A lifetime better measures in hunting season's than years.
As we squinted through binoculars the elk herd appeared in a high meadow. It was the second to last day of our archery hunt in the mountains of northeastern New Mexico, near Las Vegas. The week-long effort to arrow my first-ever elk was proving to be exciting, yet very difficult. On this particular cool, rainy morning, Gerald Ortega led me and his cousin, Louie, higher into the mountains, generously acting as our guide, using his elk-hunting savvy to bring us closer to this wily herd of wapiti that ranged out of national forest and onto adjacent private lands each fall.
Gerald directed me left and ahead of his position, while he sent Louie ahead to set up above me, perhaps 100 yards away. I scampered ahead on hands and knees through the tall, wet grass, using a thin finger of piÃ±on pines that extended into the meadow as cover. The elk fed and engaged in age-old rutting rituals oblivious to our lethal intentions. I could plainly see a trophy bull chasing another bull, just as impressive, forcing him out of the far side of the meadow 300 yards away. Gerald had planted a pop-up decoy well behind us; a photo-realistic cow elk seen from the rear. He then produced a couple convincing cow elk calls. The bull immediately took notice. I was amazed and excited to see that behemoth bull turn and start in our direction without much haste, jogging across that meadow and headed toward our position as if on a string. "Wow!" I thought, "Gerald's call is really working."
But I'm getting well ahead of myself€¦. First there were turkey and the beginning of a blossoming friendship. Turkey hunting was how it had all started.
A Fateful Phone Call
Since the debut of the Gobbler Guillotine broadhead, my phone often brings invitations to hunt with people across the nation. Early in the spring of 2006 one of those calls was from a gentleman named Gerald Ortega, who I'd never met. However, like all archery hunters who share that common bond of experience chasing critters with bow in hand, once all his questions were answered to his satisfaction, Gerald invited me to visit his New Mexico stomping grounds to hunt Merriam turkeys and put my broadhead through its paces. We hunted those crafty birds diligently for a week, but we also spent as much time talking about elk. Archery hunting elk was Gerald's passion, something that paralleled turkey hunting in many key elements, as I would soon learn. Although we had many close encounters, neither of us was able to arrow a turkey but did discover a developing friendship of Pope and Young proportions. Gerald and his family were a pleasure to spend time with and I relished every moment shared with them in and out of their Northern New Mexico mountains.
It was at the conclusion of our archery hunt for turkey that Gerald mentioned that he might be able to secure a landowner permit for me to hunt cow elk during the upcoming September hunt if I would be interested in returning to give it a try with him. Having never been elk hunting and wanting badly to field test a new broadhead on big big game I wasn't only interested, I was chomping at the bit. He promised to give me a call if a tag cropped up. I returned to Texas, knowing, somehow I would be hunting with Gerald again in the not-too-distant future.
Not a week later Gerald called to let me know he had put my wide broadhead to the test; by arrowing his first-ever turkey with a bow! To say he was excited would have been a huge understatement, words alone unable to capture the emotion of that conversation. He was definitely hooked on archery equipment for turkeys and talked excitedly about a return trip the following spring for another round of chasing the big birds with our bows. It was a hunt that I looked forward to with great anticipation.
It was late summer when I heard from Gerald once more, expecting news of an available cow-elk tag. To my huge shock, instead of a report on the elk-tag situation and plans for the coming fall Gerald related that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Hearing those words was like a rifle shot to the heart, creating a 180-degree swing in emotions. Gerald's condition would require immediate chemotherapy treatment. While I was heartbroken, Gerald simply projected his faith and a tremendous resolve to get into the woods during the coming fall--to be the person who guided me to my first elk. We talked for a long time, Gerald able to sooth my worry via his good cheer and positive attitude.
I was packing for a week-long foray to Quebec to archery hunt caribou some weeks later when I heard from Gerald again. Gerald had good news. This time the call was about an elk license, and better yet, he had found me an either-sex tag, meaning either a cow, or a bull, was legal game. The talk turned quickly to his continued battle with cancer. Gerald assured me his energy level had remained high between bouts of chemo treatments and he was adamant that cancer wasn't about to slow his hunting for elk down a bit. Plans were finalized and I would be hunting with Gerald once more when I returned from Canada.
The Hunt Starts
I arrived at Gerald's New Mexico home to find him bald from the effects of chemo, but with a huge smile crossing his face. He said the chemotherapy seemed to be working, and that he felt good and had been scouting and chasing elk with bow in hand all week. He was confident that I had arrived at the right time and before week's end we would surely have some shooting. We completed some prerequisite license requirements, shot our bows and wasted no time getting straight into the timber to see if we could locate some elk. We passed a pleasant week chasing elk in the morning, coming out for lunch and a nap and then going back out for an evening hunt. Even with Gerald's condition he was walking me into the ground; the lack of oxygen in those high mountains slowing me down more than Gerald's cancer ever could.
I learned very quickly while archery hunting for elk with Gerald that by wrapping his hard-earned knowledge and experience together with persistence, determination and faith, Gerald and elk would soon enough merge in the same place. Just that simple! I swear he knew what elk would do before they did.
