All photo credits: Stefan Wilson
Recent elk beds. It seemed we were always one step behind.
Roughly one month ago, I wrote an article about ways to hunt and keep your family close. I recently had the opportunity to go on an archery elk hunt with my wife, Jeannie, in which we both had tags. I was very excited to go elk hunting, but I was even more excited to do it with my best friend and wife right next to me. For me, hunting is a hobby with many benefits, (like putting quality meat in the freezer) but it is important to remember that, ultimately, it is only a hobby. In today’s society, we no longer need to hunt in order to survive. My family, on the other hand, is not a hobby; they are the most important people in my life. This is why I was elated to share hunting with my wife and our two kids. Since April, all I could think about was our archery elk hunt in the Cibola National Forest on Mt. Taylor in northern New Mexico. I have hunted elk since I was old enough to hunt and I never tire of it. Elk are magnificent animals that demand respect and are unlike any other animal when it comes to hunting them, especially in September. This year was even more significant because our freezer was empty and we were in a "meat crisis." One of the primary reasons that we hunt is for pure, quality meat for our family. This means that an empty freezer equals the need for a successful hunt. We approached September with eager anticipation in hopes of filling at least one of our tags (as well as our freezer).
This hunt was too important to neglect proper preparation. We started training for it before we even knew we were drawn, spending countless hours in the gym, training for traversing difficult terrain at impossible altitudes. HIIT cardio and high-rep strength training was our main training of choice. We also spent extensive time practicing with our bows in order to be comfortable with our respective effective ranges. Lastly, I spent many late nights studying Google Earth and GOHUNT's INSIDER unit profile information to obtain as much info about our unit as possible. We took multiple trips to the mountain to scout in person, set up a trail camera, and recorded GPS coordinates for potential hunting spots. We prepped and prepped and prepped. This was the most we had prepared for any hunt. And then… the season came.
We were not able to head out on opening day because of work commitments and other plans. Because family is far more important than hunting. Our niece's birthday party was planned for September 5 and we were not going to miss it. After September 5, my wife and I planned to come back to Mt. Taylor without the kids while our kids would spend the week with my parents (which is the equivalent to a week at Disneyland for them, so they weren't exactly complaining). This gave us one evening and one morning to go out to Mt. Taylor before the birthday party. We had the kids with us so we weren't actively hunting. Instead, we were camping with our bows close by. We drove around a bit with our kids in the truck, hoping that something might come out of the timber. We saw some deer and some wild turkeys, which the kids loved seeing, but we did not see elk. This was fine because we had an absolute blast with our kids and would not have done it any different if we had the chance to do it again. I will always remember my daughter's excitement upon seeing the deer and my son's excitement about pretty much everything he saw. We left the mountain temporarily to drive to Arizona for our niece's party. After the birthday party, we made the three-hour drive back to Mt. Taylor. We were back at it, just the two of us.
Day one for us started six days into the season. It began early and we decided to start high on the mountain. Climbing the backside of the peak of Mt. Taylor gave us an incredible view of the inner basin of the mountain as the sun rose on the horizon. It was a view that was unbeatable and totally worth the climb. We admired the sunrise for a moment, but quickly got back to the task of finding elk. Throughout the morning we were finding elk beds and sign everywhere. They were definitely living in the high elevations and thick timber as hunting pressure drove them to the more rugged and remote parts of the mountain – just the way we like it. The day did not turn up any elk, but we were hopeful since we had found plenty of indication that they were in there.
The second day produced more sign and more evidence that we were in the right place, but still no elk. We were constantly finding where they had been, but we could not find where they currently were. Anyone who hunts elk knows that you must get a step ahead of them or you will never catch them. We were fighting to get in front of them, but just couldn't make it happen. Another issue we were running into was the thick timber and heavy vegetation. It had rained an insane amount in New Mexico all year. The grass was tall (and noisy) and there were tons of hidden sticks that cracked underfoot. This made it very difficult to sneak up on elk that may have been bedded. It was also nearly impossible to glass anywhere because every mountainside was completely covered with aspen and pine trees. The day finished off with my wife and I getting caught in a rainstorm as we investigated water sources in the area. We got back to camp wet, cold, and starting to wonder what needed to change for us to get on top of the elk.
The morning brought one more attempt to get on the elk in the high country. We hiked deep on the north face of the mountain and began descending into a steep draw that funneled into a canyon at the bottom. As we snuck down the hill, we jumped a bull that was bedded inside of a bunch of skinny pines. He blew out of there with loud crashes and was quickly followed by some cows bedded nearby. We followed their tracks, but it was clear they had gone much farther and much faster than we could follow. We decided to pull back and regroup.
