Early Season Scouting

Elk season is only a little more than 3 months away and I am headed to a unit I have not ever hunted.  With this hunt being in my home state I have no excuse for not scouting the unit.  So my early scouting started with a few friendly conversations with friends who have hunted this unit in the past to have some starting points for myself.  After a few conversations with a few different people I noticed one area that seem to pop up each time, so I knew that was a definite spot I would have to check out.

I headed down to our local sporting goods shop that prints custom maps, on waterproof tear resistant paper.  This map would help show me what roads would lead me into certain areas of the unit.  I would then compare the paper map to what google earth showed me in regards to “two track” roads that were not listed on the map.  Now just because a road is listed or can be seen from google earth does not mean that it is accessible.  With this being said that means that I will have to verify this information with a scouting trip.

So with a few places to go check out down in our hunting unit I set my alarm for 3:30am.  When my alarm went off it felt like my head barely touched the pillow before I needed to get up and get going.  I loaded up in my truck and headed over to pick up my hunting buddy to start our first scouting trip of the year.  It took us about 3 hours to reach our designated elk unit we will be hunting this year.

My thought process for this scouting trip was to focus on access, or lack of access more importantly for me, and potential areas to set up a base camp.  I wanted to find good terrain that was a little harder to get to, by either really rough roads, or no roads at all.  I wasn’t trying to locate the elk this trip because the season is still a little far away to be worried specifically about what quality bulls are in the area.  The reason for me wanting to find more remote areas is because the season opens on a Friday and it is Labor Day weekend.  That means more people will be in the woods more than likely and things should cool off some when some of the hunters who can’t get work off head home.

All in all the scouting trip allowed us to eliminate a few areas for weekends and to focus us in on some other areas the next scouting trip we make.  My plan is to make one scouting trip a month if possible.  Next trip we will head out on foot into the back country to look for some more remote terrain and some potential water holes the elk could use.  If we find some good water holes then I will put up some game cameras to see what is visiting the area.

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Expect the Unexpected

I got a call from a good buddy of mine, Dominic Chavez, to see if I was available to go guide elk for New Mexico Hunting Adventures up in northern New Mexico. I just so happened to be available to help, so I packed up all my stuff and headed north a few weeks later.

 

I got to base camp and got things set up and came up with a few areas to go scout. The alarm clock came awfully early it seemed at 4am, but I was excited since the rut had still yet to come. I threw all my gear into my truck, to include my camera gear and headed for the woods.

 

Just as the light was starting to crest the mountain I saw an elk cross the road. So I pulled over and waited to see what other elk may just be lurking in the shadows and in the draws. Sure enough there was more elk hidden in the shadows along with several bulls singing their love tunes. I found right where I needed to be come opening morning. So with my go to spot located I headed back to camp.

 

Later that night I met my two hunters, two fine Oklahoma Gentleman who happened to be a father and son in-law hunting pair that would soon experience a hunt of a lifetime. For this story I will use the names Ben and Chris, which are not their real names. We sat down talked about tomorrows hunt a little bit, and then headed off to the range to confirm the zeros on the muzzleloaders. Both guns were on and it was time to go get some food. Over dinner we talked a little more about tomorrows hunt and that we needed to get up earlier than normal to ensure we got to the spot first since we are hunting public land.

 

I don’t think I slept much the night before the hunt. I couldn’t stop thinking about how I was surrounded by 3 bulls and their harems and that I had failed to turn on the microphone on my DSLR as I recorded them. When 3:30 rolled around I was ready to get out of my trailer to hit the road with the guys.

 

We all loaded up the truck shortly after 4 in the morning and arrived at the intended kick off point before anyone else; about an hour before the sun started to rise. About 10 minutes after the sun started to rise we heard the most wonderful sound an elk hunter can hear, a bull elk bugling in the distance. The bulls had moved over a few draws from where I saw them yesterday morning so we were off and to the races to go intercept them.

