Preface –My blog serves more like my personal hunting journal probably including more details than most are interested in. After an evening of poor shooting, my guide Jerry delicately broached the question of how I would relate the events at camp. I was inclined to simply say I had ‘missed a bull at distance’ but instead decided to come clean. In that spirit, rather than present my hunt as a singular triumph, I have included all the embarrassing errors that preceded my eventual unlikely success.
“Count it all joy when you fall into various trials” – James 1:2
Sunday, September 6
In August the San Mateo portion of the CZU fire raged just south of our home in La Honda. The first day after a night of nonstop lightning strikes it showed a few fires and the next day it looked as you see below on the Cal Fire topo map. Fortunately for us, the winds primarily moved it south. On August 20th we were forced to evacuate and returned a week later. I wasn’t sure if things would calm down enough for me to actually go on this hunt but by the first week in September things had settled down enough for me to decide to go.
I had been looking forward to this for months and my last elk hunt was three years ago in Wyoming. I had taken advantage of a COVID cancellation to book at a private ranch in New Mexico in the same unit I took my first elk back in 2006. That was with a rifle and this time would be with my bow. I’ll be hunting with David Lane of Sacramento Mountain Outfitters and my guide will be Jerry Miller.
I’m up at 5 am for an early departure planning to drive as far as Flagstaff AZ. Down the hill and about 20 miles from my house about to get on highway 280, I realize I left my phone on the charger. Not a great way to start a long day but grateful I realized it as early as I did. Back home and grab my phone and now I restart the long drive to Arizona. Not the first time my phone will be a problem.
At a gas stop I’m in line to buy coffee and a couple of waters. A cute blonde twenty-something is distressed trying to use the gas station phone but it’s not connecting. As I finish my transaction she pleads with me to use my phone. I just hand it to her and wait nearby as she tells her mom her phone is broken and relates some drama of her day along with instructions. She thanks me and gives me back my phone. I see her car has Oregon plates, wish her well and am back on the road.
I make my way through the furnace hot route that takes me just south of the Mojave where I took my CA desert bighorn bringing back memories. Stopping for food in CA is still takeout only due to COVID forcing me to eat in my car instead of taking a nice break in an air-conditioned restaurant.
Feeling fatigued I decided to stop at Kingman just west of Flagstaff as I’m pretty tired. Find a cheap room at a Motel 6, not much to Kingman. The room is a little shabby and no wi-fi. I just turn in for an early start the next day.
Monday, September 7
I’m on the road by 5 am again and heading east over the first rise I’m greeted with ‘Kingman proper’ which features an array of nicer places I could have stayed. Typical of my cross country misadventures. Soon up driving through some mountains, I have my phone in the holder with Waze on to get a sense of miles to my turn off. Suddenly my phone emits a startling alarm like an amber alert and announces that it is notifying 911 and all my emergency contacts. In a panic, I try to press the ‘cancel notification’ button. Finally do. I pull over and my phone is now frozen with a ‘cancel notification’ display and there is nothing I can do to unfreeze it, holding the power button won’t reboot it either. My imagination runs wild thinking the girl that borrowed my phone somehow called a number to hack it and is now proceeding to extort my contacts with the ‘distressed traveler’ scam. I returned the sheriff department’s phone message regarding the dropped 911 call. Finally fiddling around with my phone I get to a browser and discover that my iPhone 11 has a new convoluted reboot process ‘press volume up, press volume down, now press power to reboot’! Thank you, Apple. Later I discovered my phone holder was pressing both sides as my phone slid down pressed on the power button for a long enough time to activate the new 911 SOS feature. Wonderful. Turned that feature off.
Relieved to have my phone back in action I make the turnoff south towards the Petrified Forest. I’m reminded of some story where a guy is cursed with bad luck after ignoring the signs not to take anything from the Petrified Forest. The road is desolate and foreboding but soon after some mountain passes reveal pleasant towns with green grass and trees. I get into Alamogordo around 5 pm. Staying tonight at a much nicer Holiday Inn Express. It brings back memories of staying there back in 2006 for my first elk hunt. That time I flew into El Paso and rented a Ford Explorer. On that flight, my gun made the plane but my bag did not and was only delivered to the motel ten minutes before we all left for camp. Maybe flying is a better solution but I want to get all of the meat back.
