Last summer, while fishing for walleye on Lake Oahe near Pierre, S.D., I received a phone message from Eric Pawlak of Cabela's T.A.G.S. As I was cleaning fish, my girlfriend Candace checked our messages. Returning to the pickup she said Eric had called and that I had drawn a tag! My heart rate jumped. Since I apply for many different tags I was anxious to know what it was.
So I played the message back, and low and behold I had drawn a tag. It was an elk tag in one of the premier areas of New Mexico. Right away I called Eric to ask about this hunt. He said it was a "smoker" tag on a tough draw, and that once you draw in that area you can never apply again. Eric also said the upper end in this area was around 350", but it's a great area with lots of 300"-type elk. So I said, "let's do it." I'm probably like a lot of other hunters believing 400" to be the magical mark. But when hunting with archery equipment I become more of an opportunist.
So mid-September, Candace and I loaded the pickup here in north-central Nebraska and headed toward New Mexico. On the way there we decided to lay over in Colorado Springs. I had been thinking about how close we had become and how much we both enjoyed these outdoor adventures. Candace is a beautiful woman, and not too many beautiful women these days like to rough-it around elk camps. We are a perfect match. So I asked her to marry me. Lucky for me she said yes. The trip was made whether we took an elk or not.
The next day we pulled into Taos and met our guide, Griz, and his friend Marcus, who would be the cook. Griz grew up in the area and knew the area like the back of his hand. That evening after a great supper it was off to bed. The next morning we had a hearty breakfast followed by a 30-minute drive where we would walk two and a half to three miles.
We had walked only 30 minutes when Griz stopped and said, "There they are." The very first bull we saw was a "toad." We estimated him at 350" with good fifths and a great fishtail on the back. This bull moved out and we lost sight of him in the timber. Forty minutes later we had several elk moving directly up the mountain toward us. We hunkered down and had two 300" bulls walk right up to us at 5 yards. A bull bugling at 5 yards is practically deafening, and it will sure make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. That evening we had more good shot opportunities at a couple of good 6x6 bulls but elected to hold out for a larger bull. The next couple of days were more of the same. Great elk action, but still trying for that 350" bull.
On the evening of the third day we spotted a large herd of elk across a lake. It looked as though there were a couple of good bulls in the group. So I asked Griz what he thought about making a swing around the lake in the morning. After thinking about it overnight we decided to give it a try. As soon as we got around the lake we heard, and then saw, a good bull following about 20 cows. The wind was wrong, so we decided to try to circle around in front of them.
After an hour walk we ended up right in "the bedroom." There were so many cows and bulls going nuts it was crazy. Then out of nowhere we looked up to see the "fishtail" bull headed right at us. What a bull! Just then a cow and a rag-horn crossed our path at 25 yards. Perfect. He would follow them right up. Nope, he decided to stop and kick the tar out of a little pine tree. Several other elk were off to his left down a slight hill, so we decided to try to move on him while he was raking the tree. At 45 yards I had a shot, or so I thought. When I drew back I noticed a branch halfway between my 40- and 50-yard pins. I fancy myself a decent shot, but I had seen this show before. I told Griz that there was a branch in the way. He thought I could sneak it past there, and in the back of my mind so did I. Wrong! The arrow bounced off the branch and well over the bull's back. What a letdown.
Before I had time to feel sorry for myself, Griz said, "Come on, we'll get in front of them again." Ten minutes later they were less than 50 yards from us. Now you remember when I said that as a bow hunter you have to be a bit of an opportunist. Well, I had to make a decision. The "fishtail" was getting downwind about 70 yards away with several cows when a dandy 6x6 bull came past us at 25 yards with a cow. I figured him around 310" and decided that if he gave me a chip shot I would take it. At 25 yards I squeaked at him when he stopped quartering away. Away went the arrow. "Great shot," Griz said. Thirty seconds later he fell in his tracks. What excitement! It's hard to describe to a nonhunter what a feeling of accomplishment you have when you take a majestic animal like a bull elk. Not to mention some of the best God-grown food on the planet.
For me, this was the most memorable hunt I've had to date. Do yourself a favor and take one of your loved ones with you on your next adventure. You'll be glad you did.