Prime-Time Bulls

Joseph Graham looks like he should be on the cover of Men's Health. He's short, wiry and built like a middleweight--the kind of guy you wouldn't want to take a punch from in a bar fight. At 32, he reminds me of a young Steve McQueen, cool and self-assured. He's distrustful of flatlanders--and even more so of New York editors. As we hitch the ATV trailer to the back of his shiny new 4×4 and blow down the gravel driveway from his house, it's clear I'm going to have to prove myself.

Joseph doesn't like to waste time, something that becomes glaringly apparent as we scream up a winding dirt road on the outskirts of town toward elk country. We skid to a stop at the trailhead, and before the dust has settled Joseph is out of the truck and slapping the portable ramp on the back of the trailer. A moment later he's backing the four-wheeler off, then whipping around to head up the trail.

"We're outta here!" he says as I climb on behind him. I'm no sooner seated than he's jammed the throttle open and is sliding through the first bend. I turn my ball cap backward, desperately searching for handholds as we rocket up the rutted trail. Just like McQueen, I say to myself.

As we careen around corners and dodge boulders, Joseph gives me the lowdown on his hunting style.

"I like to hunt aggressively," he says, shouting over the roar of the engine. "You can't wait for things to happen. You've got to make things happen."

"I like your style," I say boldly, realizing I've probably just sealed my fate. This guy's gonna run me into the ground, I think.

"You ever hunt Dall sheep?" he asks.

"Sure. One time. Years ago, in Alaska. Hardest hunt I've ever been on. I lost a pound a day for sixteen days slamming down as many carbs as I could eat."

"I booked a Dall sheep hunt for next fall," he says. "Basically, I guide to hunt. Everything I make this season will go toward another hunt somewhere. You ever hunt Africa?"

"Five times," I say, trying not to sound like a snob.

"I've only been twice," Joseph says, his voice trailing off, "but I sure loved it. You going back?"

"Soon as I can," I reply, feeling like we're beginning to connect a little.

Halfway up the mountain we ditch the ATV and grab our packs. The hiking isn't too tough as we make our way toward the top of a ridge, and I match Joseph stride for stride.

He's testing me, I think, trying not to breathe too hard as we reach the top.

Joseph points to a hillside across the canyon. "Think you could hit an elk up there?"

"Sure," I say. "As long as I can get a steady rest and the bull's not moving."

"That's about four hundred twenty-five yards," he says. "What are you shooting?"

"A Browning A-Bolt in .270 Winchester."

"Hmm," he replies, his voice trailing off in the fading light.

He doesn't think it's enough gun, I say to myself.

"You get me the shot, and I'll worry about what happens next," I say.

"Not a problem," he replies, then steps off through the timber.

Elk Up Close

A hundred yards farther on, Joseph pauses and then begins to blow a series of loud cow calls. Nothing. Unlike other guys I've hunted elk with, who always advised calling softly at first in case a cow or bull was close by, Joseph wastes no time blasting out his calls.

A minute or two later he cuts loose with his bugle, its sweet crescendo carrying far down the ridge. He's good, I think. A regular Kenny G.

Joseph blows another series, long and sweet, then moves on up the ridge.

"I can't believe we haven't heard anything yet," he whispers. "This area's crawling with elk." He cuts loose with another series of cow calls. I hear a twig snap and turn my head slowly.

"Spike and a cow," I barely whisper, happy that I saw them first.

"Don't move," he whispers back, but I'm already frozen.

The cow really wants to come to us and walks within 15 steps before turning to slide downwind. The spike is more skittish. We kneel down slowly to cut our profile as they pass behind some trees.

From farther back in the timber a single, loud chirp reaches us. Bigger bull, I think. Then, from just over my shoulder, I hear another animal approaching. It's a raghorn 4×4 that's come to investigate. He gives us one look and bolts back down the hill.

My legs have gone to sleep and the pins and needles are really beginning to hurt. Just when I think I can't sit still for another second, the cow and the spike move off, "Nice little encounter," I say, stretching to get the kinks out. But Joseph's already heading back down the ridge toward the ATV. I catch up to him and he continues his thoughts on tactics.

"I've been hunting elk since I was old enough to carry a license," he says quietly as we head down the trail. "I've reached the point where I really can't learn any more about elk. Now all I'm interested in is pushing the limits to see just how far I can go.

"A few days ago I was out scouting with two friends. We located a pretty good bull and closed in. The bull could see us plain enough, but I kept teasing him with cow calls. Finally, I just stood up and started walking straight toward him, calling all the way.

"The bull would retreat a few steps, then stop and look back at me as if to say, 'What is this guy doing?'

"That's the way I like to hunt."

I explain to him that I'm not a real fan of sitting around, either. I also tell him that when the time comes, if my guide says shoot, I'll shoot. No questions asked.

"That's good to know," Joseph says reassuringly as we make our way back down to the Quad in the dark.

Back at the lodge that night we compare notes with my hunting partner, Kevin Howard. Kevin and I have known each other for years and used to hunt wild hogs together when I lived in California. Now he reps for Winchester.

