An echo of a guide's words results in the trophy of a lifetime
The Gila's not the New Mexico I expect; a New Mexico of desert and cactus. What I find instead is lush vegetation, wild flowers and knee-high grass. The hills are blanketed in fresh grass and majestic stands of ponderosa pines. It's been a wet summer. The five-year drought that has plagued the region seems to have ended. Still, it's difficult to avoid the notion that the steep mountains and deep canyons might prove too much for my aging legs, but I am ready to give it my best.
When many people around the country think of New Mexico they think of desert and cactuses. The same holds true for the author who was surprised to find a land full of vegetaion, flowers and grasses.
That will be later. First we'll meet our host, outfitter Ken Swaim, and his partner, Jack Diamond, together operating Beaverhead Outfitters near Winston, New Mexico. Ken and Jack make us feel right at home, us being Ben Maki of Mossy Oak Apparel, Dennis Presley, an actual Elvis' cousin from Mississippi, and Brent White, a veterinarian from Louisiana.
We sit down to get to know each other, and hear Ken's words of advice. One witticism quickly puts things into perspective; "What you need to do is make an elk and an arrow come together at the same time and place." Simple enough, but all of us are a little apprehensive about our physical conditioning. I've dropped a few pounds and am feeling good, but you really never know for certain until you begin.
We will soon fall into a routine, dressing lightly each morning in lightweight scent-containment clothing, stashing raingear against unpredictable thundershowers. Water is most important, keeping hydration pouches filled in order to remain hydrated in the dry climate. Ken has also insisted each of us have stalking slippers to quiet our steps across crunchy western New Mexico terrain.
The first morning proves indicative, starting by climbing, moving out across juniper, oak and ponderosa ridges and saddles. In time we'll stop to call. That first morning it's still and quiet as Ken makes the first cow calls towards a meadow well below. The bugle that follows fills us with enthusiasm, a single bull responding to Ken's calls. We don't get a look at that bull, as he retreats with his cows into swallowing timber. This scenario repeats itself the first few days, making contact, Ben and I fanning ahead to ambush passing bulls. During the first two days this tactic provides high hopes and a few close encounters.
One of the early highlights occurs on the first day, Ken, Ben and I listening to Ken as we drive to evening tree stand sites. Ken's saying something about a big bull he's seen occasionally while scouting, when suddenly he points and says, "Just like that one there!"
To our left is the biggest bull I've ever laid eyes on. He's leaving a water-hole, a few steps behind a lone cow. At 45 yards the bull's deep "whale tails" seem to reach his rump. He turns to regard us, showing his extremely wide spread. He casually ambles after the cow.
Ben and I need no prodding, deciding the best thing to do is hot-foot it in an attempt to get ahead of the cow, evening light fading quickly. I could bore you with details, but in short the bull grew silent and disappeared. Needless to say, we will invest a good bit of effort on this monster, managing to locate him several times, but each morning his bugle recedes deeper into thick cover as a hot sun climbs higher.
After another morning of chasing our monster, Ken suggests a noon-to-dark vigil in what he describes as a "super-double secret" spot. The wind swirls unaccountably on this rough ridge where a stand guards a spring, but since I'm adorned in head-to-toe scent-containment duds I'm the obvious candidate for the site. Ben sits on a meadow wallow on the other side of the ridge.
Down time: Chasing elk through the mountainous timber of New Mexico can be an exhausting, but rewarding task.
I admit I'm skeptical about the stand as I crawl aboard. The seat squeaks and I'm restless as Ken and Ben disappear over the ridge. This squeaking continues as I squirm throughout the afternoon. I'm restless by nature, and knowing that I'm dry-docked for the next eight hours gives me little comfort. After finally locating the source of the irritating squeak I jam a piece of pine branch into the hinge to solve the problem.
The sun's beating down and a westerly breeze keeps the tree swaying. Out of boredom I spend several hours fine-tuning the spot, arranging my gear and trimming a branch or two before I feel I've everything in its place. I spent a lot of time ranging landmarks around the site, visualizing shot opportunities.
Honestly, I'm convinced I'm wasting time, but decide to make the best of it and get into the game. The sun eventually begins to fade as I grab my bow and settle in for prime time. It isn't long before I hear "clips" and "clops" from behind. I look over my right shoulder through pine boughs to see a nice bull making his way down the trail.
I'm forced to make a major shift in order to shoot. I stand, turning to face the tree, but am having trouble getting my release hooked up. By the time I'm ready, the bull has moved behind brush. He pauses after walking behind a juniper, and then after an eternity steps out broadside at what I believe is 50 yards. I tug the string to anchor, settled my sight above his back and let'er rip. The arrow passes harmlessly below his chest. He calmly melts into gathering dusk, unaware that he's been shot at. It turns out the range is closer to 60 yards.
When Ken arrives I began my sad blow by blow. He informs me I'm now in the "penalty box." Ken's the sole official of the penalty box. I could've edited my story to relate only the 60-yard miss, but ultimately the portion regarding a 6x6 at 20 yards, and fumbling my release so that I didn't get a shot off is what puts me in that box; that and forgetting my stalking slippers this morning...I have five days left to redeem myself!
