Day three started out with a long circle starting in the bedding areas and working toward the feeding areas and hoping to meet them right in the middle. I called in two bulls, but neither of them were the one we were looking for. After a few miles and tons of bugles, it was back to camp to prepare for the evening in the ‘honey hole’.
My wife had been a trooper the whole hunt so she earned an evening off. We drove to the top of the ridge and she set up with the laptop to watch a good movie while I began the trek off into the blind. We had gotten out a little late on this day so I covered as much ground as I could as fast as I could. About 25 minutes later I was at the tank, card pulled from the trail camera and in the blind. I threw the card in my pocket pc and as expected there were numerous pictures of bulls and a couple of good ones! By the time I looked at all of the pictures, I was already drenched in sweat. It was 83 degrees when I got there, the blind would still be in the sun for about 15 more minutes and I had not given myself any time to cool down from the hike before I got in. It was time to drop some layers and try to cool off before I started putting out too much scent. I took a quick look out all of my peep holes and the coast was clear. I hurried to pull off my outer shirt and get started cooling down. It was still early and I figured I had plenty of time to get comfortable and then recovered for primetime. But, like I said, it is a bull’s prerogative to do what he wants when he wants.
Just as I got comfortable, I looked out the peep hole to the south and could see legs moving through the trees. Now, the first night I had seen hundreds of legs moving through those same trees but they were not elk legs, they transported beef cows. However, these legs were tall and dark – I knew right then this was an elk and a big one. I reached for my Sitka shirt and threw it back on real quick. By the time I got my eye back to the peep hole, he was already coming out into the open and I could not believe my eyes! On his left side, he had 11 points, a typical 7 point horn with another long point extending between his 6th and 7th points that had 3 more points coming of it, like nothing I had even seen. His right side then came out of the trees. He was massive on that side as well but was broken off right after his 5th point. No hesitation on my part though, this bull was the one.
It all happened in a matter of seconds – from his appearance until he was standing 27 yards in front of me. I drew my Alpine Nitrous, dropped a pin in the pocket right behind his elbow and let it fly. The sound of the arrow ripping through his chest was loud and strong. He turned and tried to climb out of the canyon but could only make it a couple of steps. He tried again and crashed into a small patch of oak trees.
He was down, less than 40 yards from me, but while I couldn’t see him, I could hear him wheezing. I gathered my thoughts. I knew it was a well placed lethal hit. Also, there was no place for him to go without me being able to see him just in case I had to get off another shot. It was just a matter of waiting him out. I sat back, caught my breath and started the waiting game. Little did I know, it was time for another lesson.
After about ten minutes of waiting and hearing his gurgling breaths, he started to cough very deeply. The sounds left no doubt, he was pierced through both lungs and it would not be too long. The coughing progressed to a point where it sounded like he had actually coughed up both of his lungs … then silence.
I waited about 10 more minutes. Not a sound… not a breath or a leaf move or a twig snap – nothing – absolute silence. I was sure he had expired and all of the other thoughts started to bounce through my head. It was still about 80 degrees, so we had to get that skin off of him quick and get him opened up or he would start to spoil. It would be dark soon and that would make things far more difficult. Then there was that huge climb from the tank to the top of the mountain to pack him out. I needed to recruit some help and I needed to do it fast. My instincts told me I needed to give him a little more time. The threat of the hot weather said “Get him out of here now”. Time for that lesson – always follow your instincts!
I decided that my best option was to sneak out of the blind, head up the canyon a short ways, climb out and go get some help. I knew I was not hearing any more wheezing and knew he had tried to climb out twice and could not do it. I was ‘sure’ he was dead but did not want to take a chance and bump him if by some strange chance he wasn’t. The time it would take me to get back to camp and get some help to get him out would give him plenty of time to totally expire if needed. So, like a rookie, off I went. I snuck out of the blind, up the creek (never hearing him breath or move) and once far enough away from the tank, climbed out. Met my wife with the great news and headed to camp. Little did I know!