And so it was, hunkered down in that high mountain meadow with the smell of rain-soaked grass hanging on the still air and that big bull headed right into the setup Gerald had created for me and his cousin Louie as if on a string. Louie was somewhere out of sight to my right, Gerald behind the both of us near the decoy and plying his calls. It was like something out of a dream, that monstrous bull coming, looking like he was going to give me a shot. The bull wore antlers the size of which I'd never seen on a live animal. He showed a definite attitude and willingness to use them, if he could only find who was horning in on his harem. That herd bull made his way down the open meadow to the left of the finger of piÃ±ons where I was kneeling; un
til there was no doubt now--I was definitely going to get a shot at that monster bull!
My heart threatened to pound out of my chest and with the shot of adrenaline that surged into my system I never even felt the nearly 70-pound pull of my compound as I tugged to full draw while the bull reached 60 yards. The bull wouldn't stop but I wasn't worried, because I practiced moving shots often and knew I could make good on the shot if it was required. It was plainly evident when the bull spied that decoy, his body language changing perceivably as well as his trajectory, turning to head straight to the decoy and Gerald! He looked right through me and continued, trotting parallel to my position, suddenly 30 yards out and approaching a clean shooting lane.
I released a titanium-tipped arrow when the bull entered my shooting lane. It piled through ribs tight behind his shoulder and disappeared in a flash. The broadhead design I'd spent years developing sliced through the bull like so much hot butter! The behemoth never broke stride, never seemed to notice the arrow passing through him, trotting past Gerald with a growing red stain on its golden side. He paused, stopping only long enough to take notice of Gerald's cow calls, 60 yards away. Already it was easy to see he was having trouble holding up those big antlers, and then he just ambled over a bank and downhill out of sight. It was finished in less than 30 seconds! A deep and complicated wave of emotions swept over me, something well beyond the realm of rhetoric.
One Down, One To Go€¦
I ran to Gerald and grabbed him in a huge bear hug. Over my shoulder Gerald caught movement and quickly hissed to drop into the grass at our feet. When I did Gerald immediately came to full draw. I turned slowly, moving only my head, to see a spike bull advancing to something like 10 yards, turning broadside. He stopped to look Gerald over carefully but Gerald eased his bow down, passing on the slam-dunk shot. The spike stood only seconds then trotted back to join the nearby herd of cows. Then shortly after that Louie arrived with a wide smile crossing his face as well. I didn't think much of it at first, assuming he'd witnessed the entire hunt and was happy for all involved.
But I was wrong. In fact, he hadn't seen a thing, he was grinning because he had an elk of his own down; an eating-fat cow elk! Just think of that: We had two elk on the ground with archery gear, and could've easily performed a triple! And the day just continued to get better, the clouds parting and a warming sun appearing to provide us with a picture-perfect day to perform the chores of photographing and field-dressing our archery prizes.
It must have been a week after returning to my home in Texas when I gave Gerald a call. I knew he had a round of chemo scheduled during the week and I was anxious to see how things had gone, let him know I was thinking of him and wishing him well. Instead of Gerald it was his wife who answered the telephone. She had great news. It seemed that the morning prior to his trip to the hospital for additional chemo Gerald snuck out in the dark of morning with bow in hand to chase elk and had scored on Mr. Big--the biggest bull he had ever taken! With a few phone calls to family and friends to help take care of his downed elk Gerald was able to keep his chemo appointment. I couldn't help but glance westward toward New Mexico, imagining the glow I could see in the sky was Gerald's huge and bright smile reflecting across his bald head yet again!
* * * * *I understood how lucky I was to have met and hunted with a person of Gerald's character, something I sincerely wish all reading this could have the opportunity to experience. Gerald was a truly good person and it was an honor to have gotten to know him. I absolutely looked forward to sharing time both in and out of the woods with Gerald and his family once more.
With so much focus today placed on how fast bows are, how big antlers are or how many record book animals are in a trophy room, it's an honor to meet someone like Gerald who really knows what's important in life. Spending time with Gerald in a blind during our first turkey hunt together, as well as with his family, left an indelible impression on me, an impression that, although I'm not a writer, prompted me to commit some of my memories to words after that first hunt. Over the course of the year to come I never knew just how important writing down my feelings would become. The year 2006 won't be my most memorable because I shot a trophy with a broadhead it took years to develop, or of my first-ever elk that was well above Pope and Young minimums. It will be treasured because of the time spent with Gerald and the entire Ortega family; and the friendship that had grown to Boone and Crockett proportions. That is the essence of what I hunt for. Meeting new friends and building relationships that last a lifetime.
* * * * *New Years day, 1 January 2007: Yesterday I received the phone call. Gerald had lost his fight with cancer. It left me with such a heavy heart that I was at a loss as to what to write in an effort to describe my thoughts and feelings. I did know that for Gerald to have been taken from our lives so early meant that God must have truly needed a right-hand man for assisting in accomplishing all He does. There could be no better choice than Gerald Ortega. While for some it may take years to get to truly know someone, to appreciate the full scope of their character, in Gerald's case--for those fortunate enough to have met him--it took less than one day. Gerald simply resonated with an appreciation for life, family and care for his community. He carried with him the faith and the determination to enjoy every single day of life and all the experiences it brought, all with an incessant sense of humor and an easy smile on his face. I knew the first day I met Gerald just how blessed I was to spend time with him. That was what compelled me to write a story about the time I spent with Gerald, sharing this with the world. As would have been clearly seen in the tall, wet grass that Gerald Ortega hiked through while chasing the elk he so loved to hunt, he had left big tracks on my heart as well.
May he rest in peace--when he's not chasing elk in the lush meadows of heaven.€¦