In March 2014, after watching way too much of Steve Rinella’s show, MeatEater, I decided it was the right time to start putting in for tags out West. I’d spent many a day in my office pretending to be working on something in Excel while really either daydreaming or watching a Vimeo about the quintessential western pack-out elk hunt. You know the one I’m talking about: guy on horseback leading a packed out horse with antlers strapped to the saddle amid a pristine wilderness with a spectacular skyline backdrop. To me, it was one of those story lines that, to that point, only existed in overblown magazine articles, cheesy Bass Pro / Cabela’s ads and what always seem like too-good-to-be-true outdoors shows. That stuff just doesn’t happen.
Nevertheless, I figured I would start entering the tag lotto out West in an effort to pull a tag by some time in my early 30s (call it five years out)… My and MarshSvin’s older sister and her family were in the process of moving to New Mexico at the time so I figured why not try for an elk tag there? It’s not like I knew considerably less about NM than anywhere else out West, and I’d at least have family nearby. I did some internet research – pulled the NM tag data, looked at hunter harvest reports, and most importantly Googled stuff. When the day to apply actually arrived, I had it narrowed down to a couple units and keyed them in whimsically from my work computer, with tempered expectations. I mean, statistically there was a very slim chance of my pulling a tag as an out-of-state, non-guided hunter – this category of applicants is only allocated 6% of the total available tags each year and thousands of people comprise the pool vying to be chosen for that 6%.
Well, as such things tend to go, I of course pulled a bull elk tag for a five-day rifle season split. October 11th to October 15th were marked on my calendar. I was stoked. I upped the internet research: layout of the unit, terrain in the area, climate expectations, gear essentials, logistics, etc., and quickly realized I probably wouldn’t be able to do this on my own. I was going to need experienced, local help. I reached out to a few outfitters in the area. At first I told myself, I’d just do it for some intel, but I’ll admit one of the outfitters sold me with a string of picture texts capped by this grand finale:
It was from Phil Treadwell at Lake Valley Outfitters, who told me this unit was undoubtedly the rugged, pack-out, horseback hunt I’d been envisioning. There was no other way to hunt this terrain successfully, he said. Phil seemed knowledgeable about the area and generally like a good guy so I booked him for the split.
October 11th it was going to be on in the Gila wilderness area! Or so I thought. Ironically, the (literal) next day one of my best friends from college called me to let me know that I needed to get fitted for my groomsman’s tux for his wedding on October 11th… in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I couldn’t believe it. Dream turned nightmare. Admittedly, I was pissed when he first told me. Although I told him I didn’t know if I’d still be able to make his wedding, I really knew that I couldn’t miss his wedding for a hunt. Plus, if I did successfully find my Gila monster bull, it would be the hunting equivalent of a blood diamond stored in my freezer and hanging on my wall.
I frantically game planned a way to make the timeline work for me and Samantha: tear up the wedding dance floor Saturday night (on what would otherwise be opening day) then jet to New Mexico to hunt out the remaining three days of my tag (after I burned one day in-transit). In theory, it could work but was three days actually enough? I quickly dialed Phil and laid out the dilemma. He was highly confident that we would get it done in three days or less regardless. Whether or not he was blowing smoke, it was the answer I wanted and needed to hear, so I booked our San Juan to Albuquerque flights for Sunday morning and the hunt was back on.
After a week-of flight plan change by the airline, Samantha and I were scheduled to attend the wedding Saturday night, catch an 11:30AM flight from San Juan to Dallas, a 4:15PM flight from Dallas to Santa Fe, a shuttle from Santa Fe to our rental truck in Albuquerque (where we were originally scheduled to arrive about 5 hours earlier), then drive the final 4 hours (mostly on ungroomed dirt roads) to our camp. Fittingly, camp’s most notable nearby landmark, which I could not have planned better myself, was a small mining ghost town. Also, the final ~2 hours of the drive would be done in the absence of cell coverage, meaning I had to memorize the access road maps.
