Green Chiles and Elk

“You should apply for a tag here in New Mexico, we have a ton of elk!”

Those words from my buddy working on our NM projects echoed in my head as I flew home.  I told myself I wasn’t getting any younger…why not?

Later that month I asked around about logical units and then applied for a few areas in the northern part of the state since it was easier logistics to get there from my home in Colorado.

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New Mexico Department of Game and Fish

Fast forward a couple months and I got a strange email from the NM wildlife department.  This was all still new territory for me.  The usual message that I was expecting, based on my years applying in other states,  “Thanks for applying but you didn’t draw, here’s your refund” sounded an awful lot like “You drew your tag” instead.  Typical marketers…build up a guy’s hope before dashing it in the fine print.  But I re-read it a few times and still came to the same conclusion.  Unless my command of English took a serious downward slide, I think I drew a tag!  I forwarded it to my NM buddy just to make sure and, sure enough, he confirmed I was a winner!

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I was thrilled!  Being an engineer, I had to pull the stats and run the odds of my drawing.  It looked like there were 100 tags available for that hunt.  By NM law, 86% go to residents, 10% go to hunters using outfitters, and 4% go to the non-resident do-it-yourself hunters like me.  I had no idea how many applicants there were, but I’d say drawing one of four rifle unit tags in a state known for its monster bull elk is pretty darn lucky!  Against advice given by family and friends, I still didn’t go out and buy a lotto ticket.  I had to save for hunting expenses.

A month later, fate threw a wrench into my hunting gears.  The Colorado draw results posted and I drew the high country rifle buck tag I’d been dreaming about for years.  That would be a September hunt followed by this New Mexico bull hunt in October.  With five months ahead of me, I figured sure, I could swing both hunts.

So began the research and preparation.  I googled my unit, scouring various hunting forums.  I pulled up digital maps and ordered a couple paper ones.  I picked every brain I could find.  I got a little help here and there, but not much outside of what I already knew…the elk migrate to lower elevations based on weather and hunting pressure.  Plus, wise hunters get away from the roads to see more elk.  If there’s no bad weather or hunting pressure, the elk stay high and vis versa.  Northern NM has some really high elevation terrain.  People think Colorado for 14ers and the typical mountaineering settings.  But New Mexico has alpine country that is just as steep, just as mountainous, and just as unforgiving as Colorado.

The treadmill and the hiking trails around home became my new best friends.  My favorite hunting workout is to put a 45-pound plate in my meat hauling pack and go hike.  The steeper the better while keeping myself somewhere below cardiac arrest levels.  I’m no trainer, but I think the best workout to prepare for carrying heavy loads over steep, rough terrain is to carry heavy loads over steep, rough, terrain.  Nothing in the gym quite replicates it.  Legs, core, and cardio are the targets when confined to the gym or garage.  Even though, now in my 40’s, I look like I grew up in a candy store, I think I can still get most places I want to hunt and back provided I’m a little strategic with my route planning.

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I am a firm believer in scouting ahead of time.  I often tell people “hunt them all year, shoot them when the state lets you.”  This was all new area so I needed to learn the access points, roadless areas, where different areas and elevations held different types of vegetation, all the stuff that goes into a new ground.  Shooting is probably the easiest part of the entire hunt.  The rest of the hunt, before and after, is both harder and more challenging.  The challenging part starts right away: deciding where to hunt, how to get there at the right times of day with the proper gear, finding elk, then finding a good bull, and finally getting set up for a clean ethical shot.  Then, assuming you have done all that and killed an elk, comes the hard part…the really hard part: butchering and packing the animal out, usually on your back, to camp and into the coolers.  In the Army, we said that amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics.  With enough practice, shooting is easy.  Getting who, what, when, where, and how you need to be to make that shot, then get all the fruits of your labor home, is quite hard.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no expert, I’m still learning how to hunt and hopefully will continue learning as long as I’m upright, because that’s half the fun!

My calendar dilemma began to take more focus as the months wore on.  Besides being a hunter, I’m also a husband, dad, and business partner for many people who depend on me.  In order to do both hunts correctly with proper research and scouting, I would have to spend more time preparing for both hunts than I had available to me.  Oh sure, I could do both hunts half-assed and hope to get lucky but probably just wind up hating myself after being disappointed.  Or I could turn in one tag and focus on the other.  First world problems indeed.  So I flipped a coin and turned in my Colorado buck tag.  And by flipping a coin, I mean to say I did the usual engineer thing, a formal decision-making matrix process of course of action development with weighted criteria, risk assessment, short and long-term benefit analysis, and point/state/hunt calculus.  I can share further notes if anyone is interested…

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So I planned a scouting trip to New Mexico.  My hunt area is a full day’s drive away from home, but it was close to where we had a project going for work.  I mapped out a combined work/fun trip for August…that promptly got bumped into September.  I also gained a an amazing resource for learning the area in my friend, Eric.  He was a local experienced hunter and happy to take time away from work and family to help me scout and hunt.  This, ladies and gentlemen, is the single best way to make a more rewarding hunt all the way around.  I learned much of the area, stories about animals out of specific areas, where to avoid, brainstormed multiple plans, but moreover I gained a great friend in the process.