Tuesday, September 8
After a nice relaxing evening in Alamogordo and get to sleep in for a change. I decided to scope out where I can find some dry ice for the trip back. Albertsons has it in town. I head out and up to Cloudcroft. My first stop is at Cloudcroft Archery to see if I can do some shooting and talk to Justin there about getting my broadheads to fly straight. My fixed blade G5 Strykers are pretty far off. I get there and they don’t have much inventory. He’s busy cutting arrows for a family of 3. I do some shooting while he’s working. I share the range with a young kid. We have a funny exchange. He tells me he shoots birds with his bow. I ask him what kind and he says ‘blue jays’. Oh, I ask if they’re scrub jays or stellar jays? He doesn’t know. And Justin really can’t help me. I can’t shoot any broadheads here and will just have to sight in at camp.
Demonstrating to my guide that I can shoot always makes me nervous. For me, trying to get fixed blade broadheads to fly straight makes it even worse. They never do. I had thought about using expandable Rage Trypans that fly straight like field points. I’ve killed two blacktails with them but they are not great for elk and the ones I have wouldn’t even stay closed. I’m sure my email exchanges with David asking if I can use expandables has him thinking I’m going to be a pain in the ass. He’s not a fan of expandables but ok with me using what I want. I pick up a box of Slick Trick 100gr four blades to have something else to try just in case. While still in Cloudcroft, I stop at the Dusty Boots Cafe for a nice lunch.
Heading east now and it’s not far to David Lane’s place. I drive in and park and David emerges from a large garage to greet me. David runs Sacramento Mountain Outfitters. We talk a little and soon I’m following him to the ranch house. Just across from his place up 8 Mile Canyon road is the Coleman Ranch that we are hunting on. We arrive in camp and I meet the other guides: Jeff, Michael, and my guide Jerry Miller. The other hunters are also there. Mike Cohen and his son Michael. Kerry and Aaron his son-in-law. Counting me I’m the fourth ‘Michael’ in camp. I have a nice private room. There is no wi-fi and my phone has no service. Apart from a few random connections hiking at altitude, I am off the grid which is just what I needed.
After getting settled in I go set up to try and dial in my broadheads. The Strykers are still way off with my new Hoyt RX-4. I also have my old bow, a Hoyt Carbon Defiant for back up. David suggests trying that bow. Seems like a good idea. With the Defiant, I proceed to put a Stryker dead center in the 40-yard target. David says let’s see where two more go. I put two more right next to the first shaving two fletchings off one of the arrows. Probably the tightest group I’ve ever shot with broadheads. No one more surprised than me. We decide to I will use the Defiant which seems to make sense. This demonstration prompts David’s wife Sissi later that night to exclaim to everyone ‘Sean can shoot’ which was true as far as she knew. The other hunters were polite enough not to mention me putting one over the 50 and other shots that would contradict her assertion. I’m rarely the best shot in camp. I attribute my success to luck and perhaps divine providence.
I also set up the Slick Trick broadheads and my RX-4 seemed to shoot them perfectly. I put one into the 40 with it and decided that will serve as my backup bow.
Our cook is Kenna Leonard, she arrives in a yellow FJ Cruiser. She is delightful and runs a bakery in Cloudcroft called KennaBelle’s Kreations. She makes us wonderful food every day, a lunch to pack, and dessert every night. I ate everything including biscuits and gravy, chicken-fried steak, all the wonderful food you could imagine, and still had lost weight by the time I got home. Elk hunting is a true all-you-can-eat diet program.
Wednesday, September 9
On the first day of the hunt, it is a little cold and it rains off and on. We access the ranch roads with a very comfortable enclosed Can-Am side by side 4 wheeler. Jerry and I do a great deal of hiking and calling but we can’t seem to get a bull to come to us. It is unusual for them not seeing as many elk and it seems like the rut is not yet in progress. We cover a lot of ground and I feel good. I’m able to keep up ok, the altitude is less a factor than I anticipated. We stay out all day and then eventually I get set up in a ground blind. I have a close shot towards a salt lick and a slightly longer one to water. It looks like a good set up. As time goes on it gets very cold. I’m soon wearing every bit of KUIU gear I packed including my rain gear to try and stay warm. Nothing comes into the blind at all and we call it a little after 7 pm.
Thursday, September 10
Thursday morning Jerry and I are off again in the Can-AM. We do quite a few long hikes again which I enjoy. We hear bugles. Jerry calls and often gets answered. We try and sneak closer and draw one out to us but usually end up getting busted first by cows on the periphery of the bull. Periodically we’ll see a train of elk leaving ahead of us and sometimes a good bull among them. Eventually, we start thinking about what blind to sit that night and we go investigate a couple. These have makeshift brush blinds and big ponds of water but Jerry is not enthused by the lack of tracks. While at one David, Sissi, and Mike Sr. all arrive so we joke that we were keeping it warm for him. Jerry has another one in mind so we head out. We go to one high up called ‘Ridge Wallow’ which looks more like a big circle of mud and a small puddle of water remaining in the middle. It looks exactly like the kind of wallow you see elk in. The ground blind is close providing a great shot and it looks like it has been visited quite a bit by all the tracks.
