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Long Time Coming

February 2020
Story by Joe Islas
State: New Mexico
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

My desire to harvest a mature bull elk started when I was just a pup. I grew up hunting with my father and family before I could walk. My dad put me in the draw every year until I was old enough to put myself in. In 17 years of applying in Arizona, I only drew three elk tags. I killed two small bulls and ate tag soup on the third. My dad was present for almost every hunt. He was my favorite hunting partner, but we lost him in a tragic vehicle accident in November 2016 during my cousin’s late rifle bull hunt in Arizona.

I moved to New Mexico in 2010, and for the next eight years, I guided for a couple of different outfitters and helped multiple friends kill bulls. In 2019, I was back to applying solo and for tough-to-draw hunts that I knew I would have an opportunity at killing a good bull. When the draw results came out, I was more than surprised when I saw “successful” on my account for early muzzleloader elk, my first choice. I had also started my own outfitting business, Antler Mountain Outfitters LLC. Being a new outfitter, I was unable to book many elk hunters for the 2019 season. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to take full advantage of the opportunity.

Lucky for me, I have a good friend and fellow guide, Daniel, who has spent most of his life hunting and guiding in the unit I was drawn for. We spent the week leading up to my hunt searching the unit for a bull that we wanted to chase. We wanted a great bull and agreed on trying to find one that was 370" or better. My stepdad, Dain, and lifelong friend, Jay, showed up a couple days before the hunt started and joined in the fun.

Opening morning found us walking in the dark and rain from a tropical storm. The rain quit at sunup for a bit and gave us a chance at some bugling bulls. We made our move on a great looking 6x7 with Daniel keeping him talking as I snuck in for a shot. I was less than 100 yards and knew I was moments from letting the old smoke pole rumble when the bottom fell out of the sky. It started raining again, and the bull went silent. I moved to where the bull had been screaming just a minute before, but he was gone.

We moved on to another canyon that Daniel said had a drinker in it. Daniel ripped a bugle into the canyon, and we heard an answer. Seconds later, I saw movement in the bottom of the canyon, and knowing I had to close the distance for a muzzleloader shot, I took off. When the bull started up the other side, Dan and Jay both said, “Shoot!” Everything happened too fast, and I couldn’t find a good rest. I shot under the bull, and he walked off as I reloaded the muzzleloader.

We started the second morning the same as the first, trying to find the big bull that we lost in the rain. With no luck, we headed back towards where I missed the other bull. As we got closer, we got a bull to answer a bugle. We were able to get within 45 yards of him in the thick cedars but could never get a shot. On our way to bed that night, we all agreed we needed to kill a bull the next morning.

Everything seemed perfect on the third morning. The?air was cool and damp with a heavy dew, and the sky?was clear. As we neared where we planned to wait for?shooting light, the musky smell of a bull slapped us?in the face. We slowed our pace, and the sound of a screaming bull rang out just ahead of us on the trail as if he was challenging us for having the nerve to come up the trail behind him. I checked my GPS, 34 minutes until legal light. We played cat and mouse for over 30 minutes with him in the dark.

As soon as legal light hit, the hunt was on. Jay bugled, and the bull immediately screamed back and moved toward me, but he just wouldn’t clear the crest of the ridge in front of me for a shot. He bugled at us again. He was moving away now. He crossed the canyon, and I finally got a look at him. It was the 6x7. I ranged a tree I thought he was close to, set up, and shot. The low light deceived me. He was closer than I had thought, and I shot right over him. He whirled and trotted off. I was disgusted with myself. I had my opportunity at a great bull and had blown it again. However, he only went a couple hundred yards and bugled again. We caught him on top of the ridge in the thick cedars and junipers. We could see his antler tops moving away from us at about 120 yards. We trotted off to his left to keep the wind in our favor and gain ground on him as he headed down into the same draw I lost him in the first morning. We cleared the trees to see into the draw, and he had just walked behind a tree 70 yards to our right and was headed for a wide-open shooting lane. I set the Thompson muzzleloader up on the shooting sticks as he cleared the trees. Jay cow called, and he stopped. The crosshairs settled behind his shoulder as he looked at us and smoke filled the air. He ran 50 yards and piled up as the celebrating began. After 23 years, my dream of harvesting a mature bull elk had come true. The bull was everything I had always dreamed of. He was long main beamed and heavy. He had great mass, good tine length, and scored 375".

I wish my dad and Papa could have been with us in person on this hunt, but I think they had a lot to do with how it all turned out. I thank my friends, Daniel and Jay, and my stepdad, Dain, for all the hours and sacrifice they gave to make these memories. It was a great time that none of us will soon forget. I thank my wife and my mother for taking care of and feeding us on all our adventures. A huge thank you to my wife, Jodi, and kids, Madi and Dalton, for always supporting me. I thank “Papa” Dale Tasa for turning me on to the Huntin’ Fool magazine years ago. Most importantly, I thank God for blessing my family, friends, and business, giving us all the opportunity to pursue our dreams while living in this great country and enjoying His wonderful creation.