When Kevin called me nearly a year ago to put in for tags, he said, "The hardest part is getting drawn, but if we do, the area we're going to be hunting in southwest New Mexico is incredible."

The loads we're trying are something new from Winchester. Called the XP3, they combine several Winchester bullet designs into one [see "What We Used"].

"We'll show these guys that the .270 is plenty of gun for elk," says Kevin as we sack out for the night. Never having used anything less than a 7 Mag. on elk, I hope he's right.

We meet Joseph at five the next morning. There's been a change in plans. Larry Woodward, who has flown in to film our hunt for his show, Outdoors in the Heartland, was scouting a different area the night before and saw several bulls tearing up the place. Joseph feels it's a good bet they'll still be in the area, so we transport the ATVs to another trailhead and start off, our headlights throwing eerie shadows on the trees as we head up the trail. A few miles up, Larry shuts his Quad down.

We call but nothing responds. We head up the trail and call again. Nothing. After another half mile Joseph reaches out into the graying dawn with several long cow calls. This time a bull answers from the ridge to our right. We grab our packs and scramble up the hill after Joseph to close in on the bull. Halfway up the ridge Joseph calls again and the bull answers, closer this time. Joseph starts moving faster and I struggle to stay with him, trying to control my breathing in the thin air. I can hear Larry wheezing behind me, lugging the heavy video camera.

We make the ridge and call again. This time the bull is right on top of us. We've been following a fence line for 10 minutes and he's coming right down it at us. The scrub oak is thick but I know he's close. I can hear twigs breaking, then I see his legs. We squat down to look under the overhanging branches and the elk does the same. Twenty yards up the trail the small 5×5 is peering under the bushes at us. He gets a good look, then bolts back down the fence line.

"Too small," Joseph whispers, and we head back the way we came.

No Time to Think

Two hundred yards farther on, Joseph calls again. This time another bull answers, screaming a long whistle from up the canyon.

"That's a bigger bull," Joseph says, smiling. I can hear the excitement in his voice. We take off, the five of us sounding like a herd of elephants busting through the scrub oak back down the ridge, but Joseph doesn't seem to mind. "Elk make a ton of noise," he says. "As long as we keep the wind in our favor, it's not gonna matter too much."

We strike the ATV trail at the bottom of the ridge, strip off layers of clothing and head up the canyon. Joseph is really motoring now. The bull sounds close, very close. The sun's up and I realize we're eating into our window of opportunity before the elk go to bed. My shooting sticks are in my left hand and I've got my rifle in my right, just in case we have to make a quick shot.

I'm right at Joseph's shoulder as we creep around a bend in the trail. A hundred yards up the canyon I can see the backside of the bull in some pines.

"He's got cows with him." Joseph has his binoculars up. "He's a good bull," he says. "Shoot him."

My heart jumps. There's no time to take a rest, and I realize if I drop down to shoot off the sticks I won't be able to see the bull through the trees. I dump the sticks, wrap into the sling and get the scope on the bull just as he turns. I can see his antlers, high and heavy in the scope, but he's moving to my left and there's no shot.

Now he's running and the cows pour out of the tiny spruce thicket, angling up the ridge to our left. I'm on the bull but he's running and there are too many cows around to take a shot. I hear Joseph's cow call and suddenly the entire herd stops to look at us. The bull is broadside, but there's a cow behind him covering his rear flank. If she takes one step forward, I won't have a shot.

"Take him," Joseph whispers.

I hold low on the bull's shoulder, watching to make sure the cow doesn't step forward.

Aim low, I tell myself, remembering something Jim Carmichel wrote about taking angled shots uphill. I pick a hair, trying to bring all my concentration to bear. I let out half a breath. The crosshairs steady up and I squeeze. The A-Bolt bucks and I lose sight of the bull in the recoil. I can see him moving up the ridge as I rack a second round into the chamber. Somehow he's turned, and now he's moving right back almost to where I shot. I'm just about to shoot again when I see him fall.

"Don't shoot!" Joseph orders. "He's dead."

I can't take the rifle off him, can't believe he's not going to get up and try to run off, but he doesn't move.

"He's not going anywhere," Larry says, his camera whirring in the background.

"What a bull," Kevin says as I slide the safety back on and lower the rifle. The bull hasn't gone four steps from where I shot him.

Now there's backslapping and grins all around. I'm still in adrenaline overload. I can see his brow tines clearly and they're huge. As we start up the hill he just gets bigger.

"Man, what a bull," I hear someone say. And he is. His brow tines will later measure more than 17 inches and he's beautifully symmetrical--the kind of bull you dream about.

As it turns out, my shot caught him about a third of the way up on his shoulder. The bullet went in, sheared off the top of his heart and exited on the far side. When we open him up to field dress him, the damage to his chest cavity is massive, a testament to the XP3's lethal effectiveness.

