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A Pair of Sixes and A Joker

A Elk Hunting Article

Written by T.R. Michels


Hunting, especially hunting for trophy elk, is a lot like playing poker. It's a game of chance, and you never know what kind of hand you'll be dealt and how the game will end; until it's over. You can put the odds in your favor by being prepared, and by having a thorough understanding of the game.

Dawn was an hour away as we walked through the quiet darkness, and I could hear elk mewing in the meadow behind me as we crested a small hill. As soon as I got to the crest of the hill I began to crouch down. In front of me, not more than fifty yards away, stood a five-point bull elk. As I watched the bull I caught movement with my right eye; instinctively I looked to my right. Thirty yards away two smaller bulls were standing head to head, antlers locked. The bull on the right pushed the other bull backwards, then they separated and looked my way. I heard Ray coming behind me and motioned to him to come up beside me, but to keep low. When he stopped, the two bulls lowered their heads and continued their shoving match. I could barely hear the sound of their antlers clicking in the still mountain air. Behind them twenty cows and calves fed in the lush grass. I whispered to Ray to be quiet and stay down. I wanted to check to see if there was a bigger bull with the herd. Originally I had planned going farther up the valley, but if we moved now we would spook every elk in the valley.

Ray looked at the big bull and asked, "Is he big enough to shoot?" I looked at the five-point bull again and said, "He's pretty nice for a five by five. If you're willing to settle for a five-point bull he's right there in front of you." Ray thought for minute and said, "No, I'm looking for a six by six." We had only started hunting a half-hour earlier, and it was the first day of the hunt. "We'll just keep looking." I said, "We still have five days to hunt." I don't think Ray realized it then, but he had already been dealt a joker, and he'd just upped the ante.

Leon Procknow from Madison, Wisconsin, and I had arrived at Dick Ray's Lobo Lodge in Chama, New Mexico the day before, after driving in from St. Paul, Minnesota. Shortly after we arrived Bill Edy and Ray Boehm drove in from Albuquerque, where they had rented a car after flying in from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Bill and Ray had been hunting partners for years, and this was their annual hunting trip. I had met Bill at the Minnesota Safari Club banquet. He was looking for a trophy elk hunt, and he'd heard I was booking and guiding trophy elk hunts in Chama for Dick. I'd met Leon two years earlier at the Wisconsin Deer and Turkey Spectacular in Madison. He already knew about Dick, and knew I guided for him.

I was very impressed with Dick's operation. The accommodations (several one to two bedroom cabins) were good, the food was excellent, the guides had been with Dick for several years and knew the area well, and there were plenty of big bulls on the vast ranch Dick hunted. The first year I was there I'd seen seven 5x5 bulls and two 6x6's during the first two days, and I'd only covered a thousand acres of the ranch. When Leon learned that I was guiding that fall, and that I had two other hunters going on the hunt, he decided to go with us.

After arriving at the lodge, Leon, Bill and I had lunch, and then went to the range so they could sight in their rifles. Leon shot first; his rifle checked out a couple of inches high at 100 yards, just right for a 150-yard shot. Bill went next and was satisfied with his rifle. When Ray was ready to shoot he looked through his scope and complained that it looked fuzzy. By this time the sun was almost directly behind the backstop, and I told him to wait until the sun went down while I changed the targets.

As I was walking back I noticed Ray pulling on the end of his scope. When I asked what he was doing he said his scope was bent and he was trying to straighten it. He hadn't remembered until now that his son had used his rifle on the last of the deer season the year before. As his son was crossing a frozen creek he had slipped and fallen, putting a slight scratch in the stock of the rifle. He told his father what had happened, but after looking at the rifle and not seeing any more damage they forgot about it.

When I looked at the scope I told Ray there was no way he could fix it and offered him my rifle, which I'd taken along for target practice. It took Ray awhile to get used to my Mossberg 30.06 bolt action after using his pump. He didn't like the four-power scope, but he didn't have a choice. On his fourth try he had a tight three-shot group and decided he was ready to hunt.

The two smaller bulls eventually stopped sparring and the herd drifted over the hill and into the pines at the edge of the clearing. When they were out of sight I told Ray we would have to move fast if we were going to get to our originally planned spot. We had lost a half-hour by running into the elk, and it was already starting to get light. When we finally got to the meadow where I had planned to hunt, all that remained of any elk that had been there were a few distant bugles as the elk retreated into the shadows of the forest. We stayed in the meadow until 10:30, hoping to see a straggler, then walked the mile back to the truck.

During lunch we found out that Leon and Bill had seen lots of elk, but neither had seen one that they wanted to take. But, they knew there were plenty of bulls, and they were looking forward to the evening hunt as we made our plans. We decided that one of the guides would drop Leon off at Chongo Meadows, Bill would go with his guide and try a new area, and I would take Ray to the upper end of the meadow we had hunted that morning.
At the meadow that evening I put Ray under a huge pine tree we used as a blind. I had seen seven bulls within 15 minutes in the same meadow the year before, and I hoped to see more now. We waited as the sun went down behind the mountain and the shadows began to creep across the meadow Ray began to wonder if it was time to leave. I told him that legal shooting hours weren't over for 45 minutes yet.

