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Montana X-treme
Rifle Magazine
March - April 2005
Volume 3, Number 2
ISSN: 0
Number 14
On the cover...
Cover photo by Ron Spomer. Turkey photo by John R. Ford.
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It was just breaking dawn when guide Lionel Velarde and I left the truck and began slowly hiking up the slope through semi-open timber, heading toward the sound of music – three bugling bulls, drawing us toward them like Odysseus was drawn to the songs of the Sirens. So into the light drizzle we lightly stepped, following the Siren’s Song as we closed the gap on the small band of elk that was working its way from the open meadows to a timbered bedding ridge. For the next several hours we played tag with these elk, Lionel choosing to not call but instead shadow the herd like U-Boats shadowing a North Atlantic convoy. As we moved we tried to glass up the bulls, and eventually we saw them all. Or at least I think we did. All told I counted 17 5x5 or 6x6 bulls, but none that would score over 300 Boone & Crockett points. It was day one of a five-day hunt, and after the first hour it was apparent that this was no ordinary fair chase elk hunt, where the sight of a single branch-antlered bull is enough to stop your heart. Here one could afford some patience. Late that first afternoon, Lionel drove us higher on the mountain to a brushy spot overlooking some timbered fingers stretching down toward the meadows below. “The elk like to bed up here, and it’s about time for them to start talking,” he said as we stepped out of his truck. As if on cue, three bulls bugled no more than 300 yards from where we stood. “Holy Buckets!” I thought to myself. “I better check a map and make sure we’re not in some national park or something!” After checking the wind, we slipped off into the brush to have a look. Almost immediately Lionel’s sharp eyes spotted a bedded cow, then the beam of a bull lying nearby. We looked this guy over closely – heck, we were only 100 yards from his bed – and when he threw his head back and screamed, we could see his 6x6 antlers clearly. “About a 280,” Lionel said, “an average bull for here. We’ll keep looking.”

We then heard another bull bugling just over the crest of a small hill, and when we slipped over the top and found him, Lionel whispered, “That’s the one!” What a sight to see – a big 5x6 bull bugling in his bed, master of all he surveyed and just waking up for an evening of feasting and skirt chasing. But light was fading, so we videoed the elk and decided to pass for the moment.

The next morning broke clear and crisp, and dawn found us parked in exactly the same spot. We had decided to come back and see if, by some miracle, we could locate this bull again. As we stepped out of the truck, the world was alive with a cacophony of bulls screaming their heads off. I counted seven different bulls bugling, but the big 5x6 had a distinctive baritone that both Lionel and I recognized instantly. When we heard it, we both grinned at each other. “It’s on!” I giggled, as we circled downwind of the bugling before vectoring in.

To make a long story short, it wasn’t as easy as it could have been. We glassed the bull up after about 30 minutes, but today he was aggressively herding cows and keeping lesser bulls at bay. We chased him over several brushy ridges, down into a deep canyon, up the other side and across a tall brush flat before calling a halt about 11:00 a.m. By this time he had put some air between us, even though the elk never knew we existed.

We were just thinking about calling it off until evening when we heard him bugle one more time. That was it. “That bull is making fun of us,” Lionel said. “We can’t let him get away with that!” So off we went, this time climbing high before circling into the wind and coming down on the small herd, whose location we could pinpoint by the occasional bugling.

After another hour, we were close enough to smell elk, so we slowed to a crawl as we glassed the thick brush for any sign of tan bodies or brown tines. There! Through the thick stuff we saw him, herding a cow and fending off a small 5x5, not 125 yards off. We sat down and waited for a break to come, figuring that if we didn’t get our shot here, we eventually would if we just let the hand play itself out. That’s when we were pinned down by the spike bull that appeared out of nowhere 50 yards ahead, and a smaller 6x6 feeding placidly 75 or so yards to our right, but blessedly screened from our sight by thick brush.

Just when I thought we’d never get out of this one our break came. A cow burst away from the big bull and came right at us, veering off 80 yards in front of us and darting behind a thick patch of scrub. Then the bull charged out from behind his cover line after her, and that was his mistake. There he was, standing broadside, only 100 yards away, when the crosshairs found the spot. Bam! Hair flew off his chest, but he didn’t move. Bam!! The second shot impacted inches from the first, and the bull turned and began staggering off. Bam!!! The third shot plastered his right shoulder, and he went down in a heap.

Just like that, after only a day and a half, my Jicarilla elk hunt was over. The sun was now shining brightly, and it was shirt-sleeve weather. When I asked Lionel how we were going to get this thing back to the truck, he just grinned. “Old Indian trick,” he said. “I’ll drive the truck right up to him, we’ll winch him in the back and drive home.” Just when I thought it could not get any better . . .

As Lionel went off to fetch the truck, I sat in the afternoon sun, admiring this magnificent bull and reflecting back on my days as an elk hunter.

