The Spruce Donkey Beatdown


I’VE ALWAYS WANTED to do an elk hunt. A real elk hunt. Not behind a tall fence or out the window of a truck. On foot in big country; the way it should be.

When I settled on an area of New Mexico known for giant bulls, I was incessantly warned of just how tough the Gila Wilderness can be: burned ridges littered with deadfall, loose lava rock on steep slopes, lung-busting climbs in the dark, deep canyons too rough for equine support. On my first climb out of camp on the morning of October 15th, I found myself immediately thankful that I didn’t shrug off those warnings. I’m not sure if the reptile was named after the mountains, or the mountains for the reptile; but they’re both Gila Monsters.

My prep for this hunt started with stadium steps in August in 100 degree heat. From there I shouldered a loaded pack and trudged up every steep slope I could find in Austin. At the end of my hunt I was thankful for every drop of sweat spilled during those grueling weeks of training. I was also glad that my wife, Kathy, agreed to join me for a little pre-hunt altitude work in West Texas. She had never seen Big Bend, and we had a blast camping, hiking, and touring the Trans Pecos on the way to New Mexico.

When I arrived in the Gila for my hunt, I could immediately detect nervous optimism among the guides. A hot wind was puffing with temps well above normal, and the October “harvest moon” was as full and bright as I’d ever seen it. Not your best recipe for elk chili. The guides were hopeful for some hail Mary bugling and rutting activity, but that was not to be. What we quickly learned on our first morning was that the big bulls had left the cows and holed up solo in the steepest, nastiest spots available. Who could blame them? Like most males of a specie, when a bull elk is done with sexy time, he likes to be alone…and sleep…have some food…maybe watch a little TV.

For the next five days, I tallied up exactly 56.8 miles of climbing and descending through the roughest country I’ve ever encountered. We saw plenty of small bulls still running with cows but I was after a sure-nuff bull. On the morning of our second day we found a mature 6×7 with mass and long beams, but he couldn’t have been in a worse locale. He was standing on the edge of a steep rock face at 600 yards. Had I hit him where he stood he would have likely tumbled 100 feet over the cliff. My guide, John Chapel, figured we could maybe get a little closer, and hope that he might move into a better spot before bedding down. Ultimately I elected to pass when John said that particular canyon was too rough for the mules, and it would take he and I two days to hump the bull out of there, one shank at a time. With temps pushing 80 degrees, I didn’t want to risk spoiling 300 pounds of meat.

From that point on, unfortunately, the writing was on the wall. The big bulls were only active for an hour or so in the morning, and then again for a brief window right at dusk. We were up at 4am each morning and climbing in the dark, hoping that we’d end up in view of a wall-hanger, but it was not to be. On the evening of October 19th, I ate a tag sandwich for dinner and packed my truck for the long haul back to Austin. Sadly, in one of the best trophy elk units in the country, only two bulls were harvested from the camp from which we were hunting. One guy tapped out on a small 6×6 and another fella shot a giant that they jumped from its bed at 11:30 am on the way back to the truck. It was a massive 10×9. A true Gila Monster.

Was it worth it? All the training miles, the rifle range time, the cost of the tag?

Yes…it most definitely was. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I hung in there until the final bell. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. It was a hunting trip, and hunting is not shopping. At this point I’m still working through the stages of denial and bargaining, but I’ve emphatically decided that I will certainly do another elk hunt. I’ve now paid a big chunk of dues (physically, mentally, and financially) and there is still a big bull out there with my name on it.

You can’t win a prize without spinning the wheel.

Whistle stop at the White Buffalo Bar in Marathon

Acclimation climb in Big Bend with my lovely wife (and personal trainer)

First evening in camp, filled with anticipation

John Chapel glassing for bulls in Deep Creek

Shovel down some calories and fall in bed

We saw plenty of this…

And we climbed…and glassed…

We crashed in the shade at mid-day…

And got sick of seeing these…


And this shiny bastard which turned nighttime into day


Not my bull, but I’d have been glad to have him

2 Responses to “The Spruce Donkey Beatdown”

  1. Doug VanTassell says:

    I feel validated that my warnings weren’t determined to be inflated! Having been in all those same canyons, in the heat AND packed a bull out of them, it is the most difficult Elk country anywhere (I thought NW Montana had that prize until the Gila). I hunted the same moon one month earlier during the peak of the rut and the elk were shut down, so I can imagine how difficult it was in October. They say it is the journey and not the destination and when you do score in the Gila on that bull of a lifetime, taken on public ground and in the most difficult conditions it is well worth it. My only suggestion is to try it with a bow during the rut. But don’t book the hunt during the full moon!!

  2. DJ says:

    I was across the border in the Apache-Sitgreaves in September. That sure is rough country. I’m closer and had more time to prep so I made my hunt a solo venture. Was it worth it? Yes. However, after looking at three hundred pounds of meat on the ground with a back already aching from butchering I called in for back up as soon as I found cell service. Thank god for good friends.

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