Bowhunting Gemsbok in New Mexico (pt 1)

Sponsored by: Alpine Archery

By: Tink Jackson

I am truly blessed to live in a state that offers many unique hunting opportunities. New Mexico is a large state with some of the most diverse terrain in the country. You can be hunting desert lowlands one day and above timber line the next. This diversity has allowed our Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF) to create some very unique hunting opportunities.

In the 1970’s, the NMDGF completed an extensive study of the White Sands Military Reservation. The purpose of the study was to determine if an exotic species could be transplanted into the reserve that would utilize the large expanse of land that none of our native wildlife were adapted to. Based on known adaptability to the desert characteristics of the terrain, two species were identified as well suited for importation, the African Gemsbok and the African Kudu. NMDGF secured a breeding population of each and brought them to the Red Rock wildlife breeding facility. Both herds were “housed” at the facility for some time, and once deemed fit for release, were transported to White Sands.

New Mexico Gemsbok

One of the considerations for the species to be transplanted was area predators. While both species were considered to be capable of surviving the known predators of the reservation, NMDGF soon found that mountain lions really like kudu meat. Within a brief period of time, the kudu herd was all but wiped out. However, the gemsbok herd thrived. Over the next 30 years the population soared to over 4500 animals on the reservation and a number of hunting opportunities were created for both residents and non-residents.

In 2002 I had drawn my once-in-a-lifetime hunt and had harvested a gemsbok, or oryx as we call them here in New Mexico, on the small missile range with a rifle. As time progressed, so did the hunting opportunities, and additional hunts had been added that allowed those of us that had already had our one time hunt to apply for additional hunts in outlying areas. My quest to harvest a free-ranging gemsbok with my bow had started the year before. My buddy Gabe Maes and I had drawn one of these hunts and spent three days on the Oscura Range trying to harvest one with my bow. At the last minute I used a rifle to fill my tag and waited for another year and the chance to draw again.

The winter gave me plenty of time to review all of the blown stalks and try to come up with a strategy for taking one with a bow. This hunt is extremely challenging. First, you cannot scout like you can for a regular hunt. With the population being located on an active military reservation, you have no access to the hunt area until the days of your hunt, and then your access is limited to defined areas and you may be escorted by military personnel. Learning their habits, their patterns and their needs can only be accomplished by talking to other hunters, listening to every detail from their hunts, and trying to put it all together.

As I went back through the notes from the hunt and thought of each animal I had stalked, I started to see some general patterns. First, there was a feeding time pattern that had nothing to do with the moon or weather patterns and more to do with the time of day. I also quickly realized that we had seen a number of bulls feeding alone. These two facts put together might just give me a strategy. If I really concentrated on a feeding area with adequate cover for stalking and could find a single bull, it would sure improve my odds. I had learned quickly on my last hunt that the oryx definitely had the keen vision of its pronghorn antelope cousin and anything you could do to decrease the number of eyes watching would be a huge advantage.

Always watching.

As I formed my strategy, one particular stalk continued to haunt my memories. On the last day of my previous hunt, I had spotted a bull feeding in an open flat between two hills. “Lefty” (I named him this because he was missing over half of his left ear), had not spotted us and we quickly took cover. After a few minutes of watching him and deciding that he was a mature bull, I started my way around the northern hill. He was feeding up a small valley and if I could get to the other side of the hill and use it for cover I might just be able to get a shot at him.

Gabe and I started for the other side. Just as we headed down into the bottom of the draw, we heard an old familiar sound. The buzzing was loud and the cover was thick. One thing about hunting White Sands, you better have your snake boots on. The “best” snake day I have had out there encountered “only” 7 rattlers. I have had days that I saw more than 20. We quickly decided that we might be better served trying to go over the top of the hill and work our way down to him.

We worked from creosote to creosote and soon found ourselves over the hill. I started glassing and found Lefty about 100 yards below, still feeding. Each time he put his head down we made a few more feet. Soon enough we were about 60 yards from him and it was time to get out in the open to take the shot.

I waited for him to drop his head and stepped out of the brush to draw. Just as I was about to plant my right foot, Gabe reached up, grabbed me and pulled me back. I stepped right in some noisy dry brush. Lefty looked up right at me and bolted off. Gabe and I were about to get crosswise!

As I turned, I saw Gabe pointing down at the ground where I was about to plant that foot. Now, the only thing that there is more of on the bombing range than rattlesnakes is unexploded ordinance. So much of it exists that hunters are required to take a training class on how to recognize it and of course sign a waiver of death liability before they are allowed on the range.

I turned to look at what Gabe was pointing at and saw the tail end of a cluster bomb sticking out of the ground. As we turned and looked back up the hill, we could see more than a dozen of them sticking up. We had stalked right through them and never even noticed them. Not exactly a pleasant feeling to know you just walked through what might just be the equivalent of a mine field. After that realization I sure was not mad at Gabe for grabbing me and not upset at all that my best chance to date was now a fleeting memory.

The last sight of most first year stalks

This was the beginning of a strategy to take one with my bow. Lefty had been up during that feeding time pattern I had noted on so many of them, he was a solitary bull and he had been in a creosote flat that afforded plenty of cover to stalk in. I was confident that I had a strategy now that could be concentrated on; all I needed to do was draw the tag again!

With God’s help, the next year I was blessed with another tag in the same hunt area. I knew the area fairly well now, and had a good idea where I needed to get started. I worked my Alpine Silverado all summer, shooting at distances of up to 100 yards daily. These are big animals with a bad attitude and a small kill zone. If you are going after one with a bow, you better be on top of your game when you take that shot.

Tomorrow: Part 2

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