Outdoor Life Online Editor

The only sounds we hear are wind through piñon and juniper, the metallic click of hard hooves against stone and the crunch of saddle leather. The mules strain under their loads as we climb, weaving up mesa flanks, following dim trail switchbacks and slowly gaining altitude. Far below, the Gila River reveals itself in sinuous loops and vanishes into the distant haze of layered ridges and mountain.

In mid-October, in the southwestern reaches of New Mexico, a brassy sun courses the sky with only an occasional puff of white floating languidly by. It’s easy to imagine the smell of that distant, cooling river mixed with the odor of sun-warmed pine sap and the hot sweat of pack animals.

The hunters sit on their horses and take it in, awed into silence by so much open space, their knees already creaking from straddling rifle scabbards. Some are wearing mail-order safari gear and pseudo cowboy duds. Outfitter William “Billy” Lee leads a string of laden mules, whistling the beginnings of an old-time Western ballad, happy to be in his wilderness again. I bring up the rear, watching the loads closely. A shifting pack can quickly create a rodeo. We have several miles to go and we don’t want a wreck. That kind of adventure costs extra.

The camp is situated on a bench well above a spring seep. White canvas wall tents are set against red lava outcrops, towering ponderosa pines and waving gamma grass.

Billy and I are busy securing tack against unlikely rain and early morning frost, staking out pack animals and creating high lines for more rambunctious animals. The hunters load their daypacks for morning. That evening around the fire, the hunters sip their drinks and comment on the number of stars in the low-hung sky. A distant bugle creates an abrupt hush as the men turn, mesmerized. Some of them stand to stare off; others show involuntary smiles against the flickering flame. “There’s someone’s bull,” Billy says, cracking a confident grin.

In the Pre-Dawn Hours
It’s a black-dark opening morning as the Texan and I pant and scramble up an adjacent mesa, breathing through open mouths, stopping to catch our breath and to listen. A bull bugles a siren’s song. His music lures us onward, toward the mesa top and the “PJ” flats of piñon and juniper. We’re gaining but still moving carefully.

We find that bull with his cows, tan blobs showing like grubs on a distant ridge point. We look him over carefully, counting his tines while trying to estimate inches. The Gila harbors big bulls, and tags are hard-won. Other Gila areas mean harder-won tags, but any wilderness tags are nothing to squander. You might draw next year. Then again, you might sit out a season….

We count five points on each side. The bull could score 290 points. Anywhere else he’s a great bull. Here he’s only average. After a long discussion, we pass. It’s opening morning, after all.

[pagebreak] A Worthy Adversary
It’s only the first day, but after lunch and a short juniper-shade nap, we make our way toward camp. At the edge of the mesa, where glassing is easy, we find a bull that requires just a glance. He wears a heavy, wide, six-by-six rack. He’s a true Gila monster.

We clamber off the top recklessly, bluffing out repeatedly, climbing around cliffs, sliding down chutes, crashing through dead brush. There are hairy moments when the guide’s judgment is questioned. We reach a bench littered with Indian artifacts. We tiptoe to the edge, hold our breath and hope our luck will hold as the sun dips behind the mesa crest.

Cow elk appear, but the bull is nowhere in sight. We wait seconds, minutes, a lifetime, before the behemoth appears. He’s 300 yards out, a long shot. Our light’s going. We both hold our breath as the Texan aims carefully. His .300 roars, the bull staggers and it’s done.

That night we celebrate around the fire. Undeer a velvet sky filled with silver stars, the only sounds are the wind whispering through PJ boughs and mules blowing and stomping out in the dark at the edge of camp. There will be many more tales to tell in the four days to come.

Want to Go?
Draw odds vary from year to year, but residents can typically expect 3-to-1 odds, nonresidents about 5-to-1 on first-rifle hunt options. Second-hunt draw odds increase slightly, but elk can be more difficult to locate after seeing even minimal hunting pressure, making an experienced guide a boon.

Residents can expect to shell out $69 for an elk license, nonresidents $766. You can apply by mail (NMDG&F;, P.O. Box 25112, Santa Fe, NM 87504, 800-862-9310), or online (www.wildlife.state.nm.us). Mailed applications require the full license fee, which is refundable (minus a $6 processing fee) should you not draw. On-line applications require only $6; the cost of a tag will be applied toward your credit card upon drawing.

For hunt costs and other particulars, contact Billy Lee at Mimbres Taxidermy & Guide Service (505-536-9685, www.gilaoutfitters.com).