During the drive, Samantha and I started talking about our expectations for the hunt. She said no matter what, she wanted a 6×6. I didn’t want either of us to be disappointed so I said I would settle for anything over a 4×4. 6×6 bulls were another figment of only hunting show and Bass Pro advertisement realities. And this was a public land hunt.
Miraculously, all went (mostly) according to plan and we arrived in camp around 2AM. Unfortunately, we weren’t positive it was the right camp, although no other humans seemed to be within 100 miles, so we slept in the rental truck for the next hour until Phil woke up and invited us into camp. On the way to the tent, our flashlights lit up a skinned out 6×6 skull. Well, that’s a good sign.
In the morning and with bleary eyes, we met Jessie Haynie (Phil’s outfitting partner), Byron (Phil’s hilarious uncle) and the other two hunters still in camp. That morning Samantha, Phil and I were setting out together, while the other two hunters (both looked to be in their mid-to-late 60s) were taking the horses out with Jessie to pack out the OTHER 6×6 they had taken the prior day. There had been two trophy bulls already taken from this area? Well, now, maybe there wouldn’t be any trophies left for us? Damn! The wedding, fun and all, may have cost me my chance for a trophy bull.
That first morning the plan was to ride to a nearby ridge, hike to the top and glass the lower country. The ridge bounded a natural choke point between the low country and the high country so we could see any post-rut bulls passing through the valley on their way back to solitude in the Black Range. Although I trained for the hunt by running with a weighted pack on and doing some CrossFit-esque workouts, Samantha and I were both gassed within 1,000 feet of the truck. Nothing can prepare you for those first few breaths at 5,000-6,000 ft. of elevation.
The thought of fatigue quickly vanished from my mind as Phil signaled to us that there was something just over the ridge. We crept to the edge and strained our eyes. Suddenly, the early morning light glistened off a massive, golden elk amidst the pinyon and juniper foliage, and we were seemingly face-to-face with a beautiful 6×6 bull at about 150 yards. We had the high ground on him and he wasn’t at all worried about his surroundings so we watched him for a minute or two before anything was said. During that time, I was going through my shooting checklist and trying to get my breathing under control. I was thinking to myself, “10 minutes hunting in New Mexico and here’s what might be my one shot at a trophy bull.” And on the one hand, I was stoked about that. This stuff just doesn’t happen in real-life and, if it does, it certainly doesn’t happen for me. On the other hand, I was a little disappointed that it had come so easily. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that fishing and hunting (for me) isn’t about catching fish or filling a tag – it’s about the work that goes into it. Take turkey hunting, for example, I’m obsessed and literally have dreams about gobbling toms… And in three years of hunting them, I’ve never even killed a bird!
I tentatively asked Phil what he was thinking and he said, “Man, that’s a beautiful animal but it’s your first morning here. I’d never let you shoot a small 6×6 on your first morning. You guys are in good shape and we’ve got 3 days, so we’ll find something better.” Um, what?! A small 6×6? I’d never really heard of such a thing. Plus, what kind of guide would pass up on the opportunity to fill a tag with a gorgeous bull?
I was shocked but also relieved. First, my shooter’s anxiety immediately dissipated. Second, I realized Phil and I were on the same page – this wasn’t a job for him, it was still his passion and he likes a good challenge. (Turns out, Phil runs cattle and is a professional roper so this was his “vacation” time too in a way.) I knew that I was not only in for a high odds hunt, but that it was going to be enjoyable time spent in the field with someone likeminded on what constitutes a “successful” hunt.
We quietly posted up, watched that bull meander through the woodlands below and glassed the rest of the valley. We saw another similarly sized bull that got within a few hundred yards but passed on him as well.
A few minutes later, Phil moved further down the ridge for another vantage point and Samantha and I got a second alone. Neither of us said anything – just grinned to each other. No need to jinx it but we were giddy with excitement. After glassing some nice mulies, we headed back to camp around mid-morning to grab breakfast before the evening session.
We met Byron back at camp and shortly afterward the other group returned. As we sat around the campfire, Phil and Jessie decided we should score this most recent bull. They showed me how the measurements are done and we unofficially scored it at 320+” on the Boone & Crockett scale. I’m sure Phil could see me enviously drooling all over myself, as he smiled and told me that was probably about the size of the bulls we’d seen that morning give or take 15”. The bulls we’d passed on. We got more acquainted with the guys in camp and shot the breeze before heading out around noon.
