The Hunt That Came To Be

Glassing for mule deer

Editors Note: As this article was going to press in the Sept/Oct issue of Safari Magazine, we received word that Mr. Kostkas had passed away unexpectedly. He was a life long hunter and enjoyed time in the outdoors, especially when in the company of family. SCI expresses its condolences to the Kostkas family and are proud to share this account of what was to be his last hunt.

The young guide is now leading the way, through and around brush, that is thick but passable. At his rear is the older hunter, visibly trying hard to keep pace and maintain his heart rate and stability in this effort to close the distance on three very good mule deer bucks that had been identified at long range.

The guide now turns to the hunter and hand gestures that they are getting close to the quarry. In a soft whisper, he asks: “Are you ready to shoot”? I respond with a positive headshake, throw my gloves to the ground and chamber a round.

This is near the end of a personal story that turned into a success for the hunter. Let me take you back to the beginning.

The hunter who has been physically active throughout his or her hunting career and faced the challenges  common to the sport appreciates the fact as age overtakes all of us, that youth has no equal for dealing with hard circumstance. The inner craving to hunt does not always diminish with advancing age.

I have been hunting legal game since my early teens. At this writing, my age (85 years) is  a major factor in doing anything that is physically challenging.

It had been four years since I had taken a major hunt. Then the unexpected happened, just about the time I was planning another big game hunt. A routine health exam confirmed that I had a serious health issue.

Subsequently, I had two major operations. These took a toll on my body. After surviving this and recovering with an excellent prognosis, I questioned whether I would hunt again. My family thought otherwise

Believe me, it did not take much urging for me to begin the preparations. Continuing my previous  physical training, I could feel the strength returning to my body. It was then time to decide on a specie and locale to hunt. This plan would include my son, Rick.

I called Rick and asked him: “What would you prefer to hunt this coming fall if my health situation improves?” He immediately replied: “Dad, you decide what and where and I am up for it.”

Two criteria came quickly to mind. First, I did not want to deal with extreme weather. Second, the terrain must be moderate. My thoughts turned to trophy mule deer. In my time, I have taken eight mule deer bucks, most of which were representative of what was there. I was still looking for that special buck.

The third criteria I decided was that it had to be in a state that I had not hunted before. I considered Nevada, Arizona and finally New Mexico. These states are difficult for the individual to draw a deer tag . I finally decided on New Mexico.  Weather there is generally moderate and on that basis, I looked for an outfitter.

The computer search turned up the web page of “Ridgeline Outfitters,” LLC., of Belen, New Mexico. Dan Reyes operates and guides this hunting company, and a couple of phone conversations with Dan convinced Rick and me to take our chances with Reyes.

An individual hunter applying for such a tag is reduced to a 10 percent opportunity, whereas with an outfitter, it rises to 50 percent. Regardless the outcome, Dan assured us a place to hunt. In late March, Dan called and informed us that we were successful in the draw, and were assigned unit 41, that was near Logan, New Mexico. Our hunt was scheduled for October 20 through October 24.

The hunting area as I researched was sandy, rolling desert with an average elevation of about 5,000 feet. 

Rick visited our home near Pittsburgh in early spring. He lives near Monterey, California. He has a custom Winchester in caliber .280, and I handloaded 50 rounds for him. With that load, he had taken a bull elk in Montana and a mule deer buck in Idaho. I too, hunt mule deer with a .280 Remington, with a rifle made by Cooper. My handload when finally zeroed placed three rounds into 3/8-inch at 100 yards.

New Mexico sunrise

I chose clothing and gear for light weight and held all to a minimum. Flight bookings were made. All that remained was the waiting. 

It was then  one week away from my departure date, and watching the weather forecasts for the area, gave pause as to my choice of outerwear. The answer always is layering.

A few days prior to the hunt, I received a call from Reyes. He confirmed our arrangements.  

Dan assured me we would see plenty of deer. I was somewhat skeptical , as my past experience in Montana was that the bucks really do not get active until mid-November. 

The awaited day arrived and the trip to Amarillo, Texas from Greater Pittsburgh International airport was easy. The following day we drove to Logan, New Mexico, just 90 miles west. That evening we met our guide, Roland Espinoza, age 45, born and raised in the state.

He said to be ready to go at 4:30 a.m., as the hunting area was about 30 miles from Logan. On the first day of legal shooting, it was an advantage to be in-place before daybreak.

It seemed like the hours passed in minutes. We both dressed in silence.  Right to the minute, Roland knocked on our door and we were on our way to a new adventure.

So, “what kind of deer are you looking for?” was the first direct question Roland asked of us. Rick replied: “One that is bigger than the last one I shot.” My response was: “A rack that has some mass if we can find one.” 

We arrived at the ranch and the darkness  obscured all detail. Dawn was  30 minutes away. The desert air, surprisingly, was very cold. The back roads coming in were flooded with puddles — the remainder of  two inches of rain that fell in the previous two days.

The darkness gave way to a ghostly grey, as visible light was some minutes away. Steadily, the Eastern horizon emerged with luminescent colors that ranged from purple to brilliant orange. The air was brisk and the shiver I felt was not just from the desert air, but the expectation of what was now about to transpire.

Roland reached for his pack and said: “Let’s get going!” We followed him up the opposite bank leading the way into the brush. Not more than 100 yards from the vehicle, he mounted his binoculars on the tripod and began to scan the terrain. 

Within 15 minutes, several deer were sighted, some having antlers. As the light improved and detail sharpened, Roland switched the binoculars for a spotting scope.

I whispered to Rick: “Man, this place is a deer bonanza,” to which Rick excitedly replied: “This is unbelievable.”

Several potential “shooters” were identified at long range – 1,500 yards or more. Due to my ongoing lung problem, I opted not to range out too far.

Roland queried: “Which one of you wants to try for one of these bucks?” Without hesitation I replied: “Rick will go with you for this one.” Roland pulled on his pack and said: “Then let’s go get him.” The stalk began, with Rick following.

Author and mule deer buck

Soon, the brush concealed them from view. The morning air was absent of any detectable breeze, and the silence heightened my senses to any sound.

I followed the glide path of a large hawk, now dipping low to the ground, obviously searching for his morning meal. The azure blue sky, absent of any cloud cover, provided a dramatic background that contrasted sharply with the green and grays of the desert floor. It felt comforting to be sitting there alone, completely detached from the problems of humanity.

 I was suddenly startled by a single rifle shot. It came from the general direction that Rick and Roland were hunting. They had been gone no more than 20 minutes. 

Roland appeared out of the brush, smiling broadly, and remarked: “Rick has a nice deer down.  I’m going to get the ATV.” Before long, a fat three-by-three buck was now on the back of the mule.

Rick described the action he had just experienced. “I turned down a really long-range shot at another deer.” Then he related how another buck passed at much shorter range. The result was the buck now being transported to the ranch. 

Roland proceeded with the skinning and quartering of the buck. While engaged in this activity, ranch manager Roy Mitchell and his wife came out to greet us. They confided that the ranch had been under their management for over 40 years. 

We returned to the Yucca Motel for lunch and some rest, storing the meat and deer head in a cooler provided by the hotel owner. 

At 3 p.m., we headed back to the hunting area. As we pulled into the area, a lone buck bounded away and he was soon gone from view.

We set up the spotting scope/tripod on an elevated knoll that offered a panoramic view. Nothing of interest in the next two hours appeared. We scanned the distant plains until the light gave way to dusk, ending hunting that day.

At 5 a.m. the next day, Roland softly tapped on our door, and after a quick coffee stop, we proceeded towards the ranch area.

Weather was a duplicate of the previous day. Arriving at the ranch proper, we left the truck to board the ATV. The ATV had no windshield and it was a chilling ride.

Just as I started to tighten the hood around my face, Roland cut the lights and proceeded slowly for a few minutes. It was then light enough to see and, as one, we gathered our gear and followed Roland.

Stock tank New Mexico

We were all engaged then,  looking for movement or any sign of a feeding deer.  Rick broke the silence and said: “I’m on several deer and they have antlers.” Roland immediately shifted his attention to the same vicinity. He reached for the spotting scope and coupled it to the tripod.

After studying the deer intently, he attached his smart phone to the eyepiece and invited Rick and me  to examine the image. I was flabbergasted with what I saw — three large mature bucks standing together. The largest of the three had an antler spread I judged to be over 23 inches. From our location, we were  about 1,500 yards from the deer.

Roland, saying nothing, gathered up his pack and shooting tripod and advised us of the plan to engage these trophy deer.

Rick would stay and keep track of our progress. We drove south  towards a lateral intersecting point that was in line with the deer. We  then proceeded on foot.

Quickly, we narrowed the distance. Suddenly, three rifle shots rang out, but from a different direction. 

Back to the opening scenario:

I was trying desperately to get deep full breaths into my lungs and force my heart rate down. My intent on holding for the shot was pre-planned. When the deer came into view, no time would be available for rangefinder use. This will be a  judgement call.

After giving Roland the signal to go, he topped the last rise and there they stood, three large bucks in tandem.. Without  hesitation, Roland set the tripod  in place and  I instantly positioned my rifle. The crosshairs drifted onto the upper portion of the last buck’s body. With the rifle still in motion,  I squeezed hard on the trigger. The buck hunched up at the shot but dropped out of sight.

Roland was very excited and urged: “Chamber another round and get ready to shoot again.” I did, as always, when game is down. “I know that deer is down for good Roland, no need to hurry.” I said.. 

Roland was way ahead of me. I just took my time, allowing the tension to subside. At least 50 yards ahead of me, Roland was pointing to a spot with the thumbs up sign

I did not measure that deer, but if I did, I think he was the best mule deer buck I have ever taken. The shot was 300 yards and change, and the heart was shot through.

The euphoria of this action did not subside for at least a full day – all of this emotion after a lifetime of hunting.

 Without reservation, I recommend Ridgeline Outfitters. Contact Dan Reyes in Belen, New Mexico. They outfit hunts for various species in The Land of Enchantment, as well as in Arizona.

After enjoying a late lunch with Roland, Rick and I bid him goodbye, promising the possibility of a return hunt. He paused, smiled broadly, and slowly drove away.–Richard S. Kostkas