Wrong Tag


Montana’s draw is coming up and it’s got me to thinking about my last elk hunt.   It was in New Mexico and I chose a late season cow elk hunt for a couple reasons.  It let me hunt with my cousin Trent Spencer and his buddy Franklin Romero; and it also gave me better odds of being drawn.  A late season hunt is more difficult because the elk have been chased all fall, and the weather is dicey.  But I’m into adventure and wanted to hunt.

Trent has killed some  huge mule deer in a neighboring unit and has taken a cow elk where we were going to be hunting.  He’s from Texas originally but moved there in the mid 90’s. Frank is a native New Mexican and can trace his roots to the original Spanish land-grants.  His family has been hunting since their arrival and he was responsible for most of our scouting.   He’s taken many fine mule deer, bear and is a great photographer.   I arrived a couple days ahead of the season and joined Frank and Trent to scout.  We found some decent sign and planned our hunt.

Field Reference Chart
Water is a big issue in the high deserts of New Mexico.  We were hunting Unit 9, the Mount Taylor area near Grants, New Mexico.  We focused on Ranger tanks, but had to adjust our plans when some guys camped right on the tank.  Camping right where the elk want to be is not uncommon when you’re hunting on public land, so we had to adjust and get away from the crowds.

We abandoned that plan and went to a neighboring area.  In the early Pliocene, about 3.8 million years ago, volcanoes erupted in the region eventually forming a giant volcano at Mount Taylor, flanked by mesas covered with basaltic lavas and cones formed by fragments of lava thrown out during eruptions. It was one of these mesas Frank took us.   Now covered with pinion and juniper forests, we were finding lots of tracks.  Soon we kicked up a young 2×2 mule deer and the ground was crisscrossed by elk tracks.

One of the problems we faced was a constant giant full moon and mild weather.  This meant most of the elk activity was occurring during the night.  Day two yielded no elk.  However we did come upon a giant mule deer.  The Mount Taylor area isn’t known for big bucks but this 6×6 was a huge one. At least 40 inches tall.  Trent really wanted to shoot it, but alas no tag.  He wept a little.

On day three cloud cover moved in blocking the moon all night.  Daylight found us atop the mesa and more than 13 miles from the steep mining road we took to get to the top.  We found ourselves looking at 3 big bull elk, and a raghorn. They were hauling butt out of the park and into some pinion.  I ranged them at 270 yards.   Two 5×5’s, a massive 7 x5 and a little rag-horn bull.  Again, I only had a cow tag.

Cow elk are easier to find right?

The bulls were heading parallel to a horse shoe ridge overlooking a steep, nasty canyon.  Frank went west, and I went east.  Trent stayed near the park where we saw them to see if more would appear or if we would spook some into the open.  As it happened everything was perfect for a still hunt.  The wind was in my face, the pinions were thin enough I could slip between them silently, and the cherry on top was it was now lightly snowing.  We made a quick foray and met back up in an hour, because Frank had to go to work.  Trent took him into town promising to meet me at the end of the road.  Assuring them I’d be fine, they reluctantly left me alone to hunt.

I resumed my hunt.  Easing along the rim of this canyon I was trying to find how they got down into the thick stuff when I found the trail they used to climb out of the draw.  The trail was narrow, steep and most people wouldn’t believe a thousand pound animal could run up this trail.  Clearly, not something I’d feel comfortable trying to do myself without a safety seat, caribiner and some rope to repell to the bottom.  But it looked like I wouldn’t have to.  The trail was leading the way I was headed and had what appeared to have  two sets of tracks.  One large and one small.   The snow had begun accumulating and I knew they were fresh because the tracks were crisp with well-defined edges.   My thoughts were they belonged to a cow and yearling calf.    I’ve only hunted a handful of times in the snow and never for elk so I was highly motivated to say the least.  I was so motivated, when I came upon some elk poop, I picked it up to check its temp.   You know your a crazy hunter when you are excited to be holding warm elk crap.  You just don’t get this from Cabela’s Big Game hunting on Playstation.