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We spent three days hiking and driving around the unit.  I camped a few different places while Eric ran home every night.  The views were breathtaking…this was definitely elk country.  Although much of it was thicker than I anticipated, making it tough to see, there just wasn’t much open country that lent itself to glassing for critters to go hunt.  It looked fantastic for bow hunting, but my tag was for a rifle hunt well after bow season ended.  We went from mountain treeline elevations down to desert Pinyon and sage.  One night I camped right on the edge of the Rio Grande River Canyon.  Nobody told me until the next day that rattlesnakes and tarantulas frequent that low area.  I like my no-floor tipi tent, but after that, the last night I grabbed a hotel.

Pics from my scouting trips, including obligatory post-drenching selfie

Back home I had another month to zero in on where I wanted to hunt.  Two longtime friends and hunting buddies from Colorado, Dan and Shawn, offered to come along and I happily accepted the company and help.  We decided where to camp, a couple spots to set a small spike camp if needed, and a few different plans for specific areas to hunt.  October couldn’t come fast enough!

Planning a hunt in a completely new area also dusted off parts of my brain I hadn’t used since I went to Alaska in 2010…and the dusting was awesome.  I had forgotten how much fun it was learning foreign areas and strategizing new hunts.  Hunting our usual areas in Colorado is still a blast and I look forward to it every year.  But unhunted areas are, well, new, and it fosters a different kind of fun.

The week prior to the opening Saturday finally arrived.  My road-tripping buddies and I all met up in southern CO for dinner that Thursday, then convoyed south to NM.  We were about 45 minutes out from our campsite when Eric called with news.  He had been driving behind another truck who hit a cow elk and just kept going.  Eric had stopped, called the state game officer, dispatched the injured elk, and he was allowed to keep it.  So, we hadn’t even gotten there, the season hadn’t started yet, and we had a dead elk to help butcher!

We parked the camper at the campground and all piled into my truck to go meet Eric.  By the time we got there he was backing his truck into the garage.  We rigged some chains up to hang the two elk halves.  It wasn’t a giant elk, but still big enough where it took all of us to manhandle the parts onto the hooks.  We all decided it was good karma for my hunt!

Eric’s pre-season Good Samaritan harvest!

Friday morning came a little late after the late night of hanging and skinning the elk that led to a later night of catching up and comparing notes.  We drove around Friday looking at a few trailheads, glassing from the road, and chatting it up with others we met around the area.  I wasn’t sure how nonresident hunters would be received but, to a man and woman, everyone I met and spoke to was friendly and seemed genuinely interested in our hunt success.  I met up with Eric and put a few rounds through my rifle just to make sure it survived the road trip with its tackdriver status intact.  It did.

Opening morning finally came and we headed up the Plan A route.  We drove to the trailhead, dumped ATV’s, and headed up the mountain.  If possible, I like to get to as high elevation as possible with a motor or horse before I start hiking.  We found an ATV trail that took us up a couple thousand feet to where we could hike in, glass around, and hike some more without having to gain thousands more feet in elevation by foot.

We spent all day up there hiking and looking around and, sadly, saw no elk.  We saw elk sign in the thicker areas, but could not pick anything out with our binoculars or spotting scopes.  My original plan took us hiking through miles of unanticipated deadfall.  About two miles into that, we stopped and did a reality check about the possibility of knocking down an elk further in and then having to pack it back through this deadfall.  We grabbed lunch out of our packs and turned around.  I didn’t want to be responsible for any broken legs.  

In the late afternoon, we started working our way back down the mountain.  Along the way, we checked a couple side trails that we had passed on the way up.  One of these took us into a nice vantage point overlooking a lower drainage.  I spotted a couple bucks sparring in the distance, a little early I thought, since back home the bucks generally don’t start fighting until late October.  But, this was new country and, as always, mother nature didn’t follow our manmade rules.

Finally, after watching the bucks a bit longer, I glassed some different openings around this lower valley.  Where the oak brush transitioned to aspens, I finally hit paydirt…an elk rump!  I started picking apart the rest of the trees and bushes and sure enough, more elk materialized with a leg here, a head there peeking through the leaves.  All in all, I counted six elk with one much lighter in color than the others.  That is usually a sign of a bull so I focused on him.  Sure enough, he stepped out past a bush and I could see antlers, decent ones at that.  I could see the last two points split so assumed he was at least a five point.  Not a monster, but I watched him anyway for a good 15 minutes, very happy to finally see a bull.  The small herd didn’t seem to want to go far and had a nice little pocket that was hard to view from most of the mountain.  We decided to keep these as our “pocket elk” and maybe come back later if we didn’t find anything better.

