By Michael Deming
Successful; definitely not a word I’m used to seeing when applying for the New Mexico big game draw process. When I heard that these results had been posted, I made beeline to my computer to check the status of my long-awaited draw. For those of you not familiar with the lottery process they call the big game applications, I’ll provide you some insight. Each western state has an application process to get the majority of their big game tags. Residents are awarded the greater number of these tags, but a percentage of these tags are set aside for nonresidents. New Mexico is no different in that standpoint. However, they separate their tags even beyond this. If you are a nonresident and you apply with an outfitter, there is a portion of those nonresident tags for just this process. If you don’t apply with an outfitter, there is another portion of these nonresident tags that go into this pool. I usually apply on my own, but this wasn’t going to be the case this year.
Compass West Outfitters owned by Chris and Karin Guikema have been on my radar for many years and I had been talking with Chris about doing an evaluation trip to see if his operation was as good as I had heard. However, when you are sold out nearly a year in advance for everything, you don’t much need the help of someone like us nor do you need to be evaluated. Knowing that we wanted to have the best outfitters in the business for our Pro Membership Sweepstakes and that we intended on buying at least a hunt or two a year might have helped with Chris planning a hunt with me and my team.
Unfortunately, my mad dash to the computer wasn’t rewarded with that “Successful” green banner I was hoping to get. A big fat red “Unsuccessful” is what flashed on my screen. I called Chris and let him know that my luck had continued as usual and we would have to put this off for another year. He informed me that this wasn’t going to be the case. He had set aside a landowner voucher for me to get this hunt done for 2018. Those of you not familiar with this “Landowner Voucher” term; It’s an authorization to purchase a tag which is issued to landowners from the state. This voucher is used by outfitters and hunters who don’t get fortunate enough to draw a tag in the lottery process. Once they have one in hand, it is just like you drew the tag and now you can get a license. So, I went from happy, to unhappy, to happy once again and the October elk hunt was on.
October finally rolled around and as luck would have it, we had endured one of the driest seasons on record. This meant that the big mature bulls that we would be targeting could likely be 30-50 inches short of their expected growth potential on a regular moisture year. I had been talking to Chris on a regular basis throughout the archery season and he was consistently confirming our fears about the drought. I kept telling myself that we will make the most of it and find the biggest bull we can.
We rolled into camp the second week of October with rifle in hand. We would have 5 days to get it done and literally over seventy-five thousand acres to get it done on. The base camp is your traditional elk heaven with an abundance of wall tents and a huge white cook tent. We were greeted by the staff and directed to our sleeping quarters and settled into the groove with some good elk hunting tales. We had a big dinner and were given instructions on the plan for the week and then settled in for a good night’s sleep. Once the adrenaline wore off and all the new hunters settled down, it was finally quiet. The quiet of the cool evening was interrupted by a scream of a bull a few hundred yards away. It was the beginning of a night of serenading by numerous "camp" bulls.
This country hadn’t seen water in months, but our first morning of hunting was dropping in buckets. Thank goodness for some high-quality Sitka Gear I had packed. We parked and walked up the road in the dark and just hoped that the rain would subside enough to get a visual on a big bull. The darkness held on for way longer than expected with the dark skies and we did our best to use the cedar trees for cover. As the darkness finally gave way to light, the rain slowed to a drizzle. A lightning bolt struck by close and felt like it flipped the switch for the elk. The screaming across the valley became immediate. One bull wouldn’t even finish his bugle and another would chime in. We had over twenty bulls bugling in the area, but had yet to lay eyes on any of them. Chris was guiding us personally and he picked out of the drizzle and fog the first bull of the morning. It was actually a group of several bulls, but no shooters. For a solid hour, the bugling continued and we got eyes on well over a dozen of them. None of them were worthy of this precious tag even for a drought year.
Chris decided that it was best to go back to camp and dry out and then hit another portion of the ranch that was ideal for glassing in the early afternoon and evening. After lunch and a short nap, we headed back out to the field. The rains had made the ground extremely quiet to walk on and Chris had just the spot for us to spend the afternoon still-hunting and glassing an opposite ridge. We had just crested the hill and were looking for a good place to glass when Chris stopped us. We had just walked in on a bull in his bed. We were less than 30 yards from what looked like a pretty heavy piece of bone. He was on the opposite side of a Cholla cactus which covered most of his antlers. The wind was good, but the bull knew that something was up and swiveled his head around to see what was in his bedroom. We determined that he was a six-by-six, but couldn’t determine how big he was before he finally decided to get out of the country. It was definitely an exciting close encounter.
We set up on a good lookout where we could see miles and miles of terrain. As the sun gradually got closer to the horizon, more and more elk kept coming out. A big mature five-by-five was cross-canyon from us and it was all I could do to not send a round from my Browning X-Bolt .26 Nosler his direction. I kept telling myself that this is only the first day; be patient and it will happen. We stayed on our perch until nearly dark and the grand total was 55 bulls for the day. Not a bad day considering the conditions mother nature had thrown on us.
For the next 3 days, we covered ground, glassed terrain, and covered more ground looking for a huge bull. We knew that with the drought, we were truly looking for a needle in a haystack. Chris said that we were looking at a fraction of the bulls he sees on a regular year and we had already exceeded 150 in our four days of hunting. So, I couldn’t imagine what it is like on a good year. We were looking for a huge bull that likely lived somewhere else for the year and was coming down to his traditional rutting grounds to get cows. With the pasture in such poor shape, the cows were very limited and we would need a break to find a trophy bull. I was committed to all 5 days of season to make it happen and not just shoot any ol' bull.
On the last evening of the hunt, Chris said that we needed to check out one area that we hadn’t gotten a good look at yet. We took the Polaris to the far end of the ranch and the minute he put up his glass, he said there’s a bull. Since everyone else in camp had tagged out, we had another guide by the name of Mike who was along to be another set of eyes as well as pack mule if we got lucky. We watched this bull for nearly an hour and even though he was a mature bull with a dozen cows, we just couldn’t put him in the age class to be worthy of harvest. With less than an hour of legal shooting light left and no target bull in our sights, I started to feel like I just might eat my first ever New Mexico bull elk tag. We were glassing every open hillside that we knew we could get to in the legal light we had left, but nothing. We stopped the Polaris and walked up a small hill to look into a very small basin. I heard Mike call my name and he motioned for me to get my spotter up. He could see what looked like a good bull's 4th point in the brush about 650 yards away. I set up the spotter and sure enough, it was the sword point of a good bull. He had just gotten out of his bed and was feeding in the mahoganies. We were getting glimpses of pieces of antlers, but never the whole thing where we could judge his size. With less than thirty minutes of legal shooting light, we finally got a decent look at his rack and body. He was definitely a mature bull with good main beams and all of his points intact. In true Sportsman’s News fashion in the last light of the last night, I squeezed the trigger on my .26 Nosler and ended what was a long-awaited New Mexico bull.
After decades of elk hunting, this was my first ever New Mexico bull. This was my 45th branch antlered bull and a major milestone for me. He wasn’t the 350-plus bull I was hoping to harvest when Chris and I planned this hunt, but considering the conditions, we did pretty darn good. It will definitely go down in my elk hunting career as one of the best hunts I’ve ever been on. It consisted of great camp, great professionalism, great food, and lots of elk. Chris and his team are some of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of hunting with and I’m even happier that he has committed to selling us a couple of hunts a year for our Pro Membership Sweepstakes to give away. Book your own elk hunt with Compass West Outfitters or become a Pro Member at www.promembershipsweepstakes.com for a chance to win one.