Full frontal on the Rio: my second Rio bull elk offers a shot angle to be avoided--unless conditions are perfect.
At least five bulls were sounding off from the valley floor, setting aflame the ever-smoldering coals that burn inside this elk hunter. I don't turn green and lumpy and bust out of my clothes, but a transformation definitely takes place when I hear bugling.
My guide, Pasqual Vallejos, and I had just crested a ridge deep in the middle of northern New Mexico's Rio Costilla Park Ranch when we heard the bugling. It was unexpected because this was a newly scheduled "early" hunt on The Rio. It was September 3 and, thinking there would be little bugling that early, our plan was to hunt wallows, waterholes and feeding areas. The bugling instantly changed those plans.
I hunted The Rio in mid-September 2006. It was a great hunt, with lots of bugling, and 1 finally killed a good 6X6 bull on that very same ridge. Not surprisingly, these bulls were moving up the drainage in the same direction as the bull I killed on that first hunt. Paqi and I hustled through some of the same blowdowns, trying to get in front of the moving elk, but they beat us to the top of the draw and dropped over.
We tailed the elk into some deep, dark bedding timber where Paqi spotted the flash of tan elk hide in the lodgepole. A bull was angling toward us so I slipped ahead 20 yards. When I squatted down, my right foot slipped on a rock and the weight of my daypack stole my balance. I tipped over backwards, landing on my back like a turtle on his shell. Cameraman Justin Turkowski was trying to roll camera on me while simultaneously laughing under his breath. Fortunately, the bull did not see or hear the comedic commotion.
After righting myself, I got to one knee in time to nock an arrow just as the bull stopped with his head and considerable antlers behind a pine tree. I ranged him at 38 yards and believe I could have made the shot, but Justin was unable to see anything but the south end of the bull so I passed. It was just the first morning!
The bull finally picked us off and left. Turns out he was moseying toward a well-used wallow just off to our right about 30 yards. Had we been tucked into some cover, hunting the wallow, that bull would have strolled right into bow range. It takes patience to sit an active wallow or waterhole, but if you persevere, the odds are good you'll be rewarded with a high-percentage shot.
Since we planned to hunt another area for the evening, we hiked back to the truck and drove to our spacious A-frame cabin for a spectacular breakfast. As in '06, I was hunting with Lee Vigil's Ute Creek Outfitters. Paqi was my guide then and I had such a good hunt I didn't hesitate to return to the 80,000-acre Rio Costilla Park Ranch. A five-point minimum antler restriction maintains a quality elk herd, and since you hunt on a landowner tag, you don't have to hassle with the lottery. The Rio is some of the most beautiful elk country I've hunted.
The afternoon hunt found us checking various wallows for fresh sign, listening and doing some casual calling, but it was warm and there wasn't much going on. My first day came to a close with my body still working to adapt to the 10,000-foot altitude--it always takes a couple days--and with a bellyful of supper it was lights out as soon as my head hit the pillow.
One of the advantages of hunting private land is the road system doesn't get as much as roads on public land. You can use the roads to get to higher elevations without fear of blowing the elk off the mountain. That's exactly what the morning darkness found us doing--cruising up a road to the top of the mountain.
Near the peak we turned the truck off and listened intently for almost an hour. Nothing. Not even a squeal in the predawn darkness to indicate a bull's location. I could tell Paqi had something on his mind.
"What are you thinking, Paqi?
"Well, there's a wallow about a half-mile up, just below this road that I want to check out," he mused. "Let's hike up there and see what happens."
When you've spent a quarter-century hunting elk, mostly on your own, it's hard to follow someone else's lead. But Paqi knows exactly what he's doing and his knowledge of the wallow's location is the kind of expertise you pay for when hunting with an outfitter.
The sun was just filtering through the trees as we sat down 100 yards above the mud-splattered wallow to listen. Elk are noisy animals, both vocally and when moving through timber. Listening for them is a learned skill.
Within minutes we heard a faint squeal to our left, and then the clatter of antler against antler off to our right. It was time to set up so Justin and I slipped to the bottom of the draw, within bow range of the wallow, and hid in the shade. Paqi started cow-calling while I whispered a final bit of advice to Justin, who was taping his first elk hunt.
"If a bull comes straight on and gets close, don't assume I won't take the shot, just keep rolling," I warned.
