I don't think I'm capable of telling a short version of any story and this one might be longer than any of them so I apologize in advance, but to me, this one is well worth the drawn out, overly dramatic, writing that follows.
This story starts 7 years ago when I went on my first archery elk hunt with good friends CJ Novak and Jay Canada. We had grand plans of hunting OTC (over the counter) units in Colorado from bivy camps and packing out multiple bulls. Oh the lessons we learned. I could write a whole new piece of the misadventures of that hunt as well as the next four times I tried for elk in Colorado. Some mistakes include carrying 70 lbs of gear and 14 days worth of food for a 5 day hunt, hunting during the biggest floods Denver had seen in recent memory, trying to bushwhack our own trails to "shortcut" our way to elk, pulling my hamstring playing softball 2 days before leaving on a hunt, waking up in a tent surrounded by domestic sheep, sleeping in a truck as the rain pounded us relentlessly for days, or even totaling out a truck in a nearly tragic accident on the Colorado interstate. Despite all of those hardships there were close calls with the elk and even a couple of near opportunities, but it wasn't "elk hunting" as I had dreamed of. My trips weren't like what I'd seen on TV or read about in magazines, I wanted to experience the bulls screaming those spine-tingling, close-range, in-your-face bugles. I wanted to experience the adrenaline of watching an angry monarch of a herd bull furiously bust through the trees ready to confront his intruder. As much as I loved the scenery of Colorado I needed to find greener pastures.
Somewhere along the way I was reading a story in a magazine about a man who was also a part time guide in New Mexico. In his story he had multiple encounters with trophy class bulls. He continued to pass up these bulls in hopes of bigger, and eventually he reached his goal. I was reading through his profile and read that he was from New Mexico so I pulled up a map of his unit and started researching. I realized that drawing anywhere in NM was a long shot as they have a lottery system, which means put your name in the hat and hope you draw 1 of 6% of the tags distributed to non-residents. It was worth a shot. I started researching various forums on the internet to see if there was any info about this area and where I might be able to hunt should I draw a tag. I sent a few messages out to a few people asking if they'd care to talk about my plans and help me out. As expected very few responded, elk hunters don't like to give up their secrets. But 1 did. His name was Chewy Swatzell. Chewy and I talked a little about elk and eventually found ourselves chatting regularly and quickly started up a genuine friendship. It might sound odd to say but via the internet I had found a bowhunting brother with a passion for the outdoors and elk mountains that is unmatched by anyone I've ever met. I decided I wouldn't elk hunt an OTC unit again unless it was with Chewy or at least someone that could teach me about elk hunting. Over the course of the next 5 years I would religiously apply for New Mexico and each year be disappointed with the draw results coming up empty. Chewy would tell his stories and share with me updates of his adventures. At some point we had decided that no matter what happened in the 2017 draw I was going to come down and actually meet Chewy face-to-face and spend a week in his elk camp, meet his family, and take in a real elk hunt even if I was along just to experience it.
New Mexico posts its draw results in late April annually, this year it was the 26th. I remember being at work giving my normal 110% effort when I got a text from Chewy. He said that the draw results were up online. It was about a week early so I hadn't been expecting to check. Chewy couldn't hold back his secret anymore, he had drawn an either sex tag for the first time in 3 years so no matter what I was headed to NM! I frantically tried to learn how to use the internet at work as that's not something I would normally do seeing how I'm dedicated to my job, to see if I could find my results. When I finally got into my results page I saw a green highlight with my unit code. I stared in shock as I assumed that meant I drew. I kept clicking refresh to make sure it didn't change. After close to refreshes I was finally convinced these results were real. I had drawn a New Mexico archery elk tag! I could barely believe my eyes. Come September 1, both Chewy and I would be hunting elk in New Mexico!
The next few months both drug along, and blew by. I had made plans to fly down and have Chewy pick me up at the airport and we'd be hunting the opener. The plans went off without a hitch and we were finally in elk camp and finally in our beds by 1 am on Sept 1, just enough time to settle in and catch 4 quick, restless hours of sleep.
Day one started with about 40-45 degrees temperatures and a quick drive to Chewy's honeyhole. On the drive in we would find 4 cows and a spike bull in front of our headlights on ground we would later come back to. We also found a 330 class bull with a cow on private land. It was an encouraging sight. As the sun was just starting to rise on day 1 Chewy and I were headed up the mountain. It was a surreal feeling to think I was here and finally doing this. I was boots down in the mountains of New Mexico hunting elk. About a mile and a half into the hike I was more of a tourist than a hunter as I was taking pictures of every tree and rock in the forest when a magical noise snapped me into reality. 1 1/2 hours into my first hunt I had heard my first bull elk bugle of the trip. Suddenly we were in hunt mode. Chewy and I checked the wind and made a quick plan to close the distance. This bull would bugle 4 more times in the next 30 minutes allowing us to close to about 100-150 yards before he beat us to his bedding area. But we had found an ideal spot to come back to the next morning. With the action around us silent and the sun quickly warming up to what would be an 85-90 degree day we headed down the mountain and back to camp.