There's talk of switching guides and hunting partners, but since an air of confidence has developed as things stand, we decide Ben and I will hunt for at least another day with Ken; Dennis and Brent running with Mark Mays, who Ken labels the best elk guide around.
Day three starts like the previous ones, finding bulls in the magic meadow, listening for the monster bull's recognizable growl. His bugle is quite distinct and before long we are in hot pursuit, attemp
ting to cut his harem off, which seems to be growing each day.
We hike out several canyon bottoms, check nearby tanks for sign. We have invested several grueling miles, crossing several ridges and saddles before arriving atop a juniper and oak ridge to listen. About 8:30 a lone bull bugles just off the saddle. Ken stations Ben and me to each side about 50 yards ahead.
The author, Mike Andrews, VP marketing director for Scent-Lok, with his 400-class New Mexico monster. Mike's aggressive tactics and nearly getting lost earned him the bull.
Ken begins with a series of subtle cow calls and the occasional bugle. The bull begins to fire up as two or three other bulls retort. We wait, but after several sequences, the bugles grow more distant. We have been confident we might get a curious bull to move our way, but nothing appears.
Then I remember another piece of advice from Ken: "Don't react...ACT!" I decide to make something happen. I begin moving in the direction of the herd. I soon lose Ken but we've agreed earlier to rendezvous in the saddle via Ken's bugles should we become separated.
The bulls continue moving and bugling for 45 minutes. I know Ben's in hot pursuit but I'm playing it cautiously. I make my way to the bottom of the canyon where I've last heard bugles, then start climbing again. By the time I mount the next saddle, those bugles were coming from the adjacent ridge. I'm now a half-mile or more away from the rally point and the bulls are about a mile away, traveling in the opposite direction.
Where is Ken? Where's Ben? And where am I?
I think I hear Ken cow calling and I call back, but that turns into a dead end. I decide to follow my senses and head back towards the rally spot. I walk, trying to figure out exactly where I am. It's difficult to dismiss various consequences of getting lost. I bump a couple elk in the process. I might feel dismay, alone in strange woods, but instead I admit stalking alone makes me feel deadly.
I keep walking, occasionally hearing bugling from various directions. I'm not certain if these calls are from Ken, or the real deal, so I keep moving east. If all else fails, I think I can travel downhill and eventually locate the truck. I decide that's the best option. Unfortunately I'm moving away from the rally point. I start to think that if Ken's unable to find me it might ruin the day for both him and Ben, especially if they don't make it back to the truck before nightfall. Given that worry, I start uphill toward the rally point. I begin to hear bugling in that direction but only faintly. Can that be Ken? I produce a few loud whistles and it seems Ken is responding on his bugle. I continue in that direction when I hear a louder, and closer, bugle up the ridge. I stop to listen, then begin to see elk legs moving in my direction. I put my binoculars to my eyes and see a rack. A bull!
There's a lot of cover between us but somehow I believe he's spotted me. I drop my pack and nock an arrow. I slip off the top maybe 20 yards and drop to one knee. I expect to see the bull drop into the dark timber on the north side of the ridge, but through the sunflowers and oaks I see the bull advancing.
Remembering another tidbit from Ken--suggesting drawing as soon as making contact--I come to anchor. The bull ambles at 50 yards. Brush and the shot angle make a shot impossible. He keeps coming. He's nearly broadside, following a ridge. At 40 yards and still coming, sunflowers grab at my broadhead. Still at full draw I keep my eye in my peep. Each time I feel it's time to release, he moves. Finally he stops almost broadside at 35 yards, my pin finds vitals.
I don't remember releasing. There's that old familiar watermelon thump. I know instantly it's a deadly hit. I can see something red orange imbedded low in his chest. The elk wheels, does a 180, running towards a ravine. It's then I notice the deep and familiar whale tales.
I'm pumped, to say the least. Now my attention focuses back towards Ken's bugling and it isn't long before the welcome faces of Ken and Ben appear.
"I smoked one!" I holler. I take them to the spot where my arrow has connected. There's immediate and copious blood, deep scars of scrambling hooves, but no arrow. We eat lunch to give the bull time.
After lunch we ease uphill to get a better look at the dry creek bed from above. Ken motions me to him and as I reach his side he points. I glass where he points and into the bottom, spotting the enormous headgear.
"He'll make Boone and Crockett!" Ken says as we examine the beast. "Maybe more!" We begin quartering and packing to load him on an ATV, the entire crew pitching in to get the job done. At the truck a small crowd of hunters gathers to admire my bull and get the story. One local hunter remarks, "That's a 400-incher if I ever saw one!"
That afternoon I sit on an evening water-hole with my camera, hoping to get a shot of a bull. I'm a very happy man, with a filled tag, having the time of my life. As sunset begins to turn to darkness, bulls bugling in several directions, I'm simply awed by the wild setting. The solitude is breathtaking and something that will be remembered forever. Ken soon arrives, pulling up and rolling down his window to hand me a cold beer. "You owe me big-time," he said. "Your bull scores 408 and change!"