A Spectacular First Bull

by Bob Zaiglin

There are experiences in a sportsman’s life that are no less than spectacular. It might be that first whitetail hunt, the opportunity to pursue the regal sheep of the high country, or that first hunt with a son or daughter. These are occurrences that foster great memories, and sportsmen recognize them when they occur and savor each and every moment. I have been blessed with many memories, but in the fall of ‘99, I was bestowed another spectacular opportunity in the great outdoors. This time it was a tremendous elk hunt in New Mexico.

It all started late in the fall of ‘98 when my friend and avid whitetail hunter Chad Herrington invited me to hunt elk on the Mescalero Indian Reservation with him in September, 1999. I had hunted virtually all big game of North America except elk, and to pursue them on the 640,000-acre Mescalero where trophy bulls are the norm, I knew I was in for another memorable experience.

Now when one conjures up thoughts of hunting elk, they normally imagine a tent camp ensconced in the far reaches of the mountains. Not at the Mescalero--we were housed in the extravagant Inn of the Gods hotel, but the luxury was overkill because of the rare amount of time spent at the lodge.

Upon arrival, hunt manager Jonathan Adams indoctrinated hunters about the reservation and introduced hunters to their guides. My guide was tribal member Christie LaPaz. He was assisted by Lew Mendez. Words were short, and everyone hit the sack because four a.m. came early.

Big Bull Elk Coming To A Bugle
One of the many Mescalero bulls that were bugled in close on this hunt.

The sky was crystal clear and glistening with a multitude of stars as we drove in the predawn darkness to our drop-off point the first morning. Following a fairly short ride, we exited onto a logging road and there waiting for us was the wrangler with our horses. The last words from Chad before exiting the pickup was “you’re not going to believe this place”, and he was right. Mounting our horses, bugling elk could be heard in the distance.

Riding the horses up the logging road, the distorted figures of predawn began to take shape. We were horsebacking through a lush green valley paralleled on each side by towering ponderosa pines. At sunrise bugling intensified in every direction, making it hard to decipher which direction to go, but Christie never hesitated until we reached an open, burned over mountainside. The mountainside appeared wide open and covered by an abundance of young grasses relished by elk. Bugling intensified in volume as we approached the burn, and upon dismounting, gun in hand, the sounds of guttural grunts and bellowing whines of the bulls became intoxicating. My excitement level rose exponentially with every bellow.

Following a short hike, the entire mountainside could be viewed, and bulls appeared everywhere but right in front of us was a tremendous bull--at 75 yards and slowly walking away was a 6x6, actually 6x5 with a broken G-2 on the left. Christie said he would score 360 and that he was a shooter, but I opted to wait. After all, I was hunting the land of huge bulls--I gambled. After glassing the five or six bulls on the burn, we remounted and traversed the mountainside. It was not long before a high-pitched bugle exploded ahead of us. Dismounting once again we positioned ourselves amongst the now heavily vegetated understory, and Christie bellowed out a loud bugle. Immediately, the huge bull bugled back and charged to within 20 yards of us--a fine bull but not one that interested Christie. Bulls responded the entire morning and by 11 a.m., we were heading back to our starting point where we enjoyed a huge packed lunch and stories of the morning’s events.

The evening hunt found us glassing the same mountainside but bulls were silent. While traversing the ponderosa covered mountainsides, we saw two nice bulls, but the warm, clear afternoon had suppressed bull activity.

On the 19th, our second day, we returned to the burn and glassed five nice bulls. Entering the burn, we found ourselves surrounded by bugling bulls. Suddenly a fight broke out just over the ridge. The clashing of horns was deafening. Subordinate bulls responding to the fight charged in towards the battle. One curious young bull supporting a rather large rack paused within 10 feet of us making Chad more than nervous as the bull was right behind him. Suddenly the bull wheeled around and disappeared as Christie and I burst out in laughter, and Chad emitted a sigh of relief. This place was absolutely phenomenal we viewed bull after bull, and as we did, I felt more reluctant to shoot in order to prolong the experience.

Bob's Guide Bugling For Bull Elk
Christie continually bugled in bulls that would be outstanding bulls for even the most discriminating hunter.

Moving off the burned area and into the thicker understory, Christie bugled in a bull that I really thought I would shoot. With my gun resting on a decaying log and Christie and Chad some 15 feet behind me, the bull entered a clearing 75 yards from me. Counting six points on one side and seven on the other complemented by extremely heavy beams, I felt that surge of excitement normal before I shoot. Entering the clearing, a ray of sunlight struck the bulls’s beams making them appear longer and larger. I slid the safety off and prepared to shoot when I heard Chad whisper, “hold off”. On any other hunt I would have thought he was crazy, but instead I clicked the safety back on and breathed a sigh of relief because the hunt would continue.

Riding further we spotted the huge bull with the broken G-2 below us and with sunlight on its majestic rack, it looked huge but again I hesitated. We finished the second morning hunt unsaddling the horses and dining on the contents of another Mescalero box lunch.

During the evening hunt, we opted to drive some of the many negotiable yet weathered logging roads throughout the area. Unlike the day before, we were into bulls all evening. At one point following a rapid exit from the truck we had a mature 6x6 bull run up to within 30 yards of us. An outstanding bull scoring in the 335 range, but once again I held off.

Just before dark we heard a bull bugling and tearing up young pine saplings on a distant mountainside. We stalked within 70 yards of the belligerent animal. The deep tone in its voice indicated that it may be the dominant bull I hoped for, and while waiting for it to present itself, my excitement level escalated. We could see trees shaking and hear some of them breaking, but could not see the bull. Suddenly, silence. Through the virtually impenetrable understory, I could see one huge beam with six long tines. I knew this would be the one, but upon renegotiating our position, we found the bull missing the entire right beam. How could anything that huge break, and what combatant broke it where the questions I asked myself on the way back down the mountainside and to the truck.

Horsebacking to the burn the third morning we saw the massive single-beamed bull we stalked the night before as it crossed the valley bottom. Bulls once again covered the burn, but no luck on that truly exceptional bull I hoped for.

That evening we decided to drive the truck to the burn and walk out the area. While doing so, we saw the 360-class bull I had passed over the last two days. This time we were only 50 yards from it, and I really decided to shoot it if we saw it again in the morning.

At breakfast on the fourth morning, we decided to change areas, a real gamble, but not on the Mescalero. Fog inundated the mountains and with little bugling, our morning hunt was cut short. With forecasts for bad weather and only one day left to hunt, I knew my fourth evening may be my last.

Leaving early after lunch, we drove to a place called Turkey Wells. With cloudy skies, we mounted and traveled a logging road up a steep mountainside. It was not long before bugling bulls could be heard on the opposing mountainside, forcing us to drop down, cross the vast valley, and check them out.

Bob's Spectacular First Bull
Walking up to ones first bull elk is one of natures ultimate high country rewards for enduring the elements..

Immediately Christie called in one 6x6 and actually told me to shoot, but again I restrained myself. But it was not long before we were calling to another bull on a rocky scrub oak-covered mountainside. The bull approached to within 150 yards of us at one point and seeing its extremely tall G-5's elevating above the thick cover above me looked strong. Chad and I snuck closer to the bull as Christie and Lew remained stationary, bugling upon occasion. Since I could hear the bull but could not see it, I continually shifted positions until the bull moved and I could see its shoulder and a portion of its neck through the understory. No time to find a rest, I raised my 7 mm, placed the crosshairs on its shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The crack of the rifle echoed across the distant ridges as the bull cratered to the ground only to return to its feet for a short run before folding, adding just that much more excitement to another relished event in my outdoor memory bank.




Russell, MB
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