I killed my very first bull, a magnificent 6x6 scoring a tad over 330 B&C points, in the late 1970s with an old BAR 7mm Remington Magnum after a 22-mile horseback trip into Idaho’s Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. This Jicarilla elk was my 24th bull and 31st elk. Half have been taken with centerfire rifles, a couple with muzzleloaders and the rest with bow and arrow. I have been fortunate enough to hunt them in every western state at least twice, plus Alaska and, several times, in British Columbia

After all this time, the song of an elk still draws me like Odysseus was drawn to the Sirens’ sultry songs in Greek mythology. In this classic mythological tale, the Sirens sang in unison with the music of the Moerae. When the Argonauts sailed past the Sirens, Orpheus chanted a counter melody to protect his companions, but Argonaut Butes 1 swam off to the Sirens, and would have perished had not Aphrodite carried him away. It was predicted, however, that the Sirens would die when a ship passed them unharmed. On his voyage past their lair, Odysseus heard their lovely song yet survived for he, following Circe’s instructions, stopped the ears of his comrades with beeswax, and ordered that he should himself be bound to the mast so that he could hear the voices of the Sirens, who sang him their sweet and irresistible song. When he heard their persuasive song, he strongly desired to linger and begged to be released, but his comrades bound him tighter until they had sailed past them, thus escaping certain doom. The Sirens were never heard from again.

To resist the sound of a wild bull elk bugling, like Odysseus I too would have to be bound to the mast. Each time I hear the deep, raspy bugle of an old monarch bull, the squeaky call of a young bull or even the sweet chirps and squeaks of cows and calves as they move along through the timber, I feel a surge of adrenaline that makes me feel 30 years younger, if only until the steep, high-elevation mountains harshly remind my body that I am not. It’s as if an elk bugling is a sort of Fountain of Youth.

The Jicarilla is a special place. The tribe has done a wonderful job both in managing this precious resource and in building a program that allows outsiders the opportunity to experience both the reservation and some of the continent’s finest elk hunting at reasonable cost. On a scale of one to 10, this hunt’s a 10+.

Apache Reservation Elk Hunting

When most people think about elk hunting on a southwestern Apache reservation, they think the cost will put it out of their reach. In some cases that may be true. For example, a trophy elk hunt on Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation – arguably the finest free-ranging trophy elk hunting in North America, where a truck load of record-book bulls have been taken over the years – costs $15,000 plus a $3,000 trophy fee for a bull that nets a green score in camp of either 375 typical or 385 non-typical Boone & Crockett points.

A “management bull” hunt – defined as hunting for “mature 5x5s (no scoring maximum or minimum) and palmated or deformed bulls” costs $5,000. But don’t lick your chops just yet. The majority of White Mountain trophy elk hunt packages are booked by returning clients (there is an 80 to 90 percent return rate), and there is a waiting list that is presently closed to new names as the tribe continues to work through those that have been on the list for several years. More information is available on its web site at: www.wmat.nsn.us.

On Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Reservation, the cost is $25,000 for top-end trophy elk hunts in the Dry Lake and Hilltop units, and $3,000 for Malay Gap elk hunts, where trophy bulls may be found but the odds of killing a monster bull are not great. In 2004-05, only 6 tags were issued to non-tribal members for the Dry Lake and Hilltop hunts, and 10 tags issued to non-tribal members for the Malay Gap archery-only hunts. There are legitimate Boone & Crockett bulls on the San Carlos, with elk scoring over 400 B&C points taken in recent years. More information is available by visiting online at www.sancarlosrecreationandwildlife.com.

The Jicarilla Apache Reservation offers something different. “We have lots and lots of bulls that will score between 275 and 325 B&C points,” guide Lionel Velarde told me. “And every year we take one or two that will score 340 or so. But the chances of killing a 400-inch bull here are not good.”

In 2004 the Jicarilla offered four different early elk hunts to non-tribal members on its 850,000 acre reservation, located at the foot of the San Juan Mountains in northern New Mexico. The late September archery hunt costs $4,750. The first any-weapon hunt tags ran $6,250; the second any-weapon hunt tags, $5,250; and the third any-weapon tags, $4,750. You must also hire a tribal member as a guide on your hunt, with guide fees varying from $500 to $1,200 for a five-day hunt. Compared to many high-quality guided private ranch hunts in New Mexico where just the landowner tag can cost $2,500 to $4,500, plus the cost of the guided hunt – Jicarilla hunts are a great value.

Success on the archery hunt usually runs about 90 percent, “but everyone that can hunt even a little bit will have a shot opportunity at a mature bull,” Velarde said. Gun hunts are virtually 100 percent, with my third-season hunt typical in that all five of our party shot bulls that green-scored between 310 and 323 B&C points – in just two days!

The cool thing is that you can expect to see numerous branch-antlered bulls each day. For example, I passed a total of 23 mature 5x6 or 6x6 bulls before tagging out. Tags are issued through a draw, with applications due in May. More information is available at www.jicarillahunt.com.

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