A Monthly Column from Alpine Archery
Most of my fondest memories from my childhood can all be tracked back to days in the field hunting with my father. Every hunt I can recall includes great memories of time shared with the man that taught me all I know about the outdoors and wildlife. My father recently passed away after a battle with cancer. The following month during an elk hunt in New Mexico’s Unit 15, I struggled with his absence, passing up numerous shots at bulls. Not that I didn’t want to harvest an elk, but knowing that the first celebration of a successful hunt without my mentor would be very difficult for me. Over the winter months, I came to realize that hunting and celebrating a successful hunt was the best thing I could do to honor his memory. With this realization, I filled out my special hunt applications with a renewed enthusiasm that year.
Of course, as luck would have it, after applying for 6 special draw hunts in New Mexico and 2 in Arizona, I didn’t draw a single hunt. I refused to let my new enthusiasm be postponed for another year and started looking for an opportunity to hunt on private land. That enthusiasm paid off with an invitation to hunt on the Gray Ranch in southwestern New Mexico from Ken Moore, one of the ranch managers.
Unit 26 in the Bootheel region of southwestern New Mexico offers some unique opportunities. Unlike many of the other units in New Mexico, this unit does not require the designation between Mule Deer and Coues Whitetail Deer. Get a tag, and any legal buck can be harvested. The population of Coues Whitetail and Mule Deer are about equal, and each day offers the opportunity to find quality bucks of either type. The drawback, of course, is that not much public land exists in the unit.
Opening morning found Ken and I climbing the northwest side of Animas Peak. Based on the significant amount of late summer rains, and the almost 80 degree temperatures, conditions were not what would be expected on a traditional opening day. The grass was waist deep, water in tanks and springs was abundant and the rattlesnakes were out in full force. It was obvious from the start that this hunt would be challenging.
After a two-hour hike to reach the crest of a lower point on the mountain, we began to plan out our strategy for hunting the northwest slopes. In past years, Ken had seen numerous Muleys on these same slopes. We decided to cross each saddle slowly, spend a lot of time glassing, and most importantly, to enjoy the great company and the gift of another great day of hunting. We spent about 30 minutes glassing the first canyon, spotting a Coues doe at 485 yards. The next canyon provided our first sighting of a quality buck. Four Coues bucks were bedded in an oak downfall. We ranged them at 450 yards and decided that the largest buck would be worth a stalk. He was downhill and the wind was right. Well, 2.5 hours of stalking later, utilizing that deep grass, he crawled right out from under me and was gone. I got within 50 yards of him and never even got a glimpse – he had won the day.
A brief discussion after the challenging stalk and working a few more canyons on the mountain lead to a quick realization. We had seen no Muleys on the slopes, only Coues deer. We decided to head to lower country for the evening hunt in search of a good Muley.
The evening hunt proved to be less fruitful. We did see some Muley bucks, including a really wide and heavy 4X3, but we didn’t spot them until after dusk. This provided Ken with the information that he needed to select out hunting areas for the next two days.
Day two and three found us out working those lower areas. We walked a lot of miles, spotted plenty of deer, but as had been the case during the first day, the good Muley bucks were all after dusk. With only two days left in the hunt, a change was needed to find the one we were looking for. It was time to dig into those memories from past hunts.
At camp that night, I started asking Ken numerous questions about the foothills country off of those northwest slopes, the kinds of areas my father loved to hunt. Were there good-sized canyons with a lot of juniper and oak? Was there adequate water? Had that country been hunted recently? Even though the grass was green and waist deep, I knew that the big Muleys would be looking to browse, looking to fatten up prior to the start of the rut. He suggested that we go into a different area and look around the following morning, an area that met my description. I readily agreed and the excitement level grew.
Day four started off with a jeep ride to the foothills we had discussed. We crossed numerous canyons, but I didn’t see the type of vegetation and topography I was looking for. Shortly after 8:00 in the morning, as we topped a small ridge, a voice from somewhere deep inside said, “this is it”. It was the voice of my father, and the canyon before us reminded me of locations he picked to hunt during many of my days with him in the field. There were three smaller canyons, all covered with juniper and oak. Approximately one mile from where we sat looking at this spot, the three canyons converged in an area with thick mesquite flats above and tons of juniper and oak browse and cover below. I pointed to the area where they came together and told Ken, “the big one is in there”! We pulled over, grabbed our packs, and headed out.
Less than 10 minutes into the canyon, we spotted a very heavy 5X6 Coues buck. I considered a stalk on this beautiful buck, but couldn’t get that voice out of my head. I knew that something better was waiting for us down that canyon. We continued walking along the south edge of the canyon. About half way to the convergence, we hit the tracks of a huge Muley. The tracks were very fresh and traveling the same direction we were. We started moving slower and watching more carefully. The canyon rim we were following fell off into the bigger canyon, and we had to cross to get back up on the south rim. As we fell off into the canyon, I noticed that our big Muley trail followed the same path we had taken.
In the bottom of the canyon, we hit a fence that we had to cross. We did so as quietly as we could. Just over the fence I heard a very unmistakable sound, the sound of horns rattling. The sound was very close and very loud. We started looking around, and only 50 yards from where we were standing, two behemoths came crashing through the mesquite, horns locked and noses to the ground. We could see horns everywhere. But, which horns went with which deer – which was the bigger buck? There were numerous mesquites between them and us. Seeing the horns clearly was impossible, but one thing was obvious – they were both huge! Their disagreement continued heatedly. This was not just a pre-rut sparring match, this was a full-fledged battle. With each push the dust boiled out from under them and the sounds of horns clashing filled the air. The opportunity to watch such a magnificent spectacle is something I will never forget. Then, in an instant, they both threw their heads up, obviously sensing our presence, the taller buck and the wider buck. It was a split second decision, the taller buck or the wider buck? I released an arrow from my Alpine Silverado and they bolted off and disappeared from sight over the top rim.
Ken looked at me and all I could do was smile. I well knew that the shot was good and had found its mark. We worked our way up the ridge, picking up the trail at the top. Less than fifty yards from where we had last seen the pair, the wide buck was piled up next to a big mesquite. It was time to get to work, but not before a moment of recollection, a moment to give thanks and a chance to think about the feeling and deal with the emotions.
There was a definite emptiness in the celebration without my father, but his presence was very evident to me. The questions the night before, the decision to hunt where we did, and even the choice of which buck to harvest – all of these were choices he would have made, and came to me from the knowledge that he passed on to me. It was a very happy moment for me when I realized that he was with me that day and will always be with me on every hunt, for the rest of my life.
Later that night, after much work and effort to get the buck back to camp and the best meal I have ever eaten prepared by Ken’s wife Coleen, we decided to put a tape to the old monster buck. He was a heavy 5X7, with and outside spread of 26” and main beams over 24” each. The gross SCI score at the end of the measurements was 189 1/8”. The behemoth Muley field dressed over 275 pounds.
My first thought was that this buck was definitely one that will be hard to ever beat on any future hunts. Of course, there was that other huge buck that he was fighting with………..maybe Dad and I and my Alpine Silverado will go back after him next year!