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New Mexico Hat Trick

September 2018
Story by Luke Fillback
State: New Mexico
Species: Elk - Rocky Mtn

This story starts in the spring of 2013 when my dad came home from work all pumped up to put my sister and me in for the New Mexico youth elk hunt draw. We weren't sure why he was so jacked up, but we'd enjoyed hunting whitetail deer and turkey with my dad in the past. Of course, we’d never hunted elk, but we were all in for it. My dad had taken some good bull elk in New Mexico over the years, so we knew this must be why he wanted to elk hunt with us there. Although this becomes a story about my good luck in New Mexico, it sure didn’t start out that way.


When the results of the 2013 draw came out, it was my sister, Ellie, who was the lucky one. I can’t truthfully say that I was excited to see my sister and my dad head out for New Mexico to hunt elk while I had to stay home with mom, but I also wanted her to get one so I could get my chance. Ellie did just that. She shot a really nice 330"+ bull on the third day of the hunt in unit 13. As happy as I was for her, I could not wait for my chance to get out there.


I didn’t have any luck in the next year’s draw either. However, through the landowner tag program in New Mexico, we were able to get a unit 15 youth hunt tag. My dad and I headed out to hunt with Michael DeLaO and Gila Apache Trophy Hunts. The flight out to New Mexico and the drive from Albuquerque to the Reserve made for quite a long day. It was finally here, my first elk hunt ever.


Year One


We got into camp and met with our guide, Bryan Delgado. The night before the hunt, he told us where he had been scouting for bulls and where he thought we should go the next morning. At this point, I could see why my dad was so excited to get my sister and me out here to hunt.


The morning started out with a hearty breakfast cooked by Michael’s mother and a short drive to where we were going to hunt. It was a crisp, clear morning with temps in the mid 30s. We started our hike up the mountain, and Bryan made a few cow calls. That’s when I finally understood why my dad loved to elk hunt. Two responding bugles came from the left, and it made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up. Off we went to where the bugles had come from. We hiked up to the top of the ridge and then just kept calling and walking until we got within a few hundred yards of the bull. It was thick timber, so we just took our time, trying to sneak up on the bull.


Finally, Bryan stopped and told us he saw the bull. I looked and looked but could not see a thing. Then, the guide pointed out the spot where he could see him through the trees. Just then, the bull let out a bugle that sounded like it was five feet away. Now I could see him. He was 100 yards in front of us in the thick timber, bedded down with no chance at a shot. We sat still for the next 20-30 minutes and then a cow walked by and the bull stood up in an open spot for a split second. I lined up my shooting sticks and put the bull in the crosshairs of the scope. All I had was a very small opening in the timber. I took a deep breath and squeezed off the shot. After that, all I could see was a cloud of smoke from my muzzleloader. We heard a crash, so we waited another 20 minutes and walked over to check on the shot. We looked all around but found no blood.


My dad kept asking me if I thought I had made a good shot. I told him that I believed it was right in the vitals. We then walked to where the crash had come from and saw blood. We got on the trail and followed it for a few hundred yards. We stopped and then heard another crash in the timber in front of us. As soon as we heard this, we decided to back out and give it some time.

We walked up to a spot where we could see better and glassed the area to see if we could see him moving. We gave it a good two to three hours of glassing, but there was no sight of him. We then started back on the blood trail.


At this point, I was not happy with myself and had never been so frustrated while hunting. The blood trail kept getting harder and harder to stay on. We walked another 300 yards and lost the blood trail. We thought we had lost it for good. My heart sank. I was never going to get this bull. We were just about to give up when Jeff, another guide who had come to help us track the bull, said he had blood. I jumped up and off we went again. We walked another 200 to 300 yards down the ridge, and at the bottom of a deep ditch, there he was, my first-ever New Mexico bull elk! It was nice 6x6 with a super long eyeguard. What a hunt! It was only one day, but it was a long one. It took almost all day to get back out of the mountains and back to town. It was a hunt that I will never forget. My emotions were so up and down the entire day. What a rush! I was so happy to have my first unit 15 New Mexico big bull down. I really didn’t want it to be done this soon.


Year Two


My dad and I knew that with high school football coming up next year, this could possibly be my only chance to elk hunt for quite some time. We made the decision to get back to New Mexico for one last hunt before high school and college got too busy for me. Last year, the hunt was only one day long, so Michael told us to purchase a bear tag this year and if we killed out early we could also bear hunt. That sounded good to me.


Due to a family wedding that year, we were not able to get to Reserve for our hunt until the second afternoon of opening weekend of the New Mexico youth hunt. We felt a little pressured for time, missing opening day and part of the second day. We rushed to get to camp, grabbed our stuff, and got out to the mountains as fast as we could to try to get on one before the sun went down. We drove to the spot that Bryan, our guide again this year, had been scouting. We knew there was a good 360"+ bull there. The weather was perfect. It was cool with blue skies. We jumped out of the truck and started the walk up the ridge. We didn’t get 100 yards from the trail when a bugle rang out on top of the ridge to our right. In a hurry, we made our way up to the top.


