Loyal sidekick Rat and I pretty much plan our year around our primary hunting season.
This year, while we put in for and drew tags for deer, cow elk, and bear, the primary draw for us both were buck deer tags for the 30,000-acre Bosque del Oso State Wildlife Area in Colorado Game Management Unit (GMU) 851, west of Trinidad and very close to the New Mexico border. My project work in New Jersey this year forced me to pick one particular hunt, so the difficult-to-draw Bosque received out attention.
So, we did our map recons, cleaned, serviced and checked zero on rifles, prepared sidearms, sharpened knives, packed camping gear and everything else into the inestimable Rojito and headed for the Bosque the Friday before the season opened. We got down to the area early enough on Friday to have a quick vehicular scout around, seeing two big gangs of wild turkeys and a few does, but no bucks. That mattered little to us at that time, though, with a full five-day season ahead. A day-by-day recap of that season follows.
Opening Day dawned bright, clear and warm. That makes for a great day camping and woods-bumming, but not a great day for hunting. The woods were bone-dry, which made moving a lot like walking through dry corn flakes.
The Bosque was obtained by the State of Colorado, assisted by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, from a natural gas extraction company. Natural gas extraction is still going on there as part of the purchase agreement, so while access into the Bosque by hunters is limited to foot or horseback traffic from the few designated parking areas, there are good roads for into the unit and we used those on opening day to make a quiet, if not really stealthy, foray far into the right fork of Apache Canyon on the north side of the Bosque. We took a good stand on a hillside overlooking a wide place in the canyon for a while but saw nothing other than scrub jays and chipmunks. Later we walked almost off the end of the property, seeing signs of black bear and turkeys, but no deer.
Mid-day usually doesn’t see much movement on warm, clear days, so we went up Bingham Canyon and proceeded to crawl Rojito up the ultimate portion of the access road, known to the local game wardens as the “Jeep Trail.” It lived up to its name, about a three or four mile climb up a steep, narrow path littered with boulders. It was a bad trail but nothing Rojito and I hadn’t done before, so when we conquered the trail, Rat and I admired the view for a bit, knowing that once any precipitation came in we wouldn’t be able to return. There was no deer sign about, so we headed back down.
In the late afternoon we went over to the eastern edge of the Bosque. By this time, it was t-shirt weather, but we walked up into Cherry Canyon. That location is much drier and more open than Apache, but while we saw some tracks, we saw no deer. But we knew colder, wetter weather was to move in overnight, which normally gets deer moving, so after repasting on Rat’s patented Heart-Stopper Bacon Bacon Cheese Bacon Double Bacon Cheeseburgers with sides of bacon, we retired that night optimistic for the next day.
When we awoke on Sunday morning, the temperature had dropped noticeably, and the sky was low and gray, which boded well for seeing game. We headed again over to the eastern part of the Bosque, this time up Alamosita Canyon, a big, open canyon with pines on the south-facing slope and junipers and sage on the north-facing slope.
The wind was right in our faces as we left Rojito and headed on foot up the gas company road – ideal. Stepping slowly, we moved quietly up the road and into the broad canyon.
Not long after we entered the canyon and began ninja-ing our way up through the sage, over the top of a small spur poking out from the canyon wall to the left came two forkhorn mulies, maybe 60 yards away.
“Nice meat bucks,” I whispered to Rat. “Want one?”
Rat replied by dropping to one knee and taking aim. I watched through binoculars as he fired, sending a 165-grain .30-06 pill right into the bigger buck’s vitals. Through the glass, I saw a big puff of hair explode from the buck’s far side and knew we had a dead deer; the buck hadn’t quite figured that out yet and ran in about a 150-yard semicircle up the hillside, crossing a gas wellhead clear-cut and dying on the far side. When we found the buck, we could look about a hundred yards down the hill and see Rojito parked; as the Bosque allows using the gas company roads to retrieve game during midday hours, once Rat had the buck dressed we were able to pull Rojito up to within thirty feet or so to load the deer up.
I have to say here, I’ve shot deer I had to drag for miles and miles to get out, which really makes one appreciate a convenient extraction for once.
Then the snow moved in.
By the time we had Rat’s deer loaded the sky was spitting wet pellets of snow, which were beginning to accumulate. Since Trinidad was only about 20 miles distant, and since our featureless campsite had nary a tree from which to suspend a game pole, we decided to run the buck into town for processing. On the drive out of Alamosita we saw on an adjacent sage flat another forkhorn meat buck, a near twin for Rat’s. Rat asked me if I wanted to sneak in and get a shot at him, but I kind of wanted a bigger buck, so declined. We ran Rat’s buck into town to the processor, grabbed a hot sandwich, and rode back out to the Bosque and ventured once more up the right fork of Apache Canyon.
There we remained until night was coming on but found no fresh tracks other than those of a cow elk who had crossed the canyon on her way somewhere in the previous hour or so. Even so, we went back to our cold dry camp that evening with one deer in the bag and confident of the prospects for a second.
On the third day, my luck changed, and not just because I was still toting around a 10-pound .338 Win Mag whilst loyal sidekick Rat was happily hiking along encumbered only by his day pack and sidearm.
