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Late season New Mexico Elk Double-Tap

When the bull was spotted on the far hillside, a quick assessment of the situation made it clear that I was not going to be able to get much, if any, closer for a shot. It was take that shot or none at all on that big bull. 

It was late summer/early fall this past year when a long-anticipated hunt for rusa deer in New Caledonia was called off, due to the pandemic. Bummer, but that was the story for many international hunters in 2020, so at least I didn’t feel alone in my disappointment. 

Coupled with the fact that I wasn’t drawn for any big game tags in Arizona in 2020 (due at least in part to the unprecedented number of applicants as a result of the virus), it was looking grim. 

Then, like a wisp of invigorating fresh air, an opportunity to hunt elk during the late season in New Mexico with Tim Joseph of Benelli USA came along. Needless to say, I was like a dog on point. 

Tim, who is Vice President of Brand Marketing for Benelli, and I had hunted a number of times before, ranging from ducks and geese in Mexico to pheasants and partridge in Italy. This time, the focus was on Benelli’s new Lupo centerfire hunting rifle – a rifle that carries well, points and swings effortlessly and does all of that with pinpoint accuracy. 

We both took 6×6 elk on this hunt – a nice double-tap to put on a warm glow at the end of a crazy year. The pandemic may have been going through its second wave among the general population, but that didn’t stop the wilderness hunt – just made it sweeter in a left-handed kind of way. 

It seems as though during my life, I have hunted elk about every couple of decades. The most recent such expedition was to Colorado in 2003, and the first was a late season hunt in northern New Mexico a couple of decades before that. Both were successful. 

This hunt was to take place the week before Christmas in the national forest not far from La Jara, New Mexico with Superior Outfitters, operated by the father and son team of Anthony Madrid Sr. and Jr. For good measure, Kyle Candelaria also joined the guide team for the expedition.  

Base camp was a very clean and comfortable house in La Jara, with everything imaginable to make it an effective lodge for the hunt. Food was great and there was a lot of it. 

The Madrids were totally familiar with the area we hunted and had done meaningful pre-hunt scouting. They knew how to put together the kinds of hunt strategies and tactics that work. 

Hunting in the national forest or on any public lands offers interesting elements that are not present on private land hunts. For example, as we headed off or returned to the paved road and into or from the forest, we encountered other hunters. Some in pickup trucks, others on quads. There in New Mexico, the New York license plate on the pickup of one hunter in his 30s or 40s wore decals indicating he was a U.S. Army airborne veteran, apparently living the dream. 

The hunt strategy was simple and straight-forward: cruise the snow-covered gravel roads, stopping at spots to glass for elk, moving on, repeating the procedure. The idea was to locate the elk before putting together any kind of final approach plan. 

One advantage of late season hunts is that the lack of foliage on trees coupled with snow on the ground makes it easier to spot animals at distance. 

The Madrids knew how to take advantage of these conditions. They used top-notch optics and were masters at spotting game from long distances. 

The area hunted was comprised of lower, flat valleys surrounded by higher, steep mountains. Often, groups of cow elk congregated lower on the flats, sometimes accompanied by bulls, so we swept the flats first. 

Luckily, there were a couple or so bulls with some cows in the valley – at least one of which was a nice 6×6. Tim was leadoff batter on this hunt, so he quickly set up and took a shot at around 160 yards, connecting with the bull. 

Tim is a good shot with any kind of gun, and that skill became apparent when he was able to connect before the bull could vanish into the high sage and other bush at the edge of the steep mountain. 

The next day we checked some spots with no luck. After we scoured the hills and valleys with no luck, we went up and into a canyon surrounded by steep hillsides. When we were a fair amount above the valley floor, Candelaria spotted a quartet of bulls on the mountainside to the left. They were above us, milling in the trees. 

Anthony Jr. glassed the bulls and indicated that one of them was a bull they had spotted while scouting, and that it was the best they had seen in that area that season. However, the other three bulls were nothing to sneeze at, either. 

I quickly took a rest and cranked the power ring on the riflescope from the 3x setting I carried it at to 10x, my preferred magnification for longer shots. 

As Anthony Jr. looked through his Leica rangefinding binocular, he said “560,” followed with where he thought I should aim at that distance. His suggestion matched what I was already thinking: three feet of bullet drop, slight uphill angle, no wind. 

This was one of those situations where clear communication between guide and hunter was crucial. The four bulls were slowly milling around, which meant that their positions to each other changed as we watched. 

Anthony Jr. masterfully kept me informed where the biggest bull was among the others and because of his concise instructions, I was able to keep the right bull in-sight through the scope. When the bull stopped briefly, I was ready for the shot. 