 

Crossing through the draws we kicked up several cows, but no bulls seem to be hidden in the scrub oaks with them. As we made our way over to where we needed to go the bulls continued to bugle to help direct us. Once we arrived to the location we noticed that there was about 400 head of elk with roughly 8 bulls trying to round up their harems. It was an elk hunters dream experience to see this situation unfold. Unfortunately the bulls were a bit far out and Chris had a clean miss on a good bull. As most avid hunters know though, when hunting with a muzzleloader the elk don’t react the same when the shot rings out and I knew the elk would be back.

 

We headed back out for the afternoon hunt but decided to attack the area we were from a different side. We got to our overlook point and waited to hear that ever so comforting sound of a bull bugling in the distance letting us know it was time to start making our move. Not long after waiting the bulls started to talk to one another. We waited for the bulls to start moving down towards us before we made our move.

 

It seemed like the bulls were not going to come down the mountain within shooting light so we decided to make our move up to them. We slowly poked our way up the mountain in terrain where the ground was mostly open with trees placed sporadically. We used these trees to conceal our movement as we made our move on the elk. As we neared the end of the open terrain and where the thick forest began I noticed two cow elk. They were exactly 100 yards from our position, completely unaware of our presence and the bulls were screaming all around us. I told Chris to get his gun ready and Ben to be ready for a follow up shot because the next time this bull decides he wants to bugle I am going to cut him off with a challenge bugle. Sure enough the bull sings his tune and is soon cut off by yours truly. This bull now knew that another “bull” wanted some action and wanted to steal his cows. The bull started to make his way towards us as Chris spotted his tines through the trees. I told Chris to get ready cause he is about to walk out. The bull started yet another one of his tunes when I cut him off again with a challenge bugle. It was not several seconds before the bull showed himself completely broadside at 96 yards. Chris asked if he should take him, of which I replied, “Dump him”. That’s exactly what Chris did. The shot rang out and the bull dropped like a sack of potatoes.

 

After several minutes we walked up to check the bull and take pictures. After the pictures were done we started on quartering and hanging up the meat. Meanwhile as we are quartering this elk out the remaining bulls will not stop bugling. Those sweet tunes let me know the rut was on! What an awesome time to be in the woods.

 

After a few hours and teaching Chris how to quarter an elk we were headed back down the mountain.   This is where the story takes a turn for the worse and an experience I will never forget. As we were walking down the mountain Ben starts to experience tightness in his chest. We rest for several minutes before he says he is good to continue. So we continue down the mountain again. We don’t get much further before Ben wants to stop again. So we stop to rest again and as I am having a conversation with Ben his internal defibrillator shocks him. To explain what it looked like I would have to say it looked like he was lifted off the ground and his gear exploded off his body in every direction. At first I wasn’t sure what the hell just happened!!!

 

Ben sat on the ground and rested as we came up with a plan. It was approximately 9:30pm and cell service was spotty at best, and to make matters worse was the fact my cell phone was dead. Ben did have a DeLorme, which is a personal locator beacon that he was at first debating on using. After several minutes went by the plan was for me to go back to camp and load up an ATV to come back and get the guys. So off I went into the darkness to make my way back to the truck to get back to camp.

 

I arrived back at my truck and headed down the long bumpy road back to camp. I plugged my phone in, which is an iPhone so that means it doesn’t turn on immediately, and started to haul ass back to camp. I think it is true that if you drive fast enough you “glide” across the bumps. Don’t ask me how fast I was driving on a VERY bumpy road. Eventually the phone came up and I was able to get a hold of the outfitter to give him a heads up with the scenario at hand. Since I woke him up in the dead of his sleep, and signal was in and out, he had a little bit of a hard time putting together what all was happening.

 

I finally get to camp and meet up with the outfitter. I explained to him what was going on and that I was going to load an ATV to go get my hunter who is on the ground. He asks my opinion if he needs to call an ambulance of which I reply “his internal defibrillator went off so I think that might be a good idea.” So he made the 911 call and I left to go load the ATV. Once the ATV was loaded I went back up to talk with the outfitter one last time before I leave. The plan when I left camp was to have the ambulance meet me on the paved road since the road up to where we hunt is marginal at best for something like an ambulance.

