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  • Caroline Luna

View from the Top: Elk Hunting in Texas, Part 2

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

To catch up on Part 1, click here

I had hiked up to about 30 yards from where the bull bedded down under the pines on the north face of the ridge. I was amazed at how well he had concealed himself beneath the trees and even more amazed at how quickly he raced away and disappeared again. Such grace and athleticism from so large an animal! I also noticed the distinct odor of cow in the air. I don’t mean cow, as in female elk. I mean bovine cow, moo and all. I don’t recall smelling anything particular when I shot my cow elk at Vermejo, or when I handled my husband’s or father’s bull carcasses. But this day I noticed a very heavy odor in the bull’s wake. I grew up as a rancher’s daughter, so I know cow smell and actually quite enjoy it. To some, it smells like money. This time it smelled like defeat, even though I had accomplished a much closer encounter than I had expected.

So, I returned to my truck, elated at having come so close to the bull, but fearful that he would never again return to that mountainside after the way I jumped him off of his bed.

A few days later I hiked the backside of that hill, approaching from the south and east side for a literal change of pace and scenery, but I slipped on a large rock and fell back, knocking the hood off of my front sight. Heartbreak. Not only did I bang up my rifle, but I then had to take more shots on the range with the .348 to see if the sight had been moved or just circumcised. One shot through the center of a prickly pear leaf at the base of a hill confirmed the sight was still on. If the recoil of the .348 is enough to discourage target practice, the price per cartridge compounds it.

Then Saturday came, and while Ryan and I were checking trail cameras, I spotted the bull. He was at the northside convergence of two hills, somewhat shadowed by a large pine tree, but his ruddy face and neck were bright against the backdrop of the gray slick rock and sotol stumps. Even at over 1000 yards distance, he was aware of us, watching us as intently as we were watching him. He appeared to be alone, so we quietly got back in the truck and drove until we were out of his view. We had left the lodge late in the morning and unprepared for a stalk, a usual guarantee that an opportunity would arise.

We picked up speed on the way back to the hunting lodge to grab the pack frame, the ’66 M38A1 Jeep that could get closer to the drop point, and to alert my dad to the plan. He wanted to park in the valley so he could watch the elk from a distance. Ryan and I took the eastern canyon road while Dad went straight back to the point we had spotted the elk to help keep eyes on him while we approached from the other direction so we could work into the wind.

After a mile in the narrow, winding canyon, bouncing along in a stiff-suspension jeep, trying to inhale a sandwich my first-born child had made to fuel me through the pursuit, and feeling the excitement build as we neared the drop point, I was fairly nauseated. Ryan parked the jeep and we bailed out as quietly as possible and began discussing which ridge to take to reach the target. He gestured to the south east and said we could work our way up that ridge, or we could take off right in front of the jeep and go up that hill to spot the bull again before we started our approach. Either way, it would be straight up the hill, no switch backs, because my husband is six feet five inches tall and from the mountains of New Mexico where he and his brother always blazed the trails, never following the gently maintained established trails. We opted to spot the bull again before we worked on getting closer, and that worked with the direction of the wind, so we set off.

I carry my rifle muzzle up, in case I fall as mentioned before, and also because I am NOT six feet five inches. I am only five feet eight inches, so if I carry muzzle down, that puts the shoulder sling at that height at the stock, which puts my muzzle only about a foot off the ground. If I carry muzzle up, I can get another foot of distance between the ground and my gun just from the way the sling is attached. So when I stalk game, I am conscious of keeping my sling on my shoulder, my binoculars from clicking against my sling and my pistol (which I always carry whether hunting or grocery shopping) and all of this is while trying to keep up with Daddy Long Legs and dodging native flora which are all covered in thorns. For the next hour and a half, we hiked just under 1 mile to get within range of the bull. There was a lot of side planking, bear crawling, and crab walking at the end of that mile to find a perch with a clear shot of the bull. He had moved from the sunny side of the hill to the shadows of the north face on the backside of where we had spotted him. That was an exhilarating discovery, it meant that our observations over the past month held true. The bull was bedded down where I had jumped the elk in the past. I was relieved that mistake then had not scared the bull off the mountain entirely. Not only was he bedded down in the shade, but he had found a buddy and there were two bulls to choose from. Not the six bull overload from a few weeks prior, but nice to see there was still a representative population on the ranch and not just one wandering bull. My husband and I tried to glass both bulls to decide which one to harvest. I wanted to shoot the bull that was slightly higher up the hill and more in the shadows, he looked larger, but after a few moments of trying to get in position, that proved impossible. There was too much vegetation between us, both immediately in front of me and at a distance, directly in front of him. The most responsible choice was to shoot the bull that was in the open, even though he appeared to be the smaller of the two. I worked to get into position and while I did it quickly, the bulls sensed that something was not right and both stood up from their beds. Even standing, the larger bull farther up the hill was not in a clear field of sight, so I held firm on the bull I could clearly see, muttering “Just breathe…” as I tried to calm my sight picture. When Ryan was locked in with his binos and called out the yardage, I took the shot. I could hear the report and the impact soon after, such a lovely thud, and though the bull appeared to be hit solidly, I levered another round into the chamber and let the hammer down. The bull slid down the hill rapidly and managed to stand back up so I quickly sent another round into him. I made a mental note to send a backstrap home with Dad for equipping me with more gun than the .30-.30 as I could see how that might not have gone as well. The .348 was hard hitting at 162 yards, but it still took more than one shot.

The other bull, the one who at first appeared larger, stuck around after the first shot and even the second, not knowing what to do. He was clearly visible now and his rack, though heavier, appeared to be greatly broken up. He carried a lot of mass from his pedicles, but up towards the sword tines he was missing several points. We moved from our concealed position and made our way towards the downed bull and at that point his companion decided to leave.

We worked our way south and west across the saddle and onto the north face where the bull had slid to a stop. It was a steep face that still had patchy snow and ice and the bull had dropped twenty to thirty yards down the hill from where I first shot him. Thankfully his antlers were intact and he had not broken any points as he tumbled and bulldozed trees out of the earth on his descent. Tears of joy and appreciation welled up in my eyes as Ryan pulled the bull’s head around so we could fully admire this incredible creature who would feed my family of five for the next year.

-Caroline Luna

Follow her on Instagram @cazadoracaro

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