The snow had stopped, but the day was still chilly (low 30s) and the sky still mostly cloudy. We ascended Torres Canyon in the morning and saw a few tracks in the recent snow but no bucks. Spotting a few does on the road over to Alamosita gave me a bit of hope, but despite a long afternoon tramp up the canyon that had been good to us the day before, we saw no shootable bucks. By day’s end I gave up most of my hopes for a big buck and determined, with two days left, to take a meat buck if the opportunity presented itself.
High point of the day, though, was watching several huge flocks of sandhill cranes as the afternoon sky cleared. The big birds were flying high and heading south, and as always, we marveled at how their cries came down so clearly from their considerable altitude. It’s a sound always associated with hunting in southern Colorado.
The penultimate day of our five-day hunt broke clear and cold.
With Rat again happily unencumbered by his rifle, we decided to hike up the left fork of Apache Canyon, having previously only gone up the right fork. That side of the canyon was a little narrower than the right fork, heavily wooded on both sides, steeper and rockier on the north-facing slopes.
The warm afternoon before had melted snow and produced mud in open areas which had frozen overnight, preserving tracks. We cut some interesting trails: A trio of turkeys being trailed by a bobcat, a mountain lion track left in the snow, and tracks of fox, coyote, rabbits and pine marten. But the big event of that hike was when the sound of a rock tapping down the canyon wall to our right led us to see two bull elk trying to pick their way along the slope to get out of our sight. One was a middling five-by-five, but the other was a huge, magnificent six-by-six that any elk hunter would have been proud to have on the wall. The bulls were a mere hundred and fifty yards away and could have been easily taken, but we had no elk tags for the Bosque, and so we watched them picking their way slowly along the steep, rocky slope until they were out of sight.
Then, this being a Tuesday, misfortune struck. A large drilling rig and its crew entered the left fork and proceeded to drive up the company road, making a fair amount of noise and pretty much scotching any idea of hunting that canyon any further. Rat and I walked on out, picked up Rojito in the parking lot and decided to hit one place we had not yet explored, that being the nearby Cirueta Canyon. As it happened, we didn’t get to explore that location.
On the approach to the canyon’s parking area, we spotted a gang of mulies in a creek bottom not far from the road. We determined that there was one forkhorn meat buck in the band of does.
Now I’m no fan of road-hunting, but when the blood-wind blows you such an obvious prize, it’s folly not to accept. As Rat was driving, I grabbed Thunder Speaker, bailed from the vehicle and creeped into the creek bottom, moving from juniper bush to juniper bush to within about sixty yards of the little buck. Finding an opening in the juniper in front of me, I slid Thunder Speaker through the branches, rested the fore-end on one large branch and let fly. The little buck was facing me with his head high; I put a .338 pill right between his front quarters. He ran about sixty yards – towards the road, mind you – and collapsed. Once again, the extraction was easy, which was something of a first, having that happen twice in one season; I don’t know about most of you, but I rarely have that kind of luck.
Thus ended the 2018 mule deer hunt, with no trophies but plenty of high-quality, additive-free, free range venison in the freezer. Any day hunting is better than the best day working, and a day when you bring home venison is just that much better.
Other Notable Events
An observation: I’ve always maintained (and have done so here in previous articles) that you can shoot little stuff with a big gun, but you can’t shoot big stuff with a little gun. While this is true, in the case of this year’s plump little meat buck I ran across the down side of that. While my shot killed my buck quickly – and I will tell you, a .338 Win Mag will put down a 125-pound deer right now – there was a drawback, as the buck wasn’t facing me straight-on but quartering a little more than I had suspected, so that my 225-grain .338 bullet exited rather forcefully through the right front quarter, destroying most of that quarter’s edible meat. So, I will have to bear that in mind in future deer-only expeditions.
Sunday evening (Day Two) the weather precluded cooking in camp and the cold had us wanting a hot meal, so as evening set in we headed down the road to the village of Segundo. The general store and deli at that location were already closed, but the bar across the highway (Sam’s, in case you’re ever in that area) was open, and while they didn’t have a menu they did have a free-lunch counter consisting of an open bag of chips, some cookies, and a big crock full of sausages alongside a supply of rolls and condiments. We had out hot meal, but the real entertainment of that evening was meeting the man who was apparently the inspiration for the character Gabby Johnson in Blazing Saddles. He was an older gent with an impressive beard and did speak authentic frontier gibberish, offering such gems as “Ash-a-stebba garage cat inna gorge thang” and “Mer dawg issa horsa bit off da kin beet.”
And, finally, having tagged out a day early gave us an afternoon to explore Trinidad. In case you aren’t familiar with that Colorado metropolis, Trinidad is an old mining town a few miles from Raton Pass and the New Mexico border. While most of the mining in the area has faded away, it seems to have been replaced by recreational weed, as we counted over twenty rec-weed shops during the two or three hours we spent strolling around town seeking cold beers. That close to the New Mexico border, I suppose that should come as a surprise to no one.
A few more cold nights in the old summer-weight tent has us now shopping for a canvas wall tent with a stovepipe hole, to keep us warmer of an evening; that will make sleeping a whole lot more pleasant. But plans for next season always seem to begin during an actual hunt, and sights seen in the Bosque have me determined to seek fall turkey and bear tags for the area in coming years. Rat and I also have a wealth of preference points for elk but haven’t yet decided what to spend them on.
Any day hunting is indeed better than any day working. Work may beckon now, but there are a lot of grouse and other small game in Pennsylvania, not so far from my temporary New Jersey digs, so watch for some news from that quarter soon.