In the evening, we decided it was time to change our approach. While we had located elk, the tough terrain made it impossible to get close. Additionally, the elk were not responding to calls due to hunting pressure so we were unable to bring them to us. Hunting food sources was pointless because the extensive rains had made every square inch of the mountain into a gigantic buffet. We decided to sit on a water tank for the evening in hopes that the warmth would push them to water early… it didn't. No elk.
While we sat near the tank, I was thankful that I was able to spend this time with my wife. We were working together, communicating, and encouraging each other. It was not only fun, but it was also an exercise in deepening our relationship and practicing the things that strengthen a marriage. It was becoming clear that this hunt was about so much more than elk meat; it was about my wife and I continuing our lifelong journey of enjoying each other in every aspect of life that we shared.
On day four the looming pressure of our empty freezer was building and we were starting to wonder if we would get it done. We decided to hunt the water tank one more time because we saw plenty of elk tracks the night before. Elk still did not show, but some mule deer came into the tank and spent considerable time there, which was fun to watch. Seeing animals for which you do not have a tag is always fun because there is no pressure. You can just watch and enjoy the moment. Up to this point there were no bugles (aside from the bad fake ones done by hunters who hadn't practiced). It was clear that the rut had not begun so we could not rely on calling to locate the elk.
That night, we decided to go back to where we had seen the majority of the sign. I was confident that this was going to be the night we filled a tag. We glassed a little from the opposing hillside because the vegetation was not quite as thick and we could see through the trees. We formulated a plan: my wife would work the top of the ridge and I would work the bottom of the hillside. If anything got up and moved as a result of her movement, it would likely move downhill toward me. The focus was covering more ground with our eyes than we covered with our feet, moving slow and deliberate. We decided we would meet once we reached the end of the mountainside after moving laterally across the face of the hill. We worked the mountainside for about two hours before it started to get dark so I moved to the road. When I got to the road, my wife was nowhere to be found. I blew my cow call according to the signal we had developed for communicating with each other…Nothing. I blew my call over and over and over… Nothing. I started to worry. I began shouting my wife's name at the top of my lungs. Nothing. I decided that I was going to try and trace her steps in the dark as best I could with my headlamp lighting my way. As I started moving through the trees around where she had been I heard her cow call. In a moment of overwhelming relief I ran down the side of the mountain in the dark (how I didn't fall on my face, I have no idea). When I got down to her, saw her face and knew she was okay, I was so relieved while at the same time being so mad at myself for letting that situation unfold. We hiked back to the truck by the light of my headlamp and went back to camp. For a few hours, I forgot we were even hunting elk. I was just so thankful and relieved that my wife was okay.
That night we went back in hope of catching them returning to their bed. They were nowhere to be seen. The sun set. Our hunt was over and our freezer was still empty.10 minutes after shooting light ended, I heard three bugles ring out across the canyon. The rut was kicking off just as we were getting ready to leave.
If I were to add up all of my hunts over the last 18 years of my life, my success percentage would be just a hair over 20%. While that percentage has gone up considerably in the last five years as I have learned and grown as a hunter, it is unrealistic to think that I will come home with an animal every single time. Every time I go hunting I see things that I never could have seen otherwise. I learn lessons about hunting, life and myself. I have times of complete peace and solitude. I also have memories that will last forever. Though we did not harvest an elk, this was still one of my favorite hunts of my life because my wife was by my side for the entirety of it. Filling a tag is great, but it isn't the only reason we hunt.
When we had our kids with us the focus had to be on that time together, not on the fact that we were not out hunting. Our kids needed to see and know that they were the object of our affection and the reason we were out there with them. Hunting took a backseat for a few days so that our kids could feel loved and cherished. When I could not find my wife that night during our hunt, I could not have cared less if an elk walked right in front of me; I was only focused on finding my wife, not hunting. When a time comes to choose between loving your family well or hunting, choose family every single time.
Hunting does not have to be a point of contention within your family. If you choose to love you family first and love them well then hunting should be able to be an extension of that as you share in the experience together. Sure, there might be times you hunt without family, but if you do your part to give your family the time and energy they deserve, then hunting will not be seen as competition.
I could have done this hunt by myself and enjoyed it; however, the experience, memories, and pure fun I had hunting with my wife made it so much more fulfilling than had I gone alone. Our marriage is deeper, our collective passion for hunting is stronger, and we get to relive the hunt together as we recount the week's events. My wife and I were so excited for this hunt and even though it did not end the way we would have hoped, I have no regrets. We had a blast and aside from one very scary evening, the hunt was fun, educational, and it deepened our marriage as well as our love for hunting. I am so thankful that God allows us to hunt and experience the outdoors together. Hopefully, we will be back next year with just as much excitement, anticipation and hope. Until next year, we will wait, train and dream and we will be doing so together… as a family.