Jerry sets me up and then drives pretty far off for the evening leaving me with a walkie talkie to contact him should I get lucky. This evening is much warmer and it is a great blind to be in. Soon all sorts of birds are visiting the wallow. A pair of ravens alight on the berm and hop down to drink and flutter their wings in the water. Later two stellar jays appear, reminding me of the kid at the archery range. As the evening goes on I hear more bugles in the distance. Soon I’m hearing heavy hoof falls behind me and imagine it’s a huge bull. An ancient cow comes into view. She makes use of a salt lick far off to the left of my field of view. Another small cow comes in after her. Soon I see a big bull across from the blind in the trees. I try to film him too. He’s a nice 5×6 and he chases a cow around a tree and then stops to bugle. He’s running around the edges of the blind and then all of the sudden it looks like he’ll come in. As he approaches I’m filming and when he nears the mud I drop my phone on my jacket and lean back slightly to be in the shadows as he enters. My web chair makes the faintest creak which stops him dead in his tracks. He decides something is not right here and then fades back into the forest. Man, this is going to be tough it seems. The blind is very open and I’ll need to be motionless until I get the chance to draw. I leave encouraged, this is a very fun blind to sit in.
Friday, September 11
Friday starts with all the usual long hikes, chasing bugles, busted by cows. Still, we can’t get any bull to come into us. I’m typically ahead of Jerry finding a good spot with cover. I wait and eventually he signals to move toward the bugle or at some point, we break the stalk off. I think this day a nice bull actually came to him but way behind me. We have lunch back at the ranch this time and then head back out to the blind around 4:30. This time we have a new chair that one of the hunters offered. It’s called a Chama chair which is quiet, higher up, and also has adjustable legs to level it off. This seems perfect. Soon a cow and spike come in to drink. I film them with my phone and try to get a sense of how exposed I am in the window. I have to sit pretty still as they often seem alerted by my slightest motion. The spike drinks and climbs the berm to a salt lick while a cow is on the salt lick to my far left.
As time goes on I periodically test my bow pulling back with the broadhead in the corner and looking if I can see my fiber optic colored pins. Without the light on to illuminate them, they just look like black lines making a very difficult shot. I have to fiddle with the light turning it on and when I let go it keeps turning off. Screwing it tighter seems to get it to stay but it’s finicky. Finally, it seems to glow enough for me to see the top green 20-yard pin. Soon the big 5×6 appears in the distance. This time he’s with four cows and seems more in rut behavior. This time he just traipses straight in to drink. He walks directly towards me and is hidden behind a tree blocking his view of me. It seems too good. I think about drawing now and holding but am glad I didn’t as he drinks for a very long time. I’m waiting and when he appears to stop I get my bow ready. He moves to the right towards the berm instead of left which I wasn’t expecting. I’m at full draw and when he moves enough right to show me behind his shoulder I’m squeezing and then WHACK my arrow hits the tree! I can’t believe it. It’s a good three feet high and to the left of him and where I was aiming. He and the cows start at that sound but don’t bolt off. He moves to the far side of the wallow now broadside in the green grass. I had ranged that at 40 before. I hold on him with my 40-yard pin and let go. My arrow lands harmlessly underneath him. He is actually farther back than the edge I realize and closer to 48. He is gone now along with the cows. I can’t believe I missed him at 20 yards. It’s crazy. Illuminated green knocks of my arrows litter the wallow like a crime scene. I have to call Jerry and let him know I missed the great bull. He arrives to check it all out and make sure there was no blood. I feel like a kid holding a crayon after defacing the walls of my room. Jerry is charitable and supportive. He confirms the arrows are clean and the furrow in the ground shows it landed below the bull. If you draw blood the hunt is over and rightfully you pursue that animal for the rest of the hunt. We go back for dinner and I have to relate the misses which is always a little embarrassing. Am I the same guy that put 3 into the bullseye at 40?
Saturday, September 12
Saturday hiking is about the same. We cover a lot of ground, hear a lot of bugles, see some cows and bulls but still just can’t get one to come to us. I am enjoying the hiking regardless and each time we hear a bugle and make a call it is full of anticipation. I set up in perfect spots, range the nearby trees imagining the perfect moment when the big bull passes me toward Jerry and I can put a perfect shot on him as I did on my first archery bull in Wyoming. We have a good day out in the field and we return home for lunch. I take a nap and try and get focused to make a good shot on the bull tonight. We are back a little earlier to sit the Ridge Wallow again. It’s not long until I see the big 5×6 in the distance but this time he does not seem interested in coming in. Can’t blame him after my ineffective assault the night before. Soon a cow and spike come in to drink. I film them with my phone and try to get a sense of how exposed I’m in the window. I have to sit pretty still as they often seem alerted by my slightest motion. It’s getting later and I test drawing my bow back and then try to get the light to work again. Once more it turns off when I let go and screwing it tighter seems to do something and leaves the green pin adequately lit to see when placed in the window. Soon there’s a bull in the distance, he’s chasing a cow. He’s actually a 4×4 and looks like the picture of a reindeer.
Not much happening after that for a while. At one point a red tail hawk alights on the berm. I get my phone out to take his picture and as I do he takes off, luckily I capture him at that moment.
Seems like a slow night and then suddenly I see the horizon off to the left saturate the color of elk and incredibly a whole herd is now approaching the blind. There must be 25 or more and they thunder right in with complete abandon. I can’t even believe it. A huge herd bull arrives panting and bugling. I have my bow in hand. He just charges in the middle parting the cows and comes straight in to drink giving me a perfect right broadside. I decide to just pull my bow back and damn the cows. I do and most of them spook and explode out of the blind but as expected the bull just keeps drinking. I aim my bow with the green 20-yard pin settling on him and I’m slowly pulling back and then THWACK. I put one right in the tree again. I can’t believe it at first but then it dawns on me exactly what’s happening. I’m looking at my pins, fiddling with the light, with my left dominant eye open, and in the excitement of the shot, I’m still using my left eye, closing my right and not even seeing the peep. My misses aren’t random; they are going to the same spot. The bull started at the impact on the tree and he moved off a little but is still in the wallow. I grab another arrow and try again. This time look through the peep and somehow still put one right under him just like I did with the 5×6 at 40 yards. Now they all move out and have had enough of this.
I am so disgusted with myself. I can’t believe I have missed again twice on a huge herd bull. An incredible opportunity. I have to radio Jerry now and say ‘I’m embarrassed to tell you I missed again’ Jerry was understanding and still supportive. He had to chuckle a little seeing yet another illuminated green arrow in the tree. We are back at the ranch house where I ignominiously relate my second spectacular failure. I can forgive Kerry for chiding me with wondering if I really shot all those big blacktails I had shared with everyone. I felt like saying that I have also missed a lot of big blacktails which I’m sure they would have believed at this point. Jerry and I discussed the situation and we both decided I should just go back to my new bow, the Hoyt RX-4 that I had been practicing with for months, and use the slick tricks.
Sunday, September 13
Each day in the living room David would lead us all in a short prayer which I really enjoyed. On Sunday morning we also had a short devotion before we all headed out. Jerry shared a beautiful passage from Robert Morgan’s biography of Daniel Boone. After breakfast, we head out and decide to bring a target with us to take some shots with the RX-4 at first light. This is a great idea. We get to a field and when it’s light enough I proceed to shoot just fine at 20, 30, and 40 and then put a Slick Trick right into the 40. I feel good. I can’t believe I lack the self-awareness to figure out what I was doing wrong before. It was Jerry that suggested to miss by that much I probably wasn’t using the peep. We proceed with the usual bugles and answers. Setups that don’t produce. Bump more cows and move on. At one point we see three mule deer in the distance. I get some good footage of them. One 4×4 on the left is narrow but super tall with deep forks.
We go on some long treks, one takes us into a canyon where we find a nice 5×6 deadhead. I hold it on my back with my right hand for some ‘pack out’ photos and on the way out Jerry hangs it in a tree. We hike out of the canyon. At one point in the day, we see a nice size black bear. Jerry does the palm squeak predator call and the bear gets alarmingly interested in us. Finally, a few loud words has him bounding away. Jerry suggests we take the target to the ridge wallow and have me shoot from the blind. I had been thinking the same thing so we get there and I set up inside. He tries it at 20. No problem I can put them in there. The far side of the water is 28 and he says to use the 30 which works perfectly too. Last we set it at the grass on the far side of the wallow at 40 and I put a couple in there too. I’m feeling confident now that I can hit what I need to from the blind.
After lunch in camp, I practice some more shots and am shooting tight groups and feeling good about the evening hunt. We head out early again in the Tundra. As Jerry is ready to drop me off he suggests we say a prayer together. We have a short heartfelt expression of both thanks and hope. I have been a little reluctant to petition yet again after prayers have been dramatically answered night after night and I’ve not capitalized on my opportunities. Jerry drives back to the spot where he’ll wait. It’s a nice night again and I’m wondering if anything would come in after my two nights of slinging arrows. Not too long a cow and a spike appear again. Then about 6 pm, the big 5×6 arrives. This time he has four cows with him and is running around. He doesn’t seem interested in taking a drink now and seems pretty wary after the last time. Then a spike just boldly walks right in and starts drinking. Now the 5×6 and the two cows seem ok with the idea. He walks in and the spike moves away. He’s broadside to me drinking. I have my bow in my hand. He finally finishes and looks away from me to his left. I pull back on my bow and as I move to aim at him the two cows spook and explode out of the blind taking him too. I have to let my bow down now. I’m left shaking from the resulting adrenaline dump. Not just a little tremble but have some sort of spasm going on in my stomach too. I’m resigned now to another blown evening. Feeling a little defeated, I don’t even try to be quiet as I put my down jacket on and try to just relax. Some time passes and I am warm and settled down now, trying to imagine how I could have possibly pulled that shot off.
While I’m replaying this all in my mind I start to hear grunts behind the blind and then again then heavy footfalls. I’m thinking it’s that old cow again. I pick up my bow just in case and then to my amazement a big bull is walking right in solo. I see forked backs and am thinking six by six and a shooter. He’s with a cow but she’s far to the left of the blind. He’s drinking now and I just go ahead and pull my bow back. I move to aim at him settling my red 30-yard pin behind his shoulder. Slowly squeeze and then THWACK he is hit. He bolts up the berm and out of the wallow. I stick my head out to watch where he goes. When he turns I can see a large red spot forming behind his shoulder and know it’s a good shot. He shows me his left and I don’t see blood but think he’s still done. I call Jerry to tell him I’ve shot a good six. I start my watch timer. Jerry arrives in about 30 minutes to the blind. I relate the action and we decide to take a long hike and approach from the steep side to keep from bumping him down there should he still be on his feet. We don’t have to go too far when Jerry declares ‘I’ve found your bull’ I had to ask ‘what’ like twice not believing it possible. Finally, I just see him in plain view, he is down and done. I can’t believe it. He is a great bull, an old 6×7 even.
It’s now 7 pm so we take a bunch of pictures and then plan the retrieval. We clear a path of logs and rocks so he can back the Tundra down the sloping hill to him. While we do we find my arrow largely intact and glowing green, it was a pass-through shot falling out after the bull had walked off. The four-blade 100 gr Slick Tricks fly true with my new bow and have made me a believer.
Jerry’s truck is a custom elk retrieval machine and has a wench at the back of the cab and a big board he uses to pull the elk into the bed. It’s tricky and we need to tie his legs and then pull him straight as he is hoisted in. We get him mostly in and Jerry guts him with his rear still hanging out. We finally get him all in and then head back to the ranch. David and the guides met us halfway knowing we had probably shot something.
Congratulations are extended as everyone checks out my bull. We got him into the skinning shed and hoisted him up. Jerry and I get to go back to the ranch house for enchiladas before 9 pm. I’m so happy both with my bull and also that we got him off the mountain quickly so the meat will be perfect.
Monday, September 14
The next morning we have a great breakfast. I pack my things and then we finish up with my elk getting him into my two coolers. I’m off early to Alamogordo where I get some dry ice and a cooler for my cape. The horns just barely fit into the FJ on top of everything else. I make the long trip to Blythe and then am back on the road early the next day up I5 through thick smoggy smoke-laden air and the harsh reality of coming back to burnt California and the COVID epidemic. I have my elk meat to Los Gatos Meats by 2 pm as Fabian hangs it all up it looks great. Stayed perfectly cool for the whole trip, it’s about 200 pounds.
Despite all my screw-ups, I had the greatest time on this hunt. Jerry was always patient and supportive and I truly enjoyed every day in the field with him. We had some great talks and a lot of fun. Despite my misses, I was never truly discouraged like I may have been in my earlier hunting days. I have to credit Jerry with helping me diagnose my peep error and be successful on this hunt. I can easily imagine some guides not dealing with my missteps as graciously. Being able to spend five days in the mountains among these majestic animals was such a gift and being able to take such a great bull as well after all that was even better. I learned a lot and feel I’ll be much better prepared for success in the future. I will look forward to hunting with SMO and Jerry again.
All video in a Youtube Playlist from the Hunt:
My pictures from the hunt on Flikr: