Lucky Thirteen

The Thompson Omega belched white smoke and we heard the sound of an elk crashing down the mountain, but that is getting ahead of the story.

My thirteen-year elk hunting quest began in 2002 on my first elk hunt with Star Valley Outfitters in the Bridger Teton Mountains along the Little Grey’s River near Alpine, Wyoming. From 2002 to 2015, my elk hunts totaled eight over a span of thirteen years. I elk hunted three times in Wyoming, once in Colorado, twice in British Columbia and even drew a cow tag in Pennsylvania. All were unsuccessful, mostly for different reasons but unsuccessful nonetheless. During the course of seven elk hunts, I believe I have had every elk hunting experience possible with the exception of being able to put an elk on the wall.

Author with elk rack

This year brought me to New Mexico and an elk hunt with Eddie Ortega and Hunters New Mexico. Prior to this hunt, I had hunted three times with Eddie in Old Mexico for desert mule deer and turkeys, and each hunt resulted in a record book trophy. Eddie convinced me that the muzzleloader hunt was the way to go, as the elk would be in the rut at that time. Needless to say, I was concerned about my chances for success due to past experiences and because the New Mexico licenses on the public land hunts are only five-day hunts. But I went with Eddie’s recommendations and applied for a muzzleloader license. Throughout the months prior to the hunt, I made numerous trips to the range until I was confident with the groups that I was getting with my Thompson .50-cal. Omega.

I spoke to Eddie several times during the weeks before the hunt and, during that time, he told me that he had scouted a good bull. “I won’t tell you how good I think he is,” Eddie said. “I will only say that he is good.”

Upon arrival in camp, the guides were buzzing with excitement about the bull that Eddie had scouted. “He’s a 7×7, and he’s a stud,” was the description. Eddie, however, was not so optimistic. “You can see him from the road, and I know that other hunters will be hunting him, but he is too good not to hunt. We need to try for him for day or two,” Eddie said.

The evening prior to the opening day, we took a ride through the area where we would be hunting in the morning. It was depressing to say the least! There were at least six tent camps in a two-mile area of highway adjacent to the mountain we would be hunting. At that point, I was thinking, “here we go again!” Fortunately, the road was the boundary line between hunting areas and as it turned out all of the hunters were in the other area and we were alone on the mountain with the bull and his cows.

In the morning, we started hiking about one half hour before shooting light. By daylight, we were watching elk feeding in the bowl above us. We watched them slowly feed over the saddle and waited as a lone cow stood sentry on a high spot of the saddle. During that time, our bull bugled several times as he herded his cows into the burn in the bowl on the other side of the mountain. We eventually made our way into the saddle and watched the cows feeding in the burn below our position. During our vigil, the bull was bugling and chasing satellite bulls away from his cows. As it often happens with a herd of elk, a cow eventually spotted us and barked, moving the herd away. We made our way down while side hilling on the side of the mountain.

Eddie kept bugling and cow calling as we moved, all the while keeping the wind in our favor. Suddenly, there was a loud deep bugle below our position. I whispered to Eddie, “He’s close!”

 We watched and waited for a minute with Eddie glassing while I watched with my muzzleloader at the ready. Suddenly there he was at about 60 yards looking for his lost cow, I whispered, “Eddie he’s standing right there looking at us.” Eddie looked at the bull and said, “Kill him; shoot him in the neck.” The bull was facing us and a frontal shot was our only opportunity.

Author with elk

Author with muzzleloader elk

At the shot, the bull went down and crashed down the mountain through the small aspen trees in the burn. Suddenly, he was back on his feet running to our right and out of our sight. I need to say that, even though I tried, there is no way to load a muzzleloader quickly enough for a follow-up shot on a moving animal.

After reloading, we made our way to where the bull fell, but there was absolutely no blood to be found anywhere, nor was there any where he had run after getting to his feet. Eddie and I separated with me looking for blood and Eddie trying to pick up his tracks down the mountain. At that point, I was talking to myself for taking a frontal shot and not waiting for a better opportunity at the vitals. Eddie’s whooping and yelling below me on the mountain interrupted my self-criticism. I made my way to him, and this was one of the few times in my hunting career that I have experienced “ground growth.” The closer I got to the elk, the bigger he became!

My 7×7 public land bull ended up scoring 362 2/8 SCI. My words to Eddie at the kill site were, “It was worth the wait.” Since then, I have wondered about that statement because 13 years (approximately 60 days of hunting) is an awfully long time to hunt in order to be successful on one species. Actually, I have come to view my elk hunting saga as a quest rather than a hunt. However, I do feel like I paid my dues, and this bull will have a premier spot of honor in the trophy room.

In closing, I need to thank Eddie Ortega and Hunters New Mexico for making my elk hunting dreams come true with a great bull.–Don Detwiler

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