Just minutes later I heard the sound of breaking branches off to my left. "There's elk coming." I whispered. "I can't' hear anything," Ray answered. "I can hear them," I said. Just then a big cow stepped out of the forest into the meadow, followed by another cow with a calf. They walked cautiously into the meadow, halting every few steps to look around. Behind them fifteen more cow and calf elk ran out into the meadow; with them were a spike and two four-point bulls. Instead of being cautious the elk seemed happy to be out of the woods. The cows began to feed, and the calves were running and jumping as they enjoyed the open space of the meadow. As we watched a five-point bull ran out into the middle of herd. I picked up my binoculars and sized up the bull. He was smaller than the five by five we had seen that morning, but he was still a nice bull. As I watched the herd feed, and I heard the breaking of branches; it sounded like a bull raking a tree with his antlers.

"Ray" I said, "the big bull is still in the trees, but he's coming out." I heard the pound of an elk's hooves on rock, and the crack of more branches, and then a huge bull ran into the meadow. There was no hesitation by the big bull. He came thundering out of the trees then stood still, as if to let the others know that the ruler had arrived. I looked at him through my binoculars, hoping he would be a six-pointer. His rack was huge - extremely wide, with massive main beams and long tines, but there were only five points per side. This bull was bigger than the five-pointer we'd seen that morning. In fact he was the biggest five-point bull I'd ever seen, and I knew he'd score over 300.

Ray asked what I though of the bull. It told him it was a darn good bull, and that he might never see another five-pointer that big again. When the bull was 100 yards away Ray put the scope on him. After what seemed like a long time Ray lowered the rifle and said he didn't think he could hit the bull, because of the poor light, and he wasn't accustomed to the four-power scope. More than anything, I think he really wanted a 6x6.
Even though it was getting dark we stayed a while longer to see if more elk would come out. We watched the herd move to the far side of the meadow while another five-point bull and five cows came out of the trees and joined the bigger herd. As darkness descended the elk worked their way into the trees on the other side of the meadow, and went out of sight.

Back in camp we learned that Leon had gotten a bull. When his guide dropped him of at Chongo Meadows Leon found a place to lie down in the brush, because he preferred to shoot from a prone position. As he was trying to get comfortable about 75 elk showed up. Leon said he was literally surrounded by elk. He looked them over carefully and noticed a six-point bull near the creek that ran through the meadow. As the bull lowered its head to drink Leon raised his rifle, put the scope on the bull's shoulder and fired. The bull jumped, ran ten yards uphill, and went down. Leon was so excited he told us the story at least three times that night. He kept Bill and Ray up well after midnight; reliving the sight of all those elk.

During the next two days neither Bill nor Ray saw bulls big enough to take. On the fourth morning I took Bill to the lower end of the meadow that Ray and I had started out for the first morning. We got there well before daylight, even though we stopped to check out a five-point bull on the other side of the drainage as we walked in. After checking out the bull we moved up the hill, and past the spot where one of my hunters had taken a 320 Boone and Crockett bull the year before. The hill overlooked the meadow, and offered enough cover to shoot from. While Bill got comfortable under a huge pine, the canyon around us echoed with the sound of bulging bulls. As I listened the bugling behind me got louder; it sounded like the bulls were in the meadow below us so I decided to make a stalk on them. I told Bill what I planned, and we started down the hill.

After a short walk down the hill we reached an opening where we could see into the meadow. Through the trees I saw a cow walking, and another cow bedded in the grass behind her. I heard a bugle, and watched as a five-point bull chased a smaller bull away from the bedded cow. Then I heard the sound of branches breaking, and another bull bulged. There had to be another bull behind the five-pointer.

As I watched, the five-pointer passed the space between two trees, followed by another bull. That's when I got a good look at the bull behind it. It looked like a six-pointer. "Get ready," I said, "there's a big bull coming down off the hill." "I can't see anything but the five pointer." Bill said as he looked through his scope. "There's a six-pointer right behind him in the trees." I said. The five-point bull stepped into the opening. I whispered to Bill. "Get ready to shoot." When the second bull appeared I took a few seconds to make sure it was a six-pointer. "Shoot," I said. "He's only got five points." Bill replied. "He's got six." I whispered.

I heard the crack of the rifle and saw the bull leap forward and disappear. "You hit him." I said, but I could no longer see the bull. "He's still moving." Bill said. "Hit him again." I yelled. The rifle cracked again, the bull ran in a circle, and went down. I told Bill to put another round into the chamber for insurance. Then he started running down the hill toward the bull. I could understand his excitement. He had just shot his first elk, a nice six-point bull.

I couldn't keep up with Bill as he raced down the hill, and as big as he was, I didn't think he could move that fast. When we reached the bottom of the hill Bill was still sure the bull only had five points. I had to count the points twice before he would believe me. When I began field dressing the bull I found that the first shot gone through the lower portion of the heart, and the second shot had broken its right shoulder. Not bad shooting for someone as excited as Bill was.

Ray didn't see anything that day, but the next day he saw a nice bull. Then, because Bill's rifle was the same as his own, he borrowed it and used it the last day of the hunt. During the last evening of the hunt he got a shot at a six-point bull, but he missed. Things just hadn't worked out for him on this trip. Leon and Bill had been dealt good hands, and got a pair of sixes. They had been prepared ahead of time, they were in the right place at the right time, and they had played their cards right.

Ray had his chances, but he had been dealt a joker when his scope had gotten bent the year before. If his son hadn't slipped on the ice, if Ray had sighted in his rifle before he left home, and if he had been contented with a five-pointer, he might have gone home with an elk. Then again maybe he wouldn't have. Maybe he would have been dealt another joker, and wouldn't have seen a bull at all. Hunting is still a game of chance, just like poker.