New Mexico Muzzleloader Elk Hunt

New Mexico Elk Hunting Mescalero Reservation
Elk could be heard bugling on the opposing slope, but my guide Marty Moore and I had to sit tight until the cloud of fog blanketing the mountainside dissipated, relinquishing a view experienced by few sportsmen—a mountainside covered with raging bulls.

by Bob Zaiglin

Persistent light rain and a little fog represent ideal hunting conditions when pursuing whitetails, but when it comes to elk in the high country, things come to an abrupt halt. With time running out on my first muzzle loader elk hunt in New Mexico, my guide and good friend Marty Moore and I found ourselves ensconced on a rocky outcrop enveloped by a blanket of thick fog.

As the morning sun, absent for days, attempted to break through the soup, we heard several bulls screaming on the opposing slope, one of which emitted a deep, guttural mature-sounding bugle, but with zero visibility, we were forced to remain stationary for fear of spooking the herd.

Suddenly, a brisk gust of wind whipped across the mountainside, the fog dissipated, and an elk hunter’s dream materialized right before our eyes. The blanket of wet grass covering the adjacent slope reflected a warm, soft yellow color from the morning sun as several mature trophy class bulls tending a small herd of cows grazed the, lignified grass on the open mountainside. As the portrait of bugling bulls hazing a herd of cows filled my optics, it was hard to remove the glasses from my eyes, but upon Marty’s excited statement, “Let’s go”, I was on the move.

Just before initiating our descent down the steep mountainside, we spotted a deep, washed-out drainage not far from the bottom extending quarter way up the other side of the ridge right towards the preoccupied bulls. Immediately we entered the pebble-laden, eroded drainage and stalked at a rapid pace to the bottom of the valley. With my .50 caliber Knight muzzleloader strapped over my back, I paused frequently to insure that I didn’t jam the barrel into the side of the drainage, clogging it up with dirt. Arriving at the base of the valley, we crawled up onto a sandbar to relocate the bulls. Peering over the sand-laden embankment, cows appeared everywhere with four trophy-class bulls amongst them. With several 6x6 bulls in the 330-to 350-inch Boone and Crockett range grazing not 200 yards from us, it was truly a sight to behold. From a huge cedar motte located on the pinnacle of the mountainside could be heard the bull with the deep guttural bugle. Skylighted on top of the ridge appeared an elk hunter’s ultimate dream, an 8x8 bull that would easily score in the 380 range. It was definitely the one I wanted, but with three additional bulls and several cows between us, getting close enough for a shot was almost impossible.

New Mexico Bull Elk
 Once a threatened species, elk are now abundant, affording sportsmen ample opportunity to experience one of nature’s unique challenges—bugling up bulls.

With the trench dissipating not far up the slope occupied by the elk, we found ourselves crawling over sparsely vegetated ground towards the magnificent bull. With little cover I had to be ready to shoot quickly. With my 7mm magnum we would have already been filming harvest pictures, but armed with a single shot muzzleloader, I had to be close, less than 150 yards. Slowly crawling to within 200 yards of the magnificent bull was accomplished, but it took too much time. The cows, irritated by the belligerent satellite bulls, disappeared over the top followed immediately by the 8x8. I was then faced with a decision—should I pursue the magnificent bull or try and take one of the others that remained within shooting range. Our time limitation, compounded by unpredictable weather, made the decision easy. We continued belly crawling up to within 90 yards of a huge 6x6 preoccupied by the sudden disappearance of the cows.  With the forearm of my rifle on a bipod, I had a solid rest. With confidence I placed the crosshairs on the

bull’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Following the loud rapport of the rifle, a cloud of bluish gray smoke belched from the barrel, temporarily eliminating my view of the bull. Through the waning cloud of smoke I could see the bull fall twice, only to regain his footing and simply remain standing oblivious to all around him. As I watched the huge bull standing there swaggering upon occasion, I felt it was only a matter of time before it would collapse, but it never did. I suddenly realized I had to get another shot into the animal, and I began reloading. As I ran a cleaning patch down the charred barrel, with the big bull staring at me from above, excitement began to eclipse any sense of calmness, and before I knew it, I was rushing. Excitement reached a zenith just before my second shot, which I rushed, and once the bluish gray smoke cleared, the bull disappeared into a sea of cedar.

I was hunting with my good friends Larry Joe Moore and his son Marty, owners of Arizona and New Mexico Pro Outfitters. My hunt actually began when I was encouraged by Larry to apply for a primitive weapons elk hunting tag in New Mexico. Larry had been after me for years to hunt with him, always telling me about the big bulls they saw on land they outfitted in both New Mexico and Arizona. Well, I applied, and luckily drew a tag which was only the first phase of the hunt. Next I obtained a new Knight inline muzzleloader which took up what little spare time I had during the summer.

