Somewhere south of Alpine, Texas, there is a mountain range that is dear to my heart. Yes, Texas has mountains, and no, they are not bigger here than anywhere else, as is our usual claim to fame. This range boasts slick rock faces, Emory oak motts, ocotillo outcroppings, lechugilla ledges, and long pinion canyons leading up into mixed juniper/conifer forests, and the occasional Texas Madrone with its papery bark and rosy flesh. There are native mule deer and white-tailed deer, scaled and Montezuma quail, mountain lions, as well as the exotic and invasive feral hogs and aoudad sheep, and the elusive elk.
I have been hunting this one particular range for nearly 16 years, and have been hunting generally since the age of 5, so this hunt was a long time in the making. As a south Texas girl, harvesting an elk was not something that was on my radar until I married a New Mexico mountain man and he took me to Vermejo Ranch for a cow elk hunt. I filled my tag in 2002 and have wanted to harvest another one ever since then, but in my family we “take turns” on big animals like that, so I had to wait for my husband, Ryan, to kill an elk, which he did about 3 years ago. I was upset about it at the time because I had given him permission to stay at the ranch and hunt through church time on a Sunday morning. He sent me a picture of a downed bull right before I was to lead worship for the congregation… needless to say my heart was not in the right place to play guitar and sing since I felt like I had missed out on all the fun. However, as the church service continued and I could visualize Ryan packing out the meat, the temperature inside and out of the sanctuary dropped dramatically as a cold front rolled in. Suddenly, I didn’t mind being at church and missing out on the freezing cold trips up and down the mountain to pack out his elk.
My dad was the next one to harvest an elk on this ranch. He took his bull on January 1st, 2020, and prophetically announced from the mountain top “Well, it’s all downhill from here…” Boy was he right. But it was a triumph for my dad, who at age 74 took a monster 7x8 bull with an original Winchester model 1895, .405 caliber, with open sites at 250 yards. He is a saddle-weary rancher whose knees don’t allow him to climb the hills like he used to, but he managed to walk up the hill to see his trophy, and then my brother and I walked before and behind him on the way back to his truck, occasionally grabbing his shoulders or his back pockets to keep him from sitting down abruptly on the way. Ryan packed this bull out pretty much by himself. Strong mountain men are handy to have around when you’re a thick-air breathing flat-lander.
16 years ago, when we began hunting this ranch, there were only rumors of elk in these pines. Once or twice a season we would hike past some petrified elk droppings, which are noticeably larger than the mule deer pellets we were used to seeing. One year we found a shed of an elk, nothing sizeable to make your heart beat faster, but the fact that an elk had stood on our side of the fence long enough to drop an antler was very encouraging. The neighboring ranch has had elk on it for many years, and our hope was that they would expand their range onto the ranch we lease. In the last 5 years they have, and this year we actually hiked up on a hilltop and saw an astonishing 6 bull elk bedded down beneath the junipers and pines. It was perhaps the most beautiful hike of my life as it took place just two days after a heavy snow. Ryan and our three children and I hiked up the backside of a hill where he had spotted a single bull sunning himself late in the morning. As we hiked, I marveled at how quiet our footsteps were in the fresh snow. Hiking with three children is seldom a quiet endeavor, but this day they were happily eating mouthfuls of snow on the way up. About halfway up the hill, Ryan paused and pointed out some very large cat prints in a patch of snow, most decidedly a male mountain lion, who from the looks of the snow and the track, had stood there less than 6 hours ago. We kept hiking and finally crested a hill from which we could look down and see the backside of the hill where Ryan spotted the bull. Lo and behold, there were 6 bulls bedded down! I have never seen so many antlers and big bodies all in one place! I chambered my Winchester model ’64 .30-30 and took a seat in hopes that a shot would present itself, although I was quite overwhelmed by all of the bulls and had no idea which one to shoot. I asked Ryan, since he is better at judging elk in size and age. Alas, the elk grew nervous as we tried to get closer and they quickly moved out of range of my rifle. Ryan offered me his custom Remington 700 rifle chambered in 7mm mag, and I took a seat, but still wasn’t sure which one to target. They all got away that day, but the sight of them definitely rekindled my desire to harvest a bull, and I refocused all of my hunting efforts from then on to finding and pursuing a bull.
We were interrupted by Christmas break, so scanning that particular hillside had to wait a few weeks, but in January I resumed my search. I also upgraded rifles, thanks to Dad, who was now keenly interested in his little girl harvesting a bull. He gave me a Winchester ’71 .348 caliber, that is absolutely no fun to sight in or target shoot with, but gave me a big confidence boost that I would be able to knock down an elk even at long range. One day while re-hanging game cameras, I spotted one lone elk high on the ridge to the south of the usual elk hangout. I was all alone at the ranch, my husband was at work at the university where he is a professor. I sent him a quick text, “Cameras are out. And so is an elk. Can I stalk him??” Ryan sent me a thumbs up emoji and a query about whether I had brought extra ammo. Have I mentioned that I love this man? I found out later that day he even let his students know that his wife was setting out on a hunt and that he might have to finish class a little early if she was successful. One student volunteered on the spot to help pack out the elk in exchange for extra credit.
I set out from the truck and headed up the west side of the ridge, through the junipers, sotols, Spanish daggers, lechugilla, and other spiny Chihuahuan desert natives. Hiking in west Texas can be hazardous to your health for no other reason than the vegetation. Thankfully in winter months we don’t have to be as concerned about rattle snakes.
I bumped a large feral hog off of his bed as I made my way through a shady spot, but opted not to shoot him for fear of spooking the bull I had spotted. The wind was blowing hard out of the south, so I walked with it around the western edge of the ridge, in hopes of coming up on the northeastern side with the wind in my face and finding my bull bedded on the other side from where I spotted him. The pines proved too thick to be able to spot him, and the not-so-fresh snow spots proved to be my nemesis as they now had a resounding crunch when stepped upon rather than the sound absorbing effect from a few weeks before. I worked my way to the top of the ridge and tried to keep the wind in front of me as I looked down the mountain to spot him. The wind disguised some of my movements as it blew branches and twigs all around, but it must have carried my scent or the sound of my heavy breathing right to the bull because suddenly the bull was up and charging away from me. I stopped in my tracks and tried to visually track him through the pines as he crashed through them.