The distant battle of the bulls suddenly fell silent. When a scream came from that direction I felt one of the bulls was coming and might cut in front of us on his way to Paqi's cow calls. It's always a risk to adjust your position, but sometimes you have to be aggressive so I decided we had to quickly slip up to the next patch of dark shade.
A couple of suspicious twig snaps later, a bull appeared in the bottom of the shadowy draw. He was hooked on Paqi's calling. When he came into the light at 20 yards, the sun lit up his antlers as he tipped them back and bugled in our face. Making a spectacle of himself--on camera--the six-point bull had sealed his fate and I carefully came to full draw. That's when all heck broke loose.
The sound of stampeding elk in the tiny meadow below drew the attention of all three of us. It's not easy to look behind you while remaining still and at full draw, but I had to see what was going on. A raghorn was chasing a spike, and they were about to run right between us and the six-point bull! At just 15 yards they spotted us and bolted, but the commotion caused the target bull to turn and watch the two rambunctious underlings. He was now facing almost straight on at a mere 16 yards.
Even when hunting with a guide I always help with the recovery chores. I insist on taking part in this crucial part of any hunt.
It seemed almost prophetic as I settled the pin on the bull's chest and let the arrow fly. The bull whirled 90 degrees, ran back to the bottom of the draw, stopped, teetered and fell dead against a log--all in less than eight seconds.
Justin rolled camera on my explanation of the frontal shot (see sidebar for details on page 52), and when he turned the camera off he exclaimed, "That was the most exciting thing I've ever videotaped. If you hadn't been here that would have been scary!"
Coming from a cameraman who specialized in high-mountain snow-boarding, that was saying something. Justin's comment also struck a nerve. Years of experience can lead to taking such exhilarating experiences for granted. And while I never take my bowhunting lightly, that "full frontal" encounter reminded me, for the umpteenth time, why I love elk hunting so much.
I can't wait for the next reminder.
Rules for Frontal Shots
FRONTAL SHOTS ARE CONTROVERSIAL, and for good reason. Under the correct parameters they're deadly. But if you push beyond those parameters, the frontal shot is ill-advised.
On an elk's chest, an area the size of a cantaloupe, centered at the base of the dark mane, presents an unobstructed path to the vitals. Bury an arrow in this thin-skinned sweet spot and your hunt is over. Miss it low and you'll hit the sternum, high and you'll hit the neck. Shoot left or right and your arrow will glance off an overlapping wall of ribs and under the scapula--a nonfatal shot that's often thought to be perfectly placed.
I've taken frontal shots on four bulls and all caused sudden death. You must follow your own rules, but here are mine when it comes to frontal shots on elk and similar-sized game.
* Shoot a bow with enough energy to bury your arrow past the nock. I recommend a fixed-blade broadhead and a complete arrow weighing at least 430 grains.
* Stay calm. If you can't remain calm in close proximity to a bull elk, and pinpoint the shot, don't take it.
* Do not take a frontal shot of more than 20 yards. Remember, the elk is facing you and only has to spin a few inches to turn your shot into a mistake. At close range he doesn't have time to move. My frontal shots were 16,18,19 and 11 yards, and all created profuse blood trails because running creates a lunging action that forces blood out of the entrance hole.
* Restrict shots to straight, head-on or maybe just a few degrees to one side. Significant uphill or downhill shots don't qualify. The objective is no exit hole. If the angle is such that you'll have an exit hole, it's likely your arrow will only collapse one lung and experienced elk hunters know that's usually a lost bull. A straight-on shot penetrates various parts of the cardiopulmonary system, the liver, and other organs. And, if a bull runs off with an arrow deep inside his body cavity, you can imagine the devastation. You won't get that with a pass-through.
* Aim for the bottom of the dark mane (see, photo, page 44), or about four inches above: the point of the sternum--center mass.
* And finally, the most critical rule of all. If! the shot doesn't feel right to you, don't take it.!
On this hunt I used a 70-lb. Mathews Z7, Carbon Express Aramid KV arrows, Rocky Mountain Blitz broadheads, Spot-Hogg sight, Leupold optics, Cabela's Outfitter Camo and Under Armour base layers.
Sometimes you're better off going on one high-end elk hunt rather than several low-end versions. I'm two-for-two on elk hunts with Lee Vigil and Ute Creek Outfitters and plan to try for a three-peat very soon. If interested in a quality elk hunt, you can contact Lee at (505) 753-1730 or visit his website at www.utecreekoutfitters.net.
Curt Wells, Editor