Phil said we’d have a decent hike to our glassing spot that afternoon, so we’d take our time getting up there then relax before the bulls got active around dusk. With temperatures feeling like 90+°F during the day and frost forming on our sleeping bags overnight, it made sense that these big bulls wouldn’t be real motivated or active during daylight hours.
As we casually bushwacked to our glassing spot that afternoon, I couldn’t help but be excited by the amount of elk sign all around us.
And you know how excited I get about poop…
When we got to our spot at about 2PM, I was jacked for more action. We were hunting a dried up lake basin that looked a little swampy but was now mostly filled with grama grass. I knew I probably wasn’t going to glass up any bulls but I couldn’t stop looking.
Samantha, conversely, was having no trouble conserving energy…
At about 5PM, I spotted a group of mulies grazing the hillside below us but it was still a little early for bulls to be up. Almost on cue about an hour later, I saw what looked like two leafless trees knifing their way through the underbrush and between the alligator junipers – another beautiful bull elk. It was amazing to watch this huge animal try to floss his head cleanly between the brush while still grazing leaves off the tops of bushes. Again, this 6×6 wasn’t a shooter but it was still a surreal setting from which to watch such an impressive animal. We hung out until sunset but he was the only bull in the vicinity.
We got back to camp, had an awesome dinner with the rest of the group and kicked back to a few drinks around the campfire. The two other hunters were planning to leave in the morning and were in a celebratory mood, which culminated in possible the funniest moment of the trip. These two older gentlemen were clearly feeling really good about their hunting successes and they were stoked to toast those successes… with Limoncello pulls. I’m not sure if Limoncello is a widely accepted toasting liquor – this was my first experience with it – but these gentlemen broke it out clearly feeling it was the appropriate drink for the occasion. They were kind enough to pass the bottle around to everyone in camp so we all appreciatively took pulls. Everyone, except for Byron, that is. As soon as it touched his lips, he roared, “What the hell is this cat piss? Goddamn that’s disgusting!” Phil, Jessie, Samantha and I couldn’t hold back our laughter and the other two guys were champs about it but Byron went on the rest of the night talking about how God awful it was. I know Phil was feeling a little apologetic about Byron’s reaction but everyone took it in good spirits. It’s hard to piss a guy off when you just put him on a monster bull. And to Byron’s credit, it wasn’t the exact drink I would have picked for the occasion but it certainly wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. Plus, it had come straight from the YETI so at least it was chilled.
The next morning we got up well before sunrise, again, knocked the frost off our clothes and boots and had some breakfast. The plan was to return to the same spot as the prior morning and try to glass a bull worth chasing for the day. Unlike the first day, there wasn’t a bull waiting for us on the other side of the ridgeline so we had to glass a little more intently. We spotted a few nearby mulies and heard a lot of turkeys gobbling but no elk in the immediate vicinity.
We used the remainder of the morning light to glass the far ridges (3-5 miles away) for a bull worth chasing. Samantha apparently got her eyes dialed in to spotting bulls because she glassed up a beautiful one about 5-6 miles away. Phil and Jessie turned the spotting scope toward it and we tried to judge its size. After about 20 minutes of observation, we decided it was a big bull and definitely worth the trek. We waited for it to bed down for the day around 10AM and made a mental note of its bedding location.
From there, the game plan was to head back to camp and tack the horses to get us out to the bull’s general location then stalk him by foot and set up before he got up to start feeding again around dusk. I could not have drawn up a more ideal hunt plan.
After a quick bite, we packed out the horses (and Samantha’s mule, Shorty) and started our ride.