 

Meanwhile on the mountain both my hunters remain. Ben is on the ground and has a space blanket on that Chris had. At some point Ben needed to use the bathroom and when he got up his defibrillator went off again. At this point Ben decided to hit the rescue button on his DeLorme. This device uses satellite signal to communicate the position of the hunter, and to use “text messages” to communicate with the hunter.

 

I made my way back up to where I thought I needed to unload the ATV. I parked in the middle of the road and got the ATV out. Unbeknownst to me I offloaded about a ½ mile short of where I intended to go in. I cut through the first fence and headed to where my hunters where. Once I ran into a second fence I realized that I had dropped in too soon and that my drive to them was going to be a little bit longer than intended! I cut through the second fence and roughly ten minutes later I reached my hunters.

 

We loaded us all up on the ATV and Ben seemed to be doing better but he was physically spent so we sandwiched him between Chris and myself on the ATV. I knew all I had to do was get to the bottom of the hill and take a hard left and once I did that it was several hundred yards and I would be on the road.   However when we were going down the mountain the bumps were hard for Ben to handle so I had to take a different angle and I drifted off to the right more than I realized. So when I reached the bottom of the hill my “hard left” was not hard enough and I ended up going around the back side of the knob I was supposed to be in front of. For several minutes we drove before I decided I needed to check my GPS because we should have been at the road. When I looked at the GPS it stated we were paralleling the road I needed. This is where I was fighting inside myself because I knew for a fact that I had taken that “hard left” and my equipment was lying to me. That’s where my military training kicked in and I had to tell myself to trust in my equipment.

 

I looked back at Chris and Ben and told them to hold on because we were taking another hard left, which meant we were going up and over the hill. We drove up to the top of the hill where I was greeted by the bright lights of a known point! At that moment I knew we were heading in the right direction and the road wasn’t far. To get to the road though we had to go down the hill we were on and back up another hill on the other side. So down we went and up the other side.

 

Once we reached the top of the other hill on the other side the scene was very bright! There were red and blue lights flashing EVERYWHERE and bobbing flashlights in the brush. The rescue team was there! I stepped off the ATV and when I did I saw the helicopter in the air above us about a mile out. I told Ben “your ride is here” of which he replied, “Which ride?” I said “the helicopter over your right shoulder.”

 

Shortly after Ben was airlifted out. In the end Ben ended up having a heart rate of 240 and that’s why his defibrillator went off twice. Chris ended up getting his first ever elk. It was a night I will never forget and I am sure a night Ben and Chris will never forget.

 

There are some lessons learned off of this experience. The first aid kit I had was built more for puncture wounds. I had tourniquets, large Band-Aids, gauze, and various other things. I did not have a space blanket and normally I do. Also if you ever have to dial 911 with your cell phone and you have no signal, try! There is a national mandate that if you dial 911 that call will go out on any available network carrier in the area. Also only one other person knew exactly where I was hunting. He was the one who helped lead the rescue party into where I was. Lastly, there was a mistake with where the helicopter was sent originally. It was routed an hour and half away from where we were. I don’t know if that was a human error writing numbers down, reading number or error on the equipment side. You mistake one number in GPS coordinates and it can be a huge error. At a min the helicopter was asked for and the bird did not touch down on the mountain until 2:30am. Don’t expect it to be there super fast.

Things to do in the Off Season

calf

The off season for hunting is a season most hunters dread.  Although the off season does not have to be this way.  There is a lot of things we can do to help us prepare for the upcoming season.  We can go over our gear, to getting out and doing some early scouting.  By getting your gear ready now and everything stocked back up for those back country hunts can lead to less stress before you walk out the door on your next hunt.

I have never really enjoyed going through my gear to clean things up and figure out if things need to be replaced.  However, I have always enjoyed that hard work being done in the off season when I get to walk out the door to go chase elk knowing that all my equipment is ready to go.  I will even go as far as trying to get all my supplies like freeze dried meals, batteries, along with various other things restocked.  This pre-planning prevents any last minute running around I will have to do in the rare chance I forgot something, or at least keep it to a minimum.

