back at us. As we made our way through the meadow where we'd seen the bull a few minutes earlier, we could hear him below us. We slipped into another small arroyo and saw three cows looking at us from about 30 yards.
The cows started barking at us, and we thought we were busted for sure. We were right on the edge of another meadow, with one stand of trees 60 yards in front of us and could see the bull moving through the trees. He acted like he was going to come out of the brush 70 yards away, but right before he got to the edge, he turned back into the brush. Joey let out a bugle, and the bull came running right at us from the other side of the trees.
At 50 yards, the bull stopped. I settled my pin in the center of his chest, and squeezed off the shot. The arrow hit him right in the middle of his chest, and he ran back into the trees. We could see him moving through the trees, and when he came out of the other side Joey cow-called and the bull stopped broadside at 70 yards. I let another arrow go and it was a solid hit. The bull ran into the woods and it wasn't long before we heard him go down!
We quietly celebrated but decided to play it safe and let him sit overnight. The light was fading fast and we had a long walk back to the truck. As Joey and I talked about everything the bull had on his head, we started to realize that he was probably around 400 inches, and maybe more. It was a pretty satisfying feeling watching the footage of the shot that night. It reassured us that the bull was hit really well.
After a sleepless night, we headed back to where we had last seen the bull. Tom McReynolds met us there to help track him and we immediately found good blood. Just 100 yards later we found the bull.
Walking up on him was something none of us will ever forget. This bull was way bigger than we'd thought. After high-fives, hugs, and hundreds of pictures, we realized that the bull was going to be 430 to 440 inches, nontypical. Ironically, one of Tom's hunters from several years earlier held the current state record, but Tom was confident my bull would take his place!
After spending the rest of the day caping, quartering, and packing him out, we finally made it back to camp. We unofficially scored the bull at 442 inches gross! As cliché as it sounds, the score isn't what made this bull so special, but rather the story of how it happened, and the people who were there to make it happen.
To me, killing an animal isn't what defines a successful hunt. It's about what you learn, the places you see, and the people you meet. It just so happened that on this particular hunt we covered all the bases: We learned a lot, hunted with great people, and killed a giant bull!
440-Inches of Bone
Officially the bull gross scores right at 440 inches and nets 413 5„8 inches, making him the pending New Mexico nontypical archery state record. To say this is a dream come true is an understatement!
I can't tell you how much of a privilege it was to hunt with Joey Romo, Boney Morales, Tom McReynolds, and everyone else at Black Mountain Outfitters. Western hunting isn't easy, especially when you're filming and hunting with a bow. Teamwork is crucial, and we got to see why on this hunt.