Camp was unlike I'd seen before. It's an annual tradition that Chewy's entire family spend the long Labor Day holiday weekend in their campers taking in mother nature and the outdoors. When I say entire family I mean mom, dad, brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, son, and 6 nieces and nephews and friend Ronnie. Locals would stop in and share stories of their hunts while catching up on what we had accomplished. There's something special about listening to the old boys tell the storeis they've been telling for decades. I could listen to it all day. Stories of close encounters with mountain lions, bears, big bull elk, and the follies that happen in 50 years in the mountains. Chewy's wife Michelle, and daughter August, were at home as his daughter still gets healthy from being born premature. Home is a short drive away and Chewy is able to get back there a few times during the hunting week or as needed. Each morning we'd wake up early to a quick pot of coffee and head out to the mountains. We'd return about lunch time to a warm home-cooked meal and everyone would gather around to share stories and relive the morning's action. The food was incredible. We had several authentic Mexican meals including fresh roasted green chili peppers. It took a little time for my soft mid-western stomach to adapt to the spicy cuisine but it was well worth it. I usually took a quick, or long, nap to recharge before making plans for the evening. Then we'd head out and return after dark to another meal. When Tuesday morning rolled around and the extended family was back to work we had to fend for ourselves, but we were able to fire up the fire pit and grill while relaxing with a cold beer. Then we would call it a night and sleep in a comfortable camper with all the amenities of home. This really was living. I've never seen a better description of the word "family" than this experience. Everyone truly enjoyed each others' company and relished the time together. It's a true testament to the type of man Chewy is and who he was raised by.
On evening 1 Chewy took us to a spot he liked that overlooked a meadow. We were hoping to catch the elk on their way down the mountain from bed to their feeding area. I found a great funnel that had been used significantly given all the tracks and sign. We sat until close to dark but never saw anything. Finally just after dark as we had reached the truck we heard a bugle higher up the mountain. We had come to theorize that the elk were coming back to bed very early in the mornings and weren't coming down to feed until after dark. The full moon's rise and set allowed the elk to be out at night and skip the evening push to feed. We decided to wake up extra early on day 2 and be back in the honeyhole looking for the bull from earlier that morning by day break.
Morning 2 started slower than we had hoped as we were beat from the previous days lack of sleep. Still we were on our way up the mountain in the dark and a good 30 minutes ahead of the day before. We were finally set up at the top of the mountain just before 7:30 a.m. We set up in a clearing and Chewy went through a calling sequence. Again the wind was perfect. On a side note the wind was always very consistent where we hunted. We never had swirling winds to deal with, for whatever reason we could set a course to play the wind and never had to fight it. It made for very advantageous conditions. Chewy called 50-75 yards away very aggressively. After about 10-15 minutes, me, the novice elk hunter, had lost hope this was going to pay off. I figured Chewy was calling just to call. Then I heard a bugle, then another, then another. Chewy was on to something. I tried to flank his position by slowly still hunting with the wind in my favor in case the bull, that clearly was responding to his sweet, seductive call cows tried to get downwind. Before I could get into position I heard another bull chime in and finally some cows start calling. Chewy had gotten himself into the middle of two bulls and a group of cows. Then chaos broke loose. I heard elk breaking through the trees and snapping branches as they scurried off. I worked my way up to Chewy and would learn he had 4 cows and a spike on top of him. He could see the herd bull at 50 yards but couldn't get a shot through the thick brush. Chewy had taken the time to get video of the cows walking past him, one at a mere 3 yards. It was too much for him to pass up so he decided to draw on the biggest cow. She startled and dashed off but stopped at a mere 20 yards and Chewy made a textbook shot. We would take up the blood trail after a short wait. It was unbelievable to learn how tough this cow and elk in general are. We went about 200 yards on a good blood trail when we found Chewy's arrow. Once the arrow came out of her chest cavity the flood gates opened. The blood trail, pumping out both sides of her chest, was like a red carpet. Still she went another 100 yards before we found her in a scrub oak thicket. These truly are tough animals. Chewy had made a picture perfect shot and she still went 300 yards. We celebrated the success with high fives, and went to work on breaking her down via the gutless method. About 90 minutes later we had her ready for transport. We loaded up the hind quarters weighing about 65 lbs each and headed down the mountain 2 miles. At the trail head Chewy's whole family had gotten the text of our success and was there for backup. We unloaded the packs and after a quick break headed back up 2 miles for a second load. Once loaded up with another 35 lbs back down we went another 2 miles. 6 miles, 4 hours, and 175 ish pounds of meat later we were back at camp sipping on cold beers and prepping the tenderloins for the firetpit. How does it get any better than this? We would go to town to celebrate with Chewy's wife and enjoy a warm shower and sit out the night hunt. Then it was off to bed for day 3.