When I got back to camp, I made a couple of calls and help was on the way. The rancher offered to take a horse and meet me back at the tank and help get him out. That was music to my ears! While we were developing a strategy, I heard something I had not heard in two weeks – THUNDER! I ran back outside and the sky was black! For those of you that have never hunted in New Mexico, let me let you in on a little secret. If you don’t’ like the weather here, wait 15 minutes and it will change. From the time we had got back to camp the skies had filed with huge rain clouds and it was about to get really wet. My first thought was, if he moved, I would never find him. I grabbed my gear, told the rancher I would see him at the tank and drove as fast as I could back to the trailhead. From that point forward everything that could go wrong did, just as Murphy said it would.
It had already started to pour. My wife and I ran back into the tank, to that spot in the little oaks where I had left him and my heart sank – no elk. I started looking all around for a blood trail, tracks, anything that would give me an idea of which direction he had gone before the rain finished destroying the trail. About that time the rancher made it to the tank and yelled for me to come look in the tank. Look ‘in’ the tank? What could that mean? I walked the rest of the way down the slope and over to the edge of the tank. With a flashlight, the rancher pointed out my arrow floating in the middle of the dirt tank. Now, that might not have been such a big deal if I did not know for a fact that when the elk went down in those oaks, my arrow was still in him!
I made a quick sweep of the area and found a set of tracks going from the spot where I had left him to the tank. I walked around the tank 3 or 4 times but could find no tracks leaving the tank. We started debating if he had got off into the water, went into shock and went down in the tank? Nothing suggested otherwise. By this time, it had already rained about an inch and a half and the lightning was popping off of every tree around. We quickly decided that we needed to get back to the safety of camp and solve this problem the next morning.
The walk out was long and the night restless. Morning could not come soon enough. At daybreak, the rancher offered to saddle up again and ride the canyon while we walked into the tank and started there. With much apprehension, we accepted his offer and headed for the trail head. It was still raining lightly with an overnight total of almost 3 inches of rain. Not a good start to the day. Once we reached the tank, we started all over again. Beginning at the last place I had seen the bull, we walked in circles for an hour looking for tracks. Nothing but the ones leading to the water we had seen the night before. We walked up and down the canyon a couple of miles each direction following up every set of fresh tracks we could find, but none of them led to my bull. The rancher and his horse covered many miles as well, to no avail. By noon the storm had broke and so was my hope of finding the bull. We met the rancher back at the tank around lunch time, and he only had one thing to say, “That bull is in the bottom of that 40 foot deep tank”!
Now what? Could we make a grappling hook and try to hook him and drag him out? Could work if there were not so many huge trees in the bottom of the tank that would just cause us snag after snag, or maybe we could find someone with scuba gear to go down in the tank, find him and hook him up to a rope so we could pull him out? OK, we live in the desert so let’s forget the scuba idea …. The chance of finding scuba gear here is about like the chance of finding an arctic snow suit in the Bahamas. The first time we got a grappling hook hung up we are finished with that idea and let’s face it, if he did sink to the bottom (and we could not see any signs of him floating), then he is probably hung up in those trees as well. And, it had just rained over 3 inches and the resulting runoff had filled the tank to the brim and had the water so muddy that you could not see an inch deep into the water. Ever been in one of those spots where you feel helpless? That is exactly where we were standing!
We spent the three remaining days of the hunt walking around in that area knowing we would not find the bull but feeling a sense of responsibility to spend every minute we had left trying. Each time we walked past that tank my stomach would get a big empty feeling. Was the bull settled onto the bottom of the tank or had he got off without a trace? The final evening I sat in that blind without seeing a single critter. The hunt was over and it was time to head back to the daily grind of work and the long winter of second guessing and wondering.
As winter now gives way to spring and a renewed vigor to start filling out those public draw applications, I am still looking back at that elk hunt and wondering. There are some things I am sure about though. The hunting lessons I have covered are always true. The pre-hunt scouting, equipment preparation, ability to adapt and getting out there and getting after them will always lead to a higher success rate, regardless of an individual hunts outcome. Our instincts are important. We all have past experiences that create those instincts and a failure to follow them will normally cost each of us in the end. This hunt will no doubt add to my ‘instinct database’. All of these are important lessons to keep in the forefront of our hunt planning and preparation.
However, I think the real lesson from this hunt may be the hardest one for each of us to ever grasp. No matter how hard we work, no matter how well we plan, no matter how great of a ‘game plan’ we have and how well we execute it, our success in the field all comes down to one simple truth. We are not in control, He is!
God Bless each of you in your hunting endeavors.