Last year my good friend Steve had the great fortune to draw an excellent premium unit New Mexico bull elk tag. When he called to ask if I would accompany him, I had no idea that I was going to experience something truly remarkable and unforgettable.
Steve is a great friend of mine who did not grow up hunting and has only gotten into hunting the past three years. He had been on one other elk hunt which was essentially a long and tiring hike with no elk seen and some very moody hunting companions. Steve put in his due diligence for this hunt and spent a lot of time scouting the unit and talking to individuals with experience in that unit. I decided it would be cost prohibitive to trailer my horses down across state lines, so Steve proposed that we use mountain bikes to access the hunting area. That was a new one to me! Steve is a very avid biker and rides almost every day on high end equipment. I on the other hand…haven’t been on a bike in 10+ years and am used to riding Huffy specials!
We arrived at our camping area the afternoon prior to the hunt. We set up camp and then immediately set off on the closed access road which only allowed foot, horse, and yes, bike access! That evening we filmed over 10 branch antlered bulls and heard them all bugling non-stop. I was quickly beginning to change my initial assessment of this hunt being over-hyped! That night we were serenaded by bugling bulls all around our camp.
The next morning, we arose and set off on our 4.5-mile bike ride into the unit. We quickly began passing up the other 9 lucky tag holders who were on foot or horseback. Even though the seat was killing me, I was extremely glad Steve had decided to use the bikes. While we were riding in we heard nothing but bugles from all around us but especially from one area. Multiple elk were bugling every minute on the minute. Once the sky started to gray with the morning light we saw a herd of about 200 elk with multiple herd bulls in it chasing cows and dozens of satellite bulls. It was pure chaos and I had never seen anything like it on public land before! We stashed the bikes and took off. The herd stayed ahead of us with the growing light, going farther up the mountain into the dark timer and aspens. There the herd bulls all split off into different areas. We spent the next few hours working in on different bulls and passing each in hopes of a bigger one. Now remember Steve had never killed an animal before this, so it was killing him to pass on branch-antlered bulls less than 40 yards from us! But we had a goal and I wasn’t going to let him settle for less in a special unit like this.
After lunch and short nap, a storm rolled in with some steady rain and heavy winds. The elk became vocal again and we were back to chasing bugles in the timber. After a couple of close calls with some big bulls in timber we were down to the last hour of daylight. Steve pointed out some elk in a meadow about 2 miles away. We quickly set up the spotting scope and saw that there was a really nice shooter bull in them. We hustled toward them and belly crawled across a grass hillside to a small knob about 400 yards from them. This bull was a solid 6x6 and a shooter in Steve’s book. As we were watching the herd, more elk were filtering down out of the aspens above us and multiple herd bulls were screaming their heads off just out of sight. Steve then asked me about a bull off to our left that had just appeared. His antlers dwarfed is body size! He was the biggest bull in sight and quickly became our focus. While he slowly fed away from us Steve practiced dry firing to calm his nerves. The bull then turned broadside, I called the range to Steve, and he shot…and missed! The elk were all on alert now and Steve’s nerves were through the roof! I spoke to him calmly to help him resettle for the next shot. Steve did his part and made a good shot on the bull that put him down. We could tell that the bull was down but not dead, so Steve worked his way toward the bull and put a finishing round in him.
After a much-deserved celebration and picture session we settled in to break down the elk. I told Steve to get out his knives and saw. He informed me that he left them in another pack back at the bikes…over 2 miles away! I was shocked but not worried because I had a knife with me. I then told Steve to get his game bags and rope out, to which he replied that those also were at the bikes…over 2 miles away! When I picked my jaw up off the ground for the second time, I asked him to get his headlamp out so that he could help me gut the elk. He again responded that his lights were at the bikes…over 2 miles away! At this point my shock turned to frustration which eventually turned to humor. You couldn’t have scripted this worse! Needless to say, Steve got a crash course in breaking down an elk in the gutless method with one knife, one light, and barely enough rope to hang uncovered quarters in a tree. Thankfully it was cold enough that the flies were not an issue. Even though Steve felt terrible for leaving all of his equipment, I know he learned in many ways what not to do next time.
That night we rode back to camp in the pitch-dark night, startling herds of elk and deer, whose eyes looked like floating orbs in our headlamps. It was another sight I have never seen and may never see again. We got back to camp at 3 AM, crashed, and got up at 7 AM to retrieve the bull. We had to ride in 3 miles on bike, hike 1.5 to the bull, and then repeat twice coming out with quarters. Riding out with the heavy elk quarters going uphill and rocketing downhill with their momentum was an experience and quite a sight! After logging 45 miles on our legs, in 36 hours, of hiking and riding we were finally done and thoroughly exhausted! Never have I have experienced such a unique elk hunt and I will never forget it. We used mountain bikes to gain access to hundreds of elk, heard over 500 elk bugles in one day, captured amazing elk footage, shot a great DIY, public land bull, and earned every part of it.
Keep this hunt in mind when you are planning your next Western venture. Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box when it comes to accessing areas or retrieving game. Bikes, game carts, llama or horse rentals, pack goats, drop camps, and horse packers are just a few of the options out there. Also, don’t forget to diversify where you apply. Don’t make every application for a premium unit or you might only get to hunt the West a couple of times. Hunt general units so when you draw a premium tag you will be more experienced to get that trophy. Western hunting always beats sitting at home.
Hunt hard, hunt often and be out in it.