When we got there, it was like déjá vu. Bryan could see the bull, but I could not see it this time either. The bull was less than 100 yards from us in even thicker cover. Bryan had me move around to the spot where he was, and all I could see was the bull’s legs in the timber. We waited him out, but he did not move. Then, he slowly started to walk away from us. With the thick cover and the wind not the best, we decided to walk down the ridge and try to get around him. We got to the bottom and walked toward where the bull was headed. He popped up 100 yards from where he had been. There he was, and we were starting to lose sunlight. It was now or never. We ranged him at 235 yards. I made the adjustment on my muzzleloader scope, grabbed my shooting sticks, and lined up the shot. I squeezed the trigger, and all we could see was smoke. After the smoke cleared, we could not see the bull, so he did not drop where I shot at him. With the sun going down and the time it would take us to get back to the spot where he was, we made the call to back out and look for him in the morning. Bryan was sure this was the same bull he had seen before, and he was a solid 360+ pounds bull. None of us got much sleep that night. My dad kept asking me over and over if I had made a good shot. Over and over, I told him it felt good.


The next morning, we got up to the spot of the shot as early as we could. We looked for over an hour but could not find any blood or any sign of the bull. It must have been a clean miss.

I was devastated. In my short time of hunting, this was the first time with any weapon that I had ever had this happen. I was heartbroken. It was a bull-of-a-lifetime and I had missed the shot. It was a long shot for a muzzleloader, but I had often practiced at that and longer ranges. Bryan made the call that with all of us making noise and scenting up the area, we needed to back out and try another spot. It was still early in the day, so we walked back to the truck and drove off to another one of Bryan’s “hot spots.”


We were starting our hike up a trail and to our left we glassed a herd of elk. We moved in on them to see what they were. Just then, we heard a bugle, so we picked up the pace to try to catch them before they were up the mountain. When we made it to the spot where the elk were, we could see the bull. He was a good 6x6 with super long, heavy thirds. We had to close the distance as he was moving fast to get his cows up the mountain to bed down for the rest of the day. He was 540 yards away. There was a tree line in front of us, and the elk were moving that way. If we could make it to that point, we would have a chance. Once we got in and set up, the elk came by at about 230 yards. The bull was bugling and hearing his cows, it was so hard not to get elk fever at this point. I took some deep breaths, and we ranged a tree at 225 yards where the bull should come out. The big bull came out in the open, still moving. Bryan hit the cow call,and the bull stopped. I shot, and he took off to the left and crashed into a tree. It was all high fives, and the three of us had a group hug. What a bull, and what a hunt! Bryan and my dad said this bull was much bigger than the one I had shot the year before. My goal was to get a bigger one this year because it might be eight years before I could get back out west to elk hunt. I was not sure it was bigger than the first elk I’d shot. However, when we finally got it home and on the wall, they were right. It surely was larger than the first.


With the bull packed out and time left in the day, we went to town and had a big lunch at the local Mexican restaurant. We talked about what was next on the list - bear hunting. Bryan had to get back to work, so he could not join me on the bear hunt. We had to wait until the next day to start bear hunting with another guide.


In the morning, my dad, Michael, and I headed out to go on my first spot and stalk bear hunt. We had to get up early and drive a long way to unit 23 where they had been seeing some good bears. We got set up to glass and did so all morning. We glassed for three or four hours but did not see a thing. We decided to grab some lunch and take a break in the heat of the day.

After breaking for a few hours, we got back to the same spot and started glassing. An hour passed but no sign of a bear or anything for that matter. I have to be honest, I was starting to question this idea of bear hunting. Just then, out came two nice, big bears. One was a color phase reddish bear, and the other was a dark black bear. We watched them paw each other and wrestle for 20-30 minutes. The problem was that they were a long way off. There was no way we could get to them before sundown, so all we could do was watch and enjoy the view. It was one of the coolest things I had ever seen and so amazing to watch.


The next morning, we got set up high on the mountain where the bears came out. It was straight up, and I was glad my young, strong legs could keep up with Michael and my dad. My dad had a little more trouble than me. It was a lot harder hike than the elk hunt for sure. We set up to glass, and after four hours, we all took a heat of the day nap. Michael got up to stretch at about 2 p.m. and said the red bear was walking to the right. We rushed to get set up and get a good rest. I was using a rifle now, so I could take a longer shot if needed. We ranged the bear at 347 yards. I dialed in the scope and took my time. He was just feeding slowly and then he stopped. I eased off the trigger. Michael said I had smoked him, and I knew I had made a good shot. I had never shot that far in my life. I think my dad thought I had missed. We walked up to the spot where the bear had been, and there he was not 30 yards from where I had shot him. What a trip this turned out to be! I sure wished I didn’t have to wait eight years to do it again. It would be a long wait.