Sunday morning September 3rd we were parked at the top of the drainage leading down to the meadow that we visited on evening one. We were hoping to locate the bull that had bugled at us 2 days before. 200 yards from the truck, with a perfect wind in our face, we heard his bugle. He was coming up the hill from the meadow just as we had hoped. We moved forward quickly to try to cut him off and hopefully pull him in with more cow calls. The bull bugled to let us know we were closer, and at that moment I was about to learn that everything I had hoped for in an elk hunt were about to come true. The next hour was the most intense, and satisfying experience in my 18 years of bowhunting. My herd bull would bugle his raspy, deep, growly bugle no less that 20 times over what would become a mile long chase. Not only that but 3 other challenger bulls would scream at us from various locations. As we continued to try to close the gap on this bull it became apparent that he was trying to move his herd of cows away from the competitors. We would move forward 200 yards and bugle only to realize he was pushing his herd further south and not really gaining any ground. I was ahead of Chewy at this point and tried to use hand gestures to suggest I was going to try to circle in front of this bull. You can only imagine what that must've looked like. It reminded me of that scene in Dances with Wolves where Kevin Costner is trying to explain where he saw the buffalo herd to the Sioux natives, and the young warrior says "his mind is gone", my sign language was that bad. At any rate as I cautiously charged forward I knew I was inside of 100 yards of the herd bull. His bugles were louder, deeper, and more animated each time he ripped one off. Eventually I would see a few of his cows feeding contently. I realized I wasn't going to be able to just walk up to him and find a clearing to shoot. There would be too many eyes and the terrain was open enough that I would get busted. So I decided to drop down the ridge to the east and try to circle the herd in hopes of setting up an ambush. I hustled across the terrain and the bull bugled just enough to tell me this might work. Finally I got to a clearing I knew I could set up in and let him bugle once more. I had done it, I was ahead of him and I was ready. I just needed to find a good ambush spot. As I carefully snuck forward and picked out a strategic spot to make this happen my eyes picked up a satellite 6 point bull feeding towards me. His path was going to cross mine at a mere 30 yards if all went as planned. It was a no-brainer for me to switch gears and shoot this bull.
18 years of bowhunting has given me a lot of highs and a lot of lows. I have learned a few things about myself and this sport in that time. One lesson is I simply love to fill tags and my freezer. I love a big set of antlers don't get me wrong, but for me, at times, that obsession has taken me to a dark place where I put way too much emphasis on the score of the rack, or convincing myself that only the biggest animal I see is worthy of the chase. Too many times have I gone home empty handed, and unfilled by the journey that I was on. Each trip to the woods, should be valued and treated as what it is, a special moment between the soul of the bowhunter and the woods he craves. This trip was 5 years in the making, parlayed with never having tagged an elk, or held his antlers, or filled my freezer with the absolute best meat a man can eat, it was easy for me to decide that all I wanted was to shoot an elk, and my chance lie in front of me.
I'll never know how big the herd bull was as I never saw him. I was focused in on the satellite 6 headed my way, this would be my chance. As I went into predator mode I remember thinking I needed to slide south another 20 yards to get out from behind this small wall of scrub oak brush that was congesting my view. I made it 15 yards when I looked up and nearly had my heart broken. The bull was staring straight at me less than 50 yards away. We had an epic standoff before he took a couple of steps closer. I knew if I drew my bow this bull would spook and I had nothing more than a straight on shot. So I waited and figured he'd do 1 of 2 things, either blow back into the herd and ruin everything or simply circle back a bit then head south across the clearing, at which point I had a broadside shot on him. Sure enough the bull had enough and whirled back west. He slowly trotted through the timber then cut south as I had hoped. I had time to side step the scrub oak another 5 steps and was wide open for my shot. I waited for him to enter the clearing and as he did I let out a soft cow call. He stopped. I ranged and dialed my HHA single pin slider sight. The shot was a long one. I'm not going to tell you how far, I think that changes this into an ethics debate I don't want to have. I know what the consequences of a long shot are. I know all that can wrong. I also know that I practice at long ranges and am confident in my ability. So without hesitation I drew the 72 lbs of my Hoyt Spyder 34 and anchored. The bull stepped forward 2 steps before my cow call stopped him slightly quartering away a second time. I steadied my pin and squeezed off the shot. I remember after the shot thinking how calm and collected I was through all of this. Unlike some deer hunts that went awry I was so focused on this I never got rattled, I was steady and confident, and I felt great about the shot. I couldn't see the arrow fly the entire way but I could hear the unmistakable impact of 415 grains of Easton Axis and Muzzy trocar hit my bull. He lunged forward and nose dived right into a log. He quickly regained his footing and dropped down a 25 foot rocky drop off before quickly coming up the other side. I could barely see him through the trees as he covered 60 yards in mere seconds. I strained to watch and listen as my heart beat took off at the realization that I hit that bull. Then I heard the violent crashing of 650 pounds of elk stumbling through timber, and I saw his leg fly up into the air. It had happened. My first bull elk with a bow had just found his final resting place. I couldn't believe it. At that moment I fell apart. I couldn't stand up and had to drop to my knees as my body shook in tremors of emotion and adrenaline. I had wanted this so badly, for so long, and it had just happened. I somehow was able to make a phone call to my biggest supporter, (you know who you are) and struggled to talk, or breathe, I just kept ramblilng saying "I got him and I did it". I was a complete wreck.