On Sunday we drove to a different part of the unit that always held elk this time of year.  I looked to be very thick forest that the elk come out of at night to feed, then back in in the early morning.  We still-hunted our way through it for most of the day.  There were elk in there, tracks from earlier in the day were all over.  At one point, I saw the largest elk track I’ve ever seen in my life.  There were no cattle in there so I knew it had to be a bull elk and that got me really pumped!  We heard faint bugles here and there and I didn’t want to leave.  I was wishing I had been there a month earlier with an archery tag.  We set up a few places in the afternoon, cow called until dark, but none of the ghost elk materialized for a shot.  Day two of the 5-day season had come and gone.

Monday was day three and Eric was back at work, it was just us three out-of-towners.  We decided to head back up Saturday’s mountain, check out a few other angles of spots that looked good, and check on our pocket elk.  I hoped that more elk might have moved in to join them, with a bigger bull, but I was ready to kill that five point if he gave a good opportunity.

We glassed a couple spots on the way up, then parked in the same side trail as Saturday.  Shawn lagged a bit behind fiddling with some gear, but Dan and I headed up the trail to get a look.  We broke out of the trees, set up behind a big Spruce, and I brought up my binoculars.  The pocket was still there, but the elk were not.  I looked around a wider landscape and was pleasantly surprised to see what looked like the same small herd…only closer!  That bull must have been reading my mind and knew I needed just a little nudge to go hunt him.

We decided to move in for a shot.  Dan and I skirted down the hillside to close the distance, we weren’t waiting for Shawn.  It took about 10 minutes but we were able to pick our way diagonally across the slope from tree to tree to hopefully mask our movement.  We picked a spot to sit and shoot and I ranged him…303 yards…that will do!  They were milling around at the edge of an aspen grove just across the ravine in front of us.  He had a couple cows ahead of him and a few behind him.

I set up with shooting sticks and did not bother with my scope turrets at that range.  I keep my .300 Ultra Mag and scope zeroed so that I don’t need to adjust my turrets for any shots inside 350 yards.  I flicked off the safety, set the crosshairs just behind his shoulder, breathed out and focused on pulling the trigger straight back, nice and slowl….BOOM!

Thwack!  That sweet sound welcomed us from across the ravine.  My Nosler Partition bullet had hit home.  In the time it took me to chamber another shell and re-gain my sight picture, the bull hunched up, wobbled, and fell over.  We heard a “Woo Hoo” from up the trail behind us.  Shawn wasn’t far back and had watched the whole thing play out from the first Spruce we originally saw the bull earlier.

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Bull elk piled up in the aspen

We watched the other elk and, to our dismay, they didn’t want to leave.  The kept milling around.  One cow kept giving her quick, shrill call that sounded almost like a dog barking.  This kept on for a good five minutes before they all finally just strolled up into the thicker head of the valley.

We ditched the gear that we would not need for butchering and hauling, then  all hiked down to the bull together.  He was big, a good-sized bull, and my first elk outside of Colorado!  I grabbed the antlers and something looked a little weird…one, two, three, four…where was the fifth point on my five-point?  He had the whale tails but only had four points on either side.  I’ve never seen a bull quite like him.  I wasn’t disappointed, mainly intrigued.  It was a nice set of antlers, heavy and wide, and just happened to be the biggest four-point bull I had ever seen.

Still looking for that fifth point!

We took a pile of pictures, then went to work.  You elk hunters know the routine, the quartering and butchering is almost the hardest part of the hunt…almost.  It took a couple hours to take him apart and get the meat into game bags.  Then came the hardest part, the pack out.  It was an uphill pack back to the ATV’s, but at least it was a decent trail.  We all told ourselves that we had packed elk out of much worse places.

Daytime temperatures were high enough to where hanging the meat back in camp wasn’t a good plan.  After getting everything back up to the ATV’s, we just hung the meat there in the shade.  We would come fetch it early tomorrow morning.  That plan allowed us to get back to camp, clean up, head to town, and have dinner at a place with good beer and cloth napkins!  I figured it was the least I could treat these guys to for helping me out.

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Finally, if you ever get to New Mexico, take in as much local cuisine as possible.  I don’t care if you’re currently doing the Keto, the Paleo, the all-cabbage diet, whatever, throw the rules out the window and just eat!  I’ve been travelling and working projects in that state for 15 years and have never had a bad meal.  The spices, the green chiles in everything, the dishes I can’t pronounce, it’s all amazing!  That evening’s Carne Adovada was no exception, and I still could not tell you what was in it.  Usually, you don’t even need to read the menu, just ask the waitress what she recommends.  Guaranteed, she’ll size you up, decide what would be just right, and be back with a plate of New Mexican goodness in less time than you can say “turquoise, tequila, and tomatillos.”

The food in NM comes with chiles, green or red, on everything.  Don’t fight it.  These plates are from The Gorge Grill in Taos, I highly recommend stopping in.

The Gorge Bar and Grill

We all road-tripped back home the next day, all fat and happy.  I was proud of my big New Mexico four-point bull.  He is definitely unique.  And if you get the chance to hunt outside your usual areas, even to go out-of-state to somewhere brand new, absolutely take it.  Anything you bring home, even if it’s just fantastic memories, will be a trophy.  Plus, you might just be hooked and find yourself planning another trip back!

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