We rode through the creek bottom that led to the ridge where we’d seen that bull bed down and stopped about a half mile short of where we thought he was located. During the ride, we had mostly chatted and joked around but once we got closer, you could feel the mood growing more serious. The shooting anxiety came back and I found myself drifting into thoughts of disaster. What if I came all this way, spent all this time and energy, only to miss a shot on a once-in-a-lifetime bull? Would I recover from that? Man, that call to my dad, the world’s biggest pessimist, would be so brutal. He’d never let me hear the end of those jokes. I knew I was getting in my own head though so I reminded myself that missing is just a part of hunting. Besides, there were a lot of things that still had to go perfectly right to get a shot on this bull.
Our plan was to use an adjacent bottom to loop past the bull, then double back by cutting over a ridge and through a small washout. Meanwhile, Jessie would take a 2-way radio and go up the ridge that was immediately across the bottom from the elk (about 500 yards away) in order to keep an eye on his movement(s) while we were getting in position.
We certainly didn’t want to bump or spook this bull and we didn’t expect him to move until about 6PM so we moved at a methodical pace across the ridge. We stopped every so often to quietly radio Jessie for updates.
I even had time for a quick moment of peace.
At the final check-in stop, the bull stood up and shifted his position, presumably to get back into the shade. Samantha and I didn’t get a good look at him but Phil and Jessie got more excited about his size. They were certain now that he was a good bull… If they thought he was a good bull, damn, my imagination went wild. And, of course, the nerves started again. I repeatedly went through every step of my breathing pattern and envisioned my shot. I pictured a well-placed shot, quick, clean kill and the obligatory photo shoot afterward. I don’t think that it quieted my thoughts or mitigated the anxiety but maybe visualizing it would help at the pivotal moment. I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I don’t think I said more than a few words to Phil or Samantha.
We picked out a perfectly situated pinyon pine tree that would provide us some shade to break-up our figures and slowly crept the last 50 yards to it one-at-a-time. Phil went first and Samantha and I watched him get to the tree. We whispered our last little, good luck, here goes nothing, fingers crossed thoughts to one another then we slithered in behind Phil. We sat down below the tree and got ourselves comfortable – it was only about 4:30PM so we’d have some down time until this bull even thought about getting up for the night. I got the shooting sticks ready and positioned my body in the direction from where we expected the bull to come.
To our surprise, about 30 minutes later Jessie radioed to tell us he could see the bull standing up. We got everything ready for a potential shot but didn’t have a direct line of sight yet. We knew exactly where to look but he too was on the shaded side of a tree so we couldn’t see his movement. The anticipation was gnawing at me and it felt like an eternity. I expected at any moment to get a glimpse of the big bull but nothing happened. Jessie radioed again to tell us he’d moved to the other (far) side of the ridge from us. We all sighed in disappointment and decided we’d have to try to head him off by going over the top of our current ridge and continuing down the spine of the ridgeline he was on (our ridge was basically a finger ridge that ran parallel to the ridge he was on). We were all deflated and I immediately started regretting letting those bulls walk the day before. And now there was only 1 day left of season. Isn’t that always the way it works?
We packed our things – I even collapsed the shooting sticks, stood and told Jessie our plan to chase him when Jessie said, “Hold up, he’s still up but he’s just standing there.” Phil motioned for us to settle back in, then took out his cow call and blew a couple mellow notes. Rut was over and he wasn’t going to get a bugle but maybe he could pique this bull’s interest. It was worth a shot given the predicament. Jessie radioed and told us, “He heard it and looked in your direction but he’s not moving at all. Hit it again.” Phil blew another couple notes slightly louder but not Hail Maries yet. I watched desperately through the scope, saying prayers under my breath. Suddenly, I heard Jessie say, “Woah, get ready.”
At that same moment, through my scope I saw a bull materialize at the crest of the ridge, with nothing but the sky as his backdrop, and pause. It was the perfect pose and my heart just about dropped out of my ass. He was 250 yards away, looking directly at us and trying to locate the cow that he thought was making noise in the area. We all froze but I still thought, despite all the camo, he must see us. His gaze felt piercing. After about 5 seconds (which seemed more like 60 seconds), he broke his stare, took a couple more steps towards us, off the ridge, and went behind a barren alligator juniper. I no longer had a clean shot but he was walking towards a perfect shooting window. Phil whispered, “Get yourself ready but don’t rush it. I’ll stop him and you’ll have as much time as you need. Just don’t rush it.”