When my hands stopped trembling long enough I texted Chewy my location and he worked his way towards me. A good 15 minutes had passed before he showed up with friend Ronnie and Chewy's 8 year old, rodeo loving son Brayden ready to hear all about my story. We eased forward to the rocky drop off and saw the bull's rack lying motionless. We dropped into the bottom following the faint blood trial. At the bottom we found my arrow broken off and just like with Chewy's cow as soon as the arrow left the chest cavity it was as if someone turned on a faucet and the blood trail was unimaginable. At the top of the other side of the rock ledge we stepped forward a few yards and the antler we saw across the valley materialized into a full blown trophy. There he was, lying peacefully and perfect, a bull I had waited 7 years for. Before me laid a trophy I had worked so hard for, not just on previous hunts, but a bull I had worked for with scrouging for part time jobs, odd work to pay for the tag, hours in the gym, years on the range, days and months of dreaming, planning, scouting, researching and just hoping to see. The adrenaline hit again and a wave of emotion hit me like a ton of bricks. There must've been something in the air that day, I don't know if it was smoke blowing in from the wildfires, or if allergy season had just kicked up, but I got a weird little lump in my throat and my eyes began to water. I had to turn away from Chewy, and the bull to compose myself for a minute. I'm not ashamed to say this bull, this moment, had been more than I had ever hoped it would be. I had just lived out a dream and I don't know how you can put a value on that.
As we went to work on breaking down my trophy, Brayden reminded me that the night before our hunt I had asked him if he would join us the next day, he answered yes, and I told him he was going to be my good luck charm. I'm pretty glad he was there. Luckily my bull expired less than 100 yards from a side trail and we were able to struggle through a much shorter and easier pack out. We prepared a piece of roast for supper by wrapping it in foil, digging a pit, burying it and cooking it over hot coals for 8 hours. No matter how you slice it elk meat is impossible to beat.
The next 2 days were spent helping Chewy's brother Mike try to fill his mule deer tag without luck. We explored a lot of country and saw some awesome looking elk spots I would loved to have hunted. This land was so great. On Wednesday we were helping another friend find an elk when we found what looked like 2 satellite bulls in the distance crossing an open meadow just after day break. We jumped out and hustled (or my version of hustle) up a hill and let out a single cow call. One of the bulls ripped a bugle back at us. We rushed to move forward and cut the distance but there was no need. This bull was trotting in straight to the call. We dropped to the ground and set up for the encounter. The bull covered 400 yards in seconds. When he got to 100 yards we realized this wasn't just any satellite, but a 300" satellite 6 point! The bull stopped and belted out an ear shattering bugle. This frustrated subordinate bull must've been kicked out of the herd by what was clearly a more dominant bull and he was trying to pick up a straggler cow. Another amazing thing about elk is their ability to pinpoint a call from great distances. This bull stared straight into Chewy's direction and tried to circle us to catch our wind. He passed by Chewy's friend at 67 yards giving the hunter a perfect broadside shot. But the shot was high. That was it, I had checked everything off my list. I got to see a big bull get called in, I got to stalk a herd and it's bugling leader, I got to pack out a heavy load of elk across grueling terrain, I got to share camp with a good friend and great people, and I got to hold my very first set of bull elk antlers! Oh and I was going home with just under 200 pounds of fresh elk meat! This was the single greatest trip of my life.
When I started telling my stories for this blog I decided to use the name The Budget Bowhunter because I wanted to share stories and adventures that anyone can do. New Mexico was truly a special place for me but it's not the only place one can go to have a great hunt. This was special for me. That may not make it special for you. Whatever it is you are after is out there! Sometimes it takes time, patience, and a plan to make those dream trips happen, but what I know for sure is until you take steps to put plans into action they will never be more than dreams. I say dream big, but start making those dreams a reality.
The Budget Bowhunter