I didn’t want to move too fast  and spook them,so I stopped often.   Slowly I worked through the thick juniper, pinion and rock piles.  While resting on a boulder, I saw movement.  A massive elk was only 25 yards away, walking straight to me.

His chocolate fur over his neck and shoulder undulated as he moved.  His great antlers glowed with a crown-like exuberance.  With his head to the ground smelling the snow he  ambled to me; as if we had a preordained meeting, and he was early and had time to kill.  A 6×7 . My heart was pounding, I heard drums in the distance.  Snow flurries whispered to the ground, the cold composite stock of my Tikka 3006 grew heavy in my hands, and a  bead of sweat inched down my forehead –time was standing still.   The giant beast had the gate of a person used to being king of his surroundings.   My gun raised, cross hairs just above the crease in his shoulders, safety engaged,  a 180 grain Nosler Partition ready to explode in a thunderous boom, and then–nothing.  I lowered my rifle.  Stupid cow tag.

And this wasn’t even the one I was trailing. Exhaling, I continued on my stalk. After another thirty minutes, I walked up a small bull. I never found the elk leaving the other tracks.

As I temporarily  left the junipers and the excitement of the tracking, I found the snow storm had fully hit. I was about 8500 feet elevation and the clouds seemed to have dropped right to my head.  The fog and snow were to blowing in my face and sudden feelings of vulnerability overcame me.    My visibility was down to 50 yards at most.   I checked my Garmin.  Thankfully, I had full satellite connection. It was getting dark around 5:30 and I had to trace the rim of the canyon to get back to the road about a mile and half away.  Once I found the road, it would be 12 miles to the bottom of the Mesa and close to dark.  I wasn’t going to make pavement before 8, almost four hours after dark.

You can barely see the road cut into the face of this mesa. Muddy and wet, it wasn’t something I wanted to hike down in the dark.

Meanwhile, the storm had hit town earlier than on the mountain, and the highway department had already closed some highways.  Frank and Trent decided to come get me before all routes of transportation were shut down.  Frank’s appointment was canceled due to the storm.

Snow Highway
Highway closures were soon in effect.

Of course, I didn’t know this and when I found the dirt road where we agreed to meet, they weren’t there.  I wouldn’t likely have found it had it not been for my Garmin Oregon, which I whole heartily endorse.  Always had a strong GPS lock.

Snow Road
The road was only discernible by its river like appearance.

I stopped and put on my outer shell.  I sweat copiously so I had been doing all my tracking wearing only merino wool base layers.  The snow was coming down in furor and gales of wind were pushing me around. The mud under the snow was slippery and I fell a few times, spraining my wrist.   I’d been walking for two hours and by my GPS  I’d  gone just less than 4 miles, pretty slow pace.  I still had a ways to go, and it became apparent I was going to hike down the steep road in the dark.  I decided I had to get off the mesa.  I was worried the mining road would be iced over, and since I kept slipping I was worried the Jeep wouldn’t make it up the slick  incline.  I had all my tarp tent with me, but I had no intentions of stopping.  I also had no intentions of sliding 2000 feet on my rear and possibly over the edge resulting in an impending search and rescue, a wake, a funeral, etc.

Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to do any walking in the dark, as after another mile of walking I see Frank and Trent rounding the bend in the Jeep to pick me up. When we hit town that night, over beers and carne adovada, they admitted they were  upset with themselves for leaving me.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t have been drug away after seeing the elk we saw.

The snow storm cleared the next day and the elk reverted to their nocturnal nature. I didn’t see any more elk the rest of the trip.  Despite eating so called “tag soup,” I considered my elk hunting trip a success.  I had fun, learned where to find elk, and could have shot a monster bull.  However, I won’t apply for a cow only tag only for quite some time.

Cactus Vista
The Continental Divide Trail runs over the ridge in the foreground.

As an aside, I did bring along my shotgun; so the day after the season I did some rabbit hunting.  I didn’t want to leave New Mexico without drawing blood of some kind.



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