Year Three


My dad and I knew it would be a long time before we could elk hunt again. I was going to be a freshman in high school, and with football, we both knew I could not miss any practices or games this year. After talking to the coaches, they told us that if we wanted to go this would be the only year to do it. I knew that if I missed some practices, I would not get to play much. However, as a freshman, that might happen anyway. With the coach's blessing, I was off again in the fall to take one more swing at big bulls in the Gila National Forest. This was public hunting at its best.


Back to Reserve in New Mexico we went. By this time, the surroundings and the people of the Reserve were becoming very familiar to my dad and me. He likes to call it a home game. It sure was nice to get back to the land of the giants. This year, we were hunting with a new guide named Lane. We had met him the year before when he was helping his younger brother with his youth hunt in unit 23. Just like Bryan, Lane had some personal hot spots and he had been scouting for a good bull. I had told my dad that I knew this was my last year for sure for a few years. I wanted to make sure we took our time and held out for a good bull. I set my goal to shoot a 350"+ bull or go home empty-handed. I am not sure that was my dad’s goal, but it was my hunt, so he said to me, “It is your call.”


We hunted the first morning and got to a spot where Lane had seen a 370"+ bull. The problem was that some of the other hunters in the area were there too. When we got to the spot where we wanted to be, there were already other youth hunters in that area, so we backed out and tried some other areas.


On our way to the second spot, we saw a really nice 5x6 with wide and long beams. My dad said we should get after him. Lane asked me what I thought. When I didn’t say anything, I think he knew I wanted to hold out for a bigger one. It was a great bull, but being a 5x6, it was just not the bull I wanted to go after on the first morning of the hunt. We got on other bulls that morning but never got a shot on them.


Later that afternoon, we saw some other good bulls, but they were not the caliber of bull I was really looking for on the first day. It was so cool to see these bulls and pass on them. I knew that it may come back to haunt me, but I was okay with that. My dad maybe not so much.


On day two of the hunt, Lane decided to go to an area a long way from where we had been hunting. Off we went on the longer trips in Lane’s big truck. This meant naptime for me in the backseat. When we got up high to the glassing point, we were there a bit early. Once again, the weather was perfect, being cold and clear out. We took a quick catnap to wait for the sun to come up. When it did, I was amazed. There were elk all over the place. There were herds of 300 elk! This was something I had never seen before, and it took my breath away. The big herd had some hunters that were going after that group, so we just kept glassing the other elk. We found a really good bull and looked at it in the spotting scope. We decided to make a move on him. It was not going to be easy.


We got on the herd and had stalked within 600 yards of them when a small bull spooked right in front of us. Bam! They were gone. It was a long walk to get to them and then to have this happen when we were so close. It was super disappointing. At this point, I said this was the bull I wanted to go after. We got back up the mountain and set up to glass, waiting all day until these elk came back out to feed. It was 10 a.m. at this time, so we had a very long day on the mountain. We glassed and took naps, making sure one of us was always watching. Then, we had some lunch and glassed and napped some more.


As 2:00 came and went, there was no sign of the elk we were after. Just then, Lane’s dad, who was glassing in the opposite direction, whispered that there were elk out. We all jumped up to see what he was talking about, and there he was - a really nice bull with seven or eight cows. They were 300 yards downwind from us. We all looked him over really close, and Lane said he was a shooter. I had my heart set on that other bull, but this was also a good bull and bigger than the other two bulls I had already taken, so off we went.     


We stalked this bull and got within 150 yards of where the herd was, but with the thick pinyon trees, we could not see him. A smaller bull stepped out, but I knew that was not the one. Just then, the elk started to walk faster the opposite way. We moved with them and got behind some cover and waited for them to come out into the clearing. We saw the big bull, and I ranged him at 147 yards and made the shot. He took off running, so we reloaded the muzzleloader quickly and took off after him. I didn’t need a second shot. The big bull was piled up 50 yards from where he had been when I had shot. He was in the strangest position I had ever seen. His horns were stuck in the ground, and his head was straight in the air. There he lay, the Hat Trick Bull. What an amazing third trip to the Gila National Forest this was for me.


The very next week, my dad was lucky enough to be hunting in unit 15 for the first muzzleloader season with one of his good, old-time hunting buddies and Lane again. They got the job done with a big 6x7 New Mexico bull. We will have to wait until we get them both home from the taxidermist to see which one is bigger. I think I have him by a few inches, and I know he would want it that way as well, at least that’s what he says.


I would like to thank Michael DeLaO, Bryan Delgato, Lane Kellar, Lane’s dad, and Jeff, the tracker, for all the hard work and help they provided me on my three trips to the Gila. I am truly so lucky to have harvested these beautiful animals and all before my 15th birthday. I encourage all youth hunters to put in for the New Mexico youth draw. It is an amazing time to be elk hunting, and the memories will be with me for the rest of my life. Of course, I also want to thank my dad for introducing me to the sport of hunting and all that it has to offer. I am truly blessed.