Once his body was fully in the opening, Phil blew his cow call again and stopped him perfectly in my window and broadside to us. I was sighted in to 200 yards so I barely had to adjust for drop. I took the last of my deep breaths, inhaling and midway through my exhale… BOOM! I squeezed the trigger and the.270 went off but still the noise somehow caught me off-guard. I quickly blinked to regain my composure and analyze my shot. It felt solid but nothing looked different than when I’d pulled the trigger. The bull hadn’t even flinched. I chambered another round and tried to mask my growing panic when I asked Phil, “Where’d my shot hit?” To my relief, he said, “Looked like a perfect shot but put another in him.”
At that point, the bull still hadn’t moved his back legs but he had readjusted his front two hooves to face us head on. I aimed for the spot on his chest where his fur went from thick dark brown to the shorter light golden fur that covered the majority of his body – the spot directly above his heart – and squeezed the trigger again. This time I watched as he listed away from us and I could see one of his big hooves pointing straight up in the air. He hadn’t even taken a full step from the spot where the first shot hit him. Phil leaned over and said, “Damn, you put those shots exactly where you wanted them!” I played it cool like, “Yea, of course I did,” but I was thinking to myself, “Holy shit, those went exactly where I wanted them!”
If you look closely in the picture above, you can see the bull’s small patch of golden just beyond my muzzle.
Phil and I gave each other the awkward fist bump / high five, then high five / fist bump, ah screw it, just grab hands. Jessie radioed, “Nice shooting, that’s a great bull.” And I leaned over and gave Samantha a big kiss. In all that time, I’d been so deep in my own thoughts that I hadn’t registered how much of a champ she was and hadn’t recognized how stoked she was. While my initial sentiment was relief at not blowing that opportunity, seeing how pumped she was reminded me that it was now time to relish a successful hunt. We immediately hiked across the ridgeline to the bull and I got my first close-up glimpse of this bull.
Then the photo shoot took place.
Then Phil and I went to work skinning, quartering and hanging the meat. I had a permanent smile plastered on my face throughout that process, which stayed there for at least the next 2 weeks.
The plan was to work quickly tonight to get the meat hung in a nearby alligator juniper, then come back in the morning when we had more sun and lighter saddles to pack out the hide, head and meat.
That night we had a couple celebratory drinks, but unfortunately no Limoncello. In the morning we got up casually, had breakfast and tacked the horses to head back to the kill site.
Once we got there, Phil and I boned out the meat while Jessie skinned the skull… And Samantha worked her artistic ability on the camera (some more).
We got to talking and somehow the edibility of the eyeball came into question. I tried to put the question to rest…
…But it turns out the eyeballs are basically just massive rubber bouncy balls (or at least that’s how they felt).
We brought Shorty (Samantha’s trusty mule) up the mountain because the terrain was too steep and treacherous for a horse.
Between Shorty, Phil, Samantha, Jessie and I, we packed the hide, skull and meat down to the creek bottom, where we transferred it to the horses and began our final ride back to camp.
Once we got there, Samantha and I packed our things and filled the rental truck bed with ice and 230# of boned-out elk meat. I decided to send the hide and the antlers to a guy that Jessie knew well to have them made into a small throw blanket and a head & shoulder mount.
Before we left, we decided to unofficially score my bull. Although it didn’t have the longest or widest main beams, it had large diameter pedestals (the base of the main beams and the brow tines) and exceptionally long swords (the tine third from the end of the main beam). The bull scored 342” on the B&C scale and will forever require that I live in a place that has high ceilings. With that, Samantha and I said goodbye to Phil, Jessie, Byron, Shorty and the Gila.
On the way up to my sister’s house in Taos, Samantha and I started planning our return trip and taking inventory on what we’d need to one day tag a DIY bull elk. We’ll no doubt be back to chase bulls in this area and, even if we can do it on our own, we’d love Phil and Jessie’s company again. I can’t thank or praise them enough for our amazing experience and their flexibility.
The only thing I’ll do differently next time is pack the Limoncello myself…