Hunting Elk Creek......cont'd
My gun is a Fred Sinclair/McMillan-stocked Remington 600 with a 16" barrel. It carries a 4x Zeiss scope in Leupold rings and bases. I prefer to use it with a leather military sling mounted for carry and shooting.
My choice in ammo was Federal Premium cartridges loaded with 180 gr. Nosler Partition bullets, with a listed muzzle velocity of 2,620 fps. Three weeks before the elk hunt, I had the opportunity to take 15 deer as part of Thunder Ranch's game management program, so I had several occasions to see exactly what this projectile would do if the shot was properly placed.
Repetition: The Mother Of Skill
Rather than simply working with my gun off a shooting bench, I wanted to develop my skill in a variety of realistic positions at practical ranges for the hunt. So, we established a "practical elk-hunting" course of fire at Thunder Ranch, consisting of a quarter-mile stretch of road with 10 steel 12" targets set at distances from 70 to 200 yards.
Clint and I faithfully walked this course each day with rifles, packs and 20 rounds of ammunition -- two for each target, as hunting such ranges and conditions makes the need for a fast, accurate second shot very real.
The most challenging of all the targets on the course was the one that required the shooter to take a standing tree-rest position. Although this position was difficult and uncomfortable, we struggled through it every day, resisting the temptation to bypass it because we didn't like it. (There's a message here.) After two months and 500 rounds, we felt ready to take on the real thing.
On The Ground At Vermejo
My love of hunting began at an early age when my parents bought a hunting lodge in British Columbia, 250 miles northwest of Williams Lake. Today, living at Thunder Ranch with my husband Clint, I have had the opportunity to take all sorts of game including whitetail, axis and fallow deer, mouflon sheep, Rio Grande turkey and feral hogs. This, however, was my first shot at the "big one," American wapiti, so Clint and I began to search for a place new to both of us, where we'd have a good chance of seeing elk.
We consulted with some friends, all of who were accomplished and successful elk hunters, and they universally directed us to Vermejo Park, a 500-acre ranch with some of the most beautiful country in the United States, located near Baton, N.M.
We arrived on our hunt in late November, and we quickly discovered that our choice of locations was a wise one. The lodge was spectacular, the service five-star, and the food wonderful.
Our first night was devoted to hunter orientation. As we were introduced to the guides, the quality of the staff became obvious: most of them had been working Vermejo for more than 12 years, and one had been there for 30 years!
Pat McCrew, our assigned guide, had been working the ranch for 20 years. He was a soft-spoken gentleman and the epitome of a true hunter, with a respectable background in both biology and local history.
The trucks and ranch equipment were all working and in good repair -- it's real nice to find that everything is up to par after waiting a year or more to go on a hunt.
Our first task was to check zero on our rifles. At the Vermejo range, we fired three rounds at the 100-yard target, which resulted in a 1" group 2 1/2" above center. This pleased us as well as McCrew, who had come along to watch in order to familiarize himself with our capabilities and our equipment.
Finally, the morning of the hunt arrived. The truck delivered us to our designated area and soon we were walking quietly along an old access road towards some high mountain parks to scan for elk. Clearing a small ridge at a turn in the road, we saw three bull elk grazing along the tree line. Suddenly my heart rate and breathing were racing and I was ready to take my shot, but Clint and McCrew throttled me back giving me the nickname of "Barney Fife." They threatened to take my ammo away just to keep me from shooting every elk I saw.
So, with my respiration back down to normal, we huddled and decided to let these bulls go in order to look for bigger game. That was a good decision -- we saw 35 more bulls and over 100 cows throughout the day.
Elk In The Shadows
Our morning endeavor was unsuccessful, so we returned to the lodge for lunch. Afterward, we set out for a piece of the high country known as Elk Creek. After an hour ride we left the truck and started on foot up a long, steady hill between two rocky ridgelines. When we finally reached the meadow, our patience and determination paid off. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, we watched 15 bull elk glide from the forest into the open.
We dropped back out of view of the meadow and worked slowly downhill towards the clearing full of big brown-and-black hat racks. At the base of the ridge we could see the hulls in brief glimpses through the trees. We crawled over some deadfall and peeked into the meadow and there they were -- 15 bull elk. Anyone who has hunted these magnificent creatures knows that any elk is a good elk, but this was certainly a jackpot.
McCrew glassed the herd, comparing rack sizes. At last I slid into position beside McCrew and he pointed out a six-by-seven bull as the best of the group. With my heart in my throat, I inched forward about seven more yards trying to get clear of the trees which had masked us before and now served to block my line of fire.
There was no way to get a shot from prone, sitting or kneeling. I kept moving up the tree trunk which helped to conceal my upward movement, and I soon realized that my only option was to take a standing tree rest position. I was suddenly glad we hadn't skipped this part of our practice out of sheer convenience.
As I stopped and took position, all 15 sets of eye swung to look at me, and Clint whispered, "Whatever you're going to do, you better do it now." I placed my finger on the trigger and squeezed.
When the shot broke, I tried to run the bolt quickly and prepare for a follow up, as we had practiced, but my hands were suddenly awkward and clumsy. Before I could get the next round chambered, the bulls had vanished from the meadow -- I saw only 15 tan rumps disappearing into the timber.
Both McCrew and Clint agreed that the bull had "slumped" at the shot, so we moved forward quickly to begin tracking in the failing light. We had only gone about 20 yards into the dark timber (which I now know why they call "dark") when Clint swung up his rifle smoothly and fired.
I followed his line of movement and saw the large bull grounded, but with his head still up. I brought my own rifle up, took aim behind his shoulder and fired. At the shot his head dropped and I knew I'd gotten my first elk.
Practice Makes Perfect
The results of the hunt were a powerful demonstration of how important practice and experience are in the great combination of events which must all come together to create a successful hunt. With plenty of practice and a little confidence, a rifle that some would consider "minimal" for the task at hand and a difficult firing position had worked perfectly. It was time for our beautiful elk to start its trip home.
With night quickly falling, McCrew called three other staffers out from the lodge. They dragged and winched the carcass up the slope that we had so carefully crept down earlier. After a bumpy ride down the mountain we all managed to get back to the lodge and enjoy a late dinner by 10 p.m. The next day we set out in earnest to find an elk for Clint to take with his .45-70 iron-sighted Shiloh-Sharps ... but that's another story.
This hunt offers us a chance to reflect (as all good hunts should) on the many things for which we should be thankful. Foremost among them is the fact that we live in a country where, for the time being at least, anyone who wants to can still have an experience like this. We can also be thankful that places like Vermejo Park Ranch still exist, where we can go to put 700 lbs. of elk meat in the freezer to share with family and friends in the coming year. Finally, we can be thankful for those in our lives who, like my husband, encourage us to practice and hone the skills which we put to use in the field and which distinguish us as true hunters, instead of just casual shooters.
And, when all is said and done I can be thankful for the hope that someday I may be able to return to Vermejo Park for another great elk hunt.
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COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group