I steadied the crosshairs directly above the spot on the bull just aft of the shoulder where a hit would take out both lungs and began putting pressure on the trigger. I had no idea when the sear would break – was just laser-focused on maintaining the proper aiming point. 

The rifle barked and, following a short hang time, which allowed enough recovery from the recoil for me to watch through the scope, the bull hunched up as they do when hit squarely. Briefly following that, I heard the unmistakable “thwack” of bullet hitting bull. 

Concurrently, both Anthony Jr. and Candelaria exclaimed: “You got him! He’s hit.” 

A postmortem revealed that the bullet hit a scant two inches above where I imagined it would go when I took the shot. 

The Benelli Lupo rifle has been a wonderment since it was first introduced over a year ago at the factory in Italy. Everything about it exudes an aura of understated high performance.  

At the bench while sighting-in before the hunt, I was reminded of the ergonomics that put the trigger finger in exactly the right spot to promote an absolutely straight-back squeeze. Combined with the crisp three-pound let-off and no perceivable overtravel translated into a situation in which the rifle itself didn’t get in its own way and detract from the precision of the shot. Bottom line: the Lupo is a rifle that works just as well in a quick, short to medium-range scenario as it does at the longer ranges where precision is the name of the game – ready to tackle whatever the situation dictates. 

The Progressive Comfort recoil absorption system really comes into its own when the rifle is held quite snugly, as one would grasp a dangerous game rifle of substantial caliber. 

When held thusly, the perceived recoil of the .300 Win. Mag. at the bench was remindful of the .308 Win. or .30-06 Springfield.  

The scope was a Leupold 3-18x VX-6 HD with standard duplex reticle, sighted-in 2 inches high at 100 yards.  

Bullet performance in the elk was superb. Blood-shot tissue around the exit hole bore witness to the fact that the bullet had gone through the chest, taking out both lungs and continuing with enough punch to leave an impressive exit hole. At that distance, such performance is notable. 

I sighted-in both rifles used on the hunt at the range in Tucson before the hunt. Both delivered sub-half-inch, three-shot groups from the bench. With such accuracy, one is not hesitant to take a longer poke at a game animal if necessary. 

For technical information about the Benelli Lupo rifle, check the coverage in the March/April 2020 issue of SAFARI Magazine. 

This was the first opportunity I had to work with the Nosler 190-grain AccuBond LR (Long Range) bullet. I recall vividly when Nosler first introduced the regular 190-grain AccuBond bullet a number of years ago. I took a waterbuck in Africa with that bullet and performance at around 110 yards was impressive. This LR version is somewhat different and whatever Nosler did to make it work at the longer ranges certainly results in the bullet living up to its billing. 

The folks at Nosler explained that the AccuBond LR bullet, intended to perform well at any velocity down to 1,800 feet per second, was designed with the same exterior dimensions as the Ballistic Tip but with the same terminal performance as the Partition. This translates into 1.5x expansion with 60 to 70 percent weight retention. 

When Federal Cartridge Co. announced its Custom Shop not too long ago, I was intrigued because it is totally logical that a major maker should offer the best it can produce to serious hunters. This hunt presented the opportunity to give the .300  Win. mag offering from the Federal Custom Shop a ride. 

Normally, I do not like to take very long shots at game. As the distance increases, so do the variables. But I also did quite a lot of longshooting in the long ago, so hitting any kind of target at distance is predictable if the circumstances are right. 

When the bull was spotted on the far hillside, a quick assessment of the situation made it clear that I was not going to be able to get much, if any, closer for a shot. It was take that shot or none at all on that big bull. 

When the shot connected, all was well with the world. And this situation is testament to the concept that when hunting, it is a good idea to be ready for whatever presents itself. The way it works is that we, as hunters, have control of many things before, during and after a hunt. We also do not have control of many things like animal behavior or even weather, any one of which can make the difference between success and failure. 

In the end, it is about having the right stuff at the right time in the right place. When that happens, it is time to take photos and process meat.  

Following a photo session on the side of the steep hill, the elk was quartered and carried/dragged through the snow, down the mountain and to a spot where it could be loaded into the truck. Later, the meat was boned out and carefully placed in a huge Grizzly cooler in the back of my pickup for its trip back home. 

The meat was carefully chilled in the clean snow before being placed in the cooler, which kept it in prime condition until the bigger chunks could be processed in the kitchen and frozen for future feasts. There is just something that is fulfilling about being able to go high into the forest, bag a big elk and then come home with some of the best eating on the planet. 

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