We take photos, and as I tape my tag onto his mighty antlers, I realize that this is what it's all about. Suddenly, all the early-morning exercise and all the sore muscles don't seem so bad.

We crawl back down the mountain on the ATVs, the racks loaded with meat bags and antlers. Cold raindrops gather in my beard and my fingers feel like frozen fish sticks, but inside I'm warm and happy.

There's snow in the high country, and tonight we'll dine on elk tenderloin washed down with a big red wine.

As we wind our way down the canyon, Joseph suddenly pipes up.

"That wasn't a bad shot ..." he says, pausing momentarily, "for a New York editor."

"You're darned right," I say, jabbing him in the ribs, and I realize I've finally passed his test.

If You Go

Where We Stayed: Our hunt was booked with Elite Outfitters. (505-354-1299; eliteoutfitters.com)

Owners Brian Newell and Johnny Hughes have been running Elite Outfitters for nine years, so they know where to find good bulls and how to work them.

Hunters are housed in a comfortable lodge (built just a year ago), with private baths, satellite TV and excellent home-cooked meals.

Seasons: We drew for the rifle season in October, but Elite Outfitters also offers earlier muzzleloader and bowhunts, with incredible opportunities to hunt rutting elk. Applications are due by the first week in April, so you need to plan now.

Elite also offers private-land hunts. While more expensive, private-land hunts guarantee you're not going to run into anyone else.

Get in Shape: Hunts here take place between 7,000 and 10,000 feet. The better shape you're in, the better your odds for success.

What We Used

Equipment alone will never get you a big bull, and it's certainly not an excuse for shoddy stalking or poor marksmanship. But if your entire hunt boils down to one critical shot, having the right gear can help you shoot with confidence. Here's what I used on my hunt.

RIFLE

Browning A-Bolt This is a classic rifle. What I like about the A-Bolt is that its action is reliably smooth and the triggers are generally very good.

Together with a synthetic stock, this rifle doesn't weigh more than about 7½ pounds, so it's easy to carry--even all day in rough country.

Accuracy with Winchester's new XP3 ammo for 3-shot groups was right at 1½ inches, with my first two shots practically touching. The third, fourth and fifth shots opened up a bit as the light barrel heated. plenty of accuracy for elk.

AMMUNITION

Winchester XP3 The new XP3 (Precision, Power and Penetration) bullet combines technology from several different Winchester designs. The basic bullet has a web between the front and the back, and a 4-petal, expanding nose that's similar to the Fail Safe. The front end is a hollow point, but it has a polycarbonate tip (like the Ballistic Silvertip) for accuracy.

The lead core in the back end is bonded to the jacket, so there is no separation when the bullet expands, which is similar to the Accu-Bond CT design.

What makes this bullet unique, however, is its two-stage expansion. On impact, the petals open up in the front, but then the back end (which is trying to drive through the front end of the bullet) bulges outward. The result is excellent penetration and expansion on game.

RIFLE SCOPE

Bushnell Elite Firefly This scope features a heavy, European-style reticle that has a special coating. Shine a flashlight into the objective lens and you literally "charge" the reticle to light up.

BINOCULAR

Elite 8×42 Nice glass--clear and bright. And it's not overly heavy, especially when hooked to Horn Hunter's binocular harness.

SPOTTING SCOPE

Bushnell Space Master 15--45X This is a very cool scope for backpacking. It's extremely lightweight, is simple to use and sets up in seconds.

CAMO

Mossy Oak APX System This new layering system is terrific. Lightweight, breathable under layers wick moisture away from your body, keeping you warm and comfortable. Heavier outer layers cut the wind and control scent dispersion.

I was totally comfortable hiking in just the T-shirt and first breathable layer. With a Brush pattern shirt or light jacket on top, I was completely hidden.

GPS

Garmin 60 SX The top of the line. We loaded our unit with a chip that contained all of the topo maps for the Southwestern U.S. Incredibly accurate--right down to showing us the trails and side roads.

We also used the Garmin Nuvi navigation system in our rental car. Just type in your destination and the computer's voice will direct you right there.

Touch-screen technology makes the Nuvi easy to use as you're driving, and the unit has an incredibly detailed menu of lodging, shopping and restaurant choices.

RANGE FINDER

Bushnell Elite 1500 ARC This new model automatically compensates for uphill and downhill shots [see Shooting, December/January].

It can also be set up for bowhunting so you don't overshoot the animal.

BOOTS

Danner Pronghorns These boots are among the most comfortable I've tried. Thinsulate keeps your feet toasty warm, and there's almost no break-in time.

DAY PACK

G-2 Horn Hunter Made by Sportsman's Outdoor Products, this is the best day pack I've ever used.

Tiny pockets built into the bellyband were perfect for keeping a flashlight, calls and a GPS handy. Larger models make carrying overnight gear a breeze.

RAINGEAR

Cabela's Seclusion 3D Super-lightweight and compressible. It's breathable, too, so I didn't get sweaty.

See This Hunt on Video!

PLUS: the complete photo gallery on outdoorlife.com/march07