Gila National Forest Monster Elk

Joe Democko Bull Elk
Joe Democko with his giant 404 5/8" New Mexico bull Elk

When Iowa bowhunter Joe Democko received notification last summer that he had drawn an elk tag for the Gila National Forest in western New Mexico he had no idea he was about to embark on the hunt of a lifetime. In fact, he was more than a little apprehensive. Despite the fact that Democko had taken bulls on his other two hunts to the area, he knew the drought of 2002 was sure to have a detrimental affect on the area’s elk. When the elk are in less than optimum condition the bulls don’t grow their best antlers and the cows often fail to even come into estrous. When that happens, the rut – the bowhunter’s only real hope for a big bull – barely materializes. So it was with mixed emotions that Joe prepared for his early September trip to New Mexico.

The guide would be Richie Hogan, the only elk guide Joe had ever used. Joe felt confident that if anyone could beat the tough conditions and find a nice bull, Richie was the man to do it.

The story as told by Joe Democko

The hunt started like any early September elk hunt, it was slow. We checked some waterholes but nothing impressed us. The bulls were very quiet and we never heard a bugle until the third day. It wasn’t until the fifth day of the hunt that we started to get into consistent action.

The spot we chose that morning was an area where one of Richie’s friends had found a huge set of sheds in 2000. The antlers scored 380 inches with a spread equal to the shortest beam. I don’t think his friend, who is also an elk guide, was necessarily hoping we’d get the bull, but he did say there were other nice bulls in that drainage too. Carlos is a good guy. I hope we didn’t break his heart too badly with what we did next.

It was September 5, 2002; a day that dawned cold and clear. As we sat in the truck waiting for light, shapes began appearing and moving around us. They were elk and they were just 50 yards from the truck. The vehicle didn’t bother them in the least as they slowly fed down the hill. We quietly got out of the truck and the bugling started.

After an hour we finally caught up with a bugling bull only to find that there were actually two - both 5X5’s and not big enough. Richie managed to call in two other bulls but they were even smaller. The majority of the bugling was coming from a deep ravine on the opposite side of the big drainage but it was too late for us to get there before the action died. Finally, around 10:00 A.M. everything fell quiet. We decided to try to get on one of the bulls on the opposite mountain that afternoon.

By noon it turned overcast and by early afternoon it was drizzling. We found a two-track lane that led right up the canyon and decided to use it. We walked about a mile before Richie bugled. Almost instantly he was answered. I looked at my watch; it was 4:30.

Richie and I began to side-hill around the mountain as we climbed, trying to get above the bull. We had to go slow because there were other elk in the area. Soon the bulls were bugling almost non-stop. We knew we were getting closer as the bugles became louder and louder. Richie decided to set up above the bull with the weakest bugle. He told me that many times the biggest bull doesn’t always have the loudest bugle.

We called and bugled to this bull for 20 minutes. He was excited and we caught a glimpse of him down in a ravine, but he wouldn’t come in. The only thing that came our way was a small group of cows and they bee-lined it up the mountain. Richie said we had to follow them and get to the top of the mountain before the bulls did. That was easier said than done. At 6’ tall and 240 pounds with a tradition of hunting mainly in the flatlands of Iowa, I am no gazelle. Thank God those cows weren’t moving fast.

The cows were feeding at a steady pace up the mountain. We had been shadowing them for several hundred yards when I heard a branch break to my right over on the next ridge. Then a bull let out a piercing bugle. Richie and I dove into action. We stalked to the edge of the ridge we were on and looking down the slope Richie spotted a small group of cows. For some reason I was looking further down the mountain and saw an antler. Actually what I saw was a set of extremely long front points sticking out from behind a small spruce tree. The bull had probably been raking that tree.

Richie whispered, “Joe, there’s a 6X6 behind the cows; shoot it!” Richie cow called and the 320-class bull stopped at 20 yards, staring straight at us. When I didn’t shoot, Richie turned back to me with a confused look. That’s when I motioned down the hill to the other bull. I still couldn’t see his whole rack but Richie was ahead of me and had a better angle. He also had a set of 10 power Leica binoculars. I have a 320-inch bull broadside at twenty yards staring at me – a bull I would have shot under any other conditions – and a larger bull that was standing 25 yards beyond wondering what the heck is going on and out of the corner of my eye I see Richie’s hands start shaking violently as he tries to hold the I picked up my rangefinder and zapped the tree the bull was behind: 46 yards. Richie looked up and whispered, “I never saw that bull”. I replied, “Just stop him”. Richie knew what I meant because we had been through this routine a time or two. I still had no idea the bull was world-class, which was probably a good thing. The old bull quickly figured us out and decided it was time to leave. He swapped ends and started down the mountain.

In the same blink of an eye I drew back and Richie cow called - stopping the bull long enough for me to put my 50-yard pin on him. I use a vertical pin sight from Trophy Ridge because it helps me keep the bow upright on steep slopes and I was glad I had it this day. The sight picture looked good so I squeezed the release and watched as the red and white fletching headed down the mountain. It was getting late in the afternoon and there were dark pockets in the timber, so I wasn’t able to follow the arrow the whole way. I heard the hollow thump of the impact and the bull crashed down the side of the mountain. Richie looked up and said, “you hit him. I saw blood on his side.”

The next few moments were a confusing blur of brown and tan. Elk were running everywhere. I’m not sure how many cows and satellite bulls were in the group but it sounded like a cattle stampede. We waited a few minutes for things to settle down and then we slowly walked to the spot where we last saw the bull. Right away Richie spotted a football-sized pool of blood but there was a bit of stomach contents mixed in. Ritchie said, “I think you may have hit him a bit far back. This bull is over 380 and we are not going to bump him. We’ll come back and find him in the morning.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

Any hunter who has gone to bed with a possible wounded animal out in the woods knows the kind of night I spent. Sleep was very difficult and I rolled around every five minutes. Dawn couldn’t come soon enough for me. I relived the shot a thousand times and by morning I was confident that we would find this bull. On a previous hunt together I had watched Richie trail a nice 5X6 bull by his hoof prints until I was able to get a 48-yard shot. I knew he was a great tracker, and I sure was happy to have him along for this one.

We made it back to the first spot of blood around 7:15 the next morning. I found my arrow a few feet away from the blood trail and it was covered with dried blood. The blood trail was sparse in the beginning but as we continued down the mountain it slowly started to get heavier. We reached the bottom of the canyon and had followed the trail uphill for about 20 yards when Richie whispered, “There he is!”

As we got closer, I could clearly see the huge rack for the first time. Words cannot describe how I felt walking up on such a tremendous animal. He was dead; the 125-grain broadhead had done its job. I hit the third to last rib on the left, the entry side, and the arrow exited the opposite side right behind the front shoulder. Amazingly, it then passed completely through the upper side on the right leg of the bull. For the first time in his life Richie had no idea what this bull would score. He had never seen anything like it. And, of course, neither had I. We just sat and admired the bull for a long time.

We took pictures - lots of pictures - and then we began the process of packing this critter out. We had him back at Mick’s camp by 1:00 that afternoon. He caused quite a stir everywhere we stopped.

An official measurer from Arizona, scored Joe’s bull 60 days after the kill. The scorer arrived at a gross typical score of 421 inches gross and a net of 404 5/8 inches. Joe is unsure if he will enter the bull. If it is entered and this score is upheld, Joe’s bull would be the new number two Yellowstone elk, trailing only the 409 2/8 inch bull shot by Chuck Adams during the fall of 2000.

 

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