New Mexico Mescalero Muzzleloader Bull
My hunt actually began after my bull shrugged off the 300-grain Sabot, but after catching up to him several times in a short but heavy rain storm, it turned out to be one of my most memorable hunts.

Surprisingly, following the initial adjustment, my shots at 100 yards were right on, but my groups enlarged afterwards, and I had to do a considerable amount of shooting before gaining confidence in the semi archaic firearm. Over time, using Knight Red Hot 300 grain sabots, my groups shrank to acceptable levels. By the time I parted for New Mexico on October 6, I was confident I could consistently hit my target, at least up to 100 yards.

Following the short flight from San Antonio to Albuquerque, I met up with Jimmy Little, cinematographer for Buckmasters, who would be filming the hunt, and together we made the two-hour drive south and west to the 60,000-acre ranch upon which we would spend the next few days in pursuit of trophy elk.

Like all my hunting activities, it’s a privilege to hunt with quality people, and the Moores are just that. Following a short get-together with Larry, his wife Caroline, along with the five other hunters in camp, we spent the better part of the evening checking our firearms at the range.

Greeted by the bugling of three or four bulls in the predawn darkness the first morning accelerated my excitement to a feverish pitch. We attempted to stalk closer to the raging bulls, but shortly after daylight the southerly breeze changed to a strong, cold, wet north wind. By mid morning fog enveloped the mountains, and the bulls fell silent.

Thick fog, accompanied by a drizzling rain, put a halt to hunting activities in the evening.

Fog remained throughout the remainder of the hunt as did the uncomfortably cold, damp north wind. We eased around in our pickup, checking for elk sign at various locations instead of entering the dark timber where we knew undisturbed bulls would concentrate. Thus when weather conditions improved, we would have an excellent chance of relocating the bulls.

Over the next few days, optimism yielded to discouragement. There was simply no way to find elk when they are not bugling, and the weather we experienced definitely forced the bulls to remain silent. Adverse weather conditions prevailed throughout the hunt until the skies cleared on the last morning, and the fog lifted long enough for us to get close enough to a tremendous bull for a shot. The only problem was the mortally wounded bull ran off, and before we could track the wounded animal, dark gray clouds reappeared, along with excessive rain.

Assisted by virtually everyone in camp, we lined up and walked the mountainside in the direction the bull headed. Locating the severely wounded animal in the rain was difficult, but unbeknownst to us, we jumped the animal and drove it across one of the ranch roads into a densely vegetated flat portion of the ranch referred to as the prairie. I actually exited the forest almost 200 yards below the location where the bull crossed. Taking a break, I awaited the arrival of Marty and guides Robert Taylor and Lance Maxwell, hoping that they may have some good news. Marty and Robert showed up first, notifying me that they had observed no sign of the bull. Discouragement began to set in, but when I saw Lance jogging down the road towards us, my spirits lifted. As we traversed the mountainside, Lance picked up the bull’s track which he hadn’t followed very long before he noticed that the bull fell to its chest and did so several times over a short period of time. Obviously, it was the bull we were after, and once it crossed the ranch road, Lance marked the position with some fallen branches and returned to us with the great news.

Trophy New Mexico Muzzleloader Bull Elk
There’s nothing like the celebration of friends upon the successful completion of a hunt as Marty and I relish the experience.

Following a short, invigorating conversation with Lance, I was stealthily pursuing the animal, following its track, which was being rapidly usurped by the intensifying rain.

Not 500 yards from Lance’s marked position, I spotted the bull bedded beneath a red berry juniper. Carefully backtracking out of the animal’s view, I attempted to circle the animal and approach him with the wind in my favor, but upon reaching the cedar motte, the bull was gone. Following the huge bull’s track for almost a quarter mile further, I came upon him once again. Bedded with its head erect in a clump of cedars, the bull had a wide open view, facing directly into the wind. Once again he was gone, following my attempt to sneak around the animal for a close shot.

Tracking the bull, however, was easy, even in the pouring rain as the animal favored its left front leg, leaving only a shallow depression in the forest floor. My greatest challenge was keeping my powder dry.

I approached the bull a third time as it stood in a thick maze of cedar, but I had unknowingly walked to within 15 yards of the animal. Taken by surprise, the bull exploded from the cedar, almost running me over. Just as surprised, I took a shot at point-blank range, but my rain-drenched rifle responded in only the sharp crack of the primer. My powder was wet. Discouraged, I crawled underneath a huge cedar tree, emptied my rifle and reloaded, doing my best to prevent the water droplets precariously dangling from the lower branches from permeating my new powder charge. As the rain intensified, I caught up to the overly-alarmed bull as it entered another thicket. This time I rapidly moved directly towards the motte the bull entered. Within a minute, the bull exited the green maze of wet cedar, but this time I was prepared, and the bull plummeted to the ground. The next thing I knew, the rain stopped, and I was surrounded by friends in one wet, yet joyous occasion.

 

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