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September 2023
Story by Jeffrey Brown
State: New Mexico
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

The story of this hunt, aside from the pursuit of an amazing bull elk, is largely about three men – Jeff Lester (owner and operator of Hunt Hard Outfitters) along with Christopher Trujillo and Nic Salazar who work as guides for Hunt Hard.

Let’s go back to 2009 when a boy from New Mexico by the name of Christopher Trujillo was making his mark as a hunter. At the age of 12, he killed a bull elk that grossed 386", a 180" mule deer, and an 80" antelope. That would be the hunting year of a lifetime in anyone’s books! In 2010, Chris was featured on the cover of the Huntin’ Fool magazine and was the first youth to ever make the cover. For someone of such a young age, Chris had already set a very high bar in pursuit of big game.

The youngest member of the Hunt Hard Crew was Nic Salazar. Growing up in Eagar, Arizona meant Nic lived in the epicenter of big bulls, and it shows in his hunts. In 2022, his third full year of guiding, he was 100% successful with his clients for deer and elk on nine hunts.

Jeff Lester has built a reputation as a hard hunting, no B.S. elk hunter. If you end up with Jeff, you better be ready to give it your all. He has guided many people who have harvested some amazing bulls. He is a master as an archer, and the elk and deer trophies in Jeff’s home are a testament to his dedication to the hunt. When you spend time with him, he talks a lot about being in the woods with his dad, cutting wood and hunting. This seemed to be a reoccurring theme between all of us.

As with most of us who call ourselves hunters, the obsession for me started at a young age. Watching my dad leave on a deer or elk hunt was incredibly exciting, and I dreamed of the day it would be my turn. I started with BB guns and .22 rifles, and at 11 years old, I was out on deer hunts. For my five brothers and myself, it was a rite of passage when we went on our first elk hunt. Despite hunting one of the worst areas in Western Washington, we continually beat the odds. Three generations of family and friends harvested more than 120 bull elk over 45 years. When we could finally afford to travel, we had some amazing hunts in New Mexico, thanks in part to Logan Hedges of Huntin Fool.

Six years ago, I decided to pursue the dream of harvesting the mythical 400" bull. The two remaining pieces needed for this puzzle were a good tag and good guides. I had never considered hiring a guide before but came to realize that local knowledge is invaluable if you want to pursue big bulls. 2021 was a tough year in New Mexico with the elk still suffering serious effects of drought, including damage to antler growth. With Jeff Lester’s help, I was able to obtain a New Mexico statewide elk tag in 2022. To our great luck, antler growth was remarkable that year thanks to the winter moisture and the early June monsoons. We had the makings of a great opportunity to kill a big bull.

Robbie Trujillo is a guide with New Mexico Professional Big Game Hunting. He’s well known for the excellent deer and elk videos on his YouTube channel and is every bit the soft-spoken gentleman that comes across in his videos. In 2019, Robbie videoed an exceptional bull in the Gila. Word of the big bull spread, and this is where the story as I know it begins.

Over the next three years, hunters began pursuing the bull and were dedicating their entire seasons to this one elk. We heard many stories of sightings, multiple missed shots with bow and rifle, and one hit with an arrow. In 2021, we spent many days trying to find this bull. Later during the rifle season, the bull was spotted but had completely broken his main beam.

In 2022, with two statewide tag holders and multiple archery hunters hunting the same bull with equal determination, odds were on the side of the hunters. The bull lived in a vast and more heavily timbered area than most parts of the Gila, which made finding him that much more difficult. Chris turned the bull up in July, not far from where it was filmed by Robbie in 2019. Chris was able to keep tabs on the bull until it disappeared just before the season opened. Jeff sent me a few photos of the bull, which I shared with close friends and family. Whenever anyone asked what it would score, I responded, “It doesn’t freaking matter!” I named him “DFM” because of it, and he was the bull-of-a-lifetime.

Opening day was September 1, 2022. There were multiple vehicles at the trailhead, and we knew competition was going to be high. All we could do was go hard and try to cover more ground than anyone else. During the first two weeks, we only turned up the same 10 bulls, and every other hunter that was chasing DFM.

As week three started, the pressure from other hunters decreased. We still hadn’t gotten a good look at DFM, and we began to wonder if he had moved into another drainage. Colby Hale and Trinity Walker had a few free days to come to help, and we all doubled down.

Finally, on day 24, Nic spotted DFM. Jeff and I made a move immediately but couldn’t turn him up again. The evening of day 25, we covered every spot we could. Jeff and I were on a thick ridge trying to glass from a tough place. Then, on a ridge three-quarters of a mile away, Jeff caught a glimpse of an elk in the trees. We both focused in, and for the first time, we finally got to see the bull we were chasing.

Early the next day, we hiked to where we had spotted DFM. There were multiple bulls going off in the timber, and we had to start sorting through them without busting the herd out. Chris was spotting from a far knob and laid eyes on DFM. Jeff and I got within 80 yards, but quarters were tight with elk surrounding us. DFM was with another bull and a couple cows in front of us, and we had a herd dogging us on the back. Seconds later, the wind changed and it was “gigs up” with everything moving out. The group of elk crossed a draw and came up on the far side at 450 yards, but the big bull wasn’t with them. He had split off and crossed two canyons with us in pursuit. We eventually lost him and thought our chance was blown.

About 20 minutes later, Chris got eyes on him again. The bull had picked up 10 cows and was rutting hard. He was three miles away now, had crossed a third canyon, and was holed up on the far side in a small draw. We hustled to get there, and as we crested the ridge and moved to the edge of the draw, we heard cows talking directly below. Suddenly, they were coming past us at 70 yards. The bull was following and bugling. We were caught in wide-open pine with nowhere to hide; our only option was to stay perfectly still. At 80 yards broadside, the bull stopped and the only shot I had was freehand on my knees. All I could think about was how many others before me had tried to take down this mythical beast. I emptied the rifle, and while I was digging in my pocket for more ammo, Jeff grabbed me and said the bull was down. As we walked over to the bull, I was in shock that something we had pursued for so long and so hard was lying at our feet.

Shout out to Iseha Conklin who had endured in pursuing this bull for the past three years. I appreciate how much effort you put into finding and staying with this animal. At least we know he wasn’t a ghost after all! Finally, to the team that I was honored to hunt with. I am certain about one thing, and I say this humbly, after all it had survived, this bull was harvested through the very hard work of the guides I was hunting with. We put in 26 days and over 170 miles on foot. One of our glassing spots was on a rock bluff we nicknamed “The Oven.” Nic and Chris sat there for days baking in the hot sun. Jeff and I would come limping back to camp late at night, eat dinner, and head back out after four hours of sleep to do it all over again. Hats off and my deepest appreciation for all the help in getting this done. Great job, guys! Without you, it doesn’t happen.