Hunting in the west means we don’t always know where we are going to hunt right away, we have to wait for those dreaded or exciting draw dates to come around.  Even though I may not know if I will draw a tag or even in what unit, I still use this opportunity to do some scouting in the units that I have applied for.  I already have an idea of where it is that I want to check out for hunting before I even put in for the draw.  I then travel to those areas to do some shed hunting, which is a great by product for scouting, and look for terrain features that may be beneficial during my hunt.  I look at the saddles in between mountains, low land that may hold water with enough ran, and look for benches that may contain those old weary bulls.  Not only do I look for spots for elk, I am also looking for spots to camp on these upcoming fall hunts.  I always try and look for a primary and secondary spot for each location I may hunt because you never know when someone gets there before you do.

The primary purpose about sharing this short blog on things for the off season is to tell you to take advantage of it.  With being pro-active in the off season by doing gear prep, scouting, practicing your shooting among many other things, you can help ensure you are prepared when the hunt comes around.  Being prepared for the hunt will usually equate to success in filling your tag because you have done your homework and are prepared.  So get out there and enjoy your “off season.”

Applying in New Mexico

Chaos

Northern New Mexico Elk Hunting

As a resident of New Mexico I thought it would be appropriate to talk about my strategy for applying for hunts in New Mexico, seeing as the deadline of March 22 is right around the corner.  The tags for NM are broken down into three pools: Resident, Non-resident, and registered outfitter tags.  These pools are broken down even further to 84% of the tags going to residents, 6% of tags going to non-residents and 10% of the tags going to both non-residents and residents using a registered outfitter.

New Mexico is a straight lottery draw system and does not use a preference point or bonus point system.  Therefore no one has an advantage on drawing and everyone is on a level playing field when it comes to drawing those trophy units so highly desired.

Now let’s talk about how the draw works. New Mexico uses an automated system that randomly assigns each application a sequence number.  Based on this assigned number and the quotas listed for each hunt code, the system matches the first, second, then third choices on the application with available licenses.  If there is a permit available for your first choice when your number comes up then you will be given the permit for that hunt, if there is no permit available the computer will move on to your second choice and go through the same process.  If the computer goes through all three choices on your application without awarding a license then it will move on to the next individual.

I want to talk about group applications real quick also while we are on the topic of how the draw works.  New Mexico does not operate like some other states when it comes to a group application.  The quota for each hunt code is a hardened number and will not be exceeded. Therefore if you have 5 individuals on an application there must be 5 permits available for that hunt code in order to be awarded those licenses.  If there is only 4 permits available then they will go to your next choice.  Some states will go over their quota even if 1 permit is available and your application is drawn they will award you the licenses.

Knowing what we know about how the draw works and that there is no preference or bonus point system we can get into strategy on applying.  First you need to figure out what you are trying to accomplish by drawing.  So my biggest goal is to draw a tag for archery season in a unit that has decent trophy potential.  So on my first choice I shoot for the stars, and then on my second choice I immediately go to a unit that has higher draw odds (40%+), with my 3rd choice going to a unit with even higher draw odds.  I also look at seasons that are less desirable than others. For example looking at early season vs. the rut.  I also look for units that have less than desirable access to them, since a lot of individuals tend to stay away from units like these.  Knowing my goal of wanting to draw a tag in an archery season with high draw odds and decent trophy potential narrows my choices down to only a few units to choose from.

Coming up with an application strategy can be a bit stressful if you don’t know the state or units, and this is where companies like Gohunt or Cabela’s TAGS system can come in as another option for you.  You can purchase a program like GoHunt which has done a lot of research of all the big west states, and you can see draw odds, trophy potential, bull to cow ratios with many more options and background on each individual unit.  Cabela’s TAGS is a service where you actually have a conversation with a TAG specialist about what your goal is, which may be to just draw a tag or to wait for that trophy tag.  There are various other services and programs that do the same thing as GoHunt and Cabelas.

The start of a New Adventure

This is a start of a new adventure for me….Blogging.  This blog will be featured on my website and other social media platforms.  I will be talking everything about hunting from tactics and techniques to outdoor issues.  Come join